Friday, 6 March 2009

Take up your cross

I'm involved in a pulpit exchange this week with Annbank and Tarbolton.

Readings: Genesis 17 v 1-7; 15,16
Mark 8 v 31-38

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

At Castlehill just now, we’re having midweek Lenten services. We’re focussing on journeys as we journey with Jesus through these 6 weeks of Lent.
On Wednesday night, we read about God calling Abraham, at the grand old age of 75, to pack up all his belongings and follow God to a new land.
God said to Abraham: Leave your country, your relatives and your Father’s home and go to a land that I am going to show you.
So Abraham did as God asked.
When we encounter Abraham in our reading this morning, its time for God to fulfil the promise that he made to Abraham in calling him: I will give you many descendants and they will become a great nation.
But now, Abraham is 99, not 75!
No wonder Abraham laughed.
Abraham’s laughter was like that good Scottish statement: AYE RIGHT!
Its only 6 months since I moved to Ayr to be minister at Castlehill.
When I finished University and was halfway through my probation for ministry, I realised that I didn’t feel called to parish ministry.
I was, in fact, ordained into hospital chaplaincy.
And vowed I would never be a parish minister.
Six years later I was called to serve in the parish of Inverkip.
When I moved there, from hospital chaplaincy, I felt sure that God was calling me to be there for some time.
Much longer than the seven years I served there.
And, indeed, just two months before I was approached by the vacancy committee from Castlehill, I spent some time with my spiritual director, trying to discern God’s will for me in Inverkip.
It seemed clear then that there was a lot more work for me to be involved in in Inverkip.
Two months later I was considering a call to move on.
And here I am in the presbytery of Ayr.
Often, just when we think we’ve got God sussed, God surprises us, confounding our certainties, upsetting the plans we have made.
And we too want to respond: AYE RIGHT
Its like the divine sense of humour just likes to challenge us, call into question our certainty and confront us with an ever new reality.
God certainly keeps us on our toes. 

Making journeys is not so unusual these days.
People move to find work.
People move to study.
Young folk think nothing of travelling for gap years.
We’re a very mobile society.
Not so in Abraham’s day.
What a statement of faith that he should pack up his whole life and, with his family, go where God called.
So I have great sympathy with Abraham when it seems like one more incredible stretch, one more demand that God was making on him – to believe that he could start, not just a family, but a whole nation.
AYE RIGHT just about sums it up.

Once there was an old man who lived in a tiny village. Although poor, he was envied by all, because he owned a beautiful white horse. People offered fabulous prices for the horse, but the old man always refused. “This horse is a friend, not a possession,” he would respond.

One morning the horse was not in the stable. All the villagers said, “You old fool. We told you someone would steal that beautiful horse. You could at least have gotten the money. Now the horse is gone, and you’ve been cursed with misfortune.”

The old man responded, “Perhaps. All I know is that my horse is gone; the rest I do not know. Whether it be a curse or a blessing, I can’t say.”

After fifteen days the horse returned. He hadn’t been stolen; he had run away into the forest. Not only had he returned, he had brought a dozen wild horses back with him. Once again the village people gathered around the old man and said, “You were right – what we thought was a curse was a blessing. Please forgive us.” The old man responded, “Perhaps. Once again you’ve gone too far. How do you know if this is a blessing or a curse? Unless you can see the whole story, how can you judge?” But the people could only see the obvious. The old man now had twelve additional horses that could be broken and sold for a great deal of money.

The old man had a son, an only son. He began to break the wild horses. Unfortunately, after just a few days, he fell from a horse and broke both his legs. Once again the villagers gathered around the old man and said, “You were right. The wild horses were not a blessing; they were a curse. Your only son has broken his legs and now in your old age you have no one to help you. You are poorer than ever.” But the old man said, “Perhaps. Don’t go so far. Say only that my son broke his legs. We have only a fragment of the whole story.”

It so happened that a few weeks later the country went to war with a neighbouring country. All the young men of the village were required to join the army. Only the son of the old man was excluded, because he had two broken legs. Once again the people gathered around, crying because there was little chance their sons would return. “You were right, old man. Your son’s accident was a blessing. Our sons are gone forever.” 

The old man spoke again. “You people are always quick to jump to conclusions. Only God knows the final story.”

Its clear that Abraham seldom had much clue about what God was up to.
And yet, Abraham has become one of the exemplars of faith.
Maybe precisely because of his cluelessness.
For although he didn’t know why.
Yet he did as God asked.
And sometimes the asks were huge.
Asked to pack up his whole life and travel.
Asked to believe that he could father a nation.
Asked to sacrifice his one and only heir with no idea that God would provide an alternative.
Abraham might well have been clueless about God’s plans but he certainly wasn’t found wanting in his faith.
He didn’t always get it right.
At one point he tried to expedite God’s promise of an heir by sleeping with Hagar, the family servant, a perfectly acceptable practice in those days – EXCEPT when God has other plans.
He made a few mistakes along the way.
But the bottom line is that, instinctively, he trusted God.
I find it comforting to find that Abraham did, on occasion succumb to the quick fix.
That occasionally he thought he could speed things up or resolve things on his own, but God stuck with him.
God didn’t take the huff and leave him to his own devices.
God stuck with him and kept on revealing more amazing things.
How often have we been impatient waiting for God to reveal things, wanting clarity when all seems to be misty.
But even when we do jump the gun, God doesn’t write us off, but sticks with us and helps us learn new things and, above all, teaches us patience.
At various junctures in the Abraham story we find Abraham taking time out, building altars, offering sacrifices, spending time with God in discernment.
And those are the times that Abraham’s walk is closest to God, the times when he gets it right.
But its comforting to know that when we don’t do that, when we’re impatient and when we rush in, still God honours our intentions and helps us to retrieve the moment.
I’m sure there are even times that God’s plans become slightly skewed in order to accommodate our sometimes flawed efforts.
God is big enough not to have to exert authority but to use us even in our misguidedness to achieve good.
God honours our imagination and freewill.
But its good if we too can honour these as gifts from God and ensure that we employ them wisely.
It was Martin Luther who said: ”Love God and do as you please.”
The fact is that if we put our love for God first then what we want will also be what God wants for us.
Sometimes we can see clearly what God wants – and that’s the time to act.
When we’re not so clear is not an excuse for doing nothing but we have to move more cautiously.
We have to test the waters as it were to check out that we’re on the right lines.
This second Sunday in Lent we’re reminded that Jesus took time out before beginning his ministry.
Faced with temptation, he did not take the easy way out but persisted in seeking God’s will.

In our gospel reading this morning, Jesus journey to the cross has already begun.
That is why he gets angry at Peter who tries to distract him from the painful path he must take, encouraging him, instead, to choose an easier route.
His words to Peter sound harsh – Get thee behind me Satan.
Words that have found their way into common usage.
Words that every woman knows when confronted with the temptation of buying just one more new outfit to hide at the back of the wardrobe.
Last time it happened to me, I had got as far as trying on that little black dress.
For the briefest of moments, economic sense prevailed and I uttered those words: Get thee behind me Satan. But Satan said: I have and let me tell you - It looks just as good from here.

Jesus and Peter had gone through a lot together.
Peter had come so far in faith.
So it must have really stung to hear Jesus say: Get thee behind me Satan.
But Peter is misguidedly trying to distract Jesus from the difficult path he must follow, from that road to the cross – and that, Jesus cannot tolerate.
Jesus said: IF anyone wants to come after me, he must forget self, take up a cross and follow me.
Jesus is not being mystical in that instruction.
Unequivocally he tells us that the path we must follow is one of self denial.
Lent is a time when many Christians make attempts at self denial – giving up things they like.
Indeed I was in one of the local primary schools this week.
When I asked the youngsters, aged 5-8, what Lent was about, they told me that it was about giving up the things that you like – things like chocolate and wine and cigarettes. (5-8year olds!)
That, however is not the kind of self denial of which Jesus speaks.
The way to which Jesus points is a way of real sacrifice, a whole different way of living.
I tried to sum up something of our inability to understand the real meaning of sacrifice and the real cost of taking up our cross at the beginning of Lent with these words:

Chocolate or wine
Chocolate or wine?
Wine or chocolate?
Which should I renounce?
Or should I really push the boat out and renounce both?
I mean it is only for 6 weeks
Even I could manage that
And I’d emerge smug and self righteous
My halo extra shiny
After being so self denying
I mean that’s going to make all the difference, isn’t it?
That will really change the world
If I indulge my lack of self indulgence
Besides, I’d probably lose about 20 pounds too
A new figure and a shiny soul
Not to be sneered at.
Is that what its come to?
Is that what its all about
Giving up and then self- congratulating
That’s what God surely wants
No, its what God demands
That we all make ourselves miserable and short tempered
and renounce all our coping mechanisms for 6 weeks
so that we too can emerge again from our self imposed tombs
all the better for our “suffering”
God help us when we trivialise sacrifice.
When we dare to imagine that a little self denial
Helps us identify with love in its extremity.
God, the last word in party excuses
Who came up with every reason ever invented to party
Must shrivel and die
When confronted with our pathetic attempts at Lent
Repentance occasions rejoicing
So why do we fail so miserably to capture that
Life giving season
Why do we make a drudgery
Of something beautiful-
getting ready to celebrate such love
and being transformed by such life.
How about throwing our all into love?

Love costs.
And so does following Jesus.
We cannot merely play at carrying our cross.
As we go on with the journey that is Lent, may God give us understanding and patience to discern God’s will for our lives and then courage to take up our cross and follow Christ.
For the glory of God.

1 comment:

MaineCelt said...

Great stories & reflections... and I love the use of "Aye Right!"

I'm enjoying your writing very much. Wish there wasn't an ocean between us, as I'd love to stop by for tea!