Saturday, 24 September 2011

Community is... hard work!

25th September 2011

Readings:          Exodus 17 v 1-7
                  Matthew 21 v 23-32
In the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit

Guess what?
The Israelites are grumbling again!
I’m off to a Ministries Council consultation later this week – and I’m sure the grumbling that will happen there will put the Israelites in the shade.
There’s nothing like a gathering of ministers for upping the stakes in grumbling.
UNLESS – it’s a gathering of Facebook users.
This week, Facebook, which is a FREE of charge social networking site, changed its layout and set up – and cyber space was filled with grumbling.
We just get used to things, whatever those things may be – and are not good at processing change.
Even when we would freely admit to the flaws or inadequacies in ways or routines with which we have become familiar, we still resist any change.
You may have heard on the news at the end of last week that scientists in Geneva are challenging the theory of relativity.
E = mc2
A constant of Physics asserts that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light.
Even that Einstein formula is being called into question!
Although there are many more checks to be made to confirm this, it seems that nothing is sacred.
Nothing escapes the need for change.

The church, nationally and locally, is going through massive change right now - maybe it’s always been so.
But does everything have to change at once?
Perhaps it does
Few of us would deny that change is needed – but getting there is always painful.
And, it seems, any and every setback gives us license to complain and forget about all the progress that is being made, forget about the purpose of change – to get us to a better place – forget about why we’ve embarked on the journey – and long for things to go back to the way they were, even though we know that’s not right either.

Any change that is worthwhile comes at a cost.
Of course we manage transition really well in the church.
Whenever there’s even a hint of something changing successfully, we simply set up a committee to get to grips with whatever is happening and slowly and surely bring change to a grinding halt.
That is why I refuse to have committees progressing work here at Castlehill but insist on Working Groups – to do what it says on the label.

Community is hard work.
And change comes at a cost.
Even for those of us who wholeheartedly embrace change, there comes an impatience in the transition.
We may not like where we are.
We may have a clear idea of where we want to be.
But the journey there will always be painful.
And, along the way, there is always the temptation to long for things to go back to the way they were.
It takes a LOT of courage to stick it out and reach that promised land.
The history of every congregation, even one as young as Castlehill, is littered with the bones of those who have perished along the way – I don’t mean the saints, those we love and miss – I mean the folks who just didn’t have the stamina for the journey, those who became weary of the constant struggle, those who opted out, those who went off in search of something comfortably more familiar.
Not all of those Israelites who started on the journey out of Egypt made it to the Promised Land.
But, at crucial points along the way, when the grumbling reached fever pitch, God reminded them who was in control.
Bread from heaven.
Water from a rock.
Gifts in the right place at the right time.
Signs pointing forward, encouraging all who were in danger of giving up on the struggle.
Where are those signs for us today?
Where do we find God gently or not so gently reminding us that we too need to make quite a trek to get to where we need to be?
Where are the signs of God’s affirming and nurturing along the way?
Like the Israelites, are we asking: “Is God with us or not?”
Are we finding the reassurance that God is with us?
And, with that reassurance, are we finding the strength to carry on into territory that God has prepared for us?

I came across a picture the other day – an artist’s impression of the sanctuary when it was first built.
IT showed the church and hall and manse surrounded by fields with horses grazing.
What a transformation in the area around the church, a transformation that I know many of you remember and, more importantly, survived.
This church extension charge, built as a symbol of hope on the edge of an expanding town, has grown through the years to serve an ever expanding parish and is uniquely placed and uniquely called to continue to do that.
And , just as the landscape around the building has changed, so has the work that we seek to do.
Those halcyon days when a minister would be on your doorstep as soon as the removal van pulled up.
Or the days when your neighbour would invite you to a social in the church hall or to the young mother’s fellowship or when you’d be asked to come along to help build or paint or clean – those opportunities have become memories.
But still, there is no shortage of other opportunities.
Still our hope and vision as God’s people in this place is to serve the community around us and share the wonderful news of God’s love and presence in all of life.
Yes, that community is vastly changed.
And so we, the people of God today, need to find out how to continue God’s mission for this day.

The signs that we still have hope and vision are found, not in our words but in our actions.
That story Jesus told – of the two sons being asked to go and work in their father’s vineyard – One said he would go and didn’t. The other said he wouldn’t go and then did.
That story sums up our predicament.
Are we journeying with God?
Is God in our midst?
Do we still have faith in the vision and the promise into which God leads us?
If we do, then our actions have to match our words.
What we say in this sacred space must mirror what we do in all the places that God makes sacred in our community.
We cannot go back – no matter how much we might want to.
And the past wasn’t all that we have painted it to be.
So let’s re commit ourselves today to the hope and the vision into which God leads us.
Let us re commit ourselves by our words and our actions to engaging in the hard work that is community.
Let us recognize the gifts with which God surrounds us – bread from heaven, water from a rock and all manner of things in between and see these as signs that God continues to lead us onward.
And let us be strengthened by God to continue the journey.
Thanks be to God.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Community is... being in God.

11th September 2011

Readings:          Exodus 14 v 10-18
                          Matthew 18 v 15-20

In the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit

Last week we began our journey with the Israelites as they left Egypt and became a Community on the move – a community called out of all that they knew to follow God.
Today, as we continue to journey with them, we encounter them learning to trust God, who says to them “Do not be afraid”.
Time and again as they journey through the wilderness, God repeats that message “Do not be afraid”.
So, following on from last week’s theme: Community is… on the move, today we consider that Community is… being in God.
This ancient story of the parting of the waters was told – and is read today – as a reminder of the presence of God in all of life.
In deliverance AND in destruction.
I find this story disturbing because in the deliverance of the Israelites, the Egyptians were destroyed.
And the God in whom I believe, the God whom I want to reveal present in all of life is not a God who takes sides.
But maybe, just maybe, there is a message of warning in this ancient story:
Pharaoh, after every plague, promised to set the Israelites free.
And, each time, he reneged on that promise.
Then came the Passover – the last plague, when all the first born Egyptian sons were killed.
It was then that Pharaoh let the Israelites go.
But, as he saw them making good their escape, he had yet another change of heart and took his army and pursued them.
And there comes a time when there is no going back.
A time when we press the self destruct button once too often.
Sometimes, even God is helpless to protect us when we continually put ourselves out of God’s reach and choose, instead to go our own way.
Community is BEING IN GOD.
We, as a community of faith, are called to witness to God’s presence.
God present in and with creation.
So what ARE the signs today of God present in our lives?
And when we discern God’s presence, how do we communicate that to others?
As a community of faith we are called, not just to be a community on the move, willing to step outside the walls that we build.
We are called to be a community that mirrors God present in everyday life.
In our gospel, Jesus, who came to earth to show God, teaches of conflict resolution.
He teaches that we should go to great lengths to resolve dispute.
But, if resolution is not possible, then what should we do?
If resolution is not possible, says Jesus, we should treat those who have wronged us as Gentiles or as tax collectors.
Harsh words, it would seem – for Gentiles and tax collectors were people despised in Jesus’ day.
Until we remember how Jesus treated such outcasts.
Jesus sat at table with tax collectors.
Jesus invited Gentiles into the Kingdom of God.
So, it would seem, there is always, but always, room for forgiveness.
However difficult or however unlikely, Jesus exhorts us, as a community of believers, as people of faith witnessing to God’s presence today, to practise forgiveness.
Why should we adhere to that teaching?
Why should we continue to forgive when wronged?
The clue to that lies in the last few verses we read:
Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
Learning and practising forgiveness sets us free.
We have witnessed that freedom in people who have managed to forgive the most heinous crimes against themselves and their loved ones.
Their forgiveness is not just a cosy sentiment but a real heart wrenching yet life giving labour of love, one that doesn’t come cheap but one which brings true freedom.

Today as we mark 10 years since 9/11, forgiveness shows us a way forward through the melee of extremism and mistrust and revenge that seems to prevail.
The images of violence perpetrated in the name of justice are brought to us every day.
Revenge seems to have been deemed a human right.

I was disturbed, back in May, to see folks dancing in the streets when Osama Bin Laden was killed.
There was just something very unseemly about celebrating the death of another, no matter how evil.
His death did not bring about justice but, in fact, fuelled yet more violence.
The notion of celebrating the death of enemies IS a very biblical image.
Throughout the Old Testament we read of victory songs and celebrations after massacre and war.
However Jesus came to change all that.
Jesus came to show that there is another way.
The way of love.
And the way of forgiveness.

10 years ago today, I was putting the finishing touches to my preparations for a communion service for Presbytery at which I was to celebrate as moderator of the Presbytery.
From my office at the hospital, I popped upstairs to one of the wards and heard the news that the first of the twin towers had been struck.
The two emotions I can remember most clearly were:
Disbelief that this was an act of terrorism – although it was a grave tragedy however caused, somehow a terrible accident rather than calculated evil seemed preferable.The attack on the second tower quickly dispelled that somewhat bizarre hope.
But the other emotion I remember was one of panic – the words I had carefully chosen and the service I had painstakingly put together for the Presbytery Communion would now have to be drastically changed.
An emotion that seems incredibly shallow as events unfolded and the scale of the terrorism became clear.
What also became clear was that there were no words that could express the horror of how far humanity had fallen, how grotesquely we had obscured the image of God in which we were made.
I know that most of you could say exactly where you were and what you were doing when you learned of 9/11.
All week we have been bombarded with programmes on TV and radio about the day that changed the world.
This morning, I’d like to ask: Was that change for the better?
10 years after 9/11 are we any closer to a world that promotes peace loving communities?
And do our communities testify to the presence of God?
As people were facing the last few minutes of life, whether in a plane bound for destruction or a building from which there was no escape, they were not shouting words of revenge.
They were calling loved ones, speaking words of love and forgiveness, making peace.
Those were the emotions that folk wanted to express, the imprints they wanted to leave behind.
At the hospital where I worked and, in churches all over, people wanted to come together, to be in community and to re-experience the presence of God in the midst of life as scary as it was right then.
And amid all the carnage and the terror.
In the wake of all the revenge since exacted in our name by violent and war hungry governments, where are there signs of a community that displays its BEING IN GOD?
The quest for revenge.
And the war mongering that prevails
Are fuelled by fear.
We, as a community of faith are called to move beyond fear – to hope.
That is what will change the present climate.
That is what will move us from hate and violence, from the quest for revenge, to peace and forgiveness.
Not a neat, easy forgiveness that comes at no cost.
But a forgiveness that has been wrought against all the odds.
A forgiveness that comes through love, transforming the world, encouraging the move from fear of the next attack to hope for peace in our time.

Community is BEING IN GOD – the God of love and of peace and of forgiveness.
As a community of faith may we practice forgiveness until we get it right witnessing to God in all of life.
for the glory of God.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Community is...On the move

Reading: Exodus 12  v 1-14

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: 2This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. 3Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. 4If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. 5Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. 6You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. 7They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. 8They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. 9Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. 10You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. 11This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the Lord. 12For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. 13The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. 14This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.
Today probably marks for us as a community together, the start of a new session.
We’re back to 11am worship.
All the organisations are restarting.
And we celebrate communion together.
Over the next few weeks, our readings in worship will take us on a journey with the Israelites as they find their way out of Egypt and are led through the wilderness to the Promised Land.

Voice A:  Are you ready?
Voice B:Stick, sandals, stomach ache… ugh!
A:                    What a feast, eh? Roast lamb on the hoof!
B:                    We had goat, and there’s not a hoof among them by the way…
A:          I always wondered what roasted lamb lungs tasted like… not bad at    all!
B:                  Haggis by any other name… yeuch!
A:                  For once I was glad of our huge family, we scoffed the lot no bother!
B:        For once I was glad of our greedy guzzler Joe next door, always sticking his nose in when anybody’s cooking, this time I said, have as much as you like Joe, really!
A:          Fast food, it’s the in thing and I’m all for it, Uncle Zeb couldn’t do his usual and talk the hind legs off a donkey all through dinner!
B:                    Joe would eat the hind legs off a donkey, that’s for sure.
A:                    I’ve got a great feeling, you know!
B:                  I’ve got a terrible feeling— indigestion!
A:                  But are you ready?
B:        I don’t think I’ve ever been more ready. I’m not going to eat for a week, or a fortnight, or a month. What month is it anyway?
A:                    It’s the first month.
B:                  The first month of what?
A:                  The first month of our new futures.
B:                  I don’t think the Egyptians are going to like that.
A:                  They don’t have to like it. We’re not going to be around to find out.
B:                    Do you think the blood on the door will keep us safe?
A:                    Let’s hope so.
B:                    Can you hear wailing?
A:                    It’s started. Let’s go

The story of the Passover is a story that is retold in Jewish homes year after year during Passover festival.
The story is kept alive through the tradition of children asking questions which the adults answer – and so the story is retold and passed on from generation to generation.
The Passover meal which is then shared pays tribute to the sorrow and grief that is a part of the story by including bitter herbs.
But this first Passover was strikingly different from any celebrations that are marked today.
Whenever and wherever communities celebrate by sharing a meal together, we make ourselves comfortable.
We kick back and relax.
No such luxury in this first Passover.
There’s an urgency about this meal.
You can almost imagine the Israelites, standing up to eat, with their coats on and their bags packed.
They had been given very specific instructions:
11This is how you shall eat( it): your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat( it) hurriedly. It is the passover of the Lord.

This is a community who are about to go on a journey – a journey that some of them will not complete.
God is calling them TO MOVE.
And it’s going to be a very long time before they are settled again.
Over the next few weeks, as we travel through Scripture with the Israelites, we’re going to consider different aspects of Community.
And, today, we’re considering a community that is ON THE MOVE.
The Israelites were being oppressed in Egypt.
They were used as slaves.
And their culture and tradition was being eroded.
But, for many, it was all they had known.
And, you know what they say: Better the devil you know…
Sometimes it is easier to simply put up with things – just go along with things, even when we know they’re wrong – all for the sake of peace.
And, even though the Israelites were living in appalling conditions, it was too daunting for many of them to contemplate anything else.
Especially when they couldn’t be sure that they had any better alternative.
But God called them, to leave behind all that they knew, to pack up everything and go, with Moses, into an unknown future.
To have faith that God would lead them onward into something better.
So we find a community preparing to move.
Following God’s instructions to eat the Passover meal, prepared and partaken exactly as instructed and then to go, following God on a journey into the unknown.
That Passover lamb was going to have to sustain them for quite some time as they journeyed in obedience to God’s call.
A community on the move.
Today, in our settled community here at Castlehill, we’ve kind of forgotten that God’s call to us is to be a people on the move – a community that isn’t by any means settled, a community that is constantly being called and poked and prodded by God to get moving.
And this communion Sunday, heralding the start of a new session’s work here, the food that we share together, Christ’s body and blood provides that sustenance that we need to be a people on the move.
The community surrounding this building, the parish that we serve, needs us to move in response to God’s call, away from all that we know, out of all that makes us comfortable, in response to God’s call to journey together.
It is wonderful to feel part of a community.
Often when I’m walking or driving around the parish, especially in some of the harder to find streets, I remember back to the first few weeks when we arrived here.
When I was constantly getting lost.
There was many a time I was grateful to catch sight of the cross on the top of the church and get my bearings again.
But now, as people and places become quite familiar, I feel settled, at home.
That settled feeling, that sense of community is not without struggle and conflict but it is, nonetheless a good feeling to belong in community.
The caution that I believe comes to us from our Old Testament reading this morning, is that the community that we call church, is a community called by God, to be on the move.
Our calling is not to become settled, but to be constantly on the move, seeking to serve the community outside these walls.
God promises, that in the journey, we will be set free.
And so, this morning, as we meet here in comfort, (if pews can ever be called comfortable) let’s be mindful of God’s call to be a people on the move.
As we share the life giving food in communion, may we know God nourishing us and sustaining us for the journey.
A journey into the unknown, fueled by the God of yesterday, today and forever.
Glory be to the God of the journey.