Saturday, 23 February 2019

Love and Good Judgement – the world is still upside down.

Genesis 45: 3-11, 15 ;Luke 6: 27- 38 
 Sermon for 24 February 

Forgiveness; reconciliation; love; compassion; mercy; generosity; they all sound so wonderful don’t they. Especially if we are on the receiving end.
But the actual doing; giving; being of these is much, much harder.
Jesus adds to the task by insisting that all of these attitudes need to be applied, not to your friends and loved ones, but to those who hate us, those who are our enemies, those who wish us harm!
For goodness sake!!
Does he know what he is asking?
Of course he does.
The story of forgiveness in the bible is not a new concept, the story of Joseph tells of astonishing forgiveness.
The reading we heard from Genesis is the culmination of an event begun years before.
It is a tale full of jealousy, anger, betrayal and deception. It is not the finest hour for Joseph’s brothers.
I wonder – did they regret their actions in those ensuing years?
When they saw their father’s grief, did they wish it was different; did they replay it in their imagination, seeking a different outcome?
Joseph remembered them; they did not recognise him for many reasons. The most obvious of course being that they thought he was most probably dead!
But also, he has been away from them for around ten years; he had grown from a boy to a man, and he is living as an Egyptian. There is little by way of clues for them to recognise a man they had assumed lost.
Joseph had realised who they were; and had made them suffer by over filling their bags; and putting some of the Pharaoh’s sliver in with the grain so he had an excuse to call them back and confront them, his anticipation and excitement at the big reveal must have been enormous.
He knew, with the wisdom of hindsight, that the gift of dream telling had placed him in the right place, at the right time; he knew that God had been with him throughout, and because of that, God had blessed and preserved him for this time.
He also knew that forgiveness was his to give. Forgiveness to his brothers, whom he loved, in spite of the fact that they had plotted to kill him; had attacked him; and eventually sold him to slave traders… all that they had done, and yet, his faith enabled him to let it go, to free his own pain and offer forgiveness and love to these estranged brothers. And then, because God had placed him exactly where he needed to be, was able to help his family in a time of great need…

Jesus’ teaching hits home; the instruction is easy to understand, but almost impossible to put into practice – unless we remember that in all things, God’s grace abounds. Under our own power we are powerless; with God’s grace we can achieve amazing and wonderful things.
The key point, the Golden Rule, is Love your Enemies. It is not difficult to understand but it is very difficult to do!
I find I ask myself how? How can I make this work in my life? There is responsibility, there are rules…
 I do not have a satisfactory answer yet, though I am working on it.

Earlier this week I was at the annual Presbytery Clerk’s conference; we received previews of some of the things that are going to be coming up at General Assembly in May, including two far reaching pieces of work that look into the administration of the church and the new revised radical plan which looks at the future of the whole church.
Both will require hard, brave action.
Both are created with input from the whole church – not just those admin people in Edinburgh, but ordinary people from the parishes; parish ministers – like you and me, the people who are on the ground, being the church.
Forgiveness; reconciliation; love; compassion; mercy; generosity; all the elements that Jesus was talking about are going to be needed by the church as we move forward in the next months and years.
Stepping out boldly!
Change is coming. The world does not stand still, and neither can the church as a whole stand still.
In our Presbytery, and in our area, talks continue, prayerfully looking forward, seeking new and creative ways to sustain and build.
Our challenge is to be open to what may be suggested; to think beyond this building and our village; to be generous with those we do not know well; to be encouraging, even if we are unsure ourselves.

I do not know what is coming; and I do not know how we will be affected.
I do know, we can be like Joseph; trusting God’s plan, even when it seems impossible.
I do know we can follow Jesus’ lead… for God’s kingdom, God’s love, God’s family is ours too.
The future is hidden from our eyes; the world is still upside down
But we are reminded again: God’s love takes us into new ways, new adventures as we follow.
God blesses us with grace and love; the world may be upside down, unpredictable, constantly changing…
But we are equipped by God: forgiveness; reconciliation; love; compassion; mercy; generosity; all ours through Jesus  
And with that hope – we can be strong. Amen 

Sunday, 17 February 2019

Turning the World Upside Down - sermon for 17 February

Jeremiah 17: 5-10; Luke 6:17-26 

Blessings and Woes 
One of the advantages of a late Easter is that we get to spend more time looking at Jesus’ early ministry. The sermon on the mount is a familiar scene, Jesus, on the hillside, sharing his wisdom. The version of this in Luke’s Gospel is a little different from the Beatitudes in Matthew’s Gospel as the short list of blessings is mirrored by a short list of woes. These blessings and woes are significant especially because for those who hear these words, both two thousand years ago, and today, they seem to be the wrong way round.
Blessed to be hungry?
Woe to be full?
Blessed to be poor?
Woe to be rich?
Blessed to weep…
Woe to laugh.

It seems all wrong doesn’t it?
Turned upside down… wrong way up.

The prophet Jeremiah also has warnings of who is cursed and who is blessed: these on first glance seem more acceptable: cursed are those who trust in human things; blessed are those who trust in God… and a warning too: God sees into the heart – God knows what it is we really trust!

Those who heard this proclamation first-hand struggled: their society believed in the rule of you reap what you sow; that good things happened to show you were favoured by God, and if bad things happened it must be because you had done something bad and God was punishing you.
And we sometimes fall into that trap too: we hear others saying, what have I done to deserve this? Or, we say, you don’t deserve that; or, we ask, why didn’t God prevent this, or that from happening.

Well, truth is, stuff happens. Bad things happen to good people; good things happen to bad people, and vice versa. Stuff happens.

Jesus was turning it round to help us move beyond the ‘stuff’, and into a real God relationship.
If terrible things do happen – find the blessings – because those who suffer are blessed, known and loved by God.
These blessings. The Beatitudes are not a list of conditions to aspire to; nor are they some weird contract Jesus is setting out for us to strive after. There is no condition attached.

It is part of our human condition to believe we are not worthy; that we are not special enough, good enough. Yet, what Jesus is telling us is that we ARE worthy. 
We ARE special. We ARE loved.
If we find we are suffering, that our spirit is hungry, that our lives do not feel worthy, we are blessed.
Not, we will be blessed at some point in the future, once we’ve repented or apologised, or made good.
But we are blessed
Right now
Right here
Right where we are.

Jesus' teaching was to show people who were marginalised, who were constantly feeling unworthy and unacceptable, that God loved them.
Jesus' teaching was aimed at those who felt they did not have a place in God’s Kingdom. To tell them, that their place was now. That they were indeed part of God’s kingdom; that they were indeed part of God’s family.

That teaching stands the test of time; and we hear it again today: we are part of God’s story now. Today.
We are part of God’s kingdom.
Do you have things you are unhappy about in your life?
Me too!
Do you have things that make you feel unsure, uncomfortable, unacceptable? 
Me too!!

Does that exclude us from God’s kingdom? Does that bring us woe?!
That blesses us; that confirms the blessings that God wants us to receive.

When we hear the Good News of the Gospel again, we are reminded we are part of God’s Story.
We are: beloved. Blessed. Known. Loved. Forgiven.

As we strive to live as well as we can.
We live into our blessedness
We take up the blessings God bestows
We accept that God loves and blesses us

The blessings – the beatitudes are not a statement of intent; they are not even a promise.
They are a statement of what IS. Now.

The beatitudes tell us, without condition
Today, you and I, are blessed.

If this seems all wrong and for others but not for you… remember, Jesus turned everything upside down and wrong way round.

You are blessed
Believe it
Live it
Know it.

Sunday, 3 February 2019

When Women Stand Together

I have spent seven wonderful days at sea, with amazing women, our common link the organisation RevGalBlogPals. We gathered at sea to hear words, to share stories, to study scripture, specifically Hebrew Scripture, and womanist* stories of oppression and domination.

What will be the enduring memories?
What will be my new hashtag?

I am saddened to report that my enduring memory will not be the laughter, the sistership, the learning from each other, and the inspirational Rev Dr Wilda Gafney.

Instead it will be the ugly face of racism, compounded by an unwillingness to listen and respond to the pain and the improper behaviour of one employee of the giant cruise line Carnival.

My sisters dealt with the stress and the ugliness without sharing with the wider group. This spared us. But also leaves me feeling helpless to respond, or react. I do not know, we cannot know if the unfolding catalogue of missed opportunities and minimal response would have been any different if instead of 14 voices the management had been bombarded with 63 complaints. 

Our sisters have been supported, championed, by the President of our Board, and our Director. They have been carried by those who were part of the initial incident, and the subsequent one. (Yes, subsequent!) 

But why is this even necessary? This is the 21st Century. We are educated. We are articulate. And yet a man was able to disempower and ridicule legitimate complaints. 
The lack of appropriate response.
The clear void in understanding does nothing to encourage me to consider cruising with Carnival again. 

Carnival needs to address the systemic racism and misogyny that appears to be endemic within their structures. Education of all employees needs to be stepped up, so that every member of staff recognises and calls out inappropriate behaviour in their colleagues, they need to not defend the indefensible. 

The cruise “bubble” is no excuse. 

you can read RevGalBlogPals statment and open letter here 

*Womanist = women of colour who stand up for themselves and their sisters, in our context within the biblical narrative


And so it begins... part two

1 Cor 13: 1-13; Jeremiah 1: 4-10; Luke 4: 21-20

It is not easy to be a prophet; usually it means you are given hard words to share. Words that will be welcomed by some and rejected by others.
It’s not easy to be the prophet.
Our readings this morning concern prophets; in the Old Testament Jeremiah, and young man who feels ill-equipped for the task ahead. In the New Testament – Jesus, who is bold in his approach and stirs up strong feelings for all who listen.

You may remember that last week I told you to come back for “what happened next?”!
Jesus, is at home, in Nazareth; this is the synagogue he grew up in; these people have known him all his life. He is Joseph’s boy. One of them, already he has been out, teaching, working miracles, showing wonders of God’s touch. Already, he has stirred things up by doing these things in neighbouring Capernaum with the rival village… the scene is set, and everyone waits with baited breath.

“Today this has come true in your presence!”
Wait, what?!!
Here…. You… really?!
The pride in one of their own achieving quickly turns to indignation that this upstart carpenter’s son seems to be claiming that he is the Messiah!
Wait, what?!!

As I said, it isn’t easy being a prophet – you doubt yourself, or others doubt you; people don’t always want to hear what you need to say – but you say it anyway -with love. 
The call of Jeremiah reminds us of God’s call to each of us to engage with the world; Paul’s hymn of love – which is Holy Love –  shows us the need to suffuse our engagement with love, whilst Jesus’ teaching is a reminder that responding to this call does not always lead to recognition and appreciation

Paul called all who follow Jesus’ teaching to love first and foremost, if we listen with love – then the prophet’s words bear fruit.

All the images of mirror writing, mirror images and reflections… reminded us that we do not always see the full picture. We cannot always see clearly. Sometimes we need others, we need a wider view, we need to wait to see the full picture.

On our own we can’t see clearly. With God. With Love we can see… Jesus

Howard Thurman’s poem, the work of Christmas is a timely reminder; traditionally this weekend is Candlemas (Feb 2nd) it is the true end of the Christmas season, the time to start up into the year ahead:
 (The Mood of Christmas and Other Celebrations, 1985)
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,When the kings and the princes are home,When the shepherds are back with their flocks,The work of Christmas begins:To find the lost,To heal the broken,To feed the hungry,To release the prisoner,To rebuild the nations,To bring peace among brothers,To make music in the heart.

It is holy love that calls us to do things we feel inadequate to do. It is holy love that strengthens us and gives us courage and perseverance in times of trial. It is holy love that enables us to speak words of truth to a questioning and sometimes hostile world.
It all comes together in this summary: in the beginning is love. Through the journey is love. In all that is left… is love.
The work of Christmas begins:To find the lost,To heal the broken,To feed the hungry,To release the prisoner,To rebuild the nations,To bring peace among brothers,To make music in the heart

Love, Holy Love, indeed, is the greatest of these.

And so it begins… (part one)

Luke 4: 14-21. A sermon preached on January 27th in Earlston following infant baptism.
Today is a new beginning for Jacob and his family; as they brought him here for baptism, they are declaring for all to hear that to call on God for blessing is important; they are setting up a new relationship for their infant son, even though he is barely aware of it, he now belongs to God’s family; he receives God’s promises.

Today’s gospel reading is the first of two – come back next week to hear what happens next!
It also contains arguably the shortest sermon ever: “today this has come true in your hearing.” That is it.
There are two things to say on reflection of this passage: 
let the Bible preach itself, as Jesus did; 
then believe it is coming true.
Hmm… maybe you are expecting a little more of me this morning?

Jesus returns home. What are people’s expectation of him now? Will they be expecting some profound insight from the boy who grew up among them? Is there a gentle sense of pride towards one of their own? What would Jesus’ own expectations have been on returning home?
Could a more profound passage have been given to Jesus to read and expound on?
This is the liberation theologian’s dream passage and with the Jews in the middle of an occupied territory, to hear these words of exodus-like freedom from the lips of one of the village sons might have sent hairs standing on the back of each person’s neck. What comment will he make?
What dangerous gospel is he going to exclaim?
What Jesus offers either convinces you he truly does have profound insight, more than anyone expected, or he now thinks he is better than everyone else.
“What you have heard, is coming true.”
What? That’s it? Where are the eloquent words and deep insights you have gleaned from this passage?
But, The Word becomes flesh, always. This is yet another moment where there is no satisfaction in being able to describe things, and wax lyrically on how things will be.
In our hearing, in our presence, in our being, these words come true. Jesus nails his colours to the mast and sets out his stall with a simple (profound) sentence:
“These words have come true in your hearing.”
Without witnessing to the poor and the imprisoned and the blind, we are not living the gospel. This manifesto of the Reign of God is taking the hopes that have been building up over the centuries through the prophets, especially Isaiah, whose words these are, and then opening them up and setting them free. The hoping is over. The fulfilment is here.

In our hearing…
It keeps coming back to this. Not that they are true, or that they have been fulfilled, but that this has happened in our hearing as if this is the proof.
You’ve heard it happen with your own ears. Now believe it.

It is Jesus’ call to his disciples, more than that given to the fishermen on that beach and tax collectors at their tables.
It is Jesus’ call to the church and every faith community to hear the gospel, this gospel, and make it so in our presence.

Next week, we will hear how his friends, family, community reacted to his profound sermon.
But this week, as we stand witness to the baptism of baby Jacob; as witness again, God’s love, manifest in a child, we again need to hear the Good News…
Jesus came to bring life and freedom
To bring challenge and hope
To open eyes and ears, so that all may know God’s manifesto:
Here’s how it is translated in the Message version:
God’s Spirit is on me; he’s chosen me to preach the Message of good news to the poor, sent me to announce pardon to prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind,To set the burdened and battered free, to announce, “This is God’s year to act!”

Taken like that, who could argue?
Freedom, sight, forgiveness, pardon…
These are all things we want; these are all things that God wants for God’s people.
For all people.
Not just those in the know
Not just a chosen few…
But all God’s people.

As Jesus read from scriptures
And then proclaimed that God’s manifesto was being fulfilled, a new era began.
Jesus mission started: he was sent to bring Good News for all people
For those who had begun to follow him it was electric.
For those who had known him all his life… well, you’ll have to wait until next week for part two!

As Jesus proclaims the gospel news to each of us again today
In our hearing…
We have a choice.
Hear the good news and believe it; respond to it.
Or, carry on as before…
It’s up to us.
God calls
Are your ears open?
Can your eyes see?

When church becomes like home, and we become too comfortable or complacent, may God inspire us with the Spirit.
When our congregations become a closed-doors community, that keeps strangers out, may God inspire us by the Spirit to open wide the doors.

 The Church of Scotland is facing something of a crisis, right now.
Right now the church itself needs to hear again this message of hope and inspiration:
We are here to listen again to God’s manifesto:
For all God’s people
All the time