Monday, 23 March 2015

Lent, day 29: gratitude

Smiling, and thinking of the Jeremiah text:

'"for I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, 
"plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.  
Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you."'

Who knew that I would end up where I have ended up, and be so very happy?  
Well, okay, God.

Yesterday was another unbelievably beautiful spring day, in what I am discovering to be
an unbelievably beautiful part of the country.
Teeny lambs, days old, beginning to dot the fields, as the farmers in the parish work
flat out.  
Worship - my folk, during the all-age part of the service happily out of their pews
and talking with one another, having accepted a joint mission of discovery.  
They are coping with this strange, cheerful minister and her strange wee ways
very well, and very graciously.
And the sermon really hit home.  Especially when telling the story of 
Corrie ten Boom.  
After worship yesterday, I found myself grinning like a loon as I drove up the road.
Spontaneous prayers of praise, and such a sense of enormous gratitude:
good plan, God, jolly good plan.
It's not all fluffy wee lambs and such, but the tough stuff is good, meaty stuff too.
Being planted in a place you're meant to be is really quite awesome.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Lent, days 27 and 28(!): Sunday sermon, Lent 5B 'The fresh air of forgiveness'

SERMON ‘The fresh air of forgiveness’

1st reading: Jeremiah 31:31-34
2nd reading: John 12:20-33

‘Let’s pray:
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our
hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer.  Amen.

What is forgiveness?
Comedian Emo Philips tells a story
from his childhood.
He says:
‘When I was a kid I used to pray every night 
for a new bicycle. 
Then I realised that the Lord 
doesn't work that way ...
so I stole one      
and asked Him to forgive me.’

I have a hunch that this is probably not quite
the right approach when it comes to forgiveness!
So, what is the best approach?
And why bother with forgiveness anyway?

Let’s explore our reading from
the Book of Jeremiah...
First, some background context to help us
understand the text.
And we know some of this already - clues that from the book of Isaiah -
readings we looked at before Christmas.
Jeremiah is a prophet -
called to warn king and nation of their impending fate
at the hands of the Babylonians.
The Babylonians are the major power in the area.

Try as he might, Jeremiah’s words are not heeded:
he’s initially ignored, and later, actively persecuted:
by false prophets
by the priests in the temple
and by those who serve the king -
all of them are living in a state of denial,
none of them want to displease the king by
telling him potentially devastating news.
However, Jeremiah’s prophecies come to pass,
and the Babylonians conquer the nation of Judah.
To emphasise that they’re in charge,
they raze the Temple in Jerusalem,
bind the king in chains
and lead him into humiliating exile in Babylon.
In a stroke, the spiritual and earthly leadership
of Judah is destroyed.

With their king now gone
and, with the destruction of the temple,
those left behind are left wondering:
has God disappeared as well?
In the midst of all of this,
Jeremiah calls on God’s community to repent.
But he also reminds them of God’s faithfulness.
The shattered nation has not been deserted -
God is with them.
God will forgive them.
This, despite a lack of faithfulness
from his people;
despite turning to other gods,
despite their leaders - spiritual and national - priests and king - being corrupt,
despite a myriad of failings -
of exploiting, not loving, their neighbour,
of allowing injustice, not God’s justice,
to flourish...
...Despite all of this,
Jeremiah tells the people that
God is still with them.
Calling them to him
calling them to turn back to him
loving them
and forgiving them time after time.

In the aftermath of their defeat
by the Babylonians
Jeremiah tells the community of the
not-quite-as-faithful-as-they-could-have-been
that God is faithful, that God forgives.
And with forgiveness, there’s hope:
Jeremiah talks of a new covenant
that will be written on the people’s hearts -
a new way of being,
where being faithful is as basic as breathing.
God will wash away their sins permanently -
enabling the relationship to continue,
to blossom and flourish
not wither and fade into bitterness.
They are forgiven...
in order that they can move on,
and start afresh.

From our text, it would appear that God’s approach
to forgiveness is one of persistence:
God doesn’t give up even when, to all intents and purposes, things look hopeless.
Instead, the olive branch of forgiveness and reconciliation is offered;
the door, not slammed shut, but left open -
and in that act,
demonstrating a willingness to keep talking,
demonstrating hope,
demonstrating that forgiveness brings healing
and new possibilities.
And, given the merry run-around the people of Judah have given God,
demonstrating that forgiveness is not a sign of weakness
but a sign of strength.
Because the seemingly easier course of action
would be simply just to walk away.
Clearly, forgiveness... is not for wimps.

If forgiveness is potentially so hard, then why bother?
We are the people of God.
Called to follow,
called to love as he loves -
and if last week, we talked of modelling
the manner in which God loves,
this week, we’re thinking about
how to model the manner in which God forgives.
We’re called to love as God loves
and to forgive as God forgives.
And I find it an interesting thing that so many of us
have trouble with forgiving ourselves for past mistakes.
If the God who created the universe, and all therein,
if the God who created us, and who loves us,
can, and does, forgive us,
then we should probably take notice of that,
and learn to live in the light of God’s forgiveness -
and forgive ourselves.

Every week, we think about forgiveness:
we pray about forgiveness -
as we pray the Lord’s Prayer:
‘forgive us our sins
as we forgive those who sin against us.’
Or, another way of putting it:
‘in the same way in which we forgive others...
forgive us, God.’

So, how are we at forgiving others?
Because, effectively, if we can’t forgive,
we get caught in an ongoing cycle:
holding that grudge,
nursing it close to our hearts, is a recipe for bitterness...
but there’s something else at play - and it has to do with power.
In the act of not forgiving,
we allow the one who has caused hurt,
who’s offended us,
to have a hold over us -
if we keep picking at the scab
it will always be there, raw and bleeding.
We’re trapped.
And it’s only through forgiveness
that we get our life back,
that we find both freedom and peace.

There are some people who would rather die, than forgive.
And effectively, that’s what happens:
relationships wither and die.
And, with no hope for healing,
we begin to wither inside as bitterness takes hold.
This, is not the abundant life that we’re called to:
it’s the opposite and it’s grim.
...The most powerful thing we can do
is to forgive.

In the struggle to overturn Apartheid in South Africa,
Nelson Mandela was thrown into prison.
Desmond Tutu observes that:
‘before Nelson Mandela was arrested in 1962, he was an angry, 
relatively young man. He founded the ANC's military wing. 
When he was released, he surprised everyone because he was 
talking about reconciliation and forgiveness and not about revenge.’
Mandela’s approach,
choosing the way of forgiveness,
paved the way for reconciliation and healing,
and for the nation to find a new way of living and being together.

Tutu describes forgiveness like this:
‘a room can be dank because you have closed the windows, 
you've closed the curtains. But the sun is shining outside, 
and the air is fresh outside. In order to get that fresh air, 
you have to get up and open the window and draw the curtains apart.’

Forgiveness is hard.
It requires that we admit we’re hurt -
it’s an admission of vulnerability that risks being open to further hurt.
It requires that we see the one who has caused the hurt -
not as a monster, or any other dehumanising term we might use -
but as a fellow human being.
Flawed - yes.
But, then, so are we.
And it’s in seeing the one who has caused you pain as human
that leads to pity...
and pity takes away the power dynamic
somehow lessens the rage...
paves the pathway to forgive...
breaks down walls -
a little like the Greeks discovered when Jesus agreed to meet with them -
for there was a wall of cultural hostility between Jews and Greeks
that needed breaking through in order to see the other face to face.
Jesus breaking down the walls, letting them in:
was forgiveness, in a seemingly simple action.

Sometimes we don’t get the chance to meet face to face
with the person who’s hurt us or our loved ones.
Sometimes they refuse to meet,
or acknowledge the wrong they've caused;
sometimes it’s just too late - they've died.
Even so: forgive.
Ask God to help you - he’s been in the forgiveness business a long, long time.
Forgive, so that you can live -
and let the light and fresh air in.

If you were to look in the papers, or on the internet, you’d find many stories
of forgiveness in action:
forgiveness given in seemingly impossible situations.
Forgiveness is not an emotion,
forgiveness is an act of will.
Some of you may know of the Dutch woman, Corrie Ten Boom -
she was a Christian speaker and writer.
Corrie lived with her family - her father, her two sisters and a brother.
They were a family of watchmakers who lived
a relatively unremarkable life, until the German occupation of the Netherlands.
They joined the Dutch Underground, actively working to hide
Jewish people escaping from the Nazis.
Eventually they were discovered.
Corrie, her sister Betsie, and her father Casper were sent to a concentration camp.
Only Corrie survived - released due to a clerical error.
She returned home, and, after the war wrote of her experiences
in a book called ‘The Hiding Place’.
Corrie later returned to Germany,
and, one night, after a speaking engagement
where she’d talked of God’s forgiveness,
a man approached her.
The following, is in her own words:
“It was 1947, and I’d come from Holland to defeated Germany 
with the message that God forgives. It was the truth that 
they needed most to hear in that bitter, bombed-out land, 
and I gave them my favourite mental picture. 
Maybe because the sea is never far from a Hollander’s mind, 
I liked to think that that’s where forgiven sins were thrown.
‘When we confess our sins,’ I said, 
‘God casts them into the deepest ocean, gone forever. 
And even though I cannot find a Scripture for it, I believe God 
then places a sign out there that says, ’NO FISHING ALLOWED.’

The solemn faces stared back at me... 
And that’s when I saw him, 
working his way forward against the others. 
One moment I saw the overcoat and the brown hat; the next, 
a blue uniform and a cap with skull and crossbones. 
It came back with a rush—the huge room with its harsh overhead lights, 
the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes in the centre of the floor, 
the shame of walking naked past this man. I could see my sister’s 
frail form ahead of me, ribs sharp beneath the parchment skin. 
That place was Ravensbruck, and the man who was 
making his way forward had been a guard—one of the most cruel guards.
Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out: 
"A fine message, Fraulein! How good it is to know that, 
as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!" 
And I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, 
fumbled in my pocketbook rather than take that hand. 
He would not remember me, of course—how could he 
remember one prisoner among those thousands of women? 
But I     remembered him. 
I was face-to-face with one of my captors 
and my blood seemed to freeze.

"You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk," he was saying. 
"I was a guard there." 
No, he did not remember me. 
"But since that time," he went on, 
"I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me 
for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it 
from your lips as well. Fraulein,"
—again the hand came out—
"will you forgive me?"
And I stood there—
I whose sins had again and again been forgiven—and could not forgive. 
Betsie had died in that place. 
Could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking? 
It could have been many seconds that he stood there—hand held out—
but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult 
thing I had ever had to do.
For I had to do it—I knew that. 
And still I stood there with the coldness 
clutching my heart. 

But forgiveness is not an emotion—
I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, 
and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. 
"Jesus, help me!" I prayed silently. 
"I can lift my hand. I can do that much. 
You supply the feeling." 
And so woodenly, mechanically, 
I thrust out my hand into the one stretched out to me. 
And as I did, an incredible thing took place. 
The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, 
sprang into our joined hands. 
And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my 
whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.
"I forgive you, brother!" I cried. "With all my heart!" 

For a long moment, we grasped each other’s hands, 
the former guard and the former prisoner. 
I had never known God’s love so intensely, as I did then. 
But even then, I realized it was not my love. 
I had tried, and did not have the power. 
It was the power of the Holy Spirit.   ...
[Corrie Ten Boom, 'Tramp for the Lord'

Corrie Ten Boom’s story is a powerful story of forgiveness
and reconciliation under the most extreme of circumstances. ...

We are the kin-dom of heaven on earth -
spiritual kin, brothers and sisters called to live
as a community of reconciliation:
for as we have been forgiven,
by the One lifted up from the earth to draw all humanity to him,
so too, we are called to forgive -
it’s not easy, it’s costly.
For that’s what it is to follow in Christ’s footsteps:
we pick up our cross,
we remove all the obstacles that prevent us - and others -
from following him....
and we go out, into the world,
as God’s beloved and forgiven community:
to share the good news with others,
to be like ears of wheat that fall to the ground
and which sow the seeds of healing,
of peace,
of reconciliation,
and forgiveness.
To sow seeds of hope, and light, and life
and the message of      God’s      love.
And we do all this, with the One
who walks by our side
and who will give us the strength to keep us walking.
And to him be all glory, honour and praise, amen.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Lent, day 26: signs of forgiveness

This coming Sunday morning, we'll be thinking about being forgiven,
and of being a community of forgiveness.
And so, a wee meditative video - 'signs of forgiveness' to reflect upon, on
day 26 of these Lenten blogdays...

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Lent, day 25: a little Lenten levity

The season of Lent encourages us to reflect, to examine our flaws and failings, our imperfections.
It can tap into the rawness of repentance that resonates with David's heart-felt horror at his actions, as seen in Psalm 51.
It can, however, also cause us to laugh at ourselves - see an attitude or an action, a habit - and realise that sometimes perspective is probably needed.
There are those times, perhaps when I'm not in the best place - a little too tired from too many late nights, a little stretched in places - when I begin to fall into the all too easy trap of taking myself just that little bit too seriously.  When that happens, the relentless drive to seek perfection begins to kick in, while perspective seems to get thrown out along with my sense of humour.
And, crucially, it's the ability to laugh at my own ridiculousness that keeps me grounded -
I need it for my sanity and for my soul's sake.
It's important to take a breath, laugh at my pomposity, and get on with living well, laughing often, and loving much.

It's telling, I think, that in his book The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis has quotes from both Martin Luther and Thomas More on the subject of laughing at the devil - sin and the state of the soul is, after all, a serious business, even to the devil:
'The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.'  Luther

'The devill...the prowde spirite...cannot endure to be mocked.'  More

While these little humiliations, or embarrassments, help to keep pride at bay, perhaps the wee silly things that trip us up occasionally are useful; a reminder that we aren't perfect this side of heaven, perhaps even a reminder that we're not the Messiah - we already have one.

And, with that, some very imperfect notices from church bulletins, for a little Lenten levity:

  • Due to the Rector’s illness, Wednesday’s healing services will be discontinued until further notice.
  • Bertha Belch, a missionary from Africa, will be speaking tonight at Calvary Methodist.  Come hear Bertha Belch all the way from Africa. 
  • The Rev. Merriwether spoke briefly, much to the delight of the audience. 
  • On a church bulletin during the minister’s illness: GOD IS GOOD; Dr. Hargreaves is better.
  • Applications are now being accepted for 2 year-old nursery workers. 
  • Don’t miss this Saturday’s exhibit by Christian Martian Arts. 
  • A worm welcome to all who have come today.  
  • During the absence of our pastor, we enjoyed the rare privilege of hearing a good sermon when J.F. Stubbs supplied our pulpit. 
  • Irving Benson and Jessie Carter were married on October 24 in the church. So ends a friendship that began in their school days. 
  • The ushers will come forward and take our ties and offerings. 
  • The rosebud on the altar this morning is to announce the birth of David Alan Belzer, the sin of Reverend and Mrs. Julius Belzer. 
  • Don’t let worry kill you off – let the church help. 
  • Please place your donation in the envelope along with the deceased person(s) you want remembered. 
  • Helpers are needed! Please sign up on the information sheep. 
  • The outreach committee has enlisted 25 visitors to make calls on people who are not afflicted with any church. 
  • Low Self-Esteem Support Group will meet Thursday at 7 to 8:30p.m. Please use the back door.
  • The audience is asked to remain seated until the end of the recession. 
  • Remember in prayer the many who are sick of our church and community. 
  • The choir invites any member of the congregation who enjoys sinning to join the choir. 
  • At the evening service tonight, the sermon topic will be “What is Hell?”. Come early and listen to our choir practice. 
  • The third verse of Blessed Assurance will be sung without musical accomplishment. 
  • Announcement in the church bulletin for a National PRAYER and FASTING conference: “The cost for attending the Fasting and Prayer conference includes meals.” 
  • The church will host an evening of fine dining, superb entertainment, and gracious hostility. Ushers will eat latecomers. 
  • Potluck supper: prayer and medication to follow.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Lent, day 24: Psalm 51...misere mei, Deus


Today thinking of Psalm 51, the classic penitential psalm.  
Ascribed to David, and written in the aftermath of his adultery with Bathsheba, 
and the sanctioning of Uriah's death.  It is very much a raw cry of the heart, 
but a heart that is desperately seeking God's mercy.  
Can God extend mercy - can God forgive even to this extreme?
David discovers that the astonishing answer is 'yes'.
Hope, then, for all of us.

'O, Lord, in your mercy,'
the heart cries out.
When there is nothing left,
when the mind, and heart,
and soul align
and come to their senses,
always, always,
there is mercy mingled with love.
It is a strong love, this,
that looks beyond the mirk,
to see the worth,
and comfort and restore.

'O, Lord, in your mercy,'
and in that mercy,
the freedom of forgiveness;
the freedom to move away
from raking over old sins.
Forgive us when we fear
that forward movement of the soul;
when we choose instead to stay stuck fast
to old patterns,
old ways;
when we continue to lick old wounds
rather than to fall upon your
liberating mercy.
Teach us to accept your love
so graciously given.
Help us, in turn,
to love
and choose the way of mercy -
for ourselves
and towards others,
for only with mercy can there be abundant life -
life worth living.

'O, Lord, in your mercy,'
O, Lord, whose property is always to have mercy,
in your great mercy,
you hear our prayer.
Thanks be.

Psalm 51, a psalm of David: 

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love;
 according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence
and blameless when you pass judgement.
Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.
You desire truth in the inward being;
 therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
 wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
 let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.
Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.
Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation,
 and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.
O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.
For you have no delight in sacrifice;
 if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
 a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
Do good to Zion in your good pleasure;
rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, then you will delight in right sacrifices,
in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;
then bulls will be offered on your altar.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Lent, day 23: Sunday sermon, 4 Lent, yr B - 'The beloved community'

Continuing the series on 'The kin-dom of heaven: living as God's community'
This week, looking at 'The beloved Community'

1st READING: Ephesians 2:1-10
2nd READING: John 3:14-21



SERMON  ‘And the good news is: God loves’
Let’s pray:
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of
all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer.
Amen.

I wonder, well, at least for those of you who are old enough,
I wonder if you remember a bit of a trend back in the 70’s
and through the 80’s?
It felt as if no big televised sporting event was complete without
the camera inevitably panning across the stadium and passing a large
hand-made sign with
‘John 3:16’ emblazoned upon it.
Everywhere.
These signs were everywhere.
And then, at some point, I’m not sure when, they seemed to just fade away.
But not today: because here it is - we find this verse within our Gospel reading this morning.
John 3:16.
If we were suddenly put on the spot and told to recite a bible verse from memory,
I suspect most of us would know this one,
at least.
‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son 
that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.’

‘For God so loved the world...’
Back in the day when I was relatively new to the bible and to church,
and all this God-stuff,
I remember a conversation with a friend of mine.
We were talking about this verse.
‘Wow,’ said I, ‘God really does seem to love us heaps.’
She grinned at me and my teenage enthusiasm.  
‘Well, yes, he does, but that’s not quite what this verse means.
It’s not talking about how much God loves us,
it’s talking about the way in which God loves.’
It was a good lesson to learn.
It turns out that:
‘For God so loved the world...’
is not about the measure of God’s love
it’s about the manner of God’s love.

What then is the manner of God’s love?
It’s wide - big - vast.
It’s not just an individual thing, not just about you or me,
it’s about the world - the universe - in the Greek: ‘the kosmos’.
God so loved...the world...
that he gave his Son...
verse 17 - ‘not to condemn, but to save.’
‘Not    to condemn’ -
It seems that any time we look at the news,
read the papers, or watch films or tv dramas,
the community of faith really doesn't come across very well at all.
There’s a tendency - because it makes the story more dramatic -
to flag-up faith at the very extremes.
Reasonable, kind, everyday people, who happen to have a faith,
tend not to get interviewed,
tend not to be ordinary, relatively normal characters in dramas.
It’s all hard-line or nothing at all.
The result is, that an assumption is built up
by folk outwith the community of faith
that all Christians are scary, judging, condemning.
And I think this extends to other faith communities as well:
Muslims can be outraged by acts of terrorism and concerned
that those acts will somehow impact on how their faith community is seen.

Assumptions hurt.

Imagine if, simply because of the clothes you wore or because of your name,
people made assumptions about your faith.
Or perhaps associated you with a form of Christianity with which
you strongly disagreed.  For me, it might be like linking Christianity
to that which is practised by the Westboro Baptist Church in the USA.
Who are they?

They are members of an American unaffiliated tiny church –
a small group of people, mostly comprising extended family members -
who seem to be extraordinarily skilled in getting US media coverage,
and courting publicity through sheer controversy.                                                          
They specialise in picketing the funerals of gay people, but also the funerals of
service men and women -
shouting out horrible things to those in the midst of grieving;                                          
letting the mourners know in no uncertain terms that this is God’s just punishment
upon the country for allowing gay people to simply exist,
let alone to have human rights.
And the American news goes wild when this group comes into town to share
their understanding of ‘good news’.
And the reason this group is even cropping up here in the sermon
is due less to the issue they spend their lives protesting about,
but due more to their picket signs:
picket signs that have their slogan,
which begins with ‘God hates...’
and so their signs range from
‘God hates ...this person’,
to ‘God hates ...that group’.
Picket signs that you just can’t miss because they’re brightly coloured,
with those words, ‘God hates’ in big, bold capitals.
And the message that ‘God hates’ is spread -
all over the telly,
all over the papers,
and across the internet.

‘God hates’...?
That breaks my heart.
This group certainly doesn’t speak for me as a Christian.
‘For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, 
but to save the world through him.’
God did this, ‘for God so loved the world’ -
God loves, not hates....

Ephesians chapter 2 talks of God’s love -
‘because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 
made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions - 
it is by grace you have been saved...’
...It is through God’s grace that we can walk tall, lift up our heads.
In grace and love we are, and will be, shown God’s incomparable kindness.
We are God’s beloved community.
This is the very antithesis of hatred.
God loves
God loves the world
God desires that the world is saved, is rescued - from itself.
From poor choices that result in
environmental disasters
in order to make some easy money;
from the situation in which the whole world
has more than enough to feed
everyone on the planet,
and yet people starve to death...
and even in this United Kingdom,
where the constituent parts are deemed
to be prosperous,
we see and seem to accept the
rise in food banks.

...God loves
God loves the world
God desires that the world is saved, is rescued - from itself.
from poor choices based on naked power and might is right -
where young women who dare to go to school are kidnapped or terrorised,
and young men are radicalised through frustration, alienation,
and a sense of disempowerment.
from poor choices based on
misunderstanding or manipulation
where entire groups of vulnerable people
pay the price for a lack of vision
or self-serving decision-making.
...God loves
God loves the world
God desires that the world is saved, is rescued - not   condemned.

...‘For God so loved the world...’
Not a measure
but the manner in which God loves.
We are loved, rescued,
are free from condemnation.
As followers of Jesus - the One who came to free us -
as a community of the beloved,
what is the measure of our love:
for God
and for the world that God loves in this way:
‘that he sent his one and only son that whoever believes in him shall not perish 
but have eternal life’?
As God’s community of faith,
how do we model the manner of God’s love for the world?
For this is what we are called to do as his beloved community:
to model love, not hate, not condemnation.

Emerging from a sense of the church as God’s beloved community,
called to model love, the term ‘The Beloved Community’
took on a broader, more global context for the great social
justice campaigner, the Martin Luther King.
Steeped in the Christian tradition,
and stemming directly from his understanding of the good news of the gospel,
King’s vision was for a nation - a world -
in which people were treated with equal dignity and respect,
where people were judged
‘not by the colour of their skin, 
but by the content of their character.’ [I have a dream speech]
For King, the vision of ‘the beloved community’ was one in which
all people could share the good things of the earth -
where ‘poverty, hunger, and homelessness will not be tolerated because
international standards of human decency will not allow it.
Racism and all forms, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced
by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood...
where love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred...                                                      
and where peace and justice will prevail over war and military conflict.’
[from The King Centre - www.thekingcenter.org/philosophy]
King stated that the:
‘goal is to create a beloved community and
this will require a qualitative change in our souls
as well as a quantitative change in our lives.’

Thinking of his words, I’m reminded of the hymn
‘let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me’
Each one of us is a member of God’s beloved community -
called to model God’s love - God’s belovedness - to others...
For ‘we are his workmanship, 
created in Christ Jesus to do good works’.
As we grow in the knowledge of God’s love for ourselves, and each other,
our default position of just looking out for our own interests is re-set:
because, as those who are beloved,
we understand more fully the good news of God’s
immeasurable love for the whole world - and, in the
sharing of that good news - the gospel of God’s love,
we incline to King’s wider understanding of the beloved community -
as we work towards the creation of a place where all are valued -
and where we find the image of God in those we encounter in our daily lives...
and where we seek, in small and big ways, to respect the dignity of all...
As King also said:
‘darkness cannot drive out darkness. 
Only light can do that.  
Hate cannot drive out hate.  
Only love can do that.’
As the kin-dom of heaven of heaven on earth,
we work to bring about the
kingdom of heaven on earth -
To be bringers of light,
and to live and love in such a way that the good news -
the good news of God’s love - actually does come across
as good to a world starved of goodness and love.

...‘For God so loved the world...’
Not a measure, but the manner in which God loves.
And the manner in which God loves is good news indeed:
transforming,
life-giving
and very much worth having.
Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Lent, day 22: Glory be to God for dappled things

A poem of praise, on this dappled day...and just squeaking in under midnight: 'Pied Beauty'

Glory be to God for dappled things -
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh fire-coal chestnut-falls; finches' wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced - fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim'
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise Him.
Gerard Manley Hopkins

Love this poem for its affirmation of difference - 'all things counter, original, spare, strange,' etc:
the affirmation that all things can praise, not just those that are the default norm, that conform, are regular or regulated.
Also, what's not to love about the rumble-tumble rhyme and rhythm of this poem?
Painting beauty with words.

Friday, 13 March 2015

Lent, day 21: Psalm 1 - music meditation

A short one today... a music meditation by the Sons of Korah.
Many years ago, I read a wee book 'Leaf by Stream', a meditation on Psalm 1.
Was thinking of it earlier today in the context of what it is to follow,
what it is to delight in the Lord,
and, what it is to be blessed.
The imagery in the psalm, as it describes those grounded in God,
is one of my favourites:
'they are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their
fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.'

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Lent, day 20: Psalm 139: the 'stalker' psalm


Day 20 of the blogdays of Lent - and the mid-way point of this 40 day discipline.
Life slightly overtook the blogging, so days 18 and 19 have had to bite the wilderness dust.  Ah well, back to it...

I've been thinking about the Psalms these last couple of weeks.
Quite a lot.
In particular, I've been rather mindful of the raw honesty and the range of human emotions on full display within them.
There are beautiful comforting psalms;
instructive psalms;
psalms of praise and joy and adoration;
psalms of lament;
and psalms of sheer, unadulterated rage.
Sometimes there's a psalm that might even contain all of the above.

Today I've been mulling on Psalm 139.
I remember a very long time ago learning three big words about God,
or more precisely, about the nature of God.
Three big words [aka the 'big 3'], all beginning with 'O':
omnipotent
omniscient
omni-present.
Occasionally, in those early days of being a Christian, discussions
would be had in youth group or bible study, and given half the chance,
the 'big 3' words would manage to shoe-horn themselves into the
conversation - basically, because I was fair chuffed with myself for
being a wee bit clever, but mostly it was because not having had much of a
church upbringing, I was just pleased to have a handle on some of the
language of the faith.  A little knowledge is a helpful - or dangerous - thing.

While all three of the 'big 3' are contained within this psalm, the emphasis is
very much on both knowledge and presence.
God's thoughts are vast, and, God knows all of our thoughts.
There is nothing that is not known to God.
God is.
God is present.
God is present at all times and in all places.
Wherever we are, God is there also.
There is nowhere that God is not.
I'm minded of the old 60's song 'Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide'.
Given the 'where can I go from your presence' context, I often refer to this
as the 'stalker' psalm.
Hemmed in behind and before, there's a sense that this ever-present God
pretty much has our number, has got us pegged, and won't let us get away
with a thing.
Even our thoughts are known before we think them.
So, how to live with that?

The psalmist, I think, tries to deal with it by, initially, trying to say
what s/he thinks God is wanting to hear, and in doing so, adds a hugely
jarring note to the psalm in vv19-21:
'kill the wicked',
'your enemies are my enemies',
'I hate them too.'
A deflection, perhaps: pointing to 'them over there...'?
Very human.

How though, do we deal with the God who knows us completely
and who is with us every second of every day, no matter where we are?
Perhaps the comfort comes in that very fact:
there is something incredibly liberating about being so completely known,
and yet, being so completely beloved.
The great, vast, transcendent God sees us for who we are,
and loves us, and will not let us go.
Filching and twisting a quote:
perhaps it's when we approach God with an attitude of
'here I stand, I can do no other'
that we begin the process of leaning into, and living in, God's love.

In the meantime, a song...

Monday, 9 March 2015

Lent, day 17: salient advice for sewers

Sewers - not as in drains, but as in needlework.
A friend posted the following advice from a Singer Sewing Machine manual, 1949:

Love it.  And used it in worship Sunday morning to discuss how we approach God.
The first two tips in the Singer guide work quite well when substituting the word 'sewing' for worship.
Not as sure re. the clean dress and lipstick, mind you!

What are the things that clutter up our focus and hinder us from approaching God, and from being all we could be in God's service?
Decluttering and focus: useful Lenten themes.


Saturday, 7 March 2015

Lent, day 16: Sunday sermon, lent 3 yrB 'Meek? Mild? As if'

Continuing the Lenten series 'The kin-dom of heaven: living as God's community'
This week, 'A reforming community'

1st READING: Psalm 19                                                                  
2nd READING: John 2:13-22

SERMON  ‘Meek? Mild? As if’
Let’s pray:
may the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our rock and our redeemer.  Amen.

Gentle Jesus, meek and mild,
Look upon a little child;
Pity my simplicity,
Suffer me to come to Thee.

Lamb of God, I look to Thee;
Thou shalt my Example be;
Thou art gentle, meek, and mild;
Thou wast once a little child.

Loving Jesus, gentle Lamb,
In Thy gracious hands I am;
Make me, Saviour, what Thou art,
Live Thyself within my heart. ...
For some of us here, this morning, hearing the words of this old, beloved hymn
may have taken us right back to early childhood -
to Sunday School, or school assemblies,
or perhaps bedtime prayers
after warm milk and a chocolate chip cookie.
It’s a hymn that’s familiar and comfortable
and comforting.

Written in 1742 by that great Methodist hymn-writer, Charles Wesley,
‘Gentle Jesus, meek and mild’ expresses
a quiet simplicity,
and a child-like desire to be just like Jesus -
quiet, good, gentle:
a well-behaved Jesus,
perhaps seen, but never heard,
and certainly never speaking out of turn.
A role model for any parent to present to a small, somewhat noisy person
as a reminder to behave.
Which is all very well until you come across a reading such as the one we encounter
in John’s gospel this morning.
...Which occasionally has me wondering if Charles Wesley ever actually read this particular text!
A very different Jesus is portrayed:
here, it’s less ‘Gentle Jesus meek and mild’,
and more ‘Rambunctious Jesus, loud and wild’.

If you were wanting your child
to be seen and not heard -
to keep out of trouble,
then this passage is perhaps not the best one to use as a model for behaviour:
With loud shouts and a whip made of cords,
Jesus rampages through the temple courts,
overturning tables
scattering the coins of the money changers,
driving out the various animals on sale
for use in the ritual sacrifices.
The temple courts are cleared of the clutter
by a Jesus who is anything but meek and mild:
this     is angry Jesus,
prophetic Jesus - acting in the manner of prophets before him,
calling God’s people to repent, to reform,
to put aside those things that
distract from being God’s people -
to resist the temptation
to become comfortable,
or of getting a little...slack in the
way of doing things.

While there’s a wealth of material in the text
that could be used to explore the church’s uncomfortable issues around anger,
and a pervading pressure to fall into a comfortable culture of niceness,
that’s a sermon for another time.
This morning, I want us to reflect a little
on the sense of the church as a
reforming community.

There’s an internet meme that’s been doing the rounds for some time now.  And I’ve copied it onto the back of your orders of service:
The text, over a picture of Jesus in
the Temple reads:
“If anyone ever asks you
‘What Would Jesus Do?’
Remind them that flipping over tables and chasing people with a whip
is within the realm of possibilities.”

Putting on my historian’s hat for a moment:
In a famous sermon in Perth, John Knox preached on this particular event in Jesus’ life
to a crowd no longer comfortable
with the old religious ways.
Such was the power of his preaching,
that his call for reform
effectively resulted in a 16th century version
of a clearing of the temple -
removing altars, statues, and anything
that the crowd felt was
cluttering up, and distracting from
the worship of God.
This was judiciously assisted by the use of stones that just happened
to be in their pockets.
Apparently they had a smashing time.  J
But reform in the church was not just some Protestant invention:
the church has always been in
a process of reform,
going right back to the time of the disciples.
There’s an expression
‘ecclesia reformata semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei’
basically meaning:
‘the church reformed always to be reformed according to the word of God.’

The church - the body of Christ - us...
is not called to be comfortable
we’re called to challenge,
to encourage repentance
and reformation of lives...
to clear away the clutter that distracts
from the worship of God.
And so, we need to ask ourselves some potentially uncomfortable questions:
Are we a little too comfortable
with the way we do things?
Is the phrase ‘we’ve always done it this way’ pointing to deep theological and liturgical reasons for what we do...
or, is it more a case of
‘we don’t want to change,
to do new things,
we’re quite comfy as we are,   thanks’?
Do our comfort zones help,
or distract us from what we,
as the people of God, are called to do?
What are those things we do within worship,
within our meetings,
...within our lives
that clutter up and distract ourselves, and others from seeing,
from hearing God’s good news?
and which dull our longing for God?

Let me tell you an old story...
On a rocky seacoast
where shipwrecks were frequent
there was once a ramshackle life-saving station.
It was no more than a hut and
there was only one boat,
but the few people at the station were a devoted lot who kept constant watch over the sea
With little regard for themselves and their safety, they would go out fearlessly in a storm if there’d been a shipwreck somewhere.
As a result, many lives were saved
and the station became famous.

As the fame of the station grew,
so did the desire of people in the neighbourhood
to become associated with its excellent work.
They generously offered of their time and money
New members were enrolled,
new boats bought
and new crews trained.
The hut was replaced by a comfortable building which 
could adequately handle the needs of those who had been saved from the sea.

Now, shipwrecks in those parts,
while frequent, didn’t happen every day.
And so the building became a popular gathering place – a sort of   local club.
Over time, the members became so caught up
in socializing, fundraising, and other such activities, that they had little interest
or energy left for life-saving -
although they duly sported the life-saving motto on the badges they wore.
It got to the point that, when people were actually rescued from the sea,
it was a bit of a nuisance -
they were dirty and sick -
and they made a mess of the
carpets and furniture.

Eventually, several members became concerned that the club had lost its focus.
At the AGM, they insisted that all the social activities - nice as they were -
had become a distraction:
they called the members to move from a social club back to a life-saving club once more. 
After a stormy meeting, a vote was taken.
The small handful who had called for change were accused of being troublemakers,
of   upsetting things,                                                  
of creating hurt and discomfort with their provocative behaviour.
Having lost the vote,   they were asked to leave.
‘Why don’t you start your own club?’ they were asked, as they were shown the door.
Which is precisely what they did – a little further down the coast, with such selflessness and daring that, after a while,
their heroism made them famous.
Whereupon their membership was enlarged, their hut ...was reconstructed…..
and their idealism smothered.
If you happen to visit that area today
you’ll find a number of exclusive clubs dotting the shoreline. Each one of them is justifiably
proud of its origin.
Shipwrecks still occur in those parts,
but    nobody seems    to care much.  ...
[story from Anthony de Mello]

As we are called to pick up our cross
and follow Jesus,
so too, we are called to be a community
of repentance and reformation.
The season of Lent is one traditionally
used as a time for repentance,
for refocusing upon God,
for re-forming unhelpful practices.
For getting rid of clutter:
those things that distract us from
being connected to God
- both individually and communally.

Sometimes, the process of reforming,
and renewing, is gentle.
But often it’s a discomforting process.
We are not called to be comfortable
we’re called to follow the One
who knows us completely,
who discerns our errors
and who forgives our faults...
the One who is both gentle Jesus meek and mild
and angry Jesus - challenging, reforming, removing the clutter that prevents others moving into relationship with God,
...from worshipping God.

Thinking of Jesus’ decluttering of the Temple,
I was reminded of an advertising campaign
by the Church of England, back in 1999.
The advertising firm they hired came up with an image of Jesus as a type of Che Guevara - revolutionary idealist and freedom fighter -
a turner-over of tables.
The campaign itself caused quite a controversy -
suddenly everyone, even the Guardian - was talking about God and about church.
The tag-line on the picture of this revolutionary-looking Jesus?
‘Meek? Mild? As if’
Quite.

Change for the sake of change is pointless -
but not changing the way we do things
just because we’re comfortable
is something that Jesus made quite a
dramatic statement about.
So,   we carry the tension between
tradition and not getting stuck.
This morning,
each and every day,
we’re called to a decluttering challenge:
to be in a process of reform and renewal
to question how and why we do the things we do, individually...but more importantly,
as the kin-dom of heaven - as brothers and sisters in Christ -
as we worship the One who calls us for his own.
And to Him, be all glory, honour, and praise, 
now and forever, Amen.

Friday, 6 March 2015

Lent, day 15: grace notes in the wilderness

As part of our 'thinking about' slot in worship the other week, and to mark the first Sunday of Lent, I explained the custom of 'burying' the alleluias.
To gather them in and put them away - effectively, to rest the word over the course of the season and resurrect it on Easter Sunday, and so say it with renewed enthusiasm.
(a little like laying aside a favourite toy for a wee while, and rediscovering it after a period of time, perhaps)
Each person had been given out heart-shaped post-its, and on one side, were to write 'alleluia', and, on the other side to write or draw something that they would like to praise God for.
These were then collected and put into the special Alleluia box, sealed up, and a prayer said. Thereafter, the box was placed at the foot of the cross at the chancel step, waiting to be opened and the alleluias to be released.
I'd noted that there was potential to play a game of 'alleluia-spotting' over the following weeks - would any accidentally escape?

A couple of days after, at our Lent discussion group, one of the members commented on the alleluia slot in worship.
'How do you get through the wilderness without being sustained by the hope of an alleluia,' she wondered, 'it's quite tough, psychologically.'
A good question.
I suggested that although the alleluias were away, yet the box containing them was visible: the hope of an alleluia was still there.  With the benefit of time, unlike the disciples, we are on the other side of the resurrection story, and in faith, know that love wins and hope prevails: death does not have the final word.
And, as with Jesus, the alleluias don't seem to want to stay buried:
Sunday last, Communion Sunday, we sang 'Ye gates' - I'd forgotten about those alleluias in the hymn - in music, at least, they popped right back out of the box.
Grace notes in the wilderness.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Lent, day 14: field work, part 2

















Yesterday, views from front of house, where the office is.  Today, although not photographed today, the view from the back of the manse [as requested by Mr Gerbil].
Love it.  I found myself a couple of weeks ago driving up to Edinburgh in the early morning light.
Half a mile down the road from the manse, heard myself say out loud 'I live in a beautiful parish'.
I really do.
Loving rural ministry.
Another gratitude-filled day.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Lent, day 13: field work


Yesterday morning, from the manse window.
All the sheep/ shepherd sayings and stories from the bible are taking on a new perspective 
now that I'm living and working within a rural context.  
Today's short blog entry is a wee note to record sheer gratitude: 
so thankful to have been called here among such good folk, and in such beautiful surroundings.
I am blessed indeed.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Lent, day 12: psalm 137 - lament and keeping it real

In the current Lent discussion group being run in 'a river runs through it' parish, we were thinking of that very Lenten theme of lament yesterday.  Within the course of conversation, Psalm 137 came up:
By the rivers of Babylon
   there we sat down and there we wept   
when we remembered Zion. 
On the willows there   
we hung up our harps. 
For there our captors asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,   
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ 
How could we sing the Lord’s song
   in a foreign land? 
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
   let my right hand wither! 
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
   if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
   above my highest joy. 
Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
   the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, ‘Tear it down! Tear it down!
   Down to its foundations!’ 
O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
   Happy shall they be who pay you back
   what you have done to us! 
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
   and dash them against the rock!

It's a hard text.
A text of defeat, exile, alienation -
of despair.
A text of lament.

There's a raw honesty to the psalm:
from wondering how to sing the Lord's song in a strange land,
to an admonition to self not to forget home,
through to its shocking, angry conclusion.

There, amidst the hanging gardens, the exiles hang their harps.
They will not sing: they cannot.
How do they make sense of all that has happened?
Are they not the people of the covenant - the people of the promise?
Where is God?
They find words within the questions of their grief
and those words emerge as lament.
Those words are beautiful and terrible
and express a whole range of human emotion.

And perhaps, here is the comfort of the psalms:
to find that it is completely in keeping with the faith tradition
to express not only the nicey-nice stuff of life,
but to express the rage,
the hard things.
This psalm, even with that violent last verse,
teaches us to be real before God,
who knows what it is we're thinking and feeling anyway.

Lament is a cathartic thing:
crying out in anger and despair at God is a helpful way of letting go,
of working through the process of grief.
A way of singing the Lord's song in both safe harbours
and strange lands.
A way that enables us to be real with God in the good and in the bad -
because, in the end, God calls us as we are, and where we are.