Sermon 14th January: The Abundance of God and Equality (Wedding at Cana)

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John 2: 1-11

Mary, mother of Jesus, often described as poor and humble, meek and mild; yet very much front and centre of the goings on at the famous wedding of Cana, in Galilee.
Not only that, but given that the only other time Mary is mentioned in John – it is as she laments her aching heart and sheds tears of grief at the foot of the Cross that bears her son – we might reflect on the significance of Mary’s central role at both the beginning of Jesus Ministry (the so called 1st of John’s Signs pointing to Jesus significance as Christ/ God’s Son) and at the end as He becomes the sacrifice for God.
Mary’s heart ached as she saw her dying Son near to death. It’s not inconceivable that she berated herself – thinking back to the Wedding where she pleaded/ demanded Jesus do the spectacular – so revealing Himself – asking the question if she hadn’t pushed so hard, if she hadn’t been the spark to ignite Jesus standing out – maybe it would not have come to this. Speculation, but not inconceivable that a heart-broken mother might blame herself.
Yet, the Cross is still many weeks away. In the timeline for Jesus we are at the start – the very start and full of vigour and passion and hopefulness Mary is a central figure in this moment of Gospel revelation.
Here Mary, she of travel by Donkey and a birthing suite of a smelly stable, of poor and humble station sparks a scene that becomes the 1sy Sign of Jesus power and divinity. She does so not through any sense of feminine vulnerability and weakness – not by being a woman to be pitied who needs a strong son to bail her out – but through a decisive interjection of strength. For Jesus the time might have been ‘not yet mother’ – but for Mary it was time for the world to see. She knew – she knew – and it was time for the world to know of God’s Son. This was Mary in full strength and conviction – not meek and mild.
This poor and humble reference to Mary we often make the mistake of taking as some sort of theological statement – churchy summary – of her significance as a woman in comparison to the importance of all the men who appear as if taking the centre stage in the story of God in the Old and New Testament and in the histories of the church since. Such a condescending view. Poor – humble Mary.
Yet in fact the poor and humble references we have often made are better suited to describing the physical reality of Mary and not he theological standing in this extraordinary story. Poor, and from a humble family and strata of society is what she was. As to would befit a description of her husband – or any of her friends – male/ female – from the village where she lived.

That the son of God be encouraged to come out of the closet as it were – be revealed/ introduced – by someone so poor and humble as Mary, is significant – not because of her gender but because this implies a God who doesn’t care about Social Standing and Formalities and Power but who cares only about the welfare of the whole of humanity and who chooses to reveal the abundance of the Gospel, and frame the priorities of the Gospel, in a way he chooses and not as the world might choose it. And he chose Mary to do the honours.
Often, as we seek to make sense of what the Bible exposes, we turn to everyday affairs – our experiences – those things happening in our world today – stories often revealed in the headlines of the news – as reference points through which we might relate what the Bible unveils to our existence today.
In thinking about Mary as perhaps the central character in this story – as the star of the show as it were – I couldn’t help but think of the tremendous show of feminine strength and solidarity that we met in the early part of the week as the Golden Globe Awards Show was dominated by the energy behind the move to address the humiliation of women in that industry by moguls and executives over the years who have subjected women to terrible abuses, harassment and favours in order to be chosen and in order to pursue careers.
Oprah Winfrey summed up the mood, saying “a new day is on the horizon”, going on to say, “For too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dare speak the truth to the power of those men. But their time is up. Their time is up!”
Dressed in Black the audience showed solidarity in a statement that cried our for fairness, and equality.
On the same day a BBC Journalist wrote an open letter to the License Payers after resigning from her job decrying the unfairness of a systemic position on pay within the BBC which leaves women underpaid compared to male counterparts doing the same job. This news story grew and grew as people spoke out and the BBC was called to defend itself.
2018 some say is to be the year of women. When they will become respected as equals and treated with the dignity they deserve not as women but as human beings.
We live in a disjointed and absurd world, when we must establish crusades and movements to right the wrongs of those groups who have been discriminated against and treated as second class to other. Maybe 2018 will be the year of Women. Maybe 2017 was, or should have been, the year of the poor. Maybe 2016 needed to be the year of all who were oppressed under dictatorship. The year before the year for those who were discriminated against on account of sexual orientation, or race, or skin colour.
That our world exists with such inequality acceptance is tragic. And who can argue that such a world is not at odds with God’s intention.
The stories contained in the Book in which the Word of God treasured and protected – the Bible – all point to the actions of a God for whom inequality and abuses of power are unacceptable. And yet the world has created and then turned a blind eye to so much wrong it seems. God story in the Old Testament it seems to me is about restoring the sense of God’s sovereignty over all things and humanity’s special relationship with Him.
The thrust of the Spirit’s work is the restoration of proper order in the Universe and within humanity where all are protected under the unconditional love of God; where opportunities are made available for all.
The New Testament shares the story of God’s intervention into a world that continued to exist in a fractured state and unveils that for the world of 2000 years ago and the world of today there is a new thrust to God’s work in the world.
God’s whole work before and through Jesus it appears to me is about bringing those people who are forced to live on the margins of life, for whatever reason – poverty, discrimination, limited opportunity – and growing the centre to be the place where all – all – get to share in the abundance offered by God, through His Love for all.
As we journey through the 4th Gospel we will see that the author makes it His work to continually point people to the truth of what God has achieved in Christ. We remember that these Miracle Stories are better interpreted as Signs. The detail of the magnificent feats of Jesus don’t matter. They are signs signposting Jesus.
Here in the Fourth Gospel we encounter extravagant abundance as the hallmark of this first sign of Jesus. The wine created from the water is clearly superior in quality. Yet the key to this story is that this transformation is of God and points to God. Transforming the water into wine is not just delightfully mysterious or an act of extravagant abundance; it declares the glory of God.
The Gospel witness is emphatic that in Jesus, there is always the promise of superabundance. And this abundance is protected not just for a few but is offered to all.
When we are in invited to a wedding we take it for granted that the hosts will feed us and provide us with something to drink. In the days of the wedding at Cana it was more a case of BYOB. Just as well as the wedding generally lasted days if not weeks and I am not sure the Bride and Groom could fit the Bill otherwise.
In this story we know Mary like some others were not well off. Maybe some were embarrassed at not having anything to drink on account of not being able to afford to bring any wine or their limited wine having run out. Some scholars suggest that it was out of embarrassment that Mary asked Jesus to intercede; embarrassed at being shown to inferior to other gusts who were able to afford to bring with them much wine and of decent quality.
Reluctantly Jesus acquiesced. The conclusion is this wine shared with those who perhaps had little, began to flow and it was of the best quality. This take on the story is very similar in conclusion to the miracle of the feeding of the 5000.
It is a signpost to the abundance of God – who in His richness gave the new wine – Jesus to the world – and makes available the abundance of His Love to all.
This sign that Jesus performed challenges us, and our faith communities, to engage in everyday living and practice that will make a bold witness to the world that the resources given to us through God’s awesome abundance must serve those who have very little – that the richness of life’s blessings must not be limited only to a comparative few.
The superabundance of God’s grace is spectacular and the signposting to this truth apparent in such Signs as this story must drive us to work for such a world where inequality and lack of opportunity for some are not tolerated or propagated.

It took the special intervention of Mary in this story to Notice the inequality, to become Intercessor so publicly, to make the connections between Jesus and the servants as the starting point of putting the matter right.
Mary – poor and humble in her physical background but thankfully not spiritually or in the eyes of God. She proved herself a match for anybody – male or female – in the story of God and that too is a reminder for us in this age that discrimination between male and female isn’t acceptable and the abuses of power of one sex over another even less so.
Amen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Sermon: Watchnight Service Christmas Eve 2017

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In the very moment of time when Jesus was born something of significance -great and eternal significance – was established. This was the Incarnation of “Gospel”.
Quite literally, Gospel means ‘Good News’. It would be near enough 100 years before the writings we know as ‘Gospel’ would materialise but there that night – under stars, a ramshackle dwelling for animals, or the basement of a house, “Gospel” – “Good News” – came to earth and was planted like a seed within the fertile longings of a humanity under pressure.
Martin Luther says the Bible is the Manger that holds the “Good News” of the birth of Christ and the Love of God for His people.
After Jesus is born in Bethlehem and placed in the manger by his mother Mary, Luke switches attention to the hills around Bethlehem and to some shepherds keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel, a supernatural messenger from heaven, appears to them and makes this announcement:
“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people”.

 

In that simple statement – we have a summary of the great depth, meaning, promise and hope of Incarnation. It’s contained there in one line “Christmas” – it’s significance wrapped like a present in the wrapping paper of a few words – that hide the eternal promise gifted to the world.
Now you will see that the verse naturally divides into three. The announcement of “Gospel” – “Good News” bookended before and after with phrases that give explanation, acknowledgement and assurance (the before), and challenge and intention (the after).
Do not be afraid/I bring you good news of great joy/that will be for all the people.
Therefore, I want us to think about the Good News in 3 parts.
1. We do not need to be afraid.
The very first thing the angel says is Do not be afraid.
This, you will discover if you look, is a typical phrase to be found in the mouth of Angels. The words identify that part of being human that is the experience of fear. In this case the angels were specifically scared of the ethereal vision perhaps of an unusual appearance before them. But underlying this, this is the description of a fear that underlies the shepherds fear of troubling world where they recognised the hazards and warning signs of the time.
Part of the Christmas message is that we should not be afraid. Sometimes the world inadvertently stumbles on this truth and understands a little of it.
If you know the lyrics of the Band Aid single “Do they know it’s Christmas?”, The first line is a rather predictable “It’s Christmastime” but then, rather unexpectedly there is the angel’s line “there’s no need to be afraid”. Further on in the song we are encouraged to “say a prayer” to “pray for the other ones”.
The truth is that many now are fearful – in a world that can be quite dreadful. We all know fear at certain times.
This Gospel brings a message of Good News to the fearful. The Manger holds not just an infant child but Good News. An acknowledgement that God understands our human fear – how scared we are about much of what we see and experience in our world.
Be it personal struggle, lack of confidence in the politics and leaders of our world to rise above self-interest and divest more selflessness into their governance; be it climate change effects leading to the overheating of our planet – breaking up of polar ice caps and more extreme weather patterns – that leave us worried about planetary issues, the assurance of the Gospel of Good News is that firsts and foremost God understands and He enters with a note of Assurance. He responds!
2. That response is good news – good news of great joy.
I bring you good news of great joy ….
Now the birth of a baby is always good news, but this was a very special baby, of course, who had been born. This was the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ himself – the one who would grow up to be the Saviour of the World. This is good news and it should fill us with joy – Good news from heaven not from earth.
God takes control of the situation – God gives the answer/ the solution.
These days there seems to be a lot of bad news in the world. Many people are struggling economically. Some people are even losing their homes. The winter weather has been treacherous in spots. Wars are still raging in numerous locations all over the globe.
God has sent his one and only Son into the world to save the world through Him.
This is the focus of Christmas meaning; the good news of the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ, the one who can save the world from self-destruction of a kind that varies according to whether we are thinking of human struggle, fractured national and race relations, or the geography of the planet.
What greater good news could there be? What joy it is, what great joy, to know that God so loved this world that he gave his one and only son in response to our problems.
This is no mere sentiment to say this. Some might say well how exactly is that going to change things.
The point I make is – for me as the Gospel evolved into story and book, it does so – framed around the words, and stories featuring this Son of God; which also shines a light on the truths of the Old Testament too. With the result our whole scripture becomes a true Word of God for all times. A living Word. A living Gospel. It’s a manual for how to fix the world’s problems, reshape human relations that spawn Hope, establish wider justice.
Yet, unlike other text books/ manuals this Word to the world comes with living promise – energy of hope. Jesus is born to show us God’s Loves us. A Spirit of Good News was given embryonic birth and that Good News lives on today.
Christmas also shows us the way to truly Love.
Do not be afraid here is good news of great joy – and……..
3. This good news of great joy is for everyone who will hear.
That last phrase is very significant. This is Good News of great joy for everyone.
It’s for us – those of us who gather in church in celebratory and reflective mood. It’s for those who are not here. It’s for those who call themselves Christian; its for those who follow another religious path; and those who follow none. It’s for those who have reason to celebrate and find it easy to do so be so because life for them, for us, is good.
Most of all it’s for those who find it difficult to celebrate, those who feel the world doesn’t care or has forgotten about them – those who feel excluded and judged.
This Gospel of inclusion challenges the over comfortable. It challenges us.
The manger holds the child of refugees; the first visitors include poor shepherds from a group in society often overlooked; other visitors are included in the story who come from a different culture/ religion. A Gospel of inclusion and a challenge this day to those who hear the Good News – to create and build and extend Good News across humanity and planet.
“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people”.
Christmas wrapped up in three layers.
Fear not – though life seems confusing and troubled.
God responds – God enters our struggle as Love – great Joy is discovered in him. Gospel is unleashed Good News in word and Spirit/ Energy.
All who hear, are challenged to include everyone in the Joy that is Christmas as we take on the commands of Gospel to make sure Love is extended to all.
Merry Christmas.

 

 

Sermon 1st Sunday of Advent HOPE

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Daniel 3:1,8-30

As we enter Advent, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego
provide us with a wonderful story that is full of imagery
and colour. Typically, in Advent we of course look for the
light of Christ breaking into darkness. Whilst the energy of a blazing fire intended to consume the lives of our three friends is perhaps not the usual entry point into the themes of the season, nonetheless in the story – we will see that the burning fire provides for the dramatic intervention of God, and mirrors many other such stories where God becomes present in the most surprising of circumstances.

God’s intervention in the affairs of the world – of our existence as His people is pretty much after all what the season of Advent is about.

‘O come O come Emmanuel’ ‘make safe the way…. close the path to misery’, ‘disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadows put to flight’.

Come thou long expected Jesus,
Born to set thy people free,
From our sins and fears release us.

Hark the glad sound! The saviour comes
The Saviour promised long.

This story from Daniel, shares similarities with many other fiery stories from the Old Testament.

Instantly we might recall back to Moses and
the Burning Bush (out of which God revealed Himself) or Elijah showing off to the Priests of Baal
as he fired up the furnace seven-fold, yet the holy ones were unharmed because God was revealed as present to protect His people).

Whilst we might say that this story of a King ordering the burning of three young men is a departure from the
usual Advent message of light breaking into darkness and the typical themes of the Sundays of Advent—Hope, Peace, Joy and Love – we will likely have come to know by now that the Advent season is all about the surprises that God makes known. Part of Faith is to be surprised by the way God reveals Himself – the way God is revealed in the stories of the Bible and in our human life.

Perhaps we are all ready to pick up on the ‘joyous message of Advent and Christmas’ perhaps we have come to be comforted and inspired by the familiarity of the themes we expect to hear – messages of prophets, the stories of the John the forerunner to Jesus, of Mary a young mother and her encounter with an Angel, of Shepherds. And so we should – for it is in this wonderful season we discover all these wonderful hope-filled encounters.

Yet the magnificence of Advent is in its grounded-ness in the world’s real experience. Advent is not a Disney or Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer inspired production that is far removed from the nitty gritty of real -life experience.

It matters to us because of how it speaks to the way we actually experience life and the need we have God.

Should Advent solely be about the joy of impending Christmas celebrations and a concentration on the happy themes of how blessed we are?

The very fact that our traditional Advent themes feel so
appropriate and needed in our life and world—past or present— is because they contrast with the direct opposite.

Reflect with me on this.

Light is not so big a deal if we have no experience of darkness.

Hope is life-giving and transforming because it replaces despair.

Peace is what we long for when the experience of warfare, terror or personal struggle drains life of what it is meant to contain.
Joy feels so good because we know how much of a struggle
it is when it is not present or when other things in life make
it elusive.

And the experience of love feels so good and right
because when it is absent it feels like a huge hole exists in our very being.

Advent is a season of promise because of the contrast unveiled between one existence and another, between one outlook and another.

When you consider these experiences or emotions – the experience of life being full of Light, there being reason to feel Hope, the sense of Peace, the presence of Joy, and the gift of Love we realise that for those people who struggle to capture such feelings – and for some as fear it’s absence of all of them at once – life is so very, very difficult. Preparing for this service I googled these emotions/ experiences and it struck me how immediately I was in a list of stories describing real people’s experiences of being mired in the absence of what so often we take for granted as being present.

This story in Daniel is a colourful, clear and unforgettable story of contrast. It connects to Advent because of this contrast.

 

It contains first a straightforward encouragement to ‘trust.’
This ‘trust’ asked for is not focussed on the ways and practises and priorities of the world, nor in the worship of icons and idols made of human hands, but instead to stay faithful to the ways of God.

Daniels audience were in trouble – persecuted and held captive in a foreign land. I am not going to go into the fact that actually what Daniel was doing was telling a story for the current time of Persian captivity by setting it into a previous time of Babylonian captivity for at the end of the day he did this for effect and to make a point of encouragement for those currently in a challenging place.

Daniel 3 thus details the exemplary behaviour of these faithful believers who, despite the worst kinds of trials and tribulations, remain faithful to God and refuse to give up their religion.
It is in God that deliverance is made most real: deliverance from such experiences as darkness, despair, the existence of war, terror and injustice, despair and the absence of love. The miraculous nature of the men’s survival leaves no doubt that it is only because of God’s intervention that they did not succumb to the empire’s attempts to wipe them out.

Secondly it contains an invitation to see the activity of God – even amidst the turmoil and turbulence of life’s worst moments.

Appearing in the flames there is a fourth figure. Is this figure an angel, is it God?

It is a figure, regardless of any specifics offered, very much central to the deliverance of the three friends as they emerge unhurt from the flames.

Perhaps it is in this mysterious fourth figure that we see the introduction of the protective God we seek, and the foreshadowing of Jesus in our narrative of incarnation – which confirms God as the one who comes to rescue the world and His people from a life where Hope, Peace, Joy and Love are absent.

 

Sermon Remembrance Sunday 12th Nov 2017

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John 15: 12-13

John 15:13 – “Greater Love”
Have you been busy brushing, raking, bagging leaves? Why do leaves fall?

Leaves can only make food when they have enough sunlight…

Most deciduous leaves cannot survive freezing temperatures…

Trees lose water through their leaves. If deciduous trees kept their leaves when the ground froze, they would continue losing water…

Many leaves are damaged by leaf-eating insects, eggs and larvae…

Basically, the leaf has become useless + a liability = “the weakest link”!

So, the tree protects itself from the leaf, which it abandons to the winds!

 

Connection with Remembrance Sunday?

I going to take a text today from John 15: – Particularly verse 13 –

‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes[a] to make it bear more fruit. 3 You have already been cleansed[b] by the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.

12 ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

 

Jesus knows what is about to happen (arrest, trial, death, resurrection, ascension). He impresses on his disciples their need to remain in fellowship with him + true to him… He speaks of the vine and branches.

I have spoken of a tree and its leaves. The point is, Jesus (unlike the tree that casts off the leaves which are its weakest links) – Jesus the vine or the tree – does not cast off his branches or leaves! Nobody is useless to him. Sometimes we act in ways that make us useless to God’s desire to shape, and restore the world to the Kingdom of peacefulness and justice He wants.

And I think this that in addition to Remembrance Sunday being the chance to Remember and acknowledge those who have fallen in war and who serve in our armed forces, it is also the chance for us to think about our own willingness to follow Jesus commands to love the world, strive for peace, and restore God’s justice in creation.

To help us consider this I want us to focus on the image of fallen leaves.

 

1 – Fallen Leaves

Today we honour those who laid down their lives for us…

Untold numbers in two World Wars and conflicts since – including N Ireland, Falklands, the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan

Fallen leaves – not shed by their nation, but who we might say “laid down their lives for their friends”!

Today, we honour their memory. We recall their sacrifice. We thank God for the freedoms they have won for us at such cost.

It is said that a soldier fights to the death for his/ her mates/friends. He will do anything for them. They are a team – a family.

I think of the great love shown by those whose names we honour today. We assess the measure of their love by the sacrifice they made.

And it’s interesting for me that their sacrifice for others very much mirrors the command of Jesus:

‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’.

2 – The First Leaf

Jesus is not just the tree – he is also a leaf that fell. When Jesus speaks of the love that lays down its life, he is not committing us to a path he has not himself trodden. (What a lesson in leadership!)

Where in all the world do we see greater love than the love of the Lord Jesus, who laid down his life for those – whom he names his friends?

He left the comfort of being with God, to come to a world of darkness, suffering, sin and death – to bear the taunts and rejection of men and women who questioned his motives and challenged his authority.

And why? To open the way for us and all people to know peace with God and each other!

I ask you today, in considering those men and women who took literally the challenge of Jesus words, have you considered Jesus was Himself the fallen leaf? Sacrificing Himself for us?

 

3 – Take Leaf out of His Book

From the words I have used from John, I see Jesus bids you and me to follow the example he has set,

‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’.

He calls us to mirror his great love –

Not only those who have served, or serve, in war, but each of us is called to take a leaf out of Jesus book – the example of Jesus

How can we measure up to this calling?

Not by the strength of our own inner resources, but by the power of his life within us! And by the power of the Spirit working through us.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the very power of God! He does not call us to go where he himself has not gone, nor where he will not go with us. The call may be daunting, but he will give us strength. God is rich and abundant in his kindness to all who put their trust in him!

Some have sacrificed life to die for their friends. Their friends have not sacrificed them, – God has not sacrificed them. But their willingness to look out for others has resulted in the ultimate sacrifice.

The rest of us have been called to live in the freedoms that the sacrifices of others have paved the way for. There is still a commitment. There is still a cost. Mayne not going to war, and the sacrifice of death, but other commitments we make to follow Jesus commands: ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’.
For as long as people have sought to follow God’s teachings and influence creation towards being closer to God’s own vision for it. There have been people who have stood out as those willing to speak a message – give a word of challenge – to others in order that God’s voice will be heard above and over the other noises and influences in our world.

The prophets – and there are many – are such a people. Amos is a star amongst them.

Who is a prophet? Amos is a good example of the special
people of God who study what is around them; what
is going on in their world, and their time, and seek to
express a ‘Godly’ point of view. Sometimes this is issued as
a warning that comes with a demand for things to change.

A prophet is someone who interprets the circumstances of their
time through the eyes of God, and who then in his or her words
seeks to aid others to envision the world God seeks for his
people.
When we think of war, and particularly the wars we are drawn to
remember on this Armistice Sunday, we can reflect on whether
those who fought, those who governed, and those who waited
for the safe return of their loved ones, considered a view of
what was going on in their time along the same mantras as that
which Amos looked towards in this passage today: “seek good
and not evil / hate evil and love good.”
Those willing to sacrifice their own security in situations of
conflict may have had in mind some aspect of looking ahead;
doing what they were doing for the sake of the future. Giving up
so much for what they believed was right.
As Amos would understand, and all of us today who live by
the convictions of Christian faith would surely agree with him,
the normal order in God’s world is that justice, righteousness,
love and mercy should roll down through humanity and be the
natural state of things. It is when there is a problem, a blockage
(which might be a person, dictator, ideology), that the natural
flow is interfered with, and the prophet’s call for ‘change’
becomes necessary to hear and enact.
All of humanity deserves life. The UN Declaration of Human
Rights has affirmed this. Yet Amos recognised that the reality
for some is often different. Some groups within humanity were,
and are, denied the liberty that is the birth right of all.
Our faith, calls us to seek justice for all: “Let justice roll down like
waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

Justice is not vengeance – pay back for what others have done. It is not warmongering for the sake of flexing power and protecting self-interest.

History describes how sometimes war and military action in
the past was inevitable. But after times of conflict we must
recognise there comes a time for the pursuit of real justice
as livelihoods, human confidence, earth’s landscapes, and
relationships demand to be restored.
Just because we might recognise the inevitability of war and
conflict in the past based on the prevailing momentums of
the time, we do not need to accept, nor should we, that such
conflict and action, and ultimately destruction, is inevitable in
the future.
The pursuit of Amos’s vision for God’s world, as described in
our lectionary verses today, present us with a working model
for the activity of faithful service and discipleship in the world
today as we seek to establish true justice and righteousness
within humanity.

 

Sermon 5th Nov – ‘Pyrotechnics and a scared Labrador guide us to the need for stillness to hear God’s voice’.

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1 Kings 19:1-18

In many ways this is the worst night of the year for my, prone to anxiety, dog. This weekend is for many pets and animals a challenge to get through without feeling stressed.
A few years ago, we thought we would be kind to our dog and visit the vet to see if there was something that could be given to alleviate a degree of stress. I came out with a vaporiser and dog diazepam. All-in-all cost me a small fortunate. Didn’t really work and I vowed that in future years I would give him a wee shot of Whisky or Brandy to sedate him. Cheaper and more fun – for me.
This Sunday night, is the night of loud noises where
onomatopoeias like crash, bang, wallop, whistle, screech,
whiz and whine, barely do justice to the cacophony of
noise over and within the skies of the United Kingdom.

Now, don’t get me wrong – it can be quite good fun. It’s exciting and exhilarating, yet most of us are grateful when in the later evening the noise starts to dissipate – except for a few stray rockets and then as the weekend passes the evenings return to stillness.

There is something synonymous about all this 5th November related noise and the stillness that we wait for, with the experiences of general life.

Life is generally, (if not often), – explosive, non-stop, breath-taking, whizzing close to be out of control. And we find it hard to feel stillness – to catch our breath – to create enough room and space to find ourselves, find God, find signposts.

We’ve spoken before about learning to ‘Stop’ – ‘breathe’ – find time for conversation with God. Yes, we’ve spoken of it – yet such stillness often remains hard to find – remains elusive. So yet again, today we need to be reminded of the required discipline of finding time, or creating time, for self-healing to take place, re-orientation to the bigger picture of our relationship with God and the direction of travel he calls us to. Such discipline of prayer life and ‘me-time’ doesn’t mean that hard work stops, that the pace of the whole of life necessarily needs to, or should, slow down; or that we don’t try as hard at our jobs, or make ourselves available to others we serve as much as we do. It is about recognising that to stay busy and productive, we need to balance this with time for self and time taken to be with God.
Israel under King Ahab was seriously challenged by the fertility cult of Baal worship and its rituals. Ahab’s consort, Queen Jezebel, aggressively promoted idolatrous religious behaviour and slaughtered many of Israel’s prophets.
In I Kings 18 Elijah confronts King Ahab at Mount Carmel. The result is overwhelming victory for the Lord: the prophets of Baal are exposed as impotent and destroyed. But in chapter 19 Elijah is on the run. Jezebel has threatened to kill him. He flees south, first into the wilderness and then to Mount Horeb (another name for Mount Sinai). There he hides in a cave. Some scholars think it might be the same cave as Moses himself conversed with God in.

Utterly depressed, he pours out his complaint to the Lord and yearns for death. He has lost his sense of call – he cannot find God in chaos of what his life has become. He feels totally alone. Depression has a way of distorting reality.

God responds to Elijah in theophanies: torrential wind, powerful earthquake, and raging fire. But Elijah does not sense God in any of these. Then there is “the sound of silence” (the literal translation of the Hebrew text), that awesome stillness after the storm. At this point Elijah becomes aware of God’s presence. The pyrotechnics of theophany are replaced by serene stillness. The prophet goes into receptive mode and is reoriented to journey on in faith.

Where is God? Is he in the noise of the wind, earthquake and fire? Is he in the silence, the quiet still, small voice?

 

Where is God found in your life – is he absent when the fireworks start – when the pyrotechnics of: deadlines to be met, childcare costs and responsibilities, marital and family discord, financial strain, poor health and medical scares. In the crashing and whining, straining and whistling of the hurly burly of life is God absent.

Well know he is not absent it’s just very often we can’t hear him, can’t detect him. Or because the noise and pace of life distracts us, and we don’t bother looking for him.

As I re-familiarise myself with the text and the theophanies: torrential wind, powerful earthquake, and raging fire I am taken with the fact the text is not saying God was absent, but that Elijah could not detect God in the high energy. God after all was the One, we are told, who sent the theophanies God must be there.

Yet, it was when Elijah found himself in the presence of quietness, of stillness that he heard God’s voice and allowed himself to be reoriented to God in that peace.

I am firmly of the view that God is never absent from us. Never, never, never. If there is one thing I am convinced about in my faith and have been since I first thought about it when testing out my call in the selection process for candidates of the ministry, it is that we are never separated from the Love of God.
Paul of course tells us this – but I very much take it to heart. In the storms of life, the bustle of life, the fireworks of life – God is as present as he is when we are feeling all in the world is leisurely and peaceful.
What is a lesson for us once again is the challenge to live life in such a way as we make enough time for God, that we give ourselves enough stillness to meet with God, and better detect the assurances and signposts he has for us.
A couple of observations from a day in the hills last week.
We were in Aviemore and I was studying but on the Friday Aaron and I set off on a hill objective I had in mind for us all but due to near gale force winds we thought it best for it just to be Aaron and me. Cloud cover was low and the fog too meant that from under 1000m visibility was maybe 50 metres or so. But I knew the route, had the map and the GPS watch so we were fine.
Many of you will have climbed Ben Macdui and know it falls away on one side sharply into the Larieg Grhu. The path up to is goes near to one of the Corries and along the ridge for a few kilometres before the summit. It would have been nice to show Aaron the views down into the Corrie on one side the Lairig Grhu on the other and the views of other mountain tops like Braerriach and Cairntoul. It would have been nice but there was something actually very peaceful about walking in the cloud, not seeing anything other than just a few meters ahead.
The wind, wind-chill and otherwise silence confined in a cloud – not a cave – but a cloud – was definitely a moment for me when the solitude, and peacefulness brought a silence within the otherwise busy life I have and yes in that moment I can say I heard God speaking to me.
The other observation from that walk comes through the moment on the return down from the summit of Ben Macdui we wanted to extend the walk to cut across to Cairngorm going around the two corries we had passed on the way up. OF course the problem was I knew from the map and the route the path across was at the Loch Budhe – a wee lochan at the side of the path up where a second path heads East to Cairngorm. The thing is we missed it on the way up – the fog was so dense – despite it being right next to us according the map. I got my bearings and knew that it must be 900 metres from where I was checking the watch and my watch kept counting down the metres until I felt we should just be at the point of the splitting of the paths and the loch. But still no sign of it – check the map again – yes I was sure – and then for 30 seconds or so here was a break in the clouds and it was as clear as day right there – mere metres from the path we had taken on the way up – yet we had missed it.
I could have trusted myself and the map to head East through the cloud but to suddenly be granted a break in the cloud it was as if we had been granted the signpost that was needed just to feel assured, safe and confident.
My observation refers to life. Sometimes we are in a fog of stuff to be done, business and stressful situations. Like me with my map, watch and experience we do indeed have many of the resources that help us through those times – we are resourceful people. However, there is something else we need to learn to do. And that is to not forget to make some space, give ourselves some time, find the silence and detect God’s voice and importantly discover the signposts he positions for us to help us find out path through the terrain of life – especially the times that are a little rocky.
Today through the story of Elijah, we are given a signpost from God. God confirms he is present in all the circumstances of life. He encourages us to take heed of the need for space and silence in life – for it is in these moments we are best in a position to lock on to God’s presence and be reoriented to God. He assures us that there will be plenty of signposts left for us in life – the trick we need to adopt is finding the stillness in order to better spot them that we might more assuredly walk on under God’s direction and not merely relying on our own compass.
Making ‘stillness’ in our life allows for a closer connection with God. It is in the stillness that we can hear God speak our name more readily. It is by pushing out the noise of the ‘other stuff of life’ that we hear God and feel him anointing us and affirming us with his love.
AMEN.

 

Sermon 29th Oct. “God’s home”

King-Solomons-Temple-model

1 Kings 5:1-5; 8:1-13

You have got to love this story of the planning for and then the dedication of the Temple. Particularly in the context of what we have been through in these last 8 years. Every day I walk in through these doors, work in the offices and rooms, worship in the sanctuary I thank God for the opportunity we have been given. And I hope I don’t ‘take it for granted’.
I bumped into former Director of Burns Construction this week at a funeral here and I laughed at his opening remark. ‘Well it’s still standing’. Thank goodness after all we’ve been through.
When I think of the building of the Temple – I imagine who might be the reflections of the people I worked with on our project here.
Who was the Architect who was tasked with designing – no less a task than a ‘home for God’.
Who was the fundraising person who came up with the initiatives and had the drive to raise the funds needed.
Who was the site foreman who held the project together?
Who was the fabric convener – as I like to think of him the ‘task master’ who cracked the whip and got everyone organised and motivated?
A few facts as background to this story.
If you think our planning was endless then appreciate that planning for The Temple in question took place over two generations. David had the idea – he felt bad there was no ‘home’ for God, yet he had a nice place to live in. His ambition was met with a rejection however. In different places of Hebrew scripture, we have different reasons given as to why it didn’t happen.
In Samuel we are told it was because God had no need of a permanent residence, in Chronicles we are told David had too much blood on his hands, elsewhere the suggestion is there was no money because of all the wars David was fighting. So, it was left to Solomon David’s son to complete the task.
Construction took 7 years. Our 12 months was a breeze compared to a 7-year building programme.
Politics were at play in the building programme. The wood for the project came from a friendly neighbour – the King of Tyre who had been loyal to David and now to Solomon. You might say Solomon was looking after the pocket of his friend. Reminds me of Putin – did you watch the programme of Simon Reeve travelling through Russia.
I enjoyed the part when he highlighted that Putin as a young man was part of a judo club and interestingly now -so many of his friends from that club now find themselves business men with contracts awarded by the Kremlin for various construction works.
And I want us to bear in mind that the manpower for this project would have been huge. It’s likely that foreigners were required – chain gangs. Maybe a bit of Egypt Captivity coming back into play – this time with the shoe on the other foot – we might say the whip in other hands.
It’s important I think for us to be aware of these things. To set the Temple within the context of a very human story – blood, sweat and tears, and practices not particularly moral.
You see so often we talk of the Temple of Jerusalem as God’s Temple. That’s the way the Hebrew people dreamed it, worked for it, saw it for over 400 years before its destruction then sought to rebuild it. It was to be built as a place for God to dwell. The place for God to be found. It was a monument to God’s Holiness. A lavish statement to the entire community and world that the Lord God, God of the Hebrews was the best God in the world; that Jerusalem was the finest and holiest city of the world; that the people of Jerusalem, the people of God, were the luckiest and special people of the world and the whole world would see it because of the most magnificent structure ever built.
But remember too the human story.
Let’s delve in a little deeper.

As a starting point we must recognise the positive. To build a home for God is honourable. For the Hebrew people God was at the centre of community, worship was at the centre of community. To provide God a home where people can gather, to worship, discover, and speak His name is understandable. Such desire is evident in all the wonderful Christian churches built through the centuries since -centres for faith and worship – positioned at the heart of society and community.
The negatives are clearly seen too in this story of the Temple construction.
Solomon built it with forced labour – foreign captives and it was only possible through heavy taxation and oppression.
Again, that’s not anything that hasn’t been seen since. For instance, as you know this is Reformation Sunday and on Tuesday, the 500th Anniversary of start of the Reformation is acknowledged.
You will recall from your Church History the story of Martin Luther on the 31st October 1517 pinning his complaints against the catholic church – his theses – on the church door in Wittenberg, Germany.
The substance of his complaints came down to the practises of indulgences (the practise of buying forgiveness from God) where the catholic church was raising money, taxes, for it’s elaborate construction work; in-part for such projects as St Peters in Rome for instance.
Now I’ve not visited, but I know from what others say it is truly spectacular and a magnificent testimony to the glory of God. Yet for the Reformers they had, had enough of the direction of travel which saw the institution of the Church creating obstacles for men and women coming to a personal relationship with God.
Intriguingly I heard this week that as the catholic church in Rome ran out of money they came up with the great idea of selling indulgences – but not in Rome/ Italy but to the silly folks of the church in Germany. No wonder Luther and his colleagues in the German Church kicked the whole thing off.
My understanding of Reformation is it is about creating new and relevant and appropriate ways for people to discover God. In the 16th century many believed the church had hit a road block – that people were being blocked from relationship with God by the system, practices and institutions of the church.
Reformation is no 16th century invention for me as I look at the story of God and His people. The Old Testament itself is full of moments where people agree to change something – to free-up the opportunity for people to know God.
Moses, Abraham, Joseph, David. All sought a reformation of practice to allow God’s rule to be made known in clearer, appropriate ways. We draw attention today to Solomon’s Temple.
Behind the desire for it, is a Reformation of an idea to build a Temple so that people can come and experience God in a new way. The prophets continued to appeal for the need for new ways to open God’s true ways for people of the time and then Jesus came. He came to the Temple and what did he say – not how great and wonderful is this temple but,
‘‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up”. The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking of the temple of his body.
Jesus is a reformer – changing minds and attitudes, systems and practices, rituals and injustices, minds and hearts.
The reformation may be positioned into History, and particularly the 16th century, but we might say the truth of ‘reformation’ is, that in the story of God there is always the need for it – past present and future.
As the world changes, evolves, grows – the need for reformation is ongoing, and ultimately that work is Christ’s work. No institution, no building, no practice, no tradition and habit created by human hands, can be allowed to stagnate and create a blockage for the flow of God’s work in the world through Christ and the Spirit.
Reformation is about allowing God to be expressed in ways that are fresh and meaningful and appropriate and dynamic.
As we view this story of Solomon’s story we see the good and the bad. The desire to have God at the centre and worshipped and served is the good. The bad as we have noticed is how human manipulation can sometimes block the morality and goodness of God being set free in human lives, and the opportunity for personal relationship with God sometimes blocked by the Institution and the practices of the church that become more – self-serving, insular and fearful of change than they are – spirit filled, liberating, and available to all.
There is a wonderful end to this passage today that summarises well the ambiguity of how we worship God and make God available.
In Verse 12 Solomon reminds us that the ‘Lord prefers to travel in the dark cloud’ – (an image repeated in many places in the OT). In other words, there is no controlling God he travels free and by his terms – not containable and limited. Yet in verse 13, none-the-less, Solomon declares the Temple as God’s home – ‘but I have indeed built you a lofty temple as a place where you can live forever’.

As we sit in this building it would be easy to concentrate our minds on this as the place where God dwell. And that is true to an extent. God does dwell here – he can’t be contained here – but he dwells here.
He dwells here whenever there is people here, whenever there is activity here, whenever there is worship, welcome, friendship and care.
In this place God is present. Yet he is no more present in this empty space as the doors are locked at the end of the day than he is in any empty space. Yet when we are here, when people meet in the café, share activity with each other in the Halls, participate on the work of the church, and worship together – the presence of God runs very deep. The place of God’s presence is a person not a building – it is in the activity of that person and not in that person’s inactivity for that becomes hollow and empty faith.
Today may the Spirit of God be upon us. We are the temples of God – this is the place in which God dwells – this is the place where God dwells – may all that we do, all our activities together as a congregation, be an outlet for the activity of God in the world.

Amen

Sermon 1st October “Called as we are”

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I confess I’ve always liked the idea of being a Hero! Maybe you are like me going to bed dreaming of crossing the Try Line in the final minutes of a Calcutta Cup match at Murrayfield after a mazy run from my own half, scoring in the corner and cementing a place in folklore. Or stepping on to a loose ball on the edge of the box at Hampden, Scotland v Italy for a place in the World Cup and smashing the ball into the top corner, sparking adulation in the stands as my name is shouted. Of course, the dream usually ends at that point with a voice in my ear, ‘that’s no the ball yer kickin’ ya eejit, it’s me!’.
The notion of being that Hero/ any Hero is not unnatural for us as human beings. Yet, when push comes to shove, as the detail and the enormity of a particularly task asked of us is revealed, then again, its common and quite natural for the excuses to start. In the face of something we deem risky and beyond us we search for excuses ‘actually I’m getting my haircut that day – honest – so sorry I won’t manage’.
Today we meet Moses. A hero. But a reluctant Hero. Not the last and not the first.

There are three hooks upon which I want us to hang our ‘Reflection’ on this morning. Moses, God and the relationship between them.

 

The reluctant hero: a staple of so many stories in print or
film from Han Solo, Bilbo Baggins to Harry Potter, and Neo in the Matrix films and many others. They are usually someone with an unlikely or troubled background, someone with their own faults and weaknesses, and yet someone who overcomes all that to bring justice or remove a great evil adversary.
They also may doubt continually whether they are up to the task.

It is not hard to see the similarities of the archetypal reluctant hero in Moses. There is a great challenge and evil to confront in the form of the enslavement of a whole people in Egypt. Moses has a complex back story which includes he owes his own privileged life to those people, and he is known amongst them. Moses also has personal
challenges in that he doubts his own abilities. He cannot
speak well, and fears this will get in the way of his ability to
communicate God’s desire for his people’s freedom. It is no
wonder that the story of Moses is a frequent portrayal on the big screen, it hits all the marks.
The objections of Moses are remarkable in their repeated confrontation of God. One may be reminded of the numerous excuses we all give to God with respect to tasks to which we may be called.

 

And yet God sticks with him. He may have been a Prince of Egypt but he was human skin and bones like us, he was flawed and not the obvious choice for the Hero role, yet it seems to work. Moses is the conduit for the activity that will lead to liberation for God’s people and the strengthening of the strong relationship between God and His people, however unlikely and reluctant Moses may be as the lead character.

Yet as always. it is God who is the lead character here. But remarkably we have a very different God revealed to us in this story. The character of God is fascinating. It is perhaps in this story in the early stages of the Bible that the character, personality, desire of, and activity of, God amongst humanity, really starts to be formulated and built up in scripture.

In the first part of our reading God hears the crying and the groaning of His people. God remembers the covenant/promise made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and takes special notice of their suffering situation. To use the comparable language of Exodus 3:7, “I know their suffering”; that is, God doesn’t just observe the suffering, He so enters into their suffering situation that His divine self-suffers.

 

We learn that God is not just sympathetic. He is empathetic. He suffers when His humanity, when we, suffer. He doesn’t watch on – he directs His energies to fixing the problem.

We also learn however that God may be DIVINE but He is no DIVA. He is no power-grabbing, power hungry God who fixes problems Himself – with no need for involving others. There is no quick fix here. Instead God builds on what we said is learned from the story of creation – Day 7 when He rested and left humanity with creation to get on with – a concept of inter-locked-ness repeated in the stories of Abraham and then Jacob. God is interested in partnership. More of that in a moment when we consider ‘relationship’. God is no distant God and unapproachable (again more of that in a moment).

In God’s words to Moses He says I AM WHO I AM … I AM has sent me to you … the LORD. Some of the most discussed words ever in scripture. Perhaps more easily understood with the translation ‘I will be for you, who I am’.
I will be faithful to you Moses, to you Keith, to you, ‘whoever’, just as you need me to be’.

Moses character and background in this story is revealed as like our own.
In God’s character and definition, we see God as empathetic, as concerned, and faithful to a fault. We see that He is interested not in solo activity in the world, but as a partner to His people. He is interested in relationship. Always has been, always will be. Whether it be with Moses, Abraham, Jacob, many other heroes of the Bible, and with us!

Let’s look more at this relationship between Moses and God.

As we’ve said Moses is a reluctant Hero. No wonder. God talks to Him out of a Burning Bush and of some outlandish Plan to save the people. Anyone but God making this approach we the hearer would have deemed the whole situation ridiculous. We would have though the person approaching Moses to be a fool. Yet because it’s God we side with God and in a way, we condemn Moses for his less than enthusiastic response – for his excuses – and his objections.

Following on from our passages today, in the chapters that follow, we can count as many as 8 objections Moses put to God ranging from issues of competency and knowledge in himself, to the situation itself and the people involved and even directed at God’s own ability to intervene. These objections of Moses are remarkable in their repeated confrontation of God.
Interestingly, God does not shut Moses up or ignore his concerns. Indeed, God responds to each of Moses’ eight objections in turn (3:12, 14-22; 4:2-9, 12, 14-16; 6:1-8, 13-27; 7:1-5). Those responses vary in content, but the most basic divine word is an assurance of God’s presence throughout Moses’ journey.

In this relationship between Moses and God we see a relationship of to-and-fro. We see a God who is malleable, who responds to the approaches, questioning and objections of His people. Who is even acquiescent in the example of appointing Aaron as spokesperson after Moses complaint he can’t communicate to all what God seeks to be made known, on his own.

In their evaluation of today’s passage from Exodus, commentators provide an almost universally negative assessment of Moses’ response to God’s demand that he brings the Israelites up out of slavery. Moses has been described as “cowardly,” “conniving,” and one who “challenges”, “defies”, “opposes, resists and doubts” God. One kid’s storybooks sums up the situation by saying that when God asked Moses to go down to Egypt, Moses “argued, fretted and protested.” Not so unlike a child, the author implies.

 

Underlying these comments is the age-old sense in Christian tradition that when God talks, the model servant listens, without question, without doubt, without hesitation.

So, in today’s reading from Exodus, we are confronted with a dilemma. What makes for good theology – a good relationship between humanity and God — asking questions of God, arguing with God seems to make for bad piety according to what many of us think is solid faith.

Good Christians don’t question, says much of our tradition.

But according to our text today we see that the relationship between Moses and God was created, strengthened and ultimately made good through the dialogue, through the questioning. Asking questions — of our texts, of God, of each other — is critical to developing a relationship. At the outset, Moses didn’t know who God was, but by the end of the exchange, he is on his way to knowing more about who he is and about who God is.

In Biology, symbiotic relationships can be based on mutualism or parasitism. Here’s a test of my Higher and 1st year University Biology. Symbiosis is ‘living together’. Mutualism is when both organisms apparently benefit. Parasitism is when one organism benefits at the expense of the other.
It’s natural at times to think that we do all the benefiting in our relationship with God. That he supplies us with all we need. That he suffers when we fail him. That He is there for us to help us with our tasks. Parasitism.

Yet, for me I learn from the story of Moses that God isn’t like that. He needs us, he benefits from our interactions with Him in the joint responsibility He has created for the benefit of humanity and the world. God can’t create and His Kingdom without us. He chose not to do it alone. This is a relationship of mutualism.

We benefit God as we live faithfully – sometimes questioning, sometimes agreeing, always talking with Him.

We help Him build His Kingdom on earth. He of course benefits us through his faithfulness, his gift-giving, His Spirit that makes us people with the potential to achieve and be successful and experience full Blessing and fulfilment.

The relationship between Moses and God was special. Moses a reluctant Hero but chosen and supported. God willing and faithful and empathetic. Together a relationship that grew in strength through dialogue into one of deep intimacy and huge influence.
Our relationship with God is like that; needs to be like this. AMEN.

 

 

 

Sermon 17th Sep ‘Saving Grace – The story of God, Abraham and Isaac’

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Genesis 21:1-3; 22:1-14

You must question this passage, surely?

Our natural sense of morality makes us wonder what on earth is going on because do we really believe in a God who would ask Abraham to do this to his son? The only saving grace is that at the last moment God instructs the angel to stop Abraham just as the knife is raised.

As with many difficult stories in the Bible, that are troublesome, confusing, and confounding, a big part of us would just ‘wish this a story away’. That it would somehow be erased from the Bible or remain hidden in it and never spoken of in church.

It’s understandable why we have such a problem with such texts. Most of the Bible paints a certain picture of God who is unconditional in love, gracious in mercy, tender in his voice and touch, and singularly focussed in His care and protection of humanity.

No wonder then, today’s story is disturbing. Essentially there are two elements to the story that are hard to accept. Firstly, that any Father, or parent, could contemplate the sacrifice of a child; and secondly that God the Father of Creation, who we know so well as a loving God, could instruct a father to sacrifice his son.

 

I know there are situations in our world where for whatever unthinkable reason a parent takes the life of a child.

But I expect you are like me – contemplating my own loved ones, I am so ferociously in love with them that there is no way I would deliberately hurt them – let alone sacrifice their life. Not even if God told me to do it. And if God is listening and is upset by that then – I say ‘tough’ – I wouldn’t be doing that – even for Him.

I doubt I am going to be cast down as a heretic for such a view – not going to be defrocked by the Church. I think most of us believe that sacrificing human life like is not what God would desire of us!

Yet we can’t sidestep this story. This story is contained within God’s Word – not by mistake, not just to disturb, but to teach us something, and that’s the basis of the investigation we need to follow.

Context is a good place to start. Horrifying as it is to hear, in the ancient world, sacrificing to the pagan gods was quite common. Human sacrifice, particularly children, were part of the way gods could be appeased and pleased.

However, we see that in the story of the ancient people of our God – though animal sacrifice took place at times – the sacrifice of children is not permitted in the Bible. God’s reply to Micah when he asks, “Will I present my firstborn for my sin” replies: “you know what I want: act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God”.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says that this story stands as a polemic against what was the norm of the time in terms of sacrifice. Child sacrifice was certainly common place but this story suggests that this is a new ethic where such sacrifice is not the way of the Jewish God. The Old Testament stands against that.
Which makes the moments when child sacrifice does happen in the Old Testament some of the lowest moments in the whole story.

Those who performed it were the least admired leaders
in all Jewish history. Jephthah figures among them along with Ahaz and Manasseh and they are all condemned for it.
The child is not the parents to sacrifice but is God’s, and God does not want sacrifice. Better to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.

 

 

The God of the Old Testament, who is our God, shows Himself to be different from all the pagan gods. To me as I reach the end of the story and let out a sigh of release I am conscious of God’s voice as if saying to Abraham, ‘Stop. It is not needed. It is not required. There is another way. I won’t let you do it. See, let me show you it is unnecessary’.

The end of this story allows us to exhale and breathe again.

Our picture of God, as the loving one, remains intact. We honour the God who requires no sacrifice other than that of His Own Son of course (but that’s for another time to think about – a sacrifice that we know is for all time and which liberates us to live for Him.)

Again, we might say, the Bible provides a happy ending. That God is different from the pagan gods – is good news – that God doesn’t need or demand such sacrifice is even better news.

We could end here but I think to do so doesn’t do full justice to a story that is, and needs to be, troublesome – and if we skip to quickly to happy endings we might miss something.

This story could be read as a story about Abraham’s faith – some would say Abraham passed a test here.
I don’t like that reading, for to say a parent passes a test by showing willingness to sacrifice a child is beyond me. What kind of examination is that? Parenthood is about cherishing and protecting the gift of life given to us.

I think reading the story from the point of view of God’s Love and faithfulness and His saving grace, is far more real and revealing. God spares Abraham and of course Isaac. As we have said that makes God stand out as different. It matches up with the God we know in the stories and teaching of most of the Bible.

Here is a God who saves. In the form of an Angel the terrible and devastating sacrifice of Isaac is avoided. God does what is needed – what He can do.

‘Stop. It is not needed. It is not required. There is another way. I won’t let you do it. See, let me show you it is unnecessary’.

Tellingly a Ram is found and the Ram is sacrificed so that Isaac is spared. I suspect we can point very much to Jesus again: was the sacrifice of His death not much for the same reason – that our life is liberated that we might live faithfully with God?

Yet even in the realness of the story itself there is another point I think can be drawn out that gives a sense of hope and encouragement.

I’ll be honest at one point I thought about taking on a very risky interpretation of this story. I decided to play safe but there is a part of me that wonders whose voice was Abraham hearing at the different points of the story.

Let’s agree it was God at the end – “But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him…..”

But what about in the early part of the story? Whose voice was Abraham hearing when he heard, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering…”.

Now the Bible says it was God’s voice and it was a Test.

But for me, given such a request is so out-of-keeping with the story and character of God in the rest of the Bible, and given the way that the Bible itself condemns so firmly the practise of child sacrifice elsewhere, I wonder if indeed this was God’s voice?

Now I’ve not read this anywhere, and I’m not suggesting you easily accept what I myself am querying, but I wonder whether Abraham might have been mistaken.

Maybe this was a different voice – a voice perhaps inside him arising in the struggles he faced internally – or a voice from the culture and practices of the time that somehow hooked him in for a while – or some other voice.

We recognise in society today many a situation where bad things happen in people’s lives. The agony of emotional struggle, the temptations that come from outside pressures, the sense of lostness and foreboding that comes from there being apparently no end to a particular trouble.

Sadly, some people find no way out and it’s as if they hear voices telling them the solution lies here, or there, or in this act or the other. It can result in the sacrifice, in some way or other, of their own life or part of their own living, or sometimes the sacrifice of someone else’s.

Maybe part of this story of God saving the day – saying to Abraham what you were about to do is not needed/ not required – is a message, a promise, to all those who may be hearing conflicting voices in their times of struggle.

 

God may be seeking His voice to be heard amongst that clamour, and it’s a voice of love and grace and mercy and importantly a voice of alternative – as He says – there is another way?

An interpretation – a message worth considering.

This story of Abraham and Isaac and God is a troublesome one. There is nothing wrong however with the stories of the Bible that make us think – make us really think and make us question.

Today we might ask – would God really ask a parent to undertake the sacrifice of a child? Could a loving parent carry out such a request?

If this is primarily a story about God, then we can be satisfied with a happy ending that encourages us to believe in a God who is different, who loves us unconditionally, and who seeks no harm to befall, or be inflicted upon any of His children.
A God whose ultimate Sacrifice spares us and frees us to live faithfully with Him and under the assurance of His eternal and life-giving Love.

Thanks be to God. Amen

 

Sermon 10th Sep ‘Go Create’

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Genesis 1:1 – Genesis 2:3

 

Isn’t it interesting that at its outset, and focussing on such a foundational subject as the creation of the world, the Bible in her introductory verses doesn’t provide a blueprint of mechanical/ structural/ geological/ chemical, or physical facts and figures. Doesn’t provide us with a list of empirical data used by God in the design and build of this world and universe? It doesn’t tell us ‘how’ it is possible to create such a universe and world – let alone how it works.
The first words written for us, and read by all those who delve into the Bible from its start, – the first words that offer meaning for our faith and belief are poetic. Poetry not Physics.
Physics like any science discipline is rigid, factual, black and white. Whilst we like order and we like answers to questions – we like to know how things work – the fact is such a method tends to position boundaries on what it is we seek answers for. Here is the question – and here is the answer? Here are the facts and figures, the formula and the forensics.
When it comes to matters associated with the ‘why’s’ and ‘wherefores’ of Creation, formulaic understanding somehow inhibits understanding, and places boundaries on our ability to interact with the subject matter and to truly be ‘one’ with it.

When it comes to describing matters of faith and our human connectedness with the subject matter (the earth/ the universe/ the creator), beginning with poetry is best as it expresses what is hard to describe, by pushing the very boundaries of our understanding.
The Hebrews seemed to know that and wrote this long poem about creation – full of theology and meaning and purpose with an ingrained truth that this is not the end: it is the beginning. After six days, the work is not finished. These first days were just the foundation stones. The real work of creation is everything that happens thereafter.
Jürgen Moltmann says it well: “God does not create merely by calling something into existence, or by setting something afoot. In a more profound sense he ‘creates’ by letting-be, by making room….’
The poem we have allows for this ongoing creativity within creation. We are not provided with ‘design drawings’, with facts and figures, but with story. A story to allow us to begin to build our faith – our understanding of the world and of ourselves – not within the boundaries imposed by science, but with imagination and spirit, wonder and awe, the human capacity we have to dream, and feel, and sense our way to an understanding of the ways things are and the possibilities of the way things are, and could be.
In these first verses of the Bible we have a literary pattern. I think that’s important to recognise.
“God said ‘Let there be…’”;
“There was evening and morning…”;
“God saw that it was good”.

There is a pattern written into the very essence of the story that reflects well the patterns we know daily and seasonally in our experience of creation. In the rhythm of language, we start to sense the rhythm of life as is our experience of life.
And within that pattern of language there is a moral pattern written into the story too.
‘It was good’.
Right there before even turning a page of the Bible, we see, through what has been created, and everything that is going to happen thereafter, that creation is morally good. God did not throw a few bits and pieces together to shape star fields and fjords but chose and designed and loved it into being with purpose and intent. This is the moral heart of creation – the intention is for ‘good’.
In the light of this intent we must be bothered by some of the threats to the good morality of our world, and humanity, that we witness in the world.

Is it right that Nations confront each other with threat, counter threat, show of military strength and missile testing? Is the good morality of human relationship well served by such posturing and?
Is it right that one storm after another hit the islands, mainland and coastlines of our world (often the poorest places) and yet some deny the very need for policies which counter climate change? Where is the morality in such selective policy making when the very fabric of the earth is threatened by those who are the supposed stewards?
Where is the evidence of a good moral heart within creation when the rights of some to live and share the opportunities of life are denied them in comparison to others on account of race, nationality and gender?
The beauty of the poetry we have in the first verses of the Bible is that our understanding of creation is not limited to the specificities of complex design, is not contained within the boundaries of an act of creation in a given moment of time that ended the minute God was ‘done’ – resulting in a freezing of creative process and renewal, meaning that we just accept the way things have turned out and bemoan the mistakes God has made. We don’t have to just accept these things. God’s intention in creation and through creation has never been about that.
The poetry of this story describes a beginning – not an end, it describes opportunity, not fait accompli.
It is a beginning without an ending and a story that embraces freedom and choice.
Efforts have been made in the past to claim that God created the universe instantaneously. Augustine for one.
Certainly, the all-powerful God wouldn’t need to take any time to bring the world into being!
But the poetry in the account within Genesis, as it moves us from evening to morning for six days, and God then resting on the seventh, all suggests the processes of creation as it is ongoing – including creatures coming into being along a timeline. This lifts up the theme of creation as ‘dynamic process’; not simply a product (and never a finished product).
Creation takes time, and God, who involves the creatures themselves in further creational developments, engages in the time necessary for creatures to fulfil the potential of what they are intended to be.
Through these insights it is perhaps easier to hear the Genesis creation poem on the lips of those who wrote it. They were not in Jerusalem living comfortable lives but rather in exile in Babylon. They were there for three generations during which much of what we now have as Old Testament Scripture was written down.

Those who came back were not those who were first taken there and even the global power that took them in battle and into exile, was no longer dominant but had themselves been overtaken by another power: Babylon fell and the Persians replaced them.
The Hebrews were caught up in the midst of all of this and in amongst all of that, Genesis 1 was written.
These people were not in some lab, or research facility trying to rationalise and devise the formulas of how creation came to be. They were living in the rawness of human experience – and boy was their experience raw. Their own, and their ancestors, History was littered with evidence of the breaking down of moral fabric.
The opening story of the Bible is not ever meant to be an explanation of creation, but an answer to a question being asked of the faithful remnant: do you still believe your God is powerful enough to protect you – is active in creation?
Asked of those in exile the people could let God go, or let God grow. They had the choice to rethinking who God was and how the world and humanity might work with Him in ongoing and active creation.
This poem, was written when they had to rethink what they believed about God, given that God’s indestructible house, Jerusalem and the temple, had been destroyed.
Let God go, or let God grow? This poem is a loud shout and faithful response to that question with the answer: “Yes! We do! Yes we believe in this God. Yes we know ourselves partners and stewards in and of the ongoing creation that intends for a world of beauty, justice and morality.
Amen

Sermon 3 Sep 2017: ‘Come dine with me’

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Matthew 12: 1-8

Today we bring the 4-week series on Sacraments to a close before we return to the story of God’s interactions with His people of old and consider our place in that ongoing story of divine relationship in our time and life.
4 Weeks ago, we started with a consideration of Baptism. In the stillness, we heard that God calls us his own – that He is present with us. We considered how God promises ongoing renewal – as in baptism – and how God calls us to live an ethical and moral life that stands out. Last week Dot led us into thinking about the sacrament of Communion and today we complete things with an Invitation to stay behind and celebrate Communion together. But first I want us to really draw down and consider what this Sacrament is, or can be, about for us.
It’s all too easy for us, is it not, to perhaps become focused on the wrong things when it comes Communion. Looking at recent traditions and patterns within the church, I wonder if at times those celebrating communion became transfixed on parts of the Service/Event that were of lesser importance than the core parts of significance that are so much more life-giving.
Undoubtedly there is a place for formality in the Church – respectfulness shown to the Holy One. But there was a time and even now, when such a desire to do things ‘properly’ takes away from the specialness that is possible when we share the Holy Meal together.
Many a Church and Kirk session would have held endless debates on the whole Black Tie/ Black Suit requirements. How a person chooses to dress is not really an issue but the matter of ‘required dress’ has, and in some places still does, become a distraction. Until recently within Church History the matter of Grand Entry’s and the preparations for a Communion Service with rehearsals and the need for precision in how things were done took up the congregants and celebrants attention. The physical layout of Table, White Cloths, and the type of wine used and bread used and the Order of Serving again can become a matter of endless conversation and so the focus can so easily shift to the correctness of what we do and away from the recognition of the sheer specialness.
Even now when we become too focussed on the words used – in terms of right words/ wrong words – correct rhetoric, missing rhetoric – proper order of words/ and muddle – it is possible that we lose something considerable in terms of an approach to the Sacrament that allows the Spirit to lead us to know and feel and be part of all that God wants us to experience most of all.
When we become over officious, over sensitive to the practicalities we risk missing out on what participation in the Sacrament means for us in terms of ‘gathering place’, ‘revelation’, ‘welcome and sharing’, ‘holy presence’, the ‘gifting of peace’, ‘connectedness with the Holy – with God and Jesus, His Son’.
Today I am seeking we find a way into the ‘story’! I think that’s a good way to think about the Sacrament of Communion. It is Story. The Sacrament of Communion is a key to the door that leads us into a story – the story of God and humanity. Not a story just to read or hear about – but a story which we ourselves are part of.
The Story is at the heart of the Supper we know as Communion, or Eucharist, or Mass – however we call it. It is not a past story – it is a continuing, ongoing, living story.
The Bible is a story and it is full of stories of different types. Many of these stories involve food – or more accurately the sharing of food. If you think about it, there are many, many stories in the Bible that feature the grain and the grape, the wheat and the wine.
Today in our Bible Reading we feature two such stories – Jesus eating on the Sabbath, David eating from the temple. But there are many, many other stories we can recall.
Mana in the Wilderness.
The many references to the Passover meal and remembrance in the OT.
Parable of the Sower.
The Samaritan pouring wine on the wounds of the beaten-up traveller.
Various references to the image of the Vine
Workers in the Vineyard story
The wedding at Cana
Feeding of 5000.
And of course, the Passover Meal as it continues to be celebrated in the New Testament – notably of course the Last Supper itself.
What underscores many of these stories from scripture is human need and longing and the reliance on the Divine to supply and make available and offer the nourishment needed for stomach, the healing needed for the human body, the sustenance for daily living, the cleansing from grime and muck of wrong living, and peace for the grieving and aggravated human soul.
When we look at the characters within such stories from the Bible and look at the incidents from their point of view, we find ordinary men and women like us who are so challenged in their life that peace or recovery are impossible were it not from the Food received – physical, spiritual and emotional from the God of All Things. These stories of food and wine – are more than isolated incidents. The sum provision in these stories added all-together, is much much more than the addition of the individual parts together.

These stories of grain and grape, wheat and wine – tell of a singularly big and evocative and eternal Story of a God who says ‘Come, dine with me’, – time after time, once-and-for-all – and who comes up trumps in the provision He is able to make for His people.
It’s no wonder that Food is used so much in Scripture. It’s directly linked to nourishment, sustenance, growth, survival. Throw in drink to quench thirst and in the food and drink of the Bible we have the connection made between how we survive physically as human beings and how we as God’s humanity are created, sustained and preserved by the Divine. The vine – it’s roots, its trunk, its branches and its product – the grape – which is made into wine – is of course an image from the area of our world where the Bible Stories were first lived out and shared and so it is an appropriate symbolic image for describing God and His work and our connected with Him for those who heard these stories were familiar with the vine growing in the filed around them.
And food does something more than just preserve us doesn’t it. Food – particularly the sharing of food – brings people together socially – brings people together who have a shared common experience or people together who are willing to share their own experiences or need to share their experiences in order receive support from others.
We might also add in that where wine is served – tongues are loosened and the connections between friends and stranger is more quickly established.
In that ‘togetherness’ round a table – or on a picnic rug – or in bible times whatever else people used to sit on – something special takes place. As conversations are shared our oneness as a family, as a party of people, as humanity, connectedness is established.
In all the stories, we recall from the Bible today – those involving people – the characters recognise their connectedness with each other and ultimately their connectedness with God. In their shared experience, they recognise their human need, their reliance on something outside themselves and as God provides for that need – be it manna a from heaven, food for empty stomachs, or healing wine for wounds and care from a stranger – that connection with God is firmly established.
Think about the 12 at the Last meal Jesus shared with friends. Around that table the conversation flowed. Whether said or unsaid, there was the recognition of present troiuble and danger, and challenge, a recognition of weakness, doubt and the potential for grief – for they had been told by Jesus that He was leaving them. These were troubled times and this was a troubled band of brothers. Around the table friendship was shared and joys yet quarrels and fears were present too.
Jesus in taking the Cup and the Bread, said ‘Come dine with me’ – Come dine in the mystery of the Divine in the holiness of the God who is present also.
‘Come dine with me’ – enter the eternal story that you have heard about often as the scriptures have been opened to you as I, Jesus, have revealed that story in words and actions. Enter that story for You, he indicated, are part of it. He said to them, ‘You too are part of this story – come dine in it and know the nourishment extended to you that comes from the God of this story – who is same God of your life’.

Like the Sacrament of Baptism, the Lord’s Supper establishes the recognition of Space. The place- not physical – but none-the-less real – where we can better have a sense of God’s presence and nourishing love.
In the Gospel, we recognise that Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath. Nothing else – no rules – no traditions – no physical setting – has any kind of Authority approaching that if the Lord of the Sabbath – Jesus, God’s son. No one is denied by the Lord of the Sabbath – no one is denied an invitation to dine with God. The Lord of the Sabbath is Lord of the Supper. His mantra is mercy, forgiveness and love – and it is this He seeks to share with us wherever, and whenever, and however we gather together – accepting his invitation as He beckons us ‘come dine with me’. Amen