Sunday, 4 December 2011

Hope on the margins

Sunday 4th December 2011

Readings: Mark 1 v 1-8

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
   who will prepare your way; 
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
   “Prepare the way of the Lord,
   make his paths straight” ’, 
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’

“Painting the Forth Bridge” is a saying that we commonly use to describe a never ending task – For around 120 years, this myth has been perpetuated in colloquial speech.
Painting the Forth Bridge has become a modern day legend, like a contemporary version of the Greek myth of Sisyphus.
But, on 9th December, just 5 days time, this myth is about to end.
Next Friday, painters, who have for the past ten years, been coating the bridge with a special long life paint, will down tools.
And the bridge shouldn’t need painted for another 25 years.
The Forth Bridge – a familiar landscape that is changing.

Such winds of change propelled John the Baptist into the gospel story.
In a time of political and cultural unrest, all that was familiar was changing.
And so, when John the Baptist appeared, preaching a gospel of repentance, people flocked to see him and to hear him.
Here were people trying to live out their ancient faith in the midst of a vastly changed landscape.
No longer was faith at the centre of the life of the nation but on the periphery.
And so the beginning of Mark’s gospel takes us out to the wilderness – to meet John the Baptist, the messenger sent to call the people back to faith and direct them to the one who is to come.
And while his message of repentance might sound harsh to us today, to his listeners it was indeed good news.
Good news of prophecy being fulfilled, of all that they had longed for coming to fruition.

John the Baptist in all his strangeness and austerity was the one sent by God to preach the good news.
And the people flocked, not only to hear him but to repent and be baptised.
John the Baptist took the good news of God’s love back where it belongs – on the margins of society, to those who are tired, defeated and ground down by the rigours of daily life.
John took the good news to those who had lost almost everything, except hope.
It was hope that propelled folk out of their usual surroundings to the wilderness where John was preaching.
It was hope that kept them there, hanging on to his every word and making a response in baptism.

How often have we rejected what we need to hear because of who it comes from or where we hear it?
Or because it wasn’t quite what we wanted to hear.
We’re all good at filtering news so that we take in – and pass on – only those bits that we deem to be useful.
And, in doing that, we often dilute the message or miss the point altogether.
Maybe we’re not prepared to hear the gospel in a different way or in a different place.
And even less prepared to take the good news to the margins of our society.

Crashing into our Advent season comes John the Baptist, to tear our attention away from the distractions that assail us at this time of year – at any time of year – away from the glitter and tinsel, the shiny distractions that take our attention away from the heart of our faith.
The distractions that provide for us a way out of being challenged by the gospel, that help us remain in our cosy complacency, that make us feel busy with important things and thus avoid the uncomfortable challenge that is contained in the gospel – the challenge to repent, the challenge to share the good news in a way that speaks to and reaches out to those who need to hear it most and, in so doing, be convicted ourselves to change our ways to accommodate God who came among us and lives on in our lives.

The good news that we preach speaks to us too.
The good news proclaims for us a way forward in the uncertainty of the world and of the church.
A way forward in our changed landscape.
The familiar things we cherished, the old ways and traditions, packed churches and faith respected if not embraced.
How is it possible to follow Jesus, to proclaim good news in this changed landscape?
That involves embracing the hope that is also a theme of the Advent season.
Embracing hope that the one for whom John was sent to prepare the way is still able to bring light into the darkness of our world today.
In OUR changed landscape, we need hope more than ever.
Instead of lamenting how difficult it is to see God.
Instead of harking back to the way things were.
Instead of despairing of decline in the church and of lowered standards in the world.
How about looking for God in unexpected places.
Hearing the good news from unexpected people.
Being prepared to change ourselves so that God can transform us.
Waking up to the fact that God lives at the margins of life.
This is nothing new, it has always been so.
That is why, in Advent, our texts call us back to reality.
A reality that enables us to welcome the baby born in Bethlehem from a changed perspective.
A reality that takes us out of our cosy sentimental preparation into a more challenging, life changing preparation.
The kind of preparation that belongs, not here in this building but out at the margins of our society.
And, in this changed landscape to discover anew that the life changing word of God is still good news.

They flocked to see him, this wild prophet.
Out of curiosity?
Out of novelty?
Out of boredom?
He was certainly a sight to behold.
And he didn’t mince his words.
He told it straight.
Dressed nothing up.
Yet, still folk wanted to listen.
Maybe tired of being spoon fed
and molly-coddled.
They realised they needed to hear 
something more challenging.
It wasn’t a message of comfort
but, in a strange way,
it was a message of hope.
And, somehow, the starkness
made it more real.
What if we stopped dressing up the story
and allowed the truth to emerge?
Being a messenger might involve
saying the things 
that no one wants to hear
and showing a way 
that no one wants to follow.
Shaking folk out of their complacency
to look toward the light.

May the gospel we have shared today confront and challenge us.
May it help us make sense of the changed landscape in which we find ourselves.
May it propel us out to the margins of our society as we take up the call to  “Prepare the way of the Lord”

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Seeing God

Sunday 20th November

Reading: Matthew 25 v 31-46

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

"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.
All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,
and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;
for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,
I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.'
Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?
 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?
And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?'
And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.'
We read these words from Matthew’s gospel a few weeks ago at the BB Dedication
By them, I was hoping to encourage the boys – and all of us, that whatever we do for
others, no matter how insignificant we might think our deeds are, in serving others, we serve God and bring the Kingdom of Heaven that wee bit closer.
I’m sure those of you who managed that day appreciated hearing about the boys’
Romanian trip and the work they did there – as well as the opportunity to meet some
of the folk with whom they worked.
But what struck me even more was the effect that their summer trip has had on the
boys themselves.
They did a ton of good work.
They made a difference.
But they received much as well.
Lots of parents have mentioned to me since, how much their son got out of the trip.
How what they saw and were part of has changed them in small but significant ways.
Isn’t that so often the way of things?
That when we serve others, we ourselves are blessed.
Often, when we reflect on our good fortune – when we count our blessings- we
consider ourselves in a position to give.
It’s always good to recognise our capacity to serve others.
But we overlook our capacity to be served – to know the blessings that others, whom we may consider need our help, can bring to us.
We, who consider ourselves ministers are those who are ministered to.

In the church’s calendar, this is the end of the year – next week is Advent Sunday – the start of a brand new year in the church.
The gospel we have focussed on this year has been Matthew – next week, we begin a
year journeying with Mark’s gospel to accompany us.
Matthew’s gospel is very concerned with how we practise faith – the practicalities of
living out our faith.
Early on in the gospel, in the beatitudes, Jesus teaches of how those who are blessed
are the poor, the bereaved, the hungry, the thirsty – in other words, those
marginalised and expelled to the fringes of society.
Here, towards the end of the gospel, Matthew points us to the notion that, not only
are those on the fringes blessed – Christ lives in them!
The way Matthew’s gospel is arranged, this passage about the sheep and the goats
comes just before we get into the passion narratives and start to read about Jesus’
suffering and death.
So, almost immediately before we read of Jesus in the upper room, stooping to wash the disciples feet, we find this major focus on Christ as king –
"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.
And so, before we enter into the season of Advent, we pause to celebrate this as Christ the King Sunday.
But what kind of king?
A king who hangs out with the outcasts, a king who serves others, a king who gets down and dirty with the people.
A king whom we can glimpse as we look at each other.

I feel as though I’ve preached this passage lots of times now – it seems to pop up a lot.
But every time, something new jumps out.
This week, I was struck by the fact that it wasn’t just the goats who couldn’t see Jesus in those who needed help – in the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the prisoner.
But the sheep, those whom Jesus calls blessed – they failed to recognize Jesus too.
It seems a shame that if we are going to show compassion, if we are going to reach out to others, that, even though we’re doing the right thing, even though we’re serving God in others, it seems a shame that we don’t recognize Jesus.
It’s possible to go through the motions and not feel the blessing.
It’s possible to serve others but not be aware of Christ present in their lives and in ours.

As we embark on the season of Advent, perhaps that could be one of our spiritual disciplines – to increase our awareness of Christ around us – to look harder to see Christ in our everyday, especially in the folk we encounter.We who profess to know Christ have no excuse for not serving Christ in our everyday.
And looking others in the eye, we should be able to see Christ’s face.
There is no avoiding the fact that this gospel passage contains words of judgement –
the sheep are separated from the goats and the goats are cast out.
Of course we’d like to count ourselves among the sheep – the blessed.
We might even have an idea of who would come into the goat category.
If we’re honest we might even be prepared to admit that sometimes we act like the
sheep who are blessed and, at other times we act like the goats who are cursed.
But judgement is not ours to make.
What we are called to is service.
Serving Christ by serving each other.
Looking for – and finding – Christ in the least of these.

As we come to the end of the church’s year and prepare to embark on another Advent, prepare to welcome again the Christ child, may our eyes be open to Christ fully grown in those around us and may we reach out to the least of these with the compassion of Christ the servant king.

God as we hail you today,
Christ the King,
we ponder the kingly image
that you portray:
a hungry king,
a thirsty king,
a king bedraggled,
sitting on our kerbsides,
ignored by your subjects.
Quietly you wait for us to notice
and take action:
to lift you out of the gutter,
to clothe you
and feed you
and care for you. 
You do not cry out,
you simply wait and hope.
Christ the King,
as your hopes are dashed time and again,
awaken us and shake us
out of our complacency
by your quiet, persistent loving.
May we reach out to you
by reaching out to each other
and to those who live in the gutters
in our neighbourhoods.
Help us to do this
without seeking recognition
but simply because we can do no other.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Children of light

1 Thessalonians 5 v 1-11
Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.
When they say, "There is peace and security," then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape!
But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness.
So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night.
But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.
For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.
Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.

We've spent the day photographing local war memorials to use in worship tomorrow. Many different shapes and sizes, colours and hues, depicting lives lost in so many different parts of the world. Each name carved in stone carries a story - of bravery, of fear, of heroism, of sacrifice, of loved ones left behind whose lives were changed forever by loss. Hopefully, our Remembrance services tomorrow will allow us to remember those loved ones alongside the military personnel, to remember those whose names are not recorded but who also paid the price of war - civilians keeping homes running and factories working and munition stocks up.
As "Children of the Light", as described in our reading, we live in hope - the hope that we will no longer need to build memorials to those killed in war because we have discovered the pathway to peace.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Remember, remember...

Remember, remember the fifth of November
gunpowder, treason and plot
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
should ever be forgot

The night sky has been a riot of colour as we celebrate Guy Fawkes. Remembering in the season of Remembrance.
Joshua, that great leader who led the Israelites into the promised land, succeeding Moses, gathers the people together to remember. He reminds them of the people with whom they journeyed and the trials they endured and, through it all,  the faithfulness of God. And then Joshua challenges them: Remembering this history - whom will you serve? Joshua strikes, for the people, a new covenant with God.
Then Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord, to serve him.” And they said, “We are witnesses.” 23He said, “Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel.” 24The people said to Joshua, “The Lord our God we will serve, and him we will obey.”25So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and made statutes and ordinances for them at Shechem.
It would seem that we are good at the rituals of remembrance. Those we can do. Our rituals become ever more elaborate and inventive. It's letting our remembrance make a difference that we're not so good at. 
We remember some awful things yet fail to learn from them, fail to live differently in order to avoid history being repeated.
A new covenant, choosing to serve God, might help us honour the saints we remember, the living and the dead by committing ourselves to seek peace and practice justice. Until then, our remembering means nothing.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Community is... Passing on the vision

Readings:  Deuteronomy 34 v 1-12
                  Matthew 22 v 34-40
In the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit

Deuteronomy 34:1-12
1 Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho, and the Lord showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan, 2 all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, 3 the Negeb, and the Plain--that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees--as far as Zoar. 4 The Lord said to him, "This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, "I will give it to your descendants'; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there." 

5 Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord's command. 6 He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day. 7 Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated. 8 The Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days; then the period of mourning for Moses was ended. 

9 Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the Lord had commanded Moses. 10 Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. 11 He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, 12 and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.

 Last week , we attended worship at a tiny church in the village of Collouire in the South of France. It was part of the Reformed church in France. I don’t have a lot of French but I followed the gist of the sermon, helped by the fact that the preacher was using the lectionary, the prescribed readings for that Sunday. It’s one of the things I love about following the lectionary is the idea that churches all over the world, in all sorts of places, different denominations in different languages are, together, struggling with the same texts.
And so, in that little church in France, I was enabled to hear the word of God, a word of challenge and a word of grace.
That afternoon, as we wandered around the village, we were stopped, literally, in our tracks by this colourful jazz band. (pic)
Just a foretaste of the wonderful, fun music we are enjoying this morning. (praise is led by Rae Bros New Orleans Jazz Band)
The promised land is sure to be full of jazz musicians.

What of that Promised Land?
Over these last few weeks we have journeyed, perhaps slogged might be a better description, with Moses and the Israelites, through the wilderness from their flight from Egypt to their journey to the Promised Land.
We have read stories of challenge and confrontation, of triumph and failure.
Today, Moses bids farewell.
That intrepid leader who has overcome all sorts of difficulties, who has conquered personal inadequacies, who has communed with God on the mountain top and then endured the grumbling of the people he led, Moses, within sight of the Promised Land, has to bid us farewell.
After all that he has achieved and all that he has endured, Moses doesn’t actually get to enter the promised land.
But he does get to see it.
There, on the Mountain top, it is laid out before him.
There’s a lovely detail in the passage that Moses’ sight was not impaired and his vigor was unabated – and so he was able to see in all it’s glory, this land promised to the Israelites.
With this sight burning in his mind and with passion still in his heart, Moses died.
The Israelites buried Moses, mourned him for 30 days and then moved on with their new leader, Joshua.
But what a wonderful epitaph we read:

Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. 11 He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, 12 and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.

It is the end AND a beginning.
As the baton of leadership is passed from the elder statesman Moses to the younger but still wise Joshua.
Why was this passage so smooth?
Why does it appear seamless?
Because, although the leadership has changed, although there was the inevitable mourning of a great leader, the vision that the Israelites followed was one rooted, not in humans but in God – the passion that endured was founded on the will and purpose of God.
As it has been in the church from generation to generation,
Leaders pass on the baton and the vision remains rooted in God.
There will always be the grumblers, always the skeptics, always those small minded enough to want to hold things back.
But God’s vision to which we subscribe is so much bigger.
God’s vision sees beyond the pettiness and all the attempts at holding back progress.
God’s vision leads us on to a land and a life we can only imagine, bound as we are in human concepts.
Consider this quote from Oscar Romero:
“The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our wisdom. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us. No statement says all that could be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No program accomplishes our mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything. That is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water the seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capabilities. We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.”

And the promise from today’s story is that God’s kingdom will come despite us, the followers of God. Even with all our stubbornness and pride we cannot hold back God’s mission.
Fraser Aitken, from St Columba’s posted on facebook yesterday:
“What a comfort this passage is to leaders of the church today”.
That notion that if we are faithful in leadership, though we may not see the fruit of our labour, God’s plans will not be thwarted.
No matter how many obstacles we encounter, no matter how difficult it is to get people to change, to look outwards instead of inwards, to glimpse a vision much bigger than ours, God continues to lead us on beyond the present to a wonderful future.

Supposing then, that we choose not to be a stumbling block.
Suppose we were to embrace God’s vision wholeheartedly.
Where would we begin?
Jesus answer to his antagonists in the gospel provides for us the answer to that question.
6 "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" 37 He said to him, " "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."

Living like that, discovering HOW to love God by practicing love on our neighbours allows us to glimpse a vision of that new Kingdom that is God’s will for us – that kingdom where people live in love able to enjoy all that God promises to us.
Able to live in love because we are no longer squabbling for position, no longer holding back, no longer grappling for power but living in love with each other and with God.
Loving each other teaches us how to truly love God.
Loving like that takes us right to the heart of God.

As those entrusted today with passing on that baton of love, may we be enabled to lay down all that holds us back, may we stop being stumbling blocks to the kingdom and, instead love until we know the heart of God and see God’s vision come to life in this place, for this time and for this people that we are called to serve.
A vison fulfilled in God's own time, a vision that we work towards by loving God and our neighbour.
To God be the glory.