Friday, 23 May 2008

Called out in love

This Sunday I am preaching to the folk whom I hope will be my new congregation. Thanks to chilly fingers for the inspiration for the opening story about calling a pastor.

Readings: Isaiah 49 v 8-16
Matthew 6 v 24-34

Once upon a time, a church needed a new preacher.
The old one had reached the age when he could finally go out to pasture.
The people did their goodbyes well by him.
They told nice stories about him.
They gave him a new fishing rod and reel and off he went. Then they invoked Act VIII 2003 of the General Assembly, having satisfied ACT VII 2003.
They checked the provisions of the Presbytery plan, discovered that they had permission to call and so they held a meeting to elect a nominating committee.
Once duly nominated, the committee appointed a chairwoman.
At their first meeting the enthusiastic chairwoman impressed upon the group that a picnic this was not.
They were charting their church's destiny.
God was depending on them to put all other agendas in their lives secondary to this God-given task.
Her words inspired four members of the committee to resign on the spot.
So madam chair changed her language.
She really just wanted them to do their best by the Almighty God.
So on they went with the next agenda item. "What do you want in a new minister?"There was spectacular participation, a real brain storming.
The committee decided that they wanted someone who possessed the utterance of wisdom AND knowledge, the gifts of faith and healing, the working of miracles, prophecy, discernment of spirits, tongues and the interpretation of tongues.
Every person spoke with such authority and the scribe for the evening dutifully noted their points on a flipchart until an image began to emerge.
Then they all agreed to some modifications since neither Moses nor Jesus was available for call.
As they took a little break, some started talking about their old minister. "You know, look at that list! He really wasn’t so bad. We wanted him to have every gift there is!" At that point it was if the heavens opened.
Suddenly it came to them that they would never ever fall into that trap again.
All this couldn’t possibly be left to one person – no matter how wonderful that person might be.
And then they actually began to get excited about the possibilities that that opened up – not just in their search for a new minister, but the possibilities for them as the people of God.
God might use THEIR gifts in the church.
And the more they thought about it, the warmer their hearts became not only toward their old minister but to one another as well.
And the more they talked about it, the hotter their enthusiasm became until their voices became like a rush of mighty wind filling the room.Word of this great moment spread to the entire congregation.
And there was a great and most spontaneous "Amen!" to this new spirit.
What that group had grasped was the power that had filled them, that was theirs for the taking – the power that God COULD use THEM.
That the gift of the Spirit upon the church at Pentecost was a gift for all God’s people, a gift that empowers and equips the whole church, not just its leaders.
And so the search began.
A search not for an all singing all dancing leader, but for a leader who would love them, love them into believing in and developing the gifts that they possessed and the ability of the Spirit of God to use all of those gifts together in building the kingdom.

In our gospel reading this morning, Jesus points us to the natural order of life – and the gifts we enjoy daily.
Look at the birds – they don’t sow seeds or gather a harvest – and yet they are fed.
It is a part of the natural order of life that bugs and seeds and worms provide an abundance for wild birds.
It is a part of the natural order of life that flowers turn their face to the sun and draw water through their roots in the soil and thus have their daily needs supplied, brightening our day as we pass and enjoy their beauty.
I believe that Jesus is teaching us here to look around and appreciate the gifts that are all around us.
And, in appreciating those, things of the natural order, things that we often overlook and simply take for granted.
By appreciating those things, we get a bigger picture of a God who places to hand all the things we need to work for the kingdom.
A God who surrounds us every day with gifts that we can reach out and use.
When we can appreciate the natural rhythm of life and see God in our everyday, then our worries will be less.
Its not a case of don’t worry, be happy.
Not a case of que sera sera - whatever will be will be.
But a case of wakening up to the gifts that are ours for the taking and, in our striving for and using those gifts given by God, we will know fulfillment in our daily lives.

There’s a momentous task facing the church throughout the world today, a momentous task facing us here in Castlehill.
God doesn’t abandon us to get on with it.
Everyday God equips people with all the gifts they need – and more - to build the kingdom.
That work will take a different form in different places.

Two weeks ago, we celebrated Pentecost.
God giving the church the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Remember the account of that first Pentecost?
There were people from all over the world gathered in Jerusalem that day and each heard the gospel in his or her own language.
That’s still how God speaks to us today.
In the language we need to hear.
Be that a message of comfort.
Be that a message of challenge.
Be that a message of reassurance.
God speaks into our lives.
And we, the church of today, can learn to speak God’s language too.
Speak to those to whom we are called to minister.
Speak to this parish and this community in a language that will be understood, saying words that need to be spoken – comforting, challenging, reassuring, loving.

There have been some famous brand advertising campaigns where language differences really affected marketing policies.
Lots of quite funny translation differences.
Like when Coca cola moved into China, they discovered that the symbol they chose to sell coke really meant: Bite the wax, tadpole – hardly an encouragement to drink this beverage that would change the world!
But even where the language stays the same, sometimes there is a need to tweak the message.
I’m sure we’re all familiar with the slogan – this isn’t just any party food – this is M&S party food – usually accompanied by that image of the chocolate pudding oozing sauce..mmmm.
Good old Marks and Spencer, a British stalwart has very subtly been almost totally rebranded and remarketed as M and S because business consultants believe that the apathy and old fashioned image associated with Marks and Spencer was having a detrimental effect on sales.
M and S, considered much more snappy, associated with up market, modern products.
Its something that’s much more appealing to today’s consumers.

For the church to be in the market place today, though we have always had a wonderful message of unconditional love, we need to work on how to present that message.
Together we need to hone our gifts so that the message gets across in a way that attracts people.
It involves all of us learning to speak God’s message of love.
That’s what it means to seek first God’s kingdom and then everything else will fall into place.
If we are speaking that language of love.
If folk see us living out that love, then they can’t help but be attracted by the love of God, shown alive here in Castlehill.
And just like those first disciples at Pentecost we will be enabled and empowered by the spirit to be witnesses in this community.

Today’s gospel assures us that whoever we are – wherever we are – God equips us.
By knowing us and by loving us.
I will never forget you my people.
I have carved you on the palm of my hands
God’s love for us is so huge that God carries us around like tatoos.
I did a baptism in Inverkip last Sunday – and the young mum had the baby’s name tatooed across her back.
Of course there were a few raised eyebrows about that.
But the love that God has for us is that kind of extravagant, let it all hang out love.
A love that nurtured us even in the womb and cradles us all through life.
A love that assures us our names will never be forgotten.
What we’ve been through will never be overlooked.
But what we can do together has no limits because it is done under the umbrella of that amazing love.
I will never forget you my people.
I have carved you on the palm of my hands

We have a huge task ahead of us here in Castlehill, as has any church today.
In the excitement and joy of these times of new beginnings let’s not underestimate that.
But we embark on that task secure in the knowledge of God’s love and in the assurance that God will gift us together for any task we undertake.
There will be difficult paths to negotiate.
There will be struggles to get through together.
But, held in the love of God, allowing that love to capture us and enthuse us will more than see us through.
This morning its not a case of don’t worry, be happy.
It’s a case of look around you.
Look at the wild birds and the flowers.
See the gifts that God lays before you.
Remember the love that means our names are carved on God’s hands.
Let the love of God spill out of our hearts onto each other.
And know that God equips us together for the work ahead.
To God be the glory.

Saturday, 10 May 2008


Colours swirling and birling
Breath taking beauty
Wonder and mystery
The swirl of emotion and laughter 
Accusations of madness
will anything ever be normal again?
Praise God - no
All is changed
The world, the church, you, me
Can never revert to the mundane
For the Spirit blows the cobwebs away
stands life on its head
And challenges us to get caught up
in life-changing energy
And yet we go through the motions
Fulfilling all righteousness
Crossing the Ts and dotting the Is
Majoring in precision
Labouring over the unimportant
and soul-destroying detail
when the spirit wills us to be free
of the baggage of tradition
or bogged down by conformity
to throw caution to the wind
the wind of the spirit
and be caught up in the unpredictable
Grasp freedom
Embrace possibility
the Spirit wills the impossible
to be our reality
and our dreams
however crazy
to be fulfilled.

Friday, 2 May 2008

Learning to fly

Those familiar accounts of Jesus’ ascension into heaven,
where we read of Jesus being “caught up in a cloud”
stirred something in me this week. As I read them, other
cloud images came into my head:

Many important biblical events seemed to happen under cover of clouds:
When Moses met with God on Mount Sinai, cloud covered
the mountain and the “devouring fire of God” could be seen
by onlookers far beneath.
Sometimes God appeared to Moses in a tent of meeting
when a pillar of cloud covered the entrance to the tent.
And sometimes, after meeting with God, Moses had to
cover his face because it was so bright – meeting with God
changed his appearance.

In the gospels, when we read the account of the
transfiguration, Jesus’ face seems to be changed in a
similar manner to that of Moses.
At that time, a cloud obscured Jesus and the disciples
with him on that mountain from the folk waiting below.
A voice from the cloud said: This is my son – listen to him.
Reminiscent of Jesus baptism when its not so much a cloud
that is manifest but an opening of the Heavens with doves
appearing and a voice saying: This is my own dear son, with
whom I am pleased.

Moments of mystery and moments of clarity.
Brightness and obscurity.

And so to today’s Ascension accounts.
As the disciples watched, Jesus was taken up to heaven
and a cloud hid him from their sight.

Jesus had spent quite some time teaching his disciples,
getting them ready for this moment when he must leave them.
He’d warned them that he couldn’t remain with them and
had promised them that they would not be orphans –
that he would send his Spirit.
And next Sunday, that is what we will celebrate –
Pentecost, the coming of God’s Spirit.

But, meantime, lets meet with God in the clouds.
Perhaps a familiar place for you –
perhaps comforting, perhaps daunting.
For “being caught up in the clouds” can bring joy –
it can also bring terror.
The joy of anticipation.
Or the terror of unknowing.
Maybe the words spoken to the disciples as they continued
to watch the sky are timely words for us today:
“Why are you standing there looking up at the sky? This
Jesus who was taken from you into heaven will come back
in the same way you saw him go.”

Why are you standing there looking up at the sky?

Timely words for all of us.
When we’re not sure.
When we’re frightened.
When we want to be sure.
We often do nothing.
Its much safer that way.
We stand and look into the sky.
Looking for divine inspiration or assurance or something
that will convince us.
We want certainties, not risk.
And what Jesus reveals again and again is that God’s
kingdom is a kingdom of risks.
A kingdom that cries out for risk takers.
For only those willing to take risks can daringly follow the
one who rides the clouds.

Why are you standing there looking into the sky?
When its time to act.

Much has been written about religion being used to control
the masses, about religion – and the guilt it induces and
the power it abuses being used to impose social control.
That may well be true of religion.
But it is not true of faith.
Because faith does not impose any kind of control.
Faith, rather, compels folk to take risks, to throw away
the rules and the need to conform -and be different.
Because at the heart of faith is the willingness to trust
the one who came to make all things new, the one who was
taken up in the clouds and who will return the same way.
The one who gives us freedom to do a new thing, to try a new way.
To leave our tradition behind and risk living our lives in the
clouds, transformed by the presence of God in our everyday.
Faith encourages us to soar with the risen Christ, to ride the thermals.

Have you ever heard of a book, written by Richard Bach in
the 70s, called Jonathan Livingston Seagull?
Jonathan Livingston Seagull is a book about a very
independent bird, who dared to question what was being
taught and told to him by the elders passing on the
tradition by which they had always lived.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull didn't just want to spend his
days searching for food and hanging out doing what was
expected of him like all the other birds - he was different.
He dared to dream.

Jonathan Livingston seagull spent his days learning to fly
faster and better than any other gull in the flock.
And he learned from all of his searching and trying that he
could do anything.
If he wanted it badly enough, Jonathan Livingston Seagull
would go for it – he would take a risk – and he would
accomplish what he had set out to do.
Of course, this made him unpopular with the rest of the flock.
Movers and shakers, those who are innovative, are often despised.
Folk who won’t conform are often shunned.
Jonathan Livingston Seagull was cast out from the flock.
Yet he knew a different way of life to which none of the
others would ever aspire.
There should be a freedom and a daring like that for us in
the church. An unwillingness to settle for what has “aye
been”. The imagination to do things differently.
Even if it upsets folk.
Our calling is to take risks, to take hold of the power that
our ascended Lord promised us before leaving.
One of my favourite quotes from the book says:

"When you come to the edge of all the light you have
known, and are about to step out into darkness, Faith is
knowing one of two things will happen There will be
something to stand on, or you will be taught to fly."

Something to stand on or being taught to fly.

The ascension of our Lord was a time of moving on, of
passing on the baton to us his followers.
Not so we would stand around wondering what we would do with it.
But so that we would take faith to the ends of the earth.
That great commission demands innovation, involves taking
risks and encourages us to soar.
It involves all of us moving on in our faith.
From the safety of where we are at – to risking the unknown.
To soar with the ascended Christ – caught up in the clouds,
transformed by mystery and possibility.
Let’s learn to fly – for the glory of God. Amen