Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Bridge to unity?

  1 Corinthians 1 v 10-18
10 Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters,* by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you should be in agreement and that there should be no divisions among you, but that you should be united in the same mind and the same purpose. 11For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters.* 12What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul’, or ‘I belong to Apollos’, or ‘I belong to Cephas’, or ‘I belong to Christ.’ 13Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14I thank God* that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. 16(I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) 17For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.
18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

Driving through rural Scotland, bridges often appear seemingly out of nowhere and sometimes with very little obvious purpose. Perhaps to link farmland that has become separated through sprawling urbanization. Or to allow the passage of livestock across a busy road that has materialized in a formerly rural landscape. It often seems like a lot of effort and expense has been incurred for correspondingly little benefit. Except history would decree a different story and place in context the need for a gap to be bridged and a new pathway to be created. And the many, creative, picturesque styles of bridges do make the scenery even more beautiful and varied.

Divisions in the church are nothing new - as old as time itself. We become quite tolerant and even, at times, indulgent of these divisions. But St Paul places in context the need for bridges to be built - or chasms dispensed with. The divisions and our pandering to them, claims Paul, distract us from the mission to which we are called - preaching the gospel.

This makes me uncomfortable. I would rather chip away at finding similarities in our differences, common ground over which we can agree than work at a real solution that would bring about unity. I am more content with living with the differences than with dismantling a system that, in the end, still excludes. I cling on to the arguments, rationalizing that they lend some spice to life, even, on occasion, beauty. Cozying up with division means that all the while, the gospel remains unpreached, far less lived out in the life of the church. Once again, Paul presents us with the unpalatable facts that we’d rather simply choose to ignore, just as we try to ignore the erosion of our open spaces and the deterioration of our rural culture, threatened by inappropriate land use, even if that does result in some pretty bridging structures.
This is a piece written for the 2014 edition of The Abingdon Creative Preaching Annual, a source of stimulation for preachers reflecting on the RCL texts Sunday by Sunday. Available on Kindle.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Water music

Isaiah 42:1-9
The Servant, a Light to the Nations
Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching.
Thus says God, the Lord,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
and spirit to those who walk in it:
I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
I am the Lord, that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to idols.
See, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
I tell you of them.

Matthew 3:13-17
The Baptism of Jesus
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptised by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptised, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

We've barely seen the wise men off and now we're reading of Jesus baptism.
The baby's all grown up and just about to begin the ministry of which we read in the gospels.
But before we look at Jesus baptism, let's take a moment to consider the season we're marking in the church right now.
The season of Epiphany.
A season that begins with the wise men and ends with the Transfiguration, just before Lent starts.
It's a season when we focus particularly on the many ways that God is revealed to us in daily life.
So it begins with the sign of a star - the one that the wise men followed and ends with Jesus being transformed in the presence of his disciples.
The season of Epiphany affords us many opportunities to see signs of God all around.
In our world.
In our community.
In each other.
It is also a season when we are encouraged to consider the divine spark of the presence of God deep within ourselves.
And so to this Sunday, when we consider the Baptism of Jesus by John.
When Jesus approached John for baptism, John seemed reluctant to baptise Jesus. He thought it should be the other way around,that Jesus should baptise him.
He did not think himself worthy to baptise Jesus.
But Jesus persuaded him, saying: “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.”
And so John agrees to do as Jesus asks - and becomes part of an amazing gift of blessing offered by God.
Pausing there in the story for a moment...to wonder at all those times we've gone ahead at the Spirits prompting, to do things that we might have shied away from.
Those times when even though our head tells us we have nothing to offer, our heart tells us - offer it anyway.
Those times when God has nudged us and when we have been blessed in responding to that nudge.
Because the grace of God has taken what we consider a paltry offering and turned it into something special, something that makes all the difference, something that brings to light the love of God at work in the world.
Many of us are plagued at times with a sense of our own smallness, with the notion that we can't possibly make a difference.
And yet God is constantly trying to tell us how important our contributions are.
God takes the little that we have to offer and turns it into a vital contribution in bringing the light of God into the world.
God deems each of us important enough to make a difference.

Those words spoken by God as Jesus came up out of the waters of the Jordan: This is my son, the beloved, with whom I am pleased.
Those are words that accompany each of us all through life.
We are God's beloved children.
So many people are being written off in our communities today.
Our newspapers are full of stories, of folk being denied benefits.
TV programmes depict those who rely on welfare support as cheats and chancers.
A culture of disdain and suspicion is being fostered.
Folk are being made to feel worthless.
Going against EVERYTHING that God sought to reveal in Jesus.
And so coming to this gospel passage today, out of the world and culture in which we live and operate gives us cause to reflect on how we've moved so far from God's will for all God's children.
Those words we read from the prophet Isaiah:
Thus says God, the Lord,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
and spirit to those who walk in it:
I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
I am the Lord, that is my name;
Gods will for Gods people is good.

As we posted on the church Facebook Page for the New Year:
I know the plans I have for you says the Lord. Plans for your welfare, not harm.
To give you a future with hope.
These words, from the prophet Jeremiah are so far fetched for many in our communities today, folk who live without hope.

In the birth of Jesus, God's gift of love was given to the world.
And today, in this account of Jesus baptism, we are reassured that Gods plans and Gods will for us and for all Gods people have not changed.
God calls us beloved children.
And we, who are fortunate enough to be in this sanctuary this morning are called to respond to that gift of God by taking the love and hope that God gives us into all the world, starting with our neighbours.
Hope is one of the biggest casualties of our society today.
Folk who are continually being put down.
Folk who are constantly being told they are not good enough.
Folk who are denied help by agencies charged with caring for them.
Is it any wonder they lose hope?
We are a pretty hopeless society.
But it's not just those who make it into the stories in our newspapers.
Or who make it onto our television screens who demonstrate hope lost.
There are folk living alongside us who have also given up.
Folk who have been told once too often that they are not good enough, that they have nothing to offer.
Folk who feel unloved and unwanted.
Folk who watch their loved ones suffer and feel helpless and powerless.
Hope is in short supply.
It is hard to penetrate such a culture.
You know how it is when you get a song in your head and you can't get rid of it?
You wake up in the morning with it going through your head?
You're singing it while you brush your teeth, humming it while you load the dishwasher?
It's hard to shake off.
The message of hopelessness and worthlessness that so many folk have grown up with is like that.
It's something that's on constant play. That they can't shake off.
How is it you get rid of the annoying song in your head?
Well, usually, you replace it with something else, something that perhaps isn't quite as annoying.
So, instead of replaying "Sean the Sheep" all day long, perhaps you'll replace it with something from Les Mis, or a favourite from Jim Reeves - just something that haunts you just as much but is more palatable.
It takes the same kind of strategy to convince those who have lost hope in our communities today that they are beloved children of God.
Replacing their constantly playing sound track of hopelessness with the loving words of God.
This is my beloved child.
Replacing a hopeless sound track with one bringing the message of the love of God.

When I worked in the hospital, I remember one woman in particular with whom I worked.
A woman who, for weeks, answered only in distracted nods and grunts when I tried to speak to her.
She always had the TV on loudly to keep folk away.
She was a woman judged by professionals to be not clinically depressed but simply miserable.
The staff on the ward were at a loss to know how to get through to her and, busy as they were with so many other things, they had little time to try and break down the barrier she carefully built around herself.
It took a few weeks of persistent visits to enable this woman to open up enough to tell me part of her story.
A story of loss and rejection. Of being let down. Of feeling she was a burden to family.
Of feeling she had nothing to offer and even less to look forward to.
Even when I had been seeing her almost daily for a number of weeks, I knew that it was useless to simply speak to her of the love of God. It would have meant nothing to her to hear that she was a beloved child of God because life had convinced her otherwise.
The only way to convince her that she mattered was to be persistent as God is persistent, not in word, but in action.
To keep on going back even when the signs were not encouraging, even when there were other, friendlier, people I might prefer to spend time with.
Even when there were no signs that my visits made any difference to her mood.
It's easy to give up on folks.
Not so much because we're judgmental of others.
But because we find it hard to believe that we could possibly make any difference.
And so we decide just to leave things as they are.
While there is always a place for the preaching of Gods word, today more than ever, folk need to see God's love lived out in those who profess to know God.
People need us today, by our persistence and by our patience to convince them that they matter, to us and to God.
That we are all children whom God calls beloved.
And for some people, it is only the little that we feel we have to offer that will make any difference.
It is that one visit.
That one word.
That smile of encouragement.
That helping hand.
Small gestures.
Almost insignificant for us.
But that will make all the difference for others.
God made each one of us special - a beloved child of God.
And each one of us, however much we might doubt it, has what it takes to bring the love of God into the lives of others, and into the life of the world around us, restoring the hope that has become so scarce, changing that soundtrack that plays over and over telling folk they don't matter.

We rejoice each time we celebrate baptism here.
Bit we also know that, as a community of faith, baptism demands that we step up and share the gifts that God has given.
Those gifts might seem small to you and me.
But in the hands of God, they are gifts that make all the difference for others.
Convincing others that they matter.
That they too are beloved children of God.
And that God wants, for them, a future filled with hope.
In baptism, we recognise that divine spark present in each of us and fuelled by that spark, we go into the world around and light the spark in others so that they too may know themselves beloved children.
Thanks be to God.

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