Sunday, 29 January 2017

Sermon Sun 29 Jan wk22: The kingdom of God is like...WMRBW

1st READING: Jeremiah 31:31-34  
2nd READING: Mark 4:1-30

SERMON 'The kingdom of God is like...'
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 kindness to her, and a strength;
a goodness that even I, at four or five years of age, could sense.
She worked at the salon with my mother,
both cutting, styling, perming the hair of their ‘regulars’.
My babysitter, Lynne, would drop me off just before mum was to finish,
and I’d play out in the back amongst the large styrofoam heads used to display wigs,
or cheerfully sort out the colour and shapes of the many types of hair rollers.
Beppie, who was Dutch, would pop through from the shop front,
always with a smile and friendly words.
One day, she’d nipped into the back to get something for her client.
That was the day I saw the numbers;
blue numbers written on her arm.
I was just little, and I was a very curious and outgoing child.
So I asked.
Her eyes were sad and she grew solemn,
‘Sometimes there are people who do bad things.
This was a long time ago. Those people are gone now. It’s better to be kind, isn’t it?’
I nodded.
She tousled her fingers through my hair, and then went back out to her customer.

Over the years, I learnt more of Beppie’s story.
She’d lived in Holland with her husband at the time of the NAZI occupation.
All the freedoms that the Dutch had known were being taken away.
Some people escaped.
Some colluded.
Some resisted.
All, however, just tried to get on with the business of trying to live.
Beppie and her husband, like many others, kept their heads down,
and tried to go about their daily lives,
but they were being watched.
You see, Beppie’s husband was Jewish.
At some point, along with a number of other Jewish people, he was rounded up:
destined for a concentration camp.
The authorities weren’t interested in Beppie – she wasn’t Jewish.
In that sense, she was safe.
But she refused to leave her husband and so, she, too went to the camp: Auschwitz.
Her husband never came back.
Somehow, she survived, and ended up in Australia, cutting other people’s hair,
and being kind to small children who asked hard questions.

As many of you know, last year, I visited Auschwitz with a friend.
I thought of Beppie and her husband – of their story.
And there, in that place which had seen brutality, and dehumanising horror,
that place where those who were deemed ‘unsuitable’;
there, where those who ‘didn’t fit in’ to the ideology of the ruling regime,
had been rounded up and killed,
I thought of kindness,
of words heard as a little child:
‘It’s better to be kind, isn’t it?’

Throughout human history, there have always been regimes who,
to help stay in power, would scapegoat groups of people –
in that sense, the NAZIS weren’t unique.
There have always been empires or kingdoms built on the backs
of those deemed of little importance, expendable,
and those deemed enemies of the state.
In every kingdom, the powerful, and those whose faces ‘fit’,
enjoyed the privileges that being a kingdom afforded.
And, in every kingdom, those privileges have always been bought
at the expense of human suffering of others:
those taking the lion’s share of the riches of the kingdom, have done so
at great cost to others, causing them:
loss of property, loss of liberty, loss of dignity, and at times, loss of life.

The cost of building and maintaining earthly kingdoms is high indeed.
A great tool in the building and maintaining of an earthly kingdom, is fear:
use that – make people feel unsafe,
find those who may, in some way be different,
and point to them as potential threats,
and you keep the citizens of a kingdom – or nation –
so focused upon the possibility of threat, of hurt,
that you can begin to take away their rights, their freedoms.
It’s a tactic that’s been used over millennia.
A tactic that’s justified all kinds of ugliness and discrimination.
A tactic that so easily builds into an ongoing spiral of violence.
Kindness is kicked to the sidelines.

You know, I don’t know about all of you, but it seems to me
that it feels like we’re living in a time of deep fearfulness, and of ‘othering’:
where racial and religious profiling is being rolled out by governments –
our current earthly kingdoms –
and where, as a result, innocent people become the targets of hate crime.
We watch the news, read the papers, and see headlines that are quite frankly, alarming:
the world seems to be spinning out of control.
What’s the point of being kind?
Why try to do good?
Why look out for those around us –
surely it’s better just to keep our head down and look to our own needs?
Where is God,
and when will God’s kingdom come?
Because Sunday by Sunday, when we pray the Lord’s Prayer,
we’re praying for the coming of God’s kingdom...
How long do we have to wait –
or, is God’s kingdom just pie in the sky when you die?
What about your church, Lord?
The church worldwide feels like it’s dwindling,
and we wonder why more folk don’t come to church.
It’s very easy to get into a culture of fear, of introspection,
and of blaming others.

In response to roughly similar questions put to him by his disciples,
Jesus told them parables –
parables of sowing seed,
of growing seed,
and of the mustard seed:
parables about God’s kingdom.
‘A farmer went out to sow’ says Jesus.
The seed ends up everywhere: on the path where the birds eat it;
on rocky places where the soil is shallow – the plants grow,
but quickly fail because their roots aren’t deep enough;
some seed falls into thorns, and get entangled and choked up;
and other seed falls on fertile soil, producing an amazing and abundant harvest.
God scatters the seed generously – far and wide
and in that great scattering, the kingdom somehow manages to grow.

A man scatters seed on the ground.
Regardless of whether he sleeps or not,
the seed gets on with the business of growing,
producing a harvest...
and like the seed, so the kingdom will appear.

A mustard seed – small, seemingly insignificant – is planted.
From tiny beginnings, a happy outcome:
a place where birds find sanctuary in the branches of this now great plant,
just as the kingdom of God is a place of flourishing and sanctuary.

In his own time, living under the power of the Roman Empire,
Jesus tells stories of the kingdom of heaven:
‘The kingdom will come’, he says.
God’s mercy, grace, and love will bring it in.
Things may seem to be falling away, dwindling – but take heart:
although you look around you and it feels so very far away, the kingdom is near.
These parables are Jesus’ assurance to his followers that the kingdom will come.

But when?
The kingdom will come in God’s good timing:
God brings it –
we are God’s workers in the kingdom,
but it is God who produces the harvest.
Our job is to get on with the business of sowing the seed:
sharing the good news of the kingdom with those who have ears to hear.
We share the good news in word, and in deed:
‘It’s better to be kind, isn’t it?’
So, as God’s Spirit dwells within us, the fruit of God’s Spirit blossoms:
kindness, goodness, patience, gentleness, self-control, faithfulness, joy, peace, love.
As we love, as we are kind,
as we live in the way of God’s kingdom whilst living in the midst of earthly kingdoms,
so we resist that culture of fear that tries to normalise those acts
that would lead us even to the gates of places like Auschwitz.

Pastor Martin Niemoller was a German minister and theologian
who spoke out against the NAZI regime, and, for doing so,
spent time in both Dachau and Sachsenhausen.
He saw, first hand, the power of fear, and of ‘othering’ –
of dehumanising and scapegoating people.
His understanding of God’s kingdom
and of our part as sowers of the seed of the kingdom,
found its expression in the following call to action:
First they came for the Socialists, 
and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, 
and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, 
and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—
and there was no one left to speak for me.

We are not, as John Donne observed ‘an island unto ourselves’,
we are all of us connected –
for we are all created in God’s image.
We, as citizens of this kingdom, are called to to be like that lamp on a stand –
revealing God’s goodness and loving-kindness:
for the kingdom of God is counter-cultural and speaks up in the face of evil.
In a week that saw both Holocaust Memorial Day
and the Presidential signing of orders
for building walls,
and of banning certain kinds of people from entering the United States,
and faced with our own responses to the aftermath of Brexit...
it is more urgent than ever to stand up –
and to live into our calling of sharing the good news of God’s kingdom:
a kingdom completely unlike the worldly kingdoms and empires
that have come and gone throughout history.
For the kingdom of God is eternal, it lasts forever;
it is a place of flourishing, of abundance,
of justice and mercy and righteousness;
a kingdom in which all share in the rich harvest of God’s love –
for there’s more than enough to go around;
a kingdom not built on the backs of the least and the most vulnerable –
for all are honoured and valuable.
It is a kingdom of life –
for the One who draws us together
has both spoken life into being and defeated death itself.
We are citizens of that kingdom:
a kingdom of kindness,
a kingdom where we challenge those who would cause harm in any way to others
by wounding words or harmful acts:
for God’s kingdom is a kingdom of reconciliation and of welcome;
of hands extended, not fingers pointing.

The Dutch writer, Henri Nouwen, when thinking of what the kingdom of God was like, wrote:
‘for Jesus there are no countries to be conquered, no ideologies to be imposed, 
no people to be dominated. 
There are only children, women, 
and men to be loved.’

Beloved people of God:
in your very lives, show the signs that the kingdom of God is near:
let your lives be love-letters to the world,
showing another,
a different way:
a different kind of kingdom.
And, as you do, so you scatter the seeds of God’s kingdom, and so, the kingdom will come.

‘It’s better to be kind, isn’t it?’
For loving-kindness is a most powerful act of resistance against the rhetoric of power and hate
so often seen in the kingdoms of the earth.

Let’s pray:
We don’t see it, but its effect is clear;
We don’t hear it, but its message is never silent;
We don’t feel it, but its influence constantly moves us.
Reaching through every system,
Flowing through every interaction,
Silently moving the world
toward its God-designed purpose,
More powerful than the strongest army,
yet infinitely gentle;
More significant than the most influential government,
yet without coercion or manipulation.
The kingdom of God is subversively at work,
and it is here. Amen.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Burns Supper

UCPC Burns Supper


All welcome to a celebration of our national bard, 
Robert Burns.

Tickets £15 - use the 'contact us' tab in the right side column for further details

Join us for what promises to be 
an excellent evening!

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Sun 22 Jan wk21: Feasting on grace...WMRBW

1st READING: Mark 1:21-28
2nd READING: John 2:1-12

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.

It is a windswept, dreary, one-horse,
no-one-ever-wants-to-go-there, kind of place.
The landscape is flat.
The sky is perpetually grey.
The roads are always muddy.
The few houses that there are, seem turned in on themselves.
Overall, there’s the sense that this is a forgotten, impoverished place,
where life is hard, cheerless, and unrelenting.
Many years back, a church had been founded by a widowed minister,
who’d been left to raise his two daughters on his own.
His was an austere form of religion, that seemed to fit with the generally grim setting of the village.
All worldly pleasures – such as you could find in that place – had been renounced.
Life was a serious matter, and this was reflected in the clothing - which was all black -
and in the food - boiled cod and a thin gruel, eaten day in, and day out.
Heavenly pleasures, on the other hand, found their expression in
Sunday worship through the singing of hymns such as
‘Jerusalem, my happy home, name ever dear to me.’
In the meantime, life on earth was to be tolerated, and spent in doing
good works while awaiting arrival into that heavenly Jerusalem, that happy home.

As they grew up, the minister’s daughters, Martine and Philippa,
named after Protestant reformation heroes Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon,
were beauties – and despite the severity of their clothing, their radiance shone through, undimmed.
Approaching marriageable age, they saw off many suitors.
Two suitors stood out especially.
Martine had been courted by a handsome cavalry officer,
while Philippa had caught the eye, or rather the ear, of a visiting opera singer,
Achille Papin, a Frenchman who had come to the area in the hope that the
sea air would be good for his health. Martine had such a gift for singing,
that those in the church who heard her, were almost transported to heaven when she sang
the weekly hymns. Papin wanted to take her back to Paris, to sing in the great opera houses.
Although the suitors of both girls promised, and could have delivered, them riches and fame,
the girls resisted the temptation: dutifully, they stayed at home, looking after their father.

Many years passed.
The minister died, leaving behind his now middle-aged unmarried daughters to continue
his mission in the church – for there’d be no minister coming to this quiet backwater.
However, without the stern hand of the minister, the church began to splinter
as different members fell out with one another, or spread rumours, or refused to
speak to one another at various times. Numbers dwindled, but the sisters remained faithful,
and kept the church running, alongside doing kind deeds for the elderly in the village.

Life was ordered, predictable, and a little bit dull. Until the night of a great rainstorm.
Sheltered in their house from the worst of the storm, the sisters heard a great thumping on the door. As they opened it, a woman entered, fainting at their feet.
The sisters tended to her, and when she’d sufficiently recovered, they discovered
that she didn’t speak their language. Instead, she handed them a letter of introduction...
from Martine’s long-ago suitor Achille Papin.
The woman’s name was Babette, her husband and son had been killed in the civil war in France.
She was fleeing for her life, and Papin had come to her rescue, booking her passage
on a ship to the village, hoping that the villagers would take her in.
The letter stated that she could cook.
And so, after much deliberation, the sisters took her in, and,
in exchange for room and board, she did the household chores.
However, given how stern their religion was, there was to be no fancy French cooking.
Dutifully, Babette boiled the cod and made the gruel every day, uncomplaining.

Life settled back into a routine, and twelve years passed.
Babette became a useful member of the community, feeding the poor folk of the village,
helping to organise the church services, and doing all the sisters’ household chores.
All agreed that she’d brought life and vitality into the tired old village.
Given that she never talked of her life back in France, nor had she ever had
any communication with others, the whole village was astonished on the day
that Babette received a letter.
She read it, and told the watching sisters that she’d just won 10 000 francs:
seemingly, every year, a friend in Paris renewed her number in the lottery
and this was her year to win. The sisters congratulated her, but in their heart of hearts,
felt that it wouldn’t be long until she left to return home.
But then she did a most surprising thing:
observing that the 100th anniversary of the founding of the church was fast approaching,
instead, Babette begged of the sisters one thing: to prepare a real French dinner for the
anniversary service.
She had never asked a favour before, and so the sisters gave in,
despite their misgivings about fancy French food –
what on earth would she serve them, they wondered...frog’s legs?
Yuck.

In order to prepare for the meal, Babette went away for several days to get items ordered.
In the weeks after her return, strange and exotic items arrived for the meal:
crates of small birds, cases of champagne, truffles, pheasants, even a turtle,
appeared and headed into the kitchen.
The sisters grew rather alarmed, but couldn’t go back on their word to Babette.
And so it was that Martine and Phillippa met with the other members of the church –
now reduced to eleven in number, and wondered what to do about this grand French meal.
Eventually after much discussion, the group agreed that the only course of action
was to proceed with the dinner, however, to avoid vanity and pride,
and to ensure Babette would not get the wrong idea, they would talk of anything else,
but not the actual food:
After all, tongues were meant for praising God, not for indulging in exotic meals.

The day of the founder’s feast arrived, along with an unexpected guest:
the nephew of one of the oldest members of the church, and who just happened
to be the cavalry officer who had tried to win the heart of Martine many years before.
The years had been good to him, and now he was a distinguished general.
Somehow, Babette had managed to track down the necessary amount of
china, silver, and crystal needed for the guests.
The table was dressed, and the room beautifully decorated.
The guests were suitably impressed, but, when the meal began, they
remembered their agreement and sat quietly, not commenting on the food.
The General, on the other hand, was in raptures –
he was astonished by the high quality of the food:
‘Incredible!’ he said, as he tasted the turtle soup.
‘Veuvre Cliquot? Here?’ Unbelievable!’ as he drained his glass...
As each course arrived, he was voluble in his praise.
At one point, Babette’s signature dish is served:
and the surprised General knows exactly where he’s eaten this food before:
the famous Café Anglais in Paris.
Still the villagers made no comment on the food...
and yet, over the course of the meal, the ungracious villagers began to relax:
old arguments were settled, and brothers reconciled;
the two who’d not spoken to each other for years forgot that they’d not been speaking,
so distracted by the feast had they become.
Although the villagers found themselves talking of many things,
still they held to the agreement:
they would not talk of the meal – even though the General could speak of nothing else.
Moved to make a toast, the General praised God for the abundant talent and skill of the cook,
and for all good things...
a gracious toast about blessing,
about grace.

Eventually, the wondrous feast ended.
The small group left for their homes, under a glorious, star-filled sky, and found,
to their surprise, that joy had so overcome them and filled their hearts,
that they gathered by the fountain, joined hands, and cheerfully sang the old songs of their faith.
‘Babette’s feast opened the gate and grace stole in’ 
                                    [Philip Yancey, What’s so amazing about grace?]
Meanwhile, back in the kitchen, Babette sat, spent from all her magnificent labours.
It was then that the sisters realised that all of the church members had been faithful
to the agreement: not one had mentioned the dinner.
Hesitantly, Martine nodded
‘It was quite a nice dinner.’
Eventually, Babette looked at the sisters and confessed:
‘I was once cook at the Café Anglais’.
In the end, the sisters discover that Babette has spent the whole of her lottery winnings
on this great feast: for that is what a proper dinner for twelve would have cost at the Café Anglais.
Babette will not be returning to France – she has given all that she had:
the meal was an offering of grace – costing everything for the giver
and nothing for those who received.

The story of Babette’s feast shows the transforming power of joy and celebration:
even in spite of themselves, the villagers are moved by the great abundance and
very wonder of the meal. Hardened hearts are softened,
grudges are healed, and, as the meal unfolds
and the wonderfulness of it begins to creep into their very being,
and into their senses, long buttoned-down,
their enjoyment and pleasure leads them to a deeper appreciation
and enjoyment of God:
grim faces are replaced by joy-filled ones –
and they become a deeply thankful people.
‘Grace came to’ the village ‘as it always comes:
free of charge, no strings attached, on the house.’
                                                                       [Philip Yancey]

These graceless ones find grace overflowing,
just as the guests at the wedding feast in Cana
found themselves startled by the best wine,
served last, by Jesus, who has become the unexpected, and grace-filled host.
The miracle at Cana shows the hearer of that story, of grace in abundance –
of grace overflowing.
It gives us a glimpse of the kingdom of God, in the midst of the everyday:
not buttoned-down and grim, but rather, a celebration of all of God’s good gifts:
a joy-filled place:
of both the joy of heaven and joy on earth. 
May we celebrate, and seek, more of that joy in our communities
and around our tables and open our hearts to wonder and surprise. Amen.

*If you've never read the short story, or seen the film: 'Babette's Feast', 
do yourself a favour. It's a fabulous parable of grace. The above is based upon a
chapter in Philip Yancey's most excellent book 'What's so amazing about Grace?'

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Sunday 15 Jan, wk20: Identity issues...WMRBW

Continuing on a theme of being 'beloved' and picking up the theme of identity.

1st READING: Luke 4:1-30;
2nd READING: Luke 5:1-11

SERMON 'If'
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.

He stands, dripping, in the waters of the Jordan.
Baptised, Jesus has been named and claimed by God, as God’s ‘beloved’.
On the cusp of his public ministry,
Jesus is confirmed in his identity:
‘you are my Son’, says God,
‘I love you, I am well pleased with you.’

That’s part of the reading from the Gospel of Luke which we heard last week.
This week, the story continues...
Jesus, still a little wet behind the ears, moves from Jordan’s banks, and,
full of God’s Spirit, is led to the desert.
Going to the desert,
going into the wilderness,
is a time-honoured tradition within the ongoing story of God’s people –
but, why go there?

The desert is a time for remembering:
looking back at the story of God’s people –
those who journeyed out of Egypt from slavery and into freedom,
a freedom to follow God, who so visibly led them
by a pillar of cloud by day,
and a pillar of fire by night;
following God in the wilderness, who so physically fed them
through the provision of manna and quail...
and gave them water, to slake their thirst.
A time of remembering God’s faithfulness,
God’s provision....

The desert is also a time of preparation:
a time to get ready to follow God’s call.
The desert, a place of few distractions,
gives space to focus upon God,
to be still, to listen, and to wait for God’s voice.
Over the centuries, the prophets of Israel spent time in the desert...
and so, like the prophets of old,
Jesus sets his face to the barren, stony, seemingly lifeless desert:
to remember those who have gone before,
and to prepare for his mission,
for his part in the great arc of the story that encompasses both God,
and the people of God.

Having had his identity confirmed by God in his baptism,
identity features strongly as a theme during this time in the desert.
Or, more to the point, the attempt at undermining identity
through the use of one tiny, but powerful word:
‘if’.
‘If’ is a great word –
particularly if you want to plant a seed of doubt.
This word is used several times in a conversation
that we, as readers, as listeners, see and overhear.
It’s a conversation between Jesus, and the devil,
a conversation in which the devil tries to tempt Jesus –
to deflect him from his mission;
to crowd his mind with fanciful thoughts,
delusions of grandeur,
and completely distract him,
to try to do everything in his power
to prevent Jesus from living in the fullness of God’s strength and power.

Now, last week, we heard the story of a young King Solomon,
in the very early days of his reign.
In the midst of his prayers, God speaks.
And God makes him an offer:
God says to Solomon:
‘Ask for whatever you want me to give you.’
it’s an unconditional offer – ‘whatever you want,’ full stop.
Here, in the desert, however, the offer that the devil makes to Jesus
is very much conditional –
it comes with strings attached:
‘if you do this, then I’ll do ...that.’

In the conversation, the devil offers Jesus three things:
bread, power, and proof –
a way to really, really know that God will protect and keep him
safe from harm no matter what....
And it all begins with ‘if’:
‘if you are the Son of God’.
And the first temptation hits home hard.
Jesus is hungry.
He’s been fasting and praying.
Our reading tells us that he’d been in the desert for 40 days:
echoing the time that the liberated children of Israel had
wandered in the wilderness – each of his days representing one of their years.
Turn stones to bread?
A good plan.
Or, maybe not.

‘...if you are the Son of God...’
whispers the devil, and the condition:
‘prove it, do this...’
Jesus, though hungry, doesn’t need to prove to himself –
or anyone else for that matter – who he is.
He’s grounded in his understanding of who he is –
of whose he is...
God’s Son.
Beloved.
And with whom God is pleased.
He doesn’t need to prove that by doing some cheap side-show trick.
Jesus is not a show pony:
he’s the Son of God.
And, later in his ministry,
when crowds badger him for signs and miracles, as proof, or, as entertainment,
he won’t respond quite in the way that they expect.
Let Rome provide the bread and circuses:
Jesus provides something more essential, more long-lasting –
life in all its fullness:
humans don’t live by bread alone...
there’s more, so much more.

The second offer made to Jesus is grand in scope and in vision:
the devil takes him to a vantage point,
from which Jesus can see all the kingdoms of the world.
The great sweeping gesture is made to the carpenter’s son –
the invitation to look at all of this –
all of the power, the glory,
the splendour of it all:
‘All this will be yours,’
says the devil,
and, here’s the condition, the catch –
‘if you worship me.’
But wait a moment:
here is the Father of Lies, saying all authority is
given to him to give to Jesus...
No.
Actually, it belongs to God.
For, in the beginning, was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God...
through him, all things were made...’
All power, all authority comes from God –
Jesus has no need to bend the knee before the devil, who is lying, delusional, or both.
Jesus, bats this one away, keeping his focus upon God:
‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’

And the third temptation:
again, an ‘if’.
The scene changes, and they are in Jerusalem,
standing on the highest point of the temple –
the highest point in the whole city.
And here, the devil changes tack, and quotes scripture right back at Jesus:
showing that God will protect Jesus, that angels will guard him from all harm.
‘...if you are the Son of God...why not test God?
Jump off, and see what happens.’
But wait, what’s actually happening here:
is it a case of putting God to the test?
Well, yes, there’s an element of that.
But I wonder if there’s more?
The devil doesn’t care if Jesus is harmed, if Jesus is stopped in his tracks:
in fact, isn’t that exactly what the devil has in mind?
In goading him to jump, would Jesus have jumped to his death?
If you put God to the test, you may just die in this instance.
Even the devil uses scripture...
showing how easy it is to prove anything you like
by twisting scripture out of context –

Jesus refuses this third offer.
And the devil leaves him...waiting ‘until an opportune time,’ as our reading states.
This part of the story ends with a sense of foreboding and menace.

His time of remembering, and preparation, and testing over,
Jesus heads back to the Galilee, and begins his public ministry.
News spreads.
People are getting to hear about this radical young rabbi –
and what they hear is positive indeed,
and then, he heads to his home town.
If we were thinking of identity in the midst of his temptations in the desert,
here, in Nazareth, there are further issues of identity.
He heads to the synagogue,
reads from scripture that great passage of hope,
that message of liberation found in the book of the prophet Isaiah...
and there, in the midst of his home town crowd,
having read,
Jesus looks at them and says in a voice filled with authority:
‘today this scripture is fulfilled.’
He then begins to expound on the text, and initially, it goes well.
They are proud of this local boy done good – you can almost hear them say:
‘hey, this is Joe’s kid, who’d have thought it, eh?’
And they are warm in their sense of being special, of being chosen,
and, although the Romans are in control,
well, they don’t fall within God’s mercy or grace:
God’s love, God’s good news,
is only for those sitting in the synagogue.
God’s love, God’s good news, is ring-fenced.
Nobody outside the circle can get in.
For this home-town crowd, their whole identity is based on a sense of
‘well at least we’re not like those dratted Romans: 
we’re not like them, 
and they’re definitely not like us!’
It feels like their whole identity is wrapped up in looking down on the rest of humanity:
God is their God alone,
and not to be shared with outsiders,
with those who are different from them.
And then,... Jesus, changes the parameters.
With their sense of identity unexpectedly challenged,
the home crowd’s mood suddenly changes.
Jesus somehow manages to escape what has become a baying mob,
intent upon killing him, because they’re enraged at the very thought
that the good news is not just for them, after all,
for all are welcome into God’s kingdom.

Later, while teaching a crowd, Jesus will meet the ones who will
become his first followers – his disciples.
He will ask them for the use of their boats,
he will tell them how to do their jobs – (a little annoying, maybe!?)
‘why not cast your nets over there?’
This, in the face of the previous long night’s empty catch...
but, they go along with him, and, in doing so,
find the catch of their lives,
as they haul up nets filled to breaking point,
and gingerly sail boats so heavy, that they’re on the verge of sinking.
‘From now on, you’ll be fishing for people,’ says Jesus.
Intrigued, they put aside their preconceptions about God,
they allow for a different way of walking, and of being in the world...
Not really sure of who he is,
but knowing that he’s the rabbi everyone’s been talking about...
and that...there’s something, something special about him,
they leave everything, and follow.
It’s a journey of a lifetime,
in which they find out their own true identity;
in which, through their own temptations,
they learn that they, too, are God’s beloved,
and that God’s love stretches wider than they ever imagined.

In the desert, the devil tried to chop away at Jesus’ identity with the word ‘if’...
In Nazareth, the home town crowd thought they knew who Jesus was – Joe’s kid...
and initially, they were warm in their wee bubble;
but that bubble burst, along with their preconceptions of Jesus...
who they ran out of town for telling them some home truths about their own identity.
In a boat, with the smell of fish hanging in the air,
the fishermen, while not fully understanding Jesus’ identity,
knew there was something that marked him out,
and so they dared to hope,
and followed the call to fish in other, different waters....

In the here and now, what about us:
who do we say Jesus is?
Do we demand proof:
'if you are the Son of God, then...?'
Do we think that the good news is just for us –
and get enraged when the young rabbi challenges us to draw the circle wider?
Or, do we leave our boats, and our preconceptions behind,
and follow the One who calls us to be a part of his great, ongoing story?
Do we dare embrace our own identity as God’s beloved sons and daughters,
called to share with all, the great love of God revealed in the Son?
Who do we say Jesus is –
and, what are we doing about it?

Let’s pray:
You call us,
Wanderer of seashores and sidewalks,
inviting us to sail out of our safe harbours
into the uncharted waters of faith;
to wander off from our predictable paths, 
to follow You into the unpredictable 
footsteps of the kingdom;
to leave the comfort of our homes 
and accompany You into the uncomfortable neighbourhoods we usually avoid.

As we wait, speak to us
of that hope which is our anchor;
of that peace which is our rock;
of that grace which is our refuge,
And as you speak,
may we find ourselves –
who we truly are – in you,
this day and always... amen.*
     *based on a prayer by Walter Brueggeman, with some wee adjustments

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Wrodworks meeting this week

'Wordworks'

The writing group meets on Thursday 12 November,
7pm, at the Colebrooke Arms.

Bring along works both finished and in process....

All welcome. See you there!

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Sun 8 Jan, Wk 19: 'Jesus coming of age'...WMRBW


Before we entered worship,
communion glasses filled with water had been placed in the vestibule. People were invited, as they entered, to take a glass and pour it into the large jug used for baptisms.
At the start of worship, as the Bible was brought in, so too was the jug now full of water - this was placed on the baptismal font.
Later, we were invited to quietly reflect on water and grace, of our baptism, and of being God's beloved, as the water was poured from jug into font...

1st READING: 1 Kings 3:1-28;
2nd READING: Luke 2:39-3:14; 3:21-22

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.

High up in the hills, the smell of incense and burnt offerings fills the air.
Amid clouds of smoke, rising heavenwards, a figure stands before the altar.
He is praying.
As he prays, God speaks, saying to the young man so recently made king:
‘Ask for whatever you want me to give you.’
...A tantalising offer – the offer of a lifetime.
Solomon has the potential
to hold the whole world in his hands;
to have ultimate power;
to have ultimate honour and prestige;
to have wealth beyond all human imagining...
Solomon is asked, by the One who has it in his gift,
to have anything his heart desires...
A dizzying thought –
and, placed in that same situation how would we respond?
But there, in that high and holy place,
faced with the opportunity of a lifetime to have it all, Solomon does three things:
first, he gives thanks to God for showing kindness to his father, David
second, he acknowledges his own limitations – he’s young and inexperienced,
and none too sure how to carry out the great and many responsibilities of kingship...
and third: in both of those steps, Solomon understands that all the power,
all the wealth, and all the honour in the world, are utterly useless, if he doesn’t
know how to deal with it...
and so, in a moment of astonishing insight,
he asks    for wisdom.
And in the asking, Solomon pleases God greatly.
God is so pleased, in fact, that the writer of this account tells us that
wealth and prestige are added into the equation anyway:
having asked such a humble request, much more is given.

Shortly after this, Solomon’s wisdom is put to the test in a difficult case
involving a dispute between two mothers over a child –
whose child is it?
What will Solomon decide?
We heard the outcome of that story in our reading earlier –
and we also saw that, following on from his decision,
the whole nation was in awe:
though young in years, here was a man worthy to be king –
worthy to hold a position as a dispenser of justice –
his decisions were grounded in a wisdom given by God, which meant,
his decisions could be trusted,
his decisions were...good.
All in all, it’s a promising beginning.

Sadly, by the end of his reign, things will have gone very wrong indeed:
was God’s justice truly exercised?
Were Solomon’s judgements eventually rather murky and possibly,
even a little Machiavellian – the ends justifying the means?
Ironically, his ambitious building scheme –
particularly of the Temple –
was based upon the exploitation of human beings:
slave labour – and hard and punishing labour at that.
200 000 of his own people are conscripted into the building scheme,
along with foreign workers.
And, while it takes him seven years to build the Temple,
it takes fourteen to build his palace:
is this a wee indication of where he sees himself in the grand scheme of things:
has he begun to place more importance on himself, than upon God?
Later, he would chase after other gods – building altars to worship them...
gods who required child sacrifice which had,
from the time of Abraham’s trip with Isaac into the wilderness,
been shown by God to be abhorrent.
This was not what the people of God did.
In the end, all his power and astonishing wealth end up corrupting him.
After his reign, the kingdom will be split in two, and much diminished –
easy pickings for neighbouring enemies.
His kingdom fails, falling time after time into the hands of foreign empires.

Hundreds of years pass.
The current foreign empire is Rome.
Another young man appears –
a child of promise who has a strange birth heralded by angelic messengers,
with visitors travelling in starlight’s path,
and with the elderly Simeon and Anna singing his praises
upon his presentation in the Temple at 8 days old.
We’ve heard the stories over Advent and Christmastide...
And now we find this young man –
a young man ...for he’s just turned 12, the beginning of adulthood in that society...
we find him heading off to Jerusalem with his family
on their annual trip for the Feast of the Passover.
It’s a journey that takes several days –
it’s roughly 70 miles of travelling by foot or donkey.
They travel with many others, fulfil their religious obligations and then,
prepare for the return journey.
Parents, clearly thinking he was somewhere in the midst of the group,
actually begin the journey home,
only to find a full day later that he’s nowhere to be found.
And so they return, travelling weary miles back along the road to Jerusalem to track him down.
It takes them three full days.

Like that other young man before him, Jesus is in a high place –
the Temple commands a good view of the city.
He has been soaking up the atmosphere,
and, learning as much as he can.
He delights in time spent in the company of religious teachers –
listening to them,
asking them questions,
and...they, enjoying this young man’s enthusiasm and obvious talent for learning,
ask him questions in turn.
There’s a deep wisdom in this young man – and all who hear him are amazed.
Perhaps they wonder what his future might hold.
Whatever it is, it’s sure to be bright:
God’s hand is so very clearly upon him.

After much searching, his parents to find him, and it perplexes Jesus:
why didn't they start at the Temple?
For to him, it's obvious: where else would he be, but in his Father’s house...
So, even at this young age,
having just attained manhood,
Jesus actively seeks out God.
So young, yet so focused on following.
They head back home.
And all we know of Jesus, from this point until we see him at thirty, is that,
‘he grew in wisdom and stature, and favour with God and men.’

Before we meet Jesus again, in our reading from Luke, we’re introduced to his cousin, John.
John is now full-grown, and, sensing a call from God, begins a preaching tour,
calling on those he encounters to repent –
to have a change of focus and of heart:
to turn their lives to God.
He preaches, too, of the One who will follow after him – the Messiah.
His manner of preaching is blunt:
you don’t get many preachers who call their listeners a brood of vipers...
The crowds seek him out, fascinated and possibly fearful,
and he is asked by many how they might live a more godly life.
And then, one day, the One he’s been speaking of appears, seeking baptism.
Jesus, still eager,
still focused,
still walking in God’s ways
and now: a new beginning –
the baptism moves him into what will be his public ministry
and will set him on the long walk to Jerusalem and a cross.

At 12, in the Temple, he had sought to please God.
In his baptism, we see God’s response.
As Jesus prays,
it is as if heaven opens...
the Holy Spirit appears in the form of a dove;
and a voice is heard in heaven:
Jesus is named, and claimed in this act of baptism –
this act of obedience that seeks only to please God...
And God is well pleased with this Son of his.
Unlike Solomon, the good beginning that Jesus has made will continue,
eventually, conquering even death,
and, his kingdom will be totally different to the kingdoms of the world.
He will not become corrupted:
although he’ll face temptations,
he will stay focused,
he will live into his calling –
live as fully one of us,
modelling God’s kingdom of heaven on earth.

In baptism, Jesus enters into the human experience of living
as one who is named and claimed by God;
he shows us Gods grace –
shows us what God has done, is doing, and will do in our own lives.
Baptism is an entryway into new life,
new possibilities,
new beginnings.
It is an entry into the kingdom of God –
a kingdom of freedom,
a kingdom where all are of equal value
and none are oppressed –
for here, in this kingdom the yoke will be easy and the burden light;
It is a kingdom in which all are claimed,
and named ‘beloved’.

Baptised into this kingdom, how do we keep our focus upon God –
and not allow ourselves to become distracted
and corrupted and find ourselves in a bit of a Solomon-like mess?
Well, we’re baptised into community:
called to love one another –
so, we could start with speaking words of encouragement to one another,
maybe even be so bold as to remind each other of our place in God’s kingdom,
and call each other God’s beloved –
to see each other as God sees us.

In these early days of a new year:
if you’re minded to make resolutions
why not be minded to start a revolution –
to remember your baptism –
and in doing so, to live in God’s grace and be gracious to those you encounter;
to speak truth to power;
to help those beaten down, to stand;
to find the good, not the bad –
but not in some kind of Pollyanna, divorced from reality kind of way...
but rather, in the words of the song, to show that:
goodness is stronger than evil,
love is stronger than hate,
and that vict’ry is ours,
vict’ry is ours
through him who loves us.

Let’s pray:
Turn us around, God –
around into your way of thinking,
around into your way of loving.
Turn us around, God,
and confront us with Jesus.
Baptise our fears with your joy. Amen