Saturday, 30 August 2008

What the world needs now...

Sunday 31st August 2008

Readings: John 15 v 9-17

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

As you will be aware, the church is gradually awakening from its summer recess.
All the organisations are restarting and there’s beginning to be a buzz about the place again.
The biggest buzz through the summer seems to have been the weightwatchers meetings.
Make of that what you will!
Anyway, all the different organisations are getting started after their summer break.
Someone was telling me during the week how Castlehill church used to be a real hub in this community.
When they were building the houses down at Forehill and at Holmston drive – and the church was in the process of moving from the barn church to the hall church.
New folk were moving into the area.
And the way to meet folk and to get involved in things – was to come to church.
Never mind Face Book or Bebo.
In those days, Castlehill church was your real live social networking site!
I’m evoking memories this morning, not so that we can mourn what we’ve lost.
Not so that we can wonder where all those folks have gone and how we become that sort of social hub again.
But so that we can think about and celebrate all that the church still has to offer in this 21st century.
Because often, we see things simply in terms of numbers and growth of church membership.
And that’s a shame.

In our gospel this morning, Jesus doesn’t ask his disciples to go and build bigger and better churches.
He commands them to love one another.
Its not about numbers, its not about recruitment – its about loving.
In so many ways, our church, in all its guises has lost sight of that.
Sure we have to be realistic.
If folk don’t sign up.
If folk don’t commit themselves to give towards the upkeep of our buildings, then we can’t maintain them.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t still be church.
Because being church is about loving one another.
And in the midst of the grandest schemes.
In the midst of all our activities and organisations and programmes.
We must never forget – its all about love.
Castlehill church does not exist today.
Castlehill church has not been built up by the gifts of those in this community for the last 56 years so that we can record wonderful figures.
Castlehill church exists to love.
Darcy was baptised today in that love.
We love because first God loved us.
And the minute we are fuelled by anything other than love, we may as well turn off the lights and close the door behind us.

So, if its simply all about love.
If that’s the message we have to communicate.
Something people are constantly searching for.
If its simply all about love –
Why isn’t our church full? Why aren’t all the church’s full?
Why aren’t we bursting at the seams?

Well, I heard a story this week of a lady who read somewhere that Cod liver oil was good for dogs.
So she bought a huge bottle of cod liver oil.
Then she got a spoon, poured some of the cod liver oil on it and went to give this tonic to her dog.
Well, she chased him around the house, she wrestled him to the ground and, finally managed to force the spoon into his mouth and make him take the cod liver oil.
One day, as she was having her usual struggle, chasing her dog all around the house, struggling to get him in one place, the bottle was knocked over.
She went to get a mop to clean up the mess and, to her astonishment, there was her dog licking the cod liver oil off the floor.
It wasn’t that he didn’t like cod liver oil.
He just didn’t like the way she tried to give him it.

Today, more than at any time in history, folk want and need to know that God exists.
And more than that, they want and need to know that God loves them.
But often, in the church, we go about communicating that good news in the wrong way.

We get in the way of the good news.

A teenager came home from his church youth group really excited because the next week they were going down to a homeless centre to hand out blankets.
He told his parents: next week we’re going to the homeless centre to hand out blankets so we can tell these guys about Jesus.
His wise father corrected him.
No, next week you’re going to the homeless centre to hand out blankets because the guys are cold.
In our churches our motivation is often to make our churches bigger.
But Jesus calls us simply to love.
That love, freely given to us has to be freely passed on – no strings attached.
Folk can see through the wrapping and can tell if we are motivated simply by love – or by some other not so well hidden agenda like increasing our church membership.
We don’t go out in Jesus name to save souls.
We go out because Jesus commands us to love one another.
That’s all the motivation we need.

And unless we can see Christ in each of our neighbours – even the difficult, cantankerous old so and sos.
Unless we can see Christ in our neighbour we don’t know him as well as we thought.
Jesus calls us to love one another.
That means loving the people we encounter every day.

In one of the Charlie Brown and Peanuts cartoons, Lucy stands with her arms folded and a resolute expression on her face, while Charlie Brown pleads with her. "Lucy," he says, "you must be more loving. The world needs love. Make this world a better place, Lucy, by loving someone else." At that Lucy whirls around angrily and Charlie goes flipping over backwards. "Look, you blockhead," Lucy screams. "The world I love. It's people I can't stand!"
I’m sure all of us have been there. It's easy to love in the abstract -- the world, people in general. We have no problem with that. It's people around us that drive us crazy.
And yet it is precisely those people around us, people nearest to us, with whom we work and go to school, neighbours next door, and the people we sit next to in church, that Jesus calls us to love.

Love in action -- that's what we are talking about this morning.
Love that finds expression in kindness, courtesy, tolerance, and acceptance of those around us.
Jesus calls us to love one another and to bring that love to light in the way that we treat those around us.
It's easy to love people in general, to affirm that love is a good thing and something we all need.
But it's another thing altogether to put that love into action, to make love concrete in our attitudes and actions toward others.
As someone once put it, "We are judged by our actions, not our intentions. We may have a heart of gold, but then, so does a hard-boiled egg."

A priest overheard two boys playing church. One of them was explaining to the other what all the parts of the service were about. "Do you know what it means at the end of the service when the priest does this?" he asked, making the sign of the cross. "It means some of you go out this way, and some of you go out that way."
How right he was.
The cross sends us and scatters us out into the world.
Someone has said that the really important thing for any church is not how many it seats but how many it sends.
As we said at the start of the service, in baptism the sign and seal of the holy spirit is placed upon us.
That means that you and I are called to go and love.

Lets love one another because first, God loved us. Amen

Sunday, 24 August 2008

Subversion for the sake of the kingdom

Sunday 24th August 2008

Readings: Exodus 1 v 8-2 v 10
Matthew 16 v 13-20

After our trumpeting of Joseph’s achievements last week. His rise from prisoner to Pharaoh’s right hand man, today’s Old Testament reading begins with a few salutary words.
We read: Eventually a new king came to power in Egypt, one who knew nothing about Joseph.
That amazing story, that unlikely rise to power, forgotten in a generation as a new regime takes over.
And so the Prince of Egypt, all the good he achieved and all the gratitude the nation owed him, wiped out by the passage of time.
All the new ruler can see is that there are an awful lot of foreigners occupying his land, threatening to undermine his supremacy if push comes to shove.
And so begins the oppression of the people of Israel.
They are forced into slavery in an attempt to keep them in their place.
And then, when that isn’t enough, the new king orders that all new babies born in Israelite homes should be killed at birth.
And that is the cue for another, extremely unlikely set of heroes to step up to the mark and further God’s kingdom.
It begins with the midwives.
Midwives who “feared God”.
Having been a hospital chaplain I’ve come across a few midwives who feared God.
But I’ve come across many more midwives who would put the fear of God into you!
It must be something about the nature of their job that they have to be scary people.
Anyway, these two midwives we read about this morning are named: Shiphrah and Puah.
They were ordered to kill any baby boys born to the Hebrew women.
But, because they loved God, this was an order they didn’t obey.
Of course their disobedience did not go unnoticed.
When the number of Hebrew boys continued to rise, the midwives were summoned to explain this.
And I love their explanation.
It seems to me that they are actually mocking the king.
Their explanation that the Hebrew women give birth before they can get there seems to me to imply that the Egyptian women they also midwife are pampered and require their assistance much more.
However that slight appears to go over the kings head – maybe just as well for Shiphrah and Puah.
He orders that all new born Hebrew boys be thrown in the river.
Those midwives did not get into a moral argument with Pharaoh. They just carried on and did what they thought was right – more than that – they acted as God would want them to.
Quietly, without song or dance, they defied the Pharaoh and changed the history of a nation.
Because it was around that time that a Hebrew boy named Moses was born.
In Moses’ survival, we are witness to the actions of four more subersive women, each of whom did what they considered right – quietly, without fuss – going against all the rules and, by their actions making a huge difference.
Moses mother hid the baby until he grew too big for that.
Then she took him to the river and floated him in a waterproof basket, praying for a miracle.
Pharaoh’s daughter, out walking by the river saw the basket and ordered her maid to bring it to her.
Neither Pharaoh’s daughter or the maid chose to act in accordance with the Pharaoh’s decrees when they saw the baby.
The maid kept quiet about the baby’s origins and Pharaoh’s daughter sought ways to keep this baby as her own.
Enter subversive woman number 6 – Moses’ older sister Miriam.
She offered to find a wet nurse – a task that should be easy given all the Hebrew mothers whose babies had been torn from them.
And so Moses’ mother was allowed to nurse her son and, when he was weaned, take him back to the palace to be cared for.

Shiphrah, Puah, Moses’ mother, Moses’ sister, Pharaoh’s daughter and her maid.
6 women who by their passive disobedience made a huge difference in the course of the story of the Israelites.
6 women who did not preach or pontificate.
6 women who simply went against the rules, did what they thought was right and, by their actions, stood up to an oppressive regime and allowed love to intervene.

These women demonstrate that, often, we can go about our business, quietly doing what is right, not making a huge disturbance but more of a silent ripple that goes on causing a huge effect.
We can all, at times be active in subversion – for the sake of the kingdom.
I’m sure, this morning, many of us can think of folk we know who sometimes frustrate us by not acting as we think they should.
Folk who don’t stand and argue with us but whom we know are just going to disregard whatever we say anyway.
I have a reputation for that.
Of listening politely.
Of not putting up a fight.
But of going and doing what I feel is right anyway.
Its not that I don’t appreciate good advice.
Its not that I don’t respect other folks experience and knowledge.
But sometimes, you just have to try something for yourself, don’t you.
Sometimes, you have to even make your own mistakes.
If only there were more people willing, occasionally, to go against the flow, to quietly get on with what seems right – to make a difference.
God can use us quiet subversives just as much as the high profile protestors.
And that brings us to our gospel reading when Jesus checks out whether his disciples are “getting it”.
At this stage of his journey with them, Jesus knows that there is not much time left.
He seems to want to check how much of his message they have grasped.
So, he throws out a general question.
What’s the word on the street?
Who do folk say I am? Jesus asks them.
And the answers come back: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, a prophet.
Interesting answers – the word on the street.
But then Jesus pins them down:
Who do you say I am?
Who do you say I am?, asks Jesus.
I remember, what seems like a hundred years ago, when I was at college, one of our professors took this verse from Matthews gospel and told us he would give us an answer to Jesus question, Who do you say I am?
From what I can remember, his answer went something like this: Jesus is the proleptic, salvific, hidden appearance of the eschatological kingdom of God." Did you get that? "The proleptic, salvific, hidden appearance of the eschatological kingdom of God."
It was a systematic theology class.
And it makes even less sense to me now than it did then.
Can you imagine our gospel reading being rewritten this morning? "Jesus said to them, `Who do YOU say that I am?' Simon Peter replied, `You are the proleptic, salvific, hidden appearance of the eschatological kingdom of God.' Jesus answered and said unto him, `What???'"
Peter’s answer was much more straightforward but no less profound : You are the Christ, the son of the Living God.
On you, Peter, said Jesus, I will build my church.
And so it has been throughout the centuries – right up until today.
Jesus has relied on those who could say: You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.
Christ has relied on those people to be building blocks in the church.
Its not enough simply to be able to say the words: You are the Christ. Our actions must show that we know who Jesus is.
And that’s where our strategy comes in.
Are we called to public profession or private subversion?
In the cause of the kingdom, both are required.
We must first be able to proclaim: You are the Christ, the Son of the living God and then our actions must reveal that belief.

Just the other week, I passed through Greenock just as one of the big cruise ships was leaving the container terminal.
She was a massive thing.
Not far from her, at anchor, were a couple of royal Navy ships, dwarfed by this big liner.
The Royal Navy ships must be pretty cramped compared to a cruise ship. They certainly wouldn’t have anything like the facilities on offer on the cruise ship.
I was a bit taken aback by the sheer difference in size.
Because, when push comes to shove, its those smaller more basic ships that we rely on to defend our nation.
Just as God relies on you and I, ordinary people, to confess that Jesus is Lord and to continue the work of building the church.
The problem is that too many folk in the church act as though they are on a cruise ship.
There are people who think church is about having their own personal needs met--their needs for fellowship, for worship, for spiritual growth and comfort. And, if one cruise ship doesn't measure up, that’s OK - they'll just look for one that does.
There are people who simply "come to church."
And there’s a difference between coming to church and being the church.
When you are the church then you take a different attitude. Instead of looking at the church as a place where you can have your needs met, you begin to look at church as a place where you can meet the needs of those for whom Christ died, those who are oppressed, those who hunger both physically and spiritually, those who are lonely and in pain.
Suddenly our cruise ship becomes more like a battle ship.
So if you are waiting to be entertained.
Or waiting for your pillows to be fluffed up, this is the wrong place for you.
Even if you do think you know who Jesus is.
Its not enough to claim you know.
You have to convert your knowledge into action.
When Peter said: You are the Christ the Son of the living God, Jesus said Well done!
But he also said: On you I will build my church.
The older version of the bible says: and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
A force to be reckoned with.
Not a cosy club.
And the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
And so the question comes to each of us this morning:
Jesus ask us: Who do you say I am?
May we be able to answer: You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.
But, more than that, may we then go on and be battle ships.
Quietly subversive or loudly protesting for the sake of the kingdom.
May we be the blocks on which Christ builds his church.
And the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
For the glory of God.

Saturday, 16 August 2008

More than enough

This week, I am preaching for the first time since being inducted to my new parish. A fresh start all round:

Readings: Genesis 45 v 1-15
Matthew 15 v 21-28

That Old Testament reading we read this morning reminded us of that moment of triumph that Joseph experienced when he was able to tell his brothers:
Its me
You sold me into slavery. You led my father to believe that I had been killed by wild animals. But here I am, safe and well and chancellor of the exchequer for all Egypt.
But, instead of the gloating that we might have expected in Joseph’s revealing of himself, instead of the bitterness or even note of revenge, we find Joseph moved to tears because he has finally been re-united with his family.
Even after all they had done to him, Joseph is overjoyed to see them again and, what’s more, be in a position to help them out.
That’s a huge display of grace and of forgiveness and of love.
I’ve always read the story of Joseph as a story of the power of love and forgiveness.
A story that illustrates beautifully how evil can be defeated by love.
Joseph’s brothers, incredibly jealous of Joseph the favourite son, finally found a way to get him out of their hair.
They could have no idea that he would land on his feet and rise to a position of such importance in the land of Egypt and, many years later, be able to save his family from starvation.
They could have no idea either that, when he caught up with them that he wouldn’t want to exact revenge but that he would be overcome with love and want to look after them, putting the past firmly behind him.
For me, the story of Joseph has always illustrated how God can bring about good things from some of the worst circumstances.
And that’s a lesson that I’m sure some of you know from first hand experience.
How, even in the depths, God reaches us and lifts us up.
And so, from earliest days, Joseph has always been, for me, one of those great biblical heroes.

But this week, I came across another reading of the story of Joseph that has intrigued me.
In fact, its really gotten to me this week.
And it ties in with our gospel reading for this week – that difficult reading, where we see Jesus being apparently less than helpful.
So rather than keep it to myself, I thought I’d share it with you, so that you can struggle with it too.
Walter Brueggemann, a contemporary Old Testament scholar, suggests that the story of Joseph describes a pattern that is often perpetrated in our world economy today:
Pharaoh had a dream – more of a nightmare.
And, as a result of that nightmare, a whole new economy of scarcity was dreamed up and policies to deal with that scarcity were planned and implemented.
The River Nile had always ensured that Egypt was a land of abundance – lush and fertile.
But the Pharaoh’s nightmare provided a dreadful scenario.
You remember the dream of the seven thin cows and the seven fat cows.
Joseph, languishing in prison, made good his escape by interpreting this dream that troubled the Pharaoh as a sign that there was going to be famine in the land.
Seven good years and then seven years of famine, if you remember the story.
So Joseph was freed from prison and put in charge of managing the seven good years so that the nation would survive through the seven bad years.
Joseph implemented the government policy of acquisition.
Wherever there was plenty, it was Joseph’s job to acquire that abundance for the government.
Until the Pharaoh had the monopoly throughout the land and then everyone was at his mercy.
He could supply demand as and when he saw fit.
He had total control.
Bruegemmann suggests that peasants were turned from their lands, had their crops possessed and were forced into slavery because of the government’s policy of requisition – a policy Joseph enacted on behalf of the Egyptians.
It went against all that Joseph and his people believed in, to imagine that their God would not continue to provide abundantly for them as had been the case for centuries.
Yet, Joseph bought into this idea of scarcity – and so his own kith and kin were uprooted, impoverished and became subject to the whims of a superpower.

That’s some alternative reading of the story of Joseph.
And my first reaction was to discard it for my long held notion of the idea that God can use all sorts of circumstances for good.
And so to see in the story of Joseph, the story of a God who uses the brothers jealousy and their evil act of selling their brother into slavery as a way of saving a people when hardship befell them.
A God who rescued Joseph from slavery and raised him to great things.
I think the reason, however that I gave Brueggemann’s alternative reading a second glance, however, is that it resonated with some of the things that Paul Russel, the moderator said at my induction here.
About how often, in the church, we believe that what we have to offer will not be enough.
That we don’t have enough people.
Or enough money.
Or enough talent.
And that, until we have all the resources in place, there’s no point in doing things.
And we too often forget that the God in whom we trust is a God of abundance and of grace.
A God who uses our limited offerings and resources and, who more than that, transforms all that we have to offer, so that it becomes more than enough.
For the fact is that our gifts are multiplied when offered to God.
The story of this congregation is a story of faith in God’s abundance.
It was faith that called people to come out here and build a church.
Already I’ve spoken to quite a few folk who remember the days of the barn church.
Days when the blessing of God was very evident.
It was faith that called people to build a sanctuary.
And, every step of the way, that faith has witnessed God’s blessing and extravagant giving.
Why should we assume that, in this day and age, God should treat us any differently.
Why should we assume that God will not bless us now as God has blessed us in the past as we offer what we have today.
Ourselves, our gifts, our time, our talents, our money.
Offered to God, that will be more than enough.
So why do we fall into that uncertainty of scarcity?
Idris (my husband) had two maiden aunts who lived together.
They were the family matriarchs.
They kept the family together and whenever anyone was in need, Aunt Isobel and Aunt Lizzie were the first called on.
They would always help out.
From scrubbing floors to dishing out good advice, theirs was the place to go.
Eventually they both died and we assisted with the task of clearing the home they had shared.
It seemed that everywhere you looked in the house, there were jars and tins and boxes of sugar.
I don’t think either of them actually used much sugar, but their cupboards were full of it.
Because they had lived through rationing.
They knew what it was to do without.
And so, when times were good, they bought sugar.
They would never be short of that again!
Perhaps that sounds just the tiniest bit eccentric, but these weren’t two old, eccentric ladies. They were down to earth, hard working ordinary folk. But folk who had known scarcity.
And so they bought into that idea that it might happen again.
You just could never know.
So they set about ensuring that, should sugar rationing ever come back, they would have plenty – and so would their family.
All of us can so easily get caught up in that myth of scarcity.
And never quite relax enough to realise that our faithful God is a God of extravagance and abundance.

And so to our gospel reading this morning.
One in which Jesus does not show up very well.
Can he really be saying no to this poor woman who has asked for healing, not even for herself but for her daughter?
Can we believe that of our Lord?
Again there are various interpretations of our gospel reading this morning.
Interpretations that point to the new order that now reigns.
That God’s mercy and God’s love are not just for a particular people in a particular place – but for all people everywhere.
And some interpreters point to the fact that this was such an unheard of concept, in a culture that thought that God was only interested in the Jewish people, that even Jesus had difficulty with it and had to learn from the woman’s persistence that there was more than enough to go around.
Whether it was something Jesus had to learn.
Or whether he just delayed granting the woman’s request so that the disciples would learn this lesson by puzzling over his actions, the message is the same:
God’s love, God’s healing, God’s forgiveness, God’s abundant grace – is for everyone.
There is more than enough.
Believe it.

All of us can so easily be seduced into believing that love is scarce, that resources are limited, that giving somehow diminishes us.
And yet, the good news that Jesus came to live is that God’s blessing multiplies whatever we have to offer – and, in God’s purpose, there will always be enough.

It’s a lesson that we have to learn and a promise that we have to grasp hold of.
For unless we take risks, we cannot find security.
And unless we love we cannot know God’s extravagance.

And so as we enter this new phase together, making history here in Castlehill, lets not be seduced by the notion of scarcity, but lets step forward in the faith that God’s grace is sufficient, that God’s goodness is abundant and that, right now, we have all that we need to go forward, to take risks and to glorify God in this place.