Saturday, 17 June 2017

Sermon 18 June: How Long O Lord?

Psalm 13 
John 6:35-40

How Long?
Sometimes life and liturgy come together in beautiful synergy – the readings of the day fit perfectly with the events in the world that week.
This is one of those weeks as the country joined together in sorrow and lament over the horrific events in London. Not terrorism this time, but nonetheless terrifying.
You may remember the disaster movie from the 1970s – Towering Inferno? In the movie they were able to rescue most of those trapped in the tower block from the roof; and extinguished the fire by blowing up the water towers on the roof and flooding the building with water.
Sadly, truth is more brutal than fiction; the fire raged too quickly, too fiercely; it was night; there was conflicting advice; and as a result many people perished – and many more lost everything.
Those who lived in Grenfell Tower, and those who live in similar dwellings are raising their voices to cry out: How Long?
How many more tragedies must happen before the rules on high rise properties are changed?
How much longer, must those who are poor, continue to live in unsafe properties?
How long will it be?
The Psalm asks God for answers: how long must we wait? How long will we feel alone? How long must we watch as innocent lives are taken? And not only asking those questions – but daring to give God an ultimatum: “Look at me!! answer me!!! Otherwise I will just give up”.
The Psalms! In them there is always an answer to our deepest longings.

The psalm speaks into the questions that are being asked not only by the survivors, the bereaved, the other residents in similar places, but also by others who see the injustice and inequality so obvious in the stark contrast between the wealth of Kensington when compared with the abject poverty of high rise living.
The Psalm is coupled with a short reading from St John’s Gospel: Jesus’ assertion of his mission and God’s promise: that Jesus’ followers will be raised up on the last day; the promise that all who call on the Son will receive eternal life.

Somehow though, even when the readings fit so perfectly the mood and the events of a week, it is still hard to find what to say; how to speak; how to bring hope into a hopeless situation.
So, I offer this: in every time of horror or tragedy; of fear or distress; in each moment that hope seems to be utterly unreachable, there are the helpers.
There are always, helpers.
Good, good people prepared to offer of themselves.
In every time of disaster, when the death toll rises, there are glimpses of goodness; heroes who may not save everyone, but can save someone.
Firefighters entered and re-entered the burning building, to bring more than 60 people to safety.
A man caught a baby dropped from a 5th floor window by a distraught mother; I believe the baby survived.
Within hours people who lived in the area poured in, donating clothes, shoes, bedding, food, water, bringing phone chargers, offering support weeping, sharing, praying together.
Even in the worst tragedy, people help.
They don’t choose to help one over another, they simply come together and help, whatever, wherever, however they can.
The gospel reading today reminds us: “(God)’s will is that Jesus shall raise up all he has been given; that those who see the Son and call on his name shall have eternal life.”

There is no qualifier there; no conditions placed. It is simple.
Call on his name – and God will hear you.
Call on his name and Jesus will welcome you
Call on his name – know that God is waiting always

Life is not perfect;
Life does not always go the way we hope
Life is not always pretty or predictable
Life is full of everything: good and bad; light and dark; happy and sad; we cannot predict how it will go, but we can choose to be positive, to be hopeful, to be loving and kind and to care for others.
All others.
No matter where they come from or who they are.
For they are all God’s children.
How long O God?
How long must we wait for you?
Make us content with the question, knowing that when we rely on you; when we praise you; when we turn to you – you O God are there, always and forever.
Beach at Lossiemouth - JRen2009

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Stand up! Speak out! Pentecost Sermon 2017

Stand up. Speak out.
“the Spirit enabled them to speak” (Acts 2:4)
“the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22, 23)

The Spirit enables them…
The gifts of the Spirit are:
Self control
We live in times that are not always kind, not always loving; not always self controlled
We are living through days when generosity seems far away
When peace feels a distant memory
When joy is tinged with sadness
When patience has worn thin

We are living through strange and terrible times.

And yet.
I am old enough to remember similar days in the 1970s.
Others here are old enough to remember uncertainty in the 1960s
Or the fear of the 1950s
And the horror of world war in the 30s and 40s…

Just because this feels new; feels personal; feels immediate – we also need to remember that as the old teacher wrote – there is nothing new under the sun.

2000 or so years ago the disciples gathered together, fearful, afraid, paralysed with grief and unable to move outside their tight, familiar circle.
Even though they have seen Jesus – know God’s power has overcome evil; that life is there for the taking – they are still afraid.

A rushing wind
A sensation of God’s presence
And the rush of joy that exploded over them as the Spirit came to do her work.

And suddenly -  the Spirit enabled them to speak
And they were filled with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control

And then everything was fine
And they all lived happily ever after…
Except of course it wasn’t and they didn’t.
Not in the simplistic, safe, fairy tale way at least.

God is not a fairy tale!!
God is all seeing; all powerful; ever present
Our advocate
Our strength
Our power
Our friend
Our comforter
Our everything.

The world may seem mad
Those who seek to wreak havoc – an unseen enemy, may seem overwhelming and unassailable.
Yet, with God, nothing is impossible.
The fruits of the Spirit remind us, again and again, we have hidden reserves; unlimited reserves; holy reserves.
And, "no matter what" we can prevail.
God is good, no matter what.
We are God's children, no matter what.
Love will conquer madness, no matter what.
The coming of the Holy Spirit was a fulfilment of God’s promise; of Jesus’ promise.
The coming of the Holy Spirit heralded a new era – an era that continues to this day
God is with us, no matter what.
The Spirit came, and all God’s People received her power – the were moved to stand up. To speak out. No matter what.
The Spirit brought an infinite supply of
The gifts of the Spirit are:
Self control
Ours for the taking
Ours for the using

Ours – no matter what 

Saturday, 27 May 2017

Sermon 28th May: All Gods Children

All God’s Children
“If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:29)

What a week we have had!
Last Sunday as I left here, I set off to Edinburgh, to meet up with friends, to begin a week of observing the Assembly, and joining with many friends from all over the country to ponder what we were hearing and what that might mean for us.
The presentations have been wide reaching and careful; the opinions were wide ranging – it is clear that, on many subjects the church has a variety of views – however, and for me, this is the most hopeful sign of all, even though people disagree there was a spirit of harmony; a genuine desire to find ways to work together, with each other, even when we do not always agree.
There was hope, and there was encouragement.
The Balfour Declaration is an historic document, which, in 1917, indicated a desire to establish within Palestine a national home for Jewish people; it took another 30 years, and two world wars for this to come to fruition, but this was the beginning. Lord Balfour wrote in his original document that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine…”
The World Mission Council and the Church and Society Council together, presented a report which highlighted the  delicacy with which any celebrations might be held; and that in all things, to “use principles of justice, equality, dignity, equal access to resources and freedom of opportunity for all.”
I know that some of you will have heard Tom’s impassioned talk on his return from visiting Palestine/ Israel a couple of weeks ago; and how he had witnessed great inhumanity to the Palestinians in particular.
The debate that followed reflected all that Tom witnessed, but with dignity and inclusion; with a desire to allow all voices to be heard; all lives valued; all people honoured.
It was a privilege to witness. And that was only Monday!
Of course, Tuesday morning brought with it horror and tragedy. Manchester is the place I was born in; it is in the green belt surrounding Manchester that I grew up. To know that terror had struck in a place where young children – mostly girls and a few boys were enjoying music and performance; a place that should have been exempt from any hint of such atrocities struck to the core. The Assembly had a sombre atmosphere that day; and, as the news filtered through, we stopped and prayed for those injured, missing and dead, and those who were desperately searching for loved ones.

Divisions exist.
There is no denying it. all around us – there are those who will disagree; those who would deny rights to specific groups of society.
As we work through the letter to the Galatians, we reach a point where Paul is really chastising them for their foolish ways. Those who were born Jewish are continuing to find reasons not to include others. They see the Gentiles as different; not acceptable; they want them to conform to their rules, their laws; simply believing in Jesus is not enough for them – and so we hear this accusation: “You foolish Galatians!” (3:3)
It is a continuation of the same arguments we witnessed last week; from adhering to food laws; to keeping each law; to following a set of rules laid down by humans, not God, the Galatians seem determined to confound the Gentiles’ attempts to follow Jesus.
So, Paul brings it back to something really simple.
“As many of you as were baptized into Christ, have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (3:27-28)

That has not changed
Cannot change
Will not change
We are all one in Christ Jesus

And really, we do not have to jump through hoops – we simply need to believe who Jesus was, and is. “In Christ (you) we are all children of God.” (v.26)
What a promise!!
What a joy!
What hope that brings!

Attending the General Assembly is a great privilege – we see the church at work; we see people of passion; people who under Jesus Christ are all one – all in God’s family. And in that family, there will be disagreement; there will be differing opinions; there will even be the odd falling out but, because of Jesus, even when we disagree, there is grace and dignity, there is hope and a genuine desire to continue together, even in those different outlooks, and that gives me hope for the future.

We are all in this together; we are all members of God’s family.

Rt Rev Dr Derek Browning, Moderator of the General Assembly offers prayers for Manchester

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Sermon 21st May: Trust in God’s Love

Galatians 1:13-17 & 2:11-21 

You may have noticed that this week I chose for the reading to come from the Church bible directly, and not via another translation.
Very often I find that the Good News Bible over simplifies the text, but this week, in Paul’s letter to the Galatians I was glad of the simplification, for Paul’s writing is often dense and multi-layered; and it explores concepts and definitions of faith which are difficult to grasp.

Paul is talking about justification – in the Good News translated as “put right with” – in one of the study guides I read it suggested replacing justification with “belonging to” for, in our 21st century context, the way we use justification is not quite the same as the theological meaning.

The crux of what this passage is all about is what we must do to be part of God’s family through Jesus – what we must do to know we are Christians.

The early church was struggling; people were joining in their droves, and the disciples, the ones who had been with Jesus all the way through were trying very hard to accept these new people in, even though they were not Jewish by birth. This is manifested in the discussion here, where Paul is trying to explain why he and Peter have had what appears to be a very public row. Paul feels that Peter has used double standards – when he was first with the gentiles he had eaten with them and not suggested or imposed any Jewish food practises, but once other believers had arrived – who were Jewish by origin, he had pulled back because he was afraid it would cause a stir.
Those who were Jewish by origin were convinced (as you heard in the last two week’s sermons) that in order to really become followers of Jesus that all new converts must first become Jews before becoming Christian. Creating different qualifiers.
Putting obstacles in the way.
Adding conditions to faith.
Paul – who was the most learned scholar; who knew the law, and had indeed been an extremely vocal and violent persecutor of the followers of Jesus’ way; Paul knew better than most that this was not what God required of them.
Jesus had been sent by God to show people a simpler way. And Paul had been called by Jesus to bring that simpler way to those who were not Jewish by birth.
This new, simpler way, is no longer about sticking strictly to a set of Laws – even if those laws were God given.
No, the only way, the best way, to belong to God is by faith in God’s son Jesus.

Paul is talking about the question of who belongs in the faith community, and who doesn’t. In our faith community, how do people know they belong?  What do we do, how do we act, what can we say to let people know they belong in our faith community?
What do we do, or say, that makes them feel that they don’t – sometimes, just by being who we are, doing the things we know, using the language of church we exclude new people who have no idea what is happening all around them.
Paul’s assertion, is that faith in Jesus is enough. In fact, that is exactly what Jesus said: no one comes to the Father except through me. This sounds good, doesn’t it?

But what about those who don’t help the church?
Don’t support our buildings financially?
Those who come along and use the church if it suits them, but not if it doesn’t?
What about those who believe in Jesus, but worship God in their own way, away from church?
Are they good enough?
Are we good enough?
Do we really believe that faith in Jesus is enough?  Or do we feel like we need to add just a little bit more to be sure? 
It certainly sounds good, reassuring even, but maybe we need to work long hours at the church just to be sure, maybe we need to be seen, maybe we need to lead/ join a group… the add-ons could be endless. 
So, how do we live with this deep freedom Paul describes here?
For years – and I mean years, from bible study as a young mum in a wonderfully supportive group; to exploring my sense of call to ministry, to studying the bible in depth at university, to reading and studying for myself, and for preaching, in all of these times over probably thirty years, I have struggled with Paul’s letters!!
Firstly – they are densely packed and often difficult to understand; secondly they often leave me feeling inadequate, or with more questions than answers.
And thirdly, they often leave me feeling that what they are telling us is something that is far too difficult to really take on.
Today of course, we have the exact opposite!
Paul has, through complicated and heavily layered argument, brought it down to something that is actually very simple: we are made right with God through faith in Jesus.
That’s it.
Nothing added.
No great tasks to perform.
No huge commitments to make.
Simply trust Jesus. Believe he is God’s Son.
Believe he died for us, for our sins to be forgiven. Believe that through Jesus our lives are restored to God.
Paul is stating that if we have our focus on Jesus right and we follow that way, then we do not need to think about the law or spend time on the outward showings of keeping the law; in other words, trust in God’s grace on this rather than our own particular good deeds or how we respond to the law.
Trust God’s grace
Trust God’s love
Live in and through that grace and with God’s love in our hearts and everything else will fall into place.
I do the things I do; live the way I live, not because I think I must do it; but because the way I live out God’s love is to share it in whatever way I can.
And, I know that all around me, in this our church family, I see the same – God’s faithful people, living and loving, and showing others God’s love in action.
Trust God.
Trust Jesus
And live in God’s love – that’s something we can all live by.


Saturday, 29 April 2017

Am I brave enough? sermon for 30th April

 Acts 6:1- 7:2, 7:44-60 

Today we have had a very long reading, the first part explaining the way that the early church, (I mean, really, early – like newborn, early!) the early church was struggling with how to manage her affairs.

As soon as the word began to spread groups sprang up, depending where they had come from; what their original faith or practice had been, how they understood life, all these things influenced how they subsequently lived out life as a Christian.
Suddenly, things which had been good and holy practices were being abandoned; widows were being neglected, priorities shifted and others began to notice.
And there were complaints.

At this point I feel I need to pause a moment – what goes around comes around and there is nothing new under the sun – sigh!
Here we are, and still we complain about each other; we notice when someone is unkind, yet we do not necessarily time a moment to check our own behaviour first.
Is it comforting, that the problems we experience now in the church and in the community, are pretty much the exact same problems that these folks were experiencing too? I’m not sure if it’s comforting or depressing to be truthful.

Before we think about Stephen, I’d just like to take a moment to hear again verse 2: the twelve called together the whole community and said – it is not right for us to neglect God’s word and wait on tables…
Pardon me if I am wrong, but didn’t Jesus say that he came not to be served but to serve?!
I’m not sure that serving the WORD and prayer are much help to a starving widow who has been passed over because she has no one to speak up for her.
What would Jesus be doing?
Who would Jesus be with?
Already – they were losing sight of Jesus’ message. And, yet. The word of God continued to spread and the disciples increased.
The swift answer to this early problem, was to choose some good and faithful ones to serve the people and ensure that all were cared for.

Of these seven chosen ones, we are told that one of them, Stephen was full of faith and the Holy Spirit – he was full of grace and power and was blessed to be able to do great wonders and signs among the people.
Of course, as is often the case, especially it seems in the bible, his goodness caused others to feel uncomfortable, and anger begins to rise up against him.
Yet, he persisted and withstood their anger. Which just made them madder!!
None of us likes to be told we’ve got it wrong; especially when they may be right; especially when we do not wish to change our behaviours…
Nowadays of course, if someone makes us uncomfortable we are not so likely to send them into the streets and stone them – we have other ways of hurling stones: insults and ostracising; excluding, tormenting, we may not kill them, but we can make them as dead to us.

The dictionary definition of martyrdom is:
“A person who is put to death or endures great suffering on behalf of any belief, principle or cause”
By this definition it is clear that he was indeed martyred; but not before this incredible speech, which we have heard only an extract from today.
And, if we were thinking that Stephen spoke too much, or too directly, this is where he really did it! pointing out the errors; accusing them of putting Jesus to death; calling them names; criticising their religion, their history, their ancestors… that’ll do it!

What do we think about martyrdom now though?
In the 21st century?
We do hear of people being put to death, murdered in the news. Who can forget the image of the hostages held by ISIS being killed in the desert?
They however, did not go willingly for a cause, but died at the hands of terrorists.
So, where else might we find it now? Or is it an old-fashioned idea?

How would we act if we were really, challenged to stand up and be counted? If it became a life or death choice?
I cannot say I have the answer to this one; I do not know even if I would be brave enough to stand up, speak out, defend the helpless.

And so, we get to the title of today’s sermon. am I brave enough? Because this story of Stephen’s witness and death has disturbed me; it has caused me to question my own faith, my own strength, my own determination to keep the faith.

I am not very brave. I don’t like to put myself forward. I do not know, if I was called upon, if I would be able to stand and be counted; and that makes me uncomfortable.

Maybe you too feel the same?
We are so blessed in our community.
We have good friends and neighbours; we look out for each other; we help each other out.
We are never challenged – I mean, really, challenged on a regular basis, to move out of our comfort and into the unknown.
I’m afraid I do not have a quick answer either!
And maybe that it alright. Maybe sometimes we simply don’t have the answers – can’t have the answers because at this point, we do not need them.
Maybe sometimes we just have to wait, and keep the faith, and try our best to simply be in the moment.

We may go through life never challenged to stand up; never asked to speak out; never moved beyond that which is comfortable.
But, here in our comfortable existence we do have some responsibility. We need to remember Jesus teaching about justice and righteousness. We need to follow Jesus’ lead and help the weak and the disadvantaged; we need to follow Jesus lead and act when we witness injustice. We need to give of our time and talents, of our own resources to help those who have none; we need to be brave!!

The examples I used with the children – being kind; caring for the earth; clearing up after ourselves; protecting those who do not fit in… are simple enough, but they are not just for the children, they are for all of us!

It takes courage to be different. It takes strength to go against the crowd. It takes a gritty determination to do the right thing, because you believe with all your heart it is the right thing to do. 

I cannot answer the question for you; only you can do that: are you brave enough? Are we brave enough? Am I brave enough for Jesus? 

Leafy path at the Bield (c) JRen2016

Sunday, 23 April 2017

sermon 23 April - Later that first day… still amazed, still confused!

Luke 24:13-35; Psalm 30

This week I watched the programme Undercover Boss – the American version. And then I read again about the walk to Emmaus. And I was suddenly struck by the similarities!!
If you do not know the TV programme, the premise is this: boss gets a disguise and is followed by a film crew while he/she visits various of the subsidiary offices or outlets supposedly doing a documentary about the company or the skill set.
The unsuspecting workers spend time with boss, showing him the ropes and talking frankly about the corporation; in-disguise boss asks pertinent questions and learns about the company shortfalls, and about the heroic people who are the employees.
Then they are invited to come to the head office, where the boss, dressed as himself appears and explains it was all a ruse he was the boss all along and then proceeds to wow each employee with a gift or a promotion or help with some family issue.
It is heart-warming and often reveals more about the boss than was expected. It was while watching the big reveal that I got the flash of familiarity: the stunned look on the unsuspecting employee’s face as the penny drops and they see the co-worker suddenly appearing in a suit and with a decent haircut… oh! It’s you… How… what…. Wha…….. etc.
I was thinking about the two travellers walking the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus – 6 or 7 miles thereabouts; talking between them about Jesus, about the previous week’s events, and especially about the events of this particular day.
They talk between them, and then when the stranger joins them, are delighted to be able to offload, to retell everything, about the things they had thought, and the things they’d witnessed and how they really weren’t sure of anything anymore.
And then the stranger asking the probing questions, and then taking time to listen and explain and help them to feel valued, and his words being familiar, and his attitude familiar, but still not recognising him for who he was.
Until they get to sit and share a meal, and suddenly they see him in the right context, and in the right place and it all falls into place – oh my gosh!!! It’s you! It’s really you!!

All the way through the disciples have seen but not seen, heard but not heard, had it explained but not understood. Again and again Jesus told them what would happen, how it would happen, even when it would happen; but they still didn’t get it; they still remained confused and amazed.
And even hearing that others had seen him; that others had spoken to him, even then, they didn’t quite get it, they were still confused.
Jesus’ patience astounds me!
And maybe we would be the same in their place; maybe it would be too much for us as well.
Even seeing him alive beside us, talking to us, would be too much to take in, so it is just easier to not see it, so you don’t need to do anything.
Because knowing, understanding, accepting the truth means you have to do something about it.
In this case, ignorance really is bliss; in ignorance, you can go on, plodding slowly; in ignorance, you can wait and see; you don’t have to change anything.
Once you see the truth for what it is you have started a ball rolling, and it will never stop.

It really shouldn’t have been a surprise.
They really should have known as soon as he started to quote scripture and explain those long held prophecies that this was the start of something.
And of course, we are told, their hearts burned within them; the words sparked feelings and responses – how on earth did it take so long for the penny to drop?!
Scripture is full of prophecies and turn around stories: which is why psalm 30 is such an appropriate addition to the gospel text:
“You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent”. 
The only possible response after that revelation is indeed joyful dancing, songs of praise and the opportunity to run and share the information with their friends.

There are so many times for us when we go blindly on; hoping against hope; seeing but not really seeing
hearing but not really hearing.
Travelling in an amazed and confused state…
Being told amazing, wondrous good news, but doing not a thing about it – so very often we are the disciples on the road to Emmaus; blind even to the truth in front of us, hearing God’s word, feeling it burn within, but not doing anything, just plodding along, one foot in front of the other.
The undercover boss rewarded his loyal employees with lavish gifts to make their pretty difficult situations easier, more bearable; our undercover boss – Jesus – also lavishes wonderful gifts upon us.
Not worldly wealth
Not surprise holidays or a promotion in the company – for we are all equal in God’s kingdom.
But instead, better than that, promises:
I will be with you to the end of time
I am going to prepare a place for you – that you will be with me
God’s Kingdom, my kingdom is for all who turn to God and call on me

Well! That’s a gift worth having!

Easter Flowers in Earlston Church 

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Between Times

Holy Saturday
Low Saturday

The day between the old and the new, the end and the beginning.

Whatever you call it, today is a quiet, waiting sort of day. Last night, we watched as Jesus died and was buried.
Tomorrow we will rise early, greet the dawn, and celebrate the resurrection.
Today we take stock.
We do quiet things.
Tidy the house.
Cut the grass.
Prepare food for tomorrow's feast.
Watch and wait.

With the knowledge of hindsight, our wait is full of anticipation and barely contained excitement. Or, it is full of sighing and weariness, and anxiously checking and double checking that everything's going to be ready for tomorrow.

As a child and a young woman, Easter started on Saturday evening, the Easter vigil beginning as the sun goes down, with fire and candlelight, and ritual and blessings.
Then as I changed churches it moved to beginning early on Sunday morning with sunrise services, down by the riverside, singing the story to dog walkers and Sunday joggers.
And, then, I became the one responsible for making it happen. The minister. The responsibility weighted, felt, carried, engendering questions - what if no one comes? What if they do and they don't like the offering? What if it doesn't work, I don't honour God? Will my words be a blessing, or will I fail?
Insecurity is no stranger to the preacher. And long may it remain so. My insecurity means I rely on the Spirit to inspire me, to lead me, I rely on God's loving, gentle prompting. My strength comes from God, and God alone.

So on this Easter Saturday as I contemplate again the resurrection and what to say and how to lead the people out of the darkness into the new light of hope and joy, I wait, with baited breath, ready to proclaim aloud, for all to hear, "Christ is risen!" And pray that the people will respond, "He is risen indeed! Alleluia!! "