Saturday, 13 December 2008

Mary, pondering

This is just one of the readings we're using this week as we reflect on Mary. It comes from the Wild Goose Resource Group, Iona Community, Scotland.

What is this seed which God has planted,
unasked, uncompromised, unseen?
Unknown to everyone but angels this gift has been.
And who am I to be the mother,
to give my womb at heaven’s behest,
to let my body be the hospice
and God the guest?
Oh, what a risk in such a nation,
in such a place, at such a time,
to come to people in transition and yet in prime.
What if the baby I embody
should enter life deformed or strange,
unable to be known as normal,
to thrive or change?
What if the world, for spite, ignores him,
and friends keep back and parents scorn,
and every fear of every woman in me is born?
Still, I will want and love and hold him,
his cry attend, his smile applaud.
I’ll mother him as any mortal,
and just like God.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Servant King

Reading: John 18 v 33-37

Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.

Have you ever been offered M and S tokens if you click on to Persimmon homes’ website and encourage all your friends to do likewise.
Or been asked to send on a chain email to keep an animated figure walking around the world to raise funds for breast cancer?
The internet – a bane and a blessing.
And a source of some wonderful hoaxes.
Perhaps this is a story you have come across:
Many years ago, when Hitler's forces occupied Denmark, the order came that all Jews in Denmark were to identify themselves by wearing armbands with yellow stars of David.
The Danes had seen the extermination of Jews in other countries and guessed that this was the first step in that process in their countries.
The King did not defy the orders. He had every Jew wear the star and he himself wore the Star of David. He told his people that he expected every loyal Dane to do the same. The King said, "We are all Danes. One Danish person is the same as the next." He wore his yellow star when going into Copenhagen every day in order to encourage his people. The King of Denmark identified with his people, even to the point of putting his own life on the line.
It's a wonderful story with a powerful point. BUT - it isn't true. It's an urban myth. It's been around for a long time and told thousands of times over.
With the internet urban myths are proliferated throughout the world. Its hard these days to know what is true and what is not.
But it’s a shame this story isn’t true because it’s such a powerful story.
What an image for a king, identifying with his people. "Are you the king of the Jews?" Pilate asked Jesus. "Is that your idea," Jesus said to him, "or did others talk to you about me?"
That's how urban myths begin.
People talking about what other people have said.
Jesus was essentially crucified on gossip and rumour.
An urban myth had developed around his ministry that he was going to lead a revolt against Rome, a myth that grew out of the longing of people of that time for a warrior to come among them and resolve their years of oppression.

In his conversation with Pilate, Jesus finally does imply that he is a king. "But my kingdom," he explains, "is not of this world."
Not of this world. That's what it takes.
That's what it takes to find a King who identifies with his people.
A King of heaven, a King of kings from some place other than this world.
Pilate cannot grasp this concept of kingship.
Pilate is a politician – and politics is based on compromise.
A member of government was the victim of a road traffic accident – he died at the scene.
He arrives in heaven and is met by St. Peter at the entrance. "Welcome to heaven," says St. Peter.
"Before you settle in, it seems there is a problem.
We seldom see politicians, so we’re not sure what to do with you."
"No problem, just let me in," says the man.
"Well, I’d like to but I have orders from higher up.
What we’ll do is have you spend one day in hell and one in heaven. Then you can choose where to spend eternity."
"Really, I’ve made up my mind. I want to be in heaven," says the member of parliament.
"I’m sorry but we have our rules."
And with that, St. Peter escorts him to the elevator and he goes down, down, down to hell.
The doors open and he finds himself in the middle of a green golf course.
In the distance is an impressive clubhouse and standing in front of it are all his friends, most of them politicians as well.
Everyone is very happy and in evening dress.
They run to greet him, shake his hand, and reminisce about the good times they had while getting rich at the expense of their constituents. They play a friendly game of golf and then dine on lobster, caviar and champagne.
Also present is the devil, who really is a very friendly guy who has a good time dancing and telling jokes.
They are having such a good time that, before he realizes it, it is time to go.
Everyone gives him a hearty farewell and waves while the elevator rises.
The elevator goes up and up and the door reopens on heaven where St. Peter is waiting.
Now it’s time to visit heaven.
So, 24 hours pass with the MSP joining a group of contented souls moving from cloud to cloud, playing the harp and singing. They have a good time and, before he realizes it, the 24 hours have gone by and St. Peter returns.
"Well then, you’ve spent a day in hell and another in heaven. Now choose your eternity."
The politician reflects for a minute, then answers: "Well, I would never have said it before, I mean heaven has been delightful, but I think I would be better off in hell."
So St. Peter escorts him to the elevator and he goes down, down, down to hell.
Now the doors of the elevator open and he’s in the middle of a barren land covered with waste and garbage.
He sees all his friends, dressed in rags, picking up trash and putting it in black bags. The devil comes over to him and puts his arm around his shoulder.
"I don’t understand," stammers the politician. "Yesterday I was here and there was a golf course and a club house, and we ate lobster and caviar, drank champagne, and danced and had a great time.
Now all there is a wasteland full of garbage and my friends look miserable.
What happened?"
The devil looks at him, smiles and says, "Yesterday you were attending a campaign event. Today you voted us into power!"
There’s a huge difference between what is promised and what is delivered.
Any of you who have gone for job interviews recently will know that much of the selection process is based on psychometric testing and on presentation skills which, in actual fact reveal little about how effective someone will actually be in a job.
There are plenty of folk who can talk a good job but, when it comes to day to day management, simply don’t have what it takes.
What you see isn’t always what you get.
Jesus told Pilate: I came to speak about the truth.
And Pilate asked: what is truth?
This Sunday we celebrate Christ the King Sunday.
It’s the last Sunday of the Christian year – next week is advent when we see the Christian cycle begin all over again as we prepare to welcome the baby born to save the world – to save the world not by force but by love.
A king not of this world.
The end of a year is a good time for taking stock.
A good time for looking back and thinking: what have we achieved this year?
Stocktaking is important in our church life.
What have we achieved?
What have we done?
How have we moved on, or changed, or developed?
Is there any change?
Or are we stuck in the past?
Are the empty promises of politicians or the romantic notions of urban myths more important to us than the truths revealed by a servant king?
We claim that we want to see a better world, a fairer world, a world where all God’s people are loved and valued, where there is no war, no hunger, no refugees.
That is our dream for the world.
Yet we assert our rights over our own territory.
We claim we want to make a difference as Christ’s followers, sharing love, serving others, Christ’s hands and feet in our world.
Yet we are in dispute with our neighbour and don’t acknowledge the folk across the road from us.
We embrace an ideal.
Just don’t ask us to compromise our principles in seeing that ideal become reality.
Today, it would be easy, in our stocktaking, to focus on what the church is doing – or not doing.
But that is to deny our part in that lack of progress.
Its always easier to blame a body than to admit to our own culpability.
We are the church in this place.
If we won’t tear our eyes away from the past.
If we won’t resolve to engage with the demands of the gospel, to serve our neighbour whoever that might be, whatever that might take we might as well be perpetuating myths.
But the truth that Jesus died for, the kingdom that he serves, is not one stuck in the past, and impotent in this present age.
It’s a living, kicking kingdom that requires living kicking servants still.
The question is: do we want to serve or do we want to be seen?
Do we want to follow the truth or the myth?
Baptism this morning – and every time we celebrate it reminds us of our interview for discipleship.
Everyone of us is interviewed, in baptism, as a potential disciple for Christ.
And, guess what, we all pass the interview.
Signalling that different sort of work to which we are called.
A work that doesn’t demand that we be fully grown, accomplished and polished with the hottest of presentation skills.
But a work that demands that we offer ourselves as we are, at whatever age or stage of our journey – to be part of Christ’s body in his world today.
We are reminded in baptism that each of us does have much to offer, from the cuteness of babyhood to grey haired maturity and at all stages in between.
Part of the body, called and equipped to serve.
This last Sunday of the Christian year, when we celebrate Christ the servant king, I invite you to take stock:
Is it Christ’s kingdom we’ve been engaged in building?
Or have we been pre occupied with jostling for position and missed out on real opportunities to serve?
Do we ally ourselves with the king who is not of this world?
Or have we fashioned that king into something more palatable for our purposes.
Truth or myth?
What do we prefer?
As we look forward to the start of another Christian year, I invite you to make your resolutions:
To look again at the model of kingship that Jesus lived out for us.
A king who identifies with the lowliest of his subjects, who hangs out with the homeless and the destitute, with the anxious and the weary.
A king who’s right there for each of us.
Lets look at each other and see Christ, shining from each other’s eyes.
Lets all resolve to be live and kicking servants who can’t be relegated to the past but who are very much a part of the present and future building of God’s kingdom in this place.
Live and kicking servants who know the amazing love of God and who, changed by that love have the power to transform the world around us.
Servants who can see Christ in each other and who can be Christ to the community and the world around us.
Servants of the servant king.
Preach the gospel at all times – only if absolutely necessary, use words.
To the glory of God.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Saints alive

Sunday 2nd November 2008

Readings: Joshua 3 v 7-17
Matthew 23 v 1-12

In our Old Testament reading this morning, there is a sense of anticipation and excitement.
The Israelites, who have been wandering in the wilderness for the best part of 40 years are, it seems, finally going to enter the promised land.
Its taken an incredibly long time.
And many of them died on the journey.
But now, it seems, that after all their wanderings since their release from Egypt, they are finally going to occupy the land that was promised to them all that time ago.
I always want to be contrary when I read of God’s people and the promised land in the Old Testament.
I always want to ask – what about the folk who already lived there?
Didn’t they have any rights?
How is it OK for the people of God to stake a claim that seems to take precedence over other claims?
Biblical Imperialism, for me, raises more questions than it answers.
But the fact is that wherever God’s people went, they cleared out the people who were there before them.
Whatever the rights and wrongs, our reading tells us this morning of one major obstacle standing between the people and the land they’ve been promised. And that’s the river Jordan.
One more river to cross.
Our story tells us that God wanted to perform a miracle so that people would realise that their new leader Joshua was just as great a leader as Moses had been before him.
But for me, in this story, its not so much the miracle that God performed that stands out.
Its not so much that God caused the river to stop flowing so that all the people could get safely across.
The miracle was that, first of all, someone stepped into the river.
Its all very well believing that God can perform miracles.
Its another to step into the river and see if it really happens.
But, before God could perform a miracle, someone had to put their feet in the water.
Someone had to believe enough to get their feet wet.
It wasn’t enough to say I believe.
There had to be a stepping out in faith.
God can do anything.
But God’s people must be prepared to step out in faith to follow and to be a part of God’s miracles.
And not just in ancient times.
Today, God still relies on you and I being prepared to put our toe in the water.
Being prepared to take risks.
Being prepared to live in faith and not just talk about it.

Yesterday, as I was driving up the coast, I heard an interesting wee snippet on the car radio.
GP4S – a company formed by the merger of Group 4 security and Securicor had noticed that there was a higher than usual circulation of fifty pound notes. There was an assumption that folk were hoarding larger denomination notes against the predicted recession.
GP4Ss take on this trend was that either folk are keeping their money out of banks OR they are gathering cash rather than reverting to plastic.
So which is it?
Are you stashing your cash under the mattress? Or are you cutting up your credit cards? The interesting thing was that, at the end of this report, they did admit that their evidence was scant, based on a barely perceptible change. And yet, speculation was rife. It seems that financial analysts are determined to read all they can into the current trends in the credit crunch and are desperate to have their predictions of the downward spiral into global recession confirmed.
Doom and gloom is the only trend that makes news.
The journey I was making when I heard this news was to Gourock where I was facilitating a conference for church office bearers. The key note speaker there was talking about all the doom and gloom statistics we like to promote in the church- declining membership roles, dire financial straits, crisis of belief – all the things I’m sure you’ve heard on not a few occasions. Then he pointed out the peaks in the kirk’s history, the times when all these worrying markers actually peaked rather than troughed. Times of war, and then post war. Times of recession, times of national depression. It seemed to be that in times of need, folk turned to the kirk for support and guidance.
Do you think that would hold true for today?
Do you think that today global crisis would encourage folk to turn to the church for guidance and support?
While I am not pessimistic about the church and its potential for good or in the ability of folks like you and I to reach out with love for others, I do have qualms about the public perception of the kirk.
And I know that, for many folk, the church is the last place they’d turn.
Well, simply because, too often, the church, the folk who make up the body of Christ, have failed to practice what they preach.
You and I have talked the talk but not walked the walk.
And that’s precisely what we see Jesus railing against in our gospel this morning.
Folk who know the law inside out, folk who ensure that that law is upheld but folk who simply don’t practice what they preach.
Listen to them, says Jesus, because he doesn’t want folk to think that they can disrespect them and disregard their teaching which is sound.
Listen to them, says Jesus, but don’t live as they do.
And then Jesus tells us a bit about how we should live:
The greatest among you must be your servant.
And that brings us right back to youth church this morning.
We are all called to be saints.
To do those simple, everyday things that make a difference for others.
To be servants.
One of the many amusing things in the Americam presidential election campaign has been the way “joe the plumber” keeps getting cited. If you’ve been following the extensive coverage, you’ll have heard of joe the plumber, a real life metaphor for the ordinary guy in the street.
It seems to be that if you can make a difference for Joe the plumber, then you’re on to a winner.
This week, that has resounded for me as the same kind of line Jesus took.
If you want to be great, you must serve.
We are called to make a difference to the every day folk around us.
We are called to serve.
We are called to be saints.
We might think that that is not going to change the world.
But can you imagine the difference there would be in our world if we all lived up to our calling.
If we all served each other – the saints of God.
If WE practised what we preached, folk would flock to the kirk.
The church would, once again, be an institution that served the world around it, by serving God and by living up to its calling to be a community of saints.
The church would then be able to make a difference in the world.
We are loved by God.
God calls us saints.
Lets go then and put our toe in the water, step out in faith and serve each other. For the glory of God.

Saturday, 27 September 2008

Struggling with the text

Readings: Philippians 2 v 1-11
Matthew 21 v 23-32

Who do you think you are?
That’s what’s going on in our gospel reading this morning.
The religious worthies are feeling put out by this upstart, Jesus of Nazareth and they are taunting him: Just who do you think you are?
It seems to be a rite of passage.
The minute anyone shows any talent or skill, the minute they start to get good at what they do, there will always be those standing on the sidelines, ready to watch them fall or, failing that, to bring them down themselves.
I thought that that was a peculiarly Scottish thing.
The “I kent his faither” bit that runs through Scottish psyche and seems to say that no one can ever rise above their station in life – or, at least, excellence cannot be celebrated.
I mean if we go around praising folk, won’t they simply get big headed?
I wonder how my American friends will tackle this week’s text.
Because my experience of friends and of the church in America is of communities that celebrate success. People are praised for what they do, celebrated for what they are.
That’s not to say that there aren’t the usual gripes and politics that afflict all communities, not least religious ones, but I have certainly observed a more positive and affirming attitude, something that builds up and doesn’t tear down.
In fact, a couple of years ago, when I took some extended study leave in the states, our American hosts actually commented on how we Scots seemed to always be putting each other down, how we made light of each others achievements.
And you know this morning exactly what I mean by that, don’t you.
You know how often we slag each other off – not seeing it as cruel, but just a way of keeping folks’ feet on the ground.
And even if we don’t make light of others’ achievements, we almost certainly make light of our own.
Someone offers us a compliment and, instead of accepting it graciously, we laugh it off or say it was nothing, anything other than bask in praise or affirmation.
So this gospel today, might fit well with our Scottish theology.
Jesus has performed miracles, he has exhibited his fine knowledge of Scriptures, he has told very poignant stories.
The religious leaders want to know – Just who does he think he is?
Well, I’ve really had my fill of Scottish theology this week.
I spent two days at the beginning of the week at a national church conference – looking at how church structures might be reformed. Exciting stuff.
I always feel a bit out of things at these gatherings. There are so many learned folk with lots to say and lots of irreconcilable opinions.
In my day to day work in the church, I usually manage to get by by putting my head down and getting on with the huge task that is parish ministry – one relationship at a time.
But somehow, at gatherings such as the one I was at last week, I feel like a fish out of water, as if I operate on a different planet from others in the church.
Thankfully, at this conference, there were a few other folk who were able to laugh at themselves and we had some good debate in the late night after conference session.
But I always come away thinking – does it really matter?
Will all our talking and deliberating really make any difference in the building of God’s kingdom?
Does it matter what we call ourselves – or how many committees we gather around us? If we rewrite the rules and redraw the boundaries, will the kingdom really be any better served?
It all seems so much like whistling in the wind, making priorities of things that restrict us rather than free us to serve.
Jesus was surrounded by people who knew all the rules and whose sole task in life was to ensure that those rules were adhered to, even at the expense of helping one another.
And so, they call into question Jesus authority.
There is a story about a group of military leaders who succeeded in building a super computer that was able to solve any problem--large or small, strategic or tactical. These military leaders assembled in front of the new machine for a demonstration. The engineer conducting the demonstration instructed these officers to feed a difficult tactical problem into it. The military leaders proceeded to describe a hypothetical situation to the computer and then asked the pivotal question: attack or retreat? This enormous super computer hummed away for an hour and then printed out its one-word answer . . . YES.The generals looked at each other, somewhat stupefied. Finally one of them submits a second request to the computer: YES WHAT? Instantly the computer responded: YES, SIR.
The Pharisees, like these generals, were accustomed to people saying "Yes, sir" to them. They were the religious authorities. They were used to being treated as such. But there was a new teacher in town, a teacher who was threatening their authority. The Pharisees feared Jesus' popularity, his ability to heal and to perform miracles. In their eyes, Jesus was preaching heresy and leading people away from the religious traditions that defined the Jews. The Pharisees wanted to expose him as a fraud.
It was in this context that Jesus told a story about a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, "Son, go and work today in the vineyard."The boy immediately said, "No." Later he changed his mind and went. Then the father went to his other son and said the same thing. This one answered, "O.K." but he never got out to the vineyard. Then Jesus asked a simple question: "Which of the two did what his father wanted?""The first," they answered.Then Jesus delivered the punch line, "I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him." That really was some punch line, and the Pharisees were the ones who were punched.
I’m sure Jesus heard some gasps and "How dare he!" from the crowd that day. It was unthinkable to compare the righteous Pharisees to blatant sinners like the tax-collectors and prostitutes. Didn't he know that the Pharisees were too good to be lumped together with the likes of them? Didn't he know that only those people with the right "credentials," so to speak, would make it into the Kingdom of God? What was Jesus talking about and why was he running down the best people in town?Jesus was teaching that day about what types of people are acceptable to stand before God. And he passes over the religious professionals in favour of the worst of sinners.
Would we accept that kind of teaching any differently today?
Can we accept that our self-righteousness doesn't earn us any points with God? That we cannot earn God's love? That God loves us even when we fail?God's arms are open to everyone, from every race and nation and tribe and tongue, from every walk of life, from every circumstance. We're really missing something extraordinary when we try to put boundaries on God's grace.In the Pharisees minds, God only had regard for folk who were perfect, unblemished, without defect. They had reduced God to the level of human beings who honour only the beautiful people. The Pharisees had no concept of God's grace--God's love for all God's children, even those who were tarnished.Jesus knew that the way to bring hurting people into the kingdom of God was only , is only, by loving and accepting them. Jesus did that by living out God's amazing, startling, absurd grace.
And that’s how we have to live.We have to be full of grace too. We have to value all people as worthy of acceptance.
We have to live as Jesus lived.In God’s kingdom, I’m sure there will be a few righteous souls. But these few righteous are out numbered by the thousands, no, millions of people, like you and I, who have not been all they might have been, or should have been, but who have been healed by the love and acceptance of Jesus.
Our passage in Philippians gives us some idea of how to go about that:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
And, being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ.
I have to confess today to falling far short of that high calling – a calling to humility, a calling to service.
As well as the trauma of a church conference this week, I also had the trauma of being harshly judged by a colleague – a colleague who barely knows me but who is angry at something in which I am involved. A colleague who sent me an email telling me just what he thinks of me. An email that, still when I read it makes me feel as though I have been punched in the stomach. I’m sure you all know that feeling. Haven’t we all been there at some point?
Now I know that the Christian response to this, are the very things I have been preaching about not just this week but for the last few weeks – the Christian response is to be gracious and to be forgiving. To be humble and to keep on loving. But, aside from the hurt, I feel angry at being so harshly dealt with. I feel righteous indignation at being so misjudged. I, too want to ask: Just who does he think he is?
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ.
Let none of us under estimate how difficult that is.
Nor let us underestimate how important it is.
We cannot stand on our past good deeds or our wonderful displays of Christian living.
Jesus didn’t cry privelege. He was obedient, even to death on a cross.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ.
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others.
I don’t particularly like this passage this week. I’m failing miserably in living up to it.
But, like it or not – that is the gospel for today.
May God be with us as by the grace of God we learn to live the gospel and practise having the mind of Christ.
It is to that that all of us are called.
For the glory of God

Saturday, 20 September 2008

Changing God's mind?

Readings: Jonah 3 v 10-4 v 11
Matthew 20 v 1-16

A little boy was asked what we learn from the story of Jonah and the whale. His answer was, "People make whales sick." Well, that's one thing we can learn from the ancient story of Jonah. People do make whales sick. But there are lots of other things beside.
The part of the story we read this morning is the part that we don’t hear about in Sunday School, the part we don’t tell the children.
We would rather focus on Jonah as some kind of hero, rescued from a deadly encounter to go and do God’s will.
We don’t want to look at the ugliness that made Jonah resent God for taking pity on a city that got a hold of itself and changed its ways.
The last words of the book of Jonah are some of the most beautiful in all the Scriptures. Jonah wants God to destroy the people of Nineveh as was the threat but God says to Jonah, "You have pity on a gourd which you did not plant, which grew up in a night and perished in a night; And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city in which there are more than 120,000 people who cannot discern their right hand from their left and also much cattle."
God's universal love. That’s what we see displayed in the book of Jonah.
But there’s something else I’d like us to discover today and that is that our God is a God who is not afraid to change. That is an interesting thing about the God of the Old Testament. This is not a rigid God. You will remember on one occasion, the great man of faith Abraham argued with God about the people of Sodom. God was going to destroy that city because of its great wickedness. Abraham succeeded in getting a pledge from God that the city would not be destroyed if as many as ten righteous people could be located there. Unfortunately, there weren't ten righteous people in Sodom, but at least God was swayed by Abraham's arguments. That is not an isolated event. God chose a man named Saul to be the first king of Israel but soon God realized that Saul was not worthy of such responsibility. So God had a change of mind and had Samuel the prophet anoint David to be the new king of Israel.
The God of the Old Testament was not afraid to mark out a new direction.
And that’s the story in Jonah. God gives Jonah the assignment of preaching to the people of Nineveh. Jonah is to tell the people of Nineveh that God is going to destroy the city because of their wickedness. Then an amazing thing happens. All the people of Nineveh repent. From the king in his palace to the ordinary man in the street, they all turn from their sin. When that happens, God changes his mind. He decides not to destroy Nineveh. This embarrasses Jonah beyond belief. He has told the people of Nineveh that God is going to destroy them. Now God is not going to do it. Jonah feels utterly humiliated. Besides, he didn't like the people all that much anyway. Angrily he says to God, "I knew it! I knew that you were that kind of God." Jonah is so upset that he goes out and sits on a hillside overlooking Nineveh to mope. He is angry enough to sit there until he dies. What do you do with a God who changes his mind-who says he is going to destroy people and then lets them off the hook? Often it seems our prayers are pleas to change God’s mind. Sometimes our prayers are prayers of thanksgiving. Sometimes they are supplications for forgiveness. More often than not, however, we pray for God somehow to change plans.
We are like the five-year-old, who told his dad he'd like to have a baby brother. His dad thought for a moment and then replied, "I'll tell you what. If every night for two months you pray for a baby brother, I guarantee that God will give you one!" Maybe that dad knew something that his son didn't. That night this young boy went to his bedroom early to start praying for a baby brother. He prayed every night for a whole month, but then he began to get a little weary. He stopped praying for a baby brother. After another month, however, his mother went to the hospital. When she came back, she brought home, not just one baby brother, but two baby brothers - twins! The wee boy’s dad looked down at him and said, "Now, aren't you glad you prayed?" He thought for a moment and then looked up at his dad and answered, "Yes, but aren't you glad I stopped praying when I did?"
So often when we pray aren't we trying to change something - whether it be the natural processes of nature or the results of some deed or misdeed that we have performed? Or perhaps we may pray for somebody that we wish God would change. From reading the story of Jonah we might get the idea that repentance changes God's mind. Mature faith understands that it is not God's mind that needs changing, but ours. It was never God's purpose that Nineveh be destroyed. It was God's will that Nineveh recognize its need for repentance.
So it is with prayer. Archbishop Trench once said that prayer is not overcoming God's reluctance, but laying hold of God’s willingness. We serve a God who knows our needs and whose will is always for our good. We cannot help but pray when things need changing. That is the most human response to danger or to heartache in the world.
But we need to understand that even while we are praying a loving God is already at work in all things. What we need to pray for is not that God’s plans will change but that we will change and be enabled to trust God more. It is understandable to pray that God will change circumstances but it is far better to pray that regardless of our circumstances we will be enabled to cope with life with God by our side. God’s grace is amazing, the way it encompasses everyone, welcomes everyone, forgives everyone, and loves everyone. But grace can also be exasperating. There are times when grace doesn’t feel all that gracious, depending on where you happen to be standing at the time you encounter it. Today’s story from Matthew’s gospel is a case in point.
Of course those guys who had worked all day expected to be better rewarded than the folk who turned up at the last minute.
Isn’t it funny how grace doesn’t feel so gracious when we have to share it with someone else – especially if it’s someone we don’t think is deserving of equality with us? Isn’t it funny how the more amazing God’s grace becomes, the more we grumble about it?
Sometimes we have such a hard time being happy when something good happens to someone else. We don’t think they deserve better treatment than we do. Why should someone who didn’t even go to church for the first 40 years of life get the same benefits as those of us who have been WORKING in the church longer than that? And why should those people who never help out in the church and only show up at the odd communion service or at Easter and Christmas get the same treatment we receive? Is that fair?
I hate to step on anyone’s toes, - but the truth is we are all more like the eleventh hour workers than the ones who worked all day. We can all RECEIVE God’s grace, but not one of us DESERVES it. Sometimes in life that may seem to be unfair. But if grace were fair, it wouldn’t be grace, would it?The grace of God is amazing - born out of an unconditional love for all of us.
God's love for us is unchanging. It is we who need to change. Jonah learned that lesson while brooding in resentment over God's saving such an undeserving city as Nineveh. As Thomas Carlyle put it: "And Jonah stalked to his shaded seat and waited for God to come around to his way of thinking." Then Carlyle adds," And God is still waiting for a host of Jonahs to come around to His way of loving." It was not God who needed a change of mind, but Jonah. That is our greatest need, too, to bring our lives into such harmony with the love and purpose of God that God’s plan is our plan.
Then we can know God’s grace and experience God’s love without feeling resentment for those, seemingly undeserving folk, on whom God also lavishes extravagant grace.
May we know ourselves loved by the God of love and, as we know God’s grace at work in our lives may we be able to celebrate with others the love and grace that God lavishes on them.
God is in every changing circumstance that we encounter in life, bringing love, bringing grace. May we be enabled to see God at work and to celebrate with others who experience the extravagant grace of God too.
For the glory of God.

Saturday, 13 September 2008

How many times?

Readings: Genesis 50 v 15-21
Matthew 18 v 21-35

Over these last few weeks, we have wandered in and out of the Old Testament story of Joseph alongside our gospel readings.
And today, we reach the end of the story as recorded in Genesis.
Joseph’s brothers, in spite of all the kindness their brother has shown them have cause to be worried again.
Their father is now dead. And they are worried that Joseph has only been kind to them for the sake of their father. So, now that he’s died, they’re busy trying to work out how to make sure their brother doesn’t decide to exact revenge for the evil they had done to him all those years ago.
The interesting thing is that all through this story, we don’t read of the brothers being sorry for what they’ve done. We only read of them working out ways where they won’t be brought to justice – avoiding payback.
And so, after their father’s death, when they think the game might finally be up – what do they do?
Do they say sorry to their brother?
Do they fall on his mercy?
They blackmail him.
They tell him that it was their father’s dying wish that he forgive them.
And it works.
I like to think that Joseph had already forgiven them anyway.
He certainly had opportunity for payback.
Opportunity that he chose not to take.
I like to think that it wasn’t just the presence of his father that stopped him getting even.
So all the scheming his brothers indulged in was unnecessary effort on their part.
Forgiveness is the theme of our readings today.
Practising forgiveness because we experience forgiveness from a forgiving God.
I’ve been reflecting on forgiveness this week, not from the angle of the person forgiven, but from the perspective of someone who offers forgiveness.
And it seems to me that withholding forgiveness in the long run causes more harm to the person who is withholding than it does to the one who goes unforgiven.
If we go on holding a grudge against someone.
If we go through life avoiding people or harbouring awful thoughts about them – In the long run, we are the ones who suffer.
Because bitterness builds up in us, affects our well being and prevents us from knowing a wholeness.
And, in my perverse way, I thought about some of the advantages of forgiveness.
Aside from protecting us from bitterness or resentment, when we forgive others who have wronged us, don’t we experience just a sense of triumph.
Don’t we, just for a while, hold the upper hand when we are able to forgive.
That last bit in the story of Joseph always makes me think:
How good must it have felt for Joseph to be able to say to his weeping brothers – its OK, I forgive you.
His brothers, coming to him in fear and trepidation.
Not actually admitting they were in the wrong all those years ago but surely knowing it deep in their hearts.
Surely it must have been quite satisfying for Joseph to take the high moral ground and pronounce his forgiveness.
There’s nothing like rubbing salt in the wounds.
Of course that’s NOT why Jesus teaches us to forgive.
But, you have to admit, it could be a spin off.
A woman with fourteen children, ages one to fourteen, sued her husband for divorce on the grounds of desertion. "When did he desert you?" the judge asked. "Thirteen years ago," she replied. "If he left thirteen years ago, where did all these children come from?" asked the judge. "Oh," said the woman, "he kept coming back to say he was sorry."
Peter came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?" Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven."
A villager said to a wise old monk: "My neighbour slapped me. Should I forgive him?" "Yes," answered the wise old monk. "How many times should I forgive my neighbour?" the villager asked. "How many times did he slap you?" asked the monk. "Once," came the answer. "Then forgive him once," said the monk. "But what if he slaps me fifty times?" the villager asked. "Then you should forgive him forty-nine times," came the answer. "Why only forty-nine times, if I were struck fifty times?" the villager asked.The wise old monk said: "Freely accept the fiftieth slap. You would deserve it for being such a fool to allow yourself to be slapped the first forty-nine times."
Forgiveness is a really hard teaching of Jesus.
Because it goes against all the teachings of nature.
Our nature is not to take things lying down – to get even.
Forgiveness cuts across our natural instincts.

But perhaps it is important to establish what forgiveness is not:
• Forgiveness is not forgetting: deep hurts can rarely be wiped out of folks’ awareness.

• Forgiveness is not necessarily reconciliation: reconciliation takes two people, but an injured party can still forgive an offender even when reconciliation isn’t possible.

• Forgiveness is not condoning: forgiveness does not necessarily excuse bad or hurtful behaviour.
• Forgiveness is not dismissing: forgiveness involves taking the offense seriously, not passing it off as inconsequential or insignificant.

So what IS forgiveness?
This whole chapter of Matthew has loads to say about forgiveness.
Great word.
Great concept.
We all believe in it, don’t we?
There was a man who loved dogs. He served as a speaker in various civic clubs to benefit the SPCA. He was known far and wide as a dog lover. One day his neighbour observed as he poured a new sidewalk from his house out to the street. About the time he smoothed out the last square foot of cement a large dog strayed across his sidewalk leaving footprints in his wake. The man muttered something under his breath and smoothed out the footprints. He went inside to get some twine to string up around the sidewalk only to discover dog tracks in two directions on his new sidewalk. He smoothed those out and put up the twine. About five minutes later he looked out and the footprints indicated that the dog had cleared the fence, landed on his sidewalk and proceeded as he desired. The man was mad now. He trowelled the wet concrete smooth again. As he got back to the porch he saw the dog come over and sit right in the middle of his sidewalk. He went inside got his gun and came out and shot the dog dead. The neighbour rushed over, "Why did you do that?" he inquired, "I thought you loved dogs." The man responded as he cradled his gun in the crook of his arm. "I do, I do like dogs, in the abstract, not in the concrete.

Maybe that’s just where we are with our forgiveness.
We love it in the abstract, but when we really have something to forgive, we hate it in the concrete.

So how do we respond this morning to this hard teaching of Jesus?
Well, lets look at the reasons we have to forgive?
It's hard to keep hating someone, resenting someone, despising someone without it taking a toll on us.For the healing process to begin we must be able to forgive. Resentment and hatred are "useless, black feelings." Usually they do more harm to us than the person we resent.
That's the first reason we forgive: it's good for our mind, body and spirit.
We are followers of Jesus. Sometimes it is difficult to tell Christians from everybody else in society, but this is where we should be different. We should be forgivers. This is part of our witness to Christ's presence in our lives. That's what it means to be a follower of Jesus. We forgive not only because it is to our benefit to forgive. We forgive because we have been ordered by our Lord to forgive.
But there is one more reason why we forgive.
Jesus followed his admonition to Peter with one of his stories. He said the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. One servant owed about a million pounds in today's money. Since this servant was not able to pay his debt, the master ordered that the servant and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. Confronted with the threat of such severe punishment the servant fell down, prostrated himself before his master and said, "Have patience with me, and I will repay you everything." The servant's master took pity on him, cancelled the debt and let him go.But then something amazing happened. The servant who had been forgiven this enormous debt went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred pounds or so and he seized him and began to choke him, saying, "Pay back what you owe." His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, "Be patient with me, and I will pay you back." But the servant who had been forgiven a debt of one million pounds was unwilling to forgive the fellow servant who owed him a hundred pounds. He had him thrown into prison.When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened. Summoning this wicked servant, his master said to him, "I forgave you all that debt. Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?" And his master, moved with anger, handed the wicked servant over to the jailors to torture him until he should repay all that was owed him. "This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you," said Jesus, "unless you forgive your brother from your heart."

Jesus continually linked forgiveness for our fellow human beings with our forgiveness by God. Seventy times seven. Jesus purposely used wild exaggeration in this story to make a point: You and I have been forgiven by God for every sin, every indiscretion, for every stupid thing we have ever done. Can we not find it in our hearts to forgive others?
So today, we, who call ourselves Christians -How many times shall we forgive? That depends. Let’s ask ourselves this question: Do you need to forgive for our own peace of mind? Usually the answer will be yes.
Secondly, let’s remind ourselves of Christ's teaching and ask if we need to forgive in order to witness to Christ's presence in our life.
Finally, ask how often we have sinned against others or against God. Has God forgiven us? If the answer is a resounding yes, then isn’t it time we forgave someone else?
If we find ourselves in the club of those who find it so hard to forgive other people, chances are that we have not come to appreciate and celebrate enough the immeasurable forgiveness that we ourselves have received from God.
So, let us pray today for a deeper appreciation of the amazing love that God has shown us in Christ. It is this awareness that will make it easier for us to let others off the hook for their relatively minor offences against us.
Lets hear again the words of Jesus – YOUR SINS ARE FORGIVEN.
And lets go and forgive others – for the glory of God.

Saturday, 30 August 2008

What the world needs now...

Sunday 31st August 2008

Readings: John 15 v 9-17

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

As you will be aware, the church is gradually awakening from its summer recess.
All the organisations are restarting and there’s beginning to be a buzz about the place again.
The biggest buzz through the summer seems to have been the weightwatchers meetings.
Make of that what you will!
Anyway, all the different organisations are getting started after their summer break.
Someone was telling me during the week how Castlehill church used to be a real hub in this community.
When they were building the houses down at Forehill and at Holmston drive – and the church was in the process of moving from the barn church to the hall church.
New folk were moving into the area.
And the way to meet folk and to get involved in things – was to come to church.
Never mind Face Book or Bebo.
In those days, Castlehill church was your real live social networking site!
I’m evoking memories this morning, not so that we can mourn what we’ve lost.
Not so that we can wonder where all those folks have gone and how we become that sort of social hub again.
But so that we can think about and celebrate all that the church still has to offer in this 21st century.
Because often, we see things simply in terms of numbers and growth of church membership.
And that’s a shame.

In our gospel this morning, Jesus doesn’t ask his disciples to go and build bigger and better churches.
He commands them to love one another.
Its not about numbers, its not about recruitment – its about loving.
In so many ways, our church, in all its guises has lost sight of that.
Sure we have to be realistic.
If folk don’t sign up.
If folk don’t commit themselves to give towards the upkeep of our buildings, then we can’t maintain them.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t still be church.
Because being church is about loving one another.
And in the midst of the grandest schemes.
In the midst of all our activities and organisations and programmes.
We must never forget – its all about love.
Castlehill church does not exist today.
Castlehill church has not been built up by the gifts of those in this community for the last 56 years so that we can record wonderful figures.
Castlehill church exists to love.
Darcy was baptised today in that love.
We love because first God loved us.
And the minute we are fuelled by anything other than love, we may as well turn off the lights and close the door behind us.

So, if its simply all about love.
If that’s the message we have to communicate.
Something people are constantly searching for.
If its simply all about love –
Why isn’t our church full? Why aren’t all the church’s full?
Why aren’t we bursting at the seams?

Well, I heard a story this week of a lady who read somewhere that Cod liver oil was good for dogs.
So she bought a huge bottle of cod liver oil.
Then she got a spoon, poured some of the cod liver oil on it and went to give this tonic to her dog.
Well, she chased him around the house, she wrestled him to the ground and, finally managed to force the spoon into his mouth and make him take the cod liver oil.
One day, as she was having her usual struggle, chasing her dog all around the house, struggling to get him in one place, the bottle was knocked over.
She went to get a mop to clean up the mess and, to her astonishment, there was her dog licking the cod liver oil off the floor.
It wasn’t that he didn’t like cod liver oil.
He just didn’t like the way she tried to give him it.

Today, more than at any time in history, folk want and need to know that God exists.
And more than that, they want and need to know that God loves them.
But often, in the church, we go about communicating that good news in the wrong way.

We get in the way of the good news.

A teenager came home from his church youth group really excited because the next week they were going down to a homeless centre to hand out blankets.
He told his parents: next week we’re going to the homeless centre to hand out blankets so we can tell these guys about Jesus.
His wise father corrected him.
No, next week you’re going to the homeless centre to hand out blankets because the guys are cold.
In our churches our motivation is often to make our churches bigger.
But Jesus calls us simply to love.
That love, freely given to us has to be freely passed on – no strings attached.
Folk can see through the wrapping and can tell if we are motivated simply by love – or by some other not so well hidden agenda like increasing our church membership.
We don’t go out in Jesus name to save souls.
We go out because Jesus commands us to love one another.
That’s all the motivation we need.

And unless we can see Christ in each of our neighbours – even the difficult, cantankerous old so and sos.
Unless we can see Christ in our neighbour we don’t know him as well as we thought.
Jesus calls us to love one another.
That means loving the people we encounter every day.

In one of the Charlie Brown and Peanuts cartoons, Lucy stands with her arms folded and a resolute expression on her face, while Charlie Brown pleads with her. "Lucy," he says, "you must be more loving. The world needs love. Make this world a better place, Lucy, by loving someone else." At that Lucy whirls around angrily and Charlie goes flipping over backwards. "Look, you blockhead," Lucy screams. "The world I love. It's people I can't stand!"
I’m sure all of us have been there. It's easy to love in the abstract -- the world, people in general. We have no problem with that. It's people around us that drive us crazy.
And yet it is precisely those people around us, people nearest to us, with whom we work and go to school, neighbours next door, and the people we sit next to in church, that Jesus calls us to love.

Love in action -- that's what we are talking about this morning.
Love that finds expression in kindness, courtesy, tolerance, and acceptance of those around us.
Jesus calls us to love one another and to bring that love to light in the way that we treat those around us.
It's easy to love people in general, to affirm that love is a good thing and something we all need.
But it's another thing altogether to put that love into action, to make love concrete in our attitudes and actions toward others.
As someone once put it, "We are judged by our actions, not our intentions. We may have a heart of gold, but then, so does a hard-boiled egg."

A priest overheard two boys playing church. One of them was explaining to the other what all the parts of the service were about. "Do you know what it means at the end of the service when the priest does this?" he asked, making the sign of the cross. "It means some of you go out this way, and some of you go out that way."
How right he was.
The cross sends us and scatters us out into the world.
Someone has said that the really important thing for any church is not how many it seats but how many it sends.
As we said at the start of the service, in baptism the sign and seal of the holy spirit is placed upon us.
That means that you and I are called to go and love.

Lets love one another because first, God loved us. Amen

Sunday, 24 August 2008

Subversion for the sake of the kingdom

Sunday 24th August 2008

Readings: Exodus 1 v 8-2 v 10
Matthew 16 v 13-20

After our trumpeting of Joseph’s achievements last week. His rise from prisoner to Pharaoh’s right hand man, today’s Old Testament reading begins with a few salutary words.
We read: Eventually a new king came to power in Egypt, one who knew nothing about Joseph.
That amazing story, that unlikely rise to power, forgotten in a generation as a new regime takes over.
And so the Prince of Egypt, all the good he achieved and all the gratitude the nation owed him, wiped out by the passage of time.
All the new ruler can see is that there are an awful lot of foreigners occupying his land, threatening to undermine his supremacy if push comes to shove.
And so begins the oppression of the people of Israel.
They are forced into slavery in an attempt to keep them in their place.
And then, when that isn’t enough, the new king orders that all new babies born in Israelite homes should be killed at birth.
And that is the cue for another, extremely unlikely set of heroes to step up to the mark and further God’s kingdom.
It begins with the midwives.
Midwives who “feared God”.
Having been a hospital chaplain I’ve come across a few midwives who feared God.
But I’ve come across many more midwives who would put the fear of God into you!
It must be something about the nature of their job that they have to be scary people.
Anyway, these two midwives we read about this morning are named: Shiphrah and Puah.
They were ordered to kill any baby boys born to the Hebrew women.
But, because they loved God, this was an order they didn’t obey.
Of course their disobedience did not go unnoticed.
When the number of Hebrew boys continued to rise, the midwives were summoned to explain this.
And I love their explanation.
It seems to me that they are actually mocking the king.
Their explanation that the Hebrew women give birth before they can get there seems to me to imply that the Egyptian women they also midwife are pampered and require their assistance much more.
However that slight appears to go over the kings head – maybe just as well for Shiphrah and Puah.
He orders that all new born Hebrew boys be thrown in the river.
Those midwives did not get into a moral argument with Pharaoh. They just carried on and did what they thought was right – more than that – they acted as God would want them to.
Quietly, without song or dance, they defied the Pharaoh and changed the history of a nation.
Because it was around that time that a Hebrew boy named Moses was born.
In Moses’ survival, we are witness to the actions of four more subersive women, each of whom did what they considered right – quietly, without fuss – going against all the rules and, by their actions making a huge difference.
Moses mother hid the baby until he grew too big for that.
Then she took him to the river and floated him in a waterproof basket, praying for a miracle.
Pharaoh’s daughter, out walking by the river saw the basket and ordered her maid to bring it to her.
Neither Pharaoh’s daughter or the maid chose to act in accordance with the Pharaoh’s decrees when they saw the baby.
The maid kept quiet about the baby’s origins and Pharaoh’s daughter sought ways to keep this baby as her own.
Enter subversive woman number 6 – Moses’ older sister Miriam.
She offered to find a wet nurse – a task that should be easy given all the Hebrew mothers whose babies had been torn from them.
And so Moses’ mother was allowed to nurse her son and, when he was weaned, take him back to the palace to be cared for.

Shiphrah, Puah, Moses’ mother, Moses’ sister, Pharaoh’s daughter and her maid.
6 women who by their passive disobedience made a huge difference in the course of the story of the Israelites.
6 women who did not preach or pontificate.
6 women who simply went against the rules, did what they thought was right and, by their actions, stood up to an oppressive regime and allowed love to intervene.

These women demonstrate that, often, we can go about our business, quietly doing what is right, not making a huge disturbance but more of a silent ripple that goes on causing a huge effect.
We can all, at times be active in subversion – for the sake of the kingdom.
I’m sure, this morning, many of us can think of folk we know who sometimes frustrate us by not acting as we think they should.
Folk who don’t stand and argue with us but whom we know are just going to disregard whatever we say anyway.
I have a reputation for that.
Of listening politely.
Of not putting up a fight.
But of going and doing what I feel is right anyway.
Its not that I don’t appreciate good advice.
Its not that I don’t respect other folks experience and knowledge.
But sometimes, you just have to try something for yourself, don’t you.
Sometimes, you have to even make your own mistakes.
If only there were more people willing, occasionally, to go against the flow, to quietly get on with what seems right – to make a difference.
God can use us quiet subversives just as much as the high profile protestors.
And that brings us to our gospel reading when Jesus checks out whether his disciples are “getting it”.
At this stage of his journey with them, Jesus knows that there is not much time left.
He seems to want to check how much of his message they have grasped.
So, he throws out a general question.
What’s the word on the street?
Who do folk say I am? Jesus asks them.
And the answers come back: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, a prophet.
Interesting answers – the word on the street.
But then Jesus pins them down:
Who do you say I am?
Who do you say I am?, asks Jesus.
I remember, what seems like a hundred years ago, when I was at college, one of our professors took this verse from Matthews gospel and told us he would give us an answer to Jesus question, Who do you say I am?
From what I can remember, his answer went something like this: Jesus is the proleptic, salvific, hidden appearance of the eschatological kingdom of God." Did you get that? "The proleptic, salvific, hidden appearance of the eschatological kingdom of God."
It was a systematic theology class.
And it makes even less sense to me now than it did then.
Can you imagine our gospel reading being rewritten this morning? "Jesus said to them, `Who do YOU say that I am?' Simon Peter replied, `You are the proleptic, salvific, hidden appearance of the eschatological kingdom of God.' Jesus answered and said unto him, `What???'"
Peter’s answer was much more straightforward but no less profound : You are the Christ, the son of the Living God.
On you, Peter, said Jesus, I will build my church.
And so it has been throughout the centuries – right up until today.
Jesus has relied on those who could say: You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.
Christ has relied on those people to be building blocks in the church.
Its not enough simply to be able to say the words: You are the Christ. Our actions must show that we know who Jesus is.
And that’s where our strategy comes in.
Are we called to public profession or private subversion?
In the cause of the kingdom, both are required.
We must first be able to proclaim: You are the Christ, the Son of the living God and then our actions must reveal that belief.

Just the other week, I passed through Greenock just as one of the big cruise ships was leaving the container terminal.
She was a massive thing.
Not far from her, at anchor, were a couple of royal Navy ships, dwarfed by this big liner.
The Royal Navy ships must be pretty cramped compared to a cruise ship. They certainly wouldn’t have anything like the facilities on offer on the cruise ship.
I was a bit taken aback by the sheer difference in size.
Because, when push comes to shove, its those smaller more basic ships that we rely on to defend our nation.
Just as God relies on you and I, ordinary people, to confess that Jesus is Lord and to continue the work of building the church.
The problem is that too many folk in the church act as though they are on a cruise ship.
There are people who think church is about having their own personal needs met--their needs for fellowship, for worship, for spiritual growth and comfort. And, if one cruise ship doesn't measure up, that’s OK - they'll just look for one that does.
There are people who simply "come to church."
And there’s a difference between coming to church and being the church.
When you are the church then you take a different attitude. Instead of looking at the church as a place where you can have your needs met, you begin to look at church as a place where you can meet the needs of those for whom Christ died, those who are oppressed, those who hunger both physically and spiritually, those who are lonely and in pain.
Suddenly our cruise ship becomes more like a battle ship.
So if you are waiting to be entertained.
Or waiting for your pillows to be fluffed up, this is the wrong place for you.
Even if you do think you know who Jesus is.
Its not enough to claim you know.
You have to convert your knowledge into action.
When Peter said: You are the Christ the Son of the living God, Jesus said Well done!
But he also said: On you I will build my church.
The older version of the bible says: and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
A force to be reckoned with.
Not a cosy club.
And the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
And so the question comes to each of us this morning:
Jesus ask us: Who do you say I am?
May we be able to answer: You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.
But, more than that, may we then go on and be battle ships.
Quietly subversive or loudly protesting for the sake of the kingdom.
May we be the blocks on which Christ builds his church.
And the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
For the glory of God.

Saturday, 16 August 2008

More than enough

This week, I am preaching for the first time since being inducted to my new parish. A fresh start all round:

Readings: Genesis 45 v 1-15
Matthew 15 v 21-28

That Old Testament reading we read this morning reminded us of that moment of triumph that Joseph experienced when he was able to tell his brothers:
Its me
You sold me into slavery. You led my father to believe that I had been killed by wild animals. But here I am, safe and well and chancellor of the exchequer for all Egypt.
But, instead of the gloating that we might have expected in Joseph’s revealing of himself, instead of the bitterness or even note of revenge, we find Joseph moved to tears because he has finally been re-united with his family.
Even after all they had done to him, Joseph is overjoyed to see them again and, what’s more, be in a position to help them out.
That’s a huge display of grace and of forgiveness and of love.
I’ve always read the story of Joseph as a story of the power of love and forgiveness.
A story that illustrates beautifully how evil can be defeated by love.
Joseph’s brothers, incredibly jealous of Joseph the favourite son, finally found a way to get him out of their hair.
They could have no idea that he would land on his feet and rise to a position of such importance in the land of Egypt and, many years later, be able to save his family from starvation.
They could have no idea either that, when he caught up with them that he wouldn’t want to exact revenge but that he would be overcome with love and want to look after them, putting the past firmly behind him.
For me, the story of Joseph has always illustrated how God can bring about good things from some of the worst circumstances.
And that’s a lesson that I’m sure some of you know from first hand experience.
How, even in the depths, God reaches us and lifts us up.
And so, from earliest days, Joseph has always been, for me, one of those great biblical heroes.

But this week, I came across another reading of the story of Joseph that has intrigued me.
In fact, its really gotten to me this week.
And it ties in with our gospel reading for this week – that difficult reading, where we see Jesus being apparently less than helpful.
So rather than keep it to myself, I thought I’d share it with you, so that you can struggle with it too.
Walter Brueggemann, a contemporary Old Testament scholar, suggests that the story of Joseph describes a pattern that is often perpetrated in our world economy today:
Pharaoh had a dream – more of a nightmare.
And, as a result of that nightmare, a whole new economy of scarcity was dreamed up and policies to deal with that scarcity were planned and implemented.
The River Nile had always ensured that Egypt was a land of abundance – lush and fertile.
But the Pharaoh’s nightmare provided a dreadful scenario.
You remember the dream of the seven thin cows and the seven fat cows.
Joseph, languishing in prison, made good his escape by interpreting this dream that troubled the Pharaoh as a sign that there was going to be famine in the land.
Seven good years and then seven years of famine, if you remember the story.
So Joseph was freed from prison and put in charge of managing the seven good years so that the nation would survive through the seven bad years.
Joseph implemented the government policy of acquisition.
Wherever there was plenty, it was Joseph’s job to acquire that abundance for the government.
Until the Pharaoh had the monopoly throughout the land and then everyone was at his mercy.
He could supply demand as and when he saw fit.
He had total control.
Bruegemmann suggests that peasants were turned from their lands, had their crops possessed and were forced into slavery because of the government’s policy of requisition – a policy Joseph enacted on behalf of the Egyptians.
It went against all that Joseph and his people believed in, to imagine that their God would not continue to provide abundantly for them as had been the case for centuries.
Yet, Joseph bought into this idea of scarcity – and so his own kith and kin were uprooted, impoverished and became subject to the whims of a superpower.

That’s some alternative reading of the story of Joseph.
And my first reaction was to discard it for my long held notion of the idea that God can use all sorts of circumstances for good.
And so to see in the story of Joseph, the story of a God who uses the brothers jealousy and their evil act of selling their brother into slavery as a way of saving a people when hardship befell them.
A God who rescued Joseph from slavery and raised him to great things.
I think the reason, however that I gave Brueggemann’s alternative reading a second glance, however, is that it resonated with some of the things that Paul Russel, the moderator said at my induction here.
About how often, in the church, we believe that what we have to offer will not be enough.
That we don’t have enough people.
Or enough money.
Or enough talent.
And that, until we have all the resources in place, there’s no point in doing things.
And we too often forget that the God in whom we trust is a God of abundance and of grace.
A God who uses our limited offerings and resources and, who more than that, transforms all that we have to offer, so that it becomes more than enough.
For the fact is that our gifts are multiplied when offered to God.
The story of this congregation is a story of faith in God’s abundance.
It was faith that called people to come out here and build a church.
Already I’ve spoken to quite a few folk who remember the days of the barn church.
Days when the blessing of God was very evident.
It was faith that called people to build a sanctuary.
And, every step of the way, that faith has witnessed God’s blessing and extravagant giving.
Why should we assume that, in this day and age, God should treat us any differently.
Why should we assume that God will not bless us now as God has blessed us in the past as we offer what we have today.
Ourselves, our gifts, our time, our talents, our money.
Offered to God, that will be more than enough.
So why do we fall into that uncertainty of scarcity?
Idris (my husband) had two maiden aunts who lived together.
They were the family matriarchs.
They kept the family together and whenever anyone was in need, Aunt Isobel and Aunt Lizzie were the first called on.
They would always help out.
From scrubbing floors to dishing out good advice, theirs was the place to go.
Eventually they both died and we assisted with the task of clearing the home they had shared.
It seemed that everywhere you looked in the house, there were jars and tins and boxes of sugar.
I don’t think either of them actually used much sugar, but their cupboards were full of it.
Because they had lived through rationing.
They knew what it was to do without.
And so, when times were good, they bought sugar.
They would never be short of that again!
Perhaps that sounds just the tiniest bit eccentric, but these weren’t two old, eccentric ladies. They were down to earth, hard working ordinary folk. But folk who had known scarcity.
And so they bought into that idea that it might happen again.
You just could never know.
So they set about ensuring that, should sugar rationing ever come back, they would have plenty – and so would their family.
All of us can so easily get caught up in that myth of scarcity.
And never quite relax enough to realise that our faithful God is a God of extravagance and abundance.

And so to our gospel reading this morning.
One in which Jesus does not show up very well.
Can he really be saying no to this poor woman who has asked for healing, not even for herself but for her daughter?
Can we believe that of our Lord?
Again there are various interpretations of our gospel reading this morning.
Interpretations that point to the new order that now reigns.
That God’s mercy and God’s love are not just for a particular people in a particular place – but for all people everywhere.
And some interpreters point to the fact that this was such an unheard of concept, in a culture that thought that God was only interested in the Jewish people, that even Jesus had difficulty with it and had to learn from the woman’s persistence that there was more than enough to go around.
Whether it was something Jesus had to learn.
Or whether he just delayed granting the woman’s request so that the disciples would learn this lesson by puzzling over his actions, the message is the same:
God’s love, God’s healing, God’s forgiveness, God’s abundant grace – is for everyone.
There is more than enough.
Believe it.

All of us can so easily be seduced into believing that love is scarce, that resources are limited, that giving somehow diminishes us.
And yet, the good news that Jesus came to live is that God’s blessing multiplies whatever we have to offer – and, in God’s purpose, there will always be enough.

It’s a lesson that we have to learn and a promise that we have to grasp hold of.
For unless we take risks, we cannot find security.
And unless we love we cannot know God’s extravagance.

And so as we enter this new phase together, making history here in Castlehill, lets not be seduced by the notion of scarcity, but lets step forward in the faith that God’s grace is sufficient, that God’s goodness is abundant and that, right now, we have all that we need to go forward, to take risks and to glorify God in this place.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Jumping the fence

I'm not preaching this week, but the lectionary readings are providing lots of food for thought as I reflect on one ministry with just the tiniest breathing space before I move on to the next.

This week's gospel speaks of weeds growing among the wheat. It even suggests that, sometimes, what looks like weeds become wheat and what looks like wheat can become weeds. Its sometimes hard to tell. This thought has really captured my imagination this week, especially as I wind up a ministry where I often felt like the weed growing amongst the wheat, put there to challenge what had been planted over many a long season. Being at odds with long in the tooth office bearers is not a comfortable place to be but, for me these past few years, it has certainly become a familiar place. 
However, there is a tendency from that familiar place to wonder "Am I the only one who gets it?" That can lead to isolation or lend an air of superiority. Or, conversely, it can lead to the temptation to give in - or to lose confidence in what the Spirit seems to be saying and in the ability to discern. 
Recently, when it was clear that even the weeds were being choked of all life, there was little breath left to jump the fence and be involved in a new harvest, part of a seemingly healthier cultivation.
How is it that the church, in so many places, has become the domain of the professional?
Lip service is paid to the priesthood of all believers or to the gospel demands on individuals in daily life but little of that is actually played out.
And so the wheat turns into a very closed up bunch of curmudgenous, middle aged men and women who are too zipped up to even begin to peer through the zipper's teeth, teeth that are being gnashed to powder.
And, in the end, when the harvest does not materialise, when the fruit does not appear, of course it is down to the professional who employs all the wrong tools and who simply doesn't understand horticulture anyway. 
How many professionals need to be exhausted or driven away before the penny drops that maybe there is something wrong on the home turf?
The idea that, until things are grown, we don't know which is weed and which is wheat speaks clearly to me of giving things a chance, something too many churches are unwilling to do. We can't possibly take risks. Its safer to stick with the familiar - even if it is clear that that strategy hasn't worked for years, maybe even decades.
As I move on, I'm left with a sense of "what was it all about?" Was it worth all the angst and the very personal cost of ministering to folk who in many ways are just too comfortable to even recognise challenge whether presented subtly or more overtly. But again, this parable answers that. Only at the time of the harvest will we know. Only then will we be able to tell.
Meantime I have to live with the frustration of not knowing but, as I move on, I'm praying to the Lord of the harvest for more workers this time around. I'd love, just for a while, to play with the wheat rather than always hang out with the weeds. Time will tell.

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Soothing balm

These words, from this week's lectionary, speak words I need to hear. I hope that they bring soothing and healing for you.

My lover spoke and said to me:
 "Arise my darling, my beautiful one, 
and come with me. 
See! The winter is past; 
the rains are over and gone.
Flowers appear on the earth;
the season of singing has come,
the cooing of doves
is heard in our land. 
the fig tree forms its early fruit
the blossoming vines spread their fragrance.
Arise, come, my darling;
my beautiful one, come with me.
Song of Solomon 2: 10-13

Saturday, 28 June 2008

Avoiding the texts

This is the last time I will preach in my current charge - and the lectionary was particularly unhelpful. However, I decided to stick with the readings for the day.

Readings: Matthew 10: 34-42; Genesis 22: 1-14
A few years ago we went to New York, to visit one of our friends who was studying nearby at Princeton University – the same friend whose church I preached in this April in Virginia. The university campus at Princeton was very pretty, even in the cold of January and I loved taking in the story – with a few Scottish connections - and the history as well as the sights of the area. Behind the University chapel in Princeton is a sculpture, done by George Segal. It depicts Abraham and Isaac and is pretty stark, done in bronze with Abraham coming across as a very menacing father towering over his son.
This week, I discovered a bit more about that sculpture. It was composed to commemorate a dreadful event in the history of America – the Kent State massacre, when 4 students were killed and others were injured when the National Guard opened fire on students demonstrating against the war in Cambodia in 1970– as I said a dreadful event in American history.
George Segal cast the sculpture of Abraham sacrificing Isaac, but the sculpture never made it to Ohio where the killings took place because the state governor there deemed it too controversial. And so, it found its way to Princeton. It is a pretty stark and brutal composition.
As is our reading this morning.
This is a reading that many preachers avoid because of its starkness and its brutality. What can we possibly say to somehow redeem this text and interpret it for our 21st century lives – should we even try?
I don’t believe that the bible needs – or merits our defense. That doesn’t excuse us from engaging with the text, from wrestling with the more difficult bits. But there are some parts of the bible that are simply beyond our skills of redemption, beyond our gifts of interpretation. Perhaps this text today is one of those.
I’ve enjoyed discussions this week on various aspects of this reading. Is it merely a story told and told and told again in the oral tradition to draw folk away from the ancient practice of child sacrifice – part of the culture of the day? Is it leading folk away from that ancient ritual to a worship that is more human, based around a loving, interactive God? That’s one possibility for interpretation.
Or - is this text about obedience? Above all, Abraham was obedient to God, went the whole road, really was prepared to sacrifice his only son, and so was rewarded for his obedience.
Or - Is it about testing? God tested Abraham to the max before fulfilling the promise to make Abraham the father of a great nation.
None of these propositions, however, speaks to me about a God I particularly want to know. A God who would demand such obedience, a God who would push us to the limit in testing us and yet I know that there are many folk who have known such testing, who have practiced such obedience and for whom this text makes a lot of sense. Folk pushed to the limit finding God right there – at the limit. And its then that, just maybe, the text begins to speak to me. Of a God who is to be found right at the end of the road, at the furthest boundaries, when the envelope simply can’t be pushed any further – that’s the kind of God in whom I want to trust. Not one who makes ridiculous demands of obedience, though God might well. Not a God who tests us to the limit. But a God who is to be found in the extremities of life, a God who is standing by, waiting to be invited to bail us out, a God whom sometimes we can only see in those end places, in those extreme moments.
That kind of God makes sense to me.
That’s the kind of God I see emerging from this text.
Of course we all cast God in the image that we want God to be. The kind of God we need God to be.
And what is clear throughout the stories of Abraham in the Old Testament is that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is a God unlike any other ever known. A God who demands a different kind of relationship. A God who is involved with creation – intimately involved, not just from a distance.
And sometimes, in a difficult text like the one we read this morning we can lose sight of that intimate God, the God who is closer than we think.The God who surrounds us with love in our everyday and in our extremities.
How often do we recognize that God or acknowledge that God in our everyday?
And how often do we mirror that God?
Mirror a God who cares so much for creation that God weeps with sorrow and with joy at the sorrows and triumphs of folk like you and me.
God, so often is to be found in the places we least expect and in the people we so easily overlook.
I’m not sure I like the way of Abraham’s obedience in this text. And maybe that’s just because I wouldn’t have the kind of trust that he had – he seemed to know that God wouldn’t really let him go through with killing his son – but I wouldn’t have taken that chance on God.
And so I have trouble identifying with Abraham’s blind faith and unstinting obedience.
But, you know, I think that that is a weakness that God fairly easily forgives.
I feel sure that God honours those who at least try to make a difference rather than those who bury their heads in the sand and just hope that everything will turn out OK in the end.
Faith tells us that God will prevail, but common sense tells us that we can’t just sit back and wait for it all to happen.
I was involved in a conversation with a colleague this week about a church that is tearing itself apart just now. Tearing itself apart because some folk want to express their worship of God in one way and others want to express their worship very differently. And neither group can see a way to exist together.
So, while the outward signs are of a healthy worshipping congregation, underneath are struggles that cannot be resolved unless hearts and minds are changed.
And, while there is wonderful faithfulness to bible study and to prayer, with some folks involved in several meetings every week, hearts are lacking in love and that faithfulness is not being lived out in daily life.
Remember a couple of weeks ago – when Jesus was asking his disciples to pray for more helpers for the work of the kingdom? The gospel tells us that no sooner were the prayers said than they were answered?
By those same disciples who had offered the prayers realizing that they could be the means of answering their own prayers – that they could take up the challenge to go and grow the kingdom.
That they could roll up their sleeves and spread the love of God where they were.
Too many of our churches today would rather pray for revival than effect it.
Its so much easier to gather in holy huddles than get off our knees and make a difference.
We look at the task before us and we’re put off by the size of the challenge and give in before we even get started.
We assume we can’t make much difference, so why bother trying.
And yet today’s gospel tells us that it’s the little things that make a difference.
The cup of cold water offered to “one of these little ones:”
The hospitality that costs us little.
“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me” .
This hospitality of which Jesus speaks is one of the signs of the kingdom. Where we see hospitality practiced, its not just a sign of good manners, it’s a sign that the gospel is being lived out.
We’d probably all be quick to claim that we are well mannered, that we know how to treat folk, but the question Jesus raises for us in the gospel today is: do you really?
Do you really know what it is to practice hospitality – especially hospitality to those sent as servants of God?
The history of the church is full of stories of those bringing the word of God being mis treated.
From the Old Testament prophets, who were hounded out for daring to speak God’s message – to the Son of God being crucified for preaching good news.
And, you know what – nothing has changed.
There are communities today who still do not know how to give that cup of cold water, or extend that hand of friendship.
Folk who shoot the messenger, because they simply do not want to hear the message.
Because that message challenges them.
The word of God makes demands on them that they simply do not want to hear.
So they switch off.
If you don’t want to deal with something, just close your ears.
But, then that switching off is not enough – because the irritant is still there.
So they begin to persecute God’s servant.
In order to avoid the challenge presented they simply work away at dispensing with the challenger.
“Anyone who receives you receives me, and anyone who receives me receives the Father who sent me. If you receive a prophet as one who speaks for God, you will be given the same reward as a prophet. And if you receive righteous people because of their righteousness, you will be given a reward like theirs. And if you give even a cup of cold water to one of the least of my followers, you will surely be rewarded.”

This is not just a cosy statement by which we in the church can be comforted when we think we’ve done our duty.
It is a radical, challenging, demanding call for us to practise the kind of hospitality that may mean we are dragged out of our comfort zones, but the kind of hospitality that ensures that the signs of the kingdom are all around us.
Until we can put those words into action, until we can welcome God’s words and God’s messengers and allow them to mess with our comfortable lives, we might as well just stick our heads back into the sand.
There’s no room for change when the basics are missing.
Our readings today – brutal, stark, hard to make sense of.
But, all the more challenging for being so.
All the harder to put into practice.
The question is – do we really want to be hospitable – or do we simply prefer our holy huddles?
Today’s texts – Maybe texts we’d rather avoid.
But if we’re prepared to engage with those texts and be changed by their message – the Kingdom of God is near.
God be with us in our hearing and our understanding and give us the will to put into practice the values of the kingdom. To God be the glory.

Sunday, 15 June 2008

Letting the text speak

Matthew 9:35-10:10 (The Message)

Then Jesus made a circuit of all the towns and villages. He taught in their meeting places, reported kingdom news, and healed their diseased bodies, healed their bruised and hurt lives. When he looked out over the crowds, his heart broke. So confused and aimless they were, like sheep with no shepherd. "What a huge harvest!" he said to his disciples. "How few workers! On your knees and pray for harvest hands!"
The prayer was no sooner prayed than it was answered. Jesus called twelve of his followers and sent them into the ripe fields. He gave them power to kick out the evil spirits and to tenderly care for the bruised and hurt lives. This is the list of the twelve he sent: Simon (they called him Peter, or "Rock"), Andrew, his brother, James, Zebedee's son, John, his brother, Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Matthew, the tax man, James, son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon, the Canaanite, Judas Iscariot (who later turned on him).
Jesus sent his twelve harvest hands out with this charge:
"Don't begin by traveling to some far-off place to convert unbelievers. And don't try to be dramatic by tackling some public enemy. Go to the lost, confused people right here in the neighborhood. Tell them that the kingdom is here. Bring health to the sick. Raise the dead. Touch the untouchables. Kick out the demons. You have been treated generously, so live generously.
"Don't think you have to put on a fund-raising campaign before you start. You don't need a lot of equipment. You are the equipment, and all you need to keep that going is three meals a day. Travel light.