Sunday, 15 October 2017

Sunday, sermon 15 Oct: 'Hagar'/ people of the Bible series


READINGS/ Genesis ch. 16; Gen 21:1-21

SERMON 
Let’s pray: may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts,
be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

Had she been with them, when Abraham had taken the plunge,
and moved out of his comfort zone in the city of Haran?
Had she known that he did so because he’d heard the voice of the Lord calling him
to leave his country, his people, his home...
and to go to an unknown Promised Land?
Or, had she been collected along the way, just another of the many possessions
being carried along in the wake of the Promise:
people and goods, all travelling along Abram’s journey of faith?
Did she know of God’s promise to Abram:
that he would be the father of a mighty nation,
that his descendants would be as numerous as the glittering stars in the sky?
...She did know that he and his wife, Sarah were childless...

Servants are unseen, invisible –
at least, they’re supposed to be.
They get the job done,
no fuss, no bother,
and fade into the background.
Servants are unseen –
unless something’s amiss.
And something is indeed amiss by the time we get to Chapter 16 of Genesis,
and the ongoing story of Abram.

The wait for God’s promised child has been stretching on, and on...and on.
Years have passed since God spoke to Abram of the blessing of a child,
of descendants without number.
Perhaps God expects them to sort a little something out?
And suddenly, out of the shadows, comes Hagar.
We hear her story –
the story of someone who, in normal circumstances, would be overlooked.
Suddenly, this formerly unseen servant,
steps into the light because Sarai and Abraham see her in a different way than they have before.
They are free to make use of her in whatever way they want,
and what they want is a child.
Surely God meant for them to sort out the matter themselves –
for doesn’t God help those who help themselves...
except, that’s never ever written in Scripture?
And so, trying to second-guess God’s plan,
they do a little micro-managing, to make sure it actually happens.
Sarah sends Hagar to Abraham.
A child is conceived....
Sorted.
Except it’s not.
Somewhere in the seemingly simple plan of micro-managing an answer to prayer,
human dynamics – emotions and feelings – are forgotten.
Having arranged for Hagar to conceive, Sarah is now filled with jealousy.
And Hagar...
well, her social status has suddenly gone up:
she’s not just a servant, she’s carrying the child of her master –
and because of this, Sarah really doesn’t have the same authority over Hagar as she once did.
So she makes Hagar’s life such a living hell that it seems better to Hagar to flee
into the wilderness, than to stay in that unhappy place of torment any longer.
Perhaps it’s better, after all, not to have been seen, not to step into
the drama that is Abraham and Sarah's?
But having fled, out in the wilderness, Hagar is seen –
by God.
The angel of the Lord tells her to return,
tells her that she, too, will have descendants without number, just as Abram.
She has not been forgotten –
nor, with so many descendants,
will she ever be forgotten:
her story will be told
and her name will live on for generation upon generation.
But, hang on, that’s not supposed to happen:
she’s a servant,
a woman,
a nobody.
Why is God bothering... with her?
Why is God promising her that she’ll have vast quantities of descendants?
Well, because, while she may be a nobody in terms of the human worth of the day,
the story demonstrates that God sees things a little differently:
God sees the ones who are unseen –
the least,
the lost,
the most vulnerable,
the ones who apparently just don’t matter.
God sees. 
Not only is she seen,
Hagar is known, and named.

And something quite gob-smacking happens here:
Hagar, recognising that God sees her, names God:
gives God the name ‘el Roi’ – meaning ‘the God who sees ...me.’
Hagar is the first woman in the Bible visited by a messenger from God;
She’s the first woman to see and talk with God.
And, she’s the only person in all of scripture who names God –
sure there are men who encounter God, or messengers from God,
and who subsequently set up an altar at the place
and rename the place:
but Hagar ...names God.
She sees the God who sees her.
In response to the message she’s given, she returns back to camp.

Months pass, the child is born.
Abram is now 86.
Tensions still simmer.
14 years pass, and another child is born – this time to Sarah...
They name the child Isaac – meaning ‘God has brought me laughter’,
for, Sarah’s long-held wish has been answered.
But while there’s laughter for Sarah, there’s not so much for Hagar and her son, Ishmael.

Servants are unseen, invisible –
at least, they’re supposed to be.
And Hagar, the servant, and mother to Abraham’s child has not been invisible for a long time now.
Every moment of the day, she is a constant reminder to Sarah of what has happened.
Isaac is born, and Sarah makes plans:
for, clearly, with his birth, they are in the way,
and Sarah is determined that Isaac will not have to share his inheritance.
Sarah determines to get rid of them once and for all.
Eventually agreeing, Abraham gives Hagar food and drink and sends them away into the desert.
It’s horrific, and it doesn’t paint either Sarah or Abraham in
a great light – our heroes of the faith are flawed and fallible just like the rest of us.

There in the desert, the water soon runs out.
Hagar, the unseen,
Hagar, the exiled, unwanted, and vulnerable,
senses the end is near and cannot bear it.
She’s so distraught at the thought of losing her son, she walks a wee distance away from him.
She weeps –
it’s all that’s left to her in the barren desert wastes.
The boy also weeps.
And there, in the middle of nowhere,
God hears.
God sees.
And God answers their cries.
Water is given – life restored.
And they find, at this journey’s end, that the desert is their home, their place of refuge,
and that they are not forgotten.

Hagar’s story comes down to us through the generations –
a reminder to us of who God values:
who God sees.
History has a way of managing to record mostly the so-called ‘great and the good’ –
a king here, a general there,
perhaps an occasional queen.
Prominent, powerful.
People of status.
In this bible story about the not so invisible,
not so unseen servant, Hagar,
someone of seemingly no importance is raised up –
is shown to have value in God’s eyes,
is given life-giving water,
is given ... life.

I wonder, how often we feel like Hagar?
Deserted, walking in a wilderness,
feeling small, insignificant, invisible?
Living in and through the hardest of times that feels overwhelming,
that feels paralysing,
where the only thing left to give is tears?
Living a life where everything feels shrivelled and dry –
where’s the life-giving water,
the well from which to drink?
Where is God in the midst of the suffering?
Servants are unseen, invisible –
at least, they’re supposed to be.
But I’m so glad that Hagar is not.
As we see Hagar, the not so invisible woman,
as we hear her story,
we are reminded that, as God sees Hagar,
so too, God sees us.
God doesn’t watch from a distance, but is right in the midst of it.
The God of the resurrection sees us,
understands...us...
walks with us in the good places –
but also, in the hard.
Read Hagar’s story, if you’re feeling bereft, deserted, invisible:
be encouraged,
and know that God sees you,
is with you.

And it goes broader – beyond ourselves, this business of seeing:
I wonder, who are the Hagars in the world today?
Who are the ones we don’t see, don’t notice –
or who we try not to see?
What of the refugee – fleeing from war, wanting nothing but to live safely?
What of all those people caught up as victims in human trafficking – modern-day slavery?
What of those who have lost all hope,
have nowhere to go to,
have no one who sees them?
God sees the forgotten,
the lost,
the invisible,
the ones whose names we don’t know,
but whose names God knows.
In the story of Hagar,
we see the God who sees say to such a one:
‘I see ... you.’
And, in the seeing, demonstrates that they matter.

In a sea of human need, so often brought about by human greed,
we too, can choose to see;
we too, can choose to say:
‘I see you: you matter.’
And as we open our eyes and look, really look,
we will be following in the footsteps of the One
who knows us,
and who sees us,
and who calls us by name...
we will be following the One
who came to help ‘the least of these’,
and in so doing,
we’ll be bringing in God’s kingdom,
in which all are seen –
all are loved,
and all are valued.  Amen.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Sun 8 Oct: HARVEST FESTIVAL - supporting Farm Africa

Our annual Harvest Festival will be held on Sunday 8 October. 
This year's chosen charity for our Harvest Festival is Farm Africa.
There's a little information about them provided below, and, you can also visit their website here
Having given a wee challenge of collecting change in empty jars a month ago, with only a few days left, how are you doing? There's still a little time to add your loose change to a jar and bring it along in aid of Farm Africa...every little helps.
Our five primary schools have been busy preparing as well, by doing their own version of the
Great African Welly Walk, and by making some fabulous Harvest banners which will be on show on Sunday.

Who is Farm Africa?
Farm Africa is an international organisation working to build a prosperous rural Africa.
We help farmers to increase their harvests, build their incomes and sustain natural resources, partnering with governments and the private sector to find effective ways to fight poverty.
closely with local communities, who actively participate in all the decisions about our work. Typically, our staff are from the local area, can speak the local language and have a deep understanding of the local context.
Farm Africa works in four countries: Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, and Tanzania

What Farm Africa does:
Farming doesn’t just provide food, but income and prosperity. Good agriculture can change lives. Farm Africa focuses on transforming agriculture. We help farmers to increase their harvests, protect the environment and sell their produce in thriving markets.
By providing support, training in effective farming methods and links to markets, we help to build more profitable farming businesses so that whole communities can lift themselves out of poverty.

Crops
Eight out of ten rural Africans scrape their living from small plots.
Soils are often poor, drought ever near. Farm Africa brings in the smart crops, drought-busting techniques and marketing skills that make such tough farming viable, profitable and sustainable.

Livestock
Where land is arid and crop cultivation hard, many farmers make their living by keeping animals. Animals are generally the family’s most valuable possession and Farm Africa helps with basic animal health services.

Fisheries
Pollution and overfishing have put wild fish stocks under pressure. The price of fish has rocketed, hitting people hard. Farm Africa is pioneering fish farming in Kenya, which ensures sustainable protein supplies and a major new source of income.

Forests
Deforestation destroys wildlife and dehydrates soil. We help forest communities replace traditional tree-cutting and wood and charcoal selling with new eco-friendly enterprises that protect biodiversity and provide a sustainable income for future generations.

Climate resilience
If the current consumption of fossil fuels continues, global temperatures could rise by
as much as 4⁰, which would have a devastating impact on farmers' livelihoods.
Farm Africa helps smallholders to farm in ways which don't damage the environment,
and to build resilience to future climate shocks.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Sermon, Sun 1 Oct: Jonah/ 'people of the Bible'

A lovely surprise today in worship, as we received the gift of music, by Stuart, from Leadhills - who turned up to play the organ. Our digital hymnal does the job, but wow, how wonderful to have 'real' live music.
Huge thanks, and haste ye back!
Love a bit of spontaneous organ playing, we do...

READING: today we read through the Book of Jonah

SERMON:
May the words of my mouth, and the thoughts of all our hearts,
be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

Shortly, we’ll be singing the hymn:
‘There’s a wideness in God’s mercy’.
It’s probably one of my favourite hymns, and, given our text for this morning,
it’s hugely appropriate as we consider the story of Jonah.
‘There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,
like the wideness of the sea;
there’s a kindness in his justice,
which is more than liberty.’

I said earlier that the Book of Jonah is a fun story -
the fun can be found in the extreme responses and situations that our friend Jonah experiences.
And, it’s a story told each year to Jewish children, at Yom Kippur, as a type of comedic ‘fairytale’ –
fun, and with a seriously good point to make.
So, let’s have a wee look at this story.

It’s a funny old job, being a prophet.
You’ve one thing you basically have to do –
just the one –
which is to be a messenger.
God says ‘x’, and your job is to go and tell folk just what it is that God’s saying.
And here, in our story, is a prophet who will do anything –
seriously, anything else but that one thing he’s supposed to do.
Within the first three verses you have:
‘the word of the Lord came to Jonah…
“Go to Ninevah, go and tell them that their behavior is pretty much out of line.”
And without skipping a beat, Jonah skips off…in the entirely opposite direction.
In fact, he goes to quite extreme lengths, for Tarshish is not merely the opposite direction,
it’s at the uttermost end of the then known world.
Seriously, Jonah does not want to go to Ninevah.
So here we have a case of a reluctant prophet,
refusing to do that one thing that a prophet is basically meant to do.
And we already have a sinking feeling that things are not quite going to
go that well for our man Jonah.

Off he heads to Joppa, a sea port on the Mediterranean.
He finds a ship bound for Tarshish and he’s away.
In next to no time, however, Jonah’s plans begin to come unstuck.
A storm at sea;
a ship at threat of breaking up;
a crew imperiled,
each one crying out to their god for help.
In the midst of the noise,
the waves,
the storm,
Jonah… is below-decks sound asleep.
Reminds me a tad of Jesus, asleep in the boat on the storm-wracked Sea of Galilee,
except in Jonah’s case, unlike Jesus,
he doesn’t have the power to command the wind and waves to be still.
The only way that lives will be saved and that peace will prevail is if he throws himself overboard:
for it’s recognized that it’s Jonah’s presence that’s putting everyone else in danger.

A nice touch, in the midst of the horrific storm:
even when Jonah has told them to throw him into the sea, those on board don’t, initially.
Basically, these folk who pray to different gods, are decent folk.
Instead, they do the best that they can to row back to land.
We all know it doesn’t work.
And so, reluctantly, Jonah goes for a long walk off a short plank, and into the sea…
and, immediately, all is calm.
Those left on the boat don’t know who Jonah’s god is, but they are mightily impressed,
and try to honour God through prayer and sacrifices.
Meanwhile, Jonah effectively gets the equivalent of a time-out on the naughty step –
except, in this instance, the naughty step is a rather large fish who happens to swallow him whole.
There he is, in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights,
with nothing else to do but cool his heels and take stock of the events
that have led to this…fishy situation.

He prays:
for God’s help,
acknowledging that the God he worships is one who hears the cry of distress;
he prays:
for God’s mercy,
recognizing that the God he worships is one who is compassionate;
he prays:
asking forgiveness for being so reluctant
to follow the one that he’s called to serve;
the one he remembers who has rescued his people,
the one who is holy;
the one who can restore him to life.

And hearing Jonah’s cry,
God is indeed merciful,
forgiving,
and rescues Jonah from the mess he’s managed to get himself into.
The God of the second chance gives Jonah another opportunity to live into his calling –
to go to Ninevah and bring God’s word to them.
This time, Jonah heads off in the right direction.
He gets to Ninevah – and we discover just how vast a city it is:
it takes Jonah a full three days to get around it.
And the message he brings is stark:
they have forty days until they’re destroyed utterly.

So just who are these Ninevites?
They are part of the bigger, Assyrian Empire:
an empire that, like other empires, has been throwing its weight around,
making war upon its smaller, surrounding nations –
and, they are fierce, both in battle, and in victory,
determined to make those around them know just who is in charge,
determined, by sheer strength and brutality, to keep their neighbours in their place.
And, one of their neighbours happens to be Israel.
Jonah knows this people, their tactics;
has very possibly suffered, or, has friends who have suffered at their hands.
He is initially reluctant to go to them because he hates them,
in fact, he’d be quite happy for God to annihilate them.
Perhaps, even as he walks around the vast city of Ninevah, he’s imagining their destruction
and maybe, even enjoying the thought.

The message provokes an immediate response, from the Ninevites, however.
Unlike Jonah, the disobedient prophet,
the seemingly wicked Ninevites
hear the message,
take it on board,
and respond immediately.
They believe;
they make a fast of repentance;
they put on sackcloth garments –
a symbol of humility…
all of them:
the greatest to the least –
even the beasts –
and the king goes even further,
he gets off his throne and sits in the dust.
This is not a leader who goes off to play golf while his people face peril,
he is there with them, as one of them.
He issues a proclamation –
a lament calling on all his people to repent,
to pray to Jonah’s god.
They have nothing to lose:
maybe this god will listen…
maybe this god will change his mind…
maybe this god will show mercy
and let them live.
And the God who heard Jonah’s cry
hears the cry of the Ninevites;
God is indeed merciful,
forgiving,
and relents.
Back to the words of the hymn:
‘There is no place where earth’s sorrows
are more felt than in God’s heav’n;
there is no place where earth’s failings
have such kindly judgement giv’n.’

The God of the second chance extends that second chance
even to…  Ninevites
and gives them another opportunity to live.
In doing so, the God of grace challenges Jonah’s sense of exclusiveness:
here is a God for all people, not only one small group.
The door to the kingdom is swung wide open
and all who want, are welcomed in…
and Jonah hates it.

Let’s be frank, Jonah doesn’t come out of this story well:
his response to God’s compassion?
He sulks.
‘It’s not fair, God. I knew you’d do that.
How dare you be gracious and compassionate?
How dare you love those people?’
And off he flounces in a huff.
He’s outraged.
Jonah’s angry that God would have the temerity to demonstrate
the very same compassion, grace, forgiveness, and love,
that have been given to him.

Our pouting prophet takes himself out of the city and finds a place to rest.
As he sits and waits, and watches, to see what will happen to the city,
God causes a vine to grow by him to provide shade, to give him comfort.
Jonah likes this vine – it’s a fine vine.
And then a worm comes, and makes a wee meal of it:
the vine withers.
Jonah is angry again.
‘Why’d you kill the vine, God?
Seriously, I’m so angry I could die.’
He does come across as a bit of a drama queen, does our Jonah.

And then, God tries to gently put things into some perspective:
Jonah’s more upset about a vine dying
than he is about the potential deaths of one hundred and twenty thousand people.
Where’s the grace?
The compassion?
Where’s the mercy that’s been shown to him?
He’s so fixated on one way of seeing things
that he can’t move beyond it,
can’t see a new way forward,
can’t see God’s love
even when it’s staring him right in the face.

‘For the love of God is broader
than the grasp of mortal mind;
and the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.’
Sometimes, as the church, we look around at society, at the world,
and shake our heads while quietly closing the doors of our hearts
and, sometimes, our buildings, to those who might not be quite like us…
to those whose presence might mean
rethinking the way we understand God,
the way we approach God…
the way we do things
the way we be the church.
As we hear the odd, and sometimes funny tale of Jonah,
we hear of the God who challenges our preconceptions;
we hear of the God who extends compassion and love, mercy and grace,
far wider than we might expect.
This is the God who hears our cry,
the God who is merciful, forgiving,
and who rescues us from the mess we sometimes manage to get ourselves into.
This is the God of the second chance, who gives us –
like Jonah,
like the people of Ninevah –
the opportunity to live,
and, in living,
to share the story of God’s wide love –
a love that’s more than enough for all.

Earlier, in setting the scene for worship,
I asked these questions:
What’s the size of a fish that swallows a prophet?
What’s the size of a city that takes
three days to walk through?
What’s the size of the grace
that forgives that city,
that prophet and the whole world?
In the story of Jonah, the answers are:
big;
verrrrry big;
and, bigger than we can ever fully imagine.

‘If our love were but more simple,
we would take him at his word;
and our lives be filled with glory
from the glory of the Lord.’

Let’s pray:
Creator God,
thank you for a faith that is
more of an adventure than a declaration,
more of a journey than an arrival,
more of a question than an answer.
May we live within the dynamism of belief
that takes us and shares with us experiences yet unknown,
that opens our eyes to what is yet to be,
that stirs our souls with longing and intent.
Thank you for a faith that is
open to renewal,
willing to journey,
that dares to believe that not all things stay the same
and that you, O God, are in the changing –
and that wherever we go,
wherever we are,
you are with us on the journey, loving us without limit. Amen.

Monday, 18 September 2017

Contacts, information, events to 27 Sept




Due to annual leave, the minister will be unavailable from: 
Mon 18 Sept to 1pm Wed 27 Sept  

Rev. George Shand
Funeral cover:
will be provided by the Rev George Shand 
who can be contacted on 01899 309400.

For any ongoing parish queries, please contact our Session Clerk: 
Ms Heather Watt on 01899 850211
--------------------------------------------------

News, events, and general notices:


SUN 24 Sept
10:30am: Morning worship
will be conducted by the Rev. Sandy Strachan

who makes a welcome return visit while the minister is away on leave.
and, at 6:30pm: Evening worship will be a Songs of Praise service
with music provided by some of our friends from Leadhills Silver Band. 
This will be held in Leadhills Village Hall. All welcome

Wed 27 Sept, 7pm: Local Church Review Task Group meets in the Church Hall.
*about every five years, each parish in Scotland undergoes a process called the Local Church Review –
back in the old days, this used to be known as the Quinquennial.
Our turn has come up and over the next couple of months, 
a team from presbytery will be meeting with a team from Upper Clyde,
helping us look at where we are and what we’re currently doing;
and then, helping us as we look ahead, and see where we might go,
and what we might do over the next several years.
Think of it as the equivalent of an MOT for the parish.
Our team, I think, covers a good cross-range of views here and
I just want to thank them publicly for giving up time to be involved in the process, so, thanks to:
Keith Black
Lynn Cochrane 
Judith Gilbert
Jenny Worthington
and Dee Yates.
These are your ‘go-to’ people.  If you have any thoughts on things you’d like to see
happen here at Upper Clyde do feel free to catch up with any of the team -
they’ll feed your comments back into our team meetings.
It should be a good learning curve, I suspect we may even surprise ourselves,
so, let's enjoy the ride together. I look forward to seeing where our collective
thoughts and prayers will lead us.

SESSION PLEASE NOTE: Change of date for Kirk Session meeting
due to a recent scheduling of a Presbytery event, Session will now meet in the Church Hall on Thurs 5 October, and not 28 Sept, as previously announced. 

Sun 1 Oct, 9am - 9.45: TIME FOR PRAYER: 
Our new prayer group meets on the first Sunday of the month. 
The church will be open from 9am, with time for prayer/quiet meditation 
between 9-9.45. This is open to anyone to come along. 
Should you have any particular people or situations that you would like prayer for, there will be a small box with notelets in the vestibule: 
please make use of this, and note down who/ what you would like prayer for. 
All prayer requests in the box will be prayed for during this time. 
To preserve people’s privacy, unless you’ve checked first, please just use an initial, 
and keep the request relatively general: 
in faith, we trust that as we pray for the person and situation, 
that God knows all the details…so an example might look like: ‘please pray for S, who will be having an operation later this month’. 
See you there.

Sun 8 Oct, 10:30am: Annual Harvest Service, followed by simple soup lunch in the Church Hall. Come and join us, as we give thanks for the Harvest, and support the work of Farm Africa. You'll also have the opportunity to enjoy the great artwork created by our five primary schools - each school is currently involved in creating a Harvest banner.

BY Sun 22 Oct - 
Advent/Christmas Newsletter - deadline for articles, poems, etc.: 
it's that time of year again, and our newsletter editor, Dee, is on the lookout for articles, poems, or other items of interest for inclusion in our upcoming Advent/Christmas newsletter. If you have something to submit, please get it to Dee by Sunday 22 October - and thanks!

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Sermon, Sun 17 Sept: people of the Bible series - Ruth, pt 2

READINGS/ Ruth, chapter 3 and 4

SERMON
Let’s pray: may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen...

Last week, we met the family of Naomi,
heard the story of what drew them to the land of Moab;
heard the story of what happened there.
And, in that story, we met another woman, named Ruth...

Ruth had been born in the land of Moab.
Grew up there.
Knew the stories of her people’s gods...
knew the story of her people;
knew from her earliest days that her destiny was to marry a man of her people.
But that... didn’t happen.
Instead of taking the expected path, she headed down the road less travelled –
married a man who followed a different God,
who came from a different nation:
a man whose family had escaped famine –
and who’d travelled the many miles from Bethlehem, in Judah,
and who’d embarked upon a new life in Moab.

Breaking with tradition and culture,
she married a stranger, a foreigner,
and lived with him for about ten years, until he died.
But it wasn’t only her husband who’d died:
her brother-in-law was also dead.
She, and her sister-in-law, Orpah, were now widows,
just as their mother-in-law, Naomi, was a widow.
The mother-in-law decides to return to her homeland,
and the young women travel with her for a little way until she tells them to turn back:
to take the safer option of staying with their own families.
One weeps, hugs her in farewell, and travels along the more secure road...
It’s not a bad choice:
she’s not a bad person...
and the person telling the story doesn’t condemn her for making it.
Presumably, Orpah settles back into her family, her country, ...
it is the safe, sensible choice,
and in making it, she settles into a life of obscurity –
and is never heard of again in this story, or elsewhere.
The other young woman weeps, and begs to go with her mother-in-law:
will not take ‘no’ as an answer.
Having already broken with making a safe choice to marry a man from her own country,
once again, Ruth chooses a different path –
a less secure path...
takes the road less travelled into the unknown.

The two women arrive back to Naomi’s homeland
and begin the task of settling in,
making a new life.
For Naomi, it’s mere survival –
she has no real hope,
has only the feeling of bitterness and a sense of God’s abandonment.
She would rather be known as ‘Mara’ now:
meaning ‘bitter’, as opposed to ‘Naomi’, meaning ‘sweet’.
Names are interesting in this story –
‘Ruth’ means ‘friendship’, ‘comfort’, and can even mean ‘to refresh’.
And we see, as the story continues,
Ruth’s gift of friendship and comfort to Naomi...and, of bringing refreshment to her.
While Naomi lives with her grief and her sense of hopelessness,
Ruth is someone who does hold hope:
she hopes for new opportunities
in this new land,
among new people –
even while she tends to the needs of her despairing mother-in-law.
But being practical, first things first:
they’ll need to eat.
As is the privilege of widows, she heads out to glean the fields –
it’s harvest time.
She’s a hard worker.
She wins the admiration of the local foreman,
who passes on a good report of her to the land-owner, Boaz...
who happens to be a relative of Naomi.
He offers her kindness, and protection.
When she returns home, she tells Naomi of this benefactor.
And, that’s where we pick up this morning:
Naomi is hatching a wee plan,
all of which is based upon the cultural expectations of her people.

Ruth has been an excellent and faithful,
kindly and companionable daughter-in-law.
She has given much to care for Naomi,
and now it’s Naomi’s turn to see what is in her gift to give to Ruth.
Of all the kinds of people in society,
women, and particularly widows, were vulnerable –
who would protect them in what was a time of chaos and turmoil?
The people had no real leader, apart from occasional champions - also known as 'judges'.
Naomi wants to find a way to provide a safety net for Ruth...
to give Ruth some kind of security,
and Naomi’s kinsman, Boaz, might just be the way.
It’s quite a dodgy-sounding plan, to be honest.
‘Go and make yourself pretty’ says Naomi...
‘Go and hang out at night in the threshing room’...
‘Go find Boaz’.
Now, we know from hearing the story, especially in the cold light of the next morning,
that it’s not quite the done thing for a woman to be spending time at night in such a place as this.
So, what’s happening here?
By placing herself where she does, Ruth is putting herself under the protection of Boaz –
asking him to act on his responsibility as a member of Naomi’s family.
He is surprised at her boldness,
he is pleased that she has come to him, when she could have chased after younger men...
she has made the right choice:
the legally appropriate choice, and he praises her,
and, decides he’ll honour her action by agreeing to act in the role of kinsman-redeemer,
that is, if he can...
for, unbeknown to Naomi and Ruth, there’s one other relative who is in the line ahead of Boaz –
he might want the land that would have belonged to Naomi’s husband, Elimelech...
and, if he does, Ruth would then go to him.
He would take back the land – redeem it –
and, take Ruth, and, by marrying her,
and by having a child with her,
redeem the family name...
rescue it from the possibility of disappearing.*
[*plus, some off the cuff comments on women as property/ cultural customs]

We know that Boaz goes out that very morning to find the other relative.
When he does, he asks about the land:
‘do you want it’ says Boaz...
‘Oh, yes,’ says the relative.
‘you do realise that you’ll also be responsible for Ruth, don’t you,’ says Boaz...
‘Ah. You know, it’s fine, you take the land,’ says the relative,
who then pretty much melts away into the distance.
If he takes on Ruth, he will have to split his inheritance... it’s not a great option for him.
And so, we go back to Plan A:
the Boaz option.
In front of witnesses, Boaz declares that he is happy to redeem the land, and to take Ruth as his wife.
Naomi’s hopes are coming to fruition:
Ruth will have her security, her safety-net after all.
And the next plan involves Ruth and Boaz getting married,
which in turn, leads to a child:
and there’s something about a child that is a living breathing hope for the future.

So we have a story that, in the beginning, had hopes dashed – had created bitterness.
But, through the steady, loving-kindess of Ruth,
and, through the faithfulness of Boaz,
God was able to show his own steady,
faithful loving-kindness to Naomi.
Hatching a plan,
she dared to find hope in a most unexpected place,
and in the end,
discovered her God,
her joy,
her hope,
and her future once more.

It’s an interesting story, this story of Ruth.
And it doesn’t end with the birth of her son, Obed.
We’ve got a wee P.S. at the end in the shape of a family tree...
in which we discover someone further down the line who is rather well-known.
And, there’s another P.S. to the story which we can find in the Gospel of Matthew,
in the genealogy in chapter one.
Remember last week, I said the town of Bethlehem might just be important? Hmmmm.

Naomi’s desire to give back to Ruth,
as Ruth had give to her resulted in a rather interesting security plan taking shape,
that went way beyond what Naomi might have foreseen.
It was a security plan:
for Ruth, beloved daughter-in-law,
and for the future of the family... for the family name not to disappear,
but to be refreshed through Ruth...
and to continue along a slightly different path to the one that may have been expected.
But it ended up going further than just one small family –
affecting the future of the nation,
a nation that will later move from the time of the judges, to the time of kings –
for the child Ruth and Boaz have, Obed,
will be the father of Jesse, the father of...
the future King David,
the king chosen and beloved of God.
But it goes beyond even the future of the nation:
for this will affect all people, for 28 generations later,
the outcome of the story will be heard in the cry of a child in a stable,
the child who will be named ‘Jesus’ –
the one who will redeem the whole of creation,
the one who will redeem ...us...
and bring us back to God.

'In the Book of Ruth the whole world is new again.  
Relationships have been righted. 
The outcastes have been taken in.  
The lowly have been raised up.  
A new generation of men—represented by a boy-child—
comes to inherit a cosmos where women are its co-creators.  
In Ruth, we get a glimpse into God’s world and find that it runs just the opposite of ours.
Overall, the sense of mutual commitment between Naomi and Ruth is ultimately 
the source and mark of divine blessing. 
Only once in the entire story is the word “love” used and it is used to describe the relationship between these two strong and determined women. 
This is the kind of love that molds and drives the universe.' 
*Shelli Williams

In Ruth, we are shown a mirror of God’s loving-kindness,
a loving-kindness that is about both relationship and redemption:
God’s love for us,
and, in that love,
God redeeming us, and claiming us as his own,
offering us hope in the most unexpected places,
and the possibility of a future that is richer, better than we can imagine...Amen

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Sermon, Sun 10 Sept: People of the Bible series, Ruth pt1

From Sun 10 September, until the beginning of Advent, we'll be taking a look at the lives of some well-known and lesser-known people in the Bible. What do their stories tell us of God at work, of God who is present in human lives and human history, and of the God who accompanies us even now? In this short series we begin with Ruth, and later, we'll meet Hagar, Rahab, Jonah, Philemon, Andrew.


READINGS/ Ruth ch 1, and ch 2

Let’s pray: may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

‘In the days when judges ruled…’
So begins the Book of Ruth.
Those days were long after the time
when Joshua, after the death of Moses, had led the Israelites from their wilderness wanderings and into the Promised Land.
A couple of generations had passed.
Those Israelites who now lived in the land, were people ‘who neither knew the Lord, or what he had done for Israel’ – this, according to the Book of Judges.
They’d forgotten their God,
they’d forgotten their story.
There was chaos, as other nations around them swept in and seemed near-impossible to resist.
The people of Israel cried out for rescue, and so, God raised up judges – champions –
to save them in their times of peril.
Often, after having saved the day, the judges were then largely ignored by the people,
who then went back to worshipping other gods and doing their own thing.

‘In the days, when judges ruled’, 
there was chaos:
political instability.
Short times of peace were followed all to swiftly by raids and warfare.
They were dangerous times.
And, even in the event of a strong and good judge, who was able to keep the peace,
there was no real safety net when other events intervened:
what to do, for example, in the case of natural disaster?
And it’s this situation that we find at the outset of the Book of Ruth:
famine has hit the land,
and in the midst of this,
we suddenly find our attention drawn to one small family,
as they try to navigate their way out of potential, life-threatening disaster.

In the first five breathtakingly swift verses of this book, we watch as the family make the decision
to leave their homeland to try and make a new life for themselves in a strange land.
Essentially, we see a settled family, who, when faced with starvation,
decide that they have no other real choice other than to become refugees.
They head off to the land of Moab.

The risk, initially, seems to have been worth it:
they settle down and begin to make a life for themselves.
It’s a new start, with hope-filled hearts for a better future.
Those hopes are quickly dashed, however.
Disaster strikes once more:
Elimelech, the husband and father of the family, dies.
Naomi, his wife, finds herself widowed.
But, her two sons, Mahlon and Kilion, are of marriageable age:
they both marry, settle down, and presumably as dutiful sons, take care of their widowed mother.
Again, the family fortunes seem to be on the up and up as they look once more to the future.

Ten years pass and at some point, there’s a reversal of fortune with another disaster:
both sons die at around the same time.
We don’t know how –
raiders? war? Some kind of contagious disease?
And, this misfortune is compounded:
they leave no children to carry on the family name.
Within five verses, we've travelled with this family over the course of roughly ten years,
a family whose situation has changed dramatically:
from Naomi and the three men of the family,
we now have Naomi and her 2 daughters-in-law,
Orpah and Ruth – all three of them, widows.
And, to be a widow in such times, was to be utterly vulnerable.
In verse 6, we see that, at this time of crisis, another decision is made:
another journey is planned, as Naomi determines to return to her homeland, to Bethlehem, in Judah.
Keep a wee note of where she’s headed and tuck it away somewhere safe for next week…
it may be a small detail, but… I suspect, it’s probably important.

With all her hopes blighted, Naomi no longer looks to the future –
she hasn’t got one.
It’s the end of the genealogical line.
For Naomi, everything is now all about the pragmatic business of surviving in the present.
But her current reality doesn’t have to be shared by Orpah and Ruth –
they are still relatively young.
Perhaps if they stayed behind in Moab,
they might find a new future with a new husband:
perhaps, even start a family.
So, while Naomi is intent on going back to live once more among her own people,
her wish is that Orpah and Ruth live among their own people –
that is where their future lies.

When we get to the farewell, there’s a tearful scene,
but eventually, Orpah remains with her own people,
while Naomi returns to her people, accompanied by Ruth.
Loyal, steadfast, Ruth –
who loves and cares for her mother-in-law,
and who is determined to not only spend the rest of her life caring for her,
but, at the end of her life, to accompany Naomi even through the final barrier of death:
to be buried with her.
Ruth, faithful companion in both life and death.
She’s fascinating:
her devotion and selflessness is astonishing.
In her care of and for Naomi, she is prepared to forsake her national identity –
her heritage, her people;
she’s prepared to forsake her religious identity –
the gods she grew up with and who she served.
‘Your people will be my people; your God, will be my God,’ vows Ruth.
And so, out of love for her mother-in-law,
she strikes off into the great unknown,
to a land she’s never seen;
she leaves everyone, and everything that she’s ever known…
and, through her decision to be a part of Naomi’s future,
she creates the possibility of a new future for herself.

When the two women arrive, it’s initially the past, not the future, that Naomi is confronted with:
although she’s been away for such a lengthy period of time, she is still remembered.
‘Can this be Naomi?’ folk ask.
But the past is difficult place to inhabit:
Naomi, whose name means ‘sweet’, chooses a new name: ‘Mara.’
No longer ‘sweet’, but ‘bitter’.
She is all hollowed out with grief –
empty.
She feels that God has brought only misfortune her way.
That’s how it seems…

And then, as we read further, as Ruth and Naomi begin to settle into their
new lives in Bethlehem, at the time of the harvest, the wind of change is once again in the air:
this now-tiny family unit of two widows is about to see a turn-around.
Far from having no future, there’s the possibility of promise…
and it’s in large part down to Ruth’s character.
Heading out to the fields to gather the left-overs of the harvest –
the right and privilege of the most vulnerable in society, widows,
Ruth happens to find herself in the field of a kinsman – Boaz.
He’s been away on business.
When he returns, he notices her, however.
He decides to check out who she is, asking questions of his foreman.
Ruth’s made a very good impression:
she’s seen to be a hard worker.
Boaz decides to take her under his wing –
because, for a woman, it’s dangerous work out in the fields…
there’s always the danger of sexual attack by the field hands.
Boaz offers her protection.
He offers her advice on where to find the best place to collect the most grain.
He offers her easy access to water.
He offers her extra portions at meal time.
He offers her…kindness.
He does this to recognize her own kindness to his family – to Naomi, his kinswoman.
And central to the whole story of Ruth is one word ‘hesed’
the Hebrew word meaning:
‘loving-kindness’
We see in Ruth’s story a classic case of ‘what goes around, comes around.’
But we see more than that:
we see, in Ruth herself, a mirror, showing God.

And when Ruth returns, and tells Naomi just how unexpectedly good her day was,
Naomi sees God in a completely different way:
this is not the God who disappoints, who makes life difficult…the God who disappears.
She’s allowed bitterness to cloud her judgement.
Now, in the loving-kindness shown by Boaz to Ruth,
loving-kindness offered as reward for Ruth’s own loving-kindness to Naomi…
Naomi’s taking another journey:
an interior journey as she moves from bitterness to sweetness once more.
As she makes that journey, she sees that far from being absent, God has always been with her;
she sees, in Ruth, a mirror of the loving-kindness of God –
who is faithful, steadfast, loyal…
a companion in the good, the bad, and the ugly that form part of the journey of life.
She sees the God who is with her in the bleak, and in the beautiful, and in the in-between…
the God whose loving-kindness is broader than previously imagined,
for this is the God who takes in Ruth:
a foreigner,
a stranger,
and shows his people – certainly Naomi, and Boaz, and the villagers of Bethlehem –
that he will ‘not stop showing his kindness to the living and the dead.’
And this…
is the God who even now, calls us, gathers us together here,
the God who we worship,
and who continues to offer to us his loving-kindness…
who, in Jesus, offers us hope,
and the promise of new life,
a new future,
as we walk with him…
as he always does, with us. Amen

We'll pick up part two of Ruth's story next week.

Monday, 11 September 2017

UCPC Harvest Festival: 8 October - supporting 'Farm Africa'

Our annual Harvest Festival will be held on Sunday 8 October. 
This year's chosen charity for our Harvest Festival is Farm Africa.
There's a little information about them provided below, and, you can also visit their website here
With a month to go, it might be an excellent time to pull out an empty jar, and begin to fill it with any loose change you have lurking about...and then bring your filled jars to our service to give to Farm Africa.

Who is Farm Africa?
Farm Africa is an international organisation working to build a prosperous rural Africa.
We help farmers to increase their harvests, build their incomes and sustain natural resources, partnering with governments and the private sector to find effective ways to fight poverty.
closely with local communities, who actively participate in all the decisions about our work. Typically, our staff are from the local area, can speak the local language and have a deep understanding of the local context.
Farm Africa works in four countries: Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, and Tanzania

What Farm Africa does:
Farming doesn’t just provide food, but income and prosperity. Good agriculture can change lives. Farm Africa focuses on transforming agriculture. We help farmers to increase their harvests, protect the environment and sell their produce in thriving markets.
By providing support, training in effective farming methods and links to markets, we help to build more profitable farming businesses so that whole communities can lift themselves out of poverty.

Crops
Eight out of ten rural Africans scrape their living from small plots.
Soils are often poor, drought ever near. Farm Africa brings in the smart crops, drought-busting techniques and marketing skills that make such tough farming viable, profitable and sustainable.

Livestock
Where land is arid and crop cultivation hard, many farmers make their living by keeping animals. Animals are generally the family’s most valuable possession and Farm Africa helps with basic animal health services.

Fisheries
Pollution and overfishing have put wild fish stocks under pressure. The price of fish has rocketed, hitting people hard. Farm Africa is pioneering fish farming in Kenya, which ensures sustainable protein supplies and a major new source of income.

Forests
Deforestation destroys wildlife and dehydrates soil. We help forest communities replace traditional tree-cutting and wood and charcoal selling with new eco-friendly enterprises that protect biodiversity and provide a sustainable income for future generations.

Climate resilience
If the current consumption of fossil fuels continues, global temperatures could rise by
as much as 4⁰, which would have a devastating impact on farmers' livelihoods.
Farm Africa helps smallholders to farm in ways which don't damage the environment,
and to build resilience to future climate shocks.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

COMING SOON: UCPC Annual Coffee Morning

UCPC ANNUAL COFFEE MORNING - food, fun, and fund-raising
It's back! Our annual coffee morning will be held once again in Roberton Village Hall.
Choose your morning tea from a selection of mouth-watering home baking, 
check out what's on offer to buy from our making and baking stalls, 
see what fabulous item/s you might just take home from our tombola...
Let your friends and neighbours know, 
and come along to join us on Sat 9 September, from 10.30

Monday, 4 September 2017

Guild news - this year's programme


The new Guild programme for 2017-2018 is now out -    
why not go to our Guild page [click on the link] and see what's happening this year?

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Sermon, Sun 3 Sept: 'Come home to the feast'... wk52 WMRBW

This morning, we gathered together around the bread and wine of communion, and also concluded our year-long journey with 'We Make the Road by Walking'

READINGS/ Romans 8:28-39; 1 Corinthians 15:50-58; Luke 15:11-32

SERMON
Let’s pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

Over the course of this last year, we’ve been on a story journey. This Sunday last year, we began to ‘Make the Road by Walking’ – following a year’s worth of bible readings designed to help us get a better sense of the greatest story ever told:
that of God’s relationship to the world and, to human beings…
and, of the relationship of human beings to God, to one another,
and, to the world.
We began with Genesis: the book of beginnings –
exploring the beginning of everything, the great story of Creation.
We wandered through the Garden –
and heard the story of two trees:
the tree of life,
and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil…
and of a choice taken to ignore God in favour of eating of the forbidden fruit,
a choice that marked a new beginning:
the beginning of a separation of human beings from God;
of a ruptured relationship.

Over the year, we heard many other stories:
stories of God’s continued love for humanity,
stories of God rescuing people and leading them from slavery,
through the wilderness, and into a Promised Land;
stories of God doing everything in his power to build bridges, to call people back
into a healthy and happy relationship with him once more:
stories of God’s attempts at restoration and reconciliation.
And in these stories, there were some who did come back to God
and others who didn’t – some doing almost everything they could to run the other way.
Overall, down through the ages and, through this year, as we've listened to
and reflected on the many bible stories we've heard God’s continued call for people
to come, to follow –
to receive life,
to receive love, and mercy, and forgiveness.

Having begun the great story with Genesis,
last week saw us delve into the Book of Revelation:
the final book of the Bible, the book telling us how the story ends…
and, begins:
for at the end of all things, we saw a new beginning –
a new heaven and a new earth,
a new Jerusalem in which there’d be no more suffering, pain, tears, death…
in which the old, not fit for purpose, human attempts at power and position
without God would be swept away:
and where God would give light - where God would be the light,
and where the river of the water of life would flow;
echoes of Eden,
echoes of Creation.
From Genesis, through to Revelation we have a story which
'came from God in the beginning, and which all comes back to God in the end.' [McLaren, WMRBW]

And today, we come to one last story:
a story of a man with two sons.
Many of us know this story –
have heard of the shocking request made by the younger son to his father
that would effectively harm the family, and the family business;
a request that would cause considerable difficulties.
A request made by the younger son as a way of filling whatever emptiness
there was within him that he couldn’t seem to fill by staying at home.
We know what happens:
at what would have been great cost to the father, the farm is essentially split up
and the younger son is given his share, which is then cashed in:
the land, probably held for generations, is now in the hands of others.
And once it’s gone, and he’s got the money in hand, so is the younger son:
he’s made his choice, and he’s away, much to the father’s great sadness.

The older son stays, and looks after what’s left of the land.
Meanwhile, the father yearns for his youngest child to come home…
which, after things have gone horribly wrong, he eventually does.
The boy comes home.
And his father is overjoyed:
he’s back, time for celebration!

But not all are celebrating.
The older son, who has stayed at home, is clearly unhappy.
He’s worked hard, he’s always done what he’s been told…
and he feels that he’s never been given the chance to have even
a wee barbecue with his mates.
The story ends without full resolution:
in the early part of the story, the younger son had placed himself outside of his family,
while the older son stayed inside.
Toward the end, however, it is the younger son who is inside,
and the older son standing, hesitating outside:
will he unclench his fists,
will he let go of his resentment,
will he share in the joy of a younger brother now back once again in the fold?
…Will he go inside and join the celebration,
or will he hold the grudge and allow it to fester and wound
the relationship he has with his father – who loves him no less than his other son?

This last story from our series, is a story that shows, in a smaller scale,
the larger story we’ve been hearing and telling this year.
A great, sweeping story which has at its centre a loving Father:
a great, sweeping story about relationship;
a story which contains poor choices, mistakes made, and the messiness of wrong paths taken.
But, like the story of the man with two sons,
it’s also a story that eventually follows a path back to the Father –
the Father who has never stopped loving his people,
for nothing in all creation can separate us from God’s love.
A story of God…
always at work,
always about the work of reconciliation and renewal.
A story of God who does a new thing:
who sends his own Son to us, showing us
‘a gracious and spacious heart that welcomes all to the table.' [McLaren, WMRBW]
For in Christ, and at his table, we are reconciled once more to God our Father….

In the telling of the story of the night when Jesus created a new meal
to share with all who believed in him,
we look back to all that God has done for his people…
we look back to the stories that Jesus told about what God was like,
about what God’s kingdom was like.
We look back to the story of Jesus:
his birth, his life, his death, his resurrection…
we look back and remember the reconciling God who has called us his own.
And we look around, to one another:
each one of us, in Christ, a spiritual family – brothers and sisters –
with our own stories of what God has done and is doing in our lives.
And we look forward:
as we eat and drink together
we celebrate the One who restores and renews and reconciles
and who wants us to come, and to live, and to rejoice:
to join the great celebration feast –
a feast that never ends, a feast where all are welcome in. Amen.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

September Communion

Quarterly Communion Service:

Our next Communion Service will be:
10.30am Sun 3 September, in the parish church at Abington.

"This is the table, not of the Church, but of the Lord. 
It is to be made ready for those who love God
and for those who hope to love God more. 
So, come, you who have faith 
and you who have doubts. 
Come if you have been here often, 
and come if you have not been here long. 
Come if you have followed, 
and come if you have stumbled. 
Come, because it is the Lord who invites you. 
It is Christ’s will that those who seek him 
will meet him here at his table. 
Come!"

We practice an open table: all who are baptised, regardless of denomination,
are welcome to share in bread and wine.
Children and communion: children may receive communion
at the discretion of their accompanying adult.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Sermon Sun 27 Aug: 'Spirit of hope' wk51 WMRBW

READINGS/ Rev 1:9-19; Rev 21:1-27; Rev 22:1-6, 16-21

SERMON
Let’s pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

There was a story in the news yesterday that caught my eye.
Two people in London, a man and a woman, minding their own business, are sitting on the Tube on their way home from a night out.
The woman does a slight double-take when the man sits down opposite her, which, naturally, catches the his attention.
He looks at her a little more closely, trying to work out why she seems vaguely familiar.
Meanwhile, curiosity gets the better of her:
breaking the unwritten protocol of the Tube, which is, basically,
to politely ignore fellow travelers, she asks,
‘Don’t I know you?’ 
Now, he’s done a little TV and radio presenting, so he thinks it’s just that:
‘Probably from Crime Watch’ he jokes.
But no, that’s not it.
And then, they realise:
back in 1992, a much younger Howard had picked a much younger Brigette
as his date on the show, ‘Blind Date’…
so, keeping on that theme, I guess it was a bit of a ‘Surprise Surprise’
for both of them to meet 25 years later.
Now, back in the day, the show had whisked the couple off to Germany for their date
where they spent the weekend drinking champagne and trying to get to know each other a little.
A couple of weeks after the date, they spoke on the phone, but nothing really came of it.
This time around, however, Howard’s clearly quite taken with Brigette, and she, with him –
both seeing the other in a new light.
Plans are afoot to see each other again, and it all sounds...hopeful...

Sometimes, I wonder if that vaguely familiar –
‘Don’t I know you?’ feeling is a little like how we react to the very last book in the Bible:
the Book of Revelation.
Yep, we know it’s there, we may even have taken it out for a wee date –
well, opened a few pages to try and get a little more familiar with it,
and then put it aside, because...well, frankly, it’s just a very odd piece of writing.
Today, we have the opportunity to look again at this Book, and maybe –
a little like Howard and Brigette –
we might see it in a new light and, find hope within in it:
because, for all it’s seeming strangeness, ‘hopeful’ is the word
that I’d choose to associate with the Book of Revelation.
So let’s do a little exploration,
looking at the beginning, and the ending of it,
to get a sense of what this Book is all about.

An alternative name that’s occasionally used for the Book of Revelation is:
‘the apocalypse of John’.
That word ‘apocalypse’ has all sorts of interesting connotations
when we hear it, and none especially cheerful.
‘Apocalypse’ is the kind of word that makes you think of
doom and destruction; great catastrophes.
Actually, all it really means is ‘unveiling’ –
and what the Book of Revelation reveals to us
is a God whose agenda is about life, not death;
a God of resurrection and renewal, not utter ruin.

Apocalyptic writing, such as we see here, and in the Old Testament, in Daniel,
has strange things happening within it,
has odd creatures – like a lamb with 100 eyes,
or great mysterious beasts – there's a dragon, in Revelation.
What does it all mean?
For a start, it’s not meant to be interpreted literally:
think of the strange style of writing as if it were like painting with words.
If you try to go down the path of taking a literal interpretation you may end up in some
very odd places indeed – and down the years, some folk have.
But, back to that question:
what does it all mean –
what’s it all about –
and what’s the relevance for us?

Revelation was written in the 1st century, either around the year 60, or, possibly 90.
In either case, the known world was ruled by Rome, and on the Imperial throne was a madman.
In his book ‘We make the road by walking’, Bryan MacLaren observes that:
‘Life was always hard in the Roman Empire for poor people, 
as it was for most of the followers of Jesus. 
But life was extremely precarious when the man at the helm of the empire was 
vicious, paranoid, and insane, as both Nero and Domitian were.’
Under the reign of both of these emperors, Christians were persecuted:
tortured and killed for their faith…
because what both Nero and Domitian really wanted, was to be worshipped as a god.
The Christians simply couldn’t do it, and died.

‘Revelation’, then, is written to people who are living in harrowing, dangerous times;
people whose lives are on the line;
people who are decades removed from when Jesus walked with his disciples.
Life, if anything, feels worse, not better.
While they’re followers of the Prince of Peace,
while they’ve been commanded to love their enemies
and pray for those who persecute them,
given the circumstances,
could they not just turn their ploughshares back into swords;
take matters into their own hands and meet violence with violence?
Given the times, and given that they didn’t know if each day would be their last,
wouldn’t they also just be better off to follow that old saying and ‘drink, eat, and be merry’…
and, quietly give up on Jesus and pay lip-service to their very demanding Caesar instead…
and maybe live to see another day?
If their world is all going to end anyway, it sounds reasonable.
Into this mix, then, comes John’s great vision that we call ‘the Book of Revelation’ –
a message to the church:
a message looking to the future, but looking also to the present.

In our first reading, we heard an extract from Chapter One.
In it John identifies himself as the writer, and also identifies with
the struggle that all followers of Christ have been going through.
‘I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering…’ he says.
He understands the situation his readers find themselves in completely.
And then he begins to tell of the vision –
given to him by ‘someone like the Son of man’,
who has a voice ‘like the sound of rushing water,’
who has a sword coming from his mouth, not his hand –
basically, whose words are far mightier than any weapon.
This messenger is amazing in appearance, so much so, that John cannot cope:
he falls at the messenger’s feet, as if dead.
John’s utterly overwhelmed with what he’s seeing.
And then, the messenger speaks.
And the very first words spoken to John?
‘Do not be afraid.’
We’ve all heard those words before, the first words Jesus says
to those he meets after his resurrection.
And then John hears:
‘I am the first and the last; 
I am the Living One…
I hold the keys to death and Hades.’
John is met by none other than the risen Christ in glory,
and is then instructed to write down all he sees in the vision.

In the vision, John sees a great number of things,
but primarily, what is being shown is the breaking down of old powers, of old systems;
in one sense, a vision of corruption and decay:
the end of life, the end of all things.
However, that is not all there is:
in the breaking is a remaking as we see in the final sections of the vision.
‘Behold! I make all things new.’
Evil doesn’t triumph.
Those who are living under the power of tyrants are given hope –
tyrants may come,
tyrants may go,
tyrants may rise again…
but in the end…God.
Good wins over evil –
not by inflicting violence upon enemies,
but through the sacrificial love that allows the giving of One life for all.
John writes down his vision, acutely aware of the events of his current day,
and in doing so, essentially says to his brothers and sisters in persecution:
‘stay the course. 
This …   ends. 
These are the death-throes of the old way of being –
the way of darkness and of death.
We are people of the light,
we worship the God of the living, the God who makes all things new.’

John’s vision shows God making his home among us, just as in Jesus,
God walked the earth for a time.
We see the ongoing work of God, healing and renewing the heavens and the earth.
We see what the kingdom of God looks like:
no oppression, because there are no more tyrants, or bullies.
No more tears, or pain, or suffering, or death.
A place of light, not darkness, and that light, coming from God himself;
a place of welcome, where the gates are always open;
a place of healing – not just of physical wounds, but of broken relationships –
we see new accord between nations, and, no more war;
a place of life – where the river of the water of life flows, and is freely given to all.

As we hear the description of this new Jerusalem,
we hear again the echoes of the first Creation story:
here, in Revelation, God begins again –
starts afresh, walks in the new Creation with his people once more…
in one sense, this is set in the future at the end of all days.
But it’s also set in the context of the present in which John’s readers live:
they live in the now and the not yet.
The vision encourages them to stay the course,
for they are shown how the story ends…
and they also stay the course, because they understand that they are part of
bringing in the end of darkness and death,
for they live in Christ, and they have the hope of resurrection in their hearts.
John’s message to them is that,
no matter what person sits on a throne of power,
what matters is that the ultimate power is God’s.

That message is not only for those living in the 1st century under Roman rule.
We live in turbulent times –
where it feels like madness sits in the highest places of power around the world.
We feel the rise of those around us who
would do violence to people because they’re different in some way –
just as in the 1st century, Christians were different.
Some of us may feel fearful as we see what’s happening in our world,
our own country,
even in our own neck of the woods.
But, remember those words of Jesus:
‘Do not be afraid.’
Remember the message to the early Christians given to John in a most unusual way
and yet, a message giving hope to those living in terrible times:
God triumphs.
Hate doesn’t win. Love does.
The old, rotten structure is swept away –
death is destroyed and God makes all things new….life wins.

Toward the end of Revelation, there’s an invitation:
whoever is thirsty, come, take the free gift of the water of life.
That life is available to us now, in Jesus, who IS the living water.
As we drink deeply of the water that he gives, so we are strengthened
and have our hope in the One who makes all things new.
In that strength, in that hope,
so we are called to go and do the work of bringing in the new kingdom.
So, come, drink deeply of the free gift of the water of life…this day, and every day.
Come, and live into the power of the resurrection –
be made new once more by the One who calls you his people.

Let’s pray
Speak to us, Giver of Life, and make us new.
We thirst for the waters of eternal life,
we yearn to know ourselves
as Resurrection People.
Send your Holy Spirit upon us this day,
and create in us your new heaven and new earth.
Speak to us words of comfort and hope,
words of challenge and courage.
Come: move among us, we pray,
in Jesus’ name, amen.

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

UCPC Events: coffee morning

UCPC ANNUAL COFFEE MORNING - food, fun, and fund-raising
It's back! Our annual coffee morning will be held once again in Roberton Village Hall.
Choose your morning tea from a selection of mouth-watering home baking, 
check out what's on offer to buy from our making and baking stalls, 
see what fabulous item/s you might just take home from our tombola...
Let your friends and neighbours know, 
and come along to join us on Sat 9 September, from 10.30

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Sermon, Sun 20 Aug - 'Spirit of life'...wk50 of WMRBW

A bit of an out of the pulpit experience this morning, beginning at the doors to the worship space, and moving along... eventually staying at the mini-lectern by the front pew.

Readings for the morning: Ps 90; Phil 1:20-30;
Luke 20:27-38

Let’s pray: may the words of my mouth and the
thoughts of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight,
O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

[from the entrance doors]
Let’s pretend, for a moment, that our aisle is a timeline…
and, let’s say that here, at the doors,
it’s way back at the dawn of civilization:
picture in your mind’s-eye people hunting and gathering,
chasing the odd woolly mammoth or two,
living in caves…
painting images of their lives on the stone walls.
 [moving several pews forward...]
Moving along the timeline…
let’s imagine that centuries have come and gone
and that, we’ve reached what we now call the 1st century:
just over the mid-way point, possibly around the year 60.
Jesus has been born, baptized, lived, died, risen, and ascended…
the day of Pentecost has come and gone,
the new religious movement of those who follow him,
who follow his teachings, has been spreading.
And in Greece, in a place called Philippi,
the community of believers have received a letter from Paul –
the one who shared the story of Jesus with them several years ago.
They listen as the letter is read,
hear of his struggles and imprisonment,
hear his encouragement to them to stand firm in the faith
and that what keeps him going –
what gives him life
is Jesus:
through the power of the Spirit of life,
he is able to find meaning and purpose
and the strength to keep telling the story
he has shared with so many,
in so many places…
for him, to live is Christ…
 [moving several pews forward...]

And so we move along our timeline again:
and, giving a nod to this, the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation…
the place is what we now know as Germany – a town called Wittemburg.
It’s the end of October, 1517, and a monk named Martin Luther
wants to get into a discussion about some of the practices of the church
that he feels are unhelpful, and, in some cases, corrupt.
He stands at the door of the Cathedral hammering a paper into it, with 95 challenges.
His intention is to correct abuses:
but the outcome will change the world and continues to have repercussions even now…
 [moving to front and centre...]
Speaking of the present…
here we are:
we live in interesting times and even as we do –
God lives –
for God’s name is I AM.
God…is … here.
 [moving back to ‘1517’]
just as at this point in time:
God lives –
God is I AM,
not ‘I was’;
God is here, too.
[moving back again]
and…
God is I AM here, as well…
[moving back again]
and…
God is I AM here…
[moving back to doors]
and…
God’s is here, too:
for, as we listen to the words of scripture –
as we listen as Jesus debating with those who would try to trick him,
we hear him say of God that:
‘He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him ALL are alive.’
[heading back to mini-lectern]
ALL are alive:
we talk of the 'communion of saints',
we hear the phrase ‘the cloud of witnesses’:
we worship a God who is beyond time and space
and who, in Jesus, breaks into our time, and our space.
No matter where on the human timeline,
…God is I AM –
fully present both in the present
and in the present of those who we think of as in the past…
or, who are yet to be.
Hard to get your head around without it feeling like your brain might melt a little!
But what’s all this timey-wimey stuff – to pinch a phrase from Doctor Who –
what’s this talk of time got to do with our readings?

For the psalmist, the living God is a refuge:
but more than that,
a dwelling-place –
God is our home:
has been,
is,
will be…
our home throughout all generations:
in every generation that has a present,
God...is present, and God is home.

For Paul, who writes to the Philippians,
who writes while in chains,
while in captivity for his faith,
the Spirit of Christ is both a present help,
and also, gives him hope,
gives him reason to look ahead,
gives him reason to live:
‘for me to live…is Christ’ –
for Paul, just as essential as air is to life …is Jesus…
and: ‘for me, to live is Christ –
as I said a little earlier, not only does Paul live
through the power of the life-giving Spirit,
the Spirit is what gives Paul a meaning,
a purpose to live:
it gives him hope,
it gives him courage in the face of extreme difficulty –
will he get out of jail,
will he survive this ordeal?
Whatever the outcome, Paul tells the Philippians –
who are also undergoing struggles –
whatever the outcome,
the Spirit of life helps to drive away the fear –
for, to live in fear… is a living death…
Paul says that,
as God is with him,
so God is with them –
…the living God, and ...the God of the living
Life, not death, is the final word in Christ.

And, what then, of Jesus?
Our gospel reading takes us to a strange conversation on resurrection and marriage.
But the whole conversation is a set-up:
the instigators of this wee chat are those who belong to a group known as the Sadducees –
a group within Judaism that didn’t believe in the idea of an afterlife, of a resurrection.
An old high school chaplain back in the day who had a reputation for
appallingly dire jokes used to say:
‘the Sadducees didn’t believe in resurrection: that’s why they were sad, you see…’
It’s such a bad pun, that’s it’s been seared into my memory for decades.
But these Sadducees want to test Jesus, so they set him up
with a hypothetical, and utterly ridiculous question,
trying to showcase just how stupid the whole idea of resurrection is.
And, here we get a little insight into the custom of Levirate marriage,
of the needing to pass down the family name:
a husband takes a wife.
Before there are any children, he dies.
The brother below him, in order to carry on the family name, then takes her as his wife…
he, too, dies childless, and so this goes on
as the poor woman is married to each of the seven brothers in turn.
When all the brothers have died, and still without child, she dies…
whose wife will she be?
I rather suspect that she’d quite like a wee break from the whole marriage thing, personally.

They know they’ve asked a ludicrous question,
Jesus knows it too, but turns it back on them:
this is what happens in our lives in the here and now, he says…
everything in this given situation is focused upon what to do in case of death –
what to do to prevent the dying out of a family line –
What about focusing upon life instead, says Jesus.

The resurrected life is very different:
nobody is giving anyone away in marriage –
people are not property;
nobody needs to secure their future through the passing down of a name –
they are named as God’s own, that is their inheritance;
nobody need fear death, says Jesus –
for there is resurrection:
God is the God of the living.
Christianity is a way of life,
…not a cult of death.
This is expressed every time that someone of faith – a follower of Christ, dies.
In the funeral, at the point of committal,
we hear less about death
and more about life.
We hear the following – or a variation of – the following:
'Jesus said: I am the resurrection and the life.  
Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.
We have entrusted our brother,/our sister…into the hands of God. 
Now let us commit their body to be buried:
Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, 
in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life, 
through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died, was buried, and rose again for us, 
and is alive and reigns for evermore.' 

We come right back to Easter, here:
Jesus dies on the Friday, but he’s not just left there on the Cross –
we have the astonishment,
the wonder,
of an empty tomb,
of grave-clothes folded,
of death defeated:
of a living God, and a God of the living.
And later, the Spirit of life breathes life into those friends of Jesus,
who go out and share the story:
who see life in an entirely new way –
for the fear of death that has held them, and has stopped them from living, is gone.
They have moved from working within a context of death, to a context of life –
and so their lives flow, and grow…
and brings resurrection life and possibility to those around them;
it sustains Paul in prison,
so much so, that he’s able to encourage his friends in Philippi:
they, like he, need not fear –
need not cower in death’s shadow:
they are resurrection people,
they follow the living God,
they are filled with the Spirit of life, not death.

In good times, in hard times,
in times of joy, in times of discouragement…
God is here –
I AM, not I was
God is present –
and we are a resurrection people.
We live in a time of change, of transition.
The mainline church seems to be more and more on the sidelines of society,
so many other things compete for precious time.
Church attendance numbers are studied,
and brows furrow in concern and mutter darkly about ‘decline’ –
in some cases, we hear of strategies to ‘manage decline’
But I say:
let’s have a strategy to manage life because
the living God has not finished with us –
we are a resurrection people…

As God’s community of faith in this small corner of the kingdom,
how does living as people of the resurrection
move us, give us purpose, give us life?
What do we hope for, my friends?
For God is with us now
God is at work in us and within us…now.
We don’t worship the ‘as long as it sees me out’ God -
we worship the living God,
whose Spirit breathes life into our hearts, our souls, our minds…
Let’s be open to that Spirit – even if it may bring change
Let’s choose life, resurrection life:
let’s choose to fully be God’s living people.
And, this day, and every day,
let’s worship and celebrate the One who gives us life –
our living God,
not ‘I was’,
but, I AM.
…May it be so.  Amen.