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: Willibrord, Bishop, Apostle of Frisia, circa 658-739.

Willibrord, born in Northumbria, first educated in Ripon and then in Ireland. Trained in mission he spent most of his life in Frisia and northern Germany. He created many bishoprics and consecrated several cathedrals. He was reportedly an energetic preacher that was informed by prayer and sacred reading. And he was described as well respected, gracious and full of joy. He did however, along with one of his contemporaries, influence continental Christianity with that of English and Irish Christianity. He is the patron saint of the Netherlands.

I wonder what we look for and expect when we meet missionaries? I wonder how English ideas of mission would have influenced continental Christianity. I wonder if Willibrord thought about the context into which he was going? I wonder if we see ourselves as missionaries?

Many of the missionaries over the past three centuries have ventured across the world with their own ideas of what mission would look like and imposed that on the places they travelled to. Some were respected are some were not. Some tried to transform the communities using ideas from their home country, whereas some began to realise that imposition was not the answer but that working with the communities was the way forward.

I wonder what type of missionary Willibrord was? We are told that he was full of joy. Delighting in doing God’s work. Enthusiastic in creating places where people could come and worship God. Gathering them together in a very diaconal way. I wonder how that translates into our society? The various groups and gatherings we work with? I wonder if the befriending group is, in its own way ‘church’? Does it work because we identified a need in the community and worked out how to create something that met that need? Or if it has evolved over the years to adapt and change to the different demographic of the community? I wonder if we see that as missional?

I wonder if our actions speak louder than words? Do we find joy in what we are doing? Do we find that care and compassion rise up within us as we reach out and befriend others? I wonder what we might discover if we set out to walk around this community, praying as we went? Might it instil a sense of God’s presence? Of care and compassion? Perhaps this is something that as community we already do? Could it involve people from other denominations? How would we feel about that?

I’ve asked lots of questions this morning because we don’t know that much about Willibrord. But we do know that he reflects the reading from Isaiah very well. “How beautiful are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation.” Perhaps our mental image of this messenger is different to what we imagine in our community, but I hope I have asked enough questions this morning for the wondering to continue for each of us as we head back out into the community.

Remember us, gracious God, when we cannot see your way and purpose, and renew in us the joy of your kingdom of light and life. We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.

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.

Rev Ellie Charman: Sermon – October 14th, 2018

Sermon given at  St. John the Evangelist,  Wick, 14th October 2018

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

I wonder if you’ve heard that the ‘eye of the needle’ refers to a gate in Jerusalem? Or that camels could not pass through it when loaded?

There’s no evidence that this gate ever existed, so where does this saying originate? Like other sayings, such as taking the tree out of one’s own eye before removing the speck in someone else’s, it’s a figure of speech that implies the impossible.

So the eye of the needle and a camel are simply to create an outrageous contrast in juxtaposition to the passage, or the process we think of, in entering the kingdom of God. Of course, we have a God for whom the impossible, as rationally thought of in human terms, is possible.

Wealth and prosperity in the eyes of the Jews at the time of Jesus was a sign of great blessing by God on the rich. “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” Both the rich man left grieving when Jesus told him to sell his possessions, and the disciples themselves did not understand why Jesus would say this. In their eyes, Jesus was in effect turning this belief upside down.

But like many stories from the Hebrew and Aramaic, which are then translated into Greek, some of the nuances are lost in translation. We’ve already had presented to us one idiom – that of the eye of the needle and the camel. We are then left to wonder about whether we’re to sell everything we own and give it to the poor. That would be a very literal interpretation, granted, but I don’t think that’s where we’re being led.

Like any person who has many possessions, there is always a temptation to pride oneself on what one has. A way of amassing friends, followers, self-righteousness, and self-justification. In many of the Bible stories we know, this wealth might be illustrated through grain stored in many barns, or great flocks of sheep, goats and cattle.

If it’s impossible for a camel to go through the eye of a needle and it’s impossible for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven, then who goes to heaven? Perhaps it is those for whom pride is not their stumbling block? Or maybe it is those who are comfortable enough with what they have that they feel able and free to give away the rest? Or those who realise that the commandments are not a rigid set of laws but are a set of guidelines given by a wise and discerning God?

What then did the rich man lack? Humility? Compassion? Even if he had sold his belongings and given the money to the poor, would he have been able to enter the kingdom of heaven? Decades of Christian teaching have turned this story into what might be thought of as a nugget of gold. A piece of wisdom to take away and cherish. But unfortunately, I think it’s a piece of fool’s gold. It’s not real gold.

“If you sell everything, and give it to the poor, you will enter the kingdom of heaven.” It’s very formulaic, isn’t it? Black and white. If you do this, you will inherit eternal life. But if that rich man sells all he has, while gritting his teeth and grieving that all his possessions are being sold, then he’s no better off than when he had all his possessions, to begin with. He might find joy and compassion on the way, thus able to follow Jesus, or he might end up bitter and sad.

I think that the real gold in this story is to understand that it’s the attitude to one’s belongings that will make the difference between how a rich person might conceive that they might enter the kingdom of God. By being humble, and being generous enough to regularly give away to those less well off, there is less temptation to be self-righteous or to withhold alms for the poor.

This is what the prophet Amos refers to in our first reading. “Seek the Lord and live. Seek good, that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you.” The passage from Hebrews describes the word of God as being sharper than any two-edged sword. It is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.

By seeking God, our focus is not on our wealth, our possessions or money. By approaching him with humility we open our hearts just a crack to the possibility of who God is. And that is all that God requires. A crack the size of the eye of a needle, and all of who God is, and all of what God represents will pour into our lives. Through that miniscule opening, we should enter into the holiness of God’s presence. We receive salvation not through our own means, or by selling anything we own, but through faith and humility, and allowing God to enter our lives.

Therefore, the impossibility illustrated in this story becomes possible, when we realise that there is nothing that we can physically do to save ourselves. If we turn our understanding upside down, by allowing God that moment of acquiescence or submission, that recognition that our very being depends on Him, we open ourselves to his grace. Here we have the contrast of ourselves as being so ludicrously small in comparison to God being infinitesimally big.

It is by the grace of God that we enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, as we think of what it means to be a disciple of Christ, and as we move into the next part of our worship, let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

 

Rev Ellie Charman: Finnbar of Caithness, Bishop c. 610

Sermon given at  St. Peter and the  Holy  Rood,  Thurso, 9th October 2018

Surprisingly, while many saints in the Scottish Episcopal Church appear to have a reasonable biography, Finnbar doesn’t appear to have the same weight tome proffered on him. In fact, there is very little it seems.

I find it slightly ironic that I get to deliver reserved sacrament when we celebrate this feast day of Finnbar of Caithness, as in all likelihood I have the least knowledge of Caithness and subsequently also of Finnbar. Even on the Scottish Episcopal Church’s ‘Calendar of Saints’ there are only eight named individuals who do not appear to have anything written about them. Finnbar is one of this elite.

The information in the next three paragraphs are from the web. Several saints are commemorated under the names Finnbar and Finian. They include two Irish abbots, Finian of Clonard and Finian of Movilla, Fin Barre of Cork, and the early sixth-century churchman Vinniau, who was also known as  the Welsh scholar Gildas. Gildas, who lived in the sixth century, originally came from north Britain, possibly Strathclyde, and may well have been the Scottish Finnbar.

According to another website, Saint Finbar was the son of an artisan and a lady of the Irish royal court. Born in Connaught, Ireland, and baptized Lochan, he was educated at Kilmacahil, Kilkenny, where the monks named him Fionnbharr (white head) because of his light hair.

On a visit to Rome the Pope wanted to consecrate him a bishop but Saint Finbar was deterred by a vision. He notified the pope that God had reserved that honor to Himself and Saint Finbar was consecrated from heaven. He preached in southern Ireland and lived as a hermit on a small island at Lough Eiroe on the river Lee. Saint Finbar founded a monastery that developed into the city of Cork and he was its first bishop. His monastery became famous in southern Ireland and attracted numerous disciples.

I’m not convinced this is the same Finnbar of Caithness, even though they share the same feast day. However, what might be common to all these people is their call. The Gospel reading is one we have all heard before. It speaks of knowing Jesus’ voice when he calls. This might be audible. It might be heard by others, for example, sounding like thunder. It might be audible only to us. It could occur at any time, regardless of whether we’re asleep or awake. But, like all these things we need to discern whether or not we are actually hearing from God. I find that personally, I receive a quiet nudge, that is sometimes like a ‘gut feeling’. Go and do something. Phone someone. Go to a certain place, or connect with a particular person. Do it now. These are the God encounters. These are the times when, some people will describe it as a thin place between heaven and earth, or others will describe it as your spirit coming into alignment with God’s.

But when nudges are received like this, it is an act of obedience to follow and trust what you think you are being called to do. If we think back to the passage from Jeremiah:

Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,

and before you were born I consecrated you;

I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”

But the Lord said to me,

“Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’;

for you shall go to all to whom I send you,

and you shall speak whatever I command you.

Do not be afraid of them,

for I am with you to deliver you,

says the Lord.”

Quiet obedience and sensitivity of spirit allows us to listen for God’s voice. We learn what his voice is like beyond all the others clamouring for our attention. Yes, we still need to discern whether it is from God or not. The passage from Acts states that we need to keep watch over ourselves. And that means we all need to watch out over each other. This isn’t a job for a select few, but for all of us when we pray, when we wait on God be it here or at home or work. To remain alert to those who might distort the truth.

If I speak of the ‘gut instinct,’ then, you have probably experienced times when you know something is not right, or someone is not being sincere. Something in your body senses there is an issue. Likewise, when God calls, our bodies respond positively. I have been known, and I only know this from other who I have shared a room with, that I have woken them up, and I have sung a couple of praises in my sleep. You will know when your shepherd calls. You will know when God calls.

Both Chris and I want to explore with the communities different ways of listening for God. This is something we will work on over the next few months and working out different ways and means to allow for a meaningful exploration. There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach, nor is there a directive saying that you must and can only do X. This is a journey that we do together and we would like to know if there are things that you too would like to explore.

Rev Ellie Charman: Sermon – October 7th, 2018

Sermon given at  St. Peter and the  Holy  Rood,  Thurso, 7th October 2018

Today I want to delve a little into what is meant by the turn of phrase ‘hardness of heart.’ Jesus answers the Pharisees by describing their hearts as having this hardness, and yet not just their hearts, but also the hearts of those that Moses journeyed with, in the wilderness.

Hardness of heart then, is something that has persisted since Biblical times, and probably pre-Biblical times. So what makes our hearts hard? A lack of compassion perhaps? A feeling of helplessness? Or a feeling of losing some sense of control? Or that ‘I am right, and he or she is wrong.’ Perhaps there have been years of pent up frustration, and when a stopper in some form is removed, there appears to be a hardness of heart that was not there at the beginning.

How does this ‘hardness of heart’ play out in our everyday lives? Perhaps like me you’re so fed up of hearing about Donald Trump, that any news with which he’s involved, you filter out because you could just do without hearing his name all the time. So you take less notice of the Kavanaugh protests. And the question that arises of how someone who may have raped another could then sit in the highest court in the American legal system and be comfortable to take up what should be an impartial role.

Does a hardness of heart creep in to our lives when we think of the political climate and shrug our shoulders and feel apathetic about it all? Or perhaps this hardness is displayed in different ways. For example, my parents’ house is surrounded on three sides by fields. One field is good pasture, while the other two are less so. There are two farmers, brothers, and they help each other. It’s a hard life, hill sheep farming, and it’s the only way of life both of them know. One is a good farmer and checks his sheep pretty much every day, and goes through the field on a regular basis. The other has had a harder experience of life, and consequentially is more grumpy and now is far less able.

He doesn’t check his sheep all that often, and many of them limp, or worse have sores with flies buzzing round. His sheep regularly get out on to the road and my parents have given up trying to herd the sheep back in to the field, or telling this farmer that his sheep need some TLC. A hardness of heart has crept in, almost by the need to keep oneself sane and concentrating on the things that my parents know they can change, even though our minds know that such behaviour is unhelpful, and in the knowledge that these sheep suffer.

This is what it means to be human, surely? To despair when we feel we cannot do something to ensure positive outcomes for ourselves and our loved ones, now and in the future. But what happens at that point determines our part in the Gospel story. Do we let the human aspect of our lives take over? Or do we bring ourselves and our despair to God? When we approach a situation and try to solve it ourselves, we’re doing so on our own merit. We’re doing so, using our human instinct, and with the skills that we have learnt from our mothers and fathers, our teachers and our peers.

In doing so, a separation occurs. This probably isn’t obvious, but let me try and explain. We’ve separated ourselves from the love of Christ in that moment, and have decided to go it alone. If we had decided to follow Christ, to invite him into our lives, and walk with him, then in the moment that we decide to forge ahead on our own, we are in effect writing a certificate of dismissal.

Jesus uses the terminology from the conversation with the Pharisees and turns it around to apply equally to both male and female, and not just men. If we use the gendered phrase, ‘the bride of Christ’ to describe who we are in that relationship, then perhaps there is a realisation that we are committing something abhorrent to God when we decide that our relationship with him is no longer special.

How then, can we ensure that we don’t let this hardness of heart remove us from the love of Christ?

  • By continually renewing ourselves in our approach to Him, and with Him. By using the words of the liturgy as a prayer.
  • By ensuring that we have a quiet time each day when we choose to sit and wait for His voice.
  • By caring enough that our compassion doesn’t dry up. Those sheep suffered, but by voicing a concern, someone will come and tend them.

By coming to God, and I’m going to go on a little tangent here. It doesn’t have to be God, per se. Each member of the Trinity has a different association for us, and you may find it easier approaching Jesus or the Holy Spirit.

  • Through our faith in Christ we receive redemption.
  • God’s love pours out of us, and through this process, we receive mercy and restoration.
  • We go on to create new ways to pour out God’s love in our communities. Through this we can help others in their redemption and also their restoration. But we can’t do this if we decide to forge ahead on our own.

Let us return now to the Gospel story. Jesus said: “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 15 Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

We know he wasn’t talking about regressing back to our childhood. But he was talking about their mindset. Their attitude. As we grow and mature we tend to lose the innate trust that young children have. I have worked with children and seen for myself the trust that some of them have as they have chosen to invite Christ into their lives. By choosing to be a disciple of Christ, to allow Him to walk with us, to talk with us we are changed. By choosing to take a moment and listen for the voice of God, we might be able to make more sense of what is happening around us, and our hearts soften. By choosing to walk this road together as a church, we find confidence in ourselves and in those around us so that we can be not just a human presence in our community, but one that seeks to serve God.

Rev Ellie Charman: Sermon – Harvest Festival, Wick 23/09/18

I recently saw on FaceBook a request to help someone imagine what a twenty-first century ‘Harvest’ might look like. And I thought to myself that a twenty-first century harvest cannot be that much different, from say, an eighteenth century harvest when the reason we celebrate harvest is broken down into its basic components. These being offering, thanksgiving, celebration and ministry. Continue reading “Rev Ellie Charman: Sermon – Harvest Festival, Wick 23/09/18”