Monday, 30 June 2014

'You're welcome!' - a sermon for Ordinary 13A

Ps 89: 1-2, 5-16
Matthew 10: 40-42

One of my favourite kids worship songs
is a song by Fischy Music.
It’s a simple, cheery, song of welcome,
and the words are short and to the point:
‘Welcome everybody, it’s good to see you here    
- said x three -
gathered in this place.’
Who knows, I may yet get the chance to teach it to you all 
before I leave in September -
and this particular welcome song comes with actions - 
so you’ve all been warned!

Welcome...and actions...

In our gospel reading this morning,
we find Jesus talking of welcome,
a welcome that comes with actions...
a welcome that is, in this instance,
quite specifically aimed at those,
who follow God,
being made welcome.
Jesus says -
‘whoever welcomes you’ - Jesus is talking to his disciples here...
‘whoever welcomes God’s messenger’ -
prophets and preachers and anyone who proclaims the good news of God...
‘whoever welcomes a good man’ [or woman!] -
other versions of the bible translate this as
‘the righteous’
and lastly,
‘whoever welcomes the least of my followers’
and here, we have an action:
the welcoming of the least is linked to the most basic - 
the most fundamental - act of hospitality:
providing a drink of cold water.
In this passage, then, we see various
kinds of follower,
from the very visible, to the barely visible:
from the great and the humble, to those in-between.
And we learn that to welcome any who follow Jesus,
is to welcome Jesus himself.
Here we get a glimpse of how the followers of Jesus are, 
in effect, the body of Christ.
And we also get a glimpse of how we should see one another:
for in order to welcome someone,
we first need to see them.

The God who sees us
calls us to see each other -
but more than that:
to see the spark of the divine in one another:
to see God in each other.
There’s something of the sacred then,
in the act of welcome.
But, in order to recognise God in one another
how do we see God?

The way in which the writer of our psalm sees God,
whilst singing God’s praises,
give us some helpful clues concerning the nature,
the character of God.
The psalmist sings:
‘O Lord, I will always sing of your constant love;
I will proclaim your faithfulness forever’. ...
In the reading, ‘constant love’ and ‘faithfulness’ just keep cropping up -
in this particular extract, we get to hear about
both of these attributes three times.
Then there’s the uniqueness of God:
no one in heaven is like you...’
God is seen as ‘awesome’,
‘none is as mighty’,
God is ‘powerful’ and ‘strong’.
 We see how God’s strength can calm the
‘angry waves’ of the sea -
which, several centuries later will be demonstrated by Jesus,
on the Sea of Galilee,
in a boat,
in the midst of a fierce storm...
The psalmist praises a God who is
The heavens, the earth -
belong to God,
who created the world
and all therein...
And in the midst of the psalm,
we have a key statement which gives us a huge steer,
not only in how we see God,
but how we see each other -
how we welcome each other.
That statement?
‘Your kingdom is founded on
righteousness and justice;
love and faithfulness are shown in all you do.’

At Presbytery on Thursday evening, the Moderator 
reflected on the various fruit of the Spirit: 
love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 
gentleness and self-control -
this list coming from Paul’s letter to the Galatians. 
And it got me wondering about how these are demonstrated
each time we see one another -
each time we welcome and worship and walk with God together.

While some of these may come a little more easily than others,
the list serves to help us begin to tease out
those kingdom values of
righteousness and justice
that the psalmist sings about,
for righteousness and justice is bound up
with building each other up
in love, in joy,
by being patient and kind,
good and faithful, gentle,
and having some modicum of self-control...
okay, let's just not mention chocolate biscuits!!

But welcome is not only about us.
While our gospel reading 
‘invites us to explore in depth the quality of the welcome 
that we offer to one another within the Body of Christ...
we must also reflect on the welcome we offer
to those who are not yet a part of this body.’ [FOTW]
For, echoing last week,
we worship a God who not only sees us,
we worship the God who sees the outsider:
in the case of last week, Hagar.
How then, might we extend God’s welcome
to those on the edges or outwith
the community of Christ’s followers?
...Sometimes, it may be as simple as a random act of kindness...
acts like the ones in the wee film that [ppt person]'s going to play for us now...


Who are the people around us,
ignored by the wider community?
As we wander through our neighbourhoods,
or along the High St,
who might we see?
who are the unwanted ones?
the unwelcome ones?
who are the thirsty ones -
the ones that we could give a drink of water to?
That we could extend God’s welcome to?
the ones who we see
as God’s beloved ones -
or even,
as Christ, in the stranger’s guise?

One very practical thing, that you,
as a congregation are already doing,
has recently been to come alongside
the work of the [name of local group] Project...
seeing young homeless folk,
and helping them to turn a space into a home
when they’re offered housing.
[Seaside Parish community worker] was telling me on Thursday morning
that through your care and kindness,
the second of the starter packs
has already been given away.
Another young person has been given more than a cup of cold water:
that particular way of extending welcome is a ‘welcome to your new home.’
That’s just ...awesome...
I may be biased, are all of you -
Keep up this good work:
the work of active welcome.

Practicing acts of kindness -
whether random or intentional -
is part and parcel of extending welcome:
to welcome someone
is to acknowledge their existence.

In a time and culture that’s geared towards suspicion and mistrust,
the act of welcoming someone is perhaps 
the most radical thing that we can do:
and welcoming those deemed
the last and the least -
those who some would prefer to be
out of sight and out of mind,
is a pretty random act of kindness indeed:
something that seems to make no sense...
And yet,
in God’s kingdom of righteousness and justice it makes complete sense.
For in the radical act of welcome,
as you see,
really see others
you may just come face to face with Christ.

And now, to him be all glory, honour and praise.  Amen.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Sermon for Trinity Sunday 2014: 'A Trinity of Love'

And so to Trinity Sunday... gave a brief nod to sermon preached several years back with regard to referring to Rublev's icon 'The hospitality of Abraham'.  

Had stumbled upon the legend of St Augustine during the week, so decided to do a little creative rewriting of the story.  Had wondered if, in the telling of the story, the congregation might be poised waiting for a punch-line...and hoped they wouldn't: was wanting to build an initial atmosphere of the strange and mysterious.  Was pleased: it worked
Earlier on in the service, read 'Three', a reading for 3 voices.  

[not sure of the source for this reading, but will happily credit it if someone knows!]

All 3 voices     We believe in God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Voice 1     The three in one and one in three,
Voice 2     God in three persons
Voice 3     Blessed Trinity.
All 3 voices      We believe in the God who came to meet us in Jesus Christ,
Voice 1     Born as one of us,
Voice 2     Preaching and teaching amongst us,
Voice 3     Dying, rising and ascending to bring us life.
All 3 voices     A story in three parts:
Voice 1     Wise men from the east bringing three                
                 gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, to worship the newborn Christ child.
Voice 2     As a teenager he stayed behind in the Temple for three days 
                to argue with the elders.
Voice 3     As a man, he was tempted three times by Satan in the wilderness.
Voice 1     His ministry lasted only three years, yet his teachings survive into the third millenium.
Voice 2     There were three people present at the transfiguration, 
                Peter, James and John, who witnessed Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah.
Voice 3     Nearing the end of his ministry, Jesus vowed to destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days.
Voice 1     He spoke three times about his impending death.
Voice 2     He overheard Peter deny him three times in the High Priest's courtyard in 
                his hour of need.
Voice 3     He was led to sacrifice like the prized three year-old lamb 
                specially reserved for the Passover meal.
Voice 1     He stumbled three times on his way to Calvary.
Voice 2     There were three crosses.
Voice 3     Jesus died at three o'clock
Voice 1     and rose again, three days later.
Voice 2     He gave Peter three opportunities to redeem himself by declaring his love.
Voice 3     And commands us to love three times: ourselves, our neighbours and God.
Voice 1     We believe in the Holy Trinity,
Voice 2     God in three persons:
Voice 3     Father, Son and Holy Spirit. 
All 3 voices     We believe in God.

Sermon: 'A Trinity of Love'

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts 
be acceptable in your sight, 
O Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.  Amen.

It was a mystery.
And he had been puzzling over it for near on 30 years.
He had written thousands upon
thousands of words
and yet, none of them felt adequate.
All of them fell short of the mark.
How do you describe the indescribable?
How do you try to comprehend the incomprehensible?
It was a daunting task;
It was madness:
a work that could never be completed
in a single lifetime.
It was a mystery, a puzzle, an enigma.

One day, as he walked on the beach,
his mind overwhelmed by the
immensity of the task,
he saw a young child playing.
As he watched, the child dug a small hole,
then ran to the water’s edge with a shell in hand.
Gently, carefully, the child filled the shell with water
and tiptoed back across the sand.
The shell was upturned, and water trickled into the hole;
the child then went back to the water’s edge.
The great thinker watched, as again, and again,
the child with the tiny shell 
moved between the water’s edge and the hole,
collecting, carrying, pouring.
Walking up to the child, he smiled.
‘What are you doing, little one?’ he asked.
The child looked up at him with a solemn face and replied:
‘I’m trying to pour the ocean into this hole.’
The great thinker considered the child’s answer for a moment
and responded gently:
‘But the ocean is vast. 
What makes you think that you can empty the immense ocean
into this tiny hole,
with just a small shell?’
The child continued to look solemnly at the great thinker and said quietly:
‘And what makes you think that you can comprehend the immensity of God
with your tiny mind.’
And with that, the child vanished
leaving the great thinker alone
on that empty beach
looking at a tiny hole in which sea water
seeped into damp sand...

Today we celebrate, and reflect upon, mystery:
a mystery that the Church has puzzled over for near on 2 000 years.
There have been thousands of words written -
including the thousands written by the great thinker we heard about in the story -
the 5th century African theologian Augustine -
and while the story of Augustine’s
strange beach encounter
may be mere legend....
in this second decade of the 21st century
we are still none the wiser about the mystery he was pondering.
Words are not enough;
all of them fall far short of the mark
as we try to describe the indescribable,
and comprehend the incomprehensible:
the mystery and immensity of God,
and Holy Spirit -
one God
in three persons...
...blessed Trinity.

It is a mystery
this business of the Trinity
yet, every year, for near-on 2 000 years,
church communities have listened as preachers have used a variety of examples 
to try and come close to explaining the inexplicable:
God like a shamrock - three leaves but one stem
God like water in 3 forms: water, steam, ice...
but still water
God like an egg: shell, yolk, white...
All of these okay, but yet, not quite right.
It’s a tough job...
so perhaps we should just stick to the
Athenasian Creed -
you can almost hear the writers sighing and shrugging as they wrote:
God the Father: incomprehensible
God the Son: incomprehensible
God the Holy Spirit: incomprehensible.

But is mystery necessarily a bad thing?
And will we cope if we haven’t got the answer
to every single question this side of heaven? 
I suspect... yes.
And I also suspect, from scripture, that we don’t get to know the whole shebang 
this side of heaven anyway:
Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, notes:
‘for now we know in part: then we shall see,
face to face.’
Personally, I kinda like the anticipation, and of knowing 
there’s a whole lot more to come.

So, if we don’t get to unravel the whole mystery of who God is 
and what this matter of the Trinity is about, 
where might we go from here?
If we explore God as Trinity within the context
of love and belonging and relationship,
- concepts that are a little more easy to get our heads around -
how might that affect the way in which we live our lives?

In a small nod to ecumenism: the 1982 communion liturgy 
of the Scottish Episcopal Church, 
paraphrasing the 1st Letter of John, states that:
‘God is love and we are God’s children.
There is no room for fear in love.
We love, because God loved us first.’
For me, this gets to the heart of the matter:
relationships of love.
God is love...
and our response to that love.

In the 16th century, the Russian artist
Andrei Rublev
tried to paint his understanding of the Trinity:
Father, Son, and Spirit.
It’s the picture you have in front of you
on your order of service - and up on the screen. 
Rublev was very much trying to demonstrate
a sense of God living in harmonious
and perfect community.
This sense of unity within the relationship of each of the figures 
is indicated by the way their heads incline one to the other, 
almost making an outline of a circle. This shows how they're 
bound together as one by a common will and mutual love: 
love unites them.
...God, as a Trinity of love:
God the Father: the one who loves
God the Son: the beloved
God the Holy Spirit: the love that flows so strongly between Father and Son, 
that it takes on shape and substance of its own.
And, mirroring this, for us created in God’s image, we might ask:
How do we love?
Who do we love?
What is the impact of that love on others?

It is a mystery, this business of the Trinity
and yet, the overarching theme appears to be about community;
to be about relationship.

In our readings this morning,
both contained mention of God as Trinity:
it’s the formula Jesus gives his followers
when he sends them out to make disciples and to baptise them -
in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit -
the holy community that is God.
And the one who is baptised, enters into the church -
the community of God’s people.
As God is in the perfect community of the Trinity,
so those who believe
are to live within the context of community -
journeying together into the mystery
and heart of God
and learning and following, despite our imperfections, the way of love.

This sense of relationship - of belonging to God -
and of being a part of God’s people -
is brought out in our reading from 2nd Corinthians.
And the background to the reading from Corinthians is significant:
Paul is writing to a community that’s wracked with in-fighting,
jostling for power positions,
squabbling over doctrine,
and causing scandal throughout the city, due to some quite 
outrageous behaviour among the believers.
Here, at the end of his letter, Paul is reminding 
this rather fractious community of believers
of whose they are,
and how they should live...
lives modelled on the holy and harmonious relationship
of Father, Son, and Spirit:
lives lived in grace, love, and fellowship.
And every time we say the grace together -
which is from this passage -
it’s a handy reminder to us, 
of just whose we are and how we should live -
how we should love God, and love one another.

And there’s an openness to love.
Our painting by Rublev has an open space
at the front:
it’s as if we’re being invited in to sit at the table...
God looks outwards, not inwards -
looking out in love towards us,
towards the world.
In turn, we are to look outwards not inwards -
look in love at the wider world around us:
to welcome all people,
to demonstrate heavenly hospitality
on earth as it is in heaven:
to build communities of love -
as in the prayer of St Francis:
‘where there is hatred, sow love,
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.’
And, as we go out marching in the light of God, and into the world, 
and build communities of love, 
we have the promise from the gospel of Matthew:
Jesus says: ‘I will be with you always, to the end of the age.’
['marching' was a nod to the singing group, who were following the sermon
with the song 'We are marching in the light of God']

The Trinity:
it’s a mystery.
One that will continue to puzzle
until the end of time.
Thousands of words will be added to those already written;
all trying to comprehend the incomprehensible
and never really succeeding.
But in the end, what matters is this:
the love of the God who dwells
in perfect community
the love of God whose love is limitless, immeasurable
and welcomes us in -
the love that creates a place at the table for all...
And, as God loves,
so we are to reflect that love
we believe in God:
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
the Three-in-One and One-inThree,
God in three persons,
Blessed Trinity.