Sunday, 16 October 2016

With love...

Genesis 32:22-32
Jacob Wrestles at Peniel
The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle.

Luke 18:1-8
The Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge
Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’ ” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

In the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit

Along with some others from St Ninian's this week, I went to Largs on Wednesday evening to hear Brian McLaren talk about his new book.
Brian is one of the great spiritual writers of our time - able to put his finger on many Spiritual truths in which we need to hear the voice of God.
Just one of the themes he talked about was the violence we find throughout the threads of the Old Testament - and especially the stories of a violent, vengeful God.
He spoke of how we need to transform that message of violence into a message of love.
How our world is crying out for a God who is not remote and angry but intimately involved with Creation, making a difference to the everyday.
I was fortunate enough, as I was growing up to be told the stories of the Old Testament as stories of mystery and adventure, of intrigue and love.
I can remember being excited, through the week, waiting for the next episode to be revealed at Sunday School, waiting to hear how things turned out for the characters in the various stories.
Characters like Abraham and Isaac, like Joseph and David, like Samuel and Saul, like Jonah and Jeremiah. All of their stories were brought to life for me week by week by folks who knew the power of story telling.
And so, even with stories of deceit and violence, and war and intrigue, I always knew that, in the end, the love of God would weave its way in and around the drama and the justice of God would prevail
And, in the years that I've studied those texts, in depth, for myself, I'm still assured, that underlying all the many horrific stories, is a God who wants to connect in love with all people, to bring about justice.
In our Old Testament reading today, we read an episode of the Jacob- Esau drama.
Jacob, who, with the help of his mother, cheated his elder brother out of his birthright - and then went on the run.
In the text today, we find him about to be reunited with his brother.
Of course he is nervous.
He doesn't know whether his brother is out for revenge.
And so Jacob does everything he can to protect himself and his loved ones.
He sends gifts ahead.
He places distance between his family and Esau's people.
He plans his escape route, just in case it all goes badly.
And, he stays up all night, wrestling with God.
But this story makes me sad.
Because, even though Jacob has encountered God.
Even though God even changes his name, from Jacob to Israel, and gives him a blessing.
And even though Esau, his brother is not out for revenge but for reconciliation, still Jacob (or Israel)    persists in his way of deceit.
Reading on in the story, even once he receives his brothers forgiveness, Jacob lies to his brother about where he is going and takes his family and all his worldly goods off in a different direction. And yet, Jacob is the one who goes on to be known as father of the 12 tribes of Israel.
Weaving in and out of the lies and deceit and bloodshed is the slender thread of the love and patience, the forgiveness and faithfulness of God.
A God worth wrestling with in all that keeps us awake at night.

I spent the week before last, wrestling, alongside other ministers, with Spiritual Discipline. 
Ensuring that we are firmly rooted in God so that we can be equipped and sustained for all the challenges of serving God today.
One of my favourite spiritual disciplines is the examen.
A time to take some quiet and look back on the day - and see where God was at work.
A time to discern, not only where we saw God, but listen to what God was trying to tell us in the events of the day.
Often, that, for me, is a wrestling with God, looking, not just for blessing, but for signs of God who dances with us through all the rhythms of life.
As I approached our second reading this week, the parable that Jesus told of the persistent woman and the unjust judge, I approached it like the Examen - and looked to see the signs of God in the story Jesus told.
 Then Jesus told them a parable....
Jesus, as he told parables, embedded truth, embedded hard lessons in a story.
A story with layers that are ours to discover.
Where is God in this story?
And how does God speak to us through the story?
What I saw as I wrestled with the text this week, was not, perhaps, the most obvious sign of God- in the unjust Judge who is persuaded by persistence.
I simply don't see God as unjust.
God's will-  for good - for all God's children does not, thankfully, depend on our persistence.
Though we have gifted prayer partners here, whose efforts really do make a difference, the God to whom we pray doesn't need persuaded to show love - it's ours for the asking.

But where I saw God in this story that Jesus told, was in the persistent widow.
Who never gave up, who was there morning and night, crying out for justice.
I saw God in that woman who, day in, day out, confronted injustice and cried out for change.
And I thought of all the places we see that same picture of God today:
In Aleppo and Syria, in Sarajevo and Somalia, in the United States and the U.K., in Calais and in Samos.
In all the places where people cry out for justice.
God is right there, crying with them.
Crying out for change.
Crying out for peace.
Crying out for love,
Crying out to us who are complicit in withholding justice.

As I drove home from a meeting yesterday, I heard a couple of snippets of the  First Minsters speech at the Party Conference.
She was talking about the rising number of displaced people being, not a crisis of migration but a humanitarian crisis.
And talking about the important I word today as being "Inclusion".
Whatever your party politics, those are the kind of passionate and compassionate words we need to be hearing from our politicians today.
But not just words - action too.
You and I are being prevailed upon by God - to stop being ruled by fear, to take a stand, to make a difference, to see justice upheld - to see love win the day.
And that brings me back to Brian McLaren.
Brian was encouraging us to challenge the injustice that is in our world today, to speak up when we see oppression and lies taking hold.
But to speak and to act in love.
Not with aggression.
Not with pride or self righteousness.
But with love.
In our daily contacts, face to face and in social media, we can join God in persistently calling out all that diminishes those whom God calls beloved.
And we can do so in love.
For the glory of God.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Serving and changing

Jeremiah 1:4-10
Jeremiah’s Call and Commission
Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”
But the Lord said to me,
“Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’;
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you.
Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you,
says the Lord.”
Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me,
“Now I have put my words in your mouth.
See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.”

Luke 13:10-17
Jesus Heals a Crippled Woman
Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

There are two things going on in our readings this week:
A call to serve - and a call to change.

Jeremiah is a really interesting character. A reluctant prophet - as were most prophets called out by God.
Because, really, who would want to serve God as a prophet - bringing an uncomfortable message that, inevitably, is going to make folk squirm.
Who would want to serve God as a prophet when the messages God gives to share are the last things folk want to hear - or are so incredible that ridicule is bound to ensue?
Who would want to serve God as a prophet?
Jeremiah voices his reluctance by claiming "I am only a boy."
God dismisses Jeremiah's reluctance, telling him:
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you.
Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you,
“Now I have put my words in your mouth.
See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.”

Jeremiah, for all,his reluctance, went on to serve God, just as he was called.
Some of the things he got up to were quite bizarre as, time and again, God used Jeremiah to reveal the truth.
But, once Jeremiah responded to the call that God had on his life, there was no looking back.
Jeremiah constantly confronted God's people with the consequences of their actions.
And, when the people refused to turn around and mend their ways, when the disaster of which Jeremiah warned, befell them, Jeremiah was there to help them pick up the pieces and find their way back to God.
When the people were forced out of their land and found themselves in exile, Jeremiah was the one who encouraged them to return to the faith of their ancestors, to find comfort in the ancient paths even in a strange land.
And so, even in dire straits, God's people were able to turn their lives around.
Jeremiah was a man living out, in obedience, a call from God.
Caring for God's people and helping them recover faith.

Rarely is God's call on our lives simple or straightforward.
There will always be obstacles to overcome, struggles with doubt and feelings of inadequacy - fears not unfounded.
But God not only calls but equips us for service.
God calls us today to faithful service, to discover for ourselves and to share with others those ancient paths that lead us home to the God who loved us before we were born, who loves us now and whose love beckons us forward in faith.

In our gospel reading today, we find Jesus demonstrating that love by healing the woman unable to stand up straight for many years.
And using that healing as a teaching opportunity.
I've always felt uncomfortable about Jesus speaking of this woman"being bound by Satan".
But people believed then that illness was due to evil spirits or to past wrong doing.
And Jesus, as he is wont to do, uses that common belief and sets the healing he has performed against that backdrop.
Just as Jesus told stories about things with which people of the day were familiar - sowers,lost sheep, the road to Jericho - so he also sets his healing in a context with which folk would be familiar:
So you think this woman has been bound by Satan all these years? Well, I choose to release her - on the Sabbath of all days.
Jesus used what people know to show how things could be different.
Against the forces of love, nothing will prevail.
Even the most unlikely situations can be changed by the power of love to set things free.
Love is no respecter of customs and traditions.
Love breaks through barriers that may have been in place a long time.
Love brings about change.
Jesus, in healing the woman on the Sabbath shows how love can turn things around, how change is possible when we allow God space to work.

Let me share with you a reflection on how life might have looked for that woman:

Shuffling along always looking down
unable to stand up straight
Noticing all the traffic on the street:
Feet striding past
shod in boots and shoes and sandals
Some stepping out briskly, some dragging along
skipping or tripping
disturbing the litter strewn on the ground
lifted and laid by the breeze
avoiding the cracks in the stone slabs
and the gum ground in by other feet
Observing the cigarette ends -
those with lipstick
those smoked down to the very last gasp
and those tossed down still reeking
their rancid fumes.
Looking down for eighteen long years
Looking down
but catching, in all the greyness
the vibrancy and colour
that rushes past
The reflections in the shiny surfaces
the clouds and rainbows in the puddles.
Flashes of glory in eyes cast down.
Glimpses of God in the detritus of the street.
Healing becomes possible when God stoops down
and looks into the eyes
of a woman weighed down by life.

In healing that woman on the Sabbath, Jesus demonstrated the ability of God to bring change.
To bring change into customs and practices.
To bring change into hearts hardened by sticking to the rules.
Jesus demonstrated the ability of God to turn things around, bit by bit - to raise questions, to soften attitudes, to invoke compassion, thawing closed hearts and minds enough for love to penetrate until it gets a hold and causes change.

Two things going on in our readings today - a call to serve and a call to change.
Choosing one means choosing both.
To serve God means changing the world around us, not least the church in which we serve.
Not all at once.
But bit by bit, as attitudes and customs are changed.
As love prevails.
And as all of us are freed from whatever holds us back from responding wholeheartedly to God's call on our lives - a call to love and service.
For the glory of God 

Saturday, 16 July 2016

The time is now

Genesis 18:1-10
A Son Promised to Abraham and Sarah
The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, “My lord, if I find favour with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.” Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him.

Colossians 1:15-28
The Supremacy of Christ
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him— provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven. I, Paul, became a servant of this gospel.
Paul’s Interest in the Colossians
I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church. I became its servant according to God’s commission that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ.

Luke 10:38-42
Jesus Visits Martha and Mary
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Sometimes one of the biggest challenges in preaching is to find a link between the readings of the day. And I have to confess that, on occasion, I give up and just concentrate on one text and ignore the others. But, today, praise God, not only do these texts, speak into one another - they speak powerfully into the world in which we live, the world splashed across our TV screens and in our newspapers today  - a world of hatred and of conflict, a world of racism and white supremacy, a world of hierarchy and oppression, a world where people hanker after things that do not satisfy, taking things they do not own and denying others the status bestowed on them by the God of all creation, the status of beloved children, created in the image of God.
All of this breaks God's heart.
And we, the people of God, are called to engage with, to speak into and to live out the good news wherever God's heart is broken today.
To speak good news into violence and racism.
To speak good news into Xenophobia.
To speak good news into extremism and terrorism.
To speak good news. 
Our texts today, I believe, give us some clues as to how we might do that:
Beginning with Abraham.
Abraham who, at the age of 75 set off on a journey with God.
Becoming a stranger in the land to which God has called him.
But Abraham was open to hospitality.
A stranger himself, he welcomes three strangers who seem set to pass by. And goes all out to ensure that they are fed and watered before they continue their journey.
Abraham - on the lookout for strangers, not to detain them, but to bless them.
And, as we read, it was Abraham who was blessed - blessed with the unlikely prophecy that Sarah would bear a son. That even at their advanced age, they were going to fulfil the promise of God and become parents to a great nation.
Abraham welcomed the strangers and knew God's blessing in offering hospitality.
I love the old Celtic Rune that says:
“I saw a stranger last night. I put food in the eating place, drink in the drinking place, music in the listening place, and in the sacred name of the Triune, he blessed myself and my house and my cattle and my dear ones. And the lark said in her song, ‘Often, often, often goes the Christ in the stranger’s guise.’     
Hospitality for the stranger brings hope for our world in all its brokenness.

And then the letter to the Colossians reminds us of the Supremacy of Christ.
Reminds us that, in Christ, all things are held together.
Supremacy - a word and a status so often abused and used to oppress finds a new meaning when viewed from the perspective of Jesus.
Jesus, the true image of God, in whom all things were made, by whom all are brought back to God, showed his supremacy  - by living in service to others.

And that's why the story of Martha and Mary has always rankled  a bit with me.
Because it doesn't seem to fit with that image of Jesus who came to serve.
Why would Jesus the servant not unreservedly honour one who served.
 This story has so often been read in isolation.
And taken out of context as an admonishment not to be so caught up in doing stuff that we forget to sit at Jesus feet and listen.
How often have you heard it preached that way?
But even a cursory read through Luke's gospel tells us that Jesus does not undervalue service.
Jesus encourages hospitality and service.
So why does it seem in this passage that he is critical of Martha for wanting to be a good host?
I want to suggest that it's to do with timing.
That there are times, however well brought up we are, however programmed to serve we are - there are times, when we should let go of our notion of how we should behave.
Times when we have to reassess priorities and demands.

Some of my clergy colleagues in the states are caught up just now in speaking good news into complex race struggles.
Black Lives Matter has become a slogan for a cause in the face of overt discrimination, intimidation and murder of people of colour.
But it's more than a slogan or a hash tag.
It's a call to bring about the justice of God.
And there are always folk who take exception to justice - especially when it threatens a livelihood and a way of life built on injustice.
Some people have tried to dilute Black Lives Matter by proclaiming that all lives matter.
Of course all lives matter.
But, at this time in history, more than ever before, God demands justice for those oppressed by centuries of injustice.
Black Lives Matter - is not saying that all lives don't matter, but, for this season, at this time in history, in order to address years of systemic racial violence, it is important to affirm that Yes, black lives matter.
And it is possible to affirm one thing without denigrating everything else.

Without in any way reducing the importance of the Black Lives Matter campaign, I think that over the years, this gospel passage has undergone the same divisive treatment.
People have interpreted Jesus words as saying that sitting at Jesus feet takes precedence over practising good hospitality.
Jesus is commending Mary's listening, not condemning Martha's service.
Even a cursory reading of Luke's gospel demonstrates how Jesus values service.
But Jesus always spoke, uncompromisingly into whatever he saw, whatever was right for the season.
Seeing the poor, Jesus said: Blessed are the poor - not to condemn the rich per se but to highlight the plight of the poor and encourage a response of giving and serving.
So it is here.
Jesus does not condemn Martha for wanting things to be perfect, for wanting to practice exemplary hospitality but speaks into the moment and the reality of time.
Jesus has already set his face to go to Jerusalem.
Time is running out.
The opportunity to sit at his feet is limited.
For that moment, Jesus' company was a rare gift to be cherished.
Mary recognised that while Martha didn't.
Jesus' words spoke into that moment.
As he speaks into our every moment today.
Is it time to serve?
Is it time to listen?
How does Jesus speak into our lives today?
To what does Jesus call us?
I believe we are still called to hospitality, to welcome the stranger in our midst.
We are still called to justice, to act for those being oppressed.
In the UK
In the USA
In Nice
In Istanbul
In Israel
In Palestine
In the Sudan and in all the places not even on our radar.
We are called to compassion.
We are called to speak and we are called to listen.
And, informed by that listening, we are called to serve.
Amidst all the change - global, national and local, we are called to bring good news into all that breaks God's heart today.

Martha and Mary
Sisters who welcomed Jesus
Martha by offering hospitality
Working tirelessly to ensure he had everything he needed
Martha - Distracted by all her tasks, the text tells us.
Yet wasn't it Mary who was the distracted one?
Distracted from all that she'd been brought up to do
by what the hour demanded.
Mary distracted by seeing before her
a man with angst and passion written all over him
A man whose course was steering him inexorably
into the hands of the authorities
who were already out to get him
Authorities, violent and corrupt
who couldn't risk Jesus
being let loose any longer.
Martha did what she knew.
Mary did what she saw
and took the opportunity
to cherish him
and be cherished by him
while there was still time.
And perhaps today
we are called
from what we know
from what is socially acceptable
to do what is right for this time -
To fly in the face of convention
To welcome the stranger
To speak up for the oppressed 
To act irrationally in our compassion 
And to bring about
the justice of God.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Mentoring, Commitment and Fruits of the Spirit

1 Kings 19:15,16,19-21
Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram. Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place. So he set out from there, and found Elisha son of Shaphat, who was plowing. There were twelve yoke of oxen ahead of him, and he was with the twelfth. Elijah passed by him and threw his mantle over him. He left the oxen, ran after Elijah, and said, “Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you.” Then Elijah said to him, “Go back again; for what have I done to you?” He returned from following him, took the yoke of oxen, and slaughtered them; using the equipment from the oxen, he boiled their flesh, and gave it to the people, and they ate. Then he set out and followed Elijah, and became his servant.

Galatians 5:1,13-25
For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.
The Works of the Flesh
Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
The Fruit of the Spirit
By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.

Luke 9:51-62
A Samaritan Village Refuses to Receive Jesus
When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village.
Would-Be Followers of Jesus
As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

“No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
These seem like harsh words from Jesus:
“No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Most days, we are not fit for the kingdom.
Because most days, our commitment to the cause of the Kingdom of God wavers.
We look back.
We wonder: what if?
It is human to put our hand to the plough - and look back.
What are we to make of these words of Jesus that condemn our often half hearted commitment?

Let's look, first of all at the other readings in our Lectionary this morning.

I love the stories of the prophets Elijah and Elisha.
Their stories in 1 and 2 Kings are very visual and very dramatic.
Most of us can probably recall lots of the things that happened to Elijah and Elisha, perhaps from stories told to us in Sunday School.
Like the story of the widow, whose jar of oil and flour never ran out.
Or whose son died and Elijah brought back to life.
We recall stories of Elijah calling down fire, taunting the prophets of Baal.
Or fleeing God and being fed by Ravens.
Meeting God, not in the earthquake,wind or fire, but in the still, small, voice.
Being caught up in a cloud of fire and passing on the mantle to Elisha.
The stories of Elijah and of Elisha have often spoken to me at significant times in life, when God was prompting me, nudging me into something new.
So I'm always pleased but also a little bit wary, when Elijah or Elisha pop up in daily devotions or in the Sunday readings.

In our reading in 1Kings this morning,  we see Elijah preparing for the time when he must pass on the mantle of Prophet - a role he has held reluctantly, a role he has often felt unprepared for and overwhelmed by.
Elijah does as God asks - he casts his mantle on Elisha.
But he expects Elisha to carry on with his life until the time comes for him to take over.
As we read in the text, Elisha was having none of that.
If he has to take on the role of a prophet, he is going to make sure that he learns all he can before the mantle is his.
So he quickly wraps up his affairs and goes after Elijah so that he can walk alongside the prophet and learn firsthand, the tasks that one day will be his.
How much sense does that make.
How much easier is it to do something if we have watched someone else do it.
We can read up on things.
We can listen to instructions.
But, when we get to actually see someone do something, even do it with them, we learn so much more.
That's what Jesus did with his disciples.
He called them to follow him and then he journeyed with them.
Sure he taught them.
He told them stories.
He challenged them.
But, for the most part, he simply showed them how to be disciples.
He invited them to be part of his life.
He journeyed with them.
And they learned to initiate him.
I think that's a really important model for Jesus' followers to use today.
Before we teach people about faith.
Before we give them all the information we think they might need.
Why don't we invite them to journey with us.
To learn about faith from us?
Not by what we say - but by what we do.
That's quite a scary thought, isn't it?
That we might mentor others into faith.
That others might learn by seeing what we do, how to follow Jesus.

The apostle Paul, writing to the Galatians encourages them to live by the Spirit.
He reminds them that the whole law is summed up in the command: love your neighbour as yourself and that if we live by the Spirit, others will be able to see the love that we have.
the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Those are the things that will convince others to walk as we do, to embrace the faith that we have - because they see the fruits of the Spirit in our lives - the love, the joy, the peace, the patience, the kindness, the generosity, the faithfulness, the gentleness and the self control.

Aren't those the very things that we long to see more of in the world today.
When everything around us is shifting.
When we can't see a way forward or a way out of the mess we're in, locally or globally.
When nothing seems to make any sense.
What if, instead of focussing on uncertainty, we concentrated on showing love, on being patient and kind, on bringing joy and peace, on being generous and faithful and gentle.
What if, as followers of Jesus, these were the tasks to which we turned our attention - cultivating the fruits of the Spirit.
It may sound idealistic but growing these fruits cannot help but change the world.
In the light of that, Jesus harsh words perhaps make more sense.
Of course Jesus knows we will waver.
Of course he knows that, even when we are fully committed, we will look back.
But it is the focus of our commitment that Jesus wants us to be clear about.
To what are we committed?
Doing good?
Making a difference?
Showing compassion?
Loving others?
All good and commendable.
But what about love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control?
Commitment to these, fruits of the Spirit, is a goal worth pursuing, a goal that, even in our wavering, will bring lasting change in us and in our world

Our texts today, Elisha preparing to take on the mantle of Elijah, Jesus confronting folk with the commitment discipleship requires and Paul listing the fruits of the Spirit are texts that challenge us to think about our commitment, to think about the example we set and to think about how we can grow in the fruits of the Spirit.

Maybe we have come to church today looking for comfort?
Looking for respite or escape from all that the world has thrown at us this week?
But here we find that the gospel throws these hard texts our way and forces us to confront  all that ails the world, all that ails our weary spirits  - with the gospel of love?
Today, we find in these texts, not comfort - but a call.
A call to be prophets.
A call to be bearers of hope.
A call to lay aside our tiredness and step up to the challenges God lays before us - to bring healing and reconciliation, to bring love and restore peace - to share the fruits of the Spirt, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control in every corner of the world.
Let us put our hand to the plough. And not look back. 
For the glory of God. 

Sunday, 6 September 2015

The journey goes on....

Hebrews 11:1-16, 12:1,2
The Meaning of Faith
​Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.
The Examples of Abel, Enoch, and Noah
By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain’s. Through this he received approval as righteous, God himself giving approval to his gifts; he died, but through his faith he still speaks. By faith Enoch was taken so that he did not experience death; and “he was not found, because God had taken him.” For it was attested before he was taken away that “he had pleased God.” And without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would approach him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. By faith Noah, warned by God about events as yet unseen, respected the warning and built an ark to save his household; by this he condemned the world and became an heir to the righteousness that is in accordance with faith.
The Faith of Abraham
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.”
All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

In 1956, when Castlehill Church was built, the Church of Scotland was experiencing a surge in membership with 1.3 million members.
As time went on, through the 60s and into the 70s, that declined.
The church's mission, then, in the 60s and 70s was about inviting the lapsed to come back to worship.
Most folk then knew something of what the Church was about.
They had grown up with the faith and language of the Church.
And then that began to change - a change that continues today.
The culture and community that we serve is so very different from those early days.
No longer is mission about bringing folk back.
We serve generations that have never been here.
So we can't sit around and wait for folk to rediscover church.
Rather, we are called to go into our communities and live out our faith.
And that's not a task that belongs to the minister, or the elders, is a task for all of us to be engaged in.
Each of us answering the call to serve God wherever we find ourselves every day.
With our worship and our gatherings week by week equipping and resourcing us to go and be disciples, at home, at school, at work, at play.
That is part of what my new job will entail, helping folk recover confidence in speaking of their faith.
Supporting ministers who are so busy just keeping the organisation running to carve out time to be creative, to re-engage with their communities and equip others to do that too.
In some ways it's an audacious project.
In other ways it is very simple.
And it's only one strand in a whole tangle of initiatives that the Church is engaging in: Not to bring people back to church, but to BE church in the communities we serve.
The landscape has changed.
And so must the Church.
No matter how commendable our history may be, it is still history.
We cherish our stories of the building of this sanctuary.
Of the hard work and fundraising.
Of the joy and the fellowship of those days.
Of engaging the steadily growing community in the houses being newly built all around.
Of the extra chairs having to be brought into the hall church.
Of the two services that had to be held on a Sunday to accommodate everyone.
Of the 6 double decker buses required to take folks on the Sunday School picnic.
Of the corridors being lined with prams while the young women's group met.
These are wonderful stories that I've loved hearing.
And it's been a real privilege to become a part of that story of the people of faith in this place today.
In ministry here, I've learned the importance and value of stories.
There's nothing like a story to bring folk together. 
We identify with stories. 
We see ourselves in them and, often, we become a part of them.
The wonderful thing about stories, especially in Scotland, is that they grow arms and legs, they are continually changing, bits being added, details being enhanced, kept alive for new listeners and story tellers and participants.
I love the thought that we journey on with these stories to retell, to pass on, to become part of them.
And, as we share our stories and look towards the plans that God has for writing the next chapter, we do that knowing that we stand in a great line of those, some of whom were exemplary, others who were shocking but all of whom were prepared to take a risk, to immerse themselves in God's story and see where the journey took them.
This is how vv 39 and 40 read in the Message:
Not one of these people, even though their lives of faith were exemplary, got their hands on what was promised. God had a better plan for us: that their faith and our faith would come together to make one completed whole, their lives of faith not complete apart from ours.
We are part of the story of the people of faith down through the ages.
We stand in that great continuous line with saints like Abel, Enoch and Noah, with Abraham and Sarah, with Isaac and Jacob, the list goes on and we could add to that list many of the saints we have known who have filed these pews that we now occupy, and they're not all dead.
Their story is our story.
But we are also being enabled to co-author with God a new story, maybe the kindle or ebook edition, the version that our children will read as the journey of faith moves on, from romance to mystery, to crime, to adventure. God turns the page and invites us to write.
When we look back at the journey of God's people through the ages, as they escaped from Egypt, as they wandered through the wilderness, as they entered they Promised Land, as they anointed prophets and priests and kings, even as they endured exile in foreign lands, the people of God did things to mark their transition.
They built wells and cairns and sacred altars.
Memorials to which they could point to tell their story, memorials that would stand as testament for generations yet unborn.
These were not only memorials but transition tokens.
We all know that change is hard but even harder is the journey through change - transition
Jesus knew that as he prepared to leave his disciples.
So he set up a memorial.
The sacrament that we will share today.
The sacrament by which we will remember him.
That sacrament unites us with all the saints in heaven and on earth.
And that sacrament commissions us anew to go and tell the story, living out faith wherever we find ourselves in our communities today.
This sacrament invites us to co-author with God the next chapter of the story of all the saints of God.
How exciting is that, to be part of an old, old story that is being newly written every day?
We walk by faith and not by sight. (Music)

We will stand as children of the promise,
We will fix our eyes on Him, our soul's reward.
Till the race is finished and the work is done,
We'll walk by faith and not by sight.

Thanks be to God.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

A gift for life

Acts 14:1-3;8-11;19-23
Paul and Barnabas in Iconium
​The same thing occurred in Iconium, where Paul and Barnabas went into the Jewish synagogue and spoke in such a way that a great number of both Jews and Greeks became believers. But the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers. So they remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord, who testified to the word of his grace by granting signs and wonders to be done through them. 
Paul and Barnabas in Lystra and Derbe
In Lystra there was a man sitting who could not use his feet and had never walked, for he had been crippled from birth. He listened to Paul as he was speaking. And Paul, looking at him intently and seeing that he had faith to be healed, said in a loud voice, “Stand upright on your feet.” And the man sprang up and began to walk. When the crowds saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!” 
But Jews came there from Antioch and Iconium and won over the crowds. Then they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead. But when the disciples surrounded him, he got up and went into the city. The next day he went on with Barnabas to Derbe.
The Return to Antioch in Syria
After they had proclaimed the good news to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra, then on to Iconium and Antioch. There they strengthened the souls of the disciples and encouraged them to continue in the faith, saying, “It is through many persecutions that we must enter the kingdom of God.” And after they had appointed elders for them in each church, with prayer and fasting they entrusted them to the Lord in whom they had come to believe.

There they strengthened the souls of the disciples and encouraged them to continue in the faith

As we continue to journey with Paul, we encounter a recurring theme - of people responding to the love and grace of God, only to be discouraged by those around them, those who, even when they see the goodness of God at work, refuse to accept and, more than that, persecute those who bring the good news.
Paul and his companions respond to this persecution by strengthening those who believed by prayer and by encouragement.
And by appointing those whose sole task would be to pray for others and to encourage.
Elders appointed to the ministry of encouragement. 
Encouragement is a ministry that we overlook today.
And the notion that elders should be involved in such a ministry has been lost somewhere along the way, buried under duty and responsibility and keeping good order.
There they strengthened the souls of the disciples and encouraged them to continue in the faith

Last weekend, as you may know, I was involved in the National Youth Assembly of the Church of Scotland and spent 4 days with 80 18-25 year olds.
We had a full programme of debates and workshops, of worship and late night cafes.
On the agenda were topics such as child trafficking, global education, climate change and the creeds of the Church.
To see so many young adults interested in and engaging with issues that are topical and relevant for them was a huge encouragement.
And, even greater encouragement was the knowledge that these young adults came from churches all over Scotland - from Shetland to the borders, from Castlemilk to Colinton.
Young adults taking time off work or study to get together and encourage one another.
And many of them, isolated in their own communities, perhaps the only young person in their church, leave the National Youth Assembly encouraged in their faith, assured that they matter, strengthened and resolved to continue the journey.
There they strengthened the souls of the disciples and encouraged them to continue in the faith
As I read those words this week, fresh from NYA, they struck me as being pertinent to just some of the work that goes on at the National Youth Assembly.
Young adults, many of whom were baptised as infants are being strengthened in their faith and encouraged to live out the promises taken on their behalf on their baptism.
It's hard to look way into the future, maybe even scary to imagine the time when Olivia will be 18. What will her life look like then?
Who will be her friends?
Will she still be a part of the Church?
The assurance that each of us is given, in baptism, is that the love and grace of God that we celebrate here today in the sacrament accompanies us all through life.
We will always be a part of the Church.
As we affirmed in the promises"there will always be a place here for her."
God's love and grace accompanies us all through life.
Baptism sets us on a path,a path that even if we step off for a time, will always be there, waiting for us when we are ready to continue our journey.
Each of those enthusiastic faith filled young adults at Youth Assembly last weekend had been given the gift of faith, of the love and grace of God when they were babies as small as Olivia. 
And each of them had either remained on that path or found their way back so that they could respond to the love of God freely given to them in baptism.
Baptism is a gift that can never be taken away but can only be strengthened and renewed every day.
Most gifts we receive, especially as children, are laid down and picked up as the mood takes us. 
There are always other gifts, other distractions.
But the gift of baptism and the promises made in that gift never expire, never diminish.
They accompany us all through life.
So each time we bemoan the fact that our Youth Church isn't growing.
Each time we wonder where all the children we baptise have disappeared, let's remember that what we do here today sets a course, stakes a claim, invokes a promise of the love and grace of God that lasts for all of life.
Last Sunday morning, over 100 of us trooped into Gartmore Parish Church to join the congregation there in worship, filling every available space in the Church and being welcomed warmly.
It struck me then, what a gift that must have been to that congregation, to know that, even though their number in worship Sunday by Sunday was usually much less, yet they were part of the body of Christ,a body that embraces, equips and encourages young people, beginning in the faith expressed in baptism.
There they strengthened the souls of the disciples and encouraged them to continue in the faith
And after they had appointed elders for them in each church, with prayer and fasting they entrusted them to the Lord in whom they had come to believe.
May it be so here today.
For the glory of God.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

The bystanders

Acts 7:54 - 8:3
The Stoning of Stephen
When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.
​And Saul approved of their killing him.
Saul Persecutes the Church
That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. Devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.

The witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.
As we begin our series on Paul that will, over the next few weeks, take us into some of Paul's missionary journeys, his relationships with Christian communities along the way and stories of all that God was able to accomplish through Paul, we take a step back today to consider who Paul was before God made a claim on his life.
And we discover Saul, on the edge of the crowd, holding the coats of those who stoned Stephen.
Stephen had been appointed as a leader in the early church.
And his preaching the gospel upset the authorities.
In fact, so incensed were they by his preaching that they accused him of blasphemy and incited the crowd to stone him.
The authorities, the religious authorities of the day, put their spin on the good news that Stephen preached and convinced those who heard him that he threatened their whole way of life.
Instead of hearing the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the crowd was encouraged to hear the shaking of the foundations.
They were encouraged to put a stop to Stephen's preaching.
And they did.
The crowd listened to the authorities of the day, to the spin doctors of the time.
And Stephen became the first known Christian martyr.
That day, as Stephen was killed, there was a young man on the edge of the crowd, looking on, a man named Saul.
To all intents and purposes a bystander - Until we read those chilling words:
And Saul approved of their killing him.
Perhaps he didn't actually pick up a stone that day.
Perhaps he didn't actively participate in ensuring Stephen's death.
But, from the edge of the crowd, Saul stood and watched, held the coats and approved of Stephens killing.
No innocent bystander.
This week, we've watched, as crowds of migrants have gathered in Calais, desperate to find a way across the Channel to seek refuge in the UK.
And, while we have been successfully distracted by the plight of those refugees and the protests of those on both sides of the Channel, whether supporting or opposing asylum, there are other groups of migrants also making treacherous journeys, seeking freedom from oppressive regimes.
Many of them are being drowned in the Med while our government refuses to make their passage safer or consider the oppressive conditions from which they need to flee.
And, being able to focus on the situation in Calais, being able to use incendiary language, speaking of "swarms of migrants", building up fear and hatred in the UK, allows our government to take our attention away from all the other terrible things that are happening.
And, in all this, we are the bystanders.
Perhaps not casting stones.
Not even holding the coats.
But, by our silence, signaling approval.
We, who should know from history that failure of good people to act simply allows evil to triumph.
We won't all agree on how this crisis should be resolved.
We won't all agree on how our government should act.
But we do all have the capacity to see those who have found their way to Calais, or those desperate enough to take to the seas in overcrowded and poorly equipped boats in the hope of securing a better way of life for themselves and their families as children of God, our brothers and sisters in Christ.
There is no easy solution to the kind of scenes we've witnessed this week, or, indeed, to the migrant crisis that has been escalating for some time now.
But what is important is that we do not stand idly by.
That we do not allow governments to put their spin on the clear evidence of a crisis, distracting us from a much bigger picture.
It is important that we see the humanity in each of these crowds, that we hear stories of individuals desperate enough to take the chances they have taken.
And that, somehow, we apply the principles of our faith to how we view our brothers and sisters in Christ.
As we have celebrated this morning the grace of God in baptism, Good's love given to us unconditionally, may we extend that love and grace to all whom we meet on the road.
Over the next few weeks, as we journey with Paul, we will encounter a man freed from his hatred by an encounter with God.
Completely turned around - from persecuting Christians, to preaching and living out the gospel.
Turned from a bystander into a follower of Christ.
Moved from hatred to love.
But, as we go into this week, let's ask ourselves.
In our faith and in our living, are we content to be the bystanders, not casting stones but not offering help either?
Or are we prepared to speak and act out of the love and the zeal that God gives?
Are we prepared to see, in the crowds we encounter daily, on our TV screens or on the High Street, brothers and sisters in Christ?
How does the God that we encounter here and in our everyday life affect how we love one another?
May we answer that with a commitment to act in love.
For the glory of God.  Amen