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.

Monday, 9 June 2008

Entertaining angels

A reflection on Genesis 18 v 1-15
Food in the eating place
And drink in the drinking place
Ancient signs of hospitality
An opportunity to entertain angels unawares
Signs of the triune God
As much as the ringing sound of laughter
Echoing through the encounter
For what encounter with the divine
Is not underpinned with mirth?
The mirth of a God
who allows us to sit down at table
and open ourselves to receive
much more than we can ever give.
The gift of life itself
In birthing and in dying
with open hands and open hearts
The God who is open to receive
whatever we can offer
and who gives
in wonderful extravagance.
Those sacred trees of Mamre
sheltered a sacred encounter
of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit
and Abraham, father of nations
and the laughter of Sarah and all the angels.
Food in the eating place
and drink in the drinking place
and hospitality becomes sacred
for all time.

Saturday, 7 June 2008

Abandoning ship

A sermon for celebrating communion

Readings: Hosea 5 v 15-6 v 6
Matthew 9 v 9-13

I would rather have my people know me than burn
offerings to me.

Both our bible readings this morning speak to us of a God
who is a God of relationships.
A God who doesn’t want sacrifice but wants intimacy.
A God who doesn’t want a people who are simply miserable
going through the motions but a God who wants people to
experience joy.
Living as God wants us to live is not about merely doing the
right thing - its about enjoying life.
Because we follow a God - or purport to follow a God who
wants to put a spring in our step, not a heavy burden on our
I would rather have my people know me than burn
offerings to me.

God calls us into relationship, a joyful relationship.
And sometimes when we have been around the church for
some time, that joyfulness is easy to lose sight of.
We’re good at worrying, we’re good at being concerned,
we’re even good at doing grumpy.
But joy?
That’s taking it all a bit too far.
Those words from the Old Testament:
I would rather have my people know me than burn
offerings to me.
Speak to us of a God, who wants to get beyond our doing
the right thing and wearing the right expression and
looking suitably miserable.
A God who wants people to enter into relationship with God
and with each other and even, on occasion, to be joyful.
A God who doesn’t care if we don’t always get it right, if
we don’t always cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s - as long
as we get beyond the externals, move beyond the
peripherals and enter into relationship.

I always have several books on the go at any one time.
and two that I am attempting to read at the minute are:
Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis and
John Drane’s Do Christians know how to do spiritual?
Both are attempting to explore how we wrestle with the
traditions of our faith for our living today.
I would rather have my people know me than burn
offerings to me.
It seems to me that that was exactly what the prophet
Hosea was wrestling with 700 years before Christ.
In hearing and proclaiming those words of God:
I would rather have my people know me than burn
offerings to me.
the prophet was suggesting a new and radical way forward
for his contemporaries - a way based on a living
relationship with God - not simply on keeping the

And so to our gospel for today - Jesus calling Matthew the
tax collector to follow him.
There we see Jesus going against tradition, forging a new
way, forming relationships.
Its amazing how the church, down through the centuries
has sanitised the prophets and sanitised one of the
biggest innovators for the kingdom - Jesus himself.
We gloss over how radical Jesus was.
We conveniently forget how he scandalised the traditional
church men (and they were men) around him.

In today’s gospel we see Jesus calling Matthew to follow
Matthew, a tax collector, despised by his everyday
contemporaries, never mind the high and mighty church
Jesus, walking along, saw Matthew, and called him.
Let’s pause there for a moment to take in the wonder of
Jesus saw Matthew.
As he walked along, his eyes took in the tax collector but,
more than that, Jesus saw the man.
That was a particular gift that Jesus had - of being able to see people.
Not to see what they wore which would often give away
what they did.
Not to see what age they were which would give him more
information on their socio-economic status.
Not to see where they hung out - another teller.
But Jesus saw people for themselves.
People with whom he could have a relationship - for
Its a skill that we, as Jesus followers have lost today.
When we look at folk, we take in how they dress, we take
in their piercings and their tatoos.
And we judge, from those externals what kind of people
they are, what they probably do for a living and how much
use they might be to us or to the church.
Jesus simply saw people.
As he approached Matthew, he saw him.
Not how much he was worth.
Not how much use he might be to him.
Jesus saw Matthew.
And what did he do?
He called Matthew.
And he went to have a meal with him.
Jesus used table fellowship as a way of building
To him, a person’s social standing was neither here nor
If only we could be so inclusive.
Especially on this Sunday when we share in table fellowship.
The sacraments that should bring us together in faith.
We become distracted by what we wear, by how we serve,
by what we serve.

While Jesus was having a meal in Matthew’s house,
many tax collectors and other outcasts came and joined
Jesus and his disciples at the table.
That’s the kind of fellowship to which we are called.
The kind of fellowship in which people could feel
comfortable rather than judged.
The kind of fellowship that sees beyond what people do
and recognises them as children of God.

Jesus went on to say: People who are well do not need
a doctor but only those who are sick. Go and find out
what is meant by the scripture that says: It is
kindness that I want, not animal sacrifices. I have not
come to call respectable people, but outcasts.

Can we remember a time when we felt comfortable with
outcasts - particularly gathered around the table?
Or welcomed folk who were different?
How often, in communion and even more, in baptism, the
other sacrament we celebrate, how often do we judge
people who don’t know the rules or who don’t look the part,
the outcasts in this sanctuary?
The very folk that Jesus calls.

Jesus was radical for the upholders of the faith in his day.
And sometimes, we treat the radicals in our day with the
same contempt.
We might indulge or even embrace different ideas for a
But, when they begin to threaten things that we hold dear,
when they offend our sense of what is right and proper, of
what, for us, constitutes the essence of our faith, we put
the brakes on, we withdraw our tacit support, we retreat
back to our traditions.
Jesus rattled the cages of tradition.
He had the audacity to suggest that it is relationship that
counts, not doing things that we have done forever.
Faith entails constantly rediscovering relationship with
God and with each other.
And when tradition gets in the way of that, we must have
the courage to jettison tradition for the sake of the
gospel, for the sake of the kingdom.

Dare we ask ourselves this morning:
What is my relationship with God?
Does it simply depend on all the traditions I have fenced
around myself, is it really more about religion than about
Or is it in fact something that could survive if all the
trappings were missing?
And my relationship with others - do I see what they are or
who they are?

Jesus said: It is kindness I want not animal sacrifices.

We’ve come a long way from offering animal sacrifices in the church.
But we still have loads of things we’d rather hide behind,
loads of things that save us from having to get out there
and practice kindness.
We’d rather rearrange the deckchairs on the titanic than
jump into the life boat, jettison all the stuff that weighs
us down and find a new way.
There’s no point in inviting others to come on board and
pitch in on a sinking ship.
Folk will only become involved when they see life, when
they experience kindness, when there is the prospect of
And that is not the picture we present right now, around
the table or around the community.

Jesus comes to us - not the perfect but folk who are sick
and need healing.
Jesus comes to offer us relationship with himself and with
And when we’ve entered into that relationship, we are
called to be as generous with others.
Looking beyond the peripherals.
Reaching beyond the trappings of tradition.
Coming from knowledge of God and offering kindness.

In this table fellowship, lets ask ourselves: do I have a
relationship with God or am I going through the motions?
And could I offer kindness to the outcast?
In our changing, in our encountering relationship with God,
may our community here experience something radical
for the glory of God and the building of the kingdom.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Living stones

Sunday worship this week in Living Stones church in Kilmartin got me reflecting:

Called to be living stones
Not half dead, buried under the weight of tradition
But fully alive
muscles and sinew and, above all breath
that rattles the foundations
breath that shakes the dead
breath that breaks out of the tombs
of modernism and post modernism
and christendom and post christendom
defying labels
bucking trends
surprising all over again
when folk are beyond surprises
expecting nothing and thus getting what they expect.
Living stones
that tear down walls
and come in gasps and giggles
to confront and astound stereotypes and pigeon holes.
Living stones 
getting under the skin
into the soul
rubbing away
proving an irritant
to those who like neatness and order.
for the old things have passed away
and everything is new.
The ancient is modern
and the circle is drawn
and the root of all sacredness 
and the ground of all mystery
pervades hearts of stone
until the whole earth shall cry glory
and the angels unearthed by the moving of stones
infect the world with life and love and spirit.
These are living stones.