Saturday, 28 September 2013

Crumbs from the table

Luke 16:19-31
The Rich Man and Lazarus
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames. ’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us. ’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment. ’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them. ’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent. ’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead. ’”

A few years ago, on Good Friday, I felt called to take Communion onto the streets of the Parish in which I served at the time.
It seemed to me that, on Good Friday, most folk were enjoying a Public Holiday, the reason for which was the death of Jesus Christ and there was very little acknowledgement of that.
And more - Jesus had said: "This is my body broken for you. Do this to remember me."
For me, the place and the time to remember Jesus sacrifice was on the streets on Good Friday.
So, we set up stall, outside a chip shop in the parish - the juxtaposition of fast food and soul food appealed to me! - and we offered all who passed by the bread and wine of Communion.
Some folk looked at us with suspicion.
Some folk passed us by quickly, avoiding eye contact.
Some folk took bread and wine - because they could, not lingering, but moving on again quickly.
Others, were overwhelmed by the idea that they should meet Christ on the street and not locked up in our church buildings as they had come to expect.
But aren't we who gather in church buildings, called to join Christ - who is already out there on our streets- and serve alongside him?
So, we took Jesus onto the streets on Good Friday in bread and wine.
In subsequent years and, as word got around, I was involved in some interesting discussions with colleagues about what constituted communion, how it should be consecrated and whether folk who had not heard the word preached or examined their motives before they took the bread and wine could really be deemed to have shared in the sacrament.
But none of those theological discussions diminished the humility I experienced when folk, with tears in their eyes said: "Thanks for bringing Christ to us" - or "I'd never have found my way to church- thanks for bringing church out here."
Folk are often surprised when the church as a body reaches out to people.
And that's a damning indictment.
Folk don't expect us as Christians to be of much earthly use.
There is a great chasm between the church and the world.
Like the chasm we read of in our gospel reading today - between the rich man and poor Lazarus.
The rich man was blissfully unaware of Lazarus during his lifetime.
And even, in his eternal torture, he failed to pay him heed except as someone who could serve him by bringing him relief in his torment - a drop of cold water.
But, before we judge the rich man harshly, as we are tempted to do,lets consider his status and the culture he was a part of that shaped and formed him:
The popular religious instruction of his day encouraged folk to see the blessings of God manifest in material wealth and prosperity.
The rich man was a prime example of someone blessed by God.
Whereas Lazarus was a wonderful example of one cursed by God - right down to the sores covering his body.
Such graphic descriptions of those cursed or blessed by God punctuate the Scriptures taught by religious leaders of the day.
But also in those Scriptures are exhortations to care for the needy and the poor.
It seems that one message was being taken seriously while another was being conveniently overlooked.
And so, in this parable, Jesus draws attention to this huge gap in folks understanding and practice.
This is NOT a parable about wealth.
It is NOT a parable told to scare us about the after life.
It is a parable told to encourage folk to live differently, to look out for each other THIS SIDE OF HEAVEN.
To bridge the chasm that exists, more than ever today, between the majority of us and the poor.
Why do we have a huge collection of food in the vestibule this morning?
Because we are collecting for the South Ayrshire Foodbank - our Harvest Appeal that we will dedicate next week.
Why do we need to do that?
Because on our own doorsteps people are struggling with poverty.
People need help to feed themselves and their family.
Some of those folk we can see, others we won't see.
And those are the folk here in our locality.
Still there are countless others in our world who will die today because they do not have even crumbs from our table.
Such is the chasm that still exists between the rich and the poor.
Unfortunately when Jesus pointed out the absurdity of this huge gap, he omitted to tell us how to close the gap.
And so the challenge remains - and the gap gets bigger.
What could have changed the rich man, helped him see the poor around him?
What would change us?
Enough to make a difference.

One of the most sobering experiences of taking bread and wine onto the streets was the gratitude of folk knowing themselves included in the sacrifice of Christ, knowing that - it was for them... that Christ died, knowing themselves fed by the bread of life.
Every time we gather around this table, whether we celebrate the sacrament or not, Christ is present - as he is present on the streets.
We cannot gather here, we cannot be fed - and then go out and ignore those Christ calls us to serve.
It is for us to find whatever ways we can to bridge that chasm that grows today.
Abraham said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead. ’”
Is that our plight today?
Will nothing change us - not the word of God, not the bread and the wine, not the awful statistics that speak of poverty in our world today, that tell of those who starve when this world has more than enough food to share?
Jesus Christ gave his life for us.
HE was raised from the dead.
And now he calls us to feed the poor.

As I stood in the street offering bread and wine, as well as those folk who were touched and possibly changed by meeting Christ on the street, there were many more who simply walked by.
And I was reminded of those words of Scripture: Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow...
Can we leave this place today and be as those who turn our backs on the Christ who is already on our streets.
Or will we take the crumbs from the table and share them freely.
Not because we are afraid of how we will fare in the afterlife.
But because we care about those with whom we share life today.
May we offer more than crumbs from the table.
For the glory of God.

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Saturday, 21 September 2013

Prudent Stewardship

Luke 16:1-13
The Parable of the Dishonest Manager
Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer. ’ Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes. ’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master? ’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil. ’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty. ’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe? ’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat. ’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty. ’ And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.
“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

Did we really read that in our gospel today?
And did Jesus really say: If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?
This is another of those gospel passages that preachers want to avoid like the plague!
There are so many ways we could look at this passage today, so many ways it might speak into our world today.
Often, the more uncomfortable the gospel is, the more pertinent it is too!
So, for starters, lets attempt to enter the story Jesus told and see if we can figure out what the manager in the story is up to.
Faced with the prospect of losing his job, his income and his status, what does he do?
He calls in all his master's debtors and writes off huge portions of their debt.
Today, we might think of that kind of action as spite.
But, in the society in which Jesus and this manager moved, saving face was a massive cultural necessity.
So - the manager is about to lose his job.
The folks he calls in to reduce their debt will see that he still has power and, when he leaves his current employment will be better disposed to still include him in their society circles.
His magnanimity, however, also gives his employer the ability to save face.
No longer is he the wealthy landowner who has been cheated - he has in his employ a very shrewd businessman.
Not only that, but he is able to demonstrate that he is big enough, even after all that has happened, to commend his manager for his actions - a huge cultural win for him, one that, in today's dog eat dog culture we have difficulty understanding.
As I re-read the passage in this light, it struck me that recently, the UK Government might have embarked on a face saving exercise that would have had far reaching effects.
David Cameron, defeated in his quest to use military force against those responsible for chemical warfare in Syria, might have creatively explored other ways to gain support not just in this country but worldwide.
Since funds were clearly available to embark on yet more military action, our political leaders might have considered instead using those funds to alleviate the suffering of those affected by the chemical attacks.
What a difference that would have made.
Not only in Syria, but throughout the world as other leaders witnessed the UK's generosity.
And saw history being made in funds raised for war being used to bring about peace.
So - this parable explores the cultural concept of saving face.
It also explores our relationship with prosperity.
How we might reconsider the way that we share what we have and reapportion our resources, even redeeming what might be considered ill gotten gains for good in our communities.
There's a myth about the church - that we are always looking for money.
And, given that we are in the midst of a Stewardship campaign, that myth might have just grown legs.
There is also a myth that we shouldn't talk about money in the church - it just turns people off. And we know we simply can't afford to do that!
Well I've never been afraid to offend people by preaching the gospel.
And the gospel, over the next few weeks, is clearly preoccupied by issues around money.
If we keep avoiding the subject how can we ever establish a healthy relationship with money and how can we ever engage with all the questions that surround our wealth - or lack of it.
The last couple of years, as you know, I've been involved with the Church of Scotland's National Youth Assembly.
One of the most popular workshops is one on managing money. Our young people, wrestling with unemployment and all the vagaries of the benefits system or with further education and student loans, want advice on how to handle their finance in a responsible and caring way.
Those same young people are also actively involved in speaking out against the injustice of tax avoidance that has become the norm for so many large and prosperous corporations.
Because the truth is that what we do matters - in our personal finance and in our public finance.
When we hold on to what is not rightfully ours, others suffer by our injustice.
Withholding our taxes has a direct impact on the suffering of the poor, those who need us to be just simply to survive.
But, of course, injustice it's not just about withholding our taxes.
Taxes that find their way into government aid, social security, health and welfare.
Injustice also occurs when we are not willing to share whatever we have to help others in a much more close up and personal way.
I can remember when Hospices grew up in communities, resourced by the generosity of people in the community giving not just their money but also their time.
Some people refused to give, maintaining that such a vital service should be funded by the government.
Our communities would be a whole lot poorer if we simply relied on government funded programmes and facilities.
Indeed, communities are created by people getting together to share the resources that they have to help one another and even those they will never meet.
This community we call church is no different.
It relies on generosity, on good will, on the love of those involved - for the sake of others.
We who are a part of this community model the love and generosity of God each time we share our resources - with those we know and with those we will never meet.
And it's not about looking good.
Or about saving face.
It's about genuinely caring enough to put our wealth at the disposal of others.
So this awkward gospel passage, echoing cultural conundrums of its time, speaks clearly into our culture today.
How will we choose to model the love and the generosity of God.
How will we put our resources at the disposal of the community we serve?
How will we redeem our tarnished reputation, embrace our prosperity, and serve God with our money?
God calls us as we are and asks that we honour God by offering all that we have to serve God's people.
To God be the glory.
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Saturday, 14 September 2013

Lost and found

Luke 15:1-10
The Parable of the Lost Sheep
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety- nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost. ’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety- nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
The Parable of the Lost Coin
“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost. ’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

You'll probably all know that just by the right side of the church door as you enter is an umbrella stand. It gets a lot of use. But, of course, if we come to church in the rain and it dries up while we worship, it's easy to forget to collect your brolly on the way out. And there are always extra brollies abandoned there. So, if you've been missing one for a while - that's where to look.
But also in that corner is a lost property box - that's usually full of hats and scarves and gloves, as well as bags, keys, glasses, brooches, even the odd hearing aid!
What do we do when we lose something?
Right now, I seem to be missing one of my favourite jackets.
It took me a while to realise it was missing.
I just thought I'd hung it in a different place,or left it in the car/ whatever.
But, after a while, I realised it really was missing.
It wasn't at the bottom of my back pack.
Or languishing in the boot of the car.
So what I've been trying to do is work out when I last had it.
Trying to picture the last time I wore it.
Or the last time I took it with me, just in case it rained.
Isn't that what we do when we lose something.
Once we realise its missing, we try to retrace our steps, work out where we last saw it, when we last used it?
In our gospel reading today, we encounter lost things - a sheep and a coin.
There's no resignation on the part of those who have lost in this reading.
They pull out all the stops to recover what is lost.
However unlikely it might seem that a shepherd can abandon all the other sheep to strike out for the one foolish enough to get lost, or however extreme it might seem to spring clean a house just to find a lost coin - those are the scenarios we are presented with in our gospel.
A lost sheep.
And a lost coin.
Tracked down.
And found.
What might be the things that we might think about investing some energy in finding today?
What about that joy that was once yours as you met with Gods family in worship, that joy that has been dulled by a sense of duty or by the feeling of being taken for granted.
What about the familiarity you once had with the rhythm of worship - that familiarity that has gradually diminished as you've drifted away, caught up in other things.
What about the excitement you once knew as you listened to and were challenged by the message of the gospel - an excitement that has faded as you've become used to the challenge and the impossibility of the demands.
Or what about the enthusiasm you once had to share the good news, to invite others to join you on this journey of faith - an enthusiasm blunted by rejection or by the quest for an easy life.
What would it take to recover these vital elements of our faith - the joy, the rhythm, the excitement, the enthusiasm?
Perhaps it's like searching for any other lost thing.
It involves us retracing our steps.
Going back to where we were.
Thinking of where and when we last felt joy or rhythm or excitement or enthusiasm in our journey of faith.
Taking ourselves back to rediscover what is important.
And not giving up until we find it.
So, if this morning, your worship is tinged with resignation or regret or sadness or resentment or whatever makes you less than thrilled to be here, how about backing up a little?
How about investing some time and energy into finding that lost mojo, that spark that will inspire and feed you.
The missing element that will enhance your worship and your faith and your life.
The glimmer that promises that, whatever tunnel you are in at present is not beyond God's reach, is not out of God's sight.
It doesn't matter how often we lose sight of God.
God never loses sight of us.
And God rejoices every time any of us manages to retrace our steps and find our way back to the essence of God's love
This gospel story actually makes it seem quite a good thing to lose our way every now and again - just so we can be part of the party that is Gods when we are found.
But in reality, isn't that the story of our journey of faith anyway.
No matter who we are.
No matter the calibre or strength of our faith.
It needs constant attention.
Proclaiming faith is not a once and for all event.
It's an act that bears repeating time and again as we journey through everyday and experience God in new ways, in new places, and, yes, even when it appears that we've lost God.
God's family is not divided into the lost and the righteous, into those who constantly strive for faith and those who think they have found it.
At different points on the journey, our faith takes different forms, sometimes strong, sometimes in need of resuscitation.
But always, God knows where we are.
And what we need.
And leads us always into grace.
Thanks be to God.
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Sunday, 1 September 2013


Luke 12:49-56
Jesus the Cause of Division
“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptised, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three
they will be divided:
father against son
and son against father,
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,
mother- in- law against her daughter- in- law
and daughter- in- law against mother- in- law.”
Interpreting the Time
He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

On Sunday mornings, I like to preach on the Lectionary texts - that's the prescribed readings for each Sunday of the year.
It's a good discipline.
It means I'm forced into preaching on texts I would otherwise avoid - and it stops me sticking to one hobby horse or another.
But, since I preached on the Lectionary text this morning, I decided to choose something different for tonight.
And, for the life of me, I can't think why I thought that the gospel we read tonight would be a good text.
Whatever inspiration I had when I chose it had long gone by the time I sat down to write a sermon!
Bringing fire, causing division - it's not exactly the Jesus we like to portray.
So lets begin to look at this text by thinking about where Jesus was in his ministry when he taught in such a vein.
It's fair to say that Jesus was under some stress at this point in his ministry.
He was already on his way to Jerusalem.
On his way to betrayal and suffering and death.
And he knew it.
And so his teaching takes on a different kind of urgency from before.
There's no time for messing around.
No time for finding just the right sound byte.
His time is limited and there is a message that must be shared.
Jesus is stressed.
And that is something many of us can identify with.
In today's world we are familiar with stress.
Perhaps not the stress of a journey to crucifixion.
But other life limiting, situations that bring considerable stress today.
Those facing terminal illness - their own or a loved one's.
Those facing uncertainty in employment.
Those facing loneliness or isolation.
Those battling mental health issues.
Those struggling with poverty, homelessness, hunger.
Folk today know about stress.
It is a 21st century ailment just as it was an ailment that affected Jesus in his time.
When stress threatens our well being today, we can know without a doubt that Jesus has been there.

But sometimes it takes stress to help us get some perspective.
We can all muddle along, taking life in its stride, getting upset at trivia, "sweating the small stuff" as I call it.
And then a loved one is diagnosed with a terminal illness.
Or we face the prospect of unemployment.
Or a friend is killed in a tragic accident.
And suddenly, all the things we worried about before pale into insignificance.
And we begin to see what is important in life.
Stress of that kind, though never welcome, does bring perspective.

Jesus message in our gospel today is a message on perspective.
A message on urgency.
A message for us as a people of faith.

We cannot keep on muddling along as we do.
The gospel message is urgent.
More urgent than ever in a world that is so broken by war and violence and injustice.
Jesus said: “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!
Our suffering world today needs the fire of Gods love and the fire of the gospel to spread like wild fire.
More than ever people in our communities need to know that there is hope, that there is love.
And who will share that hope and love if we don't?

So what will we do with the kindling Jesus brings?
Will we be indifferent - something we are good at. Keeping the peace by remaining as inoffensive as we possibly can?
Keeping a low profile so that we don't upset anyone?

Will we pour water on it - quenching the flame?
Often, our best intentions have the same effect. Instead of igniting the kindling of faith, they pour cold water on people's best efforts and drive folk away from faith.
When we make folk feel as though they don't belong.
When we convey the message that they're not good enough - for us or for God.
Or when we draw up rules and refuse to bend them to include others.
We put folk off before they've even got started.
We extinguish what little fire there is.

Or - will we ignite that kindling.
Take it seriously.
Treat it with the respect it deserves.
Let it affect our lives and the lives of others as we share the fire and the passion of God's love?

This gospel doesn't sound so strange anymore.
It fits into the context of our lives, lives that confront all kinds of stress daily.
But it still doesn't sit comfortably.
Because it is a gospel that demands a response.
A gospel that demands that we get some kind of divine perspective and catch on to the divine urgency.
The kindling needs igniting.
And we are the fire keepers today.
Will we fan the flames or quench them?


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