The Asst. Curate’s letter: Easter.

Happy Easter to you all. Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

As I write this, the sun is shining and birds are singing. There is wall to wall blue sky and children are outside playing in the warmth of this April morning. We are so fortunate to have land that we can access so easily and to enjoy the diversity of His creation.

One of the weeks of the Lent course that was run in both Wick and Thurso explored Orthodox theology and our role in that. Being part of the created cosmos and seeing God in all created things. We learned about the art of iconography and one person’s discovery that she could pray an icon into existence, using her paintbrush. Another week, we explored how to use a finger labyrinth and how that can be used to still our hearts and minds and focus on God.

We have explored and discussed deep and meaningful quotes by some of our earliest theologians and practised different ways of connecting with God. All of which are provided to help us determine how each of us as individuals connects with God on a deep and personal level. Because there is no ‘one size fits all’ in the journey of Christian discipleship. So it is with our journey with Christ as we lead to the Cross and reflect on our part in that story.

This, combined, with my questions for previous letters, “Where do our priorities lie?” and “where does our future lie?” gives us a springboard to launch into the post-Easter future. What lies ahead? The easy answer is that the liturgical year of the church is already mapped out for us. We begin to look to Ascension Day and Pentecost. However, how do we use what God has provided for us in terms of ministry and mission in and around Caithness?

I was very aware, in running the course on Christian Spirituality and Mysticism of just how much spiritual hunger there is in Caithness. The course in Thurso was held in the Community Caféon Harbour Road in Thurso and that allowed various people to come to the course who would not have attended otherwise. What other opportunities do we see around us, but don’t necessarily think are relevant to the Church in Caithness? We can no longer think of the church continuing as it has done for decades, Now is the time to think outside of the box. What initiatives have you seen elsewhere that might, given the very specific geographical nature of Caithness, work in reaching out and spreading the Good News of the risen Christ? 

Can we choose intentionally to be as radical as Christ? N. T. Wright wrote: “If someone in the first century had wanted to invent a story about people seeing Jesus, they wouldn’t have dreamed of giving the star part to a woman.” In a heavily patriarchal society, no thought was given to a woman being party to the first resurrection appearance of the risen Christ (John 20:16-18). If you read from Luke’s Gospel, the men thought an idle tale was being told to them by the women (Luke 24:11). These were the women who stuck with the Lord through thick and thin, who catered for his needs, who were there at the cross, and who had the courage to go to the tomb with spices on the third day to prepare his body for burial. They were not expecting to see the risen Christ, but they did. And they went and told the others. 

My point is not to raise one gender up over the other, but to ask where you might have seen, noticed or thought of a way in which to reach out to others that you have then put aside as being a nonsensical idea. I would like to know what those ideas are. We are the church in Caithness, as a corporate body, but we are also individually searching for God on our own spiritual journeys. Different viewpoints and different ideas carefully and respectfully shared enrich our journey together as we search out radical opportunities to be a witness and light to the many different nationalities that we meet every day in Caithness.

We meet in Christ’s name. Let us share His peace.

Curate’s Letter: Easter

Last month I asked where our priorities lay. I asked if we choose to be outward focussed? Who could choose, whatever the cost, to reach out to others? Who would choose to help others in poverty, despair or addictions so that they may come to know the love and peace of Christ? 

This month I am asking you where does our future lie? This is a multifaceted question, with many different answers possible. In one sense you may well be asking how the question this month is any different from what I asked in Lent’s Outlook.

I would like us to begin by spending some time on some of the verses of our reading from Isaiah 55:

“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

The first two lines remind us of a situation that Jesus found himself in, described in John 4:1-15 where he meets a woman who has come to draw water at the well. Our bodies need actual water in order to survive but our spiritual needs can only be nourished by the water God gives us. It is so easy for us, as the people of God to forget how much we need God. In the passage above, the people are beckoned forward to eat and drink from what which God is offering us, freely and without charge. How often do we forget God does not charge us for his overwhelming abundance and grace? Jesus says that everyone who drinks of the water that he gives them will never be thirsty again. 

I wonder how many of us have searched high and low, for many years for a certain amount of satisfaction and it has never quite appeared. The search goes on and on and the void inside has never been quietened or stilled. 

We go on labouring for that which does not satisfy. We make ourselves busy because we’re too afraid to stop. We’re too afraid to make space to listen and seek God, because we’re afraid of what we might find. But I put it to you that fear should not hold us back, because all we need is a mustard seed of faith. To be able to look forward to the future. To partake the rich feast that God has for us, to incline our ear to him. To listen, so that we might live.

Do we trust God? Do we trust that he knows our future, and that he wants only the best for us? If we do, can we place our worries, anxieties, needs and wants in his hands? Can we have the grace to allow God to work in ways that we don’t think are the way we would do something?

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

Dare we allow God to reside with us, alongside us, in all that we do and say? Our deeply held traditions and set ways of doing things must be done with grace and reverence otherwise there is a very real danger that these duties become nothing but automated tasks that have no spiritual purpose. Can we allow ourselves to acknowledge that God does not think like us and never will?

Would it be possible for us to actually allow God to lead us? As individuals and as a Church? Will we be as welcoming to all as the writer of the book of Isaiah is, in his greeting to all? Will we welcome the very young as well as the very old? Will we be as gracious to those who make any sort of noise in church, regardless of their age because we trust that God knows best? Even though we may not be able to remain focussed.

What does this have to do with our future? If we think back to last month where I asked about our priorities, then the question was whether we would choose to live and hold on to the way things have been done for as long as one can remember, or whether we chose to live like those rooted in streams of water, drinking deeply of God’s grace and wisdom. In that sense, water is a recurring theme and the need to refresh oneself is stated again. I believe it is stated again because we are such obstinate creatures and we forget, continually, to drink of the life-giving water that is presented to us, free of charge.

In a more physical sense, does our future lie within the confines of the church building? Or does it lie in the chaos and spontaneity that we sometimes find in our churches? Does the awkwardness of such stark differences to the easy going well rehearsed routines of our services startle us out of our reveries? If so, then I say that is good. Because that means the Holy Spirit is with us, and we are present with the Holy Spirit. Our future lies with allowing God to lead. With allowing the noise of exploration to occur throughout our church buildings, however uncomfortable that might be. 

God knows where our future lies, quite literally.  We might be abruptly removed from our comfort zones to make space for the Holy Spirit to move, and we need to be okay with that. We need to be welcoming of everyone into our churches, regardless of their dress, or age, because the future of the Church lies with them. Not us. Can we allow them to become accustomed to the presence of God without imposing our wishes or preferred style of worship on them? Can we seek God together as we realise that both ourselves and the stranger we meet are both represented by the woman at the well? Our future, and the future of the Church in Caithness lies in our hands. Are we prepared to hand over to God the ways and means with which he wants to move and allow the water that we seek to become a spring of water in us, that gushes up to eternal life (John 4:13)?

Mothering Sunday

This Sunday is Mothering Sunday. A day when we recognise and give thanks for the many different strands of motherhood – both physical and spiritual. 

We perceive in the Gospel reading, a mother watching her son die and yet the compassion that Jesus had in asking a friend to take in his mother and love and respect her as his own mother. An act that involves so much emotion and comprehension to allow Mary to grieve yet giving her the chance to process that grief while remaining in loving community. Wrapped up in all this, is the brief nod to the consolation that comes from others, and in this case, this comes from the disciple.

An etiquette that wasn’t just about honouring the customs of the Jewish culture but was about being human. Acknowledging the rawness of grief, but enfolding that into a family situation. Bringing and holding it in community. Something that can be lost in the passage written by Paul. Although Paul is writing to a community, the Corinthians, these are words that can serve to meet each of us in our own needs. We will never know what the afflictions were that the Corinthians were being affected by, but we do know that God consoles us as we console others. Something we can only do, if we are in community. 

Mothering Sunday is about community. It’s about allowing ourselves to be a part of a community. Historically, around the sixteenth century, Mothering Sunday was less about mothers and more about Church. People would make a journey to their ‘mother’ church once a year. This might have its origins in the annual pilgrimage one sees across the world in different traditions and indeed religions. Or in the grand estates of wealthy landowners who allowed their estate workers to travel home for a day off, to see their parents on the fourth Sunday of Lent.

The ‘mother’ churches, which may or may not have been a cathedral, would have provided a service to commemorate the coming together of families. Life more or less surrounded the church, so people would have gone to church, followed, I guess, by community gatherings to allow various folks to catch up with each other.

In contemporary society, that sense of community has become more dispersed. We have at our hands various forms of social media – social, while being passive. We don’t need to talk to anyone any more. We can just text, or email, or send an image. But that in itself is not enough. It is so easy to withdraw from the world and not interact with others. The sense of community changes with our expectations. Or, are our expectations dictated by our use of social media? Do we find ourselves subtlely changed by what we perceive the etiquette of social media expects of us? The desire to be in contact and able to converse with others and articulate ideas is central to the development of societies, and therefore of community.

The Church celebrates community on Mothering Sunday. Communities that have come together in many churches across the world, gathered by those who love and nurture others. Those, who have endured afflictions as Paul describes, who are able to console others. Who are willing to allow God to work through their afflictions and consolations to reach out to others. Because, as Paul writes, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God.” 

The process is reciprocal. As God gives to us, so we give to others. Unbelievably simple in concept, like so much of what Jesus’s theology is, yet incredibly complex in actually setting out to achieve it. Human emotions get in the way, as painful memories come to the surface, that might inhibit what we feel is being asked of us. Then there is the draw of social media where we can be absorbed into a passive, unspoken world where we don’t have to interact with real people. The danger there is that we don’t deal with the grief that sits in our hearts. Being in community makes us interact with others, where others can listen. 

Communities, and here in St Peter and the Holy Rood, need to be places where the young and the old, the vulnerable and the quiet can come and be. Be present and feel safe. Feel that they can begin to trust those around them. To reach out in their time of need and know that we’ve got their backs. In this community, I hope we can continue to support and nurture those who need to grieve or struggle through what Mothering Sunday might mean to them, and continue to reach out, not just on one day but continually, just as the disciple who Jesus loved did, the day he took Mary into his home.

What it takes

Genesis 15:1-12. 17-18, Psalm 27, Philippians 3:17-4.1, Luke 928-36

Stories of transformation. Stories of gritting your teeth and getting stuck in and being encouraged from those around you and those who have gone before you. Realising that you’re not the only one who’s gone through or is going through a tough patch. Abraham quite clearly aches for an heir, one of his own. Paul speaks of the Philippians holding fast to what they have learned. Moses and Elijah meet with Jesus to encourage him for what lies ahead.

Earlier this week I spoke about the ‘dark night of the soul.’ A time in one’s spiritual journey where it seems as though God is so very distant. That he doesn’t answer, and you begin to wonder whether there is actually a God. Gone are the times when you intentionally sat somewhere waiting, listening, obedient because you knew he would show up and you could enjoy his creation, his laughter in your life, his being with you. You knew you were a child of God because with him your life was changed. 

Our Gospel passage is of the transfiguration. The point in life where Jesus was affirmed as God’s son and his appearance changed and his clothes become dazzling white. I wonder how many of you have seen someone’s face shine and pondered about why or how? I wonder how many people have experienced a transfiguration in an instant. And I wonder how many people experience a transfiguration or transformation (change) over many months or even years.

St John of the Cross speaks of this dark night of the soul, a time when God appears withdrawn from your presence. Note that this is not when we’ve withdrawn from God’s presence because we do this all of the time. We make ourselves too busy to pray or even acknowledge God. Yet, we complain when God seems distant from us. When he doesn’t appear to be at our beck and call.

The dark night of the soul can go on for months or even years. Thomas Merton suggests that to keep going to church, and to keep saying your prayers, as if nothing has changed within you, will help your journey through this dark night. Keeping your friends around you and being encouraged by their stories helps keep your faith alive.

At some point, when God feels the time is right, he may make an entrance in your life again. But it won’t be with a fanfare, a ta-dah moment. That’s human. That’s a ‘look-at-me’ moment, ‘I’m back!’ No. God’s way will be through the small, the insignificant moments, the blink-and-miss-it moments. 

Your journey through this dark night, through the sheer anguish of wanting something so much, might result in a realisation that your love for God is no longer dependent on what you experienced in the early years of walking with Him, but it is now much more of a long-term relationship. One where you realise that your love of and for God goes beyond those expectations you had for him.

In the verse directly preceding our Epistle reading, Paul talks about holding fast to what has been attained. He then goes on to ask the Philippians to imitate him. Why would he do that if he thought they all loved Christ? Perhaps this is about lifestyle choices that allow oneself to keep a hold of the love of Christ through the really tough and gritty and dark times? 

The enemies Paul speaks of here may well have been real people, but I put to you that the enemies of the cross of Christ could also be trust in human power and wisdom rather than in God’s redemptive nature. We too need to hold fast to what we have attained in Christ. If we feel God is distant, perhaps we too need to imitate Christ, even if we feel like a fraudin doing so.

These enemies of the cross of Christ that Pauls writes of don’t just exist after the Cross. They existed back in Abraham’s time too. Even though Abraham had the grisly job of cutting up several animals and laying them out and trusting that God would show up. He still ended up investing in his own means in order that he might have an heir and tried to short-cut what God had already promised him. In the Epistle, we have Paul encouraging the Philippians to focus on Christ and not those that would set their minds on earthly things. Paul like in many of his letters chooses to play on the words that have obviously been supplied to Paul in a letter from the Philippians, back in a form that they find encouraging. The enemies of the Cross are seeking power for themselves, those who are accumulating earthly wealth and who might be focussed on their bodies in some way. Paul writes of the transformation of the body of humiliation to a body of Christ’s Glory, through a power that only Christ has.

In the Gospel reading, we have this mountain top experience, a thin place where Jesus meets with those who have gone before, while being there in the present with some of his disciples and being encouraged for what lies ahead. 

Who, in the grit and determination of pushing through what seems like an incessantly dark place, doesn’t appreciate encouragement for the journey ahead? Perhaps our response to this is to do with our own transformations? Our job is not to build a shelter for Jesus, like Peter wanted to do on that mountain. Our job is not to ask God to covenant with us. Our job is not to run ourselves ragged, running around after everyone else with all their expectations and needs and wants.” 

Our job is simply to do what God asks of us, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

The transfiguration

Exodus 34. 29-35, 2 Cor 3. 12- 4.2, Luke 9. 28b-43.

The transfiguration. Three stories of transfiguration in our three passages, because the magnitude of what we hear about today isn’t limited to Jesus. The transfiguration was the point in life where Jesus was affirmed as God’s son and his appearance changed and his clothes become dazzling white. I wonder how many of you have seen someone’s face shine and pondered about why or how? Perhaps it is to do with our own transfigurations? The point where one knows something deep in one’s heart – that he or she is a child of God and nothing or no-one can ever take that away.

But how we get to that point from where we are? Well, there’s a clue in the story from Luke’s Gospel:

“Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

There was no agreement from heaven to do something, i.e. build three shelters. Instead, a voice issued forth that God’s Son, Jesus, should be listened to.

In true Jewish tradition there are three aspects of the event of the Transfiguration as recorded in the Bible. In the present (on that mountain), there was the acknowledgement of what had happened in the past. And there was the expectation of a prophetic future. 

The appearance of Moses on the mountain – whose face shone when he had spoken with God, all those years before. Moses represented the Hebrew Scriptures – the law which had been written on stone tablets and revered as God’s word. Jesus came as a fulfilment of that law. He did the things the law could not. Where the law pointed to a problem, Jesus gave the solution. Then he became the ultimate solution for all of us.

John 1:17: For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 

Why was the third person on the mountain Elijah? What was his significance? He was a great prophet. I wonder if you remember the story of the prophets of Baal? How they were to call fire on to their sacrifice and none came? And then Elijah poured water onto his sacrifice and asked God to come and consume it. Fire came and even the water that had been poured on to the sacrifice could not quench the flames. It takes guts to stand up to people who would lead God’s people astray, yet Elijah did so. His appearance on that mountain testified that Jesus fulfilled what the Hebraic prophets had pointed to. Jesus was also a great prophet. One who was stepping into the unknown, the future.

The voice of God points to the future. “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” What does that mean for us? Let us look at what Paul had to say. I’m going to read from the passage, but actually include a little that precedes our passage today because I think it puts it in a better context:

“you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

“Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness, not like Moses, who put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the glory. But their minds were hardened. Indeed, to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there, since only in Christ is it set aside. Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”

Okay. Paul’s words seem to be pretty self-explanatory. But how do we get to that point from where we are now? Do we seek God in here? In this building? Do we seek him in what we do? Do we seek him out beyond the confines of our comfort zones? How do we seek him? Is he in our busyness? If we buy extra tinned food for the foodbanks, is that all we need to do? Is that our acknowledgement, our off-the cuff ‘nod’ that says we did our bit for God? Have we patted ourselves on the back in some sort of justification for what we do? I’m including myself in this, because I realised in my writing that I’m preaching to myself too.

Did we find God in any of that? Did we feel a transformation? Did our faces shine as we realised who we are in God? Did you discover deep down that you’re a child of God through what you just did? I’m not passing judgement here, I am simply asking if you found God in what you did last week?

I’m going to put it to you that what we’re doing is but a small part of what God is actually asking of us. Our danger is that we tend to make it a much larger part of who we think we arein God than we should. God didn’t envelop them all in a cloud on that mountain and say “You must run yourself ragged running round after everyone else with all their expectations and needs and wants.” He simply said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

How many of us do that? Listen? How many of us take time out to actually listen to God? How do we respond to the grace of God that meets us where we are? “Just as I am, before my God” to paraphrase a line from a hymn. Do we have a vision of where we are and where we would like to move to? To travel, not just as a community but as individuals? Because when we all acknowledged, somewhere, at some juncture of our lives that we needed God, we entered onto a journey. Not some static point on a travellator that allows the world to pass us by, or for us to travel through the world without any effort on our part. But a journey that involves all of our being – our head and our heart as well as our hands and our feet.

What does it mean to listen to God? How do we do that? Sunday attendance isn’t actually a sign of spiritual growth. Bums on pews means absolutely nothing when there’s no commitment to wanting to find out who God is. Who He is to each of us. How he can speak to us and why that is so important. Some of you may be feeling spiritually bereft, dry, and just putting one foot in front of the other in some semi-automated way, doing, doing, doing because what else is there? 

Come to the Lent course. Starting on Wednesday in Wick after the Ash Wednesday service and Thursday at the Community Cafe in Thurso. Come and discover why Chris and I were so keen for you to learn more about the Christian saints. Come and discover different Christian pathways in finding out more of who God is and why he loves you so much. Come and read the Bible with others, and be encouraged. Come and be transformed by your experience and participation with others in community and allow that inward transfiguration to take place.

March 2019: Curate’s Letter

I wonder where our priorities lie? This was my opening gambit of Sunday’s sermon. Three texts of the Beatitudes from the Bible, of which two were from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament. Jeremiah 17:5-10 illustrates a curse as a shrub that is parched that will never see relief and then immediately shows the reflection of one who is rooted in God’s grace. This person is like a tree planted by water that continues to bear fruit. Psalm One is also a collection of Beatitudes. It begins with a positive statement where people who follow God are once again likened to trees planted by water. Whereas the opposite image is likened to the chaff of wheat that blows away when the grain is being prepared on the threshing floor. The Gospel reading from Luke (ch 6:17-26) is part of Jesus’s Beatitudes and as such is the most well-known. It is full of blessings and woes that illustrate the opposite of each other.

Beatitudes were a common way of expressing spirituality in Jewish and Hellenistic traditions. A contrast is drawn between the ways of wisdom and of irrationality. Wisdom that belongs to the Kingdom of God and what happens or can be expected to happen when one steps outside of that sphere of grace. All three texts of Beatitudes can make for uncomfortable reading. However, the two sides of the coin are there to see the choice in following God or not, as the case may be. Regardless of the route chosen, we are all on a spiritual journey and God may or may not be a large influence on that journey at this time in your life. 

I come back to the question, as to where our priorities lie. Do they lie in the way that things have always been done? Are our priorities to hold on to the traditions that occurred somewhere in our lives and for some unknown reason, will we hold on to them as if our lives depend on them? Do we intend to keep hold of negativities because somehow, we have become accustomed to the reaction they incite? If we choose to live like those rooted in streams of water, drinking deeply of God’s grace and wisdom, then inevitably, our choice will be to turn to God. Our mourning will turn to joy. Our despair will turn to laughter. 

In last month’s Outlook, we were asked whether we can be Christ’s hands and feet and I wonder how this can work with what I have asked in the paragraph above? Perhaps, we each need to make a choice in how we approach God before whom we pray, praise and speak our devotions? Perhaps as we approach Lent, we can consciously make a decision to be rooted more in the stream of God’s grace and allow that to wash over us. Particularly as we begin a time of preparation to renew our baptismal vows.

What are your priorities? Is it to know God more deeply? Is it to see a Christian presence on the streets in your neighbourhood? Is it to share Christ with those around you? Looking once again at the Beatitudes, we see that nowhere in each of the passages does it mention that life will be easy, or comfortable. The way of life that God is calling us to will have its fair share of hardships, but in community we have the opportunity to share those hardships with others. We do not travel on this journey alone. We are part of a community, and as spiritual beings, we find fellowship together. This enables us to grow and deepen our relationship with God. 

In Caithness, this does not just occur in the two Episcopal congregations in Thurso and Wick, but will occur elsewhere in the county, such as cafes, supermarkets, pubs and castles. In order that we may grow deeper into who God is calling us to be, we need to ask ourselves what our priorities are. Will we choose to be a people who are outward focussed? Who choose, whatever the cost, to reach out to others? Who choose to help others in poverty, despair or addictions so that they may come to know the love and peace of Christ? 

Our priorities should reflect that of Christ, who always reached out to the lost and the broken. He knew that the greatest need was beyond the four walls of the buildings he found himself in, which is why so many of the stories in the Gospels are of Christ as he walks from village to village. To be able to share Christ throughout Caithness requires an understanding that Christ’s model has to be echoed in the here and now. 

As our priorities become more like Christ’s we will find solace in God. We will find peace, and we will find rest. Anxieties will disappear because they have no foundation in God. The peace of God that passes all understanding.  What is there about this that we do not want to share? So, therefore, I finish this letter with one question. What are your priorities?

Lost in translation

Gen 45:3-11, 15Psalm 37:1-12, 41-42, 1Cor 15:35-38, 42-50,Luke 6:27-38

My title I gave to my sermon today is ‘Lost in Translation.’ I wonder how many of you can remember the film with the same title that came out in the early 2000s with Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson? Both play characters that appear to be lost in the current situations with their spouses, neither of them speak the language of the country and any nuance is lost on them as they wander through their lives there as they try to make sense of what is going on.

Why have I chosen to begin with a film title? There’s one thing I have noticed and I may have even said it here from time to time. We don’t know the tone of how the passages read out today were said. We tend to take passages from the Bible and read them with no nuance, with no inflection, with no exaggeration or drama. We read from the Bible in the way we have been taught, as though it were dry and always in a written form. But of course, the Scriptures weren’t. The Hebrew Scriptures passed down for years as an oral tradition until they were finally written down. But even then, and can you imagine this, the characters of the alphabet used only had consonants. It wasn’t until later, many hundreds of years after Christ that vowels were added. The Hebrew Scriptures were still dependent on an oral tradition that would only have been passed down through the teachers in the synagogues.

The Gospel of Luke, which scholars suspect was written in the latter part of the first century, was written in Greek. No oral tradition to speak of and wasn’t written on its own. There’s a second part to the story that was penned by Luke and that is book of Acts. Scholars will refer to Luke-Acts as a whole. It was separated by the Gospel of John somewhere in the Canon’s creation, but actually Acts should be read as a continuation of Luke. 

So, to read Luke or indeed any other book of the Bible, we have had to translate it. But in doing so, we automatically think of our social conventions, and place our own suppositions into the story. We don’t take time to intentionally think about the customs, cultural and historical context of when the passage was written in order to understand its meaning more fully, before trying to apply it to our lives in the 21stcentury. There is always a loss in translation of inflection and nuance, but we need to be careful that we don’t lose more than has already been lost. We need to ensure that our reading of the passages is insightful rather than taking it as it is.

Last week we heard about the blessings and the woes in the Beatitudes and this week we have the passage that tends to be read as though we should let people walk all over us and take what they want. After all, that’s what it says in the following verse:

“If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.”

If you don’t read too much into these passages, or think about them too hard, then it’s quite easy to gloss over what Jesus is recorded as saying. But if you think about how people might react to such tactics, then you might realise that Jesus is being really rather cheeky. He’s being creative with the demands of those who would seek to bully you, or those who would choose to abuse their position in power. 

It really does sounds as though you should lay yourself open to abuse. What’s Christian about that? Jesus doesn’t say anywhere that you must give the abuser the right to do what they want. He doesn’t say that the person demanding your coat has the right to demand it. What he is saying is that if someone demands something from you then you can offer the shirt off your back to go with it.

This was illustrated in the film Les Miserables when Jean Valjean was recuperating in the French monastery and decided to steal the candlesticks. When caught ands brought back to the abbot, he is told that he forgot to take all the other gold and silverware because that was his too. The police were ashamed and confused because they couldn’t make sense of the response of the abbot, Jean Valjean was humbled because the abbot decided not to press charges and his life was turned around because the abbot decided to show how a different way, that of God, could bring positive change into the world.

The abbot did not lose his wit or self-control. He was provocative and creative in his response. If somebody is taking from you only what you are prepared to give, then you remain the victor. Very few people are ever prepared to take the risk of winning by not caring if they lose. We normally fight back with the same method that was used in the first place, which means nothing will ever change. 

What the abbot did was to do exactly what Jesus suggests. A change in the ground rules. Don’t respond in the way the world expects. Respond in the way that God would. After all, you’re a child of God. He’s resident within you, so therefore responding in God’s way should seem intuitive.

Jesus’s life illustrates this perfectly. He accepted the violence without retaliation and creates something new without ever having lost his wits or his control of the situation. We did our worst, through hatred, by nailing Christ to the cross and it didn’t change how God felt towards us. His love is greater than any hate we can assemble.

Joseph did the same in the first reading we had. His brothers expect a savage response – it what they would have done. But it’s not what they receive. Because Joseph chose the gentle route, they could become a family again. Something that Joseph had yearned for since being sold into slavery. If he had done anything else, he would have probably lost that chance.

Our reading from the letter to the Corinthians shows Paul’s exasperation with them. “You fools!” Corinthians, Greek to the core, logical and rational because of the way they have been taught. Philosophical questions about the resurrection body that no-one can answer. The Corinthians are attempting, as many of us do, to make God fit into our world. To make him small; the assumption being that God can only do things the way we understand them. But in fact, we understand almost nothing. The Corinthians didn’t have much knowledge then, and we don’t either. Granted, we have 20 centuries more knowledge then they did, but in actual fact we don’t know that much. 

Paul speaks about a seed turning into a plant. We forget the miraculous nature of this because we see it every day. Somewhere, the miracle of this is lost in translation because we somehow think that God’s creativity can only happen in what we see.

The Corinthians were in danger of losing in translation what Paul was trying to tell them. His exasperation with them shows this. Their logic was killing off this chance of growth into God, of trusting that God’s ways were better then and still are better than our own, today.

Do not fret yourself because of evildoers; do not be jealous of those who do wrong. For they shall soon wither like the grass, and like the green grass fade away. Put your trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and feed on its riches. Commit your way to the Lord and trust in him.

Third Sunday before Lent

Jer 17: 5-10Psalm q, 1 Cor 53:12-20,Luke 6:17-26

I wonder where our priorities lie? I wonder if it’s learning about God in the same way one learns about the animals in the Amazon, from our armchairs? Or whether it’s a about a way of life? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not about to begin bible bashing but these are the texts we have today, and I have to ask: “Where do our priorities lie?”

This week we have the Beatitudes as our Gospel reading. In one way it is a reading that is lovely to read but the theology contained within is more than enough to encompass three or four sermons. The name Beatitude is derived from Latin and it refers to a state of happiness or bliss.The Beatitudes of our Lord are powerful, holding before the world a … picture of the true disciple of God. The Beatitudes cover the glorious hope and reward the believer can expect, now and as well as in eternity. The Beatitudes speak of a different mindset. One of the Kingdom of God, rather than that of the world. A kingdom that seeks to break into the world at every opportunity, if only we let it.

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.

“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.

“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven;

But like our readings from Jeremiah and Psalm One, the Gospel reading also shows the flip side of the coin.

But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.

“Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.

“Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.

It makes for really uncomfortable reading. But then Christianity isn’t supposed to be comfortable. And if you are looking for something you can observe from your armchair then perhaps Christianity isn’t really your thing. Let us have another look at the reading from Jeremiah.

Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord.

They shall be like a shrub in the desert and shall not see when relief comes.

They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land.

Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is in the Lord.

They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream.

It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.

I wonder if you notice the pattern? In Jeremiah the curses come first, followed by the blessings. And the blessings follow the same route that the curses took.

Those who follow the Lord, who put their trust in Him are likened to trees planted by water. Their feet are in the waters of God’s grace, and provided they stay rooted, the faithful can withstand those times of testing. Those times when all we want to do is walk away and say enough is enough.

Remaining rooted in God’s grace allows us to remain fruitful. But if we step outside of that grace then perversity and deviousness awaits.

Psalm One gives voice to the cry of humanity in times of desperation but also gives the converse or flip side – songs of thankfulness and joy. And how does that joy appear in our lives? Is it through wealth and material things? Or is it something that is contained within us, that strengthens our faith internally? Our internal spiritual being, where it says elsewhere in the Gospels, God already is present. Psalm One speaks of the joy that comes in following the Lord and then turns and explains the consequences of not following him.

In none of our readings is there the promise of earthly prosperity. The Beatitudes certainly don’t speak of such things because Jesus knew that the crowd he was speaking to were experiencing serious hardship. They were also being prepared to suffer on Jesus’s account. But in the midst of it he declares that there will be joy and true blessings. Jesus was asking the people to think with a different mindset that breaks into the world. That of the kingdom of God. One that turns the ways of the world on its head, Shows the flip side of the coin.

The readings from Jeremiah, Psalm One and Luke all have a past- present point in them. But they also have a present-future time. One that we can all step into. A place, a spatial moment in time where we embrace that of the present and future and say enough is enough of the past and decide to move forward, facing forward. But that’s not enough. We could choose to put the past behind us and discipline ourselves to be mindfully objective and positive. But are we moving out of grace in that instant? Are we saying that we can do this on our own, and that we don’t need God? Are we rooted in God’s grace? Are we thinking with our world mindset or that of God’s kingdom?

And that is where we find our reading from the first letter to the Corinthians. We’ve now moved past Jesus’s death and we look to the new life given after Christ’s resurrection. We have Paul’s incredibly dense and complex theology to contend with but if I were to try to summarise what I think Paul is saying then it is a calling to a radical way of life that is so different from the one where we began today. He asks the Corinthians to think outside of the box, and so should we. Change our world mindset to that of God’s. How do we do that? Well, I am hoping and praying that the Lent course will do just that. 

Where do our priorities lie? Our present-future is also our future-present as the future that God has for us bursts into our present in our response to the Christ crucified. 

Second Sunday of Epiphany

I wonder if any of us know what our gifts are? We’re told in the letter to the Corinthians that there are varieties of gifts but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.

I wonder what you might have as a gift that I don’t? I wonder why my work isn’t as good as someone else’s. I wonder if I should be concerned that someone else is better than I am at a certain task? I wonder why I can’t get or understand things in the way that you do. I wonder if I work hard enough at a particular thing, like sewing or knitting or even engineering, whether I could call that a gift.

I wonder if I use that gift to better the lives of others or for my own needs? I wonder if there’s a sense of my own self-importance in what I do and whether that is important to me? Does it make me popular?

So many questions and of course it sounds so introspective. Or to use another turn of phrase “inward looking.” Should we be so fussy about whether someone has a greater ability to do a particular task than ourselves? I guess that it was a similar situation that Paul was writing about when he wrote to the Corinthians. Someone might very well be better than the person next to them in one particular thing, but this isn’t about comparison of one another, instead it’s about working together towards a common goal.

To create a worshipping community, a church, a body that has Christ at its centre. Did you know – this is a complete tangent that clay that is being moulded on the wheel has to be thoroughly centred before it can be made into a bowl or plate or whatever. And it’s not that once you’ve centred the clay on the wheel that it’s centred, but that the clay can go out of kilter at the top, the middle or the base where it’s on the wheel as you’re moulding it, and at any point during that process of creation.

It’s a real skill for a potter to successfully throw a pot that has been thoroughly centred from beginning to end. And any study of humanity through its walk with God will show exactly the same thing. We can go off kilter at any point in our lives. Our mouth might be trying to convince the mind of one thing, while we do something completely different with our bodies. And the only person who will know, truly, deeply, is God.

So our need to be loved, to be popular, to be successful shows the constant tension between us and what God is asking of us. Our comparison of who we are, and what we are, only serves to make us more anxious, and more fearful of being the only one who doesn’t appear to have it all together.

The Gospel reading about the wedding at Cana highlights Jesus’s frustration that his mother is asking him to do something that he feels isn’t the right time. Obviously, his childhood wasn’t like ours otherwise his mother wouldn’t have asked Jesus or told the servants to do as he asks. She knew some things that we don’t know about and aren’t recorded in the Bible. He performed a miracle. I say performed, because there was an expectation that he would do something amazing in response to his mother’s request. The result? Fantastic wine, increased social status for the bridegroom, popularity for Jesus and a bunch of disciples who now believed in him.

Did it come over as a popularity stunt? Is that why, in John’s Gospel, the next passage has Jesus cleansing the temple? So the disciples see that life with Jesus isn’t going to be hunky dory or roses all the way? Of course, we learn in the Gospels later on that the disciples bicker amongst themselves about who is the greatest and we come back to this fear of not holding it together or thinking we need to compare ourselves to the next person.

So we turn back to the reading from Isaiah. We could read it on one level as it being about the land and we could think it through, keeping Caithness in mind. Or, we could use the speech as if to a person. “You shall be called by a new name that the Lord will give. You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord and a royal diadem. You shall no more be termed ‘discarded’ or ‘depressing.’ For the Lord delights in you.” As we are. Church isn’t about worrying who we are and how unworthy we are of God. It’s about a community coming together to acknowledge that they stumble, that they go off kilter, that they feel the need to hold on to God even though they’re not sure about him, or each other.

Church is about walking into that which God is calling us to. We can only do that if we pick ourselves up off the floor, muddy and mucky from our past and hold on to what God is calling us into. To serve each other with the gifts we have, in the way we feel we are asked to. It might not be as good as the next person, but we have to rest in the knowledge that God is asking us to do something in a way that only we can.

“To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.All these gifts are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.”

“You shall be called by a new name that the Lord will give. You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord and a royal diadem. For the Lord delights in you.”

On the eighth day of Christmas… What’s in a name?

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.                Luke 2:15-21

“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose? By any other name would smell as sweet?” from Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare.

Is a name just a label to distinguish one from another? Does it have worth? In Romeo and Juliet the question is about love. Can two people from families who dislike each other, fall in love and be together? In our passage above, a name is not just a label. It garners identity. Possibly, it is the first thing we learn about another person. Their name is part of their identity. Tied up with identity, we find respect, dignity and personality. All of which, if you use Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, would come under the psychological needs of a person. Without a name, a person cannot identify themselves, or be identified.

Up to the point of Jesus being presented in the temple, his name may not have been shared with the shepherds or other family members. We simply don’t know. Or there may have been heated arguments over the decision that he would receive the name that had been received from the angel before he had been conceived. Was it a family name? Does it matter? In a way I think it might. Jesus was given a name that was fairly common. It didn’t mark him out as being special or being in the bloodline stretching back to David.

Jesus’s birth, his childhood, his refugee status and his name don’t set him apart to be king. His unremarkable name is another part of the story that allows us to share and identify with a man who shared his life with us, in the grime and dirt of our everyday lives.