Saturday, 21 January 2012

Follow me

Readings:  Jonah 3 v 1-5,10, Mark 1 v 14-20

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

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2“Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” 3So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. 4Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
5And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
10When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

On Friday, I was working with some colleagues, putting together worship material for the season after Easter.
The material we produce Spill the Beans, we’ve been using for the past wee while here at Castlehill.
It’s a lectionary based material – that means we stick to the texts prescribed for churches every week.
Even though we’re working with the prescribed texts, we still have to decide which of the texts – the Old Testament, the Epistle or the Gospel we’ll focus on for any given week.
The season after Easter takes us, in the Old Testament readings, into the stories of King David, so we thought that would give us a good focus for the season.
The problem is that, though there were many great moments of triumph in David’s reign, there was also much violence and blood shed and less glorious moments.
However, having decided to go with the Old Testament for the season, we decided to stick with it. It’s important that we don’t simply produce our own version of favourite texts that we’re happy to preach.
And even more important to wrestle with those texts we don’t especially like or with which we struggle.
But, as those of you who were involved in the Bible Reading project last year will be well aware of, the Old Testament is very hard to stomach at times.
And it’s even harder to see how reading what are often bizarre stories can have any relevance to our life of faith today.
There are also stories in the Old Testament that we tend to remember, perhaps from Sunday School days, that become so much a part of our lore that we often forget or overlook their context – stories like that of David and Goliath (just one of the stories we were working on yestrday) – or, of today’s character, Jonah.
Most of us will recall, in different measures, that Jonah was the character who ran from God, ended up on a boat that got caught in a storm and, at his own request was thrown overboard.
He was swallowed by a whale, puked up and slunk back to do God’s bidding.

While other books of the prophets in the Old Testament spell out the ills of God’s people in exile and often pass damning indictments on the way that folk are living, Jonah is different.
As far as the people of Nineveh are concerned, they apparently play a minor role in this story which is more about the struggle that Jonah has in responding God’s call.
We read that Jonah, after taking his roundabout route to get there, via the belly of a whale, proclaims judgment on Nineveh, the people take note and decide to change their ways – that’s the nub of Nineveh’s involvement in Jonah’s story.
The people of Nineveh are convicted, they change their ways, and they are saved from their predicted awful fate.
But Jonah!
That’s a whole other story,
And THAT’s what takes up the bulk of this book.
We read of Jonah’s initial body swerving of God’s call – making a run for it.
Then we read of him coming to his senses and heading to Nineveh as God had asked, proclaiming God’s message to the people.
But, after the miraculous turnaround of the people, Jonah again has a problem with God.
Jonah is MAD at God for  taking pity on the people particularly this people.
There are circumstances in which we can imagine God’s forgiveness to be entirely appropriate – such as the times God forgives us – it’s acceptable that God should overlook our minor misdemeanours.
But, Nineveh.
Nineveh, city of the Assyrians who are the bloodiest people of whom we read in the Old Testament.
These people are beyond the pale.
And yet, God issues them with a warning, sees their repentance and lovingly forgives them.
THAT is incomprehensible.
A God who acts with such unpredictability is not one that we can EVER fathom.
But it is a God in whom we can hope.
A God who is able to overcome violence, a God who can break into the hopeless patterns that we see in our world and turn things around.
Not by condemnation.
But by mercy.
No wonder Jonah was confused by such a God.
No wonder he refused to respond to the call of that God.
We’ve probably all, at some point, on hearing this story, thought Jonah foolish.
We’ve thought him foolish for trying to run away from God.
And then we’ve thought him foolish for getting angry with God for showing forgiveness.
And yet, Jonah’s actions are ones that we eschew often.
We are often diverted and take all sorts of circuitous routes to avoid the call of God.
And we often question God’s wisdom in meting out forgiveness in what seems to us a much too merciful fashion.

Anne Lamott said: “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do”

Our gospel today, also encourages us to consider our response to God.
In typical Mark fashion, the call of the disciples is reported with urgency and immediacy.
When Jesus calls Simon and Andrew and James and John, they immediately leave everything and follow him.
Can we begin to imagine such a response?
Can we conceive of any situation that would result in us changing direction as drastically as the disciples did?
And if not, then HOW is the gospel message going to be communicated to today’s world?
What would it take to experience such conviction on our part, what would it take to change our lives as dramatically as were the lives of the people of Nineveh or those first disciples changed?
As we gather here week by week, is there anything that really gets to us.
Is there anything that would compel us to follow God’s call to live out the gospel in everyday life?
God IS merciful.
God is also demanding.
The demand on us is to hear God’s call for our lives, to follow Christ and to share the good news wherever God calls us to serve.
“Follow me, says Jesus, and I will make you fish for people.”

Saturday, 7 January 2012


Sunday 8th January 2012

Readings: Mark 1 v 4-11

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Mark 1: 4-11

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.’
 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

On Friday night, later on, I decided it would be good to make some warming soup for the weekend. But we didn’t have all the ingredients I needed to hand, so a trip to Morrison’s was required.
Walking down Castlehill Road, I reveled in that thing you do when you’re out walking about at night – looking in folks’ windows.
Isn’t it fun to see folks in their lit up houses and wonder what their lives are like.
Of course we will never know the true stories behind the lighted tableaux that we glimpse – but it is fun, just for a moment, to fabricate our own scenarios.
Like one elderly couple, sitting facing each other over their dining table, both with heads bowed over separate reading material.
Perhaps they were doing the crossword from the newspaper.
Perhaps they were reading spell binding books.
They looked as though they were enjoying a comfortable companionship, each submerged in whatever they were reading, with no need for chatter.
In a number of lighted windows, I glimpsed folk dismantling their Christmas trees, packing up and putting away their Christmas ornaments for another year.
I could imagine the struggle with tangled lights and boxes that seem to have shrunk since the decorations were taken from them.
One of my colleagues posted, tongue in cheek, on facebook this week: “Well, that’s Christmas all packed away in boxes and placed under the stairs for another year.”
The sad thing is, that for many folk, that IS the way it is.
Few of us even wait until 12th night – which is Epiphany – to get cleared up and get things “back to normal”,
By the New Year, folk are tired of Christmas.
And, even sadder, they DO long to get it packed up and put away for another year.
Mark’s gospel, which we’ll be following this year, is a bit like that.
Down to business.
No fripperies.
In fact Mark’s gospel doesn’t even “do” Christmas.
It just launches straight in with an account of the grown up Jesus’ baptism.
And so, this morning, in our reading from Mark, we encounter, again, John the Baptist – Jesus’ cousin, sent to prepare the way – that strange figure who seems to have been a bit of a curiosity – living and dressing so differently from others of his day – but a curiosity who drew people to him.
For all his strangeness, perhaps BECAUSE of his strangeness, people flocked to the wilderness to see him and to hear his preaching.
It wasn’t even as if he was preaching a message of comfort or of solace.
John the Baptist’s was a message calling folk to repent – to change the way they lived.
And so, in Mark’s gospel, Jesus’ ministry begins quite abruptly - when he too goes to the wilderness to seek out John and be baptized by him.
 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

Its that message that I’d like us to begin the New Year with here at Castlehill today, a message that God speaks to each of us:
You are my child, beloved; with you I am well pleased”

Next week, in our service. we will celebrate the sacrament of baptism.
Every time we do that, here in our worship, we use these words as part of the liturgy:
“All of us gathered here represent the whole people of God; Sacraments bring us joy. They also bring us responsibility. Do you renew your commitment, with all God’s people, to share the knowledge and love of Christ?”

In assenting to these words, as we do every time we baptize, we affirm that Baptism, a huge blessing, also confers on us a huge responsibility.
It is blessing and responsibility that I’d like to focus on this early in the new year.
Blessing and responsibility.

The story of the people of God is one filled with the interweaving of blessing and responsibility.
God, from the beginning, called people, blessed them and led them into service.
Consider some of those Old Testament stories with which you might be familiar:
The story of Adam and Eve, blessed with abundance and, even when they abused that abundance, still being favoured by God and given work to do cultivating the earth.
The story of Noah, who lived in the knowledge of God and was commissioned to rescue his family and experience more blessings from God.
The story of Abraham, called at a great age, blessed with many descendants, commissioned to be father of a great nation.
Stories of Isaac and Jacob, of David and Solomon, of Ruth and Naomi, of Deborah and Rebekah.
All recorded in scripture as folk who were called and blessed by God and led into service that changed the lives of their contemporaries.
Called, blessed, serving.
Notice the order of that –
The calling.
The blessing.
The service.
That’s the way it remains today.
God’s blessing on our lives is not dependant on us, on how we live.
Although, often, the way we live might blind us to the abundance of God’s blessing, yet that blessing is freely given.
We are still, to God, beloved children.
Our response to the knowledge of the blessing of God, has to be – the willingness to serve.
And, indeed, we celebrate that, in baptism, we are blessed and commissioned.
The rite of baptism is our rite of passage into a life called by God into service.
Serving God is a response of faith and love to the blessing that God confers at baptism.
One of the best known biblical blessings is The Aaronic blessing – the one that we sing at baptism –
The Lord bless you and keep you
The Lord make his face to shine upon you
And be gracious unto you
The Lord lift up his countenance upon you
And give you peace.

In our liturgy of baptism, we ask parents to profess their faith in the Triune God:
Do you believe in one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit?
And on the strength of that belief, we baptize children into faith.
Baptism, as we celebrate it, is not conditional on us coming up to scratch – it depends, rather, on the amazing love of God being offered freely and without condition.
And, once the blessing of baptism is bestowed on a child of God, of whatever age, it is then that we seek promises of commitment – commitment from parents and commitment from all of us as the people of God.
Baptism is  not something we celebrate once and then discard.
The blessings and the responsibilities go on.
As does the blessing and responsibilty of Christmas.
Not everything is packed away - or can be packed away.
We still light the Christ candle.
We still celebrate Christ in our  midst bringing us blessing and prompting us to serve.
Christmas lasts forever.
Baptism lasts for ever.

This Sunday, at the start of another year, I invite you to reflect on God’s blessing.
God calls and blesses each one of us here today.
Our response to that – is to celebrate God in our midst by loving and serving God more in the days to come.
May that be the resolution of all involved in Castlehill Church this coming year:
A people called.
A people blessed.
A people serving God in love.
And to God be the glory.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Keeping the promises

This Sunday offers lots of choice for preaching. Although last week was New Year's Day, there was little focus on new beginnings, instead making the most of the last opportunity, for this year, to sing favourite Christmas Carols and hear again the readings of the season.
We could also choose to celebrate Epiphany or the baptism of our Lord.
As well as all this, it is also an opportunity to embark on the gospel of Mark. Although the new church year starts at the beginning of Advent and we move onto a different gospel, celebrating Advent and Christmas often deflects us from the gospel lectionary. Mark's gospel, which features this year, has an urgency about it - it launches straight into Jesus' ministry - no pfaffing around with Nativity narratives. And so, this year, I'm going to leave out the story of the wise men following the star but, hopefully, still capture something of the Epiphany - bringing startling light into our lives today.
Our sacrament of infant baptism recognises the grace of God offered freely - even to those who "do not yet know or understand". As a community of believers, however, we promise, together, to support each other in sharing the love of God with all God's children. And so, at the beginning of this New Year, we will explore that task and, hopefully, recommit ourselves to fulfilling it. Our task, as a community of faith, is to believe for those who can't.
The text for Sunday is here.