Sermon 26th Aug ‘Let the Children Come to Me’

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Luke 18:15-17
Numbers 6:22-27

Before we move onto the New Testament Passage, we have to start with our Old Testament one! Why?
Well, surely of all the passages we can find in the Bible, it’s the one that best sums up the nature of God – and His benevolence towards us.
You’ll recognise the words contained within it of course. Most likely at all the Baptism you’ve ever been at – you’ll have sung it – usually without recourse to words (though now we have it on screen and we also recognise the appropriateness to have it displayed as those not commonly in church (baptism guests) wouldn’t know it and we risk leaving people feeling left out.)

Let’s try and recite it with me – ‘The Lord Bless thee, and keep thee, the Lord make his face to shine upon thee, and be gracious unto you; the lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give ye peace’.
The verse itself is an ancient one. It is recognised as going way back into the time of the Israelites; appearing in many different texts within our Bible. Most likely used by the ancient people as a Benediction at the close of worship. Within Christian times the text was found on small silver tablets (no larger than a playing card) dating from 6th 7th century – perhaps the earliest discovered piece of biblical text.
It’s foundational to our faith.
Grammatically it’s a masterpiece and I want to summarise our understanding of the text – as its relevant and indicative of the character of God and his love towards us.
God is the actor in all six clauses of the text: bless, keep, make the face shine, be gracious, lift up countenance, and give peace. The six verbs together cover God’s benevolent activity from various angles and state God’s gracious ‘Will’ for the life of the people.
To “bless” testifies most basically to the work of God – serving the life, health, and the well-being of individuals and communities. The verb covers the spheres of both creation and redemption, from gifts of fertility and posterity to spiritual and bodily health. Importantly no conditions are attached.
To “keep” refers to God’s shelter for the different journeys we face.
God’s “face/countenance” is a common description for God in the Psalms. “shining” draws in elements of light – and contrasts with the idea of darkness. The shining face of God signifies God’s benevolent disposition toward the other, for which Israel can make no special claims – This favour of God is for the whole world. In modern language we might say ‘God smiles on all’.

The word “peace” (shalom) is the climactic word of the piece. In the words of Dennis Olson, ‘the richness of the word includes “prosperity, longevity, happiness in a family, safety, security, good health, friendship, and general well-being.’
The text finishes with a line additional to our commonly used Blessing which says, ‘I will Bless them’. And this line effectively concludes by saying – this Blessing of God is shared with all that they/ that we – might ‘wear it’.
That means believe it – take heart from it – live by it.
Powerful – heart-warming stuff.
No wonder we use it at a baptism of a child – maybe we should use it more often than that – daily as a reminder of God’s countenance towards us and all – that we might ‘wear this Blessing’ as we go through our day to day stuff!
The inclusivity of this Blessing as certainly made me think about how we have treated the notion of Blessing over the years of our Church – how we have portrayed what it means to be baptised for instance.
We’ve not got any old pictures up in the church anymore – but I recall the pictures adorning the wall of my home church – also appearing on publications like the baptismal bible received children in the 60’s 70’s 80’s sometimes beyond.
These images tended to show Jesus with babies on his lap or reaching out to them – giving his blessing as if it was a reward – on chosen ones.
Not only that – but how foolish the image makers were to have Jesus portrayed as white skinned, blond haired and blue eyed. (all very unlikely given his ancestry and origin!)
All of this tends to build a view of the Kingdom of God as a place where those whom Jesus loves are welcomed. Some chosen for the special reward of entry. Are only some loved, welcomed, indeed Blessed?
When we think of the Kingdom as something inclusive, something to be created and shared, and not as something that is a reward for those who are faithful and chosen, then this passage and the familiar words often used at baptism take on new understanding.

Rewards are okay – we like awards for jobs well done, for races raced etc. Gifts however are something completely different. Not awards – but free gifts – no strings or attachments, not based on achievements.

Gifts are meant to be treasured and used. Not to do so is an affront to the giver. Such gifts are not intended to be hidden away from view.

When we are told then, “receive the Kingdom of God”, it is
to be thought of more as a gift of blessing that is full of
opportunity and purpose than considered as a prize.

It is not meant as a reward for good behaviour. It is more about pointing to the opportunity we have for co-creating the Kingdom of God. We are a part of a process.

In the words of Blessing we have been describing this morning – surely, we see that the countenance of God towards us and all people is a gift freely given. He loves us unconditionally, and that He promises to ‘keep us, shine His face on us, be gracious to us, and give us peace’ – is a gift to treasure.
Jesus in the story takes this Blessing a stage further. Just as some seek to place limits on God’s Love (creating obstacles for some getting close to Jesus (in this case children)), he strongly rejects such selectiveness. “Let the children come to me for the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these”.
God’s smiles on all.
And Jesus goes further still, ‘Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’

‘Receiving the gift’ of the Blessing of God, does not mean hiding it away, hoarding and protecting it like we do our medals and prizes. It means with gratitude – using the gift.
To use the gift of knowing we are part of the Kingdom of God and Blessed so lavishly by God – is to invite others to know this gift too; that they might recognise themselves as those Blessed by God that they might come to ‘wear’ it as we do.

Jesus here is teaching us a lesson.
He is pointing to the opportunity we have for co-creating the Kingdom of God. We are a part of a process.
To help the Kingdom of God grow we are meant
to live with the freedom, inquisitiveness, energy and
determination often associated with youthful humanity. Our thinking, our questions, should be about how we can help the Kingdom grow. Never satisfied, we push on for more… like a child. Never content – we know no limits to what we can do …like a child. Never compromising, or narrow minded – we stand up for justice – we use imagination…like a child.

‘Blessing’ is both acknowledgement of God’s love for us,
and the extension of energy and purpose and inclusiveness
that is so needed for the business of growing the Kingdom
that God desires to see in our world.

In the story of Jesus welcoming children and the tones
found in the words of Aaronic Blessing, we have confirmation of our relationship with God and an encouragement to recognise how blessed we are as humanity loved by God.

Within all of this, is the revelation of the Kingdom of God that we are all responsible for creating. God’s Blessings is shared around the world, and throughout our communities, as we use the gifts and talents, and opportunities of time, God makes possible in us, and for us.

It is in the image, or metaphor, of the energy of children and the determination of youth, that we have our inspiration for fulfilling the task.

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Sermon 19th August ‘The Boy Jesus’

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Luke 2: 41-52

Who has, who has had teenagers at home?
Who has been a teenager?

Okay so that covers all of us. A strange species the ‘Teenager’. David Attenborough could be well advised to create a documentary on the ‘elusive, species of The Teenager’.
Now I need to be careful here – I have 3 teenagers at home. (2 here today). Now Holly would tell you at Preaching Class (if there was such a thing) the Lecturer advises don’t hold your own family up as examples – not fair on them nor the congregation. So, boys – you’re off the hook! Kind of!
We can’t talk about teenage without unsaid reference to our own experiences of being one, living with them, dare I say it coping with them.
Okay to Jesus – now I know you are going to say hang on is Jesus not just 12! Doesn’t really matter he’s on the cusp of teenage years if not adulthood. He is beyond his years anyway!
What’s clear is he is acting like a teenager! Going AWOL and then there is the tone of voice he uses with Mary – well! I don’t know if he is using sarcasm or care towards his deeply caring parents. But clearly there is something going on in this story.

We do not have much detail of the childhood of Jesus given
in scripture. The account of Jesus running away from his
family and spending time in discussion with the scribes and Pharisees in the Temple, is a rare glimpse of the boy Jesus.

It is a very human scene: a boy coming of age, expanding his knowledge, thinking for himself, not
merely accepting the truth as other people tell it, and,
what’s more, willing to state his mind and argue his own
corner. It is refreshing to see this human Jesus and it
teaches us a lot about God.

God affirms the young. There is no doubt about this. Too
often past cultures, and the Church included, has wrongly
silenced the voice of the young and placed a lesser value on
them than given to adult humanity. This is a scandal.

Jesus said, “Let the children come to me”, and this story of Jesus on the cusp between childhood and adulthood affirms long before the start of Jesus own ministry that Jesus, son of God, is held up as an example of the value that God places not just on the place of young people in the church and world and family of God, but their voice, their understanding and opinion.
God does not impose limitations on us based on age, or indeed any other derivation such as culture, gender or race.
Children have a full place in this church of ours. We might not have boundless numbers – many reasons for that I think. But one reason is not – because somehow we have created a barrier to their presence or inclusion.

There is more to it of course than just saying we welcome children and are open. There needs to be something directly appropriate to their age and right to learn and be introduced to the Christian faith.
We do that in many ways, nothing more important to this than our Young Church. I have been so heartened by the response a few months ago for volunteers to take a turn at spending time with our young people and providing a suitable session with them on a Sunday. Over 20 people are involved in this and that’s not including a team of Younger Adults planning a couple of Powerzone weeks and a team of Guild Ladies helping with Remembrance Day crafts.

That’s special I think – blessings shared all round – to the children by the adults and to the adults from the children; increasing the sense that the responsibility for young people is a whole church thing not just a few designated Young Church Leaders.

Young People matter – not just shown in what we say, how we welcome, but what we provide for them here in this place!

Now, the story of Jesus in the Temple goes a step further. I see a teaching about Relationship in this story.
Isn’t it strange that often in relation to our children the thing/ trait about them that irritates us the most is also that part of who they are distinguishes them and makes us love them as unique and special all the more. Love them for their uniqueness and unwillingness to be regulated by the influences of others—even their parents. To love them for who they are—not who we want them to be.

There is a lovely aspect to this story, when we are told, “Mary “treasured all these things in her heart”.
Any good parent would be deeply scared and then upset
at her son for disappearing. She would have been distraught and very aware that Jesus by his actions, was putting his safety in jeopardy. She would have been angry. Yet soon afterwards, knowing he is safe, she
recognises Jesus’ passion and keenness to learn. She adores her son for his individuality. She accepts and wants to see that grow.

Mary’s relationship with Jesus is changing. She was his mother. Jesus needed her as all babies need someone to care for them.
Now, Jesus is showing signs of independence.

Mary is still his mother but that relationship and its character and cycles changes and will continue to change.

It’s the same with our own relationships with parents and children.

As a baby our parents are one thing to us. As older children/ teenagers/ young adults, they are another thing, and then when we become old, and our parents become very old, the relationship changes again and we perhaps are the ones doing the caring.

What about our relationship with Jesus. I think that changes to. I was thinking about this trying to go deep into memory and emotion and figure out who Jesus was for me, and is to me.

In the broad sense he’s been the same for me, but at different times perhaps a particular sense of my relationship with him dominates for a while.

When I was a child I guess Jesus was like a brother a friend to me. Constantly there as a presence on my journey through life.

I guess when I became a parent a carer to my own children I wonder if for a while the dominant relationship with Jesus was one where I parent Him. Baby Jesus – in the care of parents like me – Mary and Joseph. Maybe looking to make Jesus happy, not sad, with me – because I try and live well the life God signposts for me. I feel Mary’s pain as any parent would – the thought our own child dies before us.

Now at the period of life I’m at now – maybe again, the dominant connection with Jesus changes for me as I contemplate, as a parent of older children, the fact they soon will make their own way in life. Its’s important that my children can be free to be themselves.
This was something Mary had to understand – that Jesus was not going to be a man limited by her own expectations but that broader influences of destiny on Him were natural. My relationship with Jesus now perhaps takes on all of this. I see him again as he was released to fulfil not Mary’s expectations but God’s. I see him not as a child to be taken care of and please but as someone to challenge me to be as free and dynamic and driven as he was in his ministry.

In our relationship with Jesus sometimes its too easy to seek to control him. Keep him as a baby in our control.

We love the birth stories and often I think we keep Jesus as he was in order that we retain control and are not challenged by a Jesus who questions, challenges, demands and acts decisively – we protect ourselves from understanding we are to be like that too.

Jesus does not stay as the child to care for – he becomes to The Parent to learn from and be influenced by.

I like the story of a Toddler in a Church who got a bit confused (I think the Toddler had a baby brother so was able to see how quick a baby grows into a wee boy). Anyway, the Toddler was getting a bit confused in the Christmas Season and interjected something like why are you talking about Jesus the baby – ‘wasn’t he born last Christmas – and so isn’t he a boy now’. How we try to keep Him vulnerable – so we can look after Him as a baby – not willing to allow Him to be Lord of our lives in its true, decisive and influencing sense!

When we let God be Lord, then our relationship with Him changes from one where the depth of impact of Jesus and God on us is limited – to one that means we can’t limit ourselves to less than a radical witness in our communities and world.

Jesus, like our own children, is not to be limited to who we want Him to be. We should see Him (as we should celebrate in our own children) as ‘who God made Him to be’

 

Sermon 12th Aug – Ruth marries Boaz: Ruth Chapter 4

 

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Ruth chapter 4

I’ll be sorry to leave the Story of Ruth behind. Over the last 4 weeks we’ve worked our way through the 4 chapter.
It’s been inspirational and challenging – I hope so for you too!

We’re not the first, nor will we be last, to find Ruth’s story edifying and enlightening.

The Five Megilloth, a Jewish commentary, said, “In style it is matchless: fresh, simple and graceful. The spell of the book is altogether irresistible, for it lies in the heroine whose name it bears; and the chief charm of Ruth herself is her unselfish and devoted love of all that is finest in the physical and spiritual world.

The German poet Goethe called it “the loveliest complete work on a small scale ever written.

In my two weeks of leading worship, as we looked at chapters 1 and 2 we’ve reflected on:

• However, unworthy we feel – God loves us and will always love us
• God meets us in the care and kindness of others – no coincidences but God provides for us in times of greatest need
• Overarching of course is the theme of unconditional love and kindness and welcome that we should show our neighbours and those who cross our paths as strangers

Today I want to focus a short while on what the story of Ruth might gives us as a message for then Church in these days.

So much of the Bible’s imagery can be applied both to the individual life and the life of the Church – worldwide or local.

Ruth is no exception.

Within the story is plentiful imagery – leading us to consider New Life in God.

What is barren, desolate, spent, exhausted, broken, hopeless, dead – becomes refuelled, refreshed, reborn and alive with Hope and purpose.

This is a story full of indicators pointing to God’s ‘redemptive work’, bringing to be – the Harvest of new life to creation and to humanity.
Here in chapter 4, Boaz and Ruth marry, and Ruth bears a son. Life is transformed: from barrenness to birth, scarcity to plenty. Under God’s direction it appears a plan of transformation is under way. Such ingress of transformation is illustrated even further in the image of Naomi who is described as becoming a “wet nurse,” to the child in such terms as promoting an image of Naomi’s transformation from tired, dry breasts, suddenly round with milk.

Abundant harvest, overflowing blessings, new life where before there was only emptiness — all of it is made possible through the ‘hesed’ of God, enacted by Ruth and Boaz, every day, ordinary people who demonstrate extraordinary love and faithfulness.

Take this story as it works in both contexts. Context 1 – On our individual paths through life – God’s ‘loving kindness’ is never far from us. Through work of the Sprit – through the ‘non-coincidences’ the kindness of friends and strangers who journey with us – long time or briefly. In that ‘hesed love; – transformation works in us and through us as we show kindness to others. Context 2 – this is a story too about how God’s transformative powers work within the ongoing story of God’s people as a collective – as a Church. How what is stale and cumbersome, and withered and in some circumstances, dead can be transformed into something alive and nourishing and life-giving.

We’ve spoken about the keen debate going on the Church of Scotland at this time about the need for regeneration – and that it is recognised that transformation in many ways needs to be radical. This story of Ruth has something to say within this debate and programme for change.

There are two specifics in Chapter 4 that help us.

First off – what do you think about the elusive character in the story who basically ‘did a runner’ when hearing that part of the deal to take on the parcel of land was to marry Ruth. To the point of marrying Ruth the deal was on. This unnamed man was a closer relative to Naomi than Boaz so in effect he had first option of the land and marriage. He was enthusiastic about acquiring more land but suddenly remembers a previous appointment and makes himself scarce when Boaz says that marrying Ruth is part of the bargain. So, having fulfilled all righteousness, Boaz receives the community’s blessing on his marriage to Ruth.

It’s quite a humorous part of the story but it contains value in working out a message for the Church. It is possible to portray this ‘unnamed man’ as a very legalistic, by the book, traditionalist, all-business like figure. Indeed, some interpret this as a hidden reference to the legalistic religion of the day upheld by the power-brokers of the Hebrew Faith. What seems to me lacking in the picture of this man is ‘Romance’. As soon as Ruth was brought into the equation he couldn’t cope.
Ritual and Business was a path with defined lines – romance is fluid and fluctuating – more heart-led then head driven.

What the Boaz and Ruth relationship had was chemistry. Ruth has a gentile opens the door to a fresh approach.

As a parody for something much broader than the relationship between two people, we see a description of a much less restricted way of doing things. We have boldness, we see the willingness to be imaginative and creative, a preparedness for risk taking, liberated to have a go and see where the whole journey takes you.

The Church of Scotland is going through the debate about radical reform. This year’s General Assembly was different many say. Traditionally it has appeared that the Church of Scotland adopts a very the conservative approach to change – as if the head rules the heart, the rule book or in this case the Acts of the Assembly sacrosanct. Often this leads to structures, laws, traditions being the overriding factor of a Presbyterian Church system.

I am not saying that this has been turned on its head – but at this year’s Assembly it certainly appears as if cracks are beginning to appear in the usual approach. There was less burying the head in the sand, there was an unwillingness to stick with Reports and Decisions of Assembly that the majority saw was the Elastoplast over a wound that allows for little healing and regeneration.
We have stared a journey it appears where risk taking, and more freedom to try things, be different and be less constricted to the traditional approach, will allow for the drive that comes from the heart in such matters to be as equally important as working out systems and strategies with the head.

In think that’s a good thing. I think that’s a necessary thing. I think that’s the being ‘faithful to scripture’ approach that we need to encourage as we seek the path for the church to follow – as we seek to get on track with the path God wants us to follow.

The second specific comes at the very end. The book of Ruth ends with a genealogy.

This child, Obed, will be the grandfather of David, Israel’s most beloved king. The story of Ruth leaves us, with the promise of God’s faithful love, God’s ‘hesed’, overflowing not just into the ordinary, everyday lives of two widows and a farmer, but into the lives of all Israel.

Through David and the eventual offspring from his line who becomes the Saviour, Lord Jesus Christ, this faithfulness extends all the way into our lives and into the Church today.

There is something encouraging to be taken from this. Ruth is such a wonderful story, but it is more than a story.
It describes something living and effective, liberating, redeeming and energising – love that is transformational.

It is more than just an ancient story for as it connects with a genealogy that links the events all the way through David to Jesus, who is the head of our church, who is the
life-source at the centre of all we do in the church, we recognise that this transformational love of God is as active today in the church as it was in the characters of the Story of Ruth and the wider Story it tells of how God was present for an ancient people – bringing harvests of blessing on His people – out of love for them.

This same God works in the church today. He can be relied upon. No matter the uncertain paths – how barren the landscape may appear for the Church in these days – the ‘hesed love’ God has for all His people means His Spirit can be relied upon to energise this Church of His to breath His Love into it and through it in the most productive, and socially beneficial of ways.

Whether it be the National Church and its ruminations on the future, the changes that will undoubtedly be seen in the next years and decades – or be it our own local congregation here and possible Unions with neighbours, greater collaborations with others and our determination to be relevant to the people who love around us – take heart that we are part of a long lineage where God does not fail His people.

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

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 .

 

cos-strategic-plan-2018-2028pdf

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.