Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Micah: Justice, Love Humility - sermons shared 17 September 2017

Sunday 17th September was remarkable! Our service  was jointly led by Me with two colleagues, Rev Marci Glass from the USA and Rev Rola Sleiman from Lebanon. 
It was a golden opportunity, and between us we reflected on Micah's vision, recorded in chapter 6:6-8 
What shall I bring to the Lord, the God of heaven, when I come to worship him? Shall I bring the best calves to burn as offerings to him? Will the Lord be pleased if I bring him thousands of sheep or endless streams of olive oil? Shall I offer him my first-born child to pay for my sins? No, the Lord has told us what is good. What he requires of us is this: to do what is just, to show constant love, and to live in humble fellowship with our God.
Below you will find our three short sermons on each of the elements, Marci chose Justice, Rola chose Humble Fellowship and I chose (was happy to be left with) Constant Love  

Three RevGals ready to preach the Word

To Seek Justice

I'm a justice kind of person. Sometimes that's a good quality, and sometimes less so. I'm willing to stand up for the people whose voices are not being heard and advocate with them to bring justice and mercy their way. When that kind of justice informs my life, things go pretty well.
I only have 5 minutes, so I will spare you of the illustrations of when my finely-honed sense of justice doesn't bring out the best in me.
Justice work has taken up a fair amount of my pubic ministry in the United States, both working for justice in the church and in the secular political sphere as well. While the United States technically has a separation of church and state that is different than here in Scotland, clergy still can use our office to speak to public matters. I regularly speak to the state legislature and my city council about issues where I see proposed ordinances working in opposition to the values I see in scripture. I advocate for better care for homeless people, access to healthcare, women's rights to make their own healthcare choices, welcome and hospitality for refugees and immigrants, and for the full inclusion of people in church and society, regardless of their sexual orientation.
St Francis of Assisi is quoted as saying "It is no use walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching". I do preach about justice issues from the pulpit, if the issue is related to the text I'm preaching. I recognize that unless my life outside the pulpit matches the words I say when I'm preaching, then my words are in vain. I pray my walking is my preaching, as much as my sermons are. As the hymn we just sang puts it, "faith proves itself in deeds".
Of course, one person's deeds, or stands on issues of justice may be seen by another person as heresy, or at least bad public policy. And people of faith differ on all of those justice issues I have mentioned, even within my congregation. People have different views on those and so many other issues at play in our world today. While scripture is my guide as I navigate issues of justice, I recognize it is also the guide for some of the people who view those same topics and reach very different conclusions.
I don't want to steal from the rest of our passage from Micah, which is what Julie and Rola are going to be preaching on, but it is important that Micah connects those three behaviors. If justice is not pursued while attending to "loving kindness" and "walking humbly" as the text continues, it ceases to be justice. Justice, removed from loving kindness and humility is a bullying dominance.
Martin Luther King, Jr, an American civil rights icon, whose writings challenge me every day, wrote this about the relationship to love and justice:
"Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anaemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love".
Justice is never about only removing someone from oppression. Justice has to also be about liberating the oppressor. Walter Wink, an American theologian wrote:
“The command to love our enemies reminds us that our first task towards oppressors is pastoral: to help them recover their humanity... It is not enough to become politically free; we must also become human.
“There is no one, and surely no entire people, in whom the image of God has been utterly extinguished. Faith in God means believing that anyone can be transformed, regardless of the past.”
This is not to say we are to remain passive in the face of injustice. Just because an oppressor is also a child of God does not mean we stand by and encourage their oppression. To really seek justice that would redeem us all, on both sides of an issue, requires us to engage in faithful discussion--to see where they are coming from.
Are we willing to be in a listening, conversational posture with the people we see as oppressors? Are we willing to trust they have something to teach us as much as we have to teach them? Are we willing to be wrong in the face of our opponents, for the cause of God's justice? It reveals a truth of the risk of faith--by following a God who chose to die on a cross, we claim our strength in God's vulnerability.
As Paul said in his first letter to the church in Corinth in chapter 1: "For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength." One might argue that Jesus' very life, and death, and resurrection, are the divine embodiment of Micah's instruction to seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.

The problems of the world are huge. Individually, we may feel we cannot make a difference. God doesn't call us to single-handedly fix the world. Friends, that is God's job, not ours. God does call us to participate in God's work of justice and redemption-- It can be as simple, and as profound, as one on one conversations over a beverage or a meal with people who see the world very differently than we do, trusting the promise that God, our creator and sustainer, is at work to redeem us all. 

To Embrace Love 

It is so simple; what does God require of us? To seek justice, embrace love (show constant love) and walk humbly with God. Love causes us to do amazing things; things we never knew possible. Things we thought only others could do.
People the world over know and understand that crazy little thing called love. Or do they?! Love. In English, we have just one word – which can mean so many very different things; in other languages, they are far more liberal, using different words for the different expressions of love. Whether it is romantic love, friendship love, loyal love, holy love… there is a different word. What Micah was describing is holy love I think; and this, holy love, is the one thing we all have, all the time, even when, or maybe even, especially when, we are not aware of it. when the prophet Micah committed his vision to paper – recorded the words, I wonder if he ever thought just how much the simple phrase we are exploring this morning, would grow in the hearts of the faithful? That these three things would last and be repeated, again and again, thousands of years later.
Love has been the greatest motivation for many heroic acts; for many foolish gestures; and for many ordinary, quiet lives of faithful people.
In reality, to show love is simply to express our humanity – for humanity at its best is indeed loving and kind. Imagine what the world would be like if everyone who heard that command lived by it.
The prophets talked about love and faith; Jesus talked about love – when he was asked what was the greatest commandment his answer was simple: love God with all your heart and all your soul, and love your neighbour as you love yourself.
All through history, men and women have sought to love and be loved. And, have written poetry and prose, composed music and song, created novels and movies all about love; Love between two people; love between us and our dogs, love between friends who have overcome great adversity together – pretty much every aspect of love has been recorded.
The divine spark of love implanted in each of us has caused us to seek companions on the journey; to create friendships based on mutual respect and love.
Maybe that simple truth is too simple for some.
But for me, as I look at the world, it remains my hope for all humanity – that each will acknowledge that God’s greatest gift to us, was that spark, that love, planted within each of us – reminding us, again and again, we love because God loved us first.

To Walk Humbly with God

 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.
Winston Churchill was once asked by one of his helpers, "Doesn’t it thrill you to know that every time you make a speech, the hall is packed?" "It’s quite flattering," replied Churchill. "But whenever I feel that way, I always remember that if instead of making a political speech I was being hanged, the crowd would be twice as big."
It is very beneficial to always train our mind that we are not the center of the world, and that we do not control everything in life. Humility dear ones, is a worldwide human virtue that we teach our children to adopt, but to us as Christians and believers the greatest example of humility can be found in our Lord Jesus Christ "Who, being in very nature of God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death-even death on a cross!" (Philippians 2:6-8)
Jesus set aside His divine glory to take the form of a servant. He voluntarily accepted temptation, hunger, loneliness, suffering, and death in order to understand and identify with each one of us.
When Jesus chose to become man He laid aside His glorious majesty, so that when He was "lifted up from the earth," He could "draw all men" to Himself. (John 12:32) Jesus had to suffer humiliation in order that we could be forgiven.
If you humble yourself and repent of your pride and understand that u will find the ability to forgive the unforgivable.
Thus to say, “I am not the center of the world and I can’t control everything in life means, I am admitting I have weakness and limitations, I am not in control of everything in my universe, I need help from a power far greater than myself.
PRIDE is not so much bragging as it is this illusion that I am at the center and can manage everything on my own without help. Bragging may be a symptom of pride, but pride itself is much deeper. Even very insecure people who would never be caught bragging can demonstrate an amazing amount of pride.
HUMILITY therefore is the opposite of this attitude. Humility is just living in the truth about ourselves… and the truth is I am not God, I’m not the center, I have needs, I have things I can’t control, I am dependent on God. That’s humility.
Because Jesus broke into history to begin a spiritual kingdom that expands one heart at time, we too can say,
“There is a God. So I can just let go. Sometimes being out of control or serving in obscurity is our chance to grow in my acceptance of reality… I’m not God, I’m just his precious son and daughter!”
A church located in a town with a seminary needed a substitute preacher when their pastor was on vacation. The President of the seminary chose their best student. Straight A’s, the teachers all loved him. Ego as big as creation, obviously unaware of his own limitations. The young man wrote a great sermon and memorized it. On Sunday morning he confidently climbed into the pulpit and immediately forgot his sermon. He managed to muddle through it but left the pulpit in unhappy. A sweet little lady has some advice for him as she shook his hand that morning. She Told him “If you had gone into that pulpit with the attitude that you had when you came out of that pulpit, you would have come out of that pulpit with the attitude you had when you climbed into it.”
The humility of Jesus Christ is rooted in his experience of God’s love. His heart and soul were filled with that love so that all his emotional and spiritual needs were completely met. His cup overflowed! Jesus knew who he was: a beloved child of the God he called “Father!”
His confidence, his power, his courage his humility came from one place: his faith in a loving God. The love of God so filled his heart that his life became an expression of that love. He recognized every human being as a brother or a sister, just as important in the eyes of God as he was. He loved and cared for everyone because each person was his brother or sister.
Humble disciples of Jesus Christ begin with faith in the love of God, with hearts and souls filled with that love. We feel no need to act important because we are important. No need to pretend we are somebody, because we are somebody: we are the beloved children of God. Humble disciples of Jesus Christ strike an important balance. Confident without bragging; humble without losing our dignity and loved without putting ourselves at the center of the universe. Hearts full of God’s love give us the confidence that God affirms our successes and forgives our mistakes.
God gives us the ability to be the love we are. To measure up to the standard that the author of the book of James describes: “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.”
One day a sage came to a King for an interview. The sage had to wait for a long time because the King was very busy. Finally, the King said he could come in.
When the sage entered the hall, the first thing he did was to take off his hat and bow to the King. Immediately the King took off his crown and bowed to the sage. The ministers and others who were around the King asked, “What are you doing? He took off his hat because he is an ordinary man. But you are the King. Why should you have to take off your crown?”
The King said to his ministers, “You fools, do you think I wish to remain inferior to an ordinary man? He is humble and modest. His humility is a peerless virtue’. He showed his respect to me. If I did not take off my crown, then I would be showing less humility than an ordinary man, and I would be defeated by him. If I am the King, I should be better than everybody in everything. That is why I took off my crown and bowed to him!”
Dear sisters and brothers let us think of the example of a tree. When the tree is in full bloom, when it is filled with ripe fruits, when it really has something to offer the world, the tree bows down. If we can become one with the consciousness of a tree, we will feel that the more we have to offer, the more humility we will have, the more we have God’s love in our hearts the more pride vanishes and humility takes its place. For our Lord we give glory and honor Amen.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

GO! Sermon 10 September

Genesis 21: 1-3,6; 22:1-14


(Letting go and trusting the unseen.)

There are passages in scripture which are not necessarily hard to understand, but cause us some serious thinking and consternation. Stories which cause us to pause and think, “what the heck?!”

Today’s reading is such a one of these.
In the first part we are told God blessed Sarah with a son; and Sarah’s joy is so complete she laughs for sheer delight. Then, just as the ancient couple are getting used to the fact that God’s promises are real and true, God does the unthinkable and tells Abraham to take the boy and prove his faith in God by sacrificing his only son.
It makes no sense!
The boy is the future
The boy is the fulfilment of God’s covenant promise
An unbreakable vow
A lasting legacy
It makes no sense!!
This passage tempts us to use explanations and excuses for God
God was just testing him
God didn’t really mean it
This is the God of the Old Testament – the God of the New testament is different – (this one is actually heresy!)

What are we to think?
And why is it there?
What good thing can we learn about God and God’s relationship with Abraham and humanity?
Is there any good thing in this passage? Except perhaps the ending – when Abraham is stopped at the last minute, and Isaac is spared.
But for me, even that seems a little off – how will Isaac ever feel able to trust his father and his God again? Will he forever be looking over his shoulder, wondering if God will test him again?
And what would Sarah say if she heard about it? or more accurately, what did she say, when Isaac told his beloved mother just what her husband had done? I’m guessing there may have been some raised voices here.

Perhaps, what I need to do instead of trying to explain the unexplainable is to explore the symbols here.
Abraham – father of a nation – has one son, and one son only.
Abraham – father of a nation – yet this promised destiny lies in this single life. A life that is precarious and vulnerable.
The bible, the law forbids child sacrifice – God doesn’t require the death of any human life in sacrifice
Rather, God seeks three things, as the prophet Micah tells us – not our burnt offerings, but that we act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. (A theme we will be exploring more fully next week)

Abraham had been promised his descendants would be as stars in the sky or sand on a beach – innumerable. Beyond measure. Hard to imagine when you’re ancient and you’ve just one child.
Yet, Abraham also needed to be able to let go of his own dreams and release them to Isaac and all the generations to come. I think it is time for me to own that I have no answer. In all my reflecting and discussing and reading I have yet to come across an answer that really satisfies me.
I look at our world:
Fires and storms
Earthquakes and floods
Hurricanes and disasters
Where do they come from? Who is responsible? Who makes bad things happen?

My own personal feeling about death and disaster is the things happen. Those things which the world may refer to as an “Act of God” – I prefer to think of as acts of nature – weather happens; volcanoes exist; tectonic plates move; storms blow up; God is there, alongside those who call out; those in need.
God doesn’t make it happen, any more than God prevents it from happening. It doesn’t mean that God doesn’t care, more that God is not our puppet master – moving us round the chess board of life – blowing us into danger, or sheltering us from harm.
Did God really want Abraham to be willing to sacrifice his son? Or did those who chronicled the early Old Testament want to establish the changeover, the inheritance being passed on – the new line being established. For Abraham to realise that it was not through him alone, but through his son, and his sons, and their sons – and on down the generations.  
Rather than sacrifice – the death of hopes and dream; this was about trust and obedience; following God’s leading; relying on God’s strength.
The world is a wild and complicated place; life is full of ups and downs; highs and lows; life and death; hope and anxiety. All intertwined, all interdependent; God doesn’t make bad stuff happen – if that was so, how could we believe in a God of love?
God is with God’s people – all God’s people.
In the storm and the fire
In the hurricane and the earthquake
Wherever people are, God is
In us, with us, through us, for us
God – creator, friend, counsellor – all wrapped up together
Parent, Brother, Companion
Constant, Word, Breath

All encompassing; in every moment
When we walk the path of life
We can trust that God is there in every step
When we follow God’s commands and leading – we can trust.
Always and forever


Saturday, 17 June 2017

Sermon 18 June: How Long O Lord?

Psalm 13 
John 6:35-40

How Long?
Sometimes life and liturgy come together in beautiful synergy – the readings of the day fit perfectly with the events in the world that week.
This is one of those weeks as the country joined together in sorrow and lament over the horrific events in London. Not terrorism this time, but nonetheless terrifying.
You may remember the disaster movie from the 1970s – Towering Inferno? In the movie they were able to rescue most of those trapped in the tower block from the roof; and extinguished the fire by blowing up the water towers on the roof and flooding the building with water.
Sadly, truth is more brutal than fiction; the fire raged too quickly, too fiercely; it was night; there was conflicting advice; and as a result many people perished – and many more lost everything.
Those who lived in Grenfell Tower, and those who live in similar dwellings are raising their voices to cry out: How Long?
How many more tragedies must happen before the rules on high rise properties are changed?
How much longer, must those who are poor, continue to live in unsafe properties?
How long will it be?
The Psalm asks God for answers: how long must we wait? How long will we feel alone? How long must we watch as innocent lives are taken? And not only asking those questions – but daring to give God an ultimatum: “Look at me!! answer me!!! Otherwise I will just give up”.
The Psalms! In them there is always an answer to our deepest longings.

The psalm speaks into the questions that are being asked not only by the survivors, the bereaved, the other residents in similar places, but also by others who see the injustice and inequality so obvious in the stark contrast between the wealth of Kensington when compared with the abject poverty of high rise living.
The Psalm is coupled with a short reading from St John’s Gospel: Jesus’ assertion of his mission and God’s promise: that Jesus’ followers will be raised up on the last day; the promise that all who call on the Son will receive eternal life.

Somehow though, even when the readings fit so perfectly the mood and the events of a week, it is still hard to find what to say; how to speak; how to bring hope into a hopeless situation.
So, I offer this: in every time of horror or tragedy; of fear or distress; in each moment that hope seems to be utterly unreachable, there are the helpers.
There are always, helpers.
Good, good people prepared to offer of themselves.
In every time of disaster, when the death toll rises, there are glimpses of goodness; heroes who may not save everyone, but can save someone.
Firefighters entered and re-entered the burning building, to bring more than 60 people to safety.
A man caught a baby dropped from a 5th floor window by a distraught mother; I believe the baby survived.
Within hours people who lived in the area poured in, donating clothes, shoes, bedding, food, water, bringing phone chargers, offering support weeping, sharing, praying together.
Even in the worst tragedy, people help.
They don’t choose to help one over another, they simply come together and help, whatever, wherever, however they can.
The gospel reading today reminds us: “(God)’s will is that Jesus shall raise up all he has been given; that those who see the Son and call on his name shall have eternal life.”

There is no qualifier there; no conditions placed. It is simple.
Call on his name – and God will hear you.
Call on his name and Jesus will welcome you
Call on his name – know that God is waiting always

Life is not perfect;
Life does not always go the way we hope
Life is not always pretty or predictable
Life is full of everything: good and bad; light and dark; happy and sad; we cannot predict how it will go, but we can choose to be positive, to be hopeful, to be loving and kind and to care for others.
All others.
No matter where they come from or who they are.
For they are all God’s children.
How long O God?
How long must we wait for you?
Make us content with the question, knowing that when we rely on you; when we praise you; when we turn to you – you O God are there, always and forever.
Beach at Lossiemouth - JRen2009

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Stand up! Speak out! Pentecost Sermon 2017

Stand up. Speak out.
“the Spirit enabled them to speak” (Acts 2:4)
“the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22, 23)

The Spirit enables them…
The gifts of the Spirit are:
Self control
We live in times that are not always kind, not always loving; not always self controlled
We are living through days when generosity seems far away
When peace feels a distant memory
When joy is tinged with sadness
When patience has worn thin

We are living through strange and terrible times.

And yet.
I am old enough to remember similar days in the 1970s.
Others here are old enough to remember uncertainty in the 1960s
Or the fear of the 1950s
And the horror of world war in the 30s and 40s…

Just because this feels new; feels personal; feels immediate – we also need to remember that as the old teacher wrote – there is nothing new under the sun.

2000 or so years ago the disciples gathered together, fearful, afraid, paralysed with grief and unable to move outside their tight, familiar circle.
Even though they have seen Jesus – know God’s power has overcome evil; that life is there for the taking – they are still afraid.

A rushing wind
A sensation of God’s presence
And the rush of joy that exploded over them as the Spirit came to do her work.

And suddenly -  the Spirit enabled them to speak
And they were filled with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control

And then everything was fine
And they all lived happily ever after…
Except of course it wasn’t and they didn’t.
Not in the simplistic, safe, fairy tale way at least.

God is not a fairy tale!!
God is all seeing; all powerful; ever present
Our advocate
Our strength
Our power
Our friend
Our comforter
Our everything.

The world may seem mad
Those who seek to wreak havoc – an unseen enemy, may seem overwhelming and unassailable.
Yet, with God, nothing is impossible.
The fruits of the Spirit remind us, again and again, we have hidden reserves; unlimited reserves; holy reserves.
And, "no matter what" we can prevail.
God is good, no matter what.
We are God's children, no matter what.
Love will conquer madness, no matter what.
The coming of the Holy Spirit was a fulfilment of God’s promise; of Jesus’ promise.
The coming of the Holy Spirit heralded a new era – an era that continues to this day
God is with us, no matter what.
The Spirit came, and all God’s People received her power – the were moved to stand up. To speak out. No matter what.
The Spirit brought an infinite supply of
The gifts of the Spirit are:
Self control
Ours for the taking
Ours for the using

Ours – no matter what 

Saturday, 27 May 2017

Sermon 28th May: All Gods Children

All God’s Children
“If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:29)

What a week we have had!
Last Sunday as I left here, I set off to Edinburgh, to meet up with friends, to begin a week of observing the Assembly, and joining with many friends from all over the country to ponder what we were hearing and what that might mean for us.
The presentations have been wide reaching and careful; the opinions were wide ranging – it is clear that, on many subjects the church has a variety of views – however, and for me, this is the most hopeful sign of all, even though people disagree there was a spirit of harmony; a genuine desire to find ways to work together, with each other, even when we do not always agree.
There was hope, and there was encouragement.
The Balfour Declaration is an historic document, which, in 1917, indicated a desire to establish within Palestine a national home for Jewish people; it took another 30 years, and two world wars for this to come to fruition, but this was the beginning. Lord Balfour wrote in his original document that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine…”
The World Mission Council and the Church and Society Council together, presented a report which highlighted the  delicacy with which any celebrations might be held; and that in all things, to “use principles of justice, equality, dignity, equal access to resources and freedom of opportunity for all.”
I know that some of you will have heard Tom’s impassioned talk on his return from visiting Palestine/ Israel a couple of weeks ago; and how he had witnessed great inhumanity to the Palestinians in particular.
The debate that followed reflected all that Tom witnessed, but with dignity and inclusion; with a desire to allow all voices to be heard; all lives valued; all people honoured.
It was a privilege to witness. And that was only Monday!
Of course, Tuesday morning brought with it horror and tragedy. Manchester is the place I was born in; it is in the green belt surrounding Manchester that I grew up. To know that terror had struck in a place where young children – mostly girls and a few boys were enjoying music and performance; a place that should have been exempt from any hint of such atrocities struck to the core. The Assembly had a sombre atmosphere that day; and, as the news filtered through, we stopped and prayed for those injured, missing and dead, and those who were desperately searching for loved ones.

Divisions exist.
There is no denying it. all around us – there are those who will disagree; those who would deny rights to specific groups of society.
As we work through the letter to the Galatians, we reach a point where Paul is really chastising them for their foolish ways. Those who were born Jewish are continuing to find reasons not to include others. They see the Gentiles as different; not acceptable; they want them to conform to their rules, their laws; simply believing in Jesus is not enough for them – and so we hear this accusation: “You foolish Galatians!” (3:3)
It is a continuation of the same arguments we witnessed last week; from adhering to food laws; to keeping each law; to following a set of rules laid down by humans, not God, the Galatians seem determined to confound the Gentiles’ attempts to follow Jesus.
So, Paul brings it back to something really simple.
“As many of you as were baptized into Christ, have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (3:27-28)

That has not changed
Cannot change
Will not change
We are all one in Christ Jesus

And really, we do not have to jump through hoops – we simply need to believe who Jesus was, and is. “In Christ (you) we are all children of God.” (v.26)
What a promise!!
What a joy!
What hope that brings!

Attending the General Assembly is a great privilege – we see the church at work; we see people of passion; people who under Jesus Christ are all one – all in God’s family. And in that family, there will be disagreement; there will be differing opinions; there will even be the odd falling out but, because of Jesus, even when we disagree, there is grace and dignity, there is hope and a genuine desire to continue together, even in those different outlooks, and that gives me hope for the future.

We are all in this together; we are all members of God’s family.

Rt Rev Dr Derek Browning, Moderator of the General Assembly offers prayers for Manchester

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Sermon 21st May: Trust in God’s Love

Galatians 1:13-17 & 2:11-21 

You may have noticed that this week I chose for the reading to come from the Church bible directly, and not via another translation.
Very often I find that the Good News Bible over simplifies the text, but this week, in Paul’s letter to the Galatians I was glad of the simplification, for Paul’s writing is often dense and multi-layered; and it explores concepts and definitions of faith which are difficult to grasp.

Paul is talking about justification – in the Good News translated as “put right with” – in one of the study guides I read it suggested replacing justification with “belonging to” for, in our 21st century context, the way we use justification is not quite the same as the theological meaning.

The crux of what this passage is all about is what we must do to be part of God’s family through Jesus – what we must do to know we are Christians.

The early church was struggling; people were joining in their droves, and the disciples, the ones who had been with Jesus all the way through were trying very hard to accept these new people in, even though they were not Jewish by birth. This is manifested in the discussion here, where Paul is trying to explain why he and Peter have had what appears to be a very public row. Paul feels that Peter has used double standards – when he was first with the gentiles he had eaten with them and not suggested or imposed any Jewish food practises, but once other believers had arrived – who were Jewish by origin, he had pulled back because he was afraid it would cause a stir.
Those who were Jewish by origin were convinced (as you heard in the last two week’s sermons) that in order to really become followers of Jesus that all new converts must first become Jews before becoming Christian. Creating different qualifiers.
Putting obstacles in the way.
Adding conditions to faith.
Paul – who was the most learned scholar; who knew the law, and had indeed been an extremely vocal and violent persecutor of the followers of Jesus’ way; Paul knew better than most that this was not what God required of them.
Jesus had been sent by God to show people a simpler way. And Paul had been called by Jesus to bring that simpler way to those who were not Jewish by birth.
This new, simpler way, is no longer about sticking strictly to a set of Laws – even if those laws were God given.
No, the only way, the best way, to belong to God is by faith in God’s son Jesus.

Paul is talking about the question of who belongs in the faith community, and who doesn’t. In our faith community, how do people know they belong?  What do we do, how do we act, what can we say to let people know they belong in our faith community?
What do we do, or say, that makes them feel that they don’t – sometimes, just by being who we are, doing the things we know, using the language of church we exclude new people who have no idea what is happening all around them.
Paul’s assertion, is that faith in Jesus is enough. In fact, that is exactly what Jesus said: no one comes to the Father except through me. This sounds good, doesn’t it?

But what about those who don’t help the church?
Don’t support our buildings financially?
Those who come along and use the church if it suits them, but not if it doesn’t?
What about those who believe in Jesus, but worship God in their own way, away from church?
Are they good enough?
Are we good enough?
Do we really believe that faith in Jesus is enough?  Or do we feel like we need to add just a little bit more to be sure? 
It certainly sounds good, reassuring even, but maybe we need to work long hours at the church just to be sure, maybe we need to be seen, maybe we need to lead/ join a group… the add-ons could be endless. 
So, how do we live with this deep freedom Paul describes here?
For years – and I mean years, from bible study as a young mum in a wonderfully supportive group; to exploring my sense of call to ministry, to studying the bible in depth at university, to reading and studying for myself, and for preaching, in all of these times over probably thirty years, I have struggled with Paul’s letters!!
Firstly – they are densely packed and often difficult to understand; secondly they often leave me feeling inadequate, or with more questions than answers.
And thirdly, they often leave me feeling that what they are telling us is something that is far too difficult to really take on.
Today of course, we have the exact opposite!
Paul has, through complicated and heavily layered argument, brought it down to something that is actually very simple: we are made right with God through faith in Jesus.
That’s it.
Nothing added.
No great tasks to perform.
No huge commitments to make.
Simply trust Jesus. Believe he is God’s Son.
Believe he died for us, for our sins to be forgiven. Believe that through Jesus our lives are restored to God.
Paul is stating that if we have our focus on Jesus right and we follow that way, then we do not need to think about the law or spend time on the outward showings of keeping the law; in other words, trust in God’s grace on this rather than our own particular good deeds or how we respond to the law.
Trust God’s grace
Trust God’s love
Live in and through that grace and with God’s love in our hearts and everything else will fall into place.
I do the things I do; live the way I live, not because I think I must do it; but because the way I live out God’s love is to share it in whatever way I can.
And, I know that all around me, in this our church family, I see the same – God’s faithful people, living and loving, and showing others God’s love in action.
Trust God.
Trust Jesus
And live in God’s love – that’s something we can all live by.


Saturday, 29 April 2017

Am I brave enough? sermon for 30th April

 Acts 6:1- 7:2, 7:44-60 

Today we have had a very long reading, the first part explaining the way that the early church, (I mean, really, early – like newborn, early!) the early church was struggling with how to manage her affairs.

As soon as the word began to spread groups sprang up, depending where they had come from; what their original faith or practice had been, how they understood life, all these things influenced how they subsequently lived out life as a Christian.
Suddenly, things which had been good and holy practices were being abandoned; widows were being neglected, priorities shifted and others began to notice.
And there were complaints.

At this point I feel I need to pause a moment – what goes around comes around and there is nothing new under the sun – sigh!
Here we are, and still we complain about each other; we notice when someone is unkind, yet we do not necessarily time a moment to check our own behaviour first.
Is it comforting, that the problems we experience now in the church and in the community, are pretty much the exact same problems that these folks were experiencing too? I’m not sure if it’s comforting or depressing to be truthful.

Before we think about Stephen, I’d just like to take a moment to hear again verse 2: the twelve called together the whole community and said – it is not right for us to neglect God’s word and wait on tables…
Pardon me if I am wrong, but didn’t Jesus say that he came not to be served but to serve?!
I’m not sure that serving the WORD and prayer are much help to a starving widow who has been passed over because she has no one to speak up for her.
What would Jesus be doing?
Who would Jesus be with?
Already – they were losing sight of Jesus’ message. And, yet. The word of God continued to spread and the disciples increased.
The swift answer to this early problem, was to choose some good and faithful ones to serve the people and ensure that all were cared for.

Of these seven chosen ones, we are told that one of them, Stephen was full of faith and the Holy Spirit – he was full of grace and power and was blessed to be able to do great wonders and signs among the people.
Of course, as is often the case, especially it seems in the bible, his goodness caused others to feel uncomfortable, and anger begins to rise up against him.
Yet, he persisted and withstood their anger. Which just made them madder!!
None of us likes to be told we’ve got it wrong; especially when they may be right; especially when we do not wish to change our behaviours…
Nowadays of course, if someone makes us uncomfortable we are not so likely to send them into the streets and stone them – we have other ways of hurling stones: insults and ostracising; excluding, tormenting, we may not kill them, but we can make them as dead to us.

The dictionary definition of martyrdom is:
“A person who is put to death or endures great suffering on behalf of any belief, principle or cause”
By this definition it is clear that he was indeed martyred; but not before this incredible speech, which we have heard only an extract from today.
And, if we were thinking that Stephen spoke too much, or too directly, this is where he really did it! pointing out the errors; accusing them of putting Jesus to death; calling them names; criticising their religion, their history, their ancestors… that’ll do it!

What do we think about martyrdom now though?
In the 21st century?
We do hear of people being put to death, murdered in the news. Who can forget the image of the hostages held by ISIS being killed in the desert?
They however, did not go willingly for a cause, but died at the hands of terrorists.
So, where else might we find it now? Or is it an old-fashioned idea?

How would we act if we were really, challenged to stand up and be counted? If it became a life or death choice?
I cannot say I have the answer to this one; I do not know even if I would be brave enough to stand up, speak out, defend the helpless.

And so, we get to the title of today’s sermon. am I brave enough? Because this story of Stephen’s witness and death has disturbed me; it has caused me to question my own faith, my own strength, my own determination to keep the faith.

I am not very brave. I don’t like to put myself forward. I do not know, if I was called upon, if I would be able to stand and be counted; and that makes me uncomfortable.

Maybe you too feel the same?
We are so blessed in our community.
We have good friends and neighbours; we look out for each other; we help each other out.
We are never challenged – I mean, really, challenged on a regular basis, to move out of our comfort and into the unknown.
I’m afraid I do not have a quick answer either!
And maybe that it alright. Maybe sometimes we simply don’t have the answers – can’t have the answers because at this point, we do not need them.
Maybe sometimes we just have to wait, and keep the faith, and try our best to simply be in the moment.

We may go through life never challenged to stand up; never asked to speak out; never moved beyond that which is comfortable.
But, here in our comfortable existence we do have some responsibility. We need to remember Jesus teaching about justice and righteousness. We need to follow Jesus’ lead and help the weak and the disadvantaged; we need to follow Jesus lead and act when we witness injustice. We need to give of our time and talents, of our own resources to help those who have none; we need to be brave!!

The examples I used with the children – being kind; caring for the earth; clearing up after ourselves; protecting those who do not fit in… are simple enough, but they are not just for the children, they are for all of us!

It takes courage to be different. It takes strength to go against the crowd. It takes a gritty determination to do the right thing, because you believe with all your heart it is the right thing to do. 

I cannot answer the question for you; only you can do that: are you brave enough? Are we brave enough? Am I brave enough for Jesus? 

Leafy path at the Bield (c) JRen2016