Friday, 30 December 2016

Sunday preview: 'God Knows' or 'The gate of the year'

This Sunday we'll be thinking of gifts, and of gates, and of time, as we stand at the beginning of a fresh new year.  At this time of year, the poem by Minnie Haskins comes to mind:
'God knows' - or, it's better known title -
'The gate of the year'.

Here, copied below, the poem for reflection...

'God knows'
And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”
So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night.
And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.

So heart be still:
What need our little life
Our human life to know,
If God hath comprehension?
In all the dizzy strife
Of things both high and low,
God hideth His intention.

God knows. His will
Is best. The stretch of years
Which wind ahead, so dim
To our imperfect vision,
Are clear to God. Our fears
Are premature; In Him,
All time hath full provision.

Then rest: until
God moves to lift the veil
From our impatient eyes,
When, as the sweeter features
Of Life’s stern face we hail,
Fair beyond all surmise
God’s thought around His creatures
Our mind shall fill.

Monday, 19 December 2016

Sunday worship 18 Dec: 'bingo', shepherds, baptism, and carols

A busy and fun Sunday! Here's a wee round-up:

Morning worship:
At our rather packed all-age, informal morning service we told the Christmas story
by playing a game of 'Christmas Bingo'.  We heard a reading from Matthew's Gospel that was
not unlike an episode of 'Who do you think you are', and discovered some surprising people
in the midst of the long list of names in Jesus' family tree.  In our other reading we
heard of angels visiting shepherds in Luke 2:8-20, and later, had an imagined reflection
from one of the shepherds about that night. He was rather surprised that angels would
trouble to visit folk such as him, given his own people looked down on the likes of shepherds;
maybe God's love was for everyone, not just those who thought they were 'respectable.'
We also had great fun welcoming young Innes into God's family through the sacrament of
baptism. And, we unfurled the last of our lovely Advent/Christmas banners, so beautifully made
by our craft group.

Community Carol singing, with Junction 13
From 1.30 - 5.15, folk from our community choir, 'Junction 13', managed to carol their way
around 5 of our 9 villages in the parish:
Abington, Crawfordjohn, Crawford, Leadhills, and Wanlockhead.
Huge thanks to our singers, for their tireless efforts - and particular thanks to the Foleys for organising us re. music and a spot of supper before evening worship.
Thanks, too, for the hospitality provided by Abington Store, Colebrooke Arms, and Hopetoun Arms and their much-welcome mince pies, choc. Yule log, lots of tea/coffee - which kept us all keeping on.
We managed to raise c.£160 for Cancer Research. Thanks for the kind donations! :)

and... evening worship: our Carol Service in Scotland's highest village
We finished the day with our annual Carol Service, in Scotland's highest village, Wanlockhead,
followed by some fab home baking. Thanks, as ever, to our friends from Leadhills Silver Band
[from Scotland's second highest village!] and to the fabulous Mary Hamilton, for providing the
music. And thanks too, to: Teresa Brasier, who put the service together, and to all the readers.
Below is a snippet of our final carol for the evening - apol's for the wobbly camera work on the
small Android phone!

Friday, 16 December 2016

Lunch Club, December


Join us as we bring our Lunch Club year to a seasonal close... We meet in the Church Hall, 12.30pm on Wed 21 December.
All welcome! Cost - £5

For catering purposes, please let Jenny Worthington know by the Mon evening

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Sunday 11 Dec, wk16 - 'ready, willing, able'...WMRBW

Our readings on Sunday were:
Micah 5:2-5a and Matthew 1:1-18 to 2:15.

Through the use of reflective imagination we heard Joseph's story,
some gathered thoughts from the Wise Men, and listened to what King Herod had to say. These short reflections were later gathered together for a brief homily...

Three weeks of Advent waiting, watching, and wondering.
Week One – and we wondered:
‘are we ready?’
Week Two – and we wondered:
‘are we willing?’
This week, Week Three, perhaps our wondering moves us to ask:
‘are we able?’
Joseph, when confronted with difficult news, also wondered: what should he do?
How could he move from betrothal, to marriage with Mary, given her ‘condition’?
What would people think?
It was just not the ‘done thing’.
Names mattered:
if he married her, and it got out that he was not the father
Joseph’s name would count for nothing.
Rather than being named as someone ‘respectable’ his name,
along with his family’s, would be mud.
He’d already determined to break off the relationship – but he was a decent man,
so he was preparing to break things off quietly, so as not to bring attention,
not to bring scandal upon Mary and her family.
And then, something changes.
Overturning the weight of societal expectations,
the burden of culture, and appropriate behaviour,
Joseph suddenly changes course.
He’s ready to wait and watch and prepare with Mary for the longed-for Messiah.
He’s willing to say ‘yes’ to God, and let go of his need for a ‘good reputation’.
He finds himself able to break out of the confines that he’s been boxed in to
by society, culture, and religious law – this, in order to do what is right.
In the process of saying ‘yes’ to God, Joseph discovers he need not be afraid
and, in doing so, finds an inner strength and peace to be a part of God’s rescue story.

Three weeks, and in this third week, three wise men:
kings? astrologers? priests?
Wealthy, influential, and wondering:
ready to look for signs that show them that there’s more to life than wealth and power.
Willing to seek for deeper meaning and to journey into the unknown,
on a voyage of promise and discovery.
And, on encountering that for which they have sought so long, and so hard...
they, like Joseph, find themselves able to forget about reputation:
they bend the knee to the child before them,
seeing in him the hope of all people;
the one who will bring peace, not a sword.

Three weeks, and three different kinds of king:
Herod –  the despot in Jerusalem:
the ultimate conspiracy theorist who sees plots and enemies everywhere.
Herod, whose reign is one of terror and revenge;
who has no qualms in disposing of family members, or small children,
to keep the power he so desperately craves.
A king who serves only himself.
Then there are the wise men – open to new things,
prepared to put aside their power for a time
when they come upon that for which they’ve been searching:
the child who will be king of kings, the prince of peace,
whose kingdom will never end,
and who will be named ‘Immanuel’ – God with us...
a king who lives in the service of others,
ready, willing, and able
to give his all and to teach us how to live in love, and service,
to God and to each other...

As we move toward Christmas, on this third week of Advent:
so our Advent question expands:
are you ready, willing, and able to follow the One born in the stable?

Let’s pray:
Joseph said, ‘Yes' -
in spite of his shock at Mary's news,
     the scandal it would cause,
     the damage it could do to his business.
What would we have done?
Joseph said, ‘Yes' -
which meant accepting Mary into his home,
     providing for Jesus' needs,
     welcoming God into his life.
What would we have done?
Joseph said, ‘Yes' -
to God breaking into his life,
     changing his focus and direction,
     bringing joy undreamt-of.
What are we doing?
Advent God,
forgive us for undue concern
with our plans and reputations,
worrying about what others will think.
Be our companion in our quest for fulfilment,
guiding our thoughts
and releasing our imaginations.
Lead us once more to the manger in Bethlehem,
preparing us to accept your gift of love.
Make us ready to receive you afresh
in this Advent season.
Break down our excuses and reluctance
and breathe freshness and enthusiasm into our living for and with you. Amen.

Monday, 12 December 2016

We're dreaming of a Guild Christmas...

The Guild meets on: Wednesday 14 Dec, 2pm...

Our meeting this month is cheerfully seasonal, as we feature favourite Christmas music. Members are asked to bring along a plate of Christmas treats.
All are welcome!

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Tidings of comfort and joy: special service

Tidings of comfort and Joy:
a service of reflection and remembrance

Saturday 10 December, 2pm -
in the parish church at Abington

For all those who find this time of year difficult...

Join us for readings, reflections, and prayers to light this season with hope while acknowledging the losses we may have experienced in our lives...

Monday, 5 December 2016

Sermon, Sun 4 Dec wk15: 'Two women'...WMRBW

READINGS: Isaiah 9:2-7; Luke 1:26-38; Luke 1:39-56    

Two women:
one is old, one is young.
One, married, the other, betrothed.
Both, however, find themselves unexpectedly pregnant.
The older woman, Elizabeth, has lived with years of shame –
a shame brought about through social custom, expectations, and pressure...
In the early days of her marriage, hope was high of maintaining the family line.
But, as the years pass, the only thing bearing fruit
has been the idle speculation and disapproving gossip of her neighbours.
More years pass and with them, hope has faded,
even as the endless whispered conversations have grown.
An old woman, now mostly ignored, mostly invisible, of little account;
a woman who is just getting on with what is left of her life.
A woman who is surprised one day to find that hope has not entirely withered:
like that great ancestor of her faith, Sarah, who thought she was too old to bear a child,
miraculously, Elizabeth too shall have a child in these, her later years.
Her world is turned upside-down.
She, and her strangely silent husband, Zechariah –
silent since his last stint at the temple –
watch and wait, and prepare for the unexpected.

The younger woman, Mary, has lived a quiet life,
stayed at home and helped her mother, and waited upon her father,
as all good daughters are expected to.
Following the cultural norms, this gentle and obedient daughter,
has recently been betrothed to a man deemed by her family to be suitable.
He will be more suitable than she currently understands:
showing patience, care, loyalty, and love in the midst of possible scandal.
However, at this point in time,
Mary has just been given utterly unexpected tidings from a strange messenger:
like Elizabeth, her whole world is about to turn upside-down as well.
In that most conservative of societies, where women are controlled
by their fathers, brothers, and husbands,
she has just been told by God’s messenger that she will have a child...
and, it will not be Joseph’s child that she’ll carry.

In a different way to Elizabeth, Mary too, will be subject to gossip and snide innuendo...
but she will bear it, and the child, for God’s sake.
In some strange way, this humble young teenager
- a woman of no importance in her society,
has been chosen to carry the hope of the nation,
the hope for the world.
Letting the message sink in, as much as she can, Mary says ‘yes, may it be as you say.’
Both women, older and younger, dare to believe that the impossible is...possible,
that they worship a God
who can do all things,
who can overturn all things.
They rejoice as they meet, and ponder what is about to come.

Later, sons will be born to both of them:
Elizabeth’s son will prepare the way for the son of Mary, Jesus...
who, in the mystery of incarnation, will be God, with skin on.
Even later, both sons will say ‘yes’ to their respective tasks,
and both will suffer for their willingness to play their part in the great story
of God’s rescue,
God’s deliverance of humanity...
God’s good news that turns the ways of the world upside-down,
which Mary sings of in her great song of rejoicing that is referred to as ‘the Magnificat’.

As Elizabeth and Mary meet one another their hearts sing as they realise that
something awesome, something amazing is about to happen:
something bigger even than God’s rescue of the Israelites from Egypt.
And, echoing the liberation song of Moses’ sister Miriam, Mary sings:
of the God who saves,
of the God who sees those unseen by society,
of the God who showers the most lowly with his blessing,
of the God who shows mercy...
This is the God who does not play by human rules of grabbing all for one’s own gain,
of having power by keeping others down:
for in God’s economy, God’s kingdom,
power is seen in vulnerability,
it is where the poor are fed while the rich are sent away.
Here is a God who believes
that all are entitled to share in the good things of the kingdom,
that all deserve to have life that is abundant – in body, mind, and spirit...
This is the God of unlimited grace
and unmerited blessing.

Mary’s song encapsulates what the gospel is:
good news for all of humanity, not just a select few.
And the life of her son, Jesus,
is the good news in word and in deed:
showing those who followed him and those who follow him still,
how to live, and what it is to be willing to say ‘yes’ to God.
Shortly, we share in bread and wine – the meal that Jesus made for his friends
and bid them, when eating, to remember him.
It is a solemn meal –
for we know that shortly after he met with his friends,
his willingness to be obedient to God would lead to suffering and death ...
But it is also a joyful meal –
for we know that death is not the end of Jesus’ story.
His story continues - even here, among us.
Perhaps if last week the question was
‘Are we ready?’ this week, the question is:
Are we willing – like Elizabeth, like Mary, John, and Jesus –
are we willing to say ‘yes’ to God,
to sing with Mary a hymn of good news, and, as God’s people,
to live out God’s good news in word and in deed?
Dare we believe in a God who makes the impossible... possible?
And, if we do, how might that transform not only our lives,
but the lives of all those   around us?

Let’s pray:
Enable us, gracious God, to listen as Mary listened
and to give ourselves fully and humbly and joyously
to that which you call us to do.
And whether it be dramatic or mundane,
may we reflect your wonderful love for each of us
and serve the world your Son came to redeem.
We ask this in his name.  Amen.

Monday, 14 November 2016

Contacts, information, events...

The minister will be on leave from: 
Mon 14 November to Mon 21 Nov.

Pulpit supply and funeral cover: 

Sunday 20 November: we welcome the Rev. Linda Walker, Education, Mission and Discipleship Development Officer for Hamilton Presbytery

Funeral cover: will be provided by the Rev George Shand who can be contacted on 01899 309400.
For any ongoing parish queries, please contact Moira White on 01659 74621

News, events, and general notices:

Wednesday 16 November, 12.30pm: Lunch Club will be held in the Church Hall. All welcome! Soup, sweet, tea/coffee, good conversation. Cost £5. Please let Jenny Worthington know by Mon evening if you'd like to come along.

Saturday 19 November, 10.30am: Annual Guild Morning Tea. This will be held in the Roberton Village Hall. Home baking, craft stall, tombola, and morning teas... come along and bring a friend!

Sunday 20 November, after morning worship: 
   Advent/Christmas edition of the Parish Magazine has now been produced and is available today.
   Dee Yates [editor] is looking for volunteers to help with distribution around the villages as per the
   previous editions. Many hands makes light work!! Thanks for helping.
   Advent Calendars:  There’ll be an opportunity to buy some Advent calendars after worship –
   not just any Advent calendars, but containing fairly traded chocolate. The calendar itself tells
   the real story of Christmas. If you’re looking for a small treat for a young person you know –
   or, for yourself – make sure to pick one up. Cost £4, with all proceeds going into church funds.

Thursday 24 November, 7pm: Upper Clyde Kirk Session meets in the Church Hall.

Saturday 26 November, 12-3pm: Advent mini-retreat: 'What are you waiting for?' 
Advent is the waiting time; the weeks leading up to the birth of Jesus.
As we head into what can be a busy [and stressful] time, this short Advent retreat provides an opportunity to catch your breath, and take time to prepare mentally and spiritually for the
coming of the Christ-child. We start with a simple lunch: soup, a roll, and a cuppa, and then
move into a more reflective space...Why not join us?
For catering purposes, please let Nikki know by the evening of Thurs 24 Nov. [t. 01864 502139]

Sunday 27 November, evening worship: 6.30pm at Leadhills Village Hall. Join us for this all-age friendly, informal service. Tea/coffee and a chance to catch up with folk after worship. All welcome.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Sermon, Sun 13 Nov: Remembrance Sunday 2016

Ephesians 6:10-18 and Matthew 5: 43-48

[all turn to post-sermon hymn #710: '"I have a dream," a man once said']

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.

‘I have a dream’, a man once said, 
‘where all is perfect peace; 
where men and women, black and white, 
stand hand in hand, and all unite 
in freedom and in love.

Wondering if human beings could ever be a people who could truly live in harmony,
whether human beings could truly put aside their differences and love those who were enemies,
hymn-writer Pamela Pettit wrote the hymn that we’ve just turned to.
While specifically referencing the great speech given by Martin Luther King,
there’s a timeless quality, too, about the words Pettit wrote.
Although war and conflict seem to have been the default way of being
in the world for millennia, yet, alongside that view,
there have been those who dared to look for other ways to be:
those who have dared to dream of peace.
In 1914, when war broke out, it was optimistically bandied about
that this would be ‘the war to end all wars.’
That was the dream being sold: peace.
Was it possible to live in peace, to 'stand hand and hand'
and live 'in freedom and in love'?
Could living without war be something worth fighting for?
And, on a global scale, people responded to the call
to see an end to war.

It was the age of new empires –
French was spoken in Polynesia and the Congo,
German, in West Africa and Samoa
Britannia ruled the waves and the map was covered with
a pleasing amount of pink –
well, pleasing if you were a part of the British Empire, at any rate.
Alliances were made, and the empires jostled for power.
Each of the powers vied to demonstrate their superiority over others:
culturally, economically, militarily...
Each wanting to make their nation great,
pointing fingers at those who were different and saying:
‘we are better than you’,
‘we are more civilised than you’,
‘we are stronger than you.’
Each working for their own interest.
When the klaxons sounded, and war began,
on a global scale, people responded to the call
to show up the other nations;
to show to these others,
just how much better, more virtuous, more entitled
their own particular nation was to take, or to hold on to, power.

But in this world of bitter strife
the dream can often fade;
reality seems dark as night,
we catch but glimpses of the light
Christ sheds on humankind...
It was a time of innocence, and a time of cynicism.
For those many individuals who responded to the call –
whether out of a sense of duty, patriotism, or a sense of adventure,
there were those buoyed up by the thought of tidy profit:
corporations and shareholders quietly rubbing their hands
in anticipation of growing fat on the proceeds of death.
War is a strange business,
but a business, nevertheless.

Whatever the many reasons that propelled nations to sound the guns in 1914,
by 1916, the war is bogged down – literally, and strategically.
Since February, a long and terrible battle has raged at Verdun.
The French Army is pinned down by a sustained and strong German assault.
Meeting with allies, it’s decided that the British
will launch an offensive to the north near the River Somme,
to relieve the pressure on the French.
Along an 11-and-a-half-mile section of the Front,
18 Divisions of the British Army prepare for battle.
For the most part, they are young volunteers from every corner of the Empire,
with little experience of combat.
Across the field, the Germans know that a large-scale attack is imminent.
Lieutenant Frederick Bursey, of the Royal Field Artillery, writes in his journal, on June 23:
‘The Huns put up a board yesterday in their front line trenches and on it 
was pinned a paper with the following: 
“We know you are going to attack. 
Kitchener is done, Asquith is done. 
You are done. We are done. 
In fact we are all done.”’ 

After a long week of constant preparatory bombardment on the Germans,
the whistle sounds on the first of July, and all those fighting on the British side,
including Irish, Newfoundlanders, South Africans and Indians,
go ‘over the top’ of the trenches and into a hail of bullets and barbed wire.
It is utter carnage
and at least one man dies every 5 seconds.
By the end of this first day, 57 470 British casualties are reported, including 19 240 deaths:
15% of all British losses over the course of the entire war.
Private Frank Lindley, of the 14th York and Lancaster Regiment would later recall that day:
‘You could hear the bullets whistling past and our lads were going down, 
flop, flop, flop in their waves, just as though they’d all gone to sleep. 
I was in the first wave. There was no cheering, we just ambled across, 
you hadn’t a thought; you were so addled with the noise. 
Bullets were like a swarm of bees round you – 
you could almost feel them plucking at your clothes.’

Fierce persecution, war and hate
are raging everywhere;
God calls us now to pay the price
through struggles and through sacrifice
of standing for the right.
As the battle rages, on both sides of the trenches,
are those who believe that God is on their side –
that God is British... or German;
are those who have made God into some kind of tribal deity,
completely ignoring that all people are God’s people.
And that, God is in the business of reconciliation, not war.
It is why, in our gospel passage, Jesus turns conventional wisdom on its head:
not only should you love your neighbour, you should also love your enemy...
Later, this will be teased out further by Jesus:
your neighbour will not just be
those who live next door,
those who look like you,
speak like you,
think like you...
the idea of neighbour will be expanded to take in all people –
even those you struggle with;
those who, in the privacy of your heart, or in the public sphere,
you call ‘enemy’.

...War is not of God,
war is what humans do to each other.
But, God is not absent from war –
and even in the mud and blood of the trenches
and in the crater shelled hell of ‘no-man’s land’
God could be seen:
seen in tiny acts of kindness and compassion –
the reassuring voice of a sapper quietly talking of home to an enemy who lay dying:
seeing the person created in God’s image, not just ‘the Hun.’
God could be seen, in acts of sacrifice, where friend would push friend out of the way,
and take the brunt of a shell-blast, laying down his life for his brother;
God could be seen in the love of a son writing letters to his father,
wanting to spare him the reality – letters containing:
‘no word of the fighting, 
just the sheep on the hill’*
For as much as acts of kindness and compassion were shown,
as much as a life was given for another,
Jesus said:
‘whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

So dream the dreams and sing the songs,
but never be content;
for thoughts and words don’t ease the pain;
unless there’s action, all is vain;
faith proves itself in deeds.
We are called to see the image of God in one another;
called to love those who are easy to love,
and called to love those who, for whatever reason, are our enemies.
Love conquers hate –
this is what Jesus knew, this is what the apostle, Paul knew.
It’s easy to lash out at those who disagree with us,
who aren’t like us...
who don’t like us -
and, over the entire course of human existence, this has been the default pattern.
But we are called to break that pattern.
To put on God’s armour:
the belt of truth which breaks the lie that some are lesser than others;
the sword of righteousness, that swings through the misuse of power
which puts people down on the basis of race, or gender, or orientation,
or whatever way they may be seen as ‘different’.
We are called to lift one another up, in love.
Called to put on the shoes of the gospel of peace –
for that is God’s vision for humanity:
that we live in peace with God and each other.
And, in a world in which, this year, and possibly, this week,
seems to have grown that much darker,
we are called to take up the shield of faith:
and to believe that the darkness will not, can not
ever, ever win...
for the Light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has never put it out
no matter how dark,
no matter how ferocious the attack.

Wherever we are in our small corner, we hold to the dream of peace,
God’s perfect peace;
That is our battle:
we are called to fight and make real that vision of a world in which
all can live without fear,
in freedom and in love, 
where each can see the face of God in the other.

Lord, give us vision, make us strong,
help us to do your will;
don’t let us rest until we see
your love throughout humanity
uniting us in peace.        Amen.

*Earlier in the service, prior to the Act of Remembrance, we heard poems connected with 
the Battle of the Somme. The reference above is from 'In Memorium' by E. A. Mackintosh.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Wordworks Writing Group: November meeting


The writing group meets on Thursday 10 November,
7pm, at the Colebrooke Arms.

This month's writing prompts are:
*signs of a misspent youth
*the elements: air, or earth
*Remembrance [Day, or themes]

Or bring anything that you happen to be working on...

All welcome. See you there!

Monday, 7 November 2016

Sermon Sun 6 Nov, Wk 10 'Getting slavery out of the people'...WMRBW

1st READING: Exodus 20:1-21
2nd READING: Matthew 22:34-40

SERMON ‘Love God, and do what you like’
Let us pray:
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, o God our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.

Picture the scene:
the wind is blowing mightily.
The very air is alive with crackling tension.
Thunder thunders,
lightning flashes,
there is a sound of trumpets in the air....
swirling smoke and cloud cover the mountaintop.
Far down below, in the shadow of Mt. Sinai, people huddle together trembling, afraid...
trying to find a little distance from the terror and the noise
and the all-pervading, utterly terrifying,
voice of the all-powerful God.
Too much.
It’s all too much to bear – and if they hear much more,
the people feel that they will surely die....

The description of the giving of the ten commandments is certainly not filled
with fluffy bunnies, pretty butterflies, or people skipping merrily along the way.
Nor, for that matter, does it feature Charlton Heston in glorious cinemascope,
with his long, grey beardy locks blowing in the wind –
as much as I, and Hollywood, certainly would like it to.
Rather, it is quite literally awe-some; designed to make you pay attention.
Something big is happening here, something of tremendous importance:
God... speaks.
The people of God tremble.
They think of death...
and miss the point completely:
God speaks:
ten words.
Words of life, not death.
Words of liberation, not captivity.

But surely, ‘law’ and ‘liberation’ in the same sentence must be a bit of an oxymoron:
are contradictory?
Don’t quite compute.
Or, do they?
An Orthodox Jewish reading of the ten commandments has as the first commandment:
‘I am the Lord you God who brought you up out of the 
land of Egypt, out of bondage and slavery.’ 
Bill Wylie-Kellermann, writing for the magazine Sojourners asks:
‘This is a command?’
And he continues, by answering his own question:
that it’s a command that focuses upon the identity of the people of Israel...
and of what God has done...
it’s a command that implies to those who have ears to hear it:
‘Know that whose you are precedes what you do.’   
You    are    God’s    people...
this, then, is how to live as God’s people...

But are the 10 commandments merely just a bunch of
rules and regulations designed to spoil our fun?
As someone who’s been a very keen student of church law,
of course, I’d be inclined to say ‘no!’
And I’d add, that law – rules, regulations, codes of practice,
however you might describe them –
often get a bad press, which, I think, is a little unfair.
On the other hand, it is fair to say that the manner in which the
Ten Commandments are phrased don’t seem to help:
‘thou shallt not...’ is not the most positive of starting phrases, after all.
The phrase is a little like a verbal slapping before you’ve actually done anything.
‘Don’t do that!’
‘Stop it!’
It feels almost designed to beat us into submission...

The ‘thou shallt nots’ are all too easy to caricature, and in doing so,
misrepresent what I believe to be the actual intent of the commandments.
At this point, I’m hoping you’ve all been given a copy
of ‘the positive 10’ in your orders of service ...[copied below]
When I stumbled across this version of the commandments,
it really helped me see them with fresh eyes – and do feel free to take them
home with you and pin to your fridge. On the back of the service sheet,
in the ‘food for the journey’ section, you’re invited to sit with the
commandments over this coming week...
and I’ll be interested to hear where some of your thinking takes you!

Now, let’s go back to that comment about knowing ‘whose you are’ preceding
‘what you do’...                                                          
And while we’re at it, let’s also lose the word ‘commandment’
in the original context the Ten Commandments were known as the ‘decalogue’
‘ten words.’
The ten words are almost a foundational document of liberation:
And that liberation is founded on relationship.

Let’s have a look at the first four commands, or ‘words’...
These first four ‘words’ concern God in relation to God’s people,
and the people in relation to their God...
Just ‘whose’ are these people?
They belong – are in relationship with –  the One who freed them from captivity,
who took them out of Egypt, and on a journey into the wilderness wastes,
a journey where daily, they saw God’s saving hand at work:
keeping them fed and watered on the way.
A rocky journey at times, and this is not just a comment on the terrain:
Mumblings, murmurings, complaining:
even doing a little revisionist history concerning their time in Egypt –
to the point where some were inclined to believe that slavery, on the whole,
was actually pretty darned good.

But now, at the foot of Mt Sinai, they are no longer Pharoah’s:
they are God’s particular people, and God begins the process of
guiding them into a particular way of being.
Having liberated them for a particular purpose,
they are now in the process of learning what it is to live in relationship with God...
and, as we look at the other six ‘words’,
learning how to live in relationship with each other - their neighbour.

Ten words,
calling God’s people to serve God, and each other, in love,
Ten words that are a radical call for commitment to God and to neighbour...
and extending to all creation.
Ten words that continue to confirm my growing suspicion that God is indeed a Presbyterian.
After all, these words enable life to be lived decently, and in good order...
God, in the giving of these words to the ones liberated from Egypt,
provides a way in which order is created out of the former chaos
and reinforces that, even in the wilderness, life can be meaningful, and fruitful.
Importantly, that in the midst of it all, that there should be time to rest:
a clear message that there is more to life than work –
that we are defined by being in God, not by what we do.

These ten words paint an alternative picture to the Israelites previous life in Egypt:
a place where there was little interest in regeneration and rest, and no freedom....
In contrast to the Egyptian custom,
the commandments don’t sanction a human king or a leader to assert power over,
or demand allegiance from the people.
The community isn’t going to be defined according to the whims of power-hungry
human rulers. Instead the commandments demand loyalty and obedience to God alone.
The commandments also serve to formalize the connection and the
relationship between the realms of God and this particular people.
As Patrick Miller eloquently expresses it:
‘...neither community, nor deity have separate existences 
once the covenant is established. Even though both experience 
real abandonment on the part of the other for a time, they are forever linked.’

But what about us, the spiritual descendants of the children of Israel?
What about us, God’s people, the church...
God’s living stones...
called into community...
called to tell God’s story?
We certainly haven’t been released from captivity in Egypt...
And given the sudden drop in temperature over the last couple of days,
it’s not as if we’ve been stumbling about the searingly hot desert wilderness of Sinai.
So, what might these ten words have to say to us in our situation,
as we sit comfortably in our seats here in church?

I’m fairly sure that most of us here are aware of the ongoing talk of the church
being in a kind of terminal decline.
Of talk concerning how we, in the Church of Scotland in particular,
no longer seem to hold the privileged place in society that we used to,
when it came to having some kind of public influence.
Everything seems to be shrinking away...
the glory days seem so long ago.
In that sense are we, in a different way to the Israelites, wandering in the wilderness?
Is there a small sense of terror, as we watch the depletion of resources
and of the depletion of people and skills, of time and talents?
And like the Israelites, do we long for a return to the good old days?

Journeying in the wilderness can be terrifying –
all the securities and apparent guarantees of survival are gone.
But the wilderness could also provide the church with an opportunity
to re-define itself according to what matters most,
and in doing so, find fresh ways of touching the hearts of all we encounter;
for in the wilderness, free from unnecessary distractions, we are reminded of whose we are:
God’s particular people, in this particular time and place –
in our parish,
in our homes,
or wherever, and whoever, we are with.

What might our lives look like if we lived the Ten Commandments
as invitations to freedom, to life, rather than a set of rules to be followed?
What would life be like if we lived in the awareness that life comes from God,
that we don’t need to worship the false God of consumerism,
or bow down to the idol of celebrity?
What if we celebrated that we can still freely and publicly speak
God’s name in praise and prayer?
What if we recognised that life was about more than work and
took up God’s invitation to Sabbath?
What if we took up God’s invitation
to respect people,
to honour life,
and to honour relationships?
And what if we were on the receiving end of that respect and honour?
What would that feel like?
What would life be like?

Writer Joe Roos notes that:
‘the Ten Commandments don't begin with: 
"Here are ten commandments, learn them by rote,
"Here are ten commandments, obey them."
Instead, they begin with a sweeping announcement of freedom:
'I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery'.
We will probably always think of the declarations that follow as the Ten Commandments.
But we could, and probably should, think of them as invitations to God's liberation -
the ‘positive’ ten.

As we learn what it is to walk in the freedom that God gives to each one of us,
I’m reminded of the words of 5th century theologian, Augustine, who famously said:
‘love God, and do what you like’...
meaning, that although there’ll be the occasional glitch,
for we’re none of us perfect yet...
if we love God, what we like will tend to be that which pleases God
for we are his, and he is ours, and we live within the immense bounds of his amazing grace.

Let us pray:
God of justice and liberation,
may we, as your people, learn to speak 
with echoes of your life in our hearts and minds,
nurturing ways of behaving that are just and compassionate.
Free us as we begin today.

God of justice and liberation,
may we, as your church, learn from you 
what it is to be rightly angered at injustice in the world.
May we, as individuals and communities, 
see the speck in our own eye as we pass judgement on the log in another's;
and learn to challenge one another with sensitivity and care.

God of justice and liberation,
may we, as your church in the world, 
be free of all that holds us back from loving you radically and openly.
In the name of the justice-bringer and liberator, 
                  [*adapted from 'Roots']

The Positive 10:
Put God First
Give worth to the one who gives worth to you.
Use God’s name with respect and love.
Spend time thinking about God.
Honour and love your whole family.
Live towards other people with love and generosity.
Find the richness in faithfulness towards others.
Celebrate what you have rather than dwell on what you don’t.
Speak well of others and truthfully to yourself.
Why get down about what others have when you can share what you have with others?

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Reminder: Sunday Potluck at the manse...

Lunch@the manse:
Sunday Potluck  

bring and share...
food and conversation...

All welcome to come along, to join in shared food and conversations as we continue to:
'make the road by walking'

...picking up on some of the themes we've been exploring in this first quarter of our new programme...
bring your thoughts, burning questions, and a plate to share.
All welcome!!

Monday, 31 October 2016

Reflection Zone: Exodus - standing on holy ground

This week take some time to stand on ‘Holy Ground’.  
Before moving into a time of reflection,
quite intentionally take your shoes off
and feel your feet on the floor.
Light a candle -
to represent the burning bush in front of you.
Kneel or sit down while focusing on the flame.
Allow the thoughts which float into your mind to float out again as you concentrate on the light.
Be aware of your breath
as you inhale and exhale.
In the silence, watching the flame flickering, imagine the words
‘I Am’ 
being said, with conviction, three times over:
‘I Am’… ‘I Am’… ‘I Am’…
Know that in this moment you are in the presence of God.
Every time your mind wanders imagine the words are repeated again.
‘I Am’… ‘I Am’… ‘I Am’… 
Continue with this reflection for around fifteen minutes.
Allow the God of the present moment to consciously remain with you
after you have reverently blown out the candle and put on your shoes.
You may choose to put your palms together in a prayer position
in front of your heart and bow your head in thanks
before leaving this ‘Holy Ground’.
‘I Am’… ‘I Am’… ‘I Am’…

[a reflection from 'Spill the Beans']

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Sermon Sun 30 Oct: Wk9 'Freedom'...WMRBW

1st READING: Exodus 1:1-14
2nd READING: Exodus 2:1-25
3rd READING: Exodus 3:1-15

SERMON ‘Go down Moses’
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.

We’ve zoomed through the Book of Genesis:
explored the beginning of all things,
and met up with some folk on the way –
Noah, called by God to rescue animals,
and preserve that which was good about creation;
Abraham, called by God to travel in faith from his home in Haran, off to unknown territory...
Abraham whose descendants would be many.
We briefly met with Isaac, the much-looked for child of promise,
and discovered just what Abraham was prepared to give up to follow God.
Here we are now, in the Book of Exodus, in the land of Egypt,
and encountering those descendants of Abraham now living under the yoke of the Pharaoh –
slaves shoring up the economy of Egypt.
But how did we move from promise to imprisonment?

Let’s go back a little:
Abraham and Sarah eventually die, and the story continues with Isaac.
He eventually marries and has sons Esau and Jacob.
Jacob is a bit of a con-merchant, a shyster,
always on the lookout for ways of gaining an advantage.
He cheerfully cheats Esau out of his birthright, for the price of a plate of lentil stew.
Esau’s not the sharpest tool in the took-kit.
Later, Jacob manages to cheat Esau again, stealing the blessing intended for Esau,
and, in the process, quite happily deceiving his old dad, Isaac – who’s frail and nearly blind.
Naturally, the brothers fall out, there’s a rift, and then separation.
Eventually, after many years, there’s reconciliation.
But from this point, Esau’s effectively out of the picture.
Jacob marries, and has many sons and one younger son, especially, is his favourite –
and this favouritism causes a big stooshie:
big enough that Andrew Lloyd Webber saw fit to create a musical:
‘Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat’ 

The brothers get so annoyed with this wee brother, that they decide to kill him.
In the end, they decide to chuck him down a well, but traders happen to be passing,
so they sell him into slavery instead.
Lesson here: if you're a younger sib., don’t be annoying!
Joseph ends up in Egypt.
He gets a reputation for dream interpretation,
and, happily Pharaoh happens to be having some quite troubling dreams.
Joe helps out and is richly rewarded for his troubles, organises a plan for upcoming famine,
and, when it comes, manages to keep Egypt from going hungry.
His brothers are sent to Egypt to find food,
eventually reunite with Joseph, and all settle happily in Egypt, with the Pharaoh’s blessing.
And that’s where we find ourselves at the beginning of Exodus.

Years pass, and Joseph and his family prosper.
Generations come and go, the Hebrews have grown in number...
and Joseph’s story has been long-forgotten.
We find ourselves in a time where a new king is on the throne,
a new king who thinks something needs done about all these Hebrews living in Egypt...
a new king who creates an atmosphere of fear and mistrust:
‘if war breaks out, they will join our enemies.’
Clearly, for the powers that be, these immigrants need controlled.
Some things don’t change...
And so, the Hebrews are forced to become slaves –
and the country prospers on the back of slave labour.
In the words of the old spiritual:
When Israel was in Egypt land
Let my people go!
Oppressed so hard they could not stand
Let my people go!

Yet in the midst of their oppression, the Hebrew population grows.
They are worked harder.
And then, a plan for gradual genocide is put into place:
kill off the male children, and you gradually kill off the race.
It is in this place and time, that a boy child is born –
but hidden, not killed.
Eventually the child is too hard to hide, and to give it at least some small chance of surviving,
the desperate plan is hatched to float him down the Nile in a water-proofed wicker basket.
Ironically, the child is rescued by the daughter of the very one seeking the destruction of the Hebrews: Pharaoh, and is raised as a prince in Egypt –
which Disney saw fit to create a movie – it’s great, I happily recommend it!
The child is named ‘Moses’.
As we discover, in the rest of our readings, this child has a destiny:
Go down Moses
Way down in Egypt land
Tell old Pharaoh to
Let my people go!
Moses is to liberate God’s people from slavery and oppression.

But there are a few twists and turns before that eventually happens.
The child, reared in the privilege and pleasure of the palace, becomes a man:
knowing of his Hebrew heritage, but having grown up, culturally, as an Egyptian.
He has a foot in both camps, if you like.
This changes.
One day, wishing to see where his own people were,
he watches an Egyptian beating one of the slaves.
He is moved to action, and kills the Egyptian.
He hopes nobody has seen.
His hopes are dashed and news gets around.
Mistrusted by the Hebrew slaves,
and having betrayed the Egyptians who raised him,
Moses now belongs in neither camp, and is forced to flee.
Eventually he marries, and settles down, and yet, never fully belongs:
his first child is named Gershom, which means ‘a stranger there’.
Years pass.
Pharaoh dies.
Moses tends his father in law’s flocks...
And then, one day a strange thing happens:
the God of the Hebrews is revealed to Moses –
he spies a bush, on fire, and yet, not burning up,
or, as our Church of Scotland motto notes:
‘it was not consumed’
An odd sight indeed, and Moses, being curious, daunders up to have a closer look.
Even stranger, a voice seems to be coming from the bush,
a voice that knows his name.
To demonstrate just who Moses is listening to,
the voice then instructs Moses to take off his shoes –
this is a gesture of humility:
Moses is told that he stands on holy ground,
and is being addressed by the god of his ancestors Abraham, Isaac, Jacob.
So, here we have the man who at one time felt he belonged to both Hebrew and Egyptian cultures;
the one who was later alienated from both,
now being shown where he truly belonged - where his true identity lay,
by the God of Abraham.
And, with that revelation of belonging comes a task:
God says:
‘I have heard my people cry... 
I have come to rescue them...and... 
I am sending you to do it.’
You can picture Moses standing, or possibly prostrating himself, listening to God saying:
‘I this’
and ‘I... that...’
and even, possibly nodding along thinking:
‘Good stuff, good on you, God.’
So, it’s got to be bit of a jolt when God talks of liberation
and then says Moses is the man for the job.
What then follows is an awesome list of reasons given by Moses as to why
this plan of God’s is a very bad idea.

Excuse one: the humble bumble –
‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh...?’
Who is Moses to do this???
Well, he's a former high-ranking member of the royal family.
Who else could do this?
So, that excuse won’t wash.

Excuse two: the need for I.D. papers.
Essentially, after the ‘who am I’ fails,
Moses says ‘who are you?’ to God,
asking for God’s name on the basis that the Hebrews won’t believe him
unless he gives them the name of God.
But God won’t, can’t, be boxed in by a name.
Instead he says
‘Tell them, ‘I AM has sent me.’
Otherwise translated:
‘I will be what I will be’
You can’t pin God down.

Beyond our readings for today, the excuses continue.
And each time Moses makes one,
God rebuts.
Says Moses: ‘What if they don’t believe me?’
God responds: ‘Show them this sign, and then this one.’
Says Moses: ‘But I’m not particularly eloquent – and, I stammer.’
God responds: ‘I’ll help you speak.’
Says Moses: ‘Please send someone else.’
God responds: ‘aaaaaargh... okay, your brother Aaron is on his way to meet you.’

This story, of the calling of Moses, stands in stark contrast to the call of Abram.
Abram, without any lengthy havering, packs up his family and worldly goods, and sets off.
Moses, on the other hand, is desperate to run swiftly in the opposite direction.
And you can’t really blame him: the task he’s given is pretty overwhelming.
Basically he’s to: ‘tell ole Pharaoh ‘let my people go!’
Moses is asked to go before the seat of great power and to challenge that power:
to decry the abuses of slavery and oppression in Egypt,
right there in the very court of Pharaoh.
To place himself in great danger.
And, to do so, for a people who may, or may not, throw in their lot with him.
He’s seen by one side as a traitor, and by the other, as a colluder in oppression.
The job isn’t going to be much fun.
Go down Moses
Way down in Egypt land
Tell old Pharaoh to
Let my people go!
Eventually, he agrees, heads back down to Egypt, encounters the hard-hearted Pharaoh,
God brings a host of plagues upon the land, and finally, finally, liberates the Hebrews.
They head out from Egypt and on, in time, to the Promised Land.

Throughout the bible, there are many stories of God calling people
out of their everyday lives, to follow in faith.
Some go willingly,
others, like Moses, go much more reluctantly.
Moses, and later, the prophets, and much later, Jesus,
are given the task of speaking up –
of challenging institutional power:
power that has been gained, and maintained at the cost of others lives.
We find, in the story of Moses, that God is on the side of the powerless –
seeking to liberate the captives.
Hundreds of years later, a young rabbi, at the beginning of his ministry,
will stand in a local synagogue and read the words from the prophet Isaiah:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, 
because he has anointed me to bring 
good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free, 
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ 
And, having read it, this young rabbi will say:
‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’
That same young rabbi will challenge authority, to tell those in power to
‘Let my people go!’
To demonstrate, in word and in deed, what the kindom of heaven on earth would look like;
to show the people of God that they are called to speak truth to power,
to tell those who are modern-day Pharaohs to ‘let my people go!’
...As God's people, each one of us is called by God to share the good news that liberates -
that liberates all who are bowed down,
all who are held captive in whatever way;
to proclaim God’s love to those who are powerless, those who are vulnerable.
How will we respond to God’s call?

Let’s pray:
In the wilderness of life we find holiness. 
In the wilderness of our hearts we seek godliness. 
In the empty places, and the busy places: 
God is...
God will be who God will be.
As we seek, we find unexpected blessings, unanticipated presence, 
for where we go God is with us: 
faithful companion
as we travel along the road of faith...Amen.
                                               [prayer adapted from Spill the Beans]

...and a wee soundtrack to the sermon...

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Contacts, information, events...

The minister will be on leave from: 
late afternoon of 16 October and will be back on Fri 28 October

Pulpit supply and funeral cover: 

Sunday 23 October: we welcome the Rev. Linda Walker, Education, Mission and Discipleship Development Officer for Hamilton Presbytery

Funeral cover: will be provided by the Rev George Shand who can be contacted on 01899 309400.
For any ongoing parish queries, please contact Jenny Worthington on 01899 850274

News, events, and general notices:

Wednesday 19 October, 12.30pm: Lunch Club will be held in the Church Hall. All welcome! Soup, sweet, tea/coffee, good conversation. Cost £5. Please let Jenny Worthington know by Mon evening if you'd like to come along.

Sunday 23 October, evening worship: 6.30pm at Wanlockhead Community Centre. Join us for this all-age friendly, informal service. Tea/coffee and a chance to catch up with folk after worship. All welcome.

Readers wanted for Remembrance Sunday service: if you would be willing to read poems/ extracts provided by the minister for this special service of Remembrance, please get in touch with her.

Sermon Sun 16 Oct Wk7: 'Never too late'...WMRBW

1st READING: Genesis 18:1-15; 22:1-14  
2nd READING: Micah 6:6-8

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.

We know the beginnings of this story:
Abram and his family live settled, comfortable lives in the great city-state of Ur.
At some point, the patriarch of the family, Terah, decides to move his clan –
to travel to Canaan.
They get as far as Haran, and, either tired of travelling, or liking what he sees,
Terah settles his family there. They prosper at this place that seems to be
a trading and travelling crossroads.

Year follows year, and, as is the way of things,
Terah dies – the older generation has now passed away,
and we meet Abram, at a crossroads in his own life.
Settled, and comfortable, he’s called by God to leave Haran and travel into the unknown –
to move out from his place of comfort and trust in God’s promise of
a new future,
a new and great destiny,
a new beginning – starting with the promise of a child.
Obediently, he complies, taking wife, nephew, slaves
and his great riches along for the journey.
As he travels, his wealth increases.
Years pass.
Many years.
He and wife Sarai are growing old, and wondering just when the promise of
a child might be fulfilled.

Still more years pass.
He and his company have many adventures, some good, some less so.
Sometimes his actions are a little less than heroic.
Nevertheless, flawed human that he is, in faith, he continues to follow God.
And this morning, in our first reading, we find Abram,
now called ‘Abraham’, encamped at a place called Mamre by ‘great’ trees.
It    is   hot.
Unbelievably hot.
He sits by the entrance of his tent, not doing very much.
As he sits, he’s suddenly aware of three strangers nearby – they just seem to be there.
Perhaps he’s nodded off and not noticed their approach, but now, he’s very alert.
In the energy-sapping heat of the day, Abraham’s all action:
he rushes over to the three,
meets them, and in the gesture of a servant, in humility, he bows deeply before them.

Now, hospitality was a sacred act in those days,
and Abraham’s very much following the custom:
‘Don’t pass by, come wash your dusty, weary feet;
come and rest awhile, 
come eat and be refreshed.’
And so, the strangers agree.
Given Abraham is a wealthy man, with many servants,
it’s interesting just how hands-on he is in ensuring that his guests are comfortable...
and it’s no quick cup of tea and a garibaldi:
preparations are set in place and the meal will take time – bread needs baked,
and, when the most tender calf has been chosen, it needs time for cooking.
Once the meal is ready, again, Abraham accords them honour:
they sit and eat, he stands, as a servant would.
Does he know that there’s something more to these strangers than might appear?
Or, perhaps he’s just an excellent host.
And, now, as they eat, they talk, and it’s a curious conversation indeed:
they seem to know quite a lot about Abraham and Sarah.
In the course of the conversation, with Sarah quietly eavesdropping and hidden from view,
one of the strangers reveals that the longed-for child will be born over the coming year.
Now remember, she’s been waiting awffy long, has our Sarah.
She’s feeling her advanced years.
She’s possibly just quietly written off this particular promise...
You can forgive her for basically bursting out laughing and saying ‘aye, right.’
But the stranger then says, rather pointedly, to Abraham,
‘Why did she laugh? Is anything too hard for the Lord?’
And now she’s afraid – she’s been caught out.
She’s not sure who these strangers are, but...they’re not your everyday visitors.
And, in the midst of this visit, Abraham and Sarah realise that somehow, in these strangers,
God is in their midst...

A year passes.
The longed-for child arrives and is named ‘Isaac’ – meaning ‘he laughs.’
If the previous laughter had been disbelief, here is joy at last.
The child grows and flourishes and is very much loved –
more precious than all their riches.
And here, the story should end, happily...
but it doesn’t.
We move to a hard and horrifying chapter in the story.
Once again, God speaks to Abraham – but no words of promise or destiny here;
in fact, almost the opposite.
‘Go, take your son, whom you love, sacrifice him as a burnt offering.’
It’s like a great big divine punch in the gut.
You can almost see the light going from Abraham’s eyes,
as his son, and the promise of numerous descendants,
appear to be snatched away from him.
And Abraham, obedient even in this, sets out the next morning
to do this most terrible of all biddings.
It is not a short journey.
Hour after unremitting hour,
day after day, after day, they travel on.
How heavy the feet of Abraham drag along the stony path, how heavy his heart?
Although obedient, is there somewhere deep inside of Abraham that’s
crying out to God and asking:
‘Why this, of all things?’
Still he travels on, and finally arrives, walking up the mountain-side
with the source of so much happiness, his beloved child.
‘Where’s the lamb for the sacrifice?’ says Isaac.
‘God will provide it’, says Abraham, not wanting to frighten the boy.
As the tension builds, an altar is built...
final preparations are made,
the knife appears...
And then, a messenger from God intervenes:
‘no,     don’t     do it!’
In the horror of it all, Abraham looks up, sees a ram, takes it, and sacrifices it.
The Lord has provided....

What the heck do we do with this story?
What on earth is God doing?
Why on earth doesn’t Abraham stop for even a moment and go:
‘What? Are you kidding me, God?’
What kind of emotional and psychological scars does Isaac bear after this?
How could he ever trust his father again, I wonder?

The biblical scholar, Phyllis Tribble calls this kind of bible passage a ‘text of terror.’ 
And she’s right.
This particular text makes our blood run cold, makes us ask:
‘Why, God? Why?’
There are no fluffy, rainbow unicorns here,
only agony and awfulness and so many hard questions.
Where can we find ‘good news’ in this Abrahamic episode?
How do we reconcile this seemingly violent God
with our understanding of the God who is love?

There are no easy answers here, but I'll do my best to try and unpack this.
Abraham lives in a violent world – perhaps this is why hospitality is such a sacred act:
a pact that, in protecting and caring for the other,
at some point, you, too will be protected and cared for.
It's a way of stemming the violence, even if only for a short while.
Abraham is surrounded by a variety of different cultures,
with different customs, and different gods.
What links these cultures is that the various gods seem to require blood,
and the practice of child sacrifice is widespread.
So, when God speaks to Abraham,
while it’s an horrific request, perhaps he’s not so surprised:
this is what gods require,
this is what they ask.
And, falling into the prevailing cultural mindset,
he heads off to do that which seems to be required.
It’s the only explanation that I can come up with, when it comes to his compliance,
because, it’s curious to me that, in other circumstances,
he’s quite happy to challenge God about things –
to even barter with God to spare the lives of people.
But here, when God asks him to sacrifice his child, he’s utterly schtum;
meekly and uncomplainingly, he gets on with it.

This passage is often referred to as ‘the testing of Abraham’.
And down through the centuries, Abraham is lauded for his heroic and sacrificial faith,
is seen to have passed the test with flying colours...
but, I wonder: did he?
In contrast with those other gods, the God who calls Abraham is
not some deity made of wood or stone - this god is quite different.
Perhaps the test is not so much about child sacrifice and of a bloodthirsty god...
perhaps this test is the opposite:
God doing something completely counter-cultural and, in a hard lesson,
teaching Abraham that what’s required is to be counter-cultural.
Perhaps the test is one about breaking the cycle of violence –
of stopping the practice of child sacrifice?
But, perhaps there’s more to it, as well:
perhaps this test is one to show Abraham how to live sacrificially:
in a world of injustice and corruption,
in a world of callous indifference and casual cruelty,
in a world of ‘me first’ and self-aggrandisement...
to live in such a way that the prevailing culture is challenged,
or, in the words of the prophet Micah – as you live your life, you purposefully choose
‘to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.’
Perhaps this is another lesson about choices and trusting God –
just as long before there was that first lesson about choice
and trusting God, way back in the Garden.

Just as Abraham lived in a world of violence, so, it seems
as we listen to the news, do we.
A world in which
wars, atrocities, unspeakable violence still happen;
a world in which words are used as battering rams in political discourse;
and the scapegoating of those deemed to be ‘not like us’ continues;
a world in which, in a different way, child sacrifice still happens –
for children are the flotsam and jetsam found lying dead on Greek beaches,
or found wounded in the streets of Aleppo...

Choices are made every day:
to hate, to harm, to kill ...
to tear down, to destroy human beings who are created in the image of God.
We could choose to make such choices:
to care only for ourselves,
to seek power and wealth at the expense of others,
to bring folk down,
to refuse to question power’s demands.
Or, we can hold on to the wild, counter-cultural thought that,
even in the midst of horror, there is always hope:
and that, as we choose to love, to create,
to welcome the stranger and to share our food,
as we do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God,
so God will provide a way out of the prevailing culture of horror;
and replace songs of mourning with life-affirming sounds of laughter.

Perhaps this part of Abraham’s story teaches us
that it’s never too late to trust in God, and to choose a different way –
the way of life in all its fullness,
and, in the face of evil, to continue, in faith, to affirm God’s goodness...
To his name, be all glory, honour and praise. Amen.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Wordworks: writing group meet up


The writing group meets 
Thursday 13 October... 
7pm, at the Colebrooke Arms.

All welcome. See you there!

Monday, 10 October 2016

Sermon, Sun 9 Oct, wk6: 'Faith'... WMRBW

1st READING: Genesis 12: 1-9
2nd READING: Genesis 15

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.

Out of interest, a quick straw poll:
hands up if you’ve seen ‘The Sound of Music’?
Most of you...
If you can remember...
cast your mind back to the very, very beginning –
the opening sequence of the film...
Imagine the lights have all dimmed, you’ve got your popcorn,
or chocolate, or ice cream at the ready, and you’re nicely settled in...
The scene opens – and you’re flying high, high in the sky –
as if on wings of an eagle you swoop among the clouds.
Great mountains – the Alps - come into view,
in the background, flutes mimic the breeze,
there’s the sound of subdued horns playing,
and somewhere, a church bell rings...
you’re moving faster now as the music begins to build,
and as you look down, through the clearing clouds,
a green meadow on a hilltop...
and a tiny, tiny figure.
The camera moves from the vast cinemascope of alps
and zooms in at speed, on the figure –
da...da... da... daaaaah...
and, as she comes into close range,
the music breaks over you:
the woman spins around, dramatically bursting into song:
‘the hills are alive...’
and ‘bang’, there you are – right into the film.

It’s possibly one of the most extraordinary openings to a movie –
and yes, it is one of my favourite movies.
But that opening sequence – from vast, amazing panoramic view,
to sudden focus upon an individual...
is, in a sense, what’s happening here in the Book of Genesis...
although... without the flutes and brass and Julie Andrews bursting into song.

For the first 11 chapters of Genesis,
it’s as if the set in this particular drama is the entire world
and the action itself is huge in scope, exploring big themes:
the great stories of creation,
the not quite so great stories of humans messing up –
stories of violence and corruption and rebellion.
There’s destruction on a global scale by flood –
this, as an attempt by God to try and start afresh,
to wash all the muck and mess away.
But then, it’s followed by a rainbow promise that,
no matter how badly humans mess up,
such great devastation will not happen again.
But – even despite the flood,
despite the new start,
the old pattern comes back:
immediately following the flood story, humans manage to mess up yet again –
and we have a story of human pride, seen in the building of the tower of Babel,
resulting in the scattering of human beings around the world,
and the fracturing of common language into many languages –
from Babel, we get ‘babble’.
So, here we’ve had big, broad, brushstrokes of stories –
stories which, while differing in details, all follow a pattern:
God creates,
humans mess up.

But then, in Genesis, chapter 12, the focus begins to change:
from looking at the wider world,
the camera zooms in...picking out an individual –
and now, Abram, and his family are in close view.
It’s as if God decides upon a different course of action:
‘if punishing all the earth was an ineffective means of dealing with sin, 
perhaps establishing a relationship with one individual would work.’ 
                                                      [Mark Throntveit, Working Preacher] 
Moving from general, to specific,
God takes this particular individual and his wife,
and chooses to work through them –
to call them,
to bless them,
and, in so doing,
through them,      
to bless others.
Through choosing Abram, God begins the work of building, once more:
building a relationship with all human beings.
God begins the work of reconciliation:
‘This quest for relationship is the purpose that drives God's choice, 
God has called Abram into service, and he will become the means 
by which God's ultimate purpose for the salvation of all will be realized.’ [Throntveit]

But just who is this Abram, the main protagonist of our story?
What do we know of him?
Well, we get a little background in chapter 11:
he’s the son of a chap called Terah.
And, tracing his roots, if I have my sums right,
Abram’s about tenth down the line from Noah.
There are also a couple of brothers.
Originally, they were all living in a place called Ur – an early, and great city-state.
There’s a couple of schools of thought on where that might have been:
southern Turkey has a claim,
but it’s also possible that it may have been to the south of Iraq.

Anyway, at some point, Terah decides he wants to head off, to travel to Canaan.
The family never actually get there;
instead, they cheerfully settle at a place named Haran.
Things seemingly work out well for family seem to prosper.
Eventually, Terah dies at the end of chapter 11.
And, here, at the beginning of chapter 12,
God has already called Abram,
asking him to leave his country,
his people,
and his father’s household –
basically, to leave the comforts of home, and everything he’d ever known,
and head off to an unknown destination.
‘Go’ says God...
and then several promises follow this request to leave:
‘‘I will make you a great nation...’
‘I will bless you...’
‘I will make your name great...’
‘all people on earth will be blessed through you.’

Now, if this were actually a Hollywood film,
the next bit of the story would probably have been portrayed
quite a bit more dramatically –
perhaps flashing lights,
great choirs of angels singing,
and Abram falling to his feet, making some memorable speech.
But this isn’t the movies and none of that happens.
God makes the request, and in the very next sentence, we hear:
‘so Abram left, as the Lord told him.’
But he doesn’t go alone:
his nephew Lot heads off with him, as does his wife Sarai.
And he doesn’t go away empty-handed:
the family’s done well for itself –
and Abram’s not leaving without all the possessions –
and the people that they’d acquired while living in Haran.
It’s quite a substantial company,
with quite substantial goods.

Again, if this were a movie,
surely there’d be dramatic depictions of this first part of the journey,
and of adventures on the way.
But no.
Simply, ‘they set out for the land of Canaan, and they arrived there.’
Abram then starts exploring the land,
checking it out, from north to south,
building the occasional altar on the way.
And, at the end of our reading in chapter 12,
he’s way down south, and will move into Egypt due to a famine.
Over the next few chapters he manages to increase his wealth –
a way of symbolising God’s blessing –
has a run in with the Pharaoh and is ordered to leave;
heads back up to what will become known as the Promised Land;
parts company with Lot, then rescues him when he’s taken captive;
and continues to increase his wealth along the way.
That’s the whistle-stop tour until we finally arrive at chapter 15.

From the original call and promise –
including that of becoming a great nation –
many, many years have passed.
Abram and Sarai have continued to follow God –
sometimes brilliantly well,
sometimes less well...
They’ve been faithful.
And they’ve waited a long time for some sign
of that bit about becoming a great nation...
there’s been a suspicious lack of the sound of the pitter-patter of tiny feet.
At the beginning of chapter 15, Abram is told by God, that God is his great reward.
And, in response, Abram virtually says to God:
‘that’s all very well...but what’s the point? Where are the offspring?’
Sure, he’s become a hugely wealthy man,
but has it, and the decision to follow this God,
been worth it when, in the end, it’ll be his servant who’ll end up inheriting?
Abram, who has taken such a great step of faith,
who has taken God at God’s word and followed the call
over many adventures, and many years... Abram’s needing a little reassurance.
Moving Abram out from his tent,
the vast night sky, filled with countless stars, is shown to him.
‘Look at that – count the stars, if you can –
your offspring will be as numerous as the stars.’
And Abram’s faith is restored – and possibly not just on that particular night.
The stars were there, always a reminder of the promise.
It would happen.
And the years to the final fulfilment of that promise stretched out to another 14, at least.

We’ll hear more of Abram next week,
Abram, who will later be renamed ‘Abraham’,
meaning ‘ancestor of many nations’.
Meantime, what do we learn here about God:
of God’s relationship with human beings,
and of our relationship with God as we journey in faith?
God  doesn’t give up.
Despite the initial break in the relationship way back in the Garden,
despite the widening of the relationship gap by human beings...
God doesn’t give up on wanting to be in relationship with us.
And tries again and again and again...
until, a change in the way of seeing things
moves God to focus in on the particular...
to begin building a relationship with human beings on
a one on one basis, starting with Abram.
To begin with a call to follow, to trust...
and to be met with a response:
a willingness to see what might happen.
To begin by sharing a blessing with one but not hoarding the blessing –
for the one blessed becomes an agent of blessing...
until all human beings are blessed...
To change from working on a broad canvass and working in,
to working on a smaller frame and working out.

We glimpse the grace and the generosity of God:
the promise is given to Abram before he even does anything...
and the promise is for all,
not to be jealously guarded,
not to be locked away and used only for some...
God is gloriously, generously profligate – everyone gets a share of the blessing...
God doesn’t give up –
even when we mess up.
God longs for us to respond to that call to come back –
to be in relationship with him –
to walk with him wherever he takes us.

As we hear again the story of Abram,
we’re reminded that we, too, are part of the story:
for we are the inheritors of the promise.
Here and now, we’re a part of the great ongoing story of God’s people –
a called people:
called to journey in faith;
called to struggle to believe in a world of doubt and cynicism;
called to make a path of love in a world of hate;
called to walk the way of peace in a world of violence;
called to offer hope in a world of despair.
And whether we succeed or fail, ...
in faith, we can take heart.
The writer, Max Lucado says that:                        
‘Faith is the conviction that God knows more 
than we do about this life and he will get us through it.’

Abram lived his whole life journeying in faith –
he saw glimpses of the promise,
but the promise was grand in scale,
and meant for much longer than merely his own lifetime.
And there’s the nub of it:
nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime;
therefore we must be saved by hope.
Nothing true or beautiful makes complete sense
in any immediate context of history;
therefore we must be saved by faith.
Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone;
therefore, we are saved by love...

In faith, we take heart –
because the God who created the world out of nothing
and raised Jesus Christ from the dead
will not give up on us,
has not given up on us,
and will work through us for the life and well-being of this world.
We share in God’s blessing to be a blessing.

Let’s pray:
Journeying God,
May our faith be a little more wild,
and a little less guarded.
May we wonder a little more,
and fear a little less.
May we dip more than a toe
in the great sea of faith.
And, when we reach out to hold something,
may we find you already holding us.