Sunday, 31 May 2009

Transforming the wilderness

Readings: Ezekiel 37 v 1-14
   Acts 2 v 17-21

The birthday of the church.
The time when we celebrate that God sent the Holy Spirit into the world – to cause havoc.
To stir up and change things.
In that light, I want to ask this morning, is Pentecost, for us:
A time for celebration?
Or a time for containment?
Can we cope with things being stirred up and changed?
Do we want the havoc that she brings?

For children in this part of the world, in our largely affluent culture, birthdays are something to be celebrated.
Birthdays are events eagerly awaited and anticipated.
And then celebrated.
When is it that we grow out of that?
When is it that we get to the stage that we want to play down our birthdays, pass the day quietly, keep the fuss to a minimum.
Is that a sign of age?
Or is it an attempt, to rein in the inevitable?
We can’t stop the passage of time, so we’ll try and contain it a bit.
Pretend it’s not happening.
If we largely ignore each birthday as it comes, perhaps just celebrate special years – the ones with zeroes, maybe, but otherwise if we largely ignore our birthday, surely that will give us some control over the ageing process.
Surely that will allow us to control the unpredictable and the surprises that accompany ageing.
If we ignore it, there’s hope that it will go away.
Is that your attitude to birthdays?

It would certainly seem to be our attitude to the Holy Spirit in the church.
We might begin by celebrating, by welcoming the Spirit.
But that Spirit doesn’t always behave.
That Spirit often disrupts.
That Spirit sometimes surprises us in ways we don’t necessarily welcome.
So we want to play down her arrival and the potential she has to upset our carefully ordered ways.
The Holy Spirit simply won’t be confined to our hour of worship on a Sunday – (and today I’m at grave risk of overstepping that hour).
The Holy Spirit wants to burst out of these walls into the community we serve.
Indeed has already done so.
And we need to catch up.
Never mind our systems and schedules, our routines and our rotas.
The Holy Spirit will not be confined by those, no matter how hard we try – and believe it, we do try hard to confine and restrain that Spirit.
Because we do not like the unpredictable.
We do not cope well with things that are even just slightly out of the ordinary.
We do not like change.
Change means that we have to think rather than carry on as always in auto pilot.
God sent the Holy Spirit to blow a fresh wind of change into the church, to signal that the God of love was doing a new thing and that the good news was – and is – for all people.
No wonder we’re reluctant to celebrate that Spirit.
No wonder we play down her arrival.
Because the spirit might even call for a change in us.
The Spirit might upset our carefully ordered worship and our carefully organised devotional life and demand that we actually engage with our community, with our neighbours and the people we meet everyday.
The Spirit might want us to live out the gospel, live as loving, welcoming people every day because we serve a loving welcoming God.
And, for many, that simply is a step too far.
Its OK to proclaim that here.
Its OK to affirm our faith in the confines of this sanctuary.
Its another thing altogether to be moved by the Holy Spirit to live out our faith outside of these walls.
Live out our faith so that this community will be changed.

God, in our baptism, gives us the Holy Spirit and welcomes us as beloved children.
God, when we profess our faith, gives us that spirit anew and welcomes us again.
In baptism and in profession of faith, God commissions us by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit to go into all the world, sharing the good news.

As many of you will be aware, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland met last week.
There were many wonderful and varied items on the agenda, not all of which received the press coverage that they should have.
But good news does not sell newspapers.
Only sleaze and sexuality it seems are the stuff of headlines.
One of the highlights of the Assembly was the visit of the Most Reverend Bishop, Desmond Tutu.
What an amazing man.
A man of great wisdom, courage and grace.
A man filled with the Holy Spirit.
Bishop Tutu addressed the assembly and did not shy away from all the controversial issues.
A man who has been subject to the oppression of apartheid, who knows first hand the devastation wrought by injustice, a man who now is revered on the global political stage does not balk at controversy or stop short of addressing issues that see folk treated unjustly in the church and in the world today.

Bishop Tutu began his address with a story – one you might have heard before:
About the traveller who, passing through the countryside, stopped to pass the time of day with a farmer who was out by his cornfield.
The corn looked magnificent, swaying in the breeze.
The traveller congratulated the farmer on what he and God had accomplished with this marvellous crop.
The farmer paused for a moment, took a couple of puffs on his pipe and then said: Yes but you should have seen it when God had it all to himself.

Bishop Tutu went on to talk about the paradox of how our omnipotent God appears impotent in the wilderness of injustice and oppression
In the face of oppression, in the face of injustice, God doesn’t send down lightning bolts to wipe out the perpetrators of these travesties but waits… waits until there will be those who are willing to turn the wilderness into a beautiful garden of blooming flowers.
Turning wildernesses into burgeoning gardens.
That is what the holy spirit enables each of us to do.
To collaborate with God.
Each one of us is a God carrier.
Each one of us is a God viceroy – a stand in for God.
Constrained by the gospel of the God of love.
Compelled by that gospel to go and share, to cultivate gardens in the wilderness of our community and our world.
Thus saith the Lord… has always carried risks and continues to do so.
Folk who speak out.
Folk who act to make a difference.
Folk who follow the gospel imperative to love one another won’t always be popular, especially if their actions show up others ineptitude.
But that is how it is when we allow God’s spirit to blow through us and change us.
God’s master plan – relies on you and me.
That’s really scary isn’t it?
That’s why we need God’s Spirit.
That Spirit that breathed life into dry bones is the Spirit that we need to breathe into us in this place today.
Can these bones live?
Only by the Spirit of God.
Can this church survive?
Only by the Spirit of God.
The Spirit brings imagination.
And creativity.
And courage.
And wisdom.
And, vital right now, the Holy Spirit brings action.
Not just here in this place for an hour on a Sunday.
But in our daily lives, in our homes, our work places, our community.
Is Pentecost, the birthday of the church, the coming of the Holy Spirit, something YOU want to celebrate?

May we take the risk, allow the Spirit to blow through us and change us for the glory of God.

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Mind the gap

Readings: Acts 1 v 15-17; 21-26

As I emerged from the opening session of Assembly on Thursday, I met one of the other ministers whose name had also gone forward this year to be considered as moderator. There are usually 3 names selected from all the nominations before voting takes place. The moderator is selected from these three.
I wondered how he must be feeling, having not been the one selected.
Was he simply immensely relieved that he hadn’t been selected, that he wasn’t now “in the hot seat”?
Or was he wondering: what if?

In our reading in Acts this morning, we find the early church, meeting to plug a gap.
Jesus had 12 disciples and, now, they are one short.
Two names are proposed.
The names of two men who have been around for a while, two men who have witnessed and experienced Jesus first hand, are put forward.
By drawing lots, one of them is selected.
Matthias joins that band of disciples.
And Justus doesn’t.
Did Justus feel rejected?
Or relieved?
And did it really matter anyway?

What were the disciples doing when they got together to elect another disciple?
Were they following tradition?
Traditions spring up really quickly in the church.
Traditions very quickly become “its aye been done that way”
Did there really have to be 12 disciples?
Was that the magic number?
Or were they simply plugging a gap?

I’d like to suggest that what we are witnessing in this account of the early church in the book of Acts is a scene that’s been played out time after time in the history of the church.
A scene that continues in our church today.
We see a gap.
And we move to plug that gap.
It doesn’t really matter if the remit is one that’s still valid.
It doesn’t really matter if the person selected is suitable for the perceived role.
There’s a gap and we can’t have gaps in the church.
Because there’s always the risk that if we leave a gap unfilled, we’ll discover a way around it.
We’ll find another way to have that job done – or, even worse, we’ll discover that the role vacated is one that’s surplus to requirement.
It’s safer just to plug the gaps than to work out whether what we do is still required or even desired.
Some are selected, some are rejected and the wheels grind on.
And, just like those first disciples, the folk we consider suitable for filling the vacant slots are folk who have been around for a while, folk who know the lay of the land, who are familiar with the tradition and who will just slot in.
We don’t want anyone who might not know the ropes.
Or folk who might question why its “aye been done this way”.
No boat rockers.
Just solid, dependable gap fillers.

At least the disciples had an excuse for acting in the way they did.
They have just seen Jesus being taken up into heaven.
Its 40 days since the resurrection – the day of ascension.
And Jesus has finally gone.
And, what’s more, its another 10 days until Pentecost.
And so the promised Spirit has not yet come upon them.
They have a good excuse for wanting to simply plug the gap and get on with the great commission that Jesus gave them – “to go into all the world and make disciples”.
Yes, the disciples had a good excuse for wanting to maintain tradition and carry on as normal.

What about us?
What is our excuse?
We, who live in the light of Pentecost.
We, who know the power of the Holy Spirit?
What is our excuse for resuming normal service – for carrying on as always - as though nothing has happened and nothing has changed?
What is our excuse?

Although I’m fairly involved in General Assembly this year, I’m not a commissioner.
What I’m involved in is the fun events.
We’re heading back through for a service tonight.
That’s a tradition that only started last year at assembly.
There’s the huge service at St Giles in the morning and then a less formal service – complete with praise band of which I am part – in the evening.
On Friday night, I had the opportunity to participate in another fun event – and that was the celebration of church Without walls.
Its 10 years since the commission set up reported to the General Assembly and Church Without Walls became a familiar label for all those things that didn’t quite fit into normal church tradition.
The Church Without Walls movement explicitly encouraged innovation, fresh thinking.
Something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue.
As well as space and encouragement for new initiatives, church Without walls also encouraged reclaiming old traditions too.
Reclaiming old traditions because they had a new relevance for the church of today.
We have a great spiritual heritage.
And lots of our ancient Celtic spirituality has great appeal and deep meaning for folk today.
So it’s not all about new fangled ideas.
It’s not all about maintaining tradition for tradition’s sake.
Rather, it’s about working out what is needed, what is right for our situation today.
I was asked to share briefly on Friday night, what difference Church Without Walls had made to my ministry.
And what I said was that the huge impact of Church Without Walls for me had been about permission giving.
Church Without Walls gave permission to do a new thing.
To dream dreams, to share those dreams and to try new and old things in different settings.
And so for the past few years, on Good Friday, I took communion onto the streets.
We called it Blood on the Street.
I simply set up a table in front of a fast food store in the parish I worked in then.
I set out bread and wine.
And printed an invitation – in the words of Jesus: Do this to remember me.

And people who wouldn’t find their way into a church building, along with some who often would, came and broke bread to remember Jesus.
Blood on the Street.

The thing is:
No matter how much we try and maintain our traditions.
No matter how much we try to plug the gaps.
God is already out there working in our community.
And we have to play catch up.
We have to find out what God is doing – and go and join in.
And all the structures in the world won’t change that.
All the formality and election and selection won’t get to the business of sharing the love and the grace of God in this community that we have been called to serve.
How do we do that?

In the sacrament of baptism this morning, we are reminded how.
Before we even understand, God bestows grace and love on us.
God freely gives us all the gifts of ministry.
God receives us, welcomes us – AND ORDAINS US.

Baptism is a beautiful sacrament.
It is a beautiful symbol.
But that’s not the end.
The joy of baptism is accompanied by responsibility.
The responsibility of sharing God’s love and God’s grace as gifts for the world.
Disciples, like the 12, disciples like Matthias and even disciples like Justus who didn’t quite make it into the 12.
In baptism WE become disciples, called, not to plug gaps, but to go into the world, to live and to share the gospel.
And that’s awesome.
Its an awesome gift.
And an awesome responsibility.

So if you feel you are here this morning because you have a duty to fulfil.
If you feel you are here to maintain tradition.
If you feel you are here plugging a gap.
Hear God’s call for you.

Discipleship is a gift from God.
Bestowed at baptism.
We can see that gift as another burden.
Another entry on that never ending list of things to get around to.
Or we can see it as the marvellous, unpredictable joy that it is.
Discipleship – God calling us to serve others in all sorts of surprising, unpredictable, grace-filled ways.
God calls us to that.
God equips us for it.
Do YOU accept the challenge?

To God be glory. Amen.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Bearing fruit

Readings: Acts 8 v 26-40
John 15 v 1-10

I’ve been thinking a bit recently about how we welcome folk to Castlehill church.
How we demonstrate hospitality.
What do folk see when they cross the threshold of our building.
Is it a place that looks inviting?
A place where they might be welcome.
Does it seem as though everyone has their space and their friends and it would be a difficult circle to break into?
Does it seem as though folk are willing to break out of their routine to be accommodating?
What do strangers see?
How do we make them feel?
If folk pitch up, will they stick around.
Are we hospitable enough to afford them some space or include them in our activities.
Hospitality is a basic requirement of Christian discipleship.
It’s a gift that most of us would claim to exercise.
But would our hospitality stand up to scrutiny?
Does our hospitality come with conditions and exclusions?
Or are we as open to others as Jesus taught us to be?

Our story from Acts this morning, is a powerful demonstration of hospitality.
Its early days for the church.
They’re still trying to work out boundaries.
While Paul is still struggling with widening the church to include non Jews, Philip is taking the gospel, as per Jesus command – to the ends of the earth.
When we encounter Philip this morning, he is fresh from a successful mission to the Samaritans.
But God asks him to go to the wilderness to meet with one man.
What a contrast to be preaching to crowds, seeing the church experiencing huge growth, and then being called to share the gospel with one man miles from anywhere.
But, like the Samaritans to whom he had been preaching, here was someone else who was denied access to worship.
We’re told that the eunuch was returning from worship in Jerusalem.
His worship would have been as one on the margins.
Eunuchs were among those classed as unfit to be part of the church.
Folk who, like women would never be allowed into the inner sanctuary of the temple.
They were excluded.
Philip climbed up into that carriage with the eunuch, got alongside him and then proceeded to tell him what he needed to know.
And the passage culminates with the eunuch being baptised – heralding a whole new order.
The good news is that Jesus came to dismantle barriers, to open up ways for God’s grace to be experienced by all people, not just a chosen few.
And so the eunuch, up until now excluded from being fully included is assured of his acceptability to God.
The eunuch asks: Look here is water, what is to prevent me being baptised?
And the answer he gets – is nothing.
Nothing prevents any of us from experiencing the grace of God.
Here we have a demonstration of the gospel and the amazing grace of God.
God’s grace ensures that we all have a place in his kingdom – even those formerly excluded and even those we would consciously or unconsciously exclude today.
You know, those who don’t quite fit.
Those who don’t look the part.
And, God forbid – or rather, God allow – even those who don’t know the rules.
Who don’t know how to behave and how to conform to all our little rules and regulations?

How can we be so welcoming?
How can we intentionally make this a place where all are welcome?
One thing is for sure.
It doesn’t “just happen”.
It takes work.
And, when we’re already overloaded with all manner of other tasks, its not going to happen easily.
That’s why our gospel reading is a timely one for us in Castlehill.
As we look to the issues we want to focus on for the next wee while.
As we look to the direction that God is nudging our collective ministry in this place.
Pruning is required.
As is abiding in God, staying close to the vine.
Throwing off busyness.
Letting go of the rules.
Taking a good look at what we do and comparing that with what we discern God wants us to do.
Of course we are all busy?
But are we busy doing the right things?

A few years ago I spent six weeks in the Presbyterian Church USA, studying team ministry.
I had to go to America because, here in Scotland, we really know very little about team ministry – just not part of our training or our psyche or our culture.
We ordain and induct ministers to charges and expect that they, as the paid professionals will get on with ministry – despite all the promises we make to be ministers together.

The first week of my study was spent attending seminars on team ministry in North Carolina.
On one of the breaks one day, someone asked the senior pastor at our host church: “Is this coffee decaf?” his response was: “I have no idea, we exercise team ministry here”
He didn’t feel the need nor was he expected to know what kind of coffee was served, how the projector worked, what time the heating came on, how many bulletins needed photocopied.
There was a whole team of people to do those other tasks and to do them well.
They took team ministry seriously.
That old adage about being jack of all trades and master of none is all too true.
When we spread ourselves too thinly, everything suffers, and what is for sure is that God is not honoured.
Its better to do less and to do it well than to run ourselves ragged achieving nothing.

The second week I was in Ayr, I had an interesting encounter with some of my colleagues.
I was visiting at Ayr hospital.
I had the name of the person I wanted to see but wasn’t sure of which station she was in, so I popped in to the clergy room that holds those records.
It was a Friday afternoon and this tiny wee room was hoaching with ministers.
Once I’d dutifully introduced myself, I mentioned that I just needed to look up one name.
There was a gasp around the room.
One name? Aren’t you going to work your way through the list and see if there is anyone else in hospital who lives in your parish?
No, I’ve been told about one person. I’ll find out which station she is in, I’ll go and visit her and then I am going to collect my daughter from school.
Obviously the “new young lady” as I’ve been referred to -at Castlehill wasn’t taking all this seriously enough.
Despite having been inducted to the biggest parish in Ayr, she wasn’t a competitor in the busy stakes.
That is what was happening in the clergy room that day.
Everyone was demonstrating how busy they were.
If you couldn’t clam to be the busiest minister in the room, then you had no business being there.
Its something we’re far too good at.
Making ourselves busy.
Always rushing from one thing to the next.
Because if we are not busy then we are of no value to God.
Being busy makes us important and gives us self worth.
Being busy also keeps folk at a distance.
If folk are convinced of your busyness they’ll not ask you to do any more.
And there’s also that good old fashioned work ethic.
If every day is not crammed with tons of essential tasks, then we are not being faithful in our call to serve God.

Now I confess that, often, I do not have my days off in the week that I should have.
But I can say that, in almost every day I do get some essential time out.
Its the easiest thing in the world to start a day at the desk at 7:30, perform loads of useful tasks throughout the day and, after a round of evening meetings to return to the desk until 1am.
It takes discipline to break that pattern and to inject some space for reflection, some time out for creativity.
Time spent with God, just resting, is never time wasted.
And it probably does us and the folk we serve much more good than our frenetic round of activity.
Time resting with God displays our faith in God much more acutely than our constant doing things for God because we’re frightened that God just wouldn’t manage without us.
Time resting with God prepares us and equips us to do what God wants and to get the balance right.

So pruning is an essential discipline.
Resting in God, staying close to the vine – Otherwise we get too straggly, we lose the connection to the One who gives life.
Our gospel reminds us that unless we rest in God, unless we stay close, we can bear no fruit.

“My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples”

We don’t glorify God by running ourselves ragged.
We don’t glorify God be always looking busy.
We don’t need to all sport those T shirts that say: Jesus is coming, look busy.
God is glorified by our bearing fruit.
And we will bear fruit if we abide in God.
Abiding in God allows us to listen to what God wants of us.
To discern where God wants us to channel our energy.
To allow God to prune down all that needless wasting of energy and resources.
And become disciples.
Disciples who, because we rest in God, really know what it is to experience the grace of God and to share that grace with others.
Rooted ourselves, we are able to be welcoming.
Knowing ourselves loved and cherished as we are by God, we won’t feel threatened by sharing that love and that grace with others.

God is glorified by us bearing fruit and becoming disciples.
We bear fruit by sticking close to the vine.
By knowing our connectedness to God and to one another.
We become disciples by being secure in the love that God has for us.
From that place, firmly rooted in the vine, we can show the hospitality that God asks us to show.
From that place, we can perform ministry that is essential, that bears fruit and that still allows us space and time to rest in God.

Today, what is God asking of you?
And of me?
Is it too big an ask?
Then we need to let God get to work with the pruning shears.
So, before you take on one more thing.
Before you carry on complaining about your heavy load.
Before you keep on about how busy you are serving God.
Rest in God.
Allow God to point out what is fruitful and what it is time you let go.
Rest in God.
And God will rest on you.

In the days ahead, if we will allow God to prune us in our collective ministry here, we will witness much fruit.
We will be part of great hospitality.
We will share in God’s mission right here in this place.
Castlehill will be known as the place where all are welcome, those who know how to behave – and those who don’t.
A place where disciples bear fruit.
And God will be glorified.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Shepherding or huddling?

Striding out
moving from one place to the next
rounding up but not staying put
The good shepherd gathers the sheep
not into a holy huddle
but into formation
so that they can move on.
Why do we try to hide behind closed doors
when God is out there, looking for the strays
There's no point us getting too comfy
Because we will always need to move over
and make room for more.
There are always more lost ones to be found
always at risk sheep to be rescued.
The good shepherd never tires of looking
and neither should we.