Sunday, 29 September 2013

The Fruits of our Labours

Here is the Sermon for Sunday 29th September - it may or may not be what I actually preach today! But the general theme is there!


A reflection on the Rich Fool (Luke 12: 13-21)

13 A man in the crowd said to Jesus, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide with me the property our father left us." 14 Jesus answered him, "Friend, who gave me the right to judge or to divide the property between you two?" 15 And he went on to say to them all, "Watch out and guard yourselves from every kind of greed; because your true life is not made up of the things you own, no matter how rich you may be." 16 Then Jesus told them this parable: "There was once a rich man who had land which bore good crops. 17 He began to think to himself, "I don't have a place to keep all my crops. What can I do? 18 This is what I will do,' he told himself; "I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, where I will store the grain and all my other goods. 19 Then I will say to myself, Lucky man! You have all the good things you need for many years. Take life easy, eat, drink, and enjoy yourself!' 20 But God said to him, "You fool! This very night you will have to give up your life; then who will get all these things you have kept for yourself?' " 21 And Jesus concluded, "This is how it is with those who pile up riches for themselves but are not rich in God's sight."

This time last year... do you remember this time last year?

We were lamenting the poor harvest; we had so much rain that crops were rotting in the fields; nothing was ripening; and everyone felt really down because the summer had been long and wet and cold.

Fast forward to this year!! What a difference!
A warm and wet spring gave way to a long hot summer, with just enough rain to keep everything growing, and now there is a bumper harvest – the beast season for all sorts of things for quite some time.

It’s been the same in the manse garden too; you’ve all received the courgettes; and some have also had tomatoes; and broccoli and caulis and tatties.... now as the season is changing the fruit trees are heavy laden; the tomatoes are falling over they are so heavy; we have apples and pears in abundance – for anyone who cares to come and collect them!

Today’s parable about the Rich Fool, is the one designated for Harvest celebrations in the lectionary; and to my mind it just seemed to fit in with the present glut our gardens are experiencing.

I could so easily fall into that category of let’s get another freezer so we can have apples and pears all through the winter, without considering sharing them with others; and the plenty I have isn’t necessarily just the fruits of our own labours on the land either.

Think of all the things we work hard for; our homes; our families; to have a little money set aside for a rainy day. We go out to work; we give or time our talents and our service – and we are rewarded accordingly. What we do with our wages – whether you work for the minimum or indeed you have more than you need – what we do with what we earn is up to us.

The other thing we were doing this time last year was celebrating our church family; our church community as we began our Stewardship Campaign.  Some of you will remember it well; others will remember the meal; the entertainment – and maybe that it was “just the Kirk asking for money again”.

 Stewardship is not about fundraising.
Let me say that again!!
Stewardship is not about fundraising.

Fundraising is the gathering together of funds for a specific purpose or project – but the church isn’t a project! The church isn’t something that just needs money to be thrown at it. The church is much, much more than that.

Another thing stewardship isn’t: it isn’t something that rears its head every few years and we just ignore meantime. Stewardship is about every aspect of our lives – day in day out. Stewardship is about prayerfully using the resources we have to hand. One year a rich full harvest; another year things may not be so good. Stewardship means we use our wealth: every aspect of wealth, carefully and considerately. No spare money? Use your time and talents! Not much spare time – ok then, what can you do? Be honest with yourself – because God knows the answer!! God asks us to be generous, not greedy; to be to be happy with what we have, not to yearn for what we want.

The Rich Fool missed the point about stewardship and about generosity.

Jesus began the parable with a statement: "Watch out and guard yourselves from every kind of greed; because your true life is not made up of the things you own, no matter how rich you may be."

In the same way that the Rich Fool, thought because he had so much he could kick back take an easy ride and not make any effort; we too can fall into that trap.

We are asked to be good stewards; all that we have is not ours to squander, we are trusted by God with what we have; trusted to use it well; to manage it; to grow it if we can. We can of course, use what we have for our own needs, but if we can share some of that bounty along the way then we are sharing God’s riches; sharing God’s blessing.

The end of the summer; the start of the autumn wind down into winter is a good time for taking stock; what do we have; what do we need; what can we spare?

We give thanks for the glorious spring and summer season; we store up supplies for winter and we share the excess with those who have not.

And. We give thanks for all the ways God blesses us; for the challenges we face and conquer; for the difficulties that arise and the blessings that come from trusting in God.

We can choose to be a Rich Fool, who holds it all back ‘just in case’ but never really enjoys the fruits of his labours

Or we can be a Fool for Jesus – willing to trust and share from what we have – the fruits of all our different labours – a rich, rich harvest of plenty.


Saturday, 21 September 2013

Sermon 22 September: Eternal Hope and Unending Grace

Amos 8: 4-7
Luke 16: 1-13
At the General Assembly this year, I had a proud mother moment watching online as Jamie stood up to address the Assembly on a subject he feels very strongly about – the corporate abuse of tax rules – namely tax avoidance – and the impact this can have on the poorest in the world. He spoke strongly and passionately, and, even though he stammered a bit, this did not detract from the eloquence of what he said.
My niece, Joanna, is at Durham University, studying accountancy, she is in her final year and her dissertation is entitled, “Tax Avoidance: immoral or sound business?”

Jamie and Joanna are of the generation that is not afraid to tackle big issues; not embarrassed to state their opinion and speak their mind.
When they see injustice they stand up and speak out.
Some people may think that tax avoidance or tax evasion (in theory different... but in reality, one may be legal, but it isn’t any less immoral) is a new problem; a 21st Century issue, but look at the reading from the Prophet Amos: written almost three thousand years ago, it could just as easily have been written for us right now. It is a cry against injustice; a plea for the poor and marginalized; it is a warning against disobedience and the breaking of the covenant with God.

The scorn Amos throws on the people who follow the letter of the law, waiting until the Sabbath is over before they go back to their regular sharp practice, without ever really embracing the heart of what God asks, no, demands, of them as his chosen people.

The Old Testament prophets wrote during times of plenty and times of famine – both physically and spiritually – and each had their place. There is a cyclical motif that runs all through the Old Testament history of the People of Israel – as a nation they were proud of their heritage; but they were also easily distracted; easily bored. If something new or different or attractive came along they very easily drifted off; introducing a bit of this and bit of that, until almost without realising it, they had drifted so far that they were no longer following or honouring God at all – they drifted into Baal and other gods with astonishing regularity.

In the whole of this book of Amos we hear of the times God has declared he is going to punish his people; each time Amos pleads on their behalf to spare them; to give them another chance; in chapter 7 Amos begs God to forgive them; and God relents, but draws a line – the plumb-line. The time has come.

The verses that immediately precede today’s reading say it all:

“The time is ripe for my people Israel; I will spare them no longer

The injustice and exploitation and abuse of the poor and the ignoring and dishonouring of God cannot continue.

And God will not forget anything they have done.

It is an apocalyptic prophesy; they are to be uprooted; overtaken by a pagan nation and their time will come to an end... if you read on – the final chapter does bring reassurance for the remnant; those who truly repent, truly turn back to God will be restored, and from the ruins will come a new king from David’s line.

Fast forward 750 years to 1st C Galilee and that new king is making his presence felt. Not as some might have expected or wanted; but nevertheless, a new king he is.

Much of Jesus’ teaching is about justice, freedom and righteousness; and this teaching about the shrewd manager seems to fly in the face of what we know and understand.

And as you may guess there has been much debate around what exactly is being done here. Certainly the dishonest man is making sure he will have places to turn to when the inevitable happens.
But whose money is he using? Whose money is he giving away? Is it real money? Or is he actually undoing the wrong?
One theory is that this extra discount he gives was actually the illegal tax levy he’d made to line his own pocket – it was giving his master a bad name; and the master hadn’t profited from it at all.
So by writing off these so called bad debts, he wasn’t depriving his master but restoring his good name; and enhancing his own reputation in the process.
He undid his dishonest transactions, not for any altruistic reasons but simply to protect his own skin; but in the meantime other people did benefit.

He was still serving mammon not God
He may have been shrewd, but he wasn’t very wise.

Counter to this is the next theory, that the shrewd steward is a metaphor for Jesus... I can hear the cries! But the Steward is bad! Wouldn’t that make Jesus bad too??!!

And then answer is yes, and yes! This I found only late on Saturday – and in so many ways it answered the thing that was rumbling away in my head all week – where is the positive in the really difficult, not very appealing parable?

I found the answer in a book called Parables of Grace, by Robert Capon – a book I hadn’t known until Saturday afternoon; a book I previewed, then immediately downloaded to my kindle. A book that has totally inspired me!

There are parts of this parable that flow, and parts that seem to be much more disjointed.

The shrewd steward is losing his job, his livelihood, his life; he dies to that life and so he makes reparation for all that has gone before. His old life is gone; he restores his master’s reputation, and renews his relationship with those he does business with; he puts right old wrongs; and gives those without hope – the debtors – new hope and a clean slate to start from.

Can you hear the similarities now?

It gets better! Capon suggests our Unjust Steward is a crook – just like Jesus!

Jesus wasn’t respectable; he didn’t spend time with the in crowd; he spent time with sinners and tax collectors; he broke the Sabbath; and he died as a criminal.

Jesus’ life was not to conform; to cow-tow; Jesus life was to bring grace into the world – “grace cannot come into the world through respectability. Respectability regards only life, success, winning; it will have no truck with the grace that works by death and losing – which is the only kind of grace there is” (Capon; Parables of Grace. Ch.14)

Jesus wanted, needed to catch the world. He needed to grab our attention and make us understand.

He became sin for us sinners
Weak for us weaklings
Lost for us losers
And dead for us who are spiritually dead
He was friend to us sinners – the crooks

Because he knows us – through and through
He is the only mediator we want, or need, and trust. He was, is, like us; and in the same way that the steward was able to set those bad debtors on the right way again – settling their debts with the Master, Jesus sets us on the right way; settles our debts; and makes things right again.

We began with Amos’ apocalyptic prophesy of death, and devastation – God punishing and refusing to forgive the recalcitrant people of Israel

And we end with the Son of God – willing to become a crook so that all our debts will be wiped away forever. 
And bringing us eternal hope and unending grace

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Lost Sheep - sermon for 15th September

Luke 15: 1-10

Who can forget that heart lurching moment when you realise you have lost something?

If it is something small an inconsequential, it is just a minor inconvenience; but if it’s valuable, or important, or has a sentimental attachment, then it’s really important.

I remember, many, many years ago in Aberdeen, on a shopping trip – with small boys in tow; Jamie was a baby and in the stroller, and the two older boys were walking between me and their Dad.

I needed to go pick up something or other, so went with the buggy into a shop, while the boys continued on with their Dad. We were to meet up in another store some five minutes or so later. When we met up, George (age 5) was missing; each of us thought he was with the other.

A fraught ten minutes followed, with the shopping centre security team ‘on the case’ he was found, on another level at the opposite end of the mall!! And when he was found I was torn between being so angry with him; and so afraid of what might have been; and so overjoyed that he was ok; he was safe; he wasn’t hurt....

That’s the rub with lost things – often they carry mixed feelings

When we think about these parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin; it can be both comforting – God looks for us when we’re lost. And discomforting – left to our own devices while God seeks out the others....

In our wider church community there is a huge emphasis on mission and outreach. Church attendance, church membership is dwindling at an alarming rate and we are exhorted to discover new ways of being church to attract new people; to share the news of the gospel and to reach out to those who currently have no active relationship with the church.

We are told the angels of God rejoice over one sinner who repents” (v.10)  -
which is all well and good, but what about us?

How often we think of ourselves as the sheep that did not wander off, as one of the coins that was not lost, and can’t this lead to a certain level of resentment?

Of some slight disgruntlement? And yet, if we think about it, we all find ourselves lost at some point.

Our community: the small village we live in; the church family here that we belong to; the wider Borders area; the whole Church of Scotland... all circles within circle; wheels within wheels. Whichever level of community you consider has its ups and downs; and we all have our days when we feel we are part of it, and others when we do not – when we feel pretty well lost.

On these days, what a blessing and comfort it is to have those parables to remind us of God’s intent: that no one will remain lost for too long!

God’s community is not complete without everyone (sheep and coin) and it is not about the ones left behind, but about God’s desire to bring everyone into community so that it will be complete.

On days when we feel included, in our place, at peace, we do not need to resent that God’s seeking lost souls – that is as it should be. And on days when we feel totally lost; no idea where to go; what to do; how we fit in – we have the reassurance that God is there, seeking us, willing us to turn back, to be found again.

And we, as Christians first, and church members second, have our place, our part to play too. Encouraging those who have strayed away; inviting them back in to the fold, showing them a warm welcome when they are brave enough to cross the threshold.

When we see new people; or well known folks we haven’t seen for a while, it is our task to make them feel wanted, comfortable, at ease so that they will want to stay.

Today’s passage begins with a conversation between Jesus and some Pharisees – they are outraged because Jesus is choosing to spend time with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus in fact actively seeks them out.

He uses the analogy to impress upon these teachers that God wants to seek out everyone – not just an elite list, the chosen few; but everyone and anyone.

The unloved

The unwelcome

The untrustworthy

The criminals and low-lifes

People we would cross the street to avoid... these are the people Jesus met with, ate with, spent time with

And the Pharisees were horrified by it

It was beyond their comprehension that God would choose any but the righteous – sinners were to be left on the outside and utterly abandoned to their fate.

They couldn’t understand that sinners could be forgiven, given a clean start, and a new chance. It seemed utterly absurd.

We listen to those words again: the angels of God rejoice over one sinner who repents” 

The word repent indicates not just saying sorry or making amends; but turning over a new leaf; a fresh start; a willingness to turn around and change

It is dynamic and active – it is a life changing event to be found by God

Our challenge:

We may be in the fold, but we also have times when we are lost – at those times God seeks us, calls us back

We may also feel disturbed by the different ways the church seeks to invite and renew its connections with the community

God doesn’t fit into any single idea- God is bigger and better and more wondrous than that!

God seeks the lost. Period.

The lost are not always those we would choose; those we like; those we would seek out but that’s ok too!

Because a God that would only seek the people we like would be a very small God indeed... thank goodness, it’s God who does the work, does the choosing – because that’s what causes heaven to rejoice!!

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Stock Taking

When I was younger.... and before I was a minister...
I worked in retail
I loved talking to my customers, getting to know them, helping them choose things they loved, and generaly following thier story.
My retail job was as manager of a small childrenswear and nursery goods shop.
So many of the journeys I followed included helping expectant parents choose equipment, and watching as they turned into new parents - it was fun and for the most part totally joyful

Twice per year in the autumn and the spring we had a stock take - just before the new season's stock was delivered
It was a time for me as the manager and buyer to work out what had sold well, what staples were no longer in high demand, what would work better... lists, upon lists, upon lists. Because this would inform my buying for the next season, and give me an inkling of new lines to introduce.
I kept a book which I got the staff to use, so every time they got asked for something we didn't have they would enter it - really good way of seeing new trends develop.

Sometimes, I was forced to admit I'd got it wrong - somemthing I'd bought was still hanging around; and even after it was discounted still wasn't selling... so it was time to review, renew and restart

This past week I have been doing a little stock taking of a different sort; having returned home from holiday rested and relaxed and choked with the cold,  I finally admitted this week that two weeks was long enough and took a visit to the doctor who informed me I was an infection risk, and should sign myself off for the week to recuperate.
One of the comments to my facebook update was along the lines of - why do we wait so long to admit when we are under par, unwell, in need of a stock take?

Being in ministry compares with being in retail; we meet people, get to know them, listen to their stories and try to supply them  with what they want or need. Not clothes and buggies any more; but something of God's light; the Spirit's inspiring and the love and compassion of Jesus

In ministry we have seasons, summer is the time to kick back - meetings are fewer and the routines change, so we can pick up some of the stuff that has got put on the back burner, it's time to catch up on visits, do a little (or a lot) of filing, plan some future events and things you hope people will like. I no longer have a suggestion box - but I do get requests for particular things - time for reflection, mid-week worship, explanations of faith and life... all good and exciting propositions. Thus for autumn I offered some new ventures - church open for quiet and reflection; mid-week worship and a course to explore faith & life issues.

It's too early to say whether these things will work or be successful... though the Faith Exploration Course has stopped - no one came!! Awaiting feedback on that - time to do a little stock take.
And the first evening service had to be led by someone else as I am not well - but was well attended and well received - a blessing to others indeed

As for me.
how do I take stock?
What do I need for me?
Something to feed my intellect; something to challenge me and take me out of my comfort zone
Something to take me to new depths or heights - on my journey

I have plans afoot that take me right into 2015 - 2015!!!
And a new venture as a student, which I have been in two minds about for the past six months - but, spending a week taking stock has given me new clarity on that one! So, in approximately three weeks time - Glasgow University here I come!!