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.

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.”

The choice of inviting Christ into our own lives

Advent has taken us on a real roller coaster of a ride. Each Sunday we explored the concepts of hope, peace, joy and love. We’ve waited as watchmen, or watchpeople to be politically correct, waiting for the first glimmer of hope on the horizon. A bit like the battle at Helm’s Deep in Lord of the Rings. At the first light, watch for help, for it is at hand. But we’re not needing a god-like Gandalf to appear at the top of the ridge, staff in hand, with a white charger and an army of loyal men to fight on our behalf. There’s nothing tangibly physical for us to go into combat with.

Instead we’re asked at Christmas time to engage with our senses. After all, our traditions at Christmas are all about being with our families, joyful, knowing that we are loved. We’re invited throughout Advent to allow hope, peace, joy and love to engage with us. To be a people who are alert, watchful, waiting for a sense of who God is. Knowing that he’s not going to appear before our eyes, like Gandalf did, but who, if we let him, will reside deep within and appear in our conversations and encounters. Who, when we find Him, will shine like nothing else we have ever known.

We’re asked, as human beings, to engage with our emotions. Something that our culture has repressed in so many different ways because there is a fear of the unknown. What will well up when our senses and emotions engage with who God is? Our journey takes us ever deeper into who God is. Our Gospel reading shows how John wrestled with who he thought God was, and how to present that in ways that the Greeks of his day would have been able to grasp.

This evening, as we celebrate the age-old anniversary of Christ’s birth into our human world, we too are invited to ponder anew on what God means to us. Our quest is to make Jesus known, but we can only ever make him known if we are keen to get to know him ourselves. A quest that is as old as the oldest story you’ve ever known. A quest that takes us and continues to take us on a real roller coaster ride, with highs and lows as we experience hope, peace, joy and love.

By doing so, we’re admitting to ourselves that we are spiritual beings. We’ve acknowledged that our spiritual journeys have taken us all sorts of places. We’ve wandered, come back for a while, wandered off again. But we’ve come back. And in all likelihood, will keep coming back. We received the imperative command from Zephaniah on the way, “Rejoice!” And we should be joyful when we hear what John had to say about Jesus. He is the physical embodiment of the Word. Come as a new-born, incredibly fragile as all babies are. Vulnerable and dependent on those around him. His mother Mary, Joseph, his extended family. Those who helped him grow into the man who we and others have studied. His words and the words of his followers, who have tried to pass on what they felt was true to Him and of God. And what is meant by hope, peace, joy and love. Words that will resonate with our souls, if we let them. Words that will still the roller coaster and allow us time to look around and give us space to pray into what we see and hear. This, then, is our experience of the Light. Our roller coaster ride enters the light. The Light that was the life of all people.

This is the light, if you like, at the end of the roller coaster ride. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not comprehend it. This is the light that existed before the sun and moon were made. These are words of mystery. They describe something that cannot be contained in one day, or in a wrapped box.

The Light that lights every person that comes into the world. His presence came into the world, yet was already in the world because he had already created it. This is stuff that we can try to wrestle with but no one will ever have an answer for, because it simply is a mystery. And somewhere along the line we human have to acknowledge that we cannot source a logical explanation because there isn’t one to find.

This evening we celebrate who Christ is. Born out of wedlock, weak, and helpless. Thoroughly dependent on others for food, and clothing. Instead of choosing to come with a fanfare and a white charger, with long flowing robes and a white beard that turns people’s heads, he chooses the vulnerability of an infant in a manger. In this Christmas season we are invited to become child-like in our understanding, fully accepting of the grace that is on offer today. To those who receive him, who believe on his name, he gives the power to become children of God.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us. Human, yet divine. At Christmas time we are offered the chance to become children of God. Human, yet also of God. That is a truly humbling mystery of God, full of grace. That we are given the choice of whether we accept the invitation offered to allow God to dwell within. To open ourselves, our houses, if you will, to let the joy and love that surrounds the birth of Jesus Christ enter our lives. So that he will in turn, be born again within each of us.

Third Sunday of Advent: Rejoice! Rejoice!

If Advent in its entirety is about getting back on track and focussing on waiting with expectation for the coming king, then today, Gaudete Sunday is a time when we can rejoice about all the good things given to us, as part of that preparation.

The first reading we had this morning comes from what is known as a judgement oracle which speaks of the wickedness of Jerusalem and the punishment and conversion of the nations to faith in the Lord. The book of Zephaniah, which was written in the seventh century before Christ, is predominantly about judgement, but it turns to salvation at the end.

Zephaniah, like many prophets understood that amongst other things, poverty and austerity can really pull people down. Psychologically and physically. The attitude to psychological health can either build up or break down a person, and Zephaniah is aware of that. He uses the imperative “Rejoice!” and “Do not fear!” “You shall fear no more.” Humans are inherently fearful – we fear that God is not with us, and that we will not be able to overcome whatever obstacle we see before us. We fear that we won’t be able to provide enough, or have enough, or even be enough. Zephaniah’s word acknowledges our fear, but instead of compounding that fear with more judgement, he presents the opposite, joy. “Rejoice!”

The women of the Hebrew Bible had a tradition of singing during times of crises and also celebrations and the song in the book of Zephaniah resonates with that tradition.

Our own preparations through Advent are penitential – we’re invited to acknowledge that our spiritual journeys aren’t always focussed directly on God, they might weave and wander. They might go around in circles for days before straightening up for a while when our focus returns to God. We have times when things seem to be going right, and sometimes there are the stretches of time when we just can’t seem to get going. There are those who feel that they can bring what they’re struggling with to God and sing and worship  through that and by the end might feel that they are more focussed on God than they were to begin with. And there are those who feel that when they’re struggling that they cannot come to God until they have worked through some of the struggle themselves and then they might be able to sing praises to God. Being able to rejoice and praise God is something that our culture has taught us is highly individual, dependant on who we are and how we feel. But Zephaniah’s command and use of the imperative is that we should rejoice, regardless of our own individual feelings. This is a corporate statement. When we come together, we are no longer individuals seeking our own salvation, but one body seeking salvation for the church.

Rejoicing continues in the canticle from Isaiah. Forgiveness, comfort, joy, and the presence of God. It is not that God is present apart from us, or a little way away. It is not that he is in the sky above us, in the starry heavens, but as Isaiah writes, he is great in our midst. He is my strength and my might. He dwells in amongst us, not just from Christmas when we remember and celebrate Christ’s birth, but that God is amongst us all, here and now.

And as if that is not enough, our reading from Philippians tells us to rejoice too. The Lord is near. Our reading shows that the Philippians were anxious. Anxiety from or about what we don’t know, but I know that each of us feels anxious from time to time about various matters. Paul draws the anxiety to God by calling the people to prayer. This might have been silent prayer, but equally, depending on the culture one was in, this could have involved singing, just as the women of the Hebrew Bible did in times of crisis. Paul’s actions echo that of Zephaniah, in that Zephaniah having delivered oracles of judgement then followed up with an oracle of salvation. Paul could have continued to choose anxiety but instead chooses prayer and peace.

The gospel passage is no different. Yes, there appears to be an inordinate amount of judgement, but there is also a message of hope, of expectation. John attacks those in the crowd who justify themselves by their stance in their religion by telling them that their bloodline has nothing to do with their belonging to or being part of Israel. The  challenge is that their heritage can no longer be a comfort to them. It is faith, and it was faith in Abraham’s time, in Zephaniah’s and Isaiah’s time, in Paul’s time and in our time that enables one to be called a child of Abraham.

The grace and favour that God bestows on us shows that our expectations pale into insignificance when presented with a living God who chose, and continues to dwell amongst us. The expectation of what we should do is part of our commitment to the relationship that we hold dear in both allowing Christ to dwell within and submitting to the authority that Christ has in our lives, both corporately and individually.

Though we are watchful in Advent, waiting expectantly for Christ, both as individuals but also as a body, we rejoice in the good things we have received and anticipate in receiving, knowing that God is indeed with us.

 

 

First Sunday of Advent: Getting back on track

Advent is all about getting oneself back on track. Back into a place where one can wait with expectation and watch for the coming king. Back from all the busyness of materialism and consumerism and the stress that many of us associate with ‘getting ready for Christmas.’ Advent is about preparing ourselves to be receptive to God’s message. And we cannot do this by ourselves. To do so, would be to ensure that Christ is not part of our endeavour. And if he’s not part of our endeavour then we’re lacking something fundamental to our being, that which we are, and can ONLY  be found in Christ. The endeavour that Isaiah saw when he described the ways of the people. Their lands filled with silver and gold, with horses and chariots and idols.

That last word ‘idol’ describes so much. In Isaiah’s time, the silver and gold was fashioned into idols of gods which were then worshipped. Silver and gold that had most likely been plundered from other towns and villages through incessant fighting, all of which, in those days, required horses and chariots. It all seems like a million years away, in a different land, in a different history. But I wonder what idols we have in our own lives? Is it our smart phone? The latest gadget with an outstanding camera? Or is it the latest Nikon or Canon camera that might allow you to take numerous frames per second instead of your old one which only allowed you to take 5 frames per second? Are the idols in our lives the various social media applications that seem to absorb so much of our time as we try to keep up with friends and family, albeit in a passive way that means we don’t actually stop to have a meaningful conversation with them? Perhaps our idols are in our past, where we hearken back to ‘the good old days,’ and spend more time thinking about some ‘golden’ period instead of being excited about the future?

Perhaps intertwined with our perspective of looking back there is, as the writer of the first reading describes, a haughtiness or to use another word, a pride that goes along with the yearning for times in the past where things seemed better in some way. Hindsight always seems to show a much better way, don’t you think? Both the writers of our first and second readings show that there is something to look forward to, but.. here’s the thing, the catch, if you will. We don’t know what that looks like, and might give us anxiety. It might scare us. What does the future hold? What happens when the king is born? Where will he lead us? How will he lead us?

Isaiah writes “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” Instruction that comes from God and those who choose to follow will beat their proverbial swords into plowshares and WAR shall not be the ‘go to’ action for the people. He will arbitrate for us, showing us a better way to walk alongside each other instead of being demeaning or being aggressive to each other. The writer of Isaiah encourages the people to hide in the cleft of the rock when the wrath of God is near. And hundreds of years later, John the Baptist is recorded as asking the people: “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” He then demands them to “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” What does that look like? What does that even mean? And how does this look like the good news, when he says: “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

If Christ has a winnowing fork in his hand, I don’t want to be the chaff that he throws into the fire, or the tree that he chooses to chop down because the fruit of my service to the Lord isn’t encouraging or edifying to the people of God. So I have a chance, an opportunity of getting my life back on track. We ALL have a renewed opportunity of getting our lives back on track. We all have a chance of working together to prepare the way of the Lord. To make his paths straight, so that all humanity has the opportunity to experience the salvation of God.

Advent invites us to acknowledge that somewhere along the line we chose a different route from the one that God invited us on to at the beginning of our journey with Him. Advent invites us to recognise that we need God’s deliverance from the busyness of our lives, from the materialistic and consumerist idols that we are constantly bombarded with, but also deliverance from the pride and reminiscence that doesn’t allow us to look forward.

We are asked to be watchful, expectant, vigilant and to wait for God’s coming. Advent asks of us, as a people, to be ready for God and to respond with courage when presented with a way that might not look anything like what has gone before, but is a way that encompasses fruits worthy of repentance, such as love, hope, joy, and peace, and asks us no more than to follow in Christ’s footsteps, to be his disciples and share Him with those around us.

Stir up your power, Lord, and come: that, with you as our protector, we may be rescued from our sins; and with you as our deliverer, we may be set free; for you live and reign with God the Father, in the unit of the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.

Rev Ellie Charman: Sermon – October 30th, 2018

 

I had the privilege to attend a service in Keith on Sunday evening. A good friend, one who I had trained with over the past three years was licensed by the Bishop to operate as a lay reader within the church. The topic of the sermon was what we could learn from Simon and Jude. I wish I’d taken notes. Simon and Jude were two of the apostles. It is said they both preached the Gospel in Mesopotamia and Persia, modern day Iraq and Iran. I would hope that they, like many of my friends were guided there by the Holy Spirit, and knew when they got to their destination that they had arrived in the right place for their ministry.

Long before I began my ministry in Caithness I had a knowing, a burden placed on my heart for Caithness. I already knew that I wanted to minister in some way in this area of Scotland. And I know others who also have this feeling. That God is moving in ways that we don’t quite grasp or understand. So when I was offered the opportunity to work through my curacy in Caithness, I responded positively. Like my friend whose licensing we celebrated on Sunday evening, our ministries entail us going out into the community, sharing the good news of Christ and listening to all who we meet. Over the past three years, we have wrestled with Scripture and had our assignments examined. It is one thing to have one’s academic work scrutinised and marked, but it is another to try to do the pastoral work in the community.

 

What we do now cannot be graded. It is qualitative, rather than quantitative. Our faith is in someone unseen, who can never be tangibly solid as the person sitting next to you, yet faith is something that each of us works with every single day. Faith is what brings us together. By faith we all pray that the members of this congregation, the church, are a beacon of light into the community. Through faith this congregation has continued to exist. But when faith begins to disappear, for whatever reason, then the faith of the congregation is rocked.

We have an opportunity here, in St Peter’s, to choose where we want to go. Simon and Jude chose to go to modern day Iraq and Iran. I’m not suggesting we all sell our homes and move to another continent, but we do have some choices to make. Choices that begin at an individual level. Our own hearts and minds. Not of the person in front, nor of the person sitting next to us. The process begins by us looking at ourselves and then moves into looking outwards, beyond the confines of the four walls of this building back into the community.

Does our faith rest on who Christ is? And if so are we prepared to move forward as a united congregation in mutual support and love for each other? The writer of the letter to Ephesians states that “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”

There is a rich heritage here in St Peter’s, both in terms of the building and also spiritually, and I for one would be incredibly sad to see the love and effort poured into the life of this congregation over the past number of decades dwindle to a point that is no longer viable. Which is why as a deacon, my role is to go out into the community. It is to minister to those who don’t yet know the love of Christ, while being supported and nourished by this congregation. Simon and Jude would have had similar agreements from the community in Jerusalem before setting out on their journey.

Can we love and support each other? The passage from John’s Gospel takes some reading and digesting, let along understanding. The hostility spoken of in John’s Gospel has been removed through the blood of Christ. He is our peace, and we have been reconciled to him through the cross. For us to be able to live and work together we need to bring ourselves to that moment, that point where we lay ourselves and our own agendas at the foot of the cross and ask that in return we might be able to partner with God in that which he is already doing in this region of Scotland.

Let us take a few moments now in inward inspection of ourselves and what we can leave at the foot of the cross as we prepare to move into prayer and preparation to receive the reserved sacrament.