Friday, 30 April 2010

Ethics or morality?

National Cathedral, Washington - a place for all.
I'm not preaching this Sunday - I'll be at Guide camp. But I would love to be sharing the text: Love one another, and exploring what that looks like in our churches and communities today.
Here is Bob Mayo's helpful look at it:
In the Gospel for this Sunday Jesus tells his disciples to love one another, just as he had loved them (John 13:34). He is appealing to the disciples to become a particular type of person who behaves naturally in a certain sort of way. This is an ethical rather than a moral command and it is a mistake to confuse the two. (‘Virtue’) ethics is about character while morality is about behavior. Ethics is a call to become the authentic self that we have it within us to be, while morality focuses on decision making. Ethics is about ‘being’ and morality is about ‘doing’. As men and women, made in the image of God, who we are decides what we do. In loving one another we become “genuine, image, bearing, God reflecting, human beings (Wright 2010: 68)”; therein lies the way of freedom. Christianity is not about rules but a celebration of life.

Being rather than doing - wishful thinking?

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Living in hope

Easter 4
Reading: Acts 9 v 36-43

From the stories of Jesus resurrection appearances, we move on to the book of Acts – and see the early church at work. a small but growing band of believers who are establishing community together.
Pooling resources, offering gifts and skills, enjoying fellowship together.
So we meet Tabitha, described as a disciple.
Tabitha, who had obviously made quite an impact on the folk around her has died and is being mourned.
That, in itself, is touching – a reminder of how those united in faith, even in resurrection faith, come together to mourn and to support one another.
Belief in the resurrection does not inure us to the loss of loved ones and the pain we feel at their passing.
We share community in joy. And in sorrow.
Tabitha sounds like one of the saints of the church.
I’m sure today, we could name many saints around us, in this community, who are just like her.
People who quietly make a difference to this community of faith.
People, without whom our lives would be the poorer.
Saints – the living AND the dead.Her loss will leave a gap in that community.
She, like all of us possessed gifts and skills that will be missed.
Tabitha, like each one of us who make up this community is irreplaceable.
And so the community gathered, in their sorrow, to remember Tabitha.
They got together, as we do, when a loved one dies, and they shared stories and they even celebrated some of the legacy that Tabitha had left behind, the fine garments she had made.
All the widows stood together, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Tabitha had made while she was with them.
When I read that part of the story, I got to thinking: What are the things folk would get together and gossip about when our time comes.
What are the legacies we are creating?
What are the priceless gifts we’re bequeathing to this community?
I’m quite sure many of you would probably say that you don’t have the kind of gifts and skills that leave legacies.
Those who don’t knit or sew or cook or bake, those who don’t make things or, in other ways create tangible reminders.
But all of us really do make a difference.
All of us bequeath something unique to the community, whether we are aware of it or not.
A kind word, a smile, common sense, patience, a sense of humour, the ability to organise and enthuse – all of these are gifts that are needed in a community, gifts that will be missed when they are no longer there.
Each day of our lives, we are creating memories, building up that legacy that we will bequeath to the community around us.
Every one of us has our own peculiar gifts and skills without which this community will be the poorer.
And so, this community, in the early church, are, together, celebrating and mourning the peculiar gifts and skills that Tabitha possessed.
Those early believers met together to comfort each other and to celebrate one of their saints.
They sent word to Peter to come and be with them in their mourning.
Peter, a witness to the resurrection of our Lord, revered by the early church.
In faith, that mourning community called on him to come and minister to a community in mourning.
I’ve always felt that one of the biggest privileges bestowed on ministers is to be with folks in times of bereavement, to journey alongside communities in mourning.
Even and maybe especially when I have never met someone in life, to be with their loved ones in their loss, to listen to people’s stories, to be asked to celebrate their life is an honour that can never be underestimated.
It is a real gift to be entrusted to stand alongside a community in mourning, to commemorate a loved one and to encompass hope for the future and look forward to life – life that will be poorer because of our loss, but life that is nonetheless enriched by the life of the loved one we mourn.
And, whether we like to think of it or not, every one has a story to tell, a legacy to leave.
In our reading from Acts, we find this early church community sending for Peter to come and be with them in their loss.
Come, without delay, they ask of him.
I don’t think they asked him expecting a miracle.
I think their request was simply to have Peter minister to them in their loss.
But when Peter arrived, he raised Tabitha to life again.
And that’s probably where I have most difficulty with this text.
That Peter, called to minister to a community in mourning, performs a miracle and raises the dead.
It’s a wonderful story.
It’s a wonderful testimony to the power of God enacted through one of Jesus’ first disciples.
But that sort of miracle is so far removed from our experience of life today – where the dead do not come back to life.
Yet, even though we cannot expect resurrection in this life, still we have hope for the future.
As Christians, in community, we are reassured that death is not the end but a new beginning.
So that even in our loss, we have hope for the future.
It’s that assurance of faith that I think speaks most to us here in Mauchline today.
That as a community of believers together, in joy and in sorrow, we have hope.
So, perhaps we shouldn’t become too distracted by the fact that Peter brought Tabitha back to life but focus, rather, on the hope of that small community in mourning.
Hope that gave them power to experience new life.
When my children were small, we had a CD of Nursery Rhymes that we played while travelling in the car.
This is the version of Humpty dumpty that was on the CD:
Humpty dumpty sat on a wall
Humpty dumpty had a great fall
All the kings horses and all the kings men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again
Those, I imagine are words you are familiar with. But this version adds another couple of verses:
Humpty Dumpty sat on the ground
Humpty Dumpty looked all around
Gone were the houses, gone were the roofs
All he could see were buckles and hooves.
And then:
Humpty dumpty counted to 10
Humpty dumpty got up again
All the kings horses and all the kings men
Were glad to see Humpty together again.
I was never too keen on that version.
It seemed to me there was no point in allowing children to believe that eggs, once broken, could somehow be patched up, like papering over cracks.
But, it seems, that belief in the impossible is more in keeping with the actions of this small community in the early church.
And doesn’t our faith, particularly in this Easter season speak to us of possibilities rather than impossibilities?
Maybe it’s that our experience is very different to that of the early church.
We’ve become too used to pain, too used to a reality that doesn’t often leave much room for miracles.
Or maybe our idea of miracles has become too narrow.
So that we fail to appreciate how every day is punctuated by miracles.
The problem is that when we arm ourselves, try to insulate ourselves to pain, we also shut out the possibility of being open to all the wonderful possibilities that surround us too.
We shut down our hope.
We limit the capacity of God’s grace.
It’s not a case of not having enough faith.
Rather, it’s a case of not having enough hope.
Hope gives us the ability to see answers to prayer that we would never have envisaged.
Hope allows us to be sure of the power that we have to make a difference as a faithful, witnessing community, to be a force for good in our world today.
Maybe we cannot bring the physical dead to life but we can breathe life into the community around us.
We can offer healing that extends well beyond what we can see and measure.
Our faith and our hope makes a difference to ALL of life.
Our faith and hope gets in between the cracks, bringing healing, restoring wholeness in ways that cannot always be seen.
Healing that works from the inside out.

The reason I was in the States the last couple of weeks was to lead a women minister’s retreat.
We shared times of worship and teaching.
We shared fellowship over meals together.
We hiked in the beauty of the Virginia Mountains and we indulged ourselves in pedicures.
Bodies, minds and souls were fed and renewed.
Spirits were refreshed.
Some of the “results” if you like of that retreat are visible – I still have beautifully painted toe nails!
But other benefits and probably more important and longer lasting are those things that cannot be seen.
The healing of wounds inflicted by ministry
.The building up, in love again.
The replenishment of the gifts of the spirit depleted by constant giving.
And the topping up of the resources of love that God gives.
The renewing of the sense of God’s calling in ministry and the assurance of God’s equipping us for that task.
Too often we overlook our needs as whole people.
We feed bodies and minds and starve spirits.
That is NOT the picture we get of the early church, as recounted in the Acts of the Apostles.
They came together in community and, believing themselves a force to be reckoned with because they were a community of resurrection, they did not allow themselves to be limited.
They simply asked God – and one another for whatever they needed.
And, gathering strength from being together in the presence of the living God, they ministered to the world around them in life changing ways.
And this is important for us today.
The realisation that resurrection is not exclusively an act of God but is something that can be practised by the Christian community in many different ways and in many different places.
We are still resurrection people.
Living in the spirit of resurrection bubbles up through God’s people living in community, prayerfully supporting each other, building each other up and reaching out, with power and hope, beyond ourselves.
Every day, miracles are happening in this community that we serve.
May we believe it.
And may we be empowered to live as resurrection people, knowing that all of us, in our own peculiar way bring life to this community – for the glory of God .

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Peace be with you

A sermon for the Sunday after Easter

McDowell Presbyterian Church

Sunday 11th April 2010


John 20 v 19-31

This Sunday, the Sunday after Easter, is often considered a kind of low time in the Christian season.
As we would say in Scotland: “an auld claes and purridge Sunday”
The big build up to Easter has come and gone – the resurrection has been celebrated.
Pastors often go on holiday or at least take some down time – that’s what we’ve been doing this week.
We even call it Low Sunday.
But it’s not the kind of Low we might imagine.
Oh no.
It’s very different.
Because the Low in Low Sunday comes from the latin Laus – meaning praise.
So instead of having a lull in the proceedings, we continue with the hype of Easter.
We continue the celebration.
And that’s as it should be.
Because of Easter nothing can ever be the same again.
And so our gospel reading this morning takes us back to the reality of Easter.
The disciples are cooried in – huddled together in fear.
We can maybe imagine just some of the things going through their minds:
Those random and real thoughts that are summed up in the passage as fear:
What now?
What next?
He’s gone – are we safe?
Or are they just waiting to kill us too as soon as we venture out of here?
And, supposing we do get to leave and go back home, what is there for us?
We abandoned everything there.
Can we just crawl back and pick up the pieces?
We’ll be a laughing stock.
Cowards too.
We couldn’t even follow through with our convictions.
With all those sorts of possibilities going on in their heads and in their hearts, Jesus appeared.
I love that – that he snuck in.
Not with a fanfare.
Not in a lightning bolt.
But he snuck in beside them.

And his words?
Peace be with you.
What happened to:
You failed me.
Well, didn’t you mess up?
or, even,
Thanks a bunch, friends.
Jesus brought none of that.
He snuck in bringing Peace.
What a gift.
If there’s one thing scarier than someone who was dead coming back to life, it has to be someone who was dead coming back to life angry at us.
Jesus knew his disciples were afraid.
And he brought them what they needed most : Peace.
He brought them Peace.
And then if that weren’t enough, he brought them Pentecost.
He got right up close and breathed his Spirit into them.
And the Spirit of the resurrected Christ.
And there was more.
Once he’d brought them Peace and his Spirit, he brought them purpose.
Jesus commissioned these fearful, cowering disciples to go and breathe peace and forgiveness into the world.
For me, that would have been the biggest gift.
I would need to know, not only that I was forgiven – but that I was also redeemed.
Knowing how badly I’d messed up, I would have to know that I was trusted again.
Trusted to go and take the peace and the forgiveness of the risen Christ into the world.
Jesus gave his disciples that gift too – the gift of trust, the gift of confidence.
Gifts to accompany them onto the next stage of their journey,.
And so the journey was not, as they had feared, all over.
Their journey was entering a new stage, a stage in which they were to be accompanied with affirming gifts from the Risen Christ.
Picture, for a moment, the changing atmosphere and charge of emotions in that room during that brief encounter with Jesus.
A huddled, closed group is opened up.
Perhaps, for a moment, their fear is increased, as they anticipate censure and recrimination.
Then the relief and puzzlement as Jesus offers, instead, peace.
And the incredulity as he affirms that they are still his disciples, still required to tell the good news, still empowered to take forgiveness into the world.
I imagine the most unlikely of parties breaking out.
As the fearful, oppressive, heaviness is gradually transformed into joyful anticipation.
The journey isn’t over but is beginning anew.
The transformation of resurrection.
Fearful, sorrowful, despairing disciples sent out with accompanying gifts.
And what of Thomas?
Thomas missed out on all that.
D’you ever wonder where on earth he was?
Had he been sent out to see what was up?
Was he spying the land to see if it was safe for the disciples to come out of hiding?
Was he away getting provisions?
Bread for the journey?
Or did he just need a break from the oppressive atmosphere in that room?
Why wasn’t he there?
If he was upset with his colleagues before he left, he must have been even more upset when he returned to hear their tales of Jesus being among them.
And all of us, who have not quite grown out of our childhoods, all of us who have not completely lost our childish ways can surely identify with Thomas when he stamps his feet and says: I will not believe.
We all know that feeling well.
Just because you say it doesn’t make it true.
Not when I’m feeling stubborn and pretty miffed.
I won’t believe it.
And you can’t make me!
Sound familiar?
Jesus thought Thomas worth coming back for.
He, too, needed to have Peace breathed into him.
He, too, needed to know that he was entrusted to take forgiveness into the world.
He needed to be reassured and convinced.
He needed the accompanying gifts of the Risen Christ.
And what of us this morning – the doubters and the believers?
The fearful and the confident?
The overwhelmed and the blessed?
What accompanying gifts does the risen Jesus come among us to share?
What Spirit of peace and trust does he breathe into us?
What commission does he bestow on us?
Jesus said: Even better blessings are in store for those who believe without seeing.
Even better blessings.
You and I, overwhelmed by life, personal life – relationship issues, health worries, increasing cost of living, family concerns 
- or political life, the worrying costs of war, accessibility of health care…
Whatever it is that overwhelms us today, the risen Christ invades our space, quietly, and breathes peace into us, before commissioning us to go and spread forgiveness.
And, as if that weren’t enough, the Risen Christ promises us even better blessings.
William Sloane Coffin, said, "You can't think straight with a heart full of fear, for fear seeks safety, not truth. If your heart's a stone, you can't have decent thoughts – either about personal relations or about international ones. A heart full of love, on the other hand, has a limbering effect on the mind."
Jesus promises to us even better blessings.
With that peace of Christ breathed into us, our heavy hearts can be transformed into love and the things that overwhelm us can make way for forgiveness.
As the Father sent me, so I send you, says the Risen Christ.
This day, the Sunday after Easter, may you know the Peace of Christ being breathed into you, releasing your fear, transforming you in love and commissioning you to take forgiveness into all the places it is so badly needed in our world.
For the glory of God.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

He came back

A reflection for the Sunday after Easter:

Doubting Thomas no more

I needed to escape that room

the others were ripping my knitting

going over and over and over

blaming each other

recriminating constantly

So I baled out

just to get some space

to vent some of my frustration

It was over

what were we all sticking around for anyway?

I was really making some headway

working out what I was going to do next

and then they came to find me

came to rub it in more like

they said Jesus had come back

yeah right

good one

I just called their bluff

told them he'd have to come find me

I wasn't about to believe what they'd concocted between them

just to wind me up

I went back to see the others

tell them my plans for the future

say - so long

and that's when it happened

Jesus slipped into the room

How, I'll never know

but he gave me proof

embraced me with his wounded body

he came back

for me

Friday, 2 April 2010

The weight of the cross

2 Good Friday reflections

Simon of Cyrene

I guess I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But now I think that maybe it was the right place at the right time.

Because that guy really needed help.

He couldn’t have made it any further.

Why they chose me to shoulder his cross, I’ll never know.

But there weren’t really many other men around.

Lots of weeping women but not many men.

And when those Roman soldiers say jump, you simply ask: how high.

Especially in those days.

The oppression was really biting.

There was some sort of crackdown.

And no one was safe, no matter how good your credentials.

So I didn’t argue.

Simply took the burden from this poor criminal clearly on his last legs.

IT was doubtful if he’d even need crucified, the mess he was in.

The funny thing is – he didn’t look like a criminal.

You can usually tell.

Especially the ones that end up crucified.

They look hard and cold and menacing.

But this guy – had the softest eyes and the saddest face.

And he wasn’t defiant like they always are at that stage.

Taunting the crowds and the soldiers with nothing to lose.

This man was courteous and concerned – he was worried about me.

And he kept telling the folks who tried to show him kindness – don’t worry about me – look after each other.

So I did my bit.

Not because of the Roman soldiers – I had no choice as far as they were concerned.

But I did my bit willingly for this man, because he awakened in me a compassion such as I’ve never known before.

I did my bit.

I carried his cross.

And I’m glad I was able to serve even so late in the day.

Mary, mother of Jesus

You mothers.

You know you’d do anything for your child.

You fathers, you wouldn’t stand by and see your boy hurt.

But I did.

I stood there.

I watched him.

I heard every last groan.

Felt every last sob.

My heart wasn’t just being broken, it was being shattered to smithereens.

As I stood there.

And watched.

I couldn’t turn away.

I had to endure every last pain and torment.

I had to suffer every blow with him.

And, though my thoughts were murderous for those who were hurting my boy.

I stood there.

And watched.

I couldn’t do a thing.

I was immobilised by grief.

And by something unimaginably stronger.

The knowledge that this was God’s will for my boy.

I couldn’t understand it.

Couldn’t see what on earth this would achieve.

Couldn’t even believe that God could possibly turn this around.

But I still had to stand there.

And watch.

Knowing that I was again doing the will of God.

So, just as I said yes to God’s messenger about carrying this child.

So I said yes to standing by and waiting with him as he died.

And let me tell you.

The pain of disgrace at bearing a child out of wedlock

was nothing compared with the pain of watching that child abused

and tortured and strung up on a cross

to die an agonising death.

For with every pain filled breath he took, a part of me was cut out,

a part of me died too.

I obeyed God once and experienced the joy of motherhood.

I obeyed God as I stood before the cross

but experienced only hurt and death.

My God, why have you forsaken me?