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

Sunday, 23 April 2017

sermon 23 April - Later that first day… still amazed, still confused!

Luke 24:13-35; Psalm 30

This week I watched the programme Undercover Boss – the American version. And then I read again about the walk to Emmaus. And I was suddenly struck by the similarities!!
If you do not know the TV programme, the premise is this: boss gets a disguise and is followed by a film crew while he/she visits various of the subsidiary offices or outlets supposedly doing a documentary about the company or the skill set.
The unsuspecting workers spend time with boss, showing him the ropes and talking frankly about the corporation; in-disguise boss asks pertinent questions and learns about the company shortfalls, and about the heroic people who are the employees.
Then they are invited to come to the head office, where the boss, dressed as himself appears and explains it was all a ruse he was the boss all along and then proceeds to wow each employee with a gift or a promotion or help with some family issue.
It is heart-warming and often reveals more about the boss than was expected. It was while watching the big reveal that I got the flash of familiarity: the stunned look on the unsuspecting employee’s face as the penny drops and they see the co-worker suddenly appearing in a suit and with a decent haircut… oh! It’s you… How… what…. Wha…….. etc.
I was thinking about the two travellers walking the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus – 6 or 7 miles thereabouts; talking between them about Jesus, about the previous week’s events, and especially about the events of this particular day.
They talk between them, and then when the stranger joins them, are delighted to be able to offload, to retell everything, about the things they had thought, and the things they’d witnessed and how they really weren’t sure of anything anymore.
And then the stranger asking the probing questions, and then taking time to listen and explain and help them to feel valued, and his words being familiar, and his attitude familiar, but still not recognising him for who he was.
Until they get to sit and share a meal, and suddenly they see him in the right context, and in the right place and it all falls into place – oh my gosh!!! It’s you! It’s really you!!

All the way through the disciples have seen but not seen, heard but not heard, had it explained but not understood. Again and again Jesus told them what would happen, how it would happen, even when it would happen; but they still didn’t get it; they still remained confused and amazed.
And even hearing that others had seen him; that others had spoken to him, even then, they didn’t quite get it, they were still confused.
Jesus’ patience astounds me!
And maybe we would be the same in their place; maybe it would be too much for us as well.
Even seeing him alive beside us, talking to us, would be too much to take in, so it is just easier to not see it, so you don’t need to do anything.
Because knowing, understanding, accepting the truth means you have to do something about it.
In this case, ignorance really is bliss; in ignorance, you can go on, plodding slowly; in ignorance, you can wait and see; you don’t have to change anything.
Once you see the truth for what it is you have started a ball rolling, and it will never stop.

It really shouldn’t have been a surprise.
They really should have known as soon as he started to quote scripture and explain those long held prophecies that this was the start of something.
And of course, we are told, their hearts burned within them; the words sparked feelings and responses – how on earth did it take so long for the penny to drop?!
Scripture is full of prophecies and turn around stories: which is why psalm 30 is such an appropriate addition to the gospel text:
“You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent”. 
The only possible response after that revelation is indeed joyful dancing, songs of praise and the opportunity to run and share the information with their friends.

There are so many times for us when we go blindly on; hoping against hope; seeing but not really seeing
hearing but not really hearing.
Travelling in an amazed and confused state…
Being told amazing, wondrous good news, but doing not a thing about it – so very often we are the disciples on the road to Emmaus; blind even to the truth in front of us, hearing God’s word, feeling it burn within, but not doing anything, just plodding along, one foot in front of the other.
The undercover boss rewarded his loyal employees with lavish gifts to make their pretty difficult situations easier, more bearable; our undercover boss – Jesus – also lavishes wonderful gifts upon us.
Not worldly wealth
Not surprise holidays or a promotion in the company – for we are all equal in God’s kingdom.
But instead, better than that, promises:
I will be with you to the end of time
I am going to prepare a place for you – that you will be with me
God’s Kingdom, my kingdom is for all who turn to God and call on me

Well! That’s a gift worth having!

Easter Flowers in Earlston Church 

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Between Times

Holy Saturday
Low Saturday

The day between the old and the new, the end and the beginning.

Whatever you call it, today is a quiet, waiting sort of day. Last night, we watched as Jesus died and was buried.
Tomorrow we will rise early, greet the dawn, and celebrate the resurrection.
Today we take stock.
We do quiet things.
Tidy the house.
Cut the grass.
Prepare food for tomorrow's feast.
Watch and wait.

With the knowledge of hindsight, our wait is full of anticipation and barely contained excitement. Or, it is full of sighing and weariness, and anxiously checking and double checking that everything's going to be ready for tomorrow.

As a child and a young woman, Easter started on Saturday evening, the Easter vigil beginning as the sun goes down, with fire and candlelight, and ritual and blessings.
Then as I changed churches it moved to beginning early on Sunday morning with sunrise services, down by the riverside, singing the story to dog walkers and Sunday joggers.
And, then, I became the one responsible for making it happen. The minister. The responsibility weighted, felt, carried, engendering questions - what if no one comes? What if they do and they don't like the offering? What if it doesn't work, I don't honour God? Will my words be a blessing, or will I fail?
Insecurity is no stranger to the preacher. And long may it remain so. My insecurity means I rely on the Spirit to inspire me, to lead me, I rely on God's loving, gentle prompting. My strength comes from God, and God alone.

So on this Easter Saturday as I contemplate again the resurrection and what to say and how to lead the people out of the darkness into the new light of hope and joy, I wait, with baited breath, ready to proclaim aloud, for all to hear, "Christ is risen!" And pray that the people will respond, "He is risen indeed! Alleluia!! "

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Sermon April 2nd– Trying to See Beyond…

Luke 18:31 - 19:10

We look, and look, and look, and simply cannot find what we are looking for.
It may be because it’s a puzzle, like the crowded “Where’s Jesus” picture
Or it may be that the one thing you are seeking is hidden in plain sight among similar things – you can’t see the wood for the trees
Or, as is often the case; you’ve looked; but not quite well enough, and it takes someone else to show you where the thing is. In our house this happens most often with keys…
And sometimes, you are looking right at it, but you don’t recognise it, because it doesn’t look like you thought it would.

Today we have three different descriptions of seeing and not seeing.
Jesus tells his friends, yet again, what is about to happen. But they still don’t see it; they don’t understand, or won’t understand, or simply cannot – they haven’t yet got to a place where they can see things for what they really are.

And then we have the blind man – in Mark’s gospel he is named as Bartimaeus, each of the three synoptic gospels has this healing of a blind man, juxta positioned against the third prediction of Jesus’ fate.
The blind man, is not quiet; he is not submissive, or passive; he is full on and aggressive. He has heard about this man; he sees the truth already, even though he cannot see. And so he makes himself known; he wants to stand out in the crowd. The crowd are having none of it and they try to quiet him down; stand in front of him; obstruct in any way they can; they have sight, but they do not see this man as of any importance; he is of no significance in their eyes, so he is dismissed.
He will not be dismissed. He may not have sight, but he sees the opportunity approaching.
And so, he shouts – loud and clear. And Jesus, hears, and sees him for whom he is. “see! Your faith has made you well” - and immediately he follows; he has seen, and he believes.

And finally, the third part of today’s reading: the tax collector – the lowest of the low; the despised one who is the tool of the Roman oppressors; the tax collectors make their living by charging a percentage extra on the taxes they collect; it is likely he had become rich by taking advantage of those who were less able; and thus, he and his like were the most despised – by both the Israelites and the Romans.
Zacchaeus just wanted a better view; no one was going to allow him to see; or push him forward; they shunned him; ignored him. The only way he knew to get over this was to go over their heads – literally!
Up the tree he goes. He wants to see Jesus; but Jesus has already set his sights on him: and immediately calls him down; not only that, he invites himself into his home!!
And all the people grumbled
"Doesn’t he know who this is?" "What this man is?"
"Can’t he see???!!"
And Jesus – who sees so much more than the rest of us; Jesus who sees right into the heart of every situation; every person; every individual… Jesus knows.
And immediately a great change comes over this rich little man. He is transformed. Renewed.
He sees the world with new eyes; in new light; he sees life differently. His promise is sincere, he will give to the poor and needy; and repay all whom he has cheated – restoring balance; and he is found; he was lost and is now seen again.

So often, we look and look, but what we see is not necessarily what God sees; what we think we know, is not what God knows.
The gospels tell us again and again – to look deeper; to see beyond; to seek God’s understanding. That is what Jesus came to do.
To seek and save the lost.
And, Jesus is still looking; still seeking lost souls; still looking to us.
The disciples may have been witnesses and travellers on the same road with Jesus; but they were kept from truly seeing; truly knowing until the time was right.
Then they would be able to see much more clearly; to know much more deeply; to truly understand what it was they had seen and heard.
So, they had a good reason for not knowing or understanding.
We, on the other hand, have no such excuse!!
Society judges by things; by possessions and power; by money and wealth; by things that will pass away.
We, as followers of Jesus, need to remember and look deeper, look beyond; see again, hear again – what Jesus taught.
To love God; to love each other as we love ourselves.
And, I have said it before; and I will say it again: if we can do this; and show others how to do this – just imagine what we can do!

The answer is love. For with love we can do anything. 

Look and look again. There's a lady bug in there!
(c) JRen2016

Monday, 20 March 2017

Sermon 19 March Breaking Rules and Finding Hope

Luke Chapter 15

The Pharisees started grumbling…
Once again, they are witnessing Jesus behaving in a way they consider is undesirable – in a way that contravenes the Law. Not God’s law. But the law that has grown up around God’s instructions, received via Moses – and now, adjusted and amended and changed beyond all recognition into something much more than the original. From the grumbling comes the accusations: you can’t be a man of God if you welcome these undesirables into your company; you can’t be a man of the law if you disregard the rules; you can’t be a holy one if you don’t even recognise the basics of our belief…
So, Jesus being Jesus, lands them with another teaching example – another set of parables. He may break rules – man-made rules; but, God’s concern is with the gathering in of the lost things… little by little, one by one, each cast out person is told they are loved, and made to feel welcome in the kingdom. On the face of it, the parables seem to be about losing things; the fact is, they are about the exact opposite, they are about finding precious things that were lost, but are now restored. And, of course, the parables aren’t really, about sheep, coins and sons at all either!
These three parables aren't about losing things...they are about the determination of God. Determination for reconciliation, between us and God as illustrated in the first two parables; and reconciliation in God-centred community/family as illustrated in the third parable.
The first two parables do not seem logical – you have 99 of 100 sheep – yet, you’ll abandon the others to find the one – how does that make sense?
You have 9 of 10 silver coins – and then when you find it, you throw a big party to celebrate – spending money you don’t have!
How does that make sense?
That’s the crux of the story – God’s love and grace are lavish and generous and without limit. They don’t have to make sense; they don’t have to be logical – God’s love in its purest form is absurd! And that, that is a wondrous gift for each of us.
For it means God puts no limit on the opportunities for grace in our lives; God put no conditions; no restrictions – love and grace are freely available.
The third story is different; the father and the sons. The son is not lost accidentally; it is a deliberate act of defiance.
Yet, in spite of this betrayal; on the son’s return the father is waiting for him; more, looking out for him; more still, runs to greet and embrace him, enveloping him in his arms and celebrating his return.
The son has been foolish; and disrespectful; he has certainly broken all the rules; he knows this, and is ready to confess his mistakes, to seek forgiveness – but the father doesn’t listen to the prepared speech; the very fact that the son has taken the first step is enough. He is welcomed home.
Both sons however, need redemption. The second son, the one who was loyal and hardworking; the one who respected his father, and conformed to tradition, was outraged. His anger is directed at both his father and his brother. He feels that his father is favouring his brother over him; he cannot understand why someone so undeserving is being treated so royally.
This is the brother I can identify with!
Perhaps he is the one we can all identify with. For if we truly view the sons as humanity; and the Father as God; if we view working the farm as life; this means that all those people who are lazy and unthinking; all those who do terrible things, will be welcomed home if they return.
It is important to know that the father did not send out search parties; he did not set out to find the boy; but, as soon as he knew he was coming he ran forward to pull him home.
It is part of the human condition, that we seek forgiveness, work hard to share the gospel – live our lives as faithfully as we can. It is also part of the human condition to look at others and judge – we can’t help it.
Time and again in our current political climate I look at what is happening both here and around the world, and I am horrified, afraid, concerned and distressed at the way people are treated; at the way power is wielded; at the way people of power are behaving.
And yet, there is a small voice, whispering in my ear and reminding me: he too is a beloved child of God; she is known and cherished; he belongs in God’s family.
And I, like the older son, feel fury and indignation! How can this be?
And I hear again those words of the father in the parable
“We have to celebrate and be glad, for this brother of yours was dead and is now alive; he was lost and is now found”.
 God loves us
And God loves those we do not love; do not trust; do not value.
Everyone has the chance to reflect and turn; and when they do, the father will be waiting to welcome them home.
Because God does not follow man made rules; God’s rules do not exclude – they bestow hope to every child of God.
And that is worth celebrating!


Brodick Beach, Isle of Arran (JRen 2017)

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

The peace of Early Morning

In our parish, we are undertaking a Lenten discipline of early morning worship; once per week, on a Wednesday morning the faithful gather round the table at 7.30 am.
This means the minister arrives in church by 7.15 am

The church
the dawn light
the stillness
the gentle murmur of hushed voices greeting each other

the corporate act of worship; voices blending to respond to ancient words of welcome; all contribute to the feeling of holy

We share the worship
We listen to scripture
We break bread together
And then we go, off to whatever the day is calling us to...
It is simple
It takes no more than 15 minutes
yet, in those few minutes, the day begins, the heart is filled, the word is shared, and Love lives again.

it is profound in its simplicity 
and that is where beauty lies

Praise God for the morning!