Sunday, 15 January 2017

Teacher Rejected - Sermon 15th January

Luke 4:14-30
Sometimes, the sermon appears, almost unbidden. The ideas come and the words flow.
Sometimes it doesn’t seem to matter how much reading, praying, contemplating and reflecting I do, the sermon stubbornly refuses to be written.

Today’s reading is tricky.
It is very challenging to us as listeners. And the challenge is hidden and easily missed.
On first read: Jesus has arrived in Nazareth; tales of his mission, his actions, his teaching had gone before him, and the people were delighted to welcome him home.
This was one of their own, coming home, his kudos would extend to them; his cachet would rub off on them. This was a time of civic pride in one of their own made good.
The shock comes not when he chooses to read from Isaiah, and then claim that the prophecy has been fulfilled. But after that, when he tells them in no uncertain terms that they were not fit to receive the blessing; not chosen to receive God’s chosen; not good enough for a blessing.
It really was outrageous.
It was like me standing here and telling you, there was going to be a great spiritual revival but that God was going to pass over Earlston because none of us is chosen. (I’m not saying that… not at all!)

I have been trying to work out what it was that Jesus said that triggered such a violent response; why were they so outraged? Why did their response lead to such an aggressive reaction? What did he say that so disturbed them? And what did they do to provoke Jesus’ challenge?
It is frustrating, because the text is sparse, and so much is subliminal, unwritten.
The first thing we need to remember is when and for whom this gospel was written. Luke is writing for the new “Christians” the majority of whom are Gentiles; he is writing from the perspective of one who has investigated thoroughly, interviewed witnesses and gathered as many of the stories as he can. And Luke, whoever he was, has not been a first-hand witness, he did not know Jesus, follow Jesus, hear Jesus for himself.
Luke is writing for these new Christians, the ones who come from other traditions, the ones who were not Jewish from birth. So, when Jesus reads from Isaiah, and then exclaims the scripture is being fulfilled the Nazarenes are cast as the unacceptable.
It is important to note that when it says Jesus sat down – this is because he is about to teach. The tradition was to stand to read scripture and then the teacher would sit to explain and expound on the scriptures.
The next part of his teaching is this: remember that when God was with Elijah, he sent him to the Gentile widow not the Israelites to feed them during the famine; when God was with Elisha, he sent him to the gentile king to heal him, not to any Jews who had skin diseases; when God sends me to teach and heal and work miracles, it is not to you, but to everyone else – you will not hear me and believe.
And this is why they were so mad!!
The implication is that God is sending him not to Nazareth, but from there to the rest of the “world” – the Isaiah reading is basically Jesus’ manifesto for the rest of his mission on earth… the time of grace, of jubilee is announced; but these first ones to hear it are rejected. It’s no wonder they were outraged, scandalised. And it is no wonder that the rising fury led to a mob of people determined to drive him away, out of their lives and out of their town, and more, to drive him out of life all together.
The image of the mob, pushing, shoving, closing ranks, moving like a tidal wave up the hill, hemming him in, ready to throw him off the cliff – is tangible, the atmosphere tense, the mood disturbed… and suddenly he’s gone!
No longer at the head of the crowd being carried along; suddenly he slips away, escapes, never to set foot in his home town again.
So, how do we, with the gift of hindsight and the distance of all those years, respond to this? What must we do to be sure we hear and act? How do we fulfil Jesus’ manifesto right now in our 21st century community?
That manifesto again:
Preach the Good News to the poor
Proclaim release to captives
Bring sight to the blind
Liberate the oppressed
Proclaim the year of Jubilee – God’s favour.

In our 21st century world; the rich get richer; the poor lose out; the land is over used; the forests burned; the air polluted; and God’s little ones are overlooked at best and abused and disadvantaged
What are we to do about it? because it all feels too big; too much; too impossible for us to tackle the reality.
We are not called to fix the whole world
We are called to fix our own small part. Because if everyone did just that, and truly cared for everyone they came across, the world would be a far better place.
The people of Jesus’ home had become complacent; they followed the rules and thought that was enough. They had become self-satisfied.
We cannot do everything; but we can do something.
What can you do?
We have many different ministries in our church: from coffee fellowship on a Sunday morning; to praying through prayer requests; to helping with worship or joining the Wednesday morning cafĂ©; and, in future when we have other events or projects or start new things, come along – bring a friend, help us to grow.
I have been doing a lot of reflecting this past few weeks as we approach my sixth anniversary it is a good time for me to take stock, and for us to work together to begin to grow our church; time to consider new ways to reach out to those who do not have a live church connection.
We know there are plenty folks who feel a connection, but don’t actually do anything about it… so I want to look at ways of reaching them.
Also, they are many, many folks who have lost touch, who find Sunday morning isn’t the right time for them – and I’m wondering what we might do for those too.

I can’t do it all by myself; but I can be a catalyst for new things; for God-given inspirations that come in many shapes and sizes.
The Spirit of God is alive and working in and through each of us
The Spirit proclaims once more the year of God’s favour – it is for us now to hear and act.
It is for us to be God’s Church – alive and well in our community and beyond.
Those who heard Jesus had a choice – to respond or to reject.
And so do we – what will it be?
Do we respond and answer God’s call; can we build God’s church anew for our time and for our people?
 God’s manifesto of justice and grace is the mandate that stands the test of time
And it is for us to act and respond to that call
Right now in 2017. We can be God’s chosen ones!

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Wildman and Carpenter sermon 8 January

The Wildman and the Carpenter sermon for 8th January 2017 
 Luke 3:1-22
They were cousins; their mothers were cousins too, and close; close enough that Jesus’ mother had visited her cousin and stayed to help out while she was pregnant.
On that visit, before he was born, Elizabeth’s son had reacted with joy to the presence of his cousin – Mary’s boy, long before anyone knew anything for sure about either one of them.
These two boys were both miracle babies; born in unusual circumstances; their impending births foretold by angels, their lives mapped out for them long before they were born, let alone grown.

John has taken to a life of desert wanderer; he follows God; is inspired by God and seeks to bring God as reality to the people who are wandering in a different sort of desert; alone seeking God in their spiritual wilderness. A feeling that I am sure we can all identify with from time to time.

Into this time of seeking; these wilderness years comes a new teacher; one who is very different; one who does not pander to them but rather tells them a few home truths. This new style of teaching is so dynamic, so attractive that people flock to hear more; and they seek more than just a spectacle, they ask again and again, “what shall we do?”  
The teaching pulls no punches:
Do not cheat
Share with others
Be fair in your business dealings
Be satisfied with what you have
And then he called them to repentance, to be ready, to be prepared, and he baptised them.
They sought, they wondered, they hoped – “is this the one?!” “is this the Messiah?!” “Is now the time?!”
And he assured them, no, not yet, but soon, be ready, listen to me, I am making the path clear, I am leading the way forward… one is coming.

John was distinctive; the other gospel writers describe his appearance and clothing, as wild, camel hair, locusts and wild honey – it is a stirring image.  Yet, for us so far removed from those events; so far removed from that hand to mouth existence, it is really hard to hear those words and really feel their impact.
We hear those exhortations, do not cheat, share with others, be fair in your business dealings, be satisfied with what you have; and it’s a simple faith-justice mantra, we can identify with it; know it, agree with it.
Of course we will! Of course we don’t cheat; we do our best to share our resources, and be fair; and we try to be satisfied with what we have. So how can we hear these things again and actually have them impact our lives? How do we make a difference?

I am going to leave that question hanging for a moment. And take you to the end of today’s reading. Two short verses to tell us, almost as an afterthought, Jesus was baptised.
It doesn’t even tell us that he was baptised by John – in fact, it almost implies Jesus baptism happened after John was in prison.
The other gospels give us much more information. But I am not going to go explore other gospels today; we are going to be working through Luke’s telling of Jesus story over the next few weeks, and there will be many times we see such contradictions, or differences.
Luke’s portrayal is simple, pared back.
Jesus is baptised; the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit comes down like a dove, and a voice from heaven declares, “You are my own dear son. I am pleased with you.”
Here is a wonderful commitment from God. Jesus hasn’t actually done anything yet. No healing, no teaching, no miracles… just baptism. His belovedness, like our own, is not a reward for righteous living, it’s simply grace.

There is much we can learn from this. Much we can do. Or try to do. Much we can hope for even when we are
Stuck in a spiritual wilderness
Seeking a right and just way of living faithfully
And feeling that it is all a tall order, beyond our capabilities.
How can we be the difference?
How do we respond today, to John’s exhortations?
All we need to do is remember that John called the people to repent, to turn again, to start over – all good and helpful things, especially at the start of a new year.
And, at the same time remember that Jesus too sough baptism, sought direction, and received much, much more, showing us, reminding us again, that we are God’s beloved children, before we do anything at all.
So we strive to be better, in the full knowledge that God looks at us, knows us, loves us – before we do anything at all.
We strive to be better, because of love.
We are better, because of love.
We are better, because God sees us, knows us, loves us.
You are my own dear child. With you I am pleased.
The Desert of Judah (c) JRen2012

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Ring out the old...

Well, 2016, what a year!! 

Over on the RevGals Facebook Group yesterday's Friday Five asked us to list five stand out moments from 2016 - a year that the world is damning as the worst ever. The five things did not need to be all good, or all bad either, just things which will stand out when we look back.
My five things were pretty easy, having gained two grandchildren, finally celebrated my wedding, and got a darling new puppy there have been highlights aplenty. 

Back in January, in my congregation we had once again taken Star Words - a word for the year, a word to view the year by; for me the word did not sit well at all, right from the moment it chose me when I dipped into the bag, the word has created dissonance. what was it?!

Acclaim. I did not want it. Acclaim - what do I do with it? It's not the same as affirmation - which I could happily have taken. Nor is it praise. It is something else all together. And it discomfitted me. 
I wrote about it here
Acclaim is loud and brash and over enthusiastic, and I am not. 
In fact the older I get, the quieter, shyer and more introverted I seem to become.

2016 was loud and brash; sometimes discordant; sometimes shocking; often tragic; frequently grief stricken.
Many of my heroes have died. Musicians, actors, broadcasters; people who I grew up listening to and watching; people often who were far too close to me in age than I was comfortable with. This has absolutely added to the feeling of 2016 being an "Annus horribilis" 

But. In all things it is so important to have balance.
Yes - we have Brexit; We have Trump. 
Yes, we lost... David, Alan, Victoria, Caroline, Leonard, Terry, Rick, Prince, George. And there were many more, but these I admired most. They made me laugh, they made me sing, they made me think, they made me. 
But I gained also: wonderful international friends - spending a few days at the beginning of the year on a cruise ship has become, after just two occasions something which I both look forward to and yearn for. Friendship with like-minded women, where we are able to laugh and sing, and share and be. 
Two darling grandchildren: first we Maggie in January - the second granddaughter to my beloved, and mine through him. And then, just days before Christmas, wee Callum, firstborn son of my own firstborn son. His story is messy and complicated and not how any of us would have planned it, but nevertheless this beloved babe is a joy and a blessing. 
My own dear beloved; after a complicated and tortuous process, he was finally free to marry. And so we did! Twice!! We had a civil wedding with a handful of friends in June; and then in August a great, big, wonderful, noisy, wedding blessing in my own church with family and friends. 
And, finally we gained a new four-legged friend in the shape of a Sprocker Spaniel puppy, born on Easter Monday, she came to live with us at the end of May, and is now a beautiful young dog. 

So, 2016; you did your worst, and it was bad. It really was.
But you also threw in some moments of joy, and glimpses of glory; you managed to shine through those dark days, wee shafts of light penetrating the mire.
And as you draw to a close - just seven hours left as I write, I will not damn you forever, I will acclaim - praise with enthusiasm - the joyful times we have shared. 
Acclaim them as my own.

And, 2017, when you arrive, you'd better take care, the world is waiting with bated breath to see what on earth you will do with the mess your younger sibling left behind. 

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Song of Joy - sermon for third Sunday of Advent

Luke 1:26-55

When you think of Mary do you have a particular image in your head?
Is she young, innocent, demure, quiet, willing, obedient, meek and mild?

When you think of Elizabeth, what do you see? And old woman, beyond her prime, perhaps slow on her feet?
When you think of an unmarried mother; do you shrug to yourself? Do you simply put it down to experience and move on?

In our generation a number of things have happened; well actually many, many things have happened; the world has changed beyond all recognition.
Who would have imagined women choosing to have a baby alone; no man required, just an appointment at a clinic. Who would have thought that women in their sixties could become pregnant by the application of science? It’s preposterous really isn’t it?
Yet. These things are now possible. It’s not a miracle, (though maybe it is?) it’s the progression of scientific research. It means fertility can be extended and the natural order disrupted.
The Victorians have a lots to answer for – the images of sweet innocent child mother Mary; the perpetuation of the demure young woman, weak and acquiescent… are far from the reality of what really happened.
Scripture of course doesn’t help us much; there is sparse detail; we have to fill in the gaps for ourselves. There is an assumption that we know what’s missing. That we can fill in the gaps from our own experiences.

But. Let me disabuse you of some of these notions.
Mary – sweet, demure and innocent; weak and mild.
She, as a devout Jewess would have known the punishment for being pregnant outside of marriage: the sentence could be death.
It would be a huge scandal. She would be outcast; she would be ostracised; and likely abandoned by her intended, who would not want to have anything to do with her if she were pregnant not by him.
Mary’s “yes” was brave and bold; it was rebellious and strong;  by saying yes, she was accepting the risks that  came with it. and she was stepping out into the unknown.

Now. If you had been met by an angel; told that you were to become pregnant; accepted all that that would bring – what would you do next?
Would you call your loved ones and explain? Would you perhaps see about bring the wedding forward so that no one would know?
Or would you undertake a perilous journey from one end of the country to the other to visit your cousin who it seems is also miraculously pregnant.

Of course! that’s exactly what you would do!! Of course, maybe the very fact that it was the angel who told you that your cousin was pregnant prompted this particular response. But to gain a little perspective, the journey from Nazareth to the hill country of Judea, which is around Jerusalem is anything between 80 and 100 miles.
Having done some research, we can estimate the journey took her between 3 and five days depending on whether she joined a caravan or did entirely on foot.
On foot. Pregnant. Alone. On roads where travellers were frequently set upon by robbers and bandits. weak, timid? I don't think so!

Elizabeth’s baby is also a miracle – she is barren and beyond child bearing. I’d like to point out that this doesn’t necessarily mean she was ancient. She could have been in her fifties. Whatever for her to suddenly conceive after all those years was nothing other than a miracle.
The first person to recognise that Mary’s baby was indeed holy was Elizabeth’s baby – she felt him jump in her womb as Mary approached.
The phrases announcing Mary’s condition, and responding to this first encounter are combined to make the Roman Catholic prayer “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee” and “Blessed art though among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb”
The Holy Spirit reveals this to Elizabeth. How else could she know? Mary hasn’t told anyone at home yet; all of that is still to come.
To me, it seems, Mary needed the comfort and companionship of another woman who would understand and not be angry with her. She was brave and bold; she was strong and determined.
And, her response when Elizabeth greeted her is this wondrous song of praise, known universally as the Magnificat and immortalised in the song – “Tell out my Soul” which we shall song to close our worship today.
This song of joy praises God; but more than that it acknowledges that Mary knows absolutely what is happening and what will happen. That her son is God; that her son will save the world. She also underlines all that God has done throughout history – it is truly magnificent.

Mary – strong, determined, faithful servant of God

Never underestimate the power of a determined woman! 

Saturday, 26 November 2016

hope in unexpected places

First Sunday of Advent

What on earth has Daniel in the lion’s den got to do with advent?!
Also, how can I weave into all of that something of what I have experienced in the past week?!
It's a valid question, but, before I attempt to develop that, let me begin with advent itself.
We have our themes: hope, peace, joy and love
We have another set of themes for this year’s readings: dreams and visions 
And we have new start, new beginnings, new horizons, as we begin a new church year.

This week we have hope and we have visions. For Daniel was an exile and a prophet. He was incarcerated because he refused to worship another God, because he stood up for what he believed in, because he would rather face death than betray God.
He had been blessed with a vision from God which changed his life, changed him. His faith, his determination to resist protected him. 

Advent is all about dreams and visions, about waiting patiently for God to do a wondrous thing. During the past week I have witnessed what should be, could be, desperate situations- but within it all I also witnessed pockets of hope. Pockets of God's grace in action. Pockets of determination to stay alive against all odds, to live in hope against all odds, to resist the temptation to give up.

We heard stories of pain and persecution of trauma and desolation, and yet each story was also wrapped in hope. The source came from amazing People who dedicate their lives to following God's call and offering hope, peace, joy and love where it did not exist. This is what it means to be Advent People. This is what it means to live out faith under the most extreme circumstances.
For me, one of the mostly holy things I observed was teachers working for a pittance, willing to love and witness to the love of God with children and their families. They offered education where none was available. They offered, love, compassion, kindness, patience, an opportunity to learn, regardless of nationality or religious affiliation. These Christian teachers, taught Muslim children, children for whom there was no place in the system. Children whose status is negligible; who had suffered such trauma, such abuse; yet, all these teachers saw was children who needed a chance, needed stability, needed hope, needed to know that not everyone is bad, not everyone will exploit them, not everyone seeks to use them for their own selfish means.
It was pure grace.
Pure grace in action.
It was hope.
It was love and compassion.
And it gave me hope. 

In our scripture today we heard of one snapshot of Daniels life. It was not the first time he had been under threat, for in each generation that he served during his exile he faced persecution and abuse. And each time he relied on God to come to his aid, to prevail.
As we begin our advent season. As we wait in anticipation to hear again the stories of the nativity, let us remember that faith and hope are not confined to the bible. Not confined to Old Testament tales, but that through faith in our God, and his Son Jesus, there are people who still rely on God to come to their aid, to help them prevail against all odds.
These people are the living stones. They live by faith. They hope against hope that a day will come when they do not need to do the work, but until that day comes they are Advent People. Waiting, preparing for the Advent of Hope.
For Syria. For Lebanon. For all God’s people. In all places.
And that, that gives us hope too.

Five Days in Lebanon.

How to distill five days of talking, walking, observing, witnessing, travelling, praying, and discerning into anything that resembles coherence? 
That is the question, most exercising me right now. 

Listening to the people of this place: those born here, those who have chosen to make this place their home, those who landed here with no choice and those who are just passing through. 
Watching displaced children, traumatised, fearful, anxious, but still able to smile, to hope. Seeing them loved and cared for by those whose only aim in life is to bring God's love into these trembling hearts. 
Seeking to understand what is really needed, and not jump in with both feet assuming I might know better. 

Walking through the bustling city, with its cosmopolitan mix of nationalities, religious affiliation, wealth and poverty side by side. The food and drink,  the smells and sounds, the heat. 
All combine to be a heady mix. 

I am not sure what I expected before I came here.
And. I am still not sure what I have received. 
I think it's the children that have had the greatest impact.

On Sunday, in church, part of the family, well fed, well cared for, secure, loved, wanted.
On Monday, in school. Refugees. Status-less. Undernourished, afraid, timid, loved, wanted. 
On Tuesday, on the streets, refugees, begging, hungry, bold, desperate, unwanted, unloved, exploited. 
On Wednesday, in school. Refugees. Well fed, nourished, loved, cared for. 
On Thursday, older, in education, bright young people at the AUB, learning, growing, exploring, secure, loved, confident of their place in the world. 

Friday, 11 November 2016


Boat ribs at low tide, Brodick, Isle of Arran (c) JRen 2016
I came across this poem as I skimmed a new book - a collection of readings for Advent, which includes the last week of November all the way through to January 8th - it is an eclectic mix, of poetry and prose, philosophy and musings, and I am looking forward to spending daily time with it at the end of this month.
I offer this poem now in the light of today - Armistice Day, Sunday - Remembrance Sunday - and the way the world is this week - stunned, afraid, anxious, rebellious, resigned... many, many feelings, all entwined. 

Sylvia Plath - Black Rook 
in Rainy Weather 

On the stiff twig up there 
Hunches a wet black rook
Arranging and rearranging its feathers in the rain.
I do not expect a miracle
Or an accident

To set the sight on fire
In my eye, nor seek
Any more in the desultory weather some design,
But let spotted leaves fall as they fall, 
Without ceremony, or portent.

Although, I admit, I desire, 
Occasionally, some backtalk
From the mute sky, I can't honestly complain: 
A certain minor light may still 
Lean incandescent

Out of kitchen table or chair
As if a celestial burning took
Possession of the most obtuse objects now and then - 
Thus hallowing an interval
Otherwise inconsequent 

By bestowing largesse, honour,
One might say love. At any rate,
I now walk
Wary (for it could happen
Even in this dull, ruinous landscape); skeptical, 
Yet politic; ignorant
Of whatever Angel may choose to flare
Suddenly at my elbow. I only know that a rook
Ordering its black feathers can so shine
As to seize my senses, haul
My eyelids up, and grant

A brief respite from fear
Of total neutrality. With luck,
Trekking stubborn through this season 
Of fatigue, I shall
Patch together a content

Of sorts. Miracles occur,
If you dare to call those spasmodic 
Tricks of radiance miracles. The wait's begun again,
The long wait for the Angel,
For that rare, random descent.