Friday, 26 December 2014

rural isolation...

'...the minster reflected on the diversity of pastoral situations she was encountering within the parish.
She suddenly realised her training, when it came to small abandoned creatures by the roadside, was somewhat ... lacking.'

The parish where I serve as minister is, geographically, one of the largest in the Kirk.  Population, on the other hand, is small and very scattered.  Isolation can be quite an issue pastorally amongst folk; nothing, however, prepared me for this...

Seen on a pre-lunch drive to some of the more remote corners of the parish :)

Thursday, 25 December 2014

Homily for Watchnight

I asked my folks for some bales of hay to get the 'feel' of a stable scene so we could do some
all-age, interactive worship on 4 Advent...this is what they came up with! :)

Really love the U A Fanthorpe poem - especially 'haphazard by starlight'.
Also really loved conducting Christmas worship for the first time as a shiny new minister.
Shattered, but ... wow!
And now, back to cooking Christmas dinner.  Happy Christmas folks.

Homily for Watchnight

Primary reading: John 1:1-14

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.

BC/ AD - a poem by U A Fanthorpe:

This was the moment when Before
Turned into After, and the future's
Uninvented timekeepers presented arms.

This was the moment when nothing
Happened. Only dull peace
Sprawled boringly over the earth.

This was the moment when even energetic Romans
Could find nothing better to do
Than counting heads in remote provinces.

And this was the moment
When a few farm workers and three
Members of an obscure Persian sect
Walked haphazard by starlight straight
Into the kingdom of heaven.  ...  ...

We gather together tonight, and as we gather,
we stand on a threshold...
this is the moment,
the time of the year
when we look back and remember
another moment:
the birth of a child long ago,
in a land far away.
A longed for child -
longed for by a nation...
to rescue
and to restore them;
A child of promise and power
and yet, a prince of peace.
A child, who according to our reading from
John’s gospel, bent the dimensions
of time and space -
for this child -
the Word made flesh -
was there in the beginning...
was there before the beginning of all things...
the Word, speaking all creation into being.

This is the moment when we gather
to remember the birth
of this child...
who was - who is - the light of all people,
the light which shines in the darkness
and has never been ...
can never be    extinguished.

In this     threshold moment,
amidst tinsel, and glitter, and twinkly lights,
(pointed to stable animals in display)
not to mention a flock of sheep,
a decent herd of cows,
and possibly more camels than you can
poke a stick at, 
we remember and celebrate
the child who was,
who is,       God.

It’s a moment in time
that changes time forever:
for after the birth of this child
things can never,
will never,
be the same again.
The meanings of words will be redefined,
as the Word of God breaks into the world
and the kingdom of heaven
is established on earth
in a backwater village called Bethlehem,
in a far-flung outpost of the Roman Empire.
Real power will be seen in vulnerability,
not might...
all-powerful God
breaking into finite human time and space
as all-vulnerable:
a baby in a manger -
God, dependant on the hospitality
of the human heart to take him in.
Old systems and structures,
old ways of doing things that benefit the few,
while oppressing the least,
will be challenged by the God-child born in the humblest, the least likely of dwellings.

Moments collide:
past and present -
and future,
for this child - and all he represents,
is still longed for:
there’s still rescue and restoration that’s needed;
there are still places in the world -
places in our hearts -
where peace has yet to come,
where the light must shine more brightly
to bring hope to those who see only darkness,
and where life-sapping, dehumanising structures
need challenged.

We stand on the threshold,
and as we do
the light that was coming into the world
is one who shows all people a new way of living -
even now:
a new way of living that is life-affirming ...
life-giving,
     love-giving...
for the child we wait for
is God’s love-letter to the world:
the Word who says
‘do not be afraid’
the Word who is a comfort to the weary,
consolation to those who grieve.
God becoming one of us
knowing us completely
feeling our pain, our joy;
sorrowing, celebrating,
laughing, weeping.
Feeling the dust on his feet
breathing the air we breathe...
God becoming one of us,
God being for us
and with us
God giving us the right to be his children
his own -
his beloved.

That is the message of Christmas:
in one word -
love -
as the old hymn goes:
‘Love came down at Christmas
Love all lovely, Love Divine;
Love was born at Christmas,
star and angels gave the sign’.
As we wait, poised to welcome the Christ-child
once more into our world,
and into our hearts,
the message of Christmas
is that we are loved by God
beyond our wildest imaginings,
and called by him to live in that love,
and to love others -
to bring light into the darkness,
to live life in all its fullness
for:
‘Love shall be our token,
love be yours and love be mine,
love to God and neighbour,
love for plea and gift and sign.’

It is this love -
God’s love    for us,
and our response to that love
that has the potential and the power
to heal and transform;
to restore and renew -
ourselves
our neighbours
the world.

It is this love,
shown in the child in the manger,
that enables us, in this moment -
together, with shepherds, and wise men -
to walk, haphazard by starlight
straight into the kingdom of heaven.

Amen.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

'Meddling in politics' : a sermon for Advent 3b

Sermon - based on:                                                    
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Luke 1:46-55

Let us pray:
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.

A friend of mine in Edinburgh texted me yesterday.
She was off Christmas shopping for her small grand-daughter.
On a mission in the Disney shop, she scoured the shelves looking for the desired item.
Not finding it, she found a member of staff instead and said:
‘I wonder if you can help me - I’m looking for Prince Charming?’
Quick as a whip came the reply:
‘Oh, aren’t we all!’ 

It’s only 11 more days until Christmas:
places are decked with boughs of holly - fa la la la la...
If you go up to the big shops, you’re met with wall to wall tinsel, glitter and Santas.
It’s only 11 more days until Christmas...
which means... we still have 10 more days of Advent -
a season which can occasionally get a little overlooked in amongst all the decorations.

I confess that Im an unashamed fan of Advent:
I love it. 
The preparation,
the waiting,
allowing the anticipation
to build up over the weeks.
I love the first Sunday of Advent and hearing -
and singing -
that old hymn
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
which ushers in the beginning of Advent-tide.
It gets me every time - spine-tingly stuff.

As the weeks pass
I love the gradual in-breaking of light in the darkness:
of hope...
at first, a wee flicker -
a reminder to lift up your heads
to look up
to look out
to see the signs promising new birth
the promise of a messiah
a deliverer...
That light becoming clearer, stronger,
as we hear the cries of prophets,
like Isaiah, and John the Baptist
urging us to prepare:
     ‘don’t dilly-dally: he’s coming,
the One we’ve yearned for:
the One who will rescue and redeem.
Get your houses, and hearts in order’...

And this week?
       the flicker has grown to a blazing, angelic light:
earthly messengers make way for the heavenly messenger,
the angel, Gabriel.
Having announced to Mary that she’ll bear the promised Messiah -
a sign of which, will be the birth of John the Baptist
to the elderly Zechariah and Elizabeth,
the angel leaves a stunned young Mary...
who quickly makes ready to go and visit her relatives -
possibly to see for herself if what the angel had said was true.
Had she been dreaming?
Or was this seemingly unlikely announcement
actually... going    to     happen?
When she arrives, she knows this was no dream:
she meets a very pregnant Elizabeth -
whose child leaps for joy in the womb:
Overwhelmed, and rejoicing,
Mary then sings out that
great song of praise we know as the Magnificat.

Mary’s song follows in a tradition of women who play key roles in the bible - and who sing songs of joy, and liberation from oppression:
  • Miriam, the sister of Moses, who sings of liberation from the Egyptians after the crossing of the Red Sea;
  • the prophet and judge, Deborah, singing of victory against the Canaanites - and the death of their general, Sisera;
  • Hannah, mother of Samuel, singing for joy as she dedicates him to God’s service - the boy who would grow up into a great priest, and anoint David as king during the wars with the Philistines - David, who would defeat Goliath - the man no other Israelite could overcome.
And Mary - young, faithful, and obedient to God’s call - sings her song in the time of the Roman occupation -
and looks ahead to God liberating his people once more.

Mary’s song of joy also picks up on the theme of the prophet Isaiah:
both describe the characteristics -
the attributes of the One coming to deliver his people.
Both making incredibly political statements while doing so.

I often hear the comment that religion and politics shouldn’t mix -
that people of faith shouldn’t meddle in politics:
leave it well alone.
....    And every time I hear it,
I immediately think of the Magnificat - Mary’s song;
and of the many statements that Isaiah,
and the various prophets of the bible make,
in fact, the bible      is   riddled with politics -
not party politics as we understand,
not the gesture politics of point-scoring,
but the real stuff:
the politics concerned with the commonweal -
caring for people and forging a society that seeks the best for all -
creating a place where every human being is treated with dignity
and encouraged to flourish and blossom:
as Isaiah’s oaks of righteousness,
they will be a planting of the Lord for all to see.

Don’t meddle in politics?
We have a God who can’t help but meddle - get involved - in politics:
a God who intervenes and liberates his people from captivity;
a God who demonstrates throughout the pages of the bible
a distinct bias towards the poor, the marginalised, the alien and the stranger.
And, to quote a current internet meme:
if anyone asks you:
‘what would Jesus do?’
remind them that flipping over tables and chasing people with a whip is within the bounds of possibilities...
That particular political challenge to the religious authorities alarmed the political movers and shakers as well...
it prompted Jesus’ arrest and execution:
Jesus’ death was a political one.

So, if we’re created in God’s image
and called to follow Jesus, his Son,
it would be more surprising if people of faith
didn’t get involved in politics.
Again, not necessarily party politics -
although challenging the system from within has a noble tradition -
but the sort of politics that questions
systemic systems of oppression;
that questions the meteoric rise in food banks in the UK
and the ever-widening gap between the richest and the poorest people in society;
that questions the scapegoating of the most vulnerable
and casts a quizzical eye at tax loopholes,
zero contract work hours;
that questions the blunt instrument of government that 
doesn’t distinguish between everyday immigrants
and asylum seekers who may be executed if sent back home.

Mary’s song, Isaiah’s prophecy, are hugely political statements:
they challenge the status quo of economic Darwinism - 
that the ones with the greatest social advantages always win. 
They sing and prophesy of God’s economy:
where the invisible are seen and raised high;
where the powerful are brought down from their thrones;
where the broken-hearted,
the bereaved,
will be comforted
restored
and in turn
will restore and renew and build up the devastated ones
the devastated places.

The song, the prophecy, is about salvation in the widest possible terms:
salvation is not merely ‘pie in the sky when you die’ -
it is also about here and now.
I’m reminded of the Christian Aid motto:
‘we believe in life before death’.

What is salvation? 
It’s good news:
it’s about healing, liberty, release, comfort.
It’s about ‘the year of the Lord’s favour’ - this is a reference 
to the Jewish practice of a having a ‘jubilee’ year -
a year in which debts were wiped away, slaves were freed,
fields were allowed to rest,
land was returned to original owners.
Salvation is about restoration -
a restored city, an abundant garden -
in the Isaiah text;
it’s about re-evaluation:
putting value on those deemed worthless,
raising the humble,
noticing the unnoticed - this from the Magnificat.
Salvation is - should be - transformative:
as we are transformed, so we, in turn,
become instruments of transformation.
In this way, salvation is missional:
our texts observe that all who see God’s people will acknowledge that they are a people whom God has blessed:
‘righteousness and praise spring up before all nations.’

Salvation is also about the hereafter -
but, in the present,
we all have the good work of helping to bring in God’s transformational justice to the world.

As Mary said ‘yes’ to God,
so that is our choice - as Christ’s body -
to say ‘yes’ to being the people of the good news.
For, ‘to be missional is to live as people of good news, liberation, justice, and comfort
in such a way that the world may take notice
and be drawn to the ways of God...
So long as Christians live as divided people, known to the world as those who judge, fight, and exclude, the church will fail to be missional, no matter how much money it gives and how many missionaries it sends.’
[Scott Bader-Saye Feasting on the Word]

As God’s people -
good news people -
we are joy-bringers.
As we rejoice and delight in the Lord,
so that joy is shared with others.
In this Advent season,
as we rush towards Christmas
we look forward -
not so much to the coming of Prince Charming
but to our Prince of peace
our Liberator Lord,
and as we do so,
we find our own songs of joy -
and in this way, that first flickering light
continues to grow and glow,
and burn even brighter.

Amen.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

'Prepare the way of the Lord': A sermon for Advent 2B



Isaiah 40:1-11
Mark 1:1-8
Communion Sunday.


Let us pray: 
may the words of my mouth 
and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, 
O God our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

By now you will have worked out
from our service,
that today is the second Sunday
of this season of Advent:
our season of waiting and watching for the Lord to come.
It’s a time of anticipation
of preparation -
of putting out the welcome mat:
getting our church,
our homes, ...
our hearts
in order...
all better to  welcome into the world
God’s love revealed:
the child in the manger;
Emmanuel,
Prince of Peace,
the King of kings
...the Son of God.

Our two readings this morning reflect that theme
of anticipation and preparation.
We hear the plan of God revealed through the voices of his prophets -
Isaiah and John the Baptist.
Two prophets,
separated by many centuries
but both proclaiming good news
to the people of God.

We talked a wee bit about the background to the book of Isaiah last week:
of the kingdom of Israel being overwhelmed 
by the might of the Babylonian Empire,
and of the exile of the Jewish people
to the heart of that empire:
to the great city of Babylon itself.

Isaiah’s good news to these captives?
That the time is at hand -
freedom is coming
the return to the Promised Land is imminent -
God    has heard     their cry
and offers words of comfort to his people:
Isaiah is bidden to ‘cry out’ as God’s messenger...
and the message?
‘all people are like grass...
all their glory is like the flowers of the field...
the grass withers, the flowers fall:
for the breath of the Lord blows upon them...’
and while the grass may wither and flowers fall,
Isaiah reminds his listeners that the one thing that does remain,
that endures for all time...
is the word of the Lord:
‘the word of our God stands for ever’

An oppressed, defeated, people are reminded
of their mortality by God:
they, like the grass will wither...
How, exactly, is this good news?
Implicit in the reminder is that what they face
is common to all humanity -
from the least to the mightiest:
yes, they’ll eventually wither and fall,
but, so will the great and powerful Babylonians:
their empire will also fall like the flowers
and disappear in the dust of the desert.
But there’s more:
whether Israelite, or Babylonian,
the breath of the Lord blows upon them all -
the real power here is not Babylon,
it’s God -
the God who comes with power -
and there’s a military allusion here -
God is strong and powerful - his arm rules for him - 
an arm that is weapon-bearing:
this is an image of warrior-God.
But it’s followed almost immediately with a different kind of power -
a different image:
the power of God is seen in both might
and   in tenderness:
the arm that carries the sword, or the spear,
is also the arm that will gather his
his people - his flock -
like lambs
and that beautiful phrase:
‘he carries them close to his heart’.

Good news indeed:
the path will be made straight -
there will be no obstacles,
no stumbling stones:
less of a path - rather, a wide and open highway -
where God’s glory will be revealed
God’s love, will be made known
to the whole of humanity...
not just the Israelites:
all will see and marvel
at the God who loves his people so.

It’s this message of Isaiah -
written to the people of God under
the yoke of a powerful empire -
that the writer of the gospel chooses as his starting point to tell
‘the beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God’.
To the people of God, now living under the yoke of the Roman Empire -
dispossessed in their own land -
the words of the prophet Isaiah are intended to remind them
that God has not abandoned them:
that God will rescue them,
that God is still speaking.
And so, within a breathtaking two verses,
we are suddenly confronted -
introduced -
to John the Baptist,
the last and greatest of all the prophets of God.

John of the wilderness:
wild and strange.
His costume and countenance intended
to reflect the prophets of old -
dressed in camel hair, and leather belt;
existing on locusts and wild honey.
His message: one of repentance - no light and fluffy stuff for John.
The message of repentance is tied into the bigger theme 
of anticipation and preparation -
repentance, and the washing away of obstacles 
that get in the way of a relationship with God,
is part of getting ready to meet the one more powerful than even John:
the One who comes to rescue his people once more.
God, in love, made human;
modelling a life lived in love;
demonstrating that love in his death;
and, in and through the power of love -
overcoming death for us all.
Love - in life, in death, in resurrection...
but love that starts simply, humbly,
and overturns our understanding of power -
power shown in the utter vulnerability and helplessness of
a baby, in a manger.
God’s mighty and powerful love shown
in frail flesh and blood and bone.

‘Prepare the way of the Lord!’ the prophets cry.
And here, and now, that is our task to do -
today, and every day.
As Christ’s body here on earth -
we are called to tell of that 
'love divine,
all loves excelling -
joy of heav’n to earth come down.'
Called to proclaim the good news:
that God is still speaking
that we are loved.
And that, whatever those who have power over others may think -
the grass withers, the flowers fall...
their power,
their empires will diminish -
for it is not they who get to have the last word -
it’s God - in Jesus - the Word made flesh...
the embodiment of love:
through Him, all things were made,
in Him was life,
and that life was the light of all humanity -
the light setting us free.

That is who we prepare for
that is who we proclaim
until He comes again to fulfil all things.
That is who we remember in the meal
that we share in this morning.

In this season of Advent
as we prepare and anticipate
God’s coming among us as one of us,
let’s pause, and close our eyes just for a moment and as we do,
let’s make our own paths straight -
let’s lay aside those things in our own lives that get in the way of
loving God...
... ... ... ...
In bread,
in wine,
love is made known;
we are restored, renewed,
refreshed by His love -
a love that never fails.
for the Word of God stands for ever:
And so, as God’s beloved people,
let us rejoice in the good news
that frees us
to proclaim His love
and to prepare for his coming again this Advent and at the end of all things.  Amen.

Monday, 1 December 2014

'O that you would tear down the heavens!' A sermon for Advent 1B

High time I got to blogging again!  Slightly distracted over the last several weeks, having moved and been inducted into new charge... *big grin*
This morning's sermon to kick off Advent - and possibly my favourite Advent reading.

SERMON ‘O, that you would tear down the heavens’ 
Isaiah 64: 1-9

let us pray:
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.

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear...

It’s the first Sunday of Advent:
the beginning of a new church year.
New life
Hope renewed.
From Advent last year,
through to Christ the King Sunday last week,
we’ve moved through the various church seasons - the liturgical calendar -
and, as we’ve done so, as a community,
age-old, familiar stories from the bible have been heard.
Our Gospel readings will have covered the birth, life, ministry,
death and resurrection of Jesus
Other readings from the New Testament will have focused upon the community of followers,
and of making sense of what it is to follow Jesus.

Over the course of Old Testament readings through the year,
we’ll have been reminded
of the journey of the people of Israel:
from wandering in the wilderness,
to the establishment of a nation,
to the overthrow of that nation
and of exile and return.
There have been stories of great leaders chosen by God;
and stories of God’s prophets -
calling some of these same leaders
to follow and trust God more closely...
to lead the people wisely and well.

Overall, in both Old and New Testaments,
we, as God’s people have journeyed with God’s people - through the ages,
journeying together as we try to understand who this God is that we follow,
and how to live - how to be - his people.

Our Old Testament reading this morning is set in a time
when God’s people find themselves in dire circumstances: 
when all around them feels dark;
where the flicker of hope is all but extinguished.
The nation of Israel has been comprehensively defeated
by the new superpower in the neighbourhood, the Babylonians. 
Those who are deemed valuable:
the elite of the nation,
the best and the brightest,
have been summarily marched off to the great city of Babylon to live out their years in exile.
Throughout this approximately 70 year period, the prophet Isaiah, and his followers, act as God’s messengers to the defeated, despairing people of God -
as voices of hope when all seems hopeless.
Voices holding the people of God.
and God
to account.

This particular passage is a cry of rage and lament;
the prophet’s plaintive call to God to act -
‘O that you would tear open the heavens and come down’
It’s a cry calling upon God to make himself known
to his people
and their captors.
The prophet asserts that
by redeeming - rescuing Israel -
God’s name,
God’s power
will be made known.

In the midst of lonely exile in Babylon
feeling abandoned by God
God’s people wait,
wait for him to appear.
But why, even when feeling abandoned,
is there a hope
an expectation
that God might appear to them?
That God might just rescue them?

O come, O come thou Lord of might,
who to thy tribes on Sinai’s height,
in ancient times didst give the law
in cloud and majesty and awe...

As Isaiah calls upon God
to tear open the heavens and come down,
he reminds the exiles of their past -
And, it would appear, he also reminds God.
There’s some history here.
There’s a relationship that needs to be looked at:
there’s a covenant - an agreement -
binding God and his people together.
While God’s people are to honour, serve, worship, love, and be faithful to God...
The Lord of might - mysterious, majestic, and awesome,
is bound:
bound to protect and to lead his people.

Isaiah reminds God:
‘you did awesome things’
One such awesome thing is found in the
giving of the law on Mount Sinai -
the law showing how to love God
and to love neighbour -
and through doing so,
to create an ordered, harmonious community:
the peaceable kingdom...
a foretaste of the kingdom of heaven.

Isaiah recalls the unexpectedness of God -
the awesome God who,
when giving the Law
does indeed come down from the heavens
breaks through into finite time and space
and makes himself more fully known
on the mountain...
and, as he does,
causes the mountains to quake
and to tremble...

Isaiah says to God:
 ‘You’ve done this before..
come and do it again...
act on behalf of those who wait for you’
To the people waiting in near-darkness
a spark of hope is being kindled.

O come, thou Rod of Jesse,
free thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
from depths of hell thy people save,
and give them victory o’er the grave...

Will God free them? 
He has done so in the past -
he can do so now
and in the future.
From the depths of hell that is exile in Babylon
there will be a return to the Promised Land...
But there will also be more waiting -
the people of God will continue to await the promise of a coming Messiah
and the fulfilment of all things once they arrive back to Palestine...

Several hundreds of years later,
far away from Babylon,
and in a backwater of the Holy Land itself - Bethlehem -
the cry of Isaiah echoes through the land -
God tears down the heavens and comes down:
the promised Rod of Jesse.
A mighty deliverer -
gurgling in a manger.
The expected appearance:
so thoroughly unexpected.
The promise of hope
made flesh and bone...
to rescue God’s people from the tyranny and fear of death,
as he overcomes it
by his own death, and resurrection:
the resurrection life that kindles hope
of a new life for all humanity.

O come, thou Key of David, come,
and open wide our heavenly home;
make safe the way that leads on high,
and close the path to misery...

What are we waiting for?
We wait for Jesus, the Key of David...
who will come again
and fling open the gates to our heart’s home;
for Jesus, who leads us safely to a place of rejoicing,
a place of hope.

We need not fear
for we are not doomed to destruction and loss:
God loved the world in this way -
that hope was born among us -
divine and yet human -
that whoever believes in the Son will not perish,
but have life everlasting.

We need not fear
for we don’t have to accept that hunger and poverty and injustice will always win...
We have hope -
for the one in whom we trust
and for who we wait
has come to give life, life abundantly, justly.
We need not fear
for violence and hatred will not prevail -
for unto us, a child is born,
unto us, a Son is given
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
his name shall be called wonderful councillor, mighty God, the Everlasting, the Prince of peace.[1]

We need not fear,
for there is hope and light and life:
the day, the hour is coming...
Soon and very soon
we are going to see our king -
tearing open the heavens,
breaking into human history,
walking among us
with us:
God, in Jesus;
God who is for us.
This is our hope,
this is what we watch and wait for over Advent -
we await the one who is the ground of our being
the one closer to us than breathing.

As we wait to remember,
and celebrate anew the coming of the Christ child,
have courage
be not afraid,
the light of hope will never be put out...

O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer
our spirits by thine Advent here;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
and death’s dark shadows put to flight...

Rejoice!  Rejoice!  Emmanuel
shall come to thee, O Israel.
Amen.

 [1] riffing on a theme from Daniel Berrigan’s ‘Advent Credo’