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