Saturday, 12 February 2011

Life giving choices

Readings: Deuteronomy 30 v 15-20
1 Corinthians 3 v 1-9
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

 In our Old Testament reading, we find Moses making what could be considered his farewell speech.
Moses has been wandering in the wilderness with these people for 40 years.
He led them out of slavery in Egypt.
He endured many trials with them.
As they journeyed there always seemed to be one more challenge that they had to face – and, Moses, as their leader, was the one who bore the brunt of all their complaints.
The number of times we read of Moses reaching the end of his tether with his people – crying out to God – Why have you placed me in this position with a people so difficult to lead.
Moses, with God’s help, saw them through crisis after crisis but the folk had very short memories and, each time another difficulty emerged, they completely forgot how Moses had seen them through and held him responsible.
They even, on occasions, longed for the life they had known in Egypt rather than the unpredictability of this journey to the Promised Land.
We’re all good at that – preferring what is familiar, even if it is not good – but preferring the familiar rather than embarking on the unknown.
Moses has endured this for 40 years.
The Promised Land is in sight.
Moses knows he will not see the Promised Land, so he makes another attempt at encouraging the Israelites.

 See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.
If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.
But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them,
 I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.
 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live,
 loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the LORD swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

That is some speech from a man who, when God called him could barely speak.
In fact, when Moses first went to speak up for his people, he took his brother Aaron with him to do the talking.
Moses has come a long way.
And so have the people.
They have been through a lot together.
And they have learned a lot together.
That is what Moses is reminding them of.
He exhorts them not to forget all that they have learned, not to forget whose they are and whom they serve.
Those same words used as the motto for the Church of Scotland Guild – Whose we are and whom we serve.
Moses implores them to always keep in mind the God who has directed their lives , the God who calls them to live in love – loving God, loving each other and loving their neighbour.

The Kings Speech is a movie about the life of King George VI, released last month and in the running for several BAFTA awards.
It is the true story of how the King who was never expected to accede to the throne overcame major speech difficulties.
With the help and friendship of an unorthodox Speech Therapist, he overcame an impairment that had inhibited and plagued his life.
The Speech Therapist believed in him and persisted in his work with and encouragement of the King until he was able to address the Nation in trying time of war with confidence.
The King was finally able to find his voice and become a leader.

Finding voice has been a theme in Egypt this past few weeks too.
In less then three weeks, voices raised for justice have brought down a 30 year long dictatorship.
Cries of Get Out! have become cries of Freedom.
Their persistent voices were heard and Egypt has been changed forever.
One image that captured the world’s empathy was an image of Muslims at prayer, surrounded by Christians joining hand, forming a human chain to protect their brothers and sisters at prayer.
And yesterday, there were some wonderful images of the celebrations in Tahrir Square in Cairo – of people cleaning up.
Cleaning up because they recognise that the achievement of the freedom they demanded is not the end of their journey but only the beginning.
Now the work begins for everyone to play their part in rebuilding a nation and in ensuring that what they build is true democracy.

And that’s where the challenge lies.
Building on the foundations that have been laid.
Building freedom.
Building justice.
Finding voice is important.
But it is not enough.
Throughout history we have heard enough voices raised – and listened to – that seek power.
But that power has not always been built on justice.
And so we have oppressive regimes all around the world.
Often these regimes started out with hope, attracted supporters by fine orations – but then perpetrated evil.

Voices are important.
But in voices raised there must be sounds of truth and of justice.

Moses exhortation to the Israelites is for them to choose life by building on the commandments of God – to practice love and justice, to walk in the ways of truth.

A theme continued in our New Testament reading:
The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose – we are God’s servants working together.

Every day our lives are just full of choices:
Choices – from moment we open our eyes.
Will I have toast or cereal?
What will I wear?
From seemingly minor choices to the bigger options – choice of study, choice of career, choice of lifestyle.
We are constantly making choices.
So much so that we completely overlook the impact our choice has on others.
We are so used to having options that we forget how lucky we are to HAVE choices.
And the freedom that choice implies.
This week we rejoice that for millions of people in Egypt, their voices have been heard and their right to choose is being reinstated and we pray that they may continue to choose justice and love as a way forward.
And as we value the freedom of choice we enjoy every day, we return to those ancient words of Moses:
, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.
Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him;

R and C have chosen that way today for H.
And, as we said in the baptism liturgy, we look forward to the day when he will make that choice for himself.
This is a day for us all to reaffirm the faith we profess and the choices we have made – to live in love and to work for justice – to follow the path God sets before us.
We have a voice.
We have a choice.
May we speak and choose in love for the glory of God.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Let everything that has breath...

Psalm 150
Philippians 4: 4-9

When Christopher (our organist) suggested focussing on church music for the month of February, I just knew that we had to begin with the Psalm we read this morning – Psalm 150 – a Psalm that exhorts us all to Praise the Lord.
Praise the Lord!

Praise God in his sanctuary;
praise him in his mighty firmament! 

Praise him for his mighty deeds;
praise him according to his surpassing greatness!

Praise him with trumpet sound;
 praise him with lute and harp! 

Praise him with tambourine and dance;
praise him with strings and pipe! 

Praise him with clanging cymbals;
praise him with loud clashing cymbals! 

Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!

Praise the Lord!

Music exerts a powerful influence on us in our every day.
How often have you caught just a snatch of a song on the radio and been instantly transported back in time to an occasion that song was played that sticks in your mind.
Sometimes the memories evoked are so powerful that we can recall smells and atmosphere, taste the food we shared or, in other ways, relive the moment.
Music can move us to tears – tears of sadness, tears of joy, tears of frustration.

Many of the acclaimed revival periods in the history of the church have been accompanied by distinctive music – from the music of Wesley, to the songs of Moody and Sankey, all capturing the mood of a moment, and, many would claim, eternal truths.

My early church days were accompanied by strains of being washed in the blood, waiting for the roll to be called up yonder.
Strange language for our young folk in church circles today.
Even much of what we would consider to be modern praise music has already been discarded by our youth whose tastes and interests move on so quickly, it’s hard to keep up.

This Psalm reminds us, though, that it’s not just about the words, but about the methods of our praise.
We can praise God in so many ways – with hearts and hands and voices and instruments.
My colleague, Alec Shuttleworth, over in Tarbolton, exerts that “there is nothing, simply nothing in life that is not significantly improved by the addition of a banjo.”
With his talent, he is probably right.
We all have our favourite instrument of choice or style of praise music.

When we moved here, from Inverkip, Zara (then 10) insisted on calling the church Castlehill Praise Church.
It took me a while to realise that it was her mis-reading of Castlehill Parish church – we didn’t use the Parish in Inverkip church’s title.
But perhaps that’s a more fitting title – something to which we aspire – Castlehill Praise Church.

The book of Psalms has been edited into 5 sections – and this last section, of which we read the final Psalm, is all about praising God.
Hallelujah is repeated again and again – literally - Praise the Lord.

You may remember at the beginning of Lent last year, we “put away the Alleluias” – symbolically in a big tube for the young folk – but also literally in our praise for the rest of Lent.
We only unleashed them again on Easter Sunday.
And while, initially, I’d stumbled on that idea as a way to teach the youth church something of the austerity of Lent, like all good illustrations, it became much more than that.
The absence of Alleluias for those 6 weeks, made their reappearance all the more wondrous when Easter arrived.
And the careful screening of hymns to make sure we didn’t include any alleluias during Lent, made me so much more aware of how many of our hymns praise the Lord with alleluias.
And, it is fitting that a Psalm so full of Hallelujahs should end the Psalter, a hymnody of praises.

It might seem strange to describe the Psalms as a hymnody of praise when so many of the Psalms are full of sorrow and lament.
Indeed, the first part of the Psalter (Psalm 1-41) is composed mostly of laments:  "How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?" (Psalm 13:1) "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Psalm 22:1).
But lament is not the whole story.
Praise often wells up in the middle of the laments and, gradually, through the course of the whole book of Psalms, the laments give way to praise until finally, at the end, "hallelujah" is the final word.
Eugene Peterson wrote:      
This is not a 'word of praise' slapped onto whatever mess we are in at the moment. This crafted conclusion of the Psalms tells us that our prayers
 are going to end in praise, but that it is also going to take awhile.

It seems to be the way of Christian life that answered prayer is not something that can be rushed,
It requires patience.
IT requires persistence.
There is a lot of lamenting before we reach the Hallelujahs.
But in the rhythm of laughter and tears.
In the doubting and the believing.
In the resistance and the dance.
There is movement, inevitably, towards praise.
And even when we reach that point when we are moved to praise, our lament is not forgotten, our sorrow is not cast easily aside.
Our Hallelujahs are an expression of having reached the light only through the darkness.
Praising God, in our lives as individuals and in our life as a community in worship is a culmination of our struggles together, another stage in our journey, marked by all that has gone before and all that has yet to come.
And our praise is all the more real for having found a way to burst through lament and sorrow and darkness and questioning.
Our Alleluias are not a denial of all the sorrows we face.
They are not an escape from the realities of life.
Our Alleluias are a response to the God who, in darkness and in light, in sorrow and in joy, leads us on, a response to the God who brings life even out of death.

And that brings us to our New Testament reading this morning.
How are we able to keep on praising God through all that life brings?
St Paul tells us:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

 Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

I know that so many of you can testify to that peace that passes all understanding – seeing you through the darkest of times.
So many of you live out your every day in the knowledge that The Lord is near.
And focusing on whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable and the things worthy of praise – focusing on those things enables us to go through all that life brings praising God.

So whether for you, it’s the Redemption hymnal, or the old Scottish Psalter or CH4 or Mission Praise – whatever loosens your praise cords, don’t be inhibited by the times you’ve been told to keep quiet, don’t be subdued by the burdens you carry right now – Let everything that has breath Praise the Lord.