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. 

Friday, 4 November 2016

Sacred Pause on Retreat

I bought this book, Sacred Pause, as soon as it was published, but it has taken until now for me to really, really engage with it.
It is a happy collision of signing up to an overnight Prayer Retreat for ministries and thinking that overnight wouldn't be long enough to really switch off properly. So I inquired about extending the night to a full week of retreat, being told that it would be possible and asking for further information about what I'd be reading while I was on retreat. 
Sacred Pause has stayed at the side of my desk for two years, begging me to pause, to take some time, to retreat with it. So it became clear to me that this was exactly what was needed. Me. Scared Pause. Time. Space. Prayer. 

I bought this book on the recommendation of RevGal book reviewer Julia, who simply said, "You need this book!" Actually she said much more, but the first line was, You need this book! So I ordered it. Imported it. Read the introduction and a couple of chapters, put it down for when I'd have time and then.... Stuff happens. Happened. Life, death, birth, marriage - all sorts of stuff. 

There is a time for everything the wise man said, and this is my time. 
For four days I have been reading, pausing, writing, taking pictures, drawing, using colour, using my imagination, using nothing, everything. Pausing. 
I am moved.
I am retreating from the world, and going deep, deeper into my own world. It's been a revelation, renewing and refreshing. 

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

moments of grace

Yesterday I went visiting with the puppy in tow.
It was her first go at a pastoral visit

I was going to one of a few old farmers in the congregation; he has got more frail in the past year and is now unable to get out; it was a sad day for him when they took his car away.

He has not managed to church for more than a year - except for coming to my wedding in August when he persuaded his oldest son to take  him along. I visit him regularly and we frequently share in communion.
Yesterday though, I took wedding photos and the pup. She is 7 months of bouncing spaniel - but he had specially asked to see her. So we went! 

He and his wife are in their late 80s and live pretty independently; they were thrilled to see the pictures, and more so to get to play with the puppy.... 
She is usually terrible with new people, jumping up, nipping, doing all the things she shouldn't. But with George (Dod), she stood; then she climbed onto his lap and snuggled.... 

This is them
Man and Dog
and God 
Dod & Dog

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Passover Promise - sermon October 2nd

Exodus 12:1-13; 13:1-8
Family traditions and rituals become part of our lives so much so that when someone new joins us they often are surprised by what or how we do things.
Family traditions and rituals are passed from generation to generation, and it is often difficult to remember when it started, or why.
It can apply to anything – and pretty much every family will be different – have their own particular idiosyncrasies – but each family will also have their own similarities… and, often we believe, because we have always done it, the surely people all through history have done it too…  the way we do Christmas; the way we celebrate birthdays; the way we mark the passing of the years – the way we remember.
It is personal; it is important; it is our tradition and once established it becomes very difficult to change, unless there is some sort of upheaval.

The Passover is probably the biggest Jewish Festival of all; it marks an important event in the life of the tribe of Israel; and it is still remembered today; still celebrated every year; it becomes special for us as Christians because it was the last meal that Jesus shared with his friends before his death. It carries great significance – for from this meal – a meal to remember the actions of God – comes our own celebration of communion – another meal to remember the actions of God.
Strangely today is known as World Communion Sunday – though generally this is celebrated most frequently by American Presbyterian Churches; it is a good day to remember that even communion has its own traditions and rituals – and that they differ from church to church, denomination to denomination.
In America today, many churches will mark World Communion, by having a special communion service, using many different types of bread from across the world; the left over bread will be shared out and given to members to take home to continue sharing the blessing; others will keep it there and it will go to a shared table lunch; still others will want to keep its sanctity and therefore it will be removed and returned to the earth – either by scattering or by burial -   so many ways; so many interpretations, but who is to say one is more right than the other?

What is really important; vital even, in all of these traditions and rituals is not the how, but the why. Why do we remember certain things? And why do others get left by the wayside?
On the personal, family level: we celebrate birthdays – to mark the passage of time, to recognise milestones: become a teenager; reaching adulthood; maturity; moving from one decade to another; passing retirement age – each is marked; each small triumph.
We mark anniversaries: wedding anniversaries in these days of broken marriage or no marriage are increasingly important – a sign of permanence and the fulfilment of promises.
There are other promises we make that are not generally observed – who knows the date they were baptised? Or the date they were confirmed? If you became an elder – do you know which date is your anniversary?
Because of social media – I know that this week marked in the 11th anniversary of my ordination – and I was a little sad that I had not remembered myself – that it took a Facebook reminder.
These last ones: baptism; confirmation; ordination – these I want to think about for these are all holy promises we make.
All through the bible we are reminded of God’s promises to the Chosen People in the Old Testament, and then all people in the New Testament – the Passover meal was repeated, and is repeated and will be repeated year on year to remind the Chosen People still that they can rely on God; that God will rescue them; that God will be with them, come what may.
For us, as Christians, we take not the Passover meal, but the offering that came out of it – our Holy Communion, which we have repeated, and will continue to repeat month by month to remind us the we can rely on God; that God is with us; that God will always be with us, come what may.
God’s Promises are to be relied upon; unlike the promises of individuals – which sometimes are constant, and sometimes may be beset with trials and tribulations; with betrayal and infidelity; God’s promise to us, through Jesus Christ is that he prepares a place for us and that he will be with us until the end of all time.
What a wonderful promise that is!
God totally understands our human frailty; knows that we make our promises with good intentions and constant hope; accepts that sometimes we will fail, or give up, or simply be overwhelmed by life. None of that is important to God – what matters is that we continue to do our best; to share God’s love; to remember.
Remember God’s promises to us and to all generations: from Passover in Egypt, to the Upper Room in Jerusalem, to us here in Earlston today: to be with us to the very end of time.

That Passover Promise is worth holding on to. 

Communion celebrated at Lake Galilee