Sunday, 25 January 2009

The gospel according to Rabbie

Celebrating the bard's birthday:
Sunday 25th January 2009

Reading: Psalm 8
Mark 1 v 14-20

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

Just what is it that keeps the myth of Robert Burns alive?
What is it that turns his followers into a worldwide cult perpetuating the wisdom he penned in a very short life some 250 years later?
I’d like to suggest it is not so much the man – it is the message. A timeless message that needs to be told again and again.
An ability to see things for a certain day and age but seeing, in fact, things that speak to every day and age.
A social gospel if you like - that needs preached time and time again.
Robert Burns, who, if you can believe his victorian and somewhat puritan biographers, lived a colourful life spoke into situations that were familiar then and are all too familiar now.
Just one of the reasons the bard’s work has survived and continues to be revered all over the world is its incisive critique of culture and particularly of those who sat in judgement of others and set themselves up as superior to the rest.
O ye wha are sae guid yoursel’,
Sae pious and sae holy
Yeve nought to do but mark and tell
Your neebours fauts and folly:
Whase life is like a wee-gaun mill,
Supplied wi’ store o’ water:
The heapet happer’s ebbing still,
An’ still the clap plays clapper

Ye see your state wi’ theirs compared
And shudder at the niffer
But cast a moment’s fair regard
What makes the mighty differ?
Discount what scant occasion gave;
That purity ye pride in;
And (what’s aft mair than a’ the lave )

Your better art o’ hidin.
From Burns’ Address to the unco guid, or the rigidly righteous.
The folk Burns poked fun at on a good day – or slandered on a bad day are still around, still making the same judgements, still pitching themselves as superior beings – and still propping up the kirk!
What keeps the memory of Robert Burns alive is the timeless observation of the ills – and sometimes the good – in the world around him, ills and good that are still very present in this day and age.
2,000 years ago, Jesus addressed the ills of the society surrounding him and called for people to change – to change their ways and, in so doing, to change the world.
And the struggle that Burns had in his day with the hierarchy of the kirk seems little different to the struggle Jesus had with the keepers of the faith in his day.
There was hypocrisy and injustice. There was a self righteousness and superiority in those who held power. They didn’t practice the things that they preached.
That’s why, when Jesus sought folk to become his disciples, he didn’t look in the synagogue, he looked on the beach.
He didn’t look for folk who thought they were good enough – he dragged along with him those who would never have considered themselves willling or able to spread the good news.
The keepers of the faith were failing in their task, so Jesus called up some new defenders, taught them a different way – a way of love and not judgement.

In our gospel reading this morning we find Jesus recruiting not among the righteous or the so-called holy but among fishermen.
The pharisees who were entrusted with upholding God’s law had turned that law into something harsh and impossible, had turned the God of love in to something remote and inaccessible.
Jesus wanted to reclaim faith for ordinary people.
In a Cotter’s Saturday night, we are presented with one facet of the gospel according to Rabbie Burns: every man is called to be a defender of the faith, starting with his own kith and kin.
The gospel is a message to be preached, not from lofty pulpits but in our own homes and hearths.
“The cheerfu’ supper done, wi’ serious face, They, round the ingle, form a circle wide; The sire turns o’er, wi’ patriarchal grace, The big ha’ Bible, ance his father’s pride: … He wales a portion with judicious care; And “Let us worship God” he says with solemn air. They chant their artless notes in simple guise; They tune their hearts, by far the noblest aim; … Then kneeling down to heaven’s eternal King, The saint, the father, and the husband prays.”
Burns proclaims the humble cotter not only the father of his children and the husband of his wife. He is also “the saint”, the one who leads his family in prayer and the reading of the Scriptures.
Burns clearly believed in the priesthood of all believers: that every believer is a minister, that we are all called to preach and to live out the gospel in our everyday lives, not least in our own homes.
Faith and life are one. The ‘cotter’, as much as the ‘minister’, is called to lead others to God.
Burns had a gift for reading situations and not beating about the bush in interpreting and speaking into those situations. He spoke as he found and was not frightened of causing offence in so doing.
And Burns upset the social elite of his day in the same way that Jesus caused offence and outrage among those who considered themselves the social elite in Galilee.
And the response was much the same: “the common people heard Jesus gladly”; the Pharisees made it their aim “to destroy Him”.
Following in the footsteps of Jesus, Robert Burns spoke of ordinary life, of the life he and the folk around him endured every day:
The harshness and beauty of nature:
“O wad some pow’r the giftie gie us to see oursels as others see us!”
Its incredible that those words that have been encapsualted into common speak the world o’er come from Burns’ poem To a Louse, penned when he saw a louse on the bonnet of a lady worshipping in church.
It’s a real gift to be able to take the most ordinary things of everyday and turn them into parables and, in those proclaim the wisdom of God.
But that’s a gift that you and I are encouraged to pursue every day.
To look at our life with the mirror of God.
To consider the most ordinary happenings and see God speaking to us through them.
And don’t we need the assurance today that God does speak to us in daily life.
That in all the beauty around us, in all the wonder of creations as proclaimed in the Psalm we read, that God is present.
But that God is present too in the harshness of life – in our worries about jobs and income, in our fears for the future, in the loss we feel because our loved ones are no longer with us or are out of reach.
In all that, too, we need the assurance that God is present.
Burns waxed eloquent on the fears that plagued humans:
In To A Mouse:
Thou saw the fields laid bare an' waste, 

An' weary winter comin fast, 

An' cozie here, beneath the blast, 
Thou thought to dwell, 

Till crash! the cruel coulter past 
Out thro' thy cell.

That wee bit heap o' leaves an' stibble, 
Has cost thee monie a weary nibble! 

Now thou's turned out, for a' thy trouble, 
But house or hald, 
To thole the winter's sleety dribble, 
An' cranreuch cauld.

But Mousie, thou art no thy lane, 
In proving foresight may be vain: 

The best laid schemes o' mice an' men 
Gang aft agley, 

An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain, 
For promis'd joy!

Still thou are blest, compared wi' me! 

The present only toucheth thee: 

But och! I backward cast my e'e, 
On prospects drear! 

An' forward, tho' I canna see, 
I guess an' fear!

Burns was well aware of the fragility and sometimes the fickleness of life and even in that epic tale Tam O Shanter, Burns manages to interlace beautiful poetry with his social comment and warning:
But pleasures are like poppies spread, 

You seize the flower, its bloom is shed; 

Or like the snow falls in the river, 

A moment white--then melts for ever;
Or like the borealis race, 
That flit ere you can point their place; 

Or like the rainbow's lovely form 
Evanishing amid the storm.-- 

Nae man can tether time or tide;

It seems he couldn’t separate his faith and life.
And that’s as it should be.
Its when we try to separate the one from the other that we run into difficulty and we become like the subjects of much of his poetry: folk who preach one thing and practice another.
I started off by saying that what keeps the Burns movement alive is not so much the man but the message and we’ve now come full circle – to a great extent, the man was the message. He spoke of things he knew, injustice he had witnessed, temptations to which he had succumbed, hardships he had endured.
That’s why in the conclusion of his address to the unco good, he cautions us thus:
Then gently scan your brother man,
Still gentler sister woman
Tho’ they may gang a kennin wrang,
To step aside is human:
One point must still be greatly dark,
The moving why they do it;
And just as lamely can ye mark
How far perhaps they rue it.
Who made the heart, ‘tis he alone
Decidedly can try us:
He knows each chord, its various tone,
Each spring, its various bias:
Then at the balance, lets be mute,
We never can adjust it;
What’s done we partly may compute,
But know not what’s resisted.

Through all of life, its ups and its many downs Robert Burns never seemed to lose sight of the overarching love and power of God embracing all:
And, though he had reason to question – and in fact did, though he often ranted on the unfairness of life, in the Epistle to the Rev. John M’Math, Burns said this:

“God knows, I’m no the thing I should be,
Nor am I even the thing I could be,
But twenty times I rather would be
An atheist clean,
Than under gospel colours hid be
Just for a screen.”

Burns knew and proclaimed the truth that the gospel must be for all of us anything but a screen.
The gospel is a call to action.
Not something we can hide behind but something that drives us forward to make a difference by living out the love of God wherever we are.

Can we hear that call to action in this place and this time?
Can we, upstanding members of the kirk be seen, not as hypocrites or defenders of the faith, but folk who practice what they preach?
That social gospel needs to be heard in our world today.
But it more than anything needs to be lived.
And today, we are being called to take up the challenge.
A challenge not perhaps to wax eloquent, though there’s nothing wrong in that, but a challenge to follow Jesus wherever he leads us as did those fishermen, following Jesus into the unknown.
Our world is filled with the unknown today.
And you and I are called to bring the assurance of God’s love and God’s power.
You and I are called to kindle the flame of hope.
In this time of uncertainty, hope is what we cling to – not some impossible hope, but hope in the God of all who is not remote but intimately cares for you and for me.
So let’s leave Robert Burns for a time today, planting words of hope in our hearts from his poem: a man’s a man.

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a' that,)
That Sense and Worth, o'er a' the earth,
Shall bearthe gree, an' a' that.
For a' that, an' a' that,
It's coming yet for a' that,
That Man to Man, the world o'er,
Shall brothers be for a' that.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Come and See

Reading: 1 Samuel 3 v 1-10
John 1 v 43-51

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

Its 6 months now since I came to work at Castlehill. Feels like so much longer. Take that whatever way you like! J
I’m sure by now you’ll have cottoned on to some of my eccentricities, some of my habits, even some of the lingo that I routinely use. Most of us have wee things that distinguish us in one way or another, ways that we like to do things, ways that we like to put things – things that have become, for us ,routines that we’ve fallen into.
But just because things have become a habit doesn’t mean that they are any the less important.
One of the things I like to say every week as I welcome you to worship is that I hope you’ll take away your order of service – with all the intimations on it – that you’ll read it and leave it handy, that you’ll join in what you can and that you’ll invite your neighbour to come along to our fellowship too.
Do you do that?
When you get home, do you pin your order of service on the fridge or leave it on the coffee table as a reminder of the service and as a reminder of all the things you can join in during the week? All the things to which you can invite your neighbour?
Or do you perhaps just find it the next time you wear that coat or that jacket to church?
Or is yours left in the pew, done with before you even leave the building?
In our gospel this morning, Philip is called by Jesus to follow him. So what does he do?
He goes and finds Nathanael and tells him about Jesus of Nazareth.
Nathanael would have done well in the church of Scotland – a true cynic.
Can anything good come out of Nazareth?
And Philip replies: Come and see.
The most natural invitation.
Come and see.
When is the last time that we invited our neighbour to: Come and see.
When was the last time we encouraged them to check out where we’re going and what we do together?
Come and see.
One of the measures of our relationship with God is the state of our relationship with our neighbour.
The two are inseparable.
I heard a story this wek, from the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, David Lunan.
He was at a dinner with Alex Salmond and Alex said to him: you know when I went to university my mother hoped that I would become a Church of Scotland minister. (she obviously didn’t have very high hopes for her sonJ) when he became a politician she said: I always knew with you it was too much left and right and not enough up and down.
In our Christian life, the up and down must be matched by the left and right. Our relationship with God must be reflected in our relationship with our neighbour.
Come and see.
One of the simplest invitations but one of the most profound.
When we are not ashamed of what we do but want our neighbour to join in - we must have something worth sharing.
The conference I took part in at the beginning of the week had as its theme “Homecoming”.
The Scottish Government has ear marked this year 2009, as a year of homecoming – a year when that great Scottish diaspora will be welcomed home – a year when all the stops will be pulled out to welcome back the exiles.
It coincides with the 250th anniversary year of the birth of Robert Burns – more on that next week as you’ll see in the intimations.
The Scottish Government is launching all sorts of initiatives and programmes to encourage all those who feel they have an affinity with Scotland to visit this year and there’s no reason why the church should not be involved in that welcome. Indeed it is vital that the church IS involved. Spirituality is an integral part of Scotland’s growth and history.
But how can we welcome the stranger if we cannot welcome our neighbour?
Come and see.
The church is being called to rediscover its ministry of hospitality.
Its not enough to welcome folk back to a cold building where we sing dirges with dour faces. And that, I’m sure will be the memory that many folk have of the kirk – or the story that’s been handed on to them even if they have never experienced it themselves.
You and I know that things have changed drastically.
But how will others know if we don’t encourage them to Come and see?
Come and see – inviting others to be a part of the story.
Philip wasn’t put off by Nathanael’s cynicism. Can anything good come out of Nazareth.
Nathanael had obviously swallowed the party line, was prepared to be unimpressed.
But did that deter Philip from persisting in his invitation?
From challenging him to look again?
Let’s face it – the history of the church and the miserable encounters tat many folk have had through the years is not something to boast about.
Folk might well take quite a bit of coaxing.
So we shouldn’t be knocked back by an initial reluctance.
That’s to be expected.
But what we do have to do is ensure that those who have had negative experiences with the church will experience something very different when they respond to our invitation this time around.
When Philip urged Nathanael to come and see – he wanted him to check out for himself who Jesus was.
Jesus didn’t fulfil expectations. He didn’t fit the pattern. He wasn’t what people wanted.
He didn’t entertain, he challenged – and he demanded a response.
Folk were surprised by Jesus – he was unpredictable.
And so is life.
Often, we find answers, we find help in the very last places we would think of looking.
Can anything good come out of Nazareth.
Well, not if you don’t look there.
Not if you don’t have any good expectations.
We believe that in the fellowship of the church, folk can be pleasantly surprised.
But how do we get folk to even think of looking to the church for help – to looking to us to be welcoming.
Not just smilingly welcome when they cross the threshold but offering real hospitality in a world that is suspicious of strangers.
Henri Nouwen wrote this:
‘The very world we live in is hostile. So many people are busy, lonely, estranged from friends, family, God. The world is so full of competition, aggression, fear, and suspicion. In this type of setting we as followers of Jesus have an obligation to “offer an open and hospitable space where strangers can cast off their strangeness and become our fellow human beings.”
An open and hospitable space.
Nouwen defines hospitality as “creation of free space where a stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer space where change can take place.”
Hospitality welcomes the stranger – as they are. Hospitality does not demand conformity but encourages everyone to be who they are and discover the God who loves them just as they are.

Would you be happy to invite your neighbour to Come and see?
If not – why not?
Are there things you experience here that you’ll put up with but wouldn’t expect your neighbour to put up with.
Do something about it.
Are things not exciting enough around here to invite others along?
Change them.
Start up some new, exciting things.
The halls are buzzing – but there’s still some spare capacity.
Is this your personal “me” time that you don’t want your neighbours involved in?
What about the left and the right as well as the up and the down relationships?
Our relationship with God and our relationship with our neighbour is inseparable.
And remember:
Inviting your neighbour to Come and see doesn’t make you responsible for them. Its not your responsibility to ensure that they have a good time. but it is your responsibility to ensure that they are given the opportunity to be challenged and changed by God.
The gospel story goes on:
When Philip introduced Nathanael to Jesus, Jesus told Nathanael that he knew him already – he’d met him under the fig tree.
That provoked Nathanael to respond: Rabbi, You are the Son of God.
And what was Jesus’ response to that>
Nathanael was convicted by Jesus’ knowledge of him.
But that was only the beginning.
Journeying along with Jesus was going to show up a whole lot more miraculous things.
Jesus does that.
All we are being asked to do is invite our neighbour to “Come and see”
And leave the rest to God.
So take your service sheet home today.
Check out all that is on offer – in worship and in play.
Invite your neighbour to join you.
And leave the rest to God.

Sunday, 11 January 2009

Beloved of God

Reading: Genesis 1 v 1-4
Mark 1 v 1-11

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

It won’t be long until we see the inauguration of the new president in the United States.
I remember sitting up until I simply couldn’t stay awake any longer watching the election back in November.
And then being woken at 4am by some friends over there who just had to share the incredible news that Obama had been elected.
Their celebrations however were tinged, as were those of many others, by the acknowledgement that his was an uphill struggle.
That the issues he was going to face with his country and with the rest of the world were momentous.
And since then there has been no let up or reprieve.
Indeed things have spiralled downwards.
Global recession and war continue to escalate.
Its hard to see how one man can even begin to address injustice and oppression and poverty and war and yet folks, not just in America but all over the world wait with hope and expectation.
Recently I’ve been putting together some ideas for officebearers of the sorts of issues that we in Castlehill church might address over the next few months.
Suggestions of things we might tackle in order to serve this community.
Ways that we can bring some hope and the love of God to the community in which we find ourselves today.
But its so easy in the church, as in the world, to see the task as too great – and the folk called to serve as not up to the task.
Its like we make our excuses for failure before we even begin.
But if the advent of the Christ child that we have just celebrated is to mean anything to us then it must bring us hope.
God sent his son into the most unlikely place, into the midst of the most unlikely circumstances into the lives of folk who had given up hope.
The story of God’s people throughout the ages is a story of hope dawning when it seemed there was no future. God has always turned up in the seemingly God forsaken places.
So who are we to limit God and not to expect God to turn up here – to transform us and what we do together into things of great potential?
Who are we to say- it will never work, not here, not now.
If there is one phrase we can borrow from the president elect, I’d like to borrow the title of one of his books – The audacity of hope.
A book written to herald Obama’s election campaign, the future president calls us, against the odds to go on hoping – hoping that things can change for the better.
Hope based not on blind optimism, wishing the evils away but hope based on the changes that history has brought and that can be wrought again by folk getting together to work for change.

And surely in the church our hope can afford to be audacious – because we have the Holy spirit working among us, fanning the flames of our efforts, making a difference to us and to our world.
And we have a God who tells each of us – you are my child. With you I am pleased.
As we await the new American president, the jokes about George Bush continue to rumble on.
I’m sure it will be a long time before those fade out.
Like recently when George Bush was visiting a nursing home, he stopped one of the elderly residents in the corridor and asked him: Do you know who I am?
To which the resident replied: No I don’t but if you ask that kind nurse up there, I’m sure she’ll remind you.

This morning, as we read of Jesus’ baptism, we are reminded of who we are – children of God, with whom God is pleased.
And more than that – we are beloved children of God.
Dare we believe that?
That is where it starts.
That’s where the difference is made.
When we can each believe ourselves to be beloved children of God.
Because knowing ourselves loved – knowing that God is pleased with us makes all the difference to how we live and act in the world.
It sounds so easy.
And yet virtually all of life conspires to cover up that fact that we are beloved children of God.
From our earliest years we are told we are not good enough, we don’t measure up, we need to try harder.
In God’s eyes, we are beloved.
We are already good enough.
Before we amount to anything in the eyes of the world, we are loved by God.
The curious thing is that for us as human beings, that kind of love, that kind of acceptance scares us.
Its something we find great difficulty in coping with.
We get so used to having to earn love, having to earn our place in society that to accept that God loves us just because we exist is really difficult.
The status that God places on us is hard for us to deal with.
Marianne Williamson sums this up well when she says:
"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.' We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we're liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.

Powerful beyond measure is what God makes us telling us that we are loved.
Powerful beyond measure.
That, we cannot handle.
For all the confidence we might display in our private and professional worlds of our everyday, to feel empowered by the status God bestows on us as beloved children is something we resist.
Suddenly we become shy. We become modest.
We refuse to own that God rates us.
In baptism, our inauguration into service in the church, God claims us as beloved.
Our response to that, in time, is to serve.
To serve with the same extravagance that God shares with us.
An extravagance that won’t be held back, that won’t be beaten down.
An extravagance that has the audacity to hope.
Hope that lives will be changed and that communities will be transformed and that the spirit of God will work through us to bring about God’s kingdom where war and poverty and injustice and neglect are things of the past.
History is full of stories of love triumphing over evil.
Our past tells us that poverty can be overcome , that the needy can be helped that those struggling under great burdens can be liberated.
All that is within our power.
And when we begin to think, not here, not now, lets stop and ask, why not?
Lets’ cultivate the audacity of hope.
Lets accept ourselves as God accepts us – beloved children, with whom God is pleased.
As children of God, we are brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous. God says so. And if we won’t believe that for ourselves then we cannot believe it for others.
If we’re prepared to accept it of ourselves then we must also accept it of others – be able to look around and see this place and the places of our daily lives populated by children of God – beloved children.
And when that small voice of doubt creeps in, with a persistence built up through years of believing otherwise, lets have the audacity of hope that each of us, a beloved child of God has a part to play in changing this congregation, this community, in changing the world for the glory of God.