Sermon 17th June ‘Thou shalt not covet’

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Exodus 20:17; Matthew 22:34-40

The Coveting Commandment is the 10th and final commandment. Is the most important commandment LEFT TO LAST? Maybe – certainly important enough to be repeated twice (the only 1 of the 10 to be dealt with that way!). “You shall not covet your neighbour’s house. You shall not covet your neighbour’s spouse.”
What’s clear to me is it unlocks a truth about us as human beings, as humanity, which is vitally important to be aware of. To ‘covet’ is not just 10th commandment – if we were to analyse it we would see that many of the other 9 have coveting as either the root source of the action referred to in the commandment or certainly a big influence on it.
So, buckle up. Today we tackle a part of who we are! Today we deal with an aspect of our humanity that we can’t deny is part of us. Today we deal with something that is a real and present danger at the heart of human relationships, social-ills, national disputes, international tensions, wars and the economics of our world.
So many many of our sins start with our desires. True in equal measure individually and collectively as groups, organisations, nations, religions etc. The 10th Commandment recognises this. Of course, the 10 commandments are generally ‘do not’s’ (8 out of 10) but even these prohibitions contain more than just a ‘don’t do this’. They contain an understanding that often as human beings we are wired up with a propensity to make mistakes, get things wrong be in influenced in wrong directions.
Although the 10th Commandment we have inherited as a single commandment with ‘covet’ repeated twice (with two examples) some suggest it could be separated into two commandments.
You shall not covet your neighbour’s house “and “You shall not covet your neighbour’s spouse”.
Two examples (both biblical).
First, King David. He was hanging out on the roof, his eyes fell upon Uriah’s wife Bathsheba, and boom! He wanted her. So he took her. As the king, he was already married and had plenty of access to women in the palace. But he wanted Bathsheba, too. So he took her. And then, when she turned up pregnant, he arranged for Uriah — and the entire military company he was leading — to be abandoned during battle. They all were killed. And it all started with a little coveting.
Second, King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. This royal pair liked to garden. Or, at least, they liked to have a garden that their servants could work for them. Right near their palace, a faithful fellow named Naboth owned a vineyard. The king offered to buy the vineyard or swap the land for a better stretch of land. Naboth refused. So Jezebel arranged for false charges brought against Naboth and brought in two paid liars to testify falsely against Naboth. In the end, Ahab and Jezebel got what they wanted: Naboth dead and the vineyard a royal property.
And it all started with a little coveting (See 1 Kings 21).
You might say two types of coveting. But I would say that the route desire is the same. The seed within us to desire what we don’t have – to look with envy on what others have – to be jealous – is something we can all recognise. If manifests on different forms but we know the feeling, we know what it feels like. Two examples are given but really the 10th commandment in simple form is do not Covet what you don’t have.
Like me – you know what it feels like to covet. To look with envy at other people. To want what they want.
All of us are the same.
Widening this presence of a ‘coveting nature’ out from our individual desires consider how this nature to ‘covet’ is at the heart of so much of the world’s problems historically and currently.
Monday’s scenes from Singapore were remarkable as the Presidents of USA and N Korea met in summit. Behind all of this, and lets pray it leads to a safer world, is the reality that feuds between nations are at their route spawned by desire. Power, Territory, Wealth are desired. If one lot has it another lot want it. They want it – and they desire to take it away from the other party in the process so protecting their own power, territory and wealth.

You can argue all you want about protecting the rights and opportunities of your own country/ group by building security, strong economy, protecting resources of land and sea within borders, but breaking it all down we see that ‘desire, envy’ is present so often at the outset of troubles and fall-outs between groups, nations and religions. Even all the political postulating of body language, double hand-shakes, arms on the back are all about – taking the power position and the power away from the other.

Jesus gave us a Gospel. We know it well and we’ll come to the heart of its matter in a short while.

But today in our world often its as if another Gospel influences the world more than Jesus one. Let’s call it the Prosperity Gospel. The
rapacious desire for more fuels modern economies and leads
to the growing chasm between those with much and those with little.
In the early twenty-first century there has been much
written about the parallels between now and the previous
Gilded Age of robber barons, another time of gross inequality in the late nineteenth century. In the 1987 film
Wall Street, Gordon Gecko, states: “Greed… is good.”
At the heart of all this greed and hunger for more is envy
and covetousness.

Business isn’t bad. Nor are the successful business men and women bad. Of course, we are not saying that at all – far from it. We are talking about an underlying reality in our world embedded in systems and policies and human-made market conditions which often lead to a tide of economics that continue to create a gulf between the rich and poor of our world. Covetousness is wrapped up in all of this. On both sides of that gulf of course. But it is the powerful and the rich who have the tools to take what they envy – whilst the powerless and the poor don’t’ and so can’t. When you have power, you want more of it. The more you have, its said the more you want, and the more able you are to obtain it. The less you have, the harder it is to get it, and the easier it is for others to take what little you have away from you. A revolving door of desire.
Power Politics, International Relations, Tensions and Wars, Prosperity Gospel, the Economics of our World – covetousness is intrinsic to it all.
I read a quote from someone who described his own covetousness.
“If they make it, I want it.” On hearing this another said ‘what only one?’
The 10th Commandment tells us not to covet. Here is another difference I think between the 10th commandment and the others – we can’t stop.
To me the other commandments are things we can stop ourselves doing or in 2 cases make ourselves do. We stop ourselves from murdering, stealing, committing adultery for example. But in truth can we stop coveting. Can we stop desiring. I don’t think so. I think its part of how we are wired as human beings.
So, what do we do? What do we learn from the 10th commandment. What do we need to adhere to as we live faithfully?

What we can do is stop letting covetousness rule our lives. We can stop letting covetousness dictate our feelings towards others, and about our own lives and stop it from dictating how we act.
Being aware of the dangers within a covetousness that is unbridled, uncontrolled and unmanaged is something we learn every time we read and take on board the 10th commandment. We read it with eyes on our own desires and actions but also in terms of the interactions within our world politically and economically, between nations and between the religions of the world.

 

We accept the dangers of desire for power and the coveting of wealth and particularly of taking what others have for oneself.
It’s always better to know the reality – to be honest about something that exists in us and the systems of the world; for then we can do something to curb the effects of that reality.
Today I think God calls us to recognise what is in us and what exists in the world. He calls in us to limit its effect for the greater good of all, and limit the damage caused when left unchallenged.
Left to itself the desires within each of us will lead us, and often do lead the world, astray. Instead the Bible tells us through this commandment and its 2 examples of not coveting/desiring our neighbour’s spouse or house, to turn our heart and our actions to another Gospel and another New Commandment. We are to love God. We are to love neighbour. Not cover what they have – not take from them – not accentuate the gap between us – but instead to love and honour them in the way God does.
Amen

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Sermon Pentecost Sunday 20th May 2018 – ‘Rejoice in the Lord always’.

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Philippians 4: 1-7

How big is Your God? Last week we considered how big Paul viewed God – utilising the words of a hymn known to his listeners we heard how Paul’s God – was the God of Universe – constellation and field, mountain and valley, continent and atom. Yet this God, came to our humanity as one of us – this Universal God resides in us. In that truth we become a people of potential – with God working in and through us.
How big God is to you – how capable, how dependable, how actively life and word-changing – depends on how big you think the Holy Spirit is? How big God is – depends on how we view the work of God’s Spirit in the world and in our life – how expansive the Spirit’s powers are.
That’s what I want us to consider today on Pentecost Sunday. This is the day on which we celebrate the birth of the church through the gift of the Holy Spirit, it is truly a day for rejoicing.
Sometimes on this day we have think of the image of the Birthday Cake and give thanks for the birth of the Church in the world; sometimes we think of images of fire and flame as symbols of the potent energy of God’s activity in the world – present at creation, then reignited after Jesus resurrection, as God uncovered the work of His Holy Spirit to, and through, Jesus followers.

As I reread the story of Pentecost this week, particularly in the light of the additional passage from Philippines, it is the way in which Pentecost expands the work of God that excites me; it the fact that the borders of God’s work and activity are stretched out (indeed removed all-together) – it is the fact that we are given reason to believe that God’s potential becomes limitless in range and potency.
Here in Philippi are two women leaders, workers for the gospel, indeed Paul describes Euodia and Syntyche as his co-workers, those whose names are written in the book of life. This is extraordinary. I really want us to understand this.
I know equality is not all the way balanced in our world yet – we’ve reflected on this before and prayed that one day male and female, old and young will one day be given fair and equal opportunities.
Not there yet – but when we see how far the world has come towards an acceptance of equal rights over the last 100 years, 1000 years, 3 to 4 centuries into the narrative of our Old Testament, we recognize how extraordinary it is for the times that here, Paul comments on two women workers in the church as his ‘co-workers’.
This is an image of a new type of society, a more egalitarian community in which the social divisions of gender and class are not treated as definitive.
Like the Spirit of God bringing a gust of new life to disciples in need of encouragement and enthusiasm, the small but important mention of Euodia and Syntyche is a taste of the new wine of the kingdom – the expansion of God’s activity through the work of the Holy Spirit. Things are changing, things are afoot if we let the gospel be freed. This is worth ‘rejoicing, always’ (in the words of Paul).
Each year, at Pentecost it is good we remember the moment of intense vitality when a moribund group of followers and disciples found themselves unleashed by God for the ministry and mission that awaited them. From their anxiety and fear of the future, they found a new peace which surpassed all understanding, a new focus on the divine reality of a new Kingdom that allowed space for the likes of Euodia and Syntyche, Mary and Susanna, Joanna and Priscilla to exercise their ministries. This was an explosion of Faith and activity; the broadening, the expansion, of God’s work in the world – both directly (as the breath of God works in creation), and through the activity of the Church and the faith of followers of every shape ad size, gender and type.
Some years ago (1950s) English Bible Scholar, Bible Translator, Writer and Clergyman J.B. Philips wrote a book called ‘Your God is too small’.
In the opening of the book he writes,
‘The trouble with many people today is that they have not found a God big enough for modern needs. While their experience of life has grown in a score of directions, and their mental horizons have been expanded to the point of bewilderment by world events and by scientific discoveries, their ideas of God have remained largely static’.
I wonder if at times we create a box for God that contains God too much. Very often our organised religion, or denominational structures, our human-made priorities for keeping the ship (that is in our case the Church of Scotland) afloat have the effect of limiting the potential of God and hindering the freedom of God to be let loose in His work in today’s world.
Philips went on to describe some of the limitations we put on God as we create him in our minds eye and unconsciously enclose him in boxes that might have labels such as:
‘Resident Policeman’, ‘Grand-Old Man’, ‘Meek and Mild’, ‘Parent to be obeyed’.
Philips says the mistake we make is to limit God in our thought and in His work. What he said was (and still is) needed is to let God out the box. He writes:

‘[open] wide the doors and windows of our minds [to] make some attempt to appreciate the “size” of God…. He must not be confined……It is not, of course, physical size that we are trying to establish in our minds. It is rather to see the immensely broad sweep of the Creator’s activity.’
At the start of the General Assembly Week as always thee is much for the Church to discuss. One major report to be discussed is the writing of and presenting of a strategic plan for the church that has caused a lot of controversy. It has a huge list of things stated the church needs to do to survive. Yet it suggests a timescale of decades to get the job done. And that timescale is where the controversy lies for I have yet to find a colleague who is happy with that – those like me on the ground, working away in parishes, and within Presbyteries find it is easy (and scary) to see the problems of decline, relevancy and very shortly a shortage of resources – both finance and people. Most people say we don’t have decades to put things right. Most people say we have God in a Box of our own making and its time now before it is too late to let God out – to let him burst out with Pentecost Flame and be released to do radical work of reshaping the priorities and focus of the church that it is less centralised, restricted and safe and more local, unencumbered and ambitious.

Pentecost is the reminder that God expanded His work after the death and resurrection of Jesus. No longer was there a single tribe that was the focus of God’s influence in History and attention in life.
Suddenly it wasn’t just about Jew – it was about gentile and Jew.
Suddenly it wasn’t just about the institution of synagogue and Temple – it was about local followers, house groups and churches. People like Paul and Timothy, people too like Euodia and Syntyche, and many other men and women, who fired by the Holy Spirit unleashed the power of God in the world – expanded the borders of God’s potential and influence.
As we come to an end of this season of post resurrection activity in the establishing Church of Paul’s day. Let us hear loud and clear the challenge of this story for our own. We are the church today. Do we contain God – or do we free God. Do we limit God or let him expand His work in us and through us? Are we ready to fan the flames of Pentecost and ignite God’s desire and work for and in the world.
The Lord is near. Let not anxiety stop us. Let us be bold and courageous and trusting of God who knows no limits to what He can do when we let Him.
Amen

 

 

 

‘Worshiping God, Inspiring People, Connecting People’ – The Church of Scotland Strategic Plan 2018-2028

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Below is a link to the Church of Scotland Report to be presented to the 2018 General Assembly. It has prompted widespread discussion with Ministers already and it is anticipated that the Deliverance will be the subject of much debate next week with many saying that the extended timescale is too great and that radical change to the structures of the church and decision making is needed much quicker than suggested and needs to be far more wide-ranging .

 

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Sermon 13th May ‘God of the Universe in us’.

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Philippians 2:1-13

 

Politics isn’t the be-all-and-end-all of life – far from it. It’s not balanced that say every week, or every second week, political themes are addressed in the sermons we hear in church – especially if the object of the focus is always the same political figure and his/ her policies or is always concerning the same issue.
Yet, sometimes we read or hear a passage from the Bible and instantly feel it relates strongly to something current in our political arena – either domestically or internationally. Sometimes its impossible not to make the link – otherwise we would risk avoiding the energy and directive core of God’s Word.
As I read the words of our passage today, particularly verses 3-8 I could not help myself in making a comparison with the description of Christ and the actions of the President of the United States, Donald Trump, in pulling USA out of the Iran Nuclear deal.
I confess I don’t know too much of the detail of the ‘Deal’ in question, but the tone of Trump’s words and the arrogance to think he can rail against the wisdom and pleas of other international leaders of countries such as the United Kingdom, France, and Germany – are astonishingly bumptious, isolating and risky.
Here is what Paul advocates as we seek to reflect a Christ-like attitude:
‘Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross’.

Donald Trump is popular with some in his own country – particularly I think because he is brazening and outspoken about always putting the interests of his own country first. Some would say it’s only the interests of certain strata’s of people in his own Nation, but that’s for another day.
He makes no apology for putting America first and its not the first time he has made an Executive Order, or cancelled a previous trade deal, to provide, in his opinion, better outcomes for USA at the expense of other Nations or International benefits. Some would call this ‘selfishness – looking to his own interests’.
He has an unfortunate way of appearing ‘conceited’ and arrogant in the way he speaks and handles himself; puffed up with self-importance and buoyed up on some power trip of exploitation as benefits his own agendas.
Donald Trump called the deal he has pulled out America from as ‘decaying and rotten’; a sentiment that other leaders of Nations deny – pointing to the successes of the agreement to keep a check on Iran’s activities.
We’re not here however just to hear and reflect on a ‘week in politics’.
As we do Sunday by Sunday, we consider the wisdom of the Bible as we seek to understand God’ ways, the example and teaching of Christ, and unearth and discover the type of life and way of handling ourselves that God desires for us as His people.
Paul is writing from prison. He is away from the people that have given him meaning in faith and his letter comes deep from his soul. So much so he uses a Hymn to communicate with his friends – a hymn (not his own words) that would have familiarity to those who read/ heard his letter.
It speaks of what Christ means to the Early Church, and relies on grand language of how the multi-layered universe was understood.
This hymn is divided into two parts. The first is about Jesus emptying himself and becoming a slave. This is a strong word, but it is interesting to remember that the sacrifice Jesus made was done twice. The first was when Jesus emptied all that made him God – to become human.
Imagine what it must have been like to have been able to control the shifting stars one moment and then to be trapped in human skin the next.
Of course, we cannot fully imagine that, but it makes the point that Jesus gave up, sacrificed twice: once to become human – and then as a human, on the cross.
It’s a radical idea — God descending into human flesh.
Yet it’s an idea we are well familiar with – the wallpaper of our faith. These verses from Philippians 2 call us to see how radical this God is, and what that means for our lives.
God chooses downward mobility against all expectations of a deity.
In the ancient world, a god who was “born in human likeness” (verse 7) was a self-demoting God, hardly the sort of God useful for human life. It’s one thing for Zeus to become human for a day to play tricks, but it’s quite another for the God of the universe to “empty himself taking the form of a slave” (verse 7), that is, to take on flesh, become fully human, suffer and die.
Who needs a God like that?
This God doesn’t sound like a “winner,” like a mighty deity who comes to the aid of powerless humans – not like a ‘Marvel Comics’ Super-hero’ who takes down all the baddies and restores proper order and balance.
In fact, ancient folks were unlikely to trust the judgment of a “loser God” who chooses this sort of downward mobility.
In the Roman Empire, dominance, victory, and ascendance signalled power and authority.
How is it possible for humility, servitude, submission, even death, to signal power and authority?
Yet, verses 6-8 tell us that our God, in Christ, took exactly that approach; emptying Himself, becoming a servant.
This God loves and longs for us so much that God enters fully into human life — not putting on a human suit for a day but submitting to all the indignities and joys of human life, including death. This God does not withhold love until we rise to a divine level, but rather stoops to our level, scoops us up in all our messiness and makes us part of God’s own Life, the Triune Life, where we are healed and made right with God.
This is the choice God made to restore His connection with us. This is the choice of love that Jesus made – even to death.
The first part of this Reading today reinforces the reality that our God came to us.

In unequivocal language it is a reminder of the type of dominion God has in creation. Not dominion ‘over us’ so much as we are the puppets of an all-masterful, power-hungry ego-maniac, but ‘dominion with us’.
For God coming to us and becoming one of us makes dominion a force of relationship where we learn that it is in partnership with each other, and with God, with humble recognition of the values, opinions and rights of others, that we guide creation to the fullness and scope of its potential.
It is not God working over us that is the key to Paul’s understanding and message today. Although Paul is at pains to paint the picture of God being the God of the Universe – beyond our imagination possible – magnificent and integrated with all we see, it is God working in us that is the key.
We are told that it is this God “who is at work in you”.
It is quite a thought to be able to speak of these grand theological ideas, of Jesus exalted, of Jesus the Christ of the universe and know that this is the one who is alive in us. Suddenly we might see or feel differently about it all and about the capabilities we have and the responsibilities given to us, and the call to collaboration with each other and with God in securing the peace and glory of Creation.

This God is at home in us through Christ’s presence. He belongs and works in us. Not to make us in the form of God – make us better than others – make us lone rangers as we said last week – but to enable us to ‘being’ partners.

This ‘go-against-the-grain’ God sets the pattern for our lives.
Against the cultural narratives that tell us winning is everything, power is the goal, those who follow Jesus take on a downward mobility attitude about life.
We are to “have the same mind that was in Christ Jesus” being humbled by the same love that was in Christ Jesus.
It is in our humbling that we become fully and deeply human “to the glory of God the Father” – recognising this God of the Universe in us.

Amen

Sermon 6th May ‘A letter to a cherished congregation’

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Philippians 1: 1-18

I reckon Paul is like many a Church of Scotland Minister. A minister of Linked Congregations.
Across Scotland – mainly rural areas – most of my colleagues are Minister of more than one congregation – Minister of the Linked Charges of A and B and sometimes C and D. With a Kirk Session to Moderate in each.
Paul could be the Minister of Church of Philippians, Linked with Church Galatians, linked with Romans, Corinthians and on and on.
The trick of being responsible as a Minister of Linkages is, I presume, sharing yourself out equally and being dutiful in staying in contact – available. Even in prison Paul finds a way to keep ministering to Philippians with this letter – he begins with sharing greetings.
He is rather gushing in his tone to the Philippians here at the start. Praising them for their Faith and Goodness. There is much affection expressed so much so that the word used in Greek for ‘compassion’ is the same as intestine. How about that!
What he is saying is that his love and feeling for his congregation comes from deep in his gut – the place of deepest emptions.
Don’t worry I regularly write about my deep feelings for you good folks in such a way.

What Paul is describing is Jesus’ love – not just an intellectual thing but a deep seated emotional thing. This is the nature of Jesus’ innermost being; and as Jesus loves the Philippians, so does Paul.
Deep down what passion do you feel at your core?
Love for your family, Love for your friends?
Compassion for the vulnerable in our world?
Deep affection for God and His Son Jesus Christ?
Sometimes Faith – particularly when it comes to the practise of Faith within congregations of the Church where we are asked to be part of programmes, lead projects, make time for volunteering – becomes very much a ‘head’ thing. Sometimes our head hurts with all we must consider and think about and question. Some say Church can easily become a thing of burden – that following the Christian faith is only about challenge and commitment.
Today is a great day to remind ourselves however of what makes us happy. Deep Down – in our gut, in our core – what fills us with happiness? What makes us joyful? What ignites our compassion?

I hope amidst the long lists that hopefully we have, of those things in life that make us feel good, and that give rise to a passion inside us, is the God who in my opinion holds it all together – who makes it possible – who gives us the moments of happiness we know and makes us a compassionate and affectionate people.
Channelling that inner passion is not always easy. But, when we think of what makes us the humanity we are – it is this possibility of compassion and affection and passion that sets us up as special creatures of this Universe.

In the image of God, we have been created.
Perhaps it is the Passion of God’s very being – deep down in who God is (God’s Intestines), that is the most special reflection of the Creator in us. The ability to Love with God’s compassion. The ability to care for others with the same affection God shows for every part of creation and every creature. To Love back God – and to Love our neighbour.

We had an interesting discussion at our Life Group on Monday about anger. So often we think of Anger as a negative; as something we are meant to limit in ourselves. Often our Anger is unhelpful – ‘low grade’ that serves no good use and is destructive. However, we also recognise that there are times when we should be angry (we might call this a higher-grade anger) – that out of well-directed anger comes a restoration of proper order and rightfulness.
We know we need to Love more. That’s part of our Christian teaching. Yet, perhaps we also need to be ‘angry’ more when we react passionately to the wrongs we come across, the abuses we come across in society, the injustices of our world that leave people hurting.

It is the passion we have as human beings – at our Gut Level – that allows us to love affectionately with everything we have, and which ignites Anger in us in the face of the injustices and wrongs of society and world.

 

Paul writes “to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi”. Paul’s whole ministry is one of partnerships, sometimes with fellow missionaries (for example Barnabas, Timothy, Silas) traveling alongside him, and sometimes empowering local leaders such as Lydia or Priscilla.
So, while Paul seems like a big personality, he was not a lone ranger. Paul’s letter is clear that the whole community of brothers and sisters in Christ share “in the defence and confirmation of the gospel”.
For me this is one of the key point of the Introductory section of this Letter.
That we all “share in the gospel” is crucial.
We all share in the blessings of life – there is much out there that makes us happy.
We share too the fact that each of us at our core, in our Gut, contains the source of compassion that reflects the compassion of God.
And we share commonality in that being born of this One God we each have a share in the responsibility and blessing of partnering God in His work, through the church and in the world.
As Paul is compassionate for the Philippians – and about God – we too should be as affectionate towards each other and the people of the world.
This latter of Paul’s, as we know, was written when he was enduring his own vulnerability in imprisonment.
It’s not the only such famous letter written from imprisonment within the stories of the followers of God.
Martin Luther King wrote to the churches from his Birmingham Jail Cell as did Dietrich Bonhoeffer imprisoned by the Nazis during the 2nd World War. MLK wrote, ‘I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour’.
Dr. King wrote about the ‘The Beloved Community’. This was not a lofty utopian goal to be confused with the rapturous image of the Peaceable Kingdom, in which lions and lambs coexist in idyllic harmony. Rather, The Beloved Community was for him a realistic, achievable goal that could be attained by a critical mass of people committed to and trained in the philosophy and methods of nonviolence.
Dr. King’s Beloved Community is a global vision, in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood. In the Beloved Community, international disputes will be resolved by peaceful conflict-resolution and reconciliation of adversaries, instead of military power. Love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred. Peace with justice will prevail over war and military conflict.

Bonhoeffer, like Dr King, recognises that this work of the Kingdom needs the combined partnership of all who have the same desire to shape the world by the standards of God. For Bonhoeffer it the combined passion, and affection and energy of the whole Church across the world that is needed to put things right. ‘The Church’, he wrote from prison, ‘stands not at the boundaries of human experience, but in the middle of that village’.
It is at the heart of the realities of life that the compassion of the church needs to be directed. There, where people are hurting, shaking, and frightened – there where people are beaten, abused, and exploited – there where policies are marginalising the poor, where business outweighs concern for just sharing, where war and terror shatter people’s God given right for peaceable lives – there in these places the Church needs to stand as an outlet for our passion, affection and love – for everything that God Loves, and all He is angry at.

So, let me finish by saying this to you dear friends. My letter to you.

To all the saints in Christ Jesus here in Mannofield … I thank God every time I remember you, … because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.
I am confident of this, that the one Jesus Christ who joins us together in our world will bring it to completion ….
I pray for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. Full of thankfulness, God led me to you and you to me. Thankful/ Happy for your gifts and willingness to get involved, for your care of me and each other….
And this is my prayer, that our love and compassion and affection and joy may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight… as we determine what is best
…. That we might harvest righteousness in this World and create a beloved community of equals …. All who can enjoy experiences of God and know the same happiness and joy as we do.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sermon 29th April ‘Paul talks up his God – the One True God’

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There were once three artists who all loved God. One was a sculptor who made statues of bronze. One was a painter who made huge pictures on big canvas boards. One was a stonemason who wrote memorials and made carvings in stone.
One day they got talking about a big question! What is God like? What is God really like? The sculptor said to the painter, “Could you paint a picture to show what God is like?” The painter thought about it, and then asked the stonemason, “Could you make a carving to show what God is like?” The stonemason thought about it, and then asked the sculptor, “Could you sculpt a statue to show what God is like?”
They all decided they would try to use their best skills as artists, to make something that would show what God is like!
At last, all their work was finished and they were ready to show off what they had done.
The sculptor went first. “Look! Here is my bronze sculpture!” And there it was: a big statue of a man, who looked old and wise, with a long beard and a kind face, dressed in a flowing robe, and sitting with one hand on one knee, his head tilted to one side, and if you stood right in front of the statue, it seemed that the wise old man was looking straight at you!
The sculptor’s friends were very impressed. What an amazing statue. Is this what God is like?
The painter went next. “Look! Here is my painting!” And what a fine painting it was: a huge canvas board with a background of swirling, sweeping black brushstrokes, like outer space! Then there were streaks of bright colours, flashes of white and yellow, orange and pink. Tiny dots and curving circles. You could keep looking at it for ages and keep seeing something new! Is this what God is like?
Then the stonemason stood up. “I thought and I thought. What is God like? How can anyone possibly say, or show it in a carving. Look! Here is my carving.” Oh! Just one word. Just one, single, beautifully carved word on the slab of smooth marble. One word to try to say what God is like.
Well, the stonemason chose the word “Unknown”.
It made the painter and the sculptor think. Hmmmm, yes God is more than any painting can show, bigger than any statue can tell, way beyond what any carved word can say. God is God!
In some ways this is a positive and realistic depiction of God – but actually for me it misses an exceptionally big point about God and our relationship with him.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t like ‘not knowing’ something – don’t like being left in the dark – especially if other people seem to know.
We sometimes talk of the ‘fear of the unknown’, and I think it’s quite true that this can often be pretty scary. What you know can’t hurt you – it’s what you don’t know that can’.
Let’s say you were told – some POWERFUL BEING made the earth and remains actively engaged in the many aspects of creation and Life. But you will never be able to ‘know’ what or who that Powerful Being is – would that not be quite off-putting. I think that ‘Unknown or Unknowable Power’ would’ spark a deep and lasting fear in me.
How can you ‘relate’ to the Unknown – how can you have a relationship with something that is unknowable -a relationship that is anything other than – one based on fear?
The Unknown induces fear.
The story of Paul in Athens is one that is very interesting and relevant. Paul was engaging with a world that is not so dissimilar to our own. The Athens of his day, presents a picture that is a caricature of the world and the societies we are part of.
In his world, and our own, think of the religious and political diversity. The Greco-Roman philosophically-oriented crowd were discovering that their society was beginning to contain people with many views and from many different cultural backgrounds. We live in a day of religious pluralism. We live in a day of “spiritual but not religious.”

We live in a day of an individualized, privatized cafeteria approach to picking and choosing what we “like” from different religious, political, and philosophical worldviews, often in ways that contain no logical consistency. We live in Luke’s version of Athens.
Athens then, and our society now, give evidence to the fact that people show good intent and a charitable nature regardless of what religion or philosophy or outlook they follow. Most people are good – not unilaterally so – but by far in the majority.
Human nature is to be inquisitive. We are a searching people and continually evolve. We like answers to the world’s questions. Athens then, and society since, reveals this thirst for advancement.
Mixed in with all of this I think is the ‘fear of those things that are unknown’. It is this fear that drives us towards obtaining knowledge. It is this fear that sometimes generates feuds and intolerance between one group and another.
Paul in response to the invitation to go and speak to the learned folks of Athens, against this backdrop of mixed culture and diverse society, gives a masterful performance – great tactics, sensitivity, and powerful conviction. Call it a sermon/ or teaching – it doesn’t matter it was superb – and for us it is now a wonderful example of the type of approach necessary for us as the church today.
Paul is present in the Areopagus of Athens. A historic place which might be described as an ancient Supreme Court where matters of law were debated and decided upon. Paul being erudite and tactical gives a resume in eloquent terms that includes a reference to ‘the unnamed god’ and an opportunity to suggest that this unnamed god, so revered by the Athenians, is the God of his own belief, and the one true God. He speaks in an incredibly ordered and descriptive way despite the fact that some who heard him thought he spoke strangely. He is articulate and authentic in attempting to describe God. Although he uses the language of the crowd, (even quoting their poets) and connects it with real-life, he is not merely pandering to the crowd and giving them what they want to hear. He finds enough common ground, but at the same time he challenges them.
Paul is sensitive to the prevailing trends and beliefs of his society; he is relevant and not condemnatory of those who find it hard to believe in His God. He is at the same time clear and strong; no waffle – but true to his foundational values and grounded in the conviction of Faith.
He builds the bridges cleverly – connecting the beliefs of the crowd with the truth of his own belief; and sensitively seeking to connect ‘his knowledge’ of truth to those aspects of ‘unknown things’ in the understanding of those who heard him.
He took those things that the crowd held as truth and sought to give them help with those questions for which they had no explanation.
In the 3 verses immediately following this passage we read that some in the crowd came to believe in Paul’s God, some continued to struggle, and some openly scoffed. Yet Paul did not condemn those who did not convert – who chose a different path. He walked away and kept true to his task.
Here in our church today we gather and I some ways we stand apart or outside our societies. We ‘know’ God – or we wouldn’t be here. It doesn’t’ mean we don’t crave to know and feel God better but we connect the creation of the world with a known God – known to us; we know this God loves us and that in Jesus Christ he has shown us how much – we know this God seeks a partnership with us in the work of Kingdom Building in the World – a Kingdom of Justice and Mercy and Love for all. We know how lucky we are to ‘know’ this God for it’s relationship of personal connection – feel it in your hearts.

 

 

We are a Church within a community – a society a world – that is no different from Paul’s Athens. A world of mixed outlook yet the intent is generally good – most people are good. We know God – but many, many in our societies would say they don’t. There remains something ‘unknown’ in the understanding and perception of so many. Not because God is unknowable however. We talk of and relate to a God who is known to us, can be known by everyone and whose intention is that such a personal knowledge and relationship be enjoyed by all.
As God’s Church we learn from Paul. As we go about our business of church we do so respectful of those who choose other ways of looking at the world; we remain sensitive to the culture of our societies and when we speak we never do with condemnation in our tone towards those who can’t come to believe what we do. Like Paul, whilst remaining sensitive and open, we must none-the-less be clear in what we stand for, believe and do in the name of Christ.

Amen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sermon 22nd April. “No place in God’s World for Intolerance, Racisim, Bigotry and Human Exploitation”

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Acts 16:16-34

I’ve not been here for a couple of weeks. I must confess during that time I spent some time in prison.
It was quite a disturbing experience. Not pleasant.
Do I have your attention?
Yes, thankfully for me, and my reputation, it was the old prison at Peterhead which has become a tourist centre. Unlike the majority of so called tourist locations this one remains, however interesting, a haunting place.
Reading this story of Paul and Silas’s incarceration I find myself reading it in a new light given my experience in Peterhead a few weeks ago. I’ve been in prison before – there I go again – Barlinnie, Lowmoss, and Polmont Young Offenders prison – and my memories of these visits is the tension palpable in the air and the haunted look of the faces of some of those I was visiting – the expression in their eyes told the story of how much they were struggling to cope with their time behind bars.
Paul and Silas in prison, however sang hymns. Despite the injustice of their imprisonment – they sang hymns. When they had the chance to escape after the earthquake they stayed put.
When we handle a passage such as the one today we need to handle it with sensitivity.

Although we can think that God sending a earthquake was a fantastic outcome in this story – the reality of the prospect of a bunch of prisoners unchained and set free is potentially dangerous. I think of the profiles of those imprisoned in the old Peterhead Prison and I can only imagine the repercussions of a mass breakout.
The 2017 hurricane, Irma, caused the escape of over 100 prisoners from a prison on the British Virgin Islands. These included many high category and dangerous criminals who posed a real threat to the population. None of the reports at the time suggested this was an ‘Act of God’, and nobody considered this release of captives as the ‘work of the Spirit’.
Thankfully our story of Paul and Silas actually isn’t about the possibilities or evidence for something like a earthquake/ hurricane being counted as an ‘act of God’ or the arguments behind whether or not God, in his power, can enforce the release of prisoners, or undertake any other action, through the powers He can unleash.
This passage for me is not so far-fetched as we might think. This is less about the crash bang wallop of a God with tremendous power. Instead it is a description – an accurate portrayal we might say – of the sinister side to our humanity and the real-life intolerance, sectarianism, and racial hatred sadly – deplorably – found, never too far from the surface in our societies.
In this passage, we meet a “slave-girl” with a special “spirit” who “brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling”. A gifted girl is enslaved for the economic gain of the enslaver. Her gifts produce profits. W. E. B. Dubois notes that such profiting stems from the gifts of the vulnerable and powerless.
The world has not moved on that much. History points to a time when the Pharaohs misused men and women in the building of Empire, a time when the powerful enchained the Negro in humiliating service. Every generation of humanity can point to the oppression of men and women, boys and girls – even our own where evidence of maltreatment of our brothers and sisters is still prevalent today. Throughout human history and the present why is it that we can tolerate the abuse of rights inflicted on ordinary men and women? Why is it we seem to tolerate the situation where some are deemed second class citizens – or perhaps not human at all?
This girl in our story is pimped for profits because, for some, nothing is more important than money – nothing more important than attainment. For them, economy overrides theology and even supersedes humanity.
In addition to themes of slavery and exploitation and institutional racism this story also makes us consider xenophobia.

When Paul and Silas step in and ‘call the spirit’ out of the girl, her owners get all upset. They don’t see her as a human being – only as a source of profit; and if she is healed then their profits dry up.
When they make complaint against Paul and Silas to the magistrates they don’t however argue from the point of loss of income, but rather they hype up the crowd by playing on the fear of foreigners, xenophobia. The owners falsely accuse Paul’s company and say, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe”.
This is the attempt to demonize difference, those who represent the other, just because they are different culturally or religiously. Because they practice their faith differently, think differently about God, and look and talk differently, they must be “disturbing” us. Fear of the unknown and fear of change propels this xenophobic approach. The majority may feel that they will lose their “customs” when other “minorities” migrate into the land and do things differently. This is a extreme Nationalism.
‘Fear of the Other’ and ‘ignorance of the other’, has undoubtedly influenced through the eons of humanity. Fear has bread hatred and in that hatred, in the past and in the present, we can recognise treatment of human beings too often has fallen far below what must be acceptable to the God who gives life to all.
Be it slavery, exploitation of the marginalised, oppression of the vulnerable, anti-Semitism or acts of Racism on account of race, skin colour or religion, we cannot avoid the conclusion that too often we are a failed humanity.
And when we tolerate such failure we do nothing other than help reinforce the status quo.
Paul and Silas resist the social status quo. They rise up against it due to the “way of faith” that they are following. Their resistance to the status quo is not cheap. They engage in costly discipleship. Beaten, enchained they are thrown into prison.
Perhaps this is where the singing comes from. Not hymns of joy or hymns of lament – but hymns of defiance. Much like the old negro spirituals – ‘We shall not be moved’ – we shall overcome, someday….’
It is said, ‘A melody may be more powerful than any other tool because even singing has the power to change one’s condition’.
We do not know what Paul and Silas sing exactly, but we do know that it leads to liberation, freedom, and salvation. “Everyone’s chains were unfastened” (v. 26) and prison doors were opened. Their release leads to the jailer’s spiritual freedom and salvation for him and his entire household. A song leads to salvation. A hymn brings healing.

In Philadelphia last week we had a situation that resulted in a social media frenzy and ultimately the boss of one of the world’s best known brands, ‘Starbucks’, having to fly from Seattle to apologise for what he called a reprehensible situation where two black men were surrounded by 6 police as they sat in a store and were then taken away and released later without charge. No evidence they had done, or were doing anything wrong, was found.
The mayor of Philadelphia commented, ‘This is not just a Starbucks issue. This is a societal issue. People can react differently to others based on skin colour, and that is wrong. We have work to do, and we need to do so productively’.
The jailor in our story is perhaps key to our understanding of what we can learn. There are different ways we can be held captive in life. Sometime people are held captive by others – through abuse of power – through endemic ignorance, intolerance and racism. Sometimes we are held captive by the systems, traditions, fears and intolerances of a humanity that somewhere along the line has tarnished itself and unleashed a sickness in itself; where differences and classifications and degradation of others have spread like a contagion – anti-Semitism, sectarianism, racism, nationalism are all symptoms of how diseased humanity made itself.

But sometimes there are people who revolt against it – who choose the different path. Paul and Silas did that and although the earthquake may be a dramatic symbol of the Spirit of God in this story – the real liberation is the story of the Jailor who, previously held captive by the standards of his society, was set free by the faith and discipleship and standards of Paul and Silas, and this jailor joined the new way of faith – a new way of looking at the world.
We too me not be captive to the disturbing influences of our world. We’re lucky to be physically free – to work, earn, lean, choose worship. Some aren’t. Free in physical terms but are we ever captive to societal trends, acceptances, prejudices? Well, as God’s people we can’t allow ourselves to be. People of the world rely on us – God relies on us. God’s Spirit is always ready to liberate us – like Paul and Silas we must live by the melody of God and spread that melody in the world.

 

Sermon 15th April : Introducing Rev Alisa @ Broughty Ferry. ‘Called by God’

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Acts 9:1-19

No Preamble. No fancy dramatic illustration to capture your attention – we’re only a few seconds in to the sermon so hopefully I still have it.
Let’s dive straight into this story of Paul and Ananias – it is a fantastic story.
At its core this is a ‘Call Story’ – very much appropriate for this occasion today – it’s two ‘call stories’ in fact.
The dramatic calling of Paul’s epiphany is at the heart of the whole book of Acts. From persecutor to apostle – and it starts with the dazzling light, a voice from somewhere, blindness and then the regaining of sight. The rest – Paul’s teaching, preaching, faithfulness and church planting – is History we might say.
But the second story of the ‘calling of Ananias’, though much less dramatic, is equally, and perhaps more, important to us today on this Sunday of Introduction of your new minister.
There is also something I want to say today about spiritual blindness which is a big part of this story along with the whole concept of ‘the call’ of God.
Paul’s conversion is one of the great stories of the early church, and it has rightfully inspired Christians from every generation.

However, it is rarely found to be the story of you and I and the many other followers of God in the Christian Church. I have come across very few people in my time who claim a dramatic intervention of God in their life as the starting point of Faith.
There are some – maybe some of you here can point to a specific event occurring in your life, and such an event is undoubtedly dramatic. But for most of us, even if we pinpoint a moment in life when something changed in us. we recognise it was in fact part of a process – something was already there – brewing away in our life, and the event itself we point to is a catalyst that hurried something along.
For most of us I suspect – Faith has just been something that has progressed along – at varied speeds naturally – but generally – present for quite a while.
Paul’s Call story is one that may inspire us. It is also one that reminds us that in the life of faith we do encounter times when somehow God sends turbulence in our direction, or opens a doorway to a new path, and this is good – for sometimes we need direct intervention from God to put us on a new course – to jolt us out of ‘Blaise-ness’ – to correct a habit formed – to challenge us towards more influential service in our communities and world.
And as we see from Paul’s story – extreme as his shift is – God can do this; and God does do this.
I guess you, Alisa, will look back and say that a moment of intervention occurred in your life when you responded to a flyer saying there was an Associate Minister post available in a faraway city of Aberdeen, Scotland and something inspired and challenged you to send an e-mail of enquiry. And now look at you and your life path. A minister in the Church of Scotland – more than that the wife of a fine Scottish gentlemen and mother to two fine young Scottish (well half Scottish) boys.
We can all point to God breaking in on our lives – usually realisation comes with hindsight – most of us realise how God moves us along the paths of life.
Ananias story is even more important to us today.
We don’t know much about him of course but his ‘call’ is more likely the one most relevant to us – ongoing.
Ananias’ knowledge of Saul is that he is a persecutor, which he expresses in verse 13. The church in Damascus has been talking about Saul, and its members rightfully are afraid of him — he has, after all, been dragging Christians out of house after house, throwing them into prison, and desiring their deaths. Ananias didn’t know what had just happened.
He didn’t know that the risen Christ had confronted Saul on the road to Damascus just as Christ is now confronting him…”.
Though Ananias didn’t know about Saul’s epiphany, he did as God told him anyway. He trusted that Christ had a future purpose for Saul, even though Saul’s past, as he knew it, seemed to point toward a different future.
Ananias’ decision to go to the house of Judas on Straight Street to lay hands on Saul – was a decision to risk his life to do the will of God. The result of that reluctant leap of faith is that Saul’s eyes are opened, and he is baptized, becoming part of (and eventually a leader in) the very church he sought to wipe out.
Acts does not tell us Ananias goes on to proclaim the gospel to the Gentiles, found churches in urban centres across the Roman Empire, stand true to the gospel while on trial for his faith over and again, and end up under house arrest in Rome awaiting a trial before Caesar. But what Ananias did was obey God, strengthen Paul in prayer so he could do all of this.
What Ananias did was faithfully follow the lead of Christ, pray for Silas, and so play his part in the dramatic work that God had in store for Paul and of course the work of the Holy Spirit in the churches he established.
Now in case of any mistaken interpretation in what I am saying this morning.

I am not saying that all you good folks need to do as God ‘calls’ you to faithful service in this congregation is to pray for your new minister Alisa so that her eyes might be opened to all she needs to do, and all that can be done, and somehow like the superhero Paul do it all herself. Alisa is not Paul and we/ you are not Ananias in this story.
There is part of Paul and Ananias’s story in each of us – but most of the time we are most likely Ananias.
Those who are called upon to respond to God’s ‘call’ with obedience and faithfulness – even when God calls us into an unknown, or to do something, (or for someone), that appears ‘other’ than what we would normally accept as appropriate. For God has other ideas than what the world currently seems – the acceptable – and we, as God’s people, need to be led by God’s and not the world’s standards.
Like Ananias I think God is always calling you to prayer – to pray for your new minister – this means supporting her and her family and it means working with her. It also means challenging her and opening her eyes to ideas other than her own.
Like Ananias, God calls us make it a priority of our living to be faithful in service to God’s church and to the building of His Kingdom in the world.

Finally, I remind you that these Call stories today are contained within the whole backstory of spiritual blindness.
Paul dramatically lost his sight for a while. But, in the context of this story this is symbolic of his blindness to God throughout his life. Yet, his blindness to God was lifted in dramatic fashion. Ananias, as we said, did not know of Paul’s dramatic conversion on the road. He knew Paul as persecutor – and brutal at that. This was Ananias blindness. But, in a dream, God lifted that blindness and he faithfully went and laid hands on Paul.
Most of us have had a journey to faith that has been a slow progression with many stops and starts along the way. Some can point to a more dramatic intervention. Looking forward – I am sure we all recognise that the progression of our relationship with God is an ongoing process.
We might say it involves regular calls to conversion as God through his Spirit will continue to prod and cajole us along – sometimes dramatically altering our course – sometimes more subtlety.
In that journey of Faith there will be lots of light and clear vision, yet there will be also long periods of spiritual darkness. I like the expression ‘can’t see the wood for the trees’. It explains that sometimes we just struggle to see the best option, or see the clear solution, or decipher the best plan.
In faith terms these are times of spiritual blindness. Every individual Christian has them. Church members, Church ministers, have periods of haziness where pathways to solutions and the right course of action are hard to find.
Every congregation has them too – times in congregational life where the right courses in terms of style and relevancy, and engagement with different generations and with the community, might not be as clear as we would like it to be.
If we are in any doubt that times of spiritual blindness are the norm, consider the story of someone who to us might be the epitome of strong faith and consistency of faith.
10 years after the death of Mother Teresa, papers were published – the private letters – which revealed she recognised long periods of spiritual blindness in her life.
Listen to what she wrote, ‘Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me? The Child of your Love —— the one — You have thrown away as unwanted — unloved. I call, I cling, I want — and there is no One to answer — no One on Whom I can cling — no, No One’.
The rawness of these words are startling; yet it is a reminder to all of us that even having come to faith, living as a people of faith, there will inevitably be times when our relationship with God seems less certain, when our ability to hear God is harder, when our vision of God is hazy.
Yet, in the story revealed to us today we can take strength – knowing that time and time again in our life we can expect moments of conversation, when the blindness will lift, and God will once again reveal Himself to us and reveal His Will for us.
Alisa, I pray you every blessing on your ministry here in Barnhill. Good folks of this congregation – look after you minister, enjoy your new start.
May both you Alisa, and you the folks of Barnhill, know the ‘Call of God’ and respond faithfully to Him.
May you not fear in the moments of challenge, when the path forward appears hazy – for God’s Spirit is working away – He will lift you from those times of spiritual blindness and reveal the Love He has for You, and will make clear what path he wishes you to take in order to best serve Him.
Amen

 

Sermon 18th MARCH – ‘Who am I?’

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John 19:1-16

I think Andy and Ada have helped us quite a bit this morning.
Helping us understand the politics and influences of the time. ‘Mob Mentality’- has a lot to answer for. It’s clear to me that Pilate was trying really hard to save Jesus from the death penalty. He was uncomfortable with Jesus innocence – certainly by Roman Law, he hadn’t broken any rules/ laws.
Yet, the pressure from the Jewish Leaders, influenced him with the realisation that to retain order, maintain his position, and protect the solidity of the Empire, one innocent life was required – his only sensible option.
He had Jesus beaten up , then parading this beaten man, trying one last time to convince the crowd of the ridiculousness that this ‘man’ – ‘here is the man’ – could pose any threat to them – but even that didn’t work. Jesus had to die. ‘Here is your King’.
This week we find ourselves in the same conversation ongoing between Pilate and Jesus that we introduced last week. Pilate trying to understand the nature of the man before him – ‘what is truth’ he asked. Last Sunday we considered this question.
We surmised that in our faith, in religion, we find the truths that science, philosophy and maybe history can’t answer. We considered that maybe Jesus Himself was ‘truth’.
What he taught, what he did, and ultimately His death and resurrection unlock the truth of our relationships with each other and with God.
Pilate this week continues to question Jesus – trying to understand him – I would say longing to understand him. There is some seed of intrigue in Pilate to ‘get it’ – he just can’t get over the line for me. Wants to – but just not quite able.
Where do you come from he asks Jesus? To which Jesus gives no answer, having answered this already in John 18:36-37 although Pilate did not understand. ‘From another place’, Jesus had replied then – ‘my kingdom not of this world’.
Jesus’ origins remain in question throughout the Gospel. That he is from Galilee is clear from John 1:45-46 and reiterated in 6:42 and 7:52. But even beyond the glorious mystery of the prologue, ‘the Word was with God’, it is clear that Jesus is also from God.
Nathanael knows it. Even Nicodemus, who understands precious little, knows it. The man born blind knows it. Peter and Martha declare it.
Perhaps even Pilate finally has an inkling because from deep into this moment of dialogue with Jesus he tries in earnest to release Jesus.
But to no avail.
Later, the crowds harangue Caesar, demanding to know who Pilate belongs to – The Emperor or not – who does this man Jesus acknowledge- Caesar or not?
Pilate has tried but the crowds have their way! ‘Here is your King’ – ‘crucify him’, the crowds convict.
This man, King to no one it appears, wearing a crown of thorns, is led away to His fate.
The more I allow myself to enter into this unfolding drama I am led to the question of identity. Who is this man? The question on the lips of many. The question in the heart of many of the actors. ‘Who is this man’. For some a nobody, for some a means of gratification as he’s paraded around like a circus clown, has he’s demeaned just as a prisoner is thrown into the coliseum arenas round the empire. For some he’s possibly somebody but they’ve given up trying to figure it out and for them it’s easier just to join the mob. For some he’s a threat – maybe they know who he is, who he could be, but they don’t like the possible consequences to their own authority – best to get rid. For few, very few he’s the son of God who warrants belief and loyalty. Who is this man?
I’m e too this is the question Jesus must have asked over and over again of himself – ‘who am I?’ Throughout his life he must have asked this? He must have long before this confrontation with Pilate he would have known. Yet, Who did he want to be?
There must have been times when he would have longed for an easier road – safer road of anonymity and self preservation. Here at the end – Pilate it seems is giving him an opt out. It’s as if Pilate is longing that Jesus might say – I’m Jesus of Nazareth that’s all – I’m nobody need to worry about. It’s been a just a story of misadventure – a wee drama but really I’m no threat and in fact I’m happy to say I’m sorry, I got it wrong and I’m going home now – home to the backwaters, to Nazareth a village where I’ll follow my father Joseph into business.
We can guess Jesus at times was anguished – immersed in a personal debate with self – in front of mirror. ‘Who am I?’
Can I be someone other, and escape this fated pathway. ‘Who do I need to be?’
Sometimes it’s in the human arts that we can best enter into the emotion of such personal self encounter or encounter between two peoples or groups.
It’s no surprise as I ponder the natural question Jesus may have asked himself I’m led to the song ‘Who am I?’ in Les Miserables’.
Most of you will know the book, musical, film but a little background. . ….. is on the run hunted by …….. since the day he was released as a prisoner ……… someone else arrested in his place and he has the chance to slip away and let this wrongly arrested and sentenced man take his place at the gallows. ……… confronts him, not recognising him.
Who am I?

(Play video) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=izuD30Cp5Ao
I’m the end he decided the truth of who he is must dictate he hides not in the shadows, leaves an innocent man to take his snetnscne; he comes to the sense of ‘who he is’, who he is meant to be, and despite the possible consequences of the path ahead he leaves the safe path behind.
As we get closer and closer to Easter I put it to you – we must really fall on our knees in thankfulness for the fate Jesus took upon himself for us. Despite a possible route out he accepts who he is, his identity, his purpose and put His life in God’s hands. For us. All for the sake of the whole of humanity.
And so where does that leave us when we ask ‘who am I?’
Do we ask if enough – do we really look often in the mirror of self identification?
When we do, I think the story of God’s Word, the story and outcome for God’s son, becomes the mirror which reflects back the truest image of who we are. We are the people whom God loves. We are the people for whom Jesus accepted his fate. We are the people for whom Jesus accepted the identity of ‘who he was’ and did not deny it.
That is who we are. When we ask ‘who am I?’ let us find that the answer first and foremost be – the one who Jesus loved, the one loved unconditionally by God.

Amen

 

 

 

 

 

Sermon 25th Feb – Jesus washing the Disciples feet.

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John 13:1-17

Do we have any chiropodists here – any ex-chiropodists.
A perfect profession for today’s theme.
There are some jobs that make you think twice whether you would want to take them on. People often talk about a dentist in that way, but what about a chiropodist? Traditionally a chiropodist is someone who may have treated both hands (chiro) and feet (pod) but now the term chiropodist and podiatrist are commonly used as podiatry specialists deal with the feet.
The original term, chiropodist, and its connection between hands and feet might better connect with this week’s story as Jesus’ hands are brought to bear on the dusty feet of his disciples. A task usually reserved for servants is taken up by the leader who is not afraid to get his hands dirty in the process of bringing cleansing to others.
As with so much of John’s gospel, such as the healing of the blind man and raising to life of Lazarus, this story again is operating at different levels. You have the physical action of cleansing, the water and towel, the hands rubbing away the dirt, but you also have the recognition that all this is symbolic of something greater, deeper, more resonant with God’s will and the confidence Jesus had in that will.
But it is truly again a remarkable story and sets up the final days of Jesus journey to the Cross.
John, differs from other Gospels in that he takes chapters upon chapters to detail what Jesus did, and said, on these last days; he also differs in the fact there is no ‘Last Supper’, this is the moment for John – only the second dinner detailed (the first being the one with Mary and Martha and the use of perfume to bathe Jesus feet) – this is the moment of Institution of announcement of preparation – of symbolic love.
Love is the verb used here. The pure and simply is an act of Love. At two levels – the symbolic one – pointing to the future and the physical one matching the command to Love.
Let me deal with the symbolic meaning first. We know water was used in the Old Testament for purification acts. The sense that water not just physically cleans but for those faithful to God this act of purification has meaning in making ones’ whole life clean before God. As Baptism followed on from this in John the Baptist’s and ministry and Jesus own Baptism, this symbolism is carried forward to be the sign of belonging given to a follower.
The symbolism of this act is significant. In washing feet Jesus is saying that purification – cleansing from sin is something that is pre-paid for us by God’s servant – by God’s Son. Of course, Peter can’t understand this. He argues with Jesus. In time he will know what Jesus was pointing to and saying.
We have the rest of the story to read back into this symbolic action. Pure and simple – this action points symbolically to the fact that in Jesus’ death – God’s sacrifice of His son – we have already been made clean, and in the grime of life in all the hazards we face as human beings which trip us up and make us stumble a distance from the ways of God, God continues to cleanse us from all that we think makes it impossible for us as weak humans from standing before His gaze. As someone once said, ‘God’s Love is the best answer for all they stinky things of the world’.
This is quite a simple conclusion for us to recognise today and rejoice in. So too is the second.
At a physical level, perhaps this story is even more straightforward.
Jesus’ act of foot washing is an action parable, which he makes clear in verse 15: “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” The description is full of verbs ‘rising, laying down, taking up, wrapping round, and pouring before he begins to wash and dry the disciple’s feet’. That the King of kings bends low to dampen the soiled feet of fishermen, tax collectors and zealots in an act of service and humility is without question an act of Love an action of Love.

This is where everything is turned on its head. This is where Jesus actions merge with what he says later in the chapter – giving the world the new commandment, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
Jesus’ example suggests that loving as he has loved means taking the role of a servant, caring for the needs of others without expecting anything in return. His example suggests that it is to do this not only for those who treat us well, but even for those who disappoint and hurt and betray us. Can Jesus really expect us to do this, to love and serve even those who fail us or stab us in the back? Are we not allowed even a few exceptions to the love commandment?
Jesus’ commandment to love one another is not a commandment to feel affection, but a commandment to act in a loving way, even when we would rather do otherwise. Of course, we always fall short of God’s perfect love, but that cannot be an excuse to nurse grudges and wallow in unloving behaviour. As we are washed by Jesus in God’s deep and generous love, our hearts are stretched to love more completely, fully, unwaveringly.
It is good this week, still near the beginning of Lent, to spend time with this story. No doubt part of John’s desire in including this moment at the start of the journey towards the cross is that it encourages us all to think about our own attitudes and lives. Are we cleansed and prepared, ready to journey with Jesus to the cross? Are we in a frame of mind that is ready to receive the radical edge that the gospel provides? Are we ready to have the dust and grime washed away from our thoughts and attitudes so that we are prepared to meet Jesus along the Way? Are we ready to take the basin and the towel and become servants of our neighbours in the world – ‘loving them in the way Jesus Loves us’?