Sunday, 14 October 2018

Sermon 14 October: What Must I Do?

Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31

The encounter between Jesus and the Rich Young Man is one I have turned back to, time and again; it features in both Matthew and Luke’s gospels too; and it tells us something about priorities, and motives.  – whatever our status, hearing the assertion that it is virtually impossible for the wealthy to get into heaven is one which disturbs and resonates in equal measure.
The story is multi-layered, but all too often we look at it and assume it is a simple story about the way God looks upon rich people – blessed are the poor after all.
But this story is much, much deeper than this. And Jesus is saddened by the man’s inability to shake loose from his chains.
This letter to the Hebrews could well have been addressed to that rich young man...
As I explained last week, we do not know who the writer of this letter/sermon is; but we do know he cuts to the heart of things: in this passage the word of God is alive and active!
There is nothing that can be hidden from God
And it is to God we must give an account of ourselves – thus we see the tie to the gospel as the rich man – approaches Jesus – clearly troubled and anxious about something
His question is to the point “What must I do to receive eternal life”

Jesus had spent the majority of his time with others being asked to heal; to relieve and to soothe. For this young man to come along and ask about eternity must have been a heart stopping moment of joy for Jesus. And of course, Jesus knew the heart of this young man; he wanted to tease out of him the nub of what was really bothering him.
When Jesus gave him the received answer: “keep the law”, the man is not satisfied
He is a righteous and good man
He has studied scriptures
Loved God
Been faithful and true to all the commandments
But in his hearts he knew there was something missing
Something not quite right
He was discomfited
And Jesus looked at him
And Jesus knew him
And Jesus loved him.

Up to this point in the narrative he could have been any one of the hundreds in the crowd
But now we know that he is different
He is wealthy
And he loves being wealthy and all it gives him
And he cannot let it go
He cannot let it slip
He is bound by it; chained; restrained and restricted by his wealth.

His despair at being told to sell it all; give it away and follow Jesus is too much. And he is unable to let go
So he turns to leave
To walk away...

If Hollywood was writing this script at the last minute he’d turn back – leave his wealth behind and claim the life Jesus is offering him – and they would all live happily ever after.
But this isn’t Hollywood; this is scripture; and scripture teaches us about life.
Real life
Not soap opera life; not movie town life
No happy ever after ending recorded here
Instead, Jesus turns to his disciples and makes a sweeping statement which seems totally at odds with everything else they know about Jesus
How hard for rich people to enter the Kingdom!!

This is shocking enough
What follows is worse
It’s a conundrum: easier for the rich to get into heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.

To the disciples, this is so impossible; so devastating a suggestion that we can feel their despondency – and identify with Peter as he wails – “but we’ve already given up so much!”
What on earth are we doing?
Why are we following?
Is there no one who can be saved?
We have already given up so much
Jesus, as ever is turning things upside down
Those who are first in this world will be last
And the last will be first

God knows us
Our weaknesses
Our indulgences
The things which test us
The things that we love
Things are not important
People are
Things are replaceable
People are not
Things are useful and used
People are loveable and loved
Don’t confuse the two!!
People were created to be loved
Things were created to be used
The reason why the world in is CHAOS
Is because things are being loved
And people are being used

The writer to the Hebrews said, “have confidence then, and approach God’s throne where there is grace – grace to help us just when we need it”
Grace is there to help us, when like the rich young man we cannot let go of that which holds us back.
Jesus, God, knows exactly what is on our hearts; and, God gifts us grace – riches that will support us.
Grace: God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.
Grace – enough to lift us and inspire us; to move us from where we are, to where we need to be.
We do not know what happened to that rich young man – we are told he went away, grieving for he had many possessions.
What do you think?
Did he think about it and start to give away all of his things?
Did he carry on as before, loving God, being faithful but always aware that something was missing?
 We can only speculate about him; in our own lives though, we can do as Jesus asked
Not literally giving everything away – but looking at our priorities; loving God, knowing we are beloved by God; and remembering what else Jesus said: “for God, all things are possible”.
That is our hope; that is our answer
In the age to come – eternal life.

Saturday, 6 October 2018

What is Cleanliness?

sermon 2 September 
James 1: 17-27  Mark 7: 1-8, 21-23 

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (James 1:27)
Why did Jesus talk in parables?
·      Disturbed
·      Raised questions
·      Challenged behaviour
·      Answers had to be sought – not obvious
From now to end November we are going to consider lots of questions raised by Jesus’ teaching, and God’s word.

Today, we heard about one of Jesus’ many encounters with authorities
They were obsessed with sticking to rules, exactly as written. 
Jesus wanted them to realise that the rules were no protection in themselves, but the motivation – so are you doing this in order to be seen doing this?
Are you doing this to tick the box and add to your “score”?
Or, are you doing this because you want to, you need to, because you value your own life and that of others?

The apostle James’ Epistle has long been a source of contention; it very nearly didn’t make it into the bible.
Luther called it an epistle of straw, with no real substance; and James’ theology of works which we hear a little bit about today was a huge talking point:
Saved by our works?
Or saved by belief in Jesus as our saviour?
Saved by what we do?
Or saved by God’s grace?

James does not say we are save only by our works. But that if we are truly followers of Christ, then others will see that by our behaviour.
What he was observing was people who said they were followers of Jesus, but who did nothing to show it.
The crux of this is the final verse, highlighted on the front of today’s service  sheet:
Pure and genuine religion means caring for orphans and widows and refusing to let the world corrupt you
Society in the first century was very different to now; widows and orphans had no status; they relied on family for support, and if they had no family they were literally destitute.
The new Christian Fellowships that were springing up were trying hard to exercise care and compassion; living as they had witnessed Jesus live; remembering his teaching, his parables, his arguments with the authorities.
Maybe there had been an argument about how far they were to go?
Maybe some were complaining about how many orphans and widows they had to support?!
We don’t know.
But what we do know is that there was sufficient discussion for James to write about it; we do know that James had paused to explain about what “pure religion” was.

Ironic that the Pharisees who had argued so vociferously with Jesus thought they were protecting “pure religion”
How easy it was then to slip into old ways; how easy it is still.

What are the things that cause us to slip?
What are the rituals that have become precious to us?
What are the things we hang onto to keep our religion “pure”?
And what would Jesus really say about that?

One of the most enduring memories I have of the two weeks I spent with our friends from Malawi is when we took them to visit two Food Banks, one in Selkirk and the other in Edinburgh. They were shocked that we, who seem to have so much in their eyes, have people who are genuinely poor in our communities. But they also saw that our churches are responding, and feeding the widows and orphans of our community.
The other memory is of the exuberance and joy they felt and showed when they were in worship.
My Scottish-ness keeps me from dancing in the aisles, but I do know, that there are times when I too feel the Spirit bubbling up in me…
What is cleanliness really? It is to live out Jesus’ teaching as it applies in our context today. Not ritualistic hand washing, but to keep away from things which distract us; to help when we are able; to allow God’s Spirit to bubble up occasionally; and to do our best to speak out, to act kindly and to give generously.

What do we need to do?

Sermon notes 26 August (actual sermon unscripted!!)
Micah 6: 6-8 John 6: 22-29

School’s back
Groups are starting up again
And the seasons roll round

As we begin a new season; a new session it is good to take a moment’s pause and ask…

What does God require of me?

Over the past three weeks I have been privileged to be part of a group that has hosted guests from the world church.
So many things we held in common; so many things that were different.
So many things that comforted; so many things that challenged.
We as a church family have, over the eight weeks of  summer witnessed four baptisms, welcoming families, committing to pray for and support babies and their families; and of course, last week, one young woman, who told us why baptism was important to her. 
Why faith and prayer, and knowing God in her life, was the core of her life.
As I have conversed with Rev Nellie about how we each serve our parishes in two very different parts of the world I have asked myself that question again…
What does God require of me?

And today, in our readings we have heard both the Old Testament prophet Micah and Jesus in the New Testament explaining what it is that God requires of any of us.
Micah’s explanation was threefold:
Do what is just
Show constant love
Live humbly with God
Jesus’ description was even simpler:
Believe in the one sent by God.
Believe in Jesus.

We don’t have to make life complicated.
And that is probably the thing I have learnt above all else from our visitors.
Life does not have to be complicated.
Life is simple.
And, as those of you who hear me speak regularly will know, love is the answer!

Each other
Because if we live in a loving manner, then everything else falls into place.
If we are loving, we won’t be unkind; we won’t be unjust; we won’t ignore God.

It really is that simple.
If we truly believe in Jesus’ message and teaching, then the world becomes a kinder place.
What does God want us to do?
Do what is just
Show constant love
Live humbly with God
And, believe in his son Jesus.

Everything else will fall in beside that.

Saturday, 18 August 2018

We will never be turned away - sermon 19 August

Philippians 4: 4-9 John 6: 32-40 

One of the greatest privileges of ministry is to celebrate the sacraments – baptism and holy communion.
And when the baptism is of an adult or older child who makes that choice for themselves the meaning goes even deeper; today is one of those days.
I have in my almost 13 years of ministry baptised many babies, and also five adults and after today, two teenagers. I know exactly how many, because they each impacted me deeply. When I first came here in 2011 Rebekah was a little girl, whose enthusiasm was infectious; and it has been such a joy for all of us to watch you grow and mature Rebekah, into the lovely young woman you have become.
It is almost exactly a year since Rebekah asked me about being baptised; in a little while you will hear her speak about that, and why this time is the right time for her. We have had many conversations and together we have planned this service, she has chosen most of the hymns; and readings; and we have worked out every element of the day.
The reading from St Paul’s letter to the Philippians concludes with the verses we heard earlier – it can be summarised like this:
Rejoice. Do not worry. The peace of God will guard your heart. Keep on and God will be with you.
These are recommendations that have stood the test of time; rejoice, rejoice – look at the world with hope and joy.
Do not worry: because worrying doesn’t change a thing. Instead – offer it to God in prayer; and the let it go – when you do you will find God’s peace, which is better than anything else will guard your heart.
And finally, all these things you have learned will guide and guard you, and God’s peace will be with you.
How can we hear those promises from Paul to his fledgling church, and live them for us, today in the 21st century?
Well, let’s also consider Jesus’ teaching
Whoever comes to me (Jesus) will never hunger or thirst.
Anyone who comes to me, will not be driven away.
By following Jesus; by listening to his teaching; by living by his example; we can hold to his promises.
Not only that, but he follows the first two with the best of all:
         This is the will of my Father – that all who see and believe will have eternal life.
That’s you and me!!
That’s a promise for each one of us.
God is LOVE!
God, through his Son, Jesus Christ, came down to live with us so that we can know.
Know for sure
Know without doubt
That God loves us.
Jesus came to bring us life
Jesus came to give us hope
Jesus came to show us the way to heaven is not difficult.
Hear Jesus
Listen to his teaching
Live his life
And eternity is yours.
And once you’ve turned to him – you will never be turned away.
Whether you were baptised as a baby; or made that choice as an adult; whether you’ve followed Jesus for as long as you can remember, or came to know him only recently.
You will never be turned away.

Whatever the circumstances, God knows and loves each one of us; and seeks for us to know God, to follow Jesus, to be sustained by the Spirit
So that in all things
God’s peace will guard and keep us
And we will never be turned away.

Sunday, 17 June 2018

Called to growth

Sermon for 17 June 
Psalm 92: 1-4, 12-15 
Mark 4: 26-34 

A seed is planted; a small dry hard thing. No sign of life.
Just a tiny pip of a thing.
And yet, when it is buried in warm damp earth, something magical, miraculous begins.
The seed swells, and that which is stored in its very heart stirs. 

First comes the root, stretching deep, seeking sustenance, food, water, the basic elements required for life.
Next the stem begins, tentative at first, seeking light, seeking warmth, and growing, imperceptibly at first, the stem carries a small bud, the first leaflet. Not a full leaf, and not even recognisable as the plant it will become.
That’s for the second leaf. And the third. And fourth.

Sometimes in our house there’s a box of seed. Collected in the autumn.
We might know what it is, and we might think we know what it is… but sometimes the tomato becomes a pepper.
The columbine becomes a poppy. 
It is not until the combination of warmth and moisture and good compost and the mystery of creation have got to work that we will truly know what will come.

This, Jesus tells us is what the kingdom of God is like.
The seeds are planted; and we watch and wait for the growth we know will come.
Ever hopeful.
Ever waiting.
Knowing there will be fruit.
Knowing also, that a poppy can never become a tomato; and a pepper will never be a pretty dancing columbine.
Yet, we know also that each has its place; each has a role to play, and each we accept and enjoy for what they are. 

The Psalmist knew that hope and patience are necessary not just for a gardener, but for all who wait on God; all who follow God’s call. He also knew that age is not a barrier, old age and youth are both equally fruitful in the house of God.
It’s now more than twenty years since I first had a conversation with my minister about answering a call. He was a very wise man; he didn’t come right out and say, have you thought about ministry Julie?
He just suggested I might like to talk to the children one Sunday; and then another time, perhaps a prayer?
Bit by bit; little by little, he encouraged me to share, to try, to experiment. 
Eventually he suggested I explore being a lay Reader; preaching, leading worship; training to offer services where needed. 
I had already turned down being an elder; because I knew that was not my calling; but this seemed much more accessible to me.
Of course, it was a revelation! Spending time with scripture; reading it; walking with through the week, viewing everything else I did through the lens of scripture, so that over a few days the words began to run through my mind, bubbling, first the root then the shoot, and finally that first leaf - 
What would it grow into?
Where would it take me?
What did God want me to talk about this time?

Every week I begin with the scripture.
Then I might read a commentary or an online resource. 
Sections form; what is happening in the world, in our community, in our church life?
How might that filter into what is said, what we all might need to hear?

The sermon grows, the words fill my mind and eventually fly from my fingers across a keyboard until they fill the pages. Usually it gets finished on Saturday – occasionally it gets rewritten on Sunday morning. 
Always on a Sunday I am up around 5.30; to reread, to refine. To pray. To ask God to bless my words; to bless those who hear. To inspire us as we work together. 

20 years ago, when I first was asked to test my call, to share the gifts God had given me I was reluctant.
I felt ill-equipped.
I was, I am, terribly shy; crowded rooms terrify me; people I don’t know unnerve me. I have been physically sick on the way to see someone I don’t know. How on earth can it be that I would be called to do something that was so far outside my comfort zone? 
 But, give me scripture; give me time in prayer reflecting on God’s word and I know this is part of God’s plan. I trust God will equip me, with the strength I need, and the people I need to enable God’s Kingdom where I am called to serve. 

This is the same for each of us.
God’s seed planted deep within us, grows and produces crops.
Some are called to befriend.
Some are called to listen.
Others are called to share a word; to serve, to comfort. Each in their own strength, each called and known by God – we cannot ever know how each one will respond and grow. We cannot look at another and compare by our call, our skills, our gifts. Each is called to be their own judge; and at the end of it all, we only really have one judge, one true minister – that is God – our parent, our saviour, our guide. 
Father Son and Spirit are with us in all we do, and in all the ways we answer God’s call. 

Last week our worship was led by my colleague from Melrose, Rev Rosie Frew; she also talked about seeds and growth, and gave us a hopeful message to take forward as we undergo this period of review.
The review meetings have taken place and there is now a written report for the trustees to consider which will be presented to the Presbytery.

The process is robust; and there is both praise and criticism within it.
It contains the observations of faithful people from outwith our circle, who highlight for us the things which are good and the things we need to work on, together, as we serve God’s people in our community. 

God has planted many, many seeds in our community; and there are people who are working with those seeds, and seedling; sapling and full grown plants… between us all we have a rich resource.

God calls.
We answer…
God equips.
We act…
God inspires.
We respond… 

Saturday, 12 May 2018

Out of Sight sermon for 13 May

 Out of Sight…

As most of  you know, this time next week I will be in Edinburgh at the General Assembly.
As some of you know, the General Assembly is the annual gathering of the church, where representatives from every area where the Church of Scotland serves come together, representing their Presbyteries, but acting independently, to listen to reports of the work that the wider church has done over the past year, reflect on what that means, and instruct those councils for the work to come.
Alongside our commissioners there will be representatives from the world Church and Interdenominational Bodies; from charities and other organisations who work alongside our church. There will be youth reps and older people; there will be ministers and elders – it will be the church gathered from around the world – and around 800 voices will lift in praise and prayer.
General Assembly can be dry and dull; but it can also be vibrant and encouraging, uplifting and inspiring. The theme this year is “Peace be with YOU!” – with an exclamation mark – it is a triumphant shout, not  a passive murmur.
More than 2000 years ago, as Jesus left the earth for the final time he promised that although he would be gone, out of sight, they would not be alone for he was sending the Holy Spirit, to fill them with power and strength and the enable them to be witnesses “to the ends of the earth”.
Here we are, 2000 years later, the descendants of those witnesses, in the furthest reaches of the world; in every corner; on every continent, responsible for sharing the news and love of God in Jesus Christ, in our community, in our small corner.

As we prepare to remember again the first outpouring of the Spirit, I am preparing for the General Assembly.
This week, in preparation for this I received a copy of the “Strategic Plan” for the next 10 years; it states, “whatever we do, we do prayerfully, with humility and seeking to be in tune with the Spirit of God at work in the world”
Alongside preparing for GA, I have also been preparing for our own local review; this happens every five years, reviewing our work, our place, our church. And I find I am challenged; we are blessed with a small but active and committed congregation and trustees – elders and board members who willingly give of their time and talents for the church here in our community; alongside the work I do here in the parish, I also fulfil my ordination vows in engaging with the wider church at both presbytery and national level.
Currently, our charge is under terms of what is called reviewable tenure, which means every seven years, the charge is reviewed to consider whether it is still right to have a full time minister; do we need more help? Could we manage with a minister who works less time? Other charges in the area are under unrestricted tenure – there is no compunction for review of tenure every seven years; (I’ve been here seven years so it happens that that review is also due this year, but it will not happen until later in the year)
It has long been the view of our trustees and minister that we should move to an unrestricted tenure, to give more stability and security. But, as I look at our national church; there are challenges which in all consciousness mean that I can no longer support that thought.
The numbers of vacancies continue to rise; the length of vacancies continues to grow; almost one in four congregations do not have a minister at all!
The sad reality is that in the next five to ten years this number will not improve, it is estimated that the numbers will continue to drop.

And yet!!! We are resurrection people!!
We are ascension people!
“We are moved by faith to be recognised by all as the mainspring of the community, and so to bring its members closer to God” (Earlston)
“whatever we do, we do prayerfully, with humility and seeking to be in tune with the Spirit of God at work in the world” (strategic plan)
“when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, you will be filled with power, and you will be witnesses for me in Jerusalem, in all of Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Jesus)

The week after assembly there is to be a gathering in Galashiels for members of congregations in Presbytery to gather and try to do a creative positive forward looking realistic appraisal of our area.
Can we collaborate with our neighbours?
Can we create a hub where fewer minsters work together with lay people to bring together the three elements of being church today: Worship; Community; Discipleship.
Can we work together – to build our community; to bring worship in new more accessible ways to more people; and to make disciples of those who have yet to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ?
Maybe you think “I am too old for change”
Maybe you feel, “this church (my church) will see me out”
Maybe you hope that if you just keep your head down it will all somehow just be ok.
Or maybe, just maybe you can see opportunities here?
Maybe, just maybe change doesn’t feel like a terrible thing – maybe it is scary, but maybe also, it is exactly what we, what the church needs!
Maybe, you can help to envisage a church fit for our children’s children? And their children? Maybe you can be creative, and help to come up with a plan that will bring the news of Jesus’ love into hearts who are crying out for it.
Our church meets for an hour a week in this building; but  continues to be church, at home, on the street, in the hall, and the working place for the other 167 hours in each week…

Jesus may be out of sight; but the Spirit is living and here and active – we are Resurrection people!
Are we looking out? Or in?
Are we looking forward? Or back?
Up? Or down?
The angel came to the disciples as they looked up to the sky and told them to stop gazing  at clouds, and get back to doing what Jesus told them to.
We are Earlston Church.
We can sit and wait for the end, or we can go and share the joy of being Ascension People, Children of Pentecost – we are Earlston Church:
“We are moved by faith to be recognised by all as the mainspring of the community, and so to bring its members closer to God”

Saturday, 5 May 2018

Born of God

 Sermon 6 May; John 15: 9-17; 1 John 5: 1-6

Today we bring to a close our short exploration of John’s first letter; this letter which has been full of a desire to share God’s unconditional love with the reader.
This letter which has filled us with hope and encouragement and love.
This letter, which explains God’s love, and – explains to the reader, to us, the role we are expected to play in the world, God’s world.
John makes bold claims: believing that Jesus was the Christ, is God’s Son, carries with it other responsibilities – obey the commandments; love each other.
John the  evangelist, “The Disciple Jesus loved”, was probably one of the younger disciples; he was trusted with the care of Jesus’ mother; he is the author of not only a gospel and three epistles, but the final book of the New Testament – the Book of Revelation.
All of his writings focus on two things: light and love; God’s love for humanity; God’s love made manifest in Jesus Christ; our love which is a divine gift from God; our capacity for transforming, sacrificial love. The Light of the World – Jesus; the power of holy light to overcome darkness; the role of light in our lives – to make us  children of light…
The final discourse, which is recorded through chapters 14, 15 and 16; begins with the footwashing and teaching about what it really means to be a leader (chapter 13) and then an impassioned prayer for his beloved disciples (ch. 17) asking the Father to help his followers, to strengthen them for what lay ahead. It is a prayer which is compelling, beautiful, full of love.
The crux of today’s gospel reading, and the final part of the epistle can be summed up in two verses:
“The love of God is this, that we obey his commandments”, and,
“You did not choose me, but I chose  you”
For me this second verse, from the gospel, is the one which has inspired me and encouraged me, through all my years of ministry – from before I considered I might be called into ministry I have been aware, of God’s prompting ne, nudging me, nurturing me.
And it is awe inspiring!
The knowledge that is at the heart of this, that my dawning realisation of the reality of God, is not through my own power, my own choosing, but because God already knew me; God already chose me; God already, to quote the prophet Jeremiah – “knew the plans he had for me”
For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. (29:11)
If we truly believe that Jesus is God’s Son
If we truly believe that Jesus’ mission was to show us how to live in love and light
If we truly believe, that through Jesus we have hope for the future, hope for eternity; then everything we do; everything we say, everything we hope for, can be realised.
Now, let me just pause a moment.
Because, even believing all of this does not give us some magical protection against disaster or illness or other people’s wilfulness – bad stuff still happens to good people; good things still happen to bad people. It may sound simple in theory, but we all know that in practise life is not that simple.
So, although Jesus’ teaching shows us love is the way; and John, the beloved disciple’s writing expounds on the power of God’s Love, reality sets in.
Life happens.
Jesus’ words in the gospel do not point to some magic formula. For after saying that he chose them, he goes on to tell the disciples that they are appointed to go out and bear fruit.
They are told to love one another.
They are not told life will be perfect or easy. Far from it, this passage concludes with the reality that in some cases, the world will hate them; that they will be expelled from the synagogue; that they will feel alone, bereft, abandoned. Jesus wants them to understand the difference between this world and the next. And to know  that through all he does, the world – the worldly – is conquered.
I was once challenged as a student, when I made this assertion that in the next world, in eternity, all will be well.
The challenge came in a question: are you suggesting that happiness, peace, light can only be found in heaven? Can we not be happy and blessed now?
Much has changed in the intervening years; my view of the world is far less simplistic than it was back then; I have witnessed great sadness and tragedy as I have ministered to those God has called me to care for.
I do truly believe that our heavenly life will be perfection.
But I also believe that happiness is not only a heavenly gift; that in spite of tragedy and difficulties we can have a life of light and love in this world; we can conquer our worldly struggles and burdens.
“(God’s) commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faithWho is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 Jn 5:3-5)
That’s us.
We are the ones who believe  that Jesus is God’s Son; we are born of God; we can therefore conquer the world. Not the whole world, but the whole of our world.
We will suffer hardships – but God is with us
We will feel sorrow and pain – and God is with us
We will have moments of darkness – but God is with us – bringing light.

God’s love; God’s commands all bring us to this point.
We are God’s children; born of love; born of God.
And with that love
We can conquer; we can overcome
We are: LOVED.