Saturday, 24 May 2014

'Love God, and do what you like': a sermon on Exodus 20:1-20

Given the gospel passage, I moved away from the RCL OT suggestion,
and went for Exodus 20:1-20... and then found myself focusing upon that
and only giving a very brief nod to the set gospel text for Sunday.
I love the suggested Acts passage, but maybe next time around I can preach on that!!
This is the last in a 3-part series that has focused upon:

  • 'what is the church' - we are - called into community
  • 'what does the church do' - tell God's story - we are a community of story
  • 'how can we be church' - some handy guidelines via 10 Commandments
I had been reading around quite a lot, so there may be some accidental plagiarisation!

Sermon ‘Love God, and do what you like’
Picture the scene:
the wind is blowing mightily.
The very air is alive with crackling tension:
Thunder thunders,
lightning flashes,
there is a sound of trumpets in the air....
Swirling smoke and cloud cover the mountaintop.
Far down below, in the shadow of Mt. Sinai, 
people huddle together trembling, afraid...
trying to find a little distance
from the terror and the noise
and the all-pervading,
utterly terrifying, voice
of the all-powerful God.
Too much.
it’s all too much to bear –
and if they hear much more,
the people feel that they will surely die....

The description of the giving of the ten commandments 
is certainly not filled with fluffy bunnies, pretty butterflies,
or people skipping merrily along the way. 
Nor, for that matter, does it feature Charlton Heston 
in glorious cinemascope, with his long, grey beardy locks blowing in the wind –
as much as I, and Hollywood, certainly would like it to.
Rather, it is quite literally awe-some:
designed to make you pay attention. 
Something big is happening here,
something of tremendous importance: 
God... speaks
The people of God tremble.
They think of death...
and miss the point completely:
God speaks.
Ten words.
Words of life,
not death.
Words of liberation,
not captivity.

But surely, ‘law’ and ‘liberation’ in the same sentence 
must be a bit of an oxymoron:
are contradictory? 
Don’t quite...compute.
Or do they? 
An Orthodox Jewish reading of the ten commandments has as the first commandment:
‘I am the Lord you God who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, out of bondage and slavery.’

Bill Wylie-Kellermann, writing for the magazine Sojourners asks:
‘This is a command?’
And he continues, by answering his own question: 
that it’s a command that focuses upon the identity of the people of Israel...
and of what God has done...
it’s a command that implies
to those who have ears to hear it:
‘Know that whose you are
precedes what you do.’ are God’s people...
this, then, is how to live as God’s people...
Which, if you like, is picked up in our gospel reading, where Jesus observes:
'if you love me, you will obey my commandments'

But are the 10 commandments merely just a bunch 
of rules and regulations designed to spoil our fun?

As someone who’s been a very keen student of church law,
of course, I’d be inclined to say ‘no!’
And I’d add that law –
rules, regulations, codes of practice,
however you might describe them –
often get a bad press, which, I think, is a little unfair. 
On the other hand, it is fair to say that the manner 
in which the ten commandments are phrased doesn’t seem to help:
thou shallt not...’ is not the most positive of starting phrases, after all. 
The phrase is a little like a verbal slapping before you’ve actually done anything.
‘Don’t do that!’
‘Stop it!’
It feels almost designed to beat us into submission...
Here, I probably should confess that, in my head 
there’s a picture of God as Clint Eastwood, 
saying to potential offenders:
‘Go ahead, make my day...’ 

The ‘thou shallt nots’ are all too easy to caricature, and in doing so,
misrepresent what I believe to be the actual intent of the commandments.
At this point, I’m really, really, really hoping you’ve all been given a copy of ‘the positive 10’ in your orders of service... and if you take them out now, we’ll be referring to them a little. 

When I stumbled across this version of the commandments, 
it really helped me see them with fresh eyes – 
and do feel free to take them home with you and pin to your fridge!

Let’s go back to that comment about knowing 
whose you are’ preceding ‘what you do’...                                                           
And while we’re at it, let’s also lose the word ‘commandment’ –
in the original context this was known as ‘decalogue’
ten words.
The ten words are almost a foundational document of liberation:
And that liberation is founded on relationship.

Let’s have a look at the first four commands, or ‘words’ –
These first four ‘words’ concern
God in relation to God’s people,
the people in relation to their God...
Just ‘whose’ are these people?
They belong – are in relationship with –
 the One who freed them from captivity,
who took them out of Egypt, 
and on a journey into the wilderness wastes,
a journey where daily, they saw God’s saving hand at work:
keeping them fed and watered on the way.
A rocky journey at times, and this is not just a comment on the terrain...
mumblings, murmurings, complaining:
even doing a little revisionist history concerning their time in Egypt –
to the point where some were inclined to believe that slavery, 
on the whole, was actually pretty darned good –

But now, at the foot of Mt Sinai,
they are no longer Pharoah’s:
they are God’s particular people,
and God begins the process of guiding them 
into a particular way of being,
Having liberated them for a particular purpose,
they are now in the process of learning what it is to live in relationship with God...
and, as we look at the other six ‘words’,
learning how to live in relationship with each other - their neighbour.

Ten words,
calling God’s people to serve God, 
and each other, in love, 
Ten words that are a radical call for commitment to God 
and to neighbour... and extending to all creation.

Ten words that continue to confirm my growing suspicion 
that God is indeed a Presbyterian: 
after all, these words enable life to be lived decently, and in good order!

God, in the giving of these words to the ones liberated from Egypt,
provides a way in which order is created out of the former chaos...
and reinforces that, even in the wilderness,
life can be meaningful, and fruitful -
importantly, that in the midst of it all, 
that there should be time to rest: 
a clear message that there is more to life than work – 
that we are defined by being in God, not by what we do.
These ten words paint an alternative picture to their previous life in Egypt:
a place where there was little interest in regeneration and rest and no freedom....

And, in contrast to the Egyptian custom,
the commandments don’t sanction a human king 
or a leader to assert power over, or demand allegiance from, the people.
The community isn’t going to be defined 
according to the whims of power-hungry human rulers.
Instead the commandments demand loyalty and obedience to God alone.

The commandments also serve to formalize the connection 
and the relationship between the realms of God and this particular people.
As Patrick Miller eloquently expresses it: 
‘...neither community, nor deity have separate existences 
once the covenant is established. Even though both 
experience real abandonment on the part of the other 
for a time, they are forever linked.’

But what about us?
God’s people, the church...
God’s living stones...
called into community...
called to tell God’s story?
We certainly haven’t been released from captivity in Egypt...
and given the dreary weather this last couple of days, 
it’s not as if we’ve been stumbling about the searingly hot wilderness of Sinai....
So, what might these ten words have to say to us in our situation,
as we sit comfortably in our seats here in parish by the sea?

I’m fairly sure that most of us here are aware of the ongoing talk of the church
being in a kind of terminal decline. 
Of talk concerning how we, in the Church of Scotland in particular, 
no longer seem to hold the privileged place in society 
that we used to when it came to having some 
kind of public influence when decisions and statements 
were made at the General Assembly.
Everything seems to be shrinking away and the glory days seem long ago.
In that sense, are we, in a different way to the Israelites, 
in a type of wilderness?
Is there a small sense of terror, 
as we watch the depletion of resources...
and of the depletion of people and skills,
of time and talents?
And like the Israelites, do we long for a return to the good old days? 

Journeying in the wilderness can be terrifying –
all the securities and apparent guarantees of survival are gone.
But the wilderness could also provide the church 
with an opportunity to re-define itself according to what matters most,
and in doing so, find fresh ways of touching the hearts of all we encounter;
for in the wilderness, free from unnecessary distractions,
we are reminded of whose we are:
God’s particular people,
In this particular time and place at Seaside Town,
in our homes,
or wherever, and whoever, we are with.

What might our lives look like if we lived 
the Ten Commandments as invitations to freedom,
to life, rather than a set of rules to be followed?

What would life be like if we lived in the awareness 
that life comes from God, 
that we don’t need to worship the false god of consumerism,
or bow down to the idol of celebrity? 

What if we celebrated that we can still freely and publicly 
speak God’s name in praise and prayer?
What if we recognised that life was about more than work 
and took up God’s invitation to Sabbath?

What if we took up God’s invitation to respect people,
honour life, and honour relationships?
And what if we were on the receiving end of that respect and honour?
What would that feel like?
...What would life be like?

Writer Joe Roos notes that:
‘the Ten Commandments don't begin with:
'Here are ten commandments, learn them by rote,' or
 'Here are ten commandments, obey them.'
Instead, they begin with a sweeping announcement of freedom:
'I am the Lord your God, 
who brought you out of the land of Egypt, 
out of the house of slavery'.

We will probably always think of the declarations that follow 
as the Ten Commandments.
But we could,
and probably should,
think of them as invitations to God's ...liberation.’...
the ‘positive’ ten.

As we learn what it is to walk in the freedom 
that God gives to each one of us, 
I’m reminded of the words of 5th century theologian, Augustine, 
who famously said:
‘love God, and do what you like’...
meaning that, although there will be the occasional glitch, 
for we’re none of us perfect yet...
if we love God,
what we like
will tend to be that which pleases God...
for we are his, 
and he is ours,
and we live within the immense bounds of his amazing grace.

Let us pray:
Faithful God,
We ask your help as we grow in our relationship with you.
Life-giver, love-bringer, liberator,
As we learn together to love and to serve you,
May our hearts so incline towards you,
that all our deeds become an expression of lives lived in love – 
of you, and of our neighbour.

We ask this in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

The Positive 10:
Put God first. 
Give worth to the one who gives worth to you.
Use God’s name with respect and love.
Spend time thinking about God.
Honour and love your whole family.
Live towards other people with love and generosity.
Find the richness in faithfulness towards others.
Celebrate what you have rather than dwell on what you don’t.
Speak well of others and truthfully to yourself.
Why get down about what others have when you can share what you have with others?

Sunday, 18 May 2014

'Stones and stories': sermon for Easter 5A

Oh dear... could try harder.  Was so *not* in sermon-writing the end, just a lot of thoughts desperately in search of a sermon - with a little Manicheism thrown in for good measure...Augustine would be most disappointed :(

Nevertheless, a sermon, of sorts, based primarily on the 1 Peter text.

1 Peter 2:2-10 and John 14:1-14

Tell me the old, old story
of unseen things above,
Of Jesus and His glory,
of Jesus and His love.

This last week, I’ve been thinking about stories...
and I’d quite like to do a wee straw poll with you:
what are some of your favourite stories? 
[allow folk to respond] 

But what’s all this business about stories got to do with our bible passages, I hear you ask...
And that’s a very good question! 
Last week, we thought about the question:
'what is the Church...?'
We looked at the very beginnings of the Church, as described in the Book of Acts,
and we were reminded that the Church... is us...
the people of God, called into community -
a learning community;
a worshipping community;
a sharing and supportive community;
a community of thanksgiving and praise.

This week, developing the theme a little more as we heard the reading from 1st Peter,
we’ve another aspect to add, which is:
a story-telling community.
In this, I’m very much thinking of Peter’s description 
of the followers of Jesus as ‘living stones’ -
‘come to the Lord, the living stone...
come, as living stones’

Stones and stories - what do they have to do with each other?
Let’s first look at the context in which this letter is written.
Within the letter itself we have an idea of the intended, original audience:
in Chapter One, the writer,
who may or may not be Peter,
addresses his readers as
‘God’s chosen people who live as refugees scattered throughout the provinces’ of what we refer to as Asia Minor.
The term ‘God’s chosen’ appears several times throughout the letter -
an encouragement for folk who appear
to be not only refugees, but along with that, scattered - or separated - from home, family, the larger body of Christians.
Following the opening greeting, the writer begins to talk of ‘trials’ and ‘sufferings’ -
there’s the possibility here that this wee, scattered lot of people are suffering persecution for their faith.  However, this might just refer to the difficulties of following Jesus, and how that impacts upon the general customs and culture of the day.
Within the letter, the writer also gives some practical tips to assist with living life as a follower of Jesus.
Overall, the aim of the letter is to encourage and affirm these ‘chosen’, possibly persecuted refugees... to assure them that:
  • there is a point and purpose to their lives;
  • that they’ve been liberated from darkness into light;
  •  that they are part of the body,
  • that they belong to God and
  • that they can rely on God, who calls them His people...‘living stones’.

Stones...and stories:
The stone metaphor is an odd one:
stones are more associated with...
well, just ...
sitting there being rather lifeless...
but here in our reading,
each stone is infused with the Spirit of God -
alive - active:
these stones live...
not unlike dry bones, in a dusty valley, also live, once God’s Spirit breathes upon them, remembering that passage from several weeks back from Ezekiel.

But whether bones, or stones,
God brings life - even when it appears unthinkable, impossible...
but then, God managed to roll away a stone
from a tomb
and out sprang the promise of resurrection and new life:
Jesus -
the stone that the builders rejected -
the living stone...

With God,
all things are possible, even living stones...
living stones that have a story to tell.

Stones and stories:
if these living stones could speak,
what would they say?
1st Peter provides some clues.
The living stones, God’s own people, have been:
'chosen to proclaim the wonderful acts of God, who called you out of darkness and into his wonderful light...’

Living stones;
story-telling stones.
As I read about stones and of ‘proclaiming God’s wonderful acts’, I couldn’t help but cast my mind back to Palm Sunday...
the crowds are being gloriously, riotously cheerful - it irks the Pharisees, who complain to Jesus
and ask him to tell the crowd to be quiet.
His joyful response?    
‘I tell you, if they keep quiet, these stones would shout aloud!’
So then, our Peter passage is not the first time we encounter the possibility 
of lifeless stones becoming living stones -
story-telling stones.                                                     
A story that hints at our communal identity -
who we are...
and, whose we are.
But what is the story?
In the words of the old hymn:
Tell me the story slowly,
that I may take it in,
That wonderful redemption,
God’s remedy for sin.
Redemption: it’s one of those big theological words that gets pulled out, 
and dusted off, every now and then.
It’s a word most often associated with what happened to Jesus on the Cross
and how it impacted upon the whole of humanity.
And over the course of centuries,
theologians have been at it hammer and tongs trying to work that out.

Stones and stories:
One of my favourite writers, Paulo Coelho once commented 
that when all was said and done, there were really only four themes when it came to stories:
a love story between two people,
a love triangle,
the struggle for power,
and the story of a journey.

In a sense, the story the living stones tell is a combination of these four themes...
the love story?
- of God for humanity;
the love triangle?
- the alluring whispers of a serpent in a garden;
the struggle for power?
- between light and dark, goodness and evil;
the story of a journey? -
exile from the garden, and the long journey back to that first love,
the journey back to God...
But also, another journey -
God’s journey - involving the vulnerability of incarnation:
of becoming one of us
to show us the way
in and through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus
It is a story of pain and sacrifice,
love and separation
redemption and reunion - for love always wins.
This is the story that God’s living stones proclaim.

Gathered together here, as God’s people,
as his living stones,
each one of us comes with our own story
- of whose we are ... family ties, connections, relationships;
of where we’ve come from,
where we are,
and where we hope to go
as we journey along our life’s path...
Each story different, unique...
and yet, as we gather together as God’s people,
each of us shares in a common story:
the story that brings us here today...
The story passed down to us by the living stones of the church 
going all the way back to the very earliest living stones...
All of us, church visible and invisible, building a spiritual house 
'where love can dwell and all can safely live.'

As God’s living stones
as God’s story-telling stones,
how might we tell the story?
How might we proclaim the marvellous acts of the one 
who has brought us out of darkness into his marvellous light?
How might we live God’s story in our lives this week?
How might we:
Tell out the old, old story,
tell out the old, old story,
Tell out the old, old story,
of Jesus and His love.

Let’s pray:
Holy God, we give you thanks
for the gift of Your Son, Jesus
the Word, the way,
the truth, 
the living stone,
who expands our
limited understanding
with outstretched arms
of love.
As your living stones
breathe your Spirit upon us
renew us
refresh us
excite us
that we may go out into your world 
to proclaim your marvellous works.
In Jesus’ name


*prayer borrowed and slightly added to, with thanks to RevGals!

Saturday, 10 May 2014

'One heart, one love': sermon for Easter 4A based on Acts 2:42-47

Acts 2: 42-47; John 10:1-10

Let’s 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.

As the poet, John Donne, famously wrote:
‘No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
...A part...
of the main.’

In our gospel text this morning, Jesus talks of coming 
that we might have life in all its fullness - abundant life...
And, as we listened to our reading from the Book of Acts -
the story of the very beginnings of the Church -
we discover that life in all its fullness
is not one that’s lived in isolation:
abundant life ...
the Christian life...
is necessarily ...communitarian:
we’re not called to live out our faith in glorious isolation;
we are the body of Christ...
one body, and each of us making up the many parts. 

Throughout this week, 
on the back of a couple of conversations with different folk, 
I’ve been pondering the question:
‘what is the Church?’ 
And in our reading from Acts we catch a glimpse 
of what church might be for those earliest of Christians -  
behaviours and ways of being that might act as wee touchstones or signs for us,
as we think about what church is.
So, let’s examine our Acts passage a little more.

We’ve already worked out that for the folk in Acts, community was important -
the text says that ‘they continued together in close fellowship’...
and ‘day after day they met as a group in the Temple.’

The comment that:
‘You don’t have to go to church to be a Christian’
is a comment that’s just not on their radar. 
And also, it just wouldn’t make sense to them:
go to the church?’
They don’t have to ‘go’ to the church
because...    they ‘are’ the Church.
The Church, as the song goes,
is wherever God’s people are praising...
Or, as that other song observes:
I am the church
You are the church
We are the church together...

The Church is flesh and blood, not bricks and mortar...
‘the church is not a building,
the church is not a steeple;
the church is not a resting place;
the church ... is a people’
And these particular people in Acts 
clearly seemed to think that meeting up together - 
joining up with other parts of the church, as such - 
was somehow important, somehow helpful.
They were drawn to one another;
they had common purpose;
they were connected;
they had a common identity in and through Jesus:
united in one love
all beating as one heart.

Spurred on by this one love
this community
this very early part of the self-same Church that we, too, are a part of...
spent their time in learning:
they wanted to know more about Jesus;
they wanted to know of his teachings;
they wanted to know how, as his followers,
those teachings impacted upon their own lives, and the lives of those around them.
They were hungry to know more,
to work out how to walk the journey of faith.
It was a community of learning:
learning to be like the one they loved.

Spurred on by this love
this community 
found that the natural expression of their love for Jesus 
was through worshipping together as his people.
And so they ‘took part in the fellowship 
and sharing in the fellowship meals and prayers.’
It was in community that they remembered Jesus in bread and wine
and, as they did,
ordinary grape and grain took on a deeper spiritual meaning -
the everyday things of the world becoming sacred - sacramental;
nourishing them,
binding them closer together -
one love, one heart, one in spirit.
United in prayer, too,
as they remembered and said together
the prayer that Jesus had taught - 
that prayer which we still say.
It was a worshipping community:
worshipping the one they loved
and who loved them, utterly.

And, as they began to comprehend that great and utter love
this community was filled ...with awe.
Hearts and minds and souls
struck with the wonder of it all
as they went deeper into this faith,
deeper into what it was to be disciples,
deeper into the great love of God as revealed in the Son.
This was an awe-filled community:
marvelling at all that God had done
at all that God given for them.

That amazing, divine self-giving
caused the believers to respond likewise.
And, in what could be seen as a dream text 
to delight the heart of any church treasurer - 
where’s [treasurer's name]?! -
these earliest of Christians gave...and gave...and gave,
sometimes quite sacrificially -
because the thought that one may be in need and suffering
was enough to cut them to their hearts:
when one suffered, all suffered.
They gave what they had,
what they could,
so that none were hungry
none were homeless...
remembering those words that Jesus had said:
‘when you do this for the least
...   you do it for me.’
They cared,
they supported one another
and within that mutual support,
they shared hospitality as well -
eating together in each other’s homes.
It was a community of generosity:
a living parable of the generosity of the one they followed.

That generosity was also a demonstration
of their great sense of thankfulness to God.
They were truly humbled as they thought of God’s love,
of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection.
Thankful - and possibly not a little astonished -
as they pondered the thought that
the Creator of the Universe and of all contained therein -
the One beyond time and space
the One beyond human comprehension -
cared for them:
called them... ‘beloved’...
It was a community of thankfulness and praise:
delighting in the One who delighted in them.

As the early believers worked out what it was to be church, 
there were a couple of interesting knock-on effects:
first, the wider community saw what they did,
how they lived,
how they treated one another in response to their God...
And so it was that the church enjoyed 
the good will of the people around them -
the wider community.
Second, the way in which this church community behaved... 
piqued curiosity,
drew people to them,
and so their numbers grew.

...What is the Church?
What are the signs of the Church?
The Church is... us:
the Church is... community.
For faith, within the context of fullness of life
is not just a private and personal matter of
‘me and my God’
faith, and fullness, is much more expansive than that:
it’s about ‘me and my God ...and my neighbour’ - 
and my neighbour may be a fellow Christian, 
or someone who lives in the local neighbourhood,
or even someone who lives on the other side of the world, 
who we may not know, but who may be in need,
and who we can support through agencies such as Christian Aid.

Called to live within the context of community,
as God's church:
together we learn about the faith
together we worship God
together we share with, and support, one another
together we give thanks and praise ...
because we recognise that this is what life,
life in all its fullness is about
as we follow  
the God who is bigger than the sum of our deeds
the taker of fears
and the giver of dreams..
the God who calls us to be his people
his community:
the God who is not finished with us yet,
despite the claims of some...
the God who is still speaking...

finish with clip...