Waiting and Thanking: a sermon on Psalm 40; 28 June 2015

Scripture Readings: Psalm 40.1-10

Luke 17:11–19

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

This is the second-last in my series of sermons based on Psalms. The Book of Psalms is the prayer book and hymnbook of the Bible. It’s a collection of songs and liturgy originally written for the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. For centuries, they have been at the heart of Jewish and Christian worship.

UGSP02053_mI’ll never forget one of the first occasions I went to the General Assembly of our church. I was a student, and I went to observe. That year (it was 1990- I looked it up!) the Moderator was one of my teachers, the late Robert Davidson, Professor of Old Testament at Glasgow University. The day I was there, the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom was there as a guest. After we had sung a metrical Psalm- in the old Scottish style- Bob Davidson invited the Chief Rabbi to address the Assembly, greeting in him as he did so Hebrew. It was a powerful reminder of the Jewish origins of our faith, and how our Christian, Presbyterian worship continues to be suffused with these old Hebrew prayers and hymns, the Psalms. Continue reading

The Lord is my Light: sermon for 21 June 2015

Scripture Readings: Psalm 27.1-6
Matthew 7.24-27

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

LighthouseWhen we talk of divine things, we almost always use images. For we need pictures to help us imagine realities which go beyond words. Today’s Psalm, for instance, praises God for his protection. The Psalmist says God is light, a shelter, a rock- all great images for how God is the ultimate protector. Continue reading

The Road not Taken: reflecting on Psalm 1 and John 14.1-6 14 June 2015

A short reflection for our all-age service

Old Testament Reading: Psalm 1

Gospel Reading: John 14:1-6

road not taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Continue reading

Our Super-impressive God! A sermon on Psalm 113. Sunday 7 June 2015: The Second after Pentecost

Scripture Readings: Psalm 113
Luke 15:8-10
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Once I get past check-in, security, passport control and the duty free lounge, I quite like flying. It does not make me scared; rather I get a thrill when we accelerate along the runway, and lift off. Once we’re up, I like to look out of the window. I love maps, so it’s fun to try to work out where we are if there is a break in the cloud. On one trip I was sure we were over Liverpool because I could see the River Mersey and the shape of the Wirral Peninsula where Birkenhead is- and I was right!

When you look down from a great height, you can find yourself pondering what’s happening down there. Flying across a populated area at night, if you see the glow of floodlights from a sports stadium, you know there is sports meeting of some sort happening. A ship leaving a harbour, you can imagine the crew getting ready for a long voyage. But mostly you guess.

When you see the lights of the cars on a motorway, you can only guess where everybody is going. (Though if they are all standing still, you can imagine they are frustrated by being caught in a traffic jam!). But if you are over hills or mountains, and you catch sight of headlights, you can wonder, ‘There is someone driving along a lonely road tonight. He has no idea that someone has seen him, and even if we ever were to meet up, we wouldn’t know each other’. You make a connection, of sorts, even from 30,000 feet.

Something of that sort of impression can be gained from reading Psalm 113. This is a Psalm of praise, which emphasises the glory of God. After a call to worship: ‘Praise the Lord! You servants of the Lord, praise his name!’ the Psalm speaks of how God will be praise from east and west. For the Lord, says the Psalm:

‘rules over all nations;
his glory is above the heavens.
There is no one like the Lord our God.
He lives in the heights above,
but he bends down to see the heavens and the earth’.

By Mohammed Tawsif Salam (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Mohammed Tawsif Salam (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

The idea of God living in the sky is an old one. For people who lived before aircraft, never mind spaceflight, the sky must have seemed a mysterious places. No wonder we still sometimes speak of the sky as ‘the heavens’. Maybe that’s why flying can make us seem a bit godlike: from 30,000 feet I can watch you driving your car! I see you, whether you’re aware of it or not! But of course my knowledge of what is happening in the ground when I’m at 30,000 feet is minimal. Even the captain of the aircraft has only air traffic control to speak to.

It is not literally true that God lives in the sky (I probably don’t need to say that!). Yet that imagery reminds us that there is something about God which makes him no entirely accessible to human minds. The sky metaphor was a good one- it emphasized that there is much about God to which we cannot approach. Our knowledge of God is limited, for God is, ultimately, mystery.

And another aspect of God which the sky metaphor brings out is that God does have, in a sense, a bird’s eye view of all that is going on. He sees it all from ‘up there’. Flying also gives you that new perspective, a wider perspective, which sometimes we find it hard to keep in mind. Too often we are caught up in our local or personal concerns- not that the local or the personal is not important.

I delight in being a parish minister- the highest calling our democratically-minded church can offer. My parish is my calling. The local is absolutely important, for that is my first priority. And so is the personal- as a pastor, I am to care for people, and their personal situations, personal stories, are meat and drink to me.

The adjective that refers to parish is ‘parochial’. I am proud to be a parochial clergyman. Yet not for nothing is the word parochial often used in a derogatory manner. My dictionary does indeed define the word parochial as ‘of or relating to a parish’; but it also mentions those other, negative meanings; ‘(of sentiments, tastes, etc.) restricted or confined within narrow limits’. Parochialism is defined as ‘provincialism, narrowness of view’ (Chambers Dictionary, 1998).

We cannot always be parochial- and this Psalm is reminding us that God is not parochial. God is not even national: ‘God rules over all nations’ says the Psalmist. It’s strange how when you fly, you are rarely able to tell when you have left one country and entered another. On the ground there may be customs posts, but in the sky we leave that behind. We can fly seamlessly over a dozen countries and hardly notice.

The great thing about Israel’s God was that he was not simply Israel’s God. The Old Testament was formed in an age when each tribe, each nation, had their own gods. But Israel’s God was maker of heaven and earth; he transcended all national boundaries. The Hebrews were, therefore, a bit dismissive of other people’s little local gods. In Psalm 115 we read:

Why should the nations ask us,
“Where is your God?”
Our God is in heaven;
he does whatever he wishes.

Israel’s God is a god of a different order entirely. He is the God of the entire world, of all peoples, of all nations.

Too often, we get caught up in our parochial concerns so that we forget the wider context. Our Church of Scotland counteracts that by grouping congregations in areas- the Presbytery. And it provides a national forum, the General Assembly. And from the start of the ecumenical movement, the Church of Scotland has been part of wider bodies which link us with Christians around the world and of other denominations. We need that wider perspective, to be aware of the world around us.

Indeed, I think that is why Christians often make such good internationalists. We will pray today, as we do each Sunday, for the church and for the world. Not just for our own congregation, but for the church around the world. Not just for our own community, but for the wider world. Christians are often people with a wider perspective, feeling a connection to people who may live far away, but with whom we share a common ground- Jesus Christ. It’s why Christians become missionaries or aid workers in foreign parts, and why we support Christian Aid. It’s why we should always object to anyone that wants to hijack God for just one nation- for we know that God is not American, not English, not Scottish. God is (if you like) above all that.

Apollo 8, the first manned mission to the moon, entered lunar orbit on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 1968. That evening, the astronauts-Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell, and Lunar Module Pilot William Anders-held a live broadcast from lunar orbit, in which they showed pictures of the Earth and moon as seen from their spacecraft. Said Lovell, "The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth." They ended the broadcast with the crew taking turns reading from the book of Genesis. Image Credit: NASA

Apollo 8, the first manned mission to the moon, entered lunar orbit on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 1968. That evening, the astronauts-Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell, and Lunar Module Pilot William Anders-held a live broadcast from lunar orbit, in which they showed pictures of the Earth and moon as seen from their spacecraft. Said Lovell, “The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth.” They ended the broadcast with the crew taking turns reading from the book of Genesis.
Image Credit: NASA

That wider vision has its roots in the ancient Hebrew ideas about God- that he is Lord of all the nations, because he is the creator of the world- what we find in the
first part of Psalm 113. It’s what it means to describe God as enthroned on high. It gives us the sense that God’s infinite majesty takes him, in a sense, beyond the local. He has a view of the entire planet- something humans could never have imagined until the space age. Nowadays we are used to seeing the pictures of the entire planet, taken from space. There’s a famous ‘earthrise’ of planet earth rising over the mountains of the moon. The ancient Hebrews were imagining that God had such a view of the earth- or even the whole creation.

This narrow-angle color image of the Earth, dubbed 'Pale Blue Dot', is a part of the first ever 'portrait' of the solar system taken by Voyager 1. The spacecraft acquired a total of 60 frames for a mosaic of the solar system from a distance of more than 4 billion miles from Earth and about 32 degrees above the ecliptic. From Voyager's great distance Earth is a mere point of light, less than the size of a picture element even in the narrow-angle camera. Earth was a crescent only 0.12 pixel in size. Coincidentally, Earth lies right in the center of one of the scattered light rays resulting from taking the image so close to the sun. This blown-up image of the Earth was taken through three color filters -- violet, blue and green -- and recombined to produce the color image. The background features in the image are artifacts resulting from the magnification.  Image Credit:     NASA/JPL

This narrow-angle color image of the Earth, dubbed ‘Pale Blue Dot’, is a part of the first ever ‘portrait’ of the solar system taken by Voyager 1. The spacecraft acquired a total of 60 frames for a mosaic of the solar system from a distance of more than 4 billion miles from Earth and about 32 degrees above the ecliptic. From Voyager’s great distance Earth is a mere point of light, less than the size of a picture element even in the narrow-angle camera. Earth was a crescent only 0.12 pixel in size. Coincidentally, Earth lies right in the center of one of the scattered light rays resulting from taking the image so close to the sun. This blown-up image of the Earth was taken through three color filters — violet, blue and green — and recombined to produce the color image. The background features in the image are artifacts resulting from the magnification.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL

There as a striking image taken some years ago by a Voyager craft, which, as it left our solar system, turned its camera backward for one last look at its home planet. It took a picture from so far way, our earth was only a small smudge of light, like a tiny star. Just imagine that- that small speck is where everyone is that you’ve ever known, everywhere you’ve ever been or are likely to go, and where all the music and art and culture you have ever known was created. A small speck in a vast ocean of dark space- it does rather make our wars and arguments seen tiny and insignificant, does it not? That is the wider picture, the picture which God has- one that certainly does transcend parochialism.

But does this mean that we are small and insignificant to God? Well, the Psalmist makes an interesting move in the second half of the Psalm:

There is no one like the Lord our God.
He lives in the heights above,
but he bends down
to see the heavens and the earth.
He raises the poor from the dust;
he lifts the needy from their misery
and makes them companions of princes,
the princes of his people.

More picture language; but, again, something here from these old Hebrew ideas about God which have carried on in our faith today. We can speak so much about the might, the mystery, the ineffable distance between humanity and God- but it also needs to be tempered by the thought that God is also, at the same time, very close. If I see those car headlights moving down a mountain road, I might be able to conjure up a picture of an anxious driver, straining to see out his windscreen, and wonder why he is travelling along such a lonely road at night. But I don’t know why he’s travelling, where he’s going, or even who he is.

The Psalmist says that the God knows, and cares. He wants to raise up the poor from the dust- no-one, not even the least of God’s people, are beyond God’s care and attention. The Psalmist even suggests that God is concerned about a woman who is distressed because she has no children. For God is never closer to us than when we suffer, are in distress, or are feeling hopeless.

Jesus understood this very well. In the short parable we heard, Jesus comes tells the story of a woman who has lost a coin. She searches high and low until she finds it- for a small coin like that could be worth a lot to a poor Jewish peasant woman in Jesus’ day. This is really a version of the parable which appears just before this in Luke’s Gospel, the parable of the lost sheep. One sheep is lost, and the shepherd sets out to find it- and great the rejoicing when the sheep is found.

For God has come looking for us. In Jesus of Nazareth, God is present in our world, coming to us to offer us salvation. For the Christian God is not content to simply spy us out from afar. Our God is almighty and majestic beyond our imaging. As creator of the universe, he is further beyond our reach and our ken than the furthest galaxy. Yet he is as close to us as our breath. He knows, says Jesus, who many hairs we have on our heads. He is concerned for us like an ever-loving father, like a mother for her children. This is the great paradox of Christian faith- that the God of the universe is also intimately involved with the world he has made and with each of his creature. That he feels our pain and rejoices in our joys. God is personal, and even parochial in the best sense. Yet also has the whole world in his hands, for he has the whole picture.

Ascription of Praise

All things were created by God,
and all things exist through God and for God.
To God be glory for ever! Amen.

Romans 11.36 (GNB alt)

Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2015 Peter W Nimmo

The best Father ever: Sermon for Trinity Sunday 2015

Texts: Genesis 1:1–2:4a
Matthew 6.24-34

The best Father ever

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Someone said to me recently, ‘We were lucky. We had good parents’. Not every child is so lucky. There was once a teacher who taught music in various schools. She had one pupil who played beautifully, who obviously had a lot of talent on her chosen instrument. So one day, the teacher asked the child, ‘What do your parents think of your playing?’ ‘They’ve never heard me play’, replied the child. ‘They never ask me to play’. Continue reading

Sermon for Christian Aid Week by Rev Dr Craig Gardiner

Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
10 May 2015, Christian Aid Sunday
Scripture Readings: 1 John 5:1-6
John 15:9-17

A sermon from Christian Aid by Rev Dr Craig Gardiner, a member of Christian Aid’s worship collective. Born in the North of Ireland, he is Tutor in Christian Doctrine at South Wales Baptist College, a member of the Iona Community

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Today’s gospel reading follows on from Christ’s image of the vine and the branches- and here Jesus tells the disciples to remain in him, to abide in his love. It’s all part of John’s long account of Jesus at the Last Supper- these words are, in effect, a part of his farewell speech to those who have followed him for years and to whom he will entrust his unfolding purposes on earth. Final words often have an urgency to them and so, too, here. Jesus reminds the disciples that he has chosen them to carry on and bear fruit that will last. Central to those purposes will be the costly ways in which they learn to abide in Christ: ‘greater love has no one than they lay down their lives for each other’- the disciples must learn to live in faith, inspire hope and show such sacrificial love.

The idea of abiding has associations of homemaking: our abode is often the safe space in which our body, mind and spirit are strengthened, a sanctuary against the ravages of a broken world and our own wounded soul. Such a home might become a place where our hearts turn in upon themselves, seeking comfort and self-interest, but not with Jesus. Abiding in Christ means our home is open and turned outwards to love and embrace others. Our motivations are transformed from revenge, greed and safety. Instead, we choose to abide in compassion and solidarity with the poorest and weakest neighbours of the world. But as we seek to do so, we discover a stubborn and global injustice- wherever any people are excluded and exploited, it is the women of that society who will suffer most.

Worldwide, women are estimated to spend 40 billion hours collecting water every year. Compared to men, they can spend more than 10 times the amount of time doing unpaid care work. In these respects, it’s certainly true that poverty has a woman’s face. In many communities, the cost of being a woman is paid from birth- girls are denied a proper education and are soon put to menial work.

Deprived of an education, they must then rely on men for their survival, men who often deliver the horrifying reality where one-third of the world’s women have been beaten or sexually abused. There is simply no way to remain in the love of Jesus and ignore such facts.

There is no way to remain in the love of Jesus and fail to respond to people like Adi Abduba.

Adi was one of the poorest of the poor. A widow with no education, no livestock and eight hungry children, she was without status in her community. But for all that, she believed that her life ought to be better. Through a Christian Aid Partner organisation- HUNDEE- Adi was given a cow that opened up a world of possibilities. With that cow, Adi got milk, churned butter, made a little money and saved enough to build a small shop by her home. As 1 John 5:5 affirms, everyone born of God will overcome the world, and Adi, through her hard work, has indeed prevailed over the prejudice and injustice that flourished all around her.

With a little love from Christian Aid supporters, she has not only found a new hope for herself, but inspires such hope in others, too. She says: ‘When I think about my situation and some of my friends, how the livestock are giving birth and our lives are improving, I feel so happy I could cry.’ The words of Psalm 98 might well be the song of Adi’s heart as she milks and churns, as she saves and dreams of a better tomorrow, ‘sing to the Lord a new song for he has done marvellous things…the Lord has made Heaven’s salvation known upon the earth’.

So, too, might Loko Jarso join in that song of praise: she, too, might ‘shout for joy and make music to the Lord’. She might do one day… but not today… for this song is not yet the rhythm of her heart. But it could be: if this Christian Aid Week, churches in Britain and Ireland live faith, inspire hope and abide in love, then her songs might yet be transformed from deep lament to hymns of praise.

For now, four times a week, in a remote corner of Ethiopia, Loko still makes a dangerous, back-breaking eight-hour trip to gather firewood, which she sells to keep her family alive. Loko walks alone, her thin plastic shoes punctured by thorns, afraid she could be attacked by hyenas at any moment. It’s a task she dreads, but she steels herself to do it because if she doesn’t her children will starve. Yet with each burdened step, she keeps faith and prays to God: ‘Change my life and lead us out of this.’

For now, collecting wood is the only means Loko has of earning money. On the days when she is not out collecting, she’s at the market looking for buyers. It’s the only way she can afford to give her children even one small meal of boiled maize each day. There’s no safety net for Loko. No one else will step in if she falls ill or injures herself. As a woman living alone and without livestock, she is shunned, isolated and ignored. ‘What makes being alone difficult is not having the respect of your community,’ she says.

With so little, Loko’s faith in God refuses to give up hope. She dreams of owning a cow. The milk would keep her children strong; the money saved could help her establish a business. Just £5 would allow her to start selling tea and coffee. With £150, she could buy a cow like Adi’s. Such simple actions can and ought to transform her life from songs of lament into hymns of praise.

Adi and Loko are examples of the way in which, with Christian Aid’s support, churches in Britain and Ireland might abide in love, live our faith and inspire hope. Christian Aid is also teaching women like Adi and Loko about literacy and maths, and how to adapt to climate change by growing more resilient crops. It’s also encouraging men to rise above gender prejudice and include women in the decisions that affect them both. Surely this is nothing but the coming of the Holy Spirit, as in Acts 10? As with the Gentiles back then, and as with many women today, those who have previously been excluded from society and denied the blessings of God are now to be gathered into a new community, a gospel people, a family in which we are brothers and sisters to Loko and Adi.

Whether we abide in this family through our giving, our actions or our prayers, whether we collect from house to house, do a sponsored event or get involved in our worship, the challenge is to exceed the £12m raised last year during Christian Aid Week. That challenge is one for us to meet today with our donations as we support our church collection.

Imagine how, with such resources deployed, other lives might be transformed, imagine how the rivers might echo the Psalmist and clap their hands, imagine the mountains singing for joy as creation bears witness to the Lord’s salvation, moving through women like Adi and Loko.

Imagine the joy in Heaven when justice is done upon the earth. Imagine the joy in Jesus’ face, imagine that joy in your heart and mine: for living our faith, inspiring hope and abiding in the love of Christ is not simply what will make Adi and Loko sing for joy; Jesus assures us that it is what will make our own joy complete.
In truth, we do not need to imagine much of this at all.

We have already heard the stories. We know that such Kingdom transformations are already happening. God is already at work, so come and share in the joy.
Come and join in the work of the Kingdom. This Christian Aid Week,
let us live the faith, inspire with hope and show God’s love for the world.

Ascription of Praise

Now to God
who is able through the power
which is at work among us
to do immeasurably more
than all we can ask or conceive,
to God be the glory
in the church and in Christ Jesus
from generation to generation for evermore, Amen.

Ephesians 3:20-21 (REB)

© 2015 Christian Aid

Not ashamed? A sermon for 3 May 2015, Easter 5

Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
3 May 2015, The Fifth Sunday of Easter
(Year A, Narrative Lectionary)
Scripture Readings: Romans 1.1-17 (NIV)
Matthew 9.9-13 (GNB)
Not ashamed?

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

What makes you ashamed? In today’s text, Paul says that he is not ashamed of the Gospel- that is, he’s not ashamed of the message he has about Jesus Christ. Shame is a strong word. But what makes you ashamed?

We often don’t normally talk to others about things we feel ashamed about- it’s too hard. If we do speak to someone about such matters, it needs to be someone we trust deeply. But on the other hand, we might talk about things which are done in our name. I’m rather ashamed our government for withdrawing rescue ships from the Mediterranean when refugees were drowning. I’m ashamed we live in a country which is so quick to blame the poor for their problems.

And at times, I’m ashamed of Christianity. I’m ashamed that Christian people can use their faith as a cover to discriminate against gay people or women. I’m ashamed that we don’t seem to be willing to be much more adventurous about finding ways to take the good news of Christ into our world. I’m ashamed that we allow all kinds of injustices to go on in our communities and our nations, and we don’t speak a word about them from the point of view of our faith. I’m ashamed that we are too often smug and complacent, as if the fire of the Spirit had grown dim among us. I’m ashamed that parts of the Christian church has been complicit in the abuse of children.

But when St Paul was writing, he was writing to a young church, a church in the first few decades of its existence. Most of the failings of the church still lay in the future. So Paul isn’t talking about the church and it’s many faults when he is writing to the Christians of Rome. He’s not saying he’s not ashamed of the church- he’s saying he’s not ashamed of the Gospel. And this letter of St Paul to the Romans is one of the first systematic attempts to think through what the Gospel of Jesus is really about.

The Letter to the Romans is one of the key texts of the New Testament, and, indeed, of the entire `two thousand years of Christian tradition. Paul founded many Christian communities around the Roman Empire in the first few decades after the resurrection of Jesus. His letter to the Romans is unusual in that it is a letter in which Paul wrote to a church which he hadn’t founded or visited- as we heard in the dialogue earlier. Quite often Paul’s letters were written in reply to a set of questions from a church. They tend to be quite specific, dealing with just a few matters. But in the letter to the Romans is a letter St Paul attempts something like a systematic account of the content of the Gospel.

First he introduces himself- for he does not know most of these Christians of Rome. He give his credentials as a preacher and church leader, an ‘apostle’- someone authorised by Christ himself to take his message into the world. He greets them, says he hopes to meet them soon, praises them for their faith, assures them he is praying for them. Already gives some hints about what is going to be in this letter- that he will speak to them about the importance of Jesus, what his life, death and resurrection means for them. And it all builds to a climax in the last few verses, where he offers a very personal confession of faith:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed- a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

So Paul says that this Gospel (the Gospel of which he is no ashamed) is the power of God, and that it brings salvation. But when Paul speaks of power, he doesn’t, of course, mean something like electricity or wind power. He’s means a kind of spiritual power. Power that doesn’t move trains or windmills, but changes people.

Let me explain. As it happens, we are in the middle of a power struggle in our country at the moment. We are having a General Election to decide who gets the political power in our nation. In other parts of the world, such power struggles are raw and violent- Syria, Libya, Yemen are places where there are struggles for power which leave people dead, homeless, disabled. Thank God our power struggles are not like that. We ought not to moan too much that all we have to put up with are a few weeks of TV debates!- at least the politicians are only bombarding us with leaflets, and not bombs!

Yet the same thing is at stake in our election as are causing war and violence in other places- the question of who gets power in the land. Power is about being able to do things, to make thing happen, to be able to mould things as you would want them to. Politicians seek power because it lets them do things. It allows them to legitimately boss people around!

Ancient Rome: The Arch of Titus (Wikipedia Commons)

Ancient Rome: The Arch of Titus (Wikipedia Commons)

Paul understood about power. Writing to the Christians of Rome he’d be well aware that they were living at the heart of the most powerful state which had ever existed. Writing to the Romans would be like writing to Washington today.

Roman power was coercive power. For the Roman Empire was created by conquest and relied on slavery. It as an empire held together by the threat of violence. Earlier Paul had described himself as a ‘slave’ of Jesus Christ. This was a powerful metaphor, for the economy of the Roman Empire was largely supported by slaves. Slaves were people with nothing like what we would call human rights. They could be bought and sold, they could be used at their masters’ whim. And, if they rebelled, they could be put to death. Slavery is the ultimate abuse of power, for it can only operate when one group of people has absolute power over another group. The power of Rome was used to keep people in slavery, and conquered nations in subjection.

Munkácsy Mihály: Ecce Homo! 1844-1900  (Wikipedia Commons)

Munkácsy Mihály: Ecce Homo! 1844-1900 (Wikipedia Commons)

Against the power of Rome, what was the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ? After all, Jesus himself was a victim of Roman power. When the Roman governor of Palestine thought that Jesus was a threat to his power, and to Roman power, he had Jesus put to death, as if he had been a runaway slave. Strange, then for Paul to speak of the power of the Gospel of Jesus, who had been put to death by Roman power, to the Christians of Rome, surrounded by magnificent buildings which spoke of the power of Rome.

There is a clue to the nature of the power of Christ in the Gospel story we read. It’s the story of a tax collector named (coincidentally for today’s baptism) Matthew. Tax collectors had power- they could compel you to hand you over money. They were part of the Roman power structure, for the tax collectors of Palestine were collecting taxes from their Jewish compatriots on behalf of the Roman occupiers. They actually worked on something like a franchise, or commission, basis. They got to keep a proportion of what they raised. The more money they could squeeze out of the population, the more they earned. But, as you could imagine, it was an uncomfortable position they held in society. They may have been powerful, but they weren’t exactly popular.

Our Gospel reading speaks of ‘tax collectors and other outcasts’, lumping excise men like Matthew together with others on the edges of society. So I don’t suppose Matthew was a very happy man. Spurned by his neighbours, with a bad conscience that he was a cog in the Roman imperial wheel, perhaps he needed sometime to tell him that God, at any rate, loved him. He’d no doubt heard and Jesus speak already, and he was ready to respond to this man who seemed to have a lot of time for outcasts. How else do we explain the story, which the Gospel writer tells in such terse terms:

Jesus left that place, and as he walked along, he saw a tax collector, named Matthew, sitting in his office. He said to him, “Follow me.” Matthew got up and followed him.

Matthew sounds like a man who was ready for a new life, ready to leave behind even his job in order to follow Jesus. He got up and followed Jesus, found a new direction for his life, and, indeed, ended up as one of ‘the Twelve’, one of his closest disciples.

We often wonder in the Church what message we have for the world. What words should we used to express the Gospel in today’s language? St Paul said the Gospel is God’s power at the work, bringing salvation to everyone who believes. Matthew’s story is an example of what that means in a person’s life. God’s power is salvation to Matthew- he’s saved from being an outcast, he’s saved from his toll booth, he’s saved from his life of contradictions- earning plenty of money, perhaps, but despised by his Roman employers and hated by his Jewish compatriots.

Yet in order for salvation to come to Matthew, he has to respond. Follow me, says Jesus; and Matthew got up and followed him. So I think that ‘Follow me’ is a good way of putting the Gospel challenge. The church’s job is to say to say to people, on behalf of Jesus, ‘Follow me’. Those are powerful words. For if, like Matthew, we get up and follow, then that can be salvation for us.

We may not think ourselves outcasts, but all of us, like Matthew, are a maze of contradictions. Our neighbours may not know that, but we know that within us there are all sorts of things unresolved. We all, in our most honest moments, have a sense that all is not right. We have things we are ashamed of which we can hardly talk to anyone about. We all of us yearn for acceptance, love and grace.

So here is Jesus bringing the power of God to save us- follow me, he says- and that is a demand, and it will need courage to leave our old selves behind. But it also implies a promise. When Jesus says ‘Follow me’, we know that here is a leader who, unlike any political leader who might call on us to follow them, who will never let us down. The power of the Roman has long since fallen to dust. But the Gospel still has power because those who, like Matthew, hear Jesus saying ‘follow me’ and who get up and follow him find salvation. They know themselves forgiven, and they know the power of God in their lives.

Jesus said to a tax collector in ancient Palestine- a despised lackey of the Roman occupiers- follow me. And by some mysterious power, Matthew found the courage to follow, and it transformed his life. For Jesus broke down barriers. He would go to dinner with outcasts like Matthew, and if the prudish religious leader were scandalized, he didn’t care. ‘I have not come to call respectable people, but outcasts’, he says. That is the power of God at work- breaking down barriers, giving hope where there was no hope before.

We baptized another Matthew at St Stephen’s today (the baby grandson of Rosemary and Sandy Cumming). And, as in every baptism, we acted out the power of the Gospel. We spoke of death and resurrection, of a spiritual washing which makes us new, of the possibility that the power of God can bring new life, forgiveness, a new start. We spoke of the Gospel of salvation- salvation which is there for anyone- absolutely anyone- who hears Jesus call to ‘follow me’ and gets up and goes with him.

Ascription of Praise

Now to God
who is able through the power
which is at work among us
to do immeasurably more
than all we can ask or conceive,
to God be the glory
in the church and in Christ Jesus
from generation to generation for evermore, Amen.

Ephesians 3:20-21 (REB)

Biblical references from the Good News Bible, except for Romans 1 citations from the New International Version (unless otherwise stated)
© 2015 Peter W Nimmo

Everything’s changed! Sermon for Easter Sunday 2015

Texts: John 20.1-18

Acts 10:34-43

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

The day after the Sabbath, two days after his execution, disciples of Jesus come to his tomb. Now, when I say disciples, you probably think I mean some of the inner twelve (or eleven, if you take Judas Iscariot out of it)- those men who are often the ones whom the Church has honoured with statues and stained glass windows.

But the four Gospels are unanimous it saying that it was women who were the first witnesses to the resurrection. Continue reading

Judged in our place: a sermon on the Passion of Christ: 29 March 2015

Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
29 March 2015, Palm Sunday (Year A, Narrative Lectionary (alt))
Gospel Readings: Matthew 21:1-11
Matthew 27:11–56
Judged in our place

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

I have a fondness for the American humorist James Thurber- one of the few writers who can make me laugh out loud. He has a very funny short story called ‘The Macbeth Murder Mystery‘, which first appeared in The New Yorker in 1937, at the height of the craze for whodunnits- detective stories (in The Thurber Carnival Penguin 1965, p83ff).

Continue reading

Sorted! A sermon on the parable of the Last Judgement- Sunday 22 March 2015

Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
22 March 2014, Fifth Sunday in Lent (Year A, Narrative Lectionary)
Gospel Reading: Matthew 25.31-46
Sermon: Sorted!
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

The Bible story we heard today is a parable- a story Jesus told his followers to teach an important truth about God and God’s Kingdom. Quite often we call this one ‘the parable of the sheep and the goats’ because of a simile, a comparison, Jesus uses- just once- in the story. He says that the people are separated, just a shepherd separates sheep and goats. That is a picture which those who heard the story for the first time would be well familiar with- sheep and goats often grazed together, and shepherds had to separate them out.

But the sheep and goats simile only appears once- it’s almost a throwaway line. For the setting of this story isn’t really the green fields of the countryside at all. And the main character isn’t a shepherd. The main character is a king, and the setting a royal court, and King is judging.

In the English language, it’s interesting that the place for a trial- a court- is also the word we use for the surroundings of a king. We talk about the Court of Session- a place for legal proceedings- but we also talk about the royal court- the courtiers are those who surround the Queen and the Royal Family. That’s because in Britain, all our courts are technically the Queen’s courts- and that goes back to a long tradition that one of the chief duties of a monarch was to see that justice was done. Already in the Bible, we have the story of the wisdom of Solomon- an ancient Israelite king faced with a difficult legal problem, and how he solves it. For in ancient times, the King himself would often have been the judge.

Jesus’ hearers were ordinary folk, often farmers, and they would be far more likely to have seen a shepherd separate out his flock that to have been in a royal palace, watching a king dispense legal judgements. But they would have known about royal judgements. They lived in a world where a few people had immense power to judge others. It was a power often used arbitrarily. There are many references to Old Testament prophets who condemned those in power for judging in favour of themselves and their cronies. The prophets cried out for righteous judgements, that would protect the weak and the powerless, not the strong and the rich, as so often happened.

But the greatest king and judge for the Jews was God. And so here is Jesus talking about the end times, the coming of a divine figure called the Son of Man, who comes as a king and acts like a judge. And in this story, there are two aspects which I’d like to ponder with you. This is a story which is about judgement. And it is about how what are judged on.

The king has before him all the nations of the world- for it was common on Jewish theology of the period to picture the world, at the end of time, being judged. This makes us uncomfortable (I suppose it’s supposed to). Jesus used the title ‘Son of Man’ to refer to himself, and so the Church has always understood that in this story, it is Jesus who is doing the judging. We are a bit unaccustomed to thinking of Jesus in that role, as king and judge, for that is not a role we usually see the historical Jesus taking in the Gospel stories. Indeed, in the next week or two of the Christian year, approaching Holy Week and Good Friday, we will be thinking of Jesus himself as a prisoner, put on trial and condemned in a set of unfair court cases. He is not often depicted as one with great power at his command.

Very often, when Jesus spoke of judgement it was to forgive. ‘Go and sin no more’, he says to a woman caught in adultery. ‘Your sins are forgiven’ he says to a man he’s just healed, causing a scandal. That Christ brings forgiveness is a the heart of our faith. And so he tells his followers to emulate him, ‘Do not judge others, for if you do, you will bring judgement upon yourselves’. And so we liberal-minded Presbyterians try hard to avoid being ‘judgemental’.

The Last Judgment (Weltgericht) cica 1435 Oil and gold on oak panel Stefan Lochner (circa 1400/1410–1451) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

But this parable is about judgement, and it is Jesus who is doing the judging. The parable speaks of splitting people up, as if they were sheep and goats, and some are sent to the right, and some are sent to the left. The people on the right are told they will possess the kingdom, and the people on the left are told they are being sent to an eternal fire with the Devil and his angels. We’ve all seen works of art which deal with this story- and probably, as we looked at the sufferings of the people on the left (for that is where our eyes are usually drawn) that there was something deeply unchristian about imagining that some people were to be condemned to eternal suffering.

It has to be said that this is a parable- a story, a word picture. It not a prediction of the future. Parables paint a picture- they are really saying, not that this is how it will be, but that it will be like this. Last week we heard that the Kingdom would be like a Jewish wedding. But the end of the world will not be an actual Jewish wedding. And this week, as we hear that at the end there will a King on a throne, sending one group of people one way and the others to another place- we know that this is picture language, don’t we? So we don’t take it literally. But we are meant to take it seriously.

Today we will celebrate the Sacrament of Baptism at the Old High Church (and next week at St Stephen’s). In the last few centuries, the baptism of children was so common that it became overlaid with traditions and customs which rather swamped its original meaning and purpose. It became a naming ceremony, or a time to celebrate the gift of a new child. And those things are fine, but they are not at the heart of the ceremony.

For the water in baptism represents a number of things. Yes, it is celebrating life- for we cannot live without water. But it also represents washing- the washing away of sins. The washing of baptism about the forgiveness of sins- not that, in a tiny baby, there is much to forgive, but a reminder to us all that we will all sin, that we all need forgiveness. For none of us goes through life without doing things that are wrong, that place us under the necessity of seeking forgiveness- from God, and from others whom we have wronged. None of us gets through life without having stained our clean sheet, blotted our copybook as the saying goes.

Baptism, because it speaks of forgiveness, therefore reminds us that there are things we need to be forgiven of. For, as today’s parable reminds us, we all stand under judgement. God can look at our lives and see where we have failed to come up to the mark. God can look at our lives and see where we have hurt other people. God can look at our lives and see where we have failed to do the right thing.

But of course, we can do that for ourselves, too. We all of us know that, in many respects, we have failed. We judge ourselves- we know that we are not perfect. Often, though, we try to avoid and ignore that. We put on a brave face, pretend to the world, and ourselves, that we’re not that bad. But in our most honest moments, we know, don’t we, that if there is an all-seeing God, we would deserve to stand under his judgement. So the first message of this parable is that judgement is real. God sees into our hearts and would be entitled to condemn us for those things which we have done wrong.

But the second matter which this parable about is we are judged on. What is the charge, what are we supposed to have done? What are the big sins that Jesus is interested in, the ones which are so serious that, in the picture language Jesus uses in this story, they could be said to make the difference between eternal life and eternal punishment? Is it that I stole some pencils from the office? Is it that I chose the wrong religion, that I am a Muslim or an atheist and not a Christian? It is that I once committed adultery? Is it that I like a beer too often? Is it that I got angry with my children the other day?

This is a parable- picture language- so we don’t get the entire law book. But what is listed fascinating. To those on his right, the King/Judge in the story says that they are to possess the Kingdom because, ‘I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me a drink; I was a stranger and you received me in your homes, naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you took care of me, in prison and you visited me.’ And when the people on his right express astonishment: ‘when did we ever see you hungry or sick or in prison or homeless?’ the Judge says, ‘I tell you, whenever you did this for one of the least important of these followers of mine, you did it for me!’

Jesus once said of the scribes and the Pharisees- the strict religious teachers of his day- that although they liked to make laws for others, they would never lift a finger to help anyone (Matthew 23.3ff). They talked the talk, but wouldn’t walk the walk. We are judged on what we do practically for the sake of the ‘least important’. In the second part of the parable, those who are condemned are judged the same way- they didn’t feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick or the prisoner, and so they stand condemned. When people ask what a Christian should do, we often think it’s about going to church, studying the Bible, saying our prayers- and so we should. But this parable makes it very clear that what is important to God is the practical actions we take to look after those in need.

It’s interesting to me that the visiting of prisoners is in there. In the early days of the Christian church, I’m sure that would have been understood by the Christian community as meaning that the wider Christian community should care for those imprisoned for their faith- for persecution was very common. As it still is, in many parts of the world, today. We ought to do what we can, and support practically to the extent we are able, persecuted Christians around the world (for what is happening to the Christian communities of the Middle East in Syria and Iraq is horrifying).

Yet closer to home there are prisoners as well, and not all of them in prisons for the kind of thing we would think of as a crime. It is no wonder that there are so many people trying to come to live in the comparative peace and safety of our own country, when the alternative might be rape, murder or torture in their own countries. The wars and violence which affect so many place around the world affect our own country- the reason why there are so many seeking asylum here.

This week there has been a hunger strike by inmates at the Dungavel detention centre in Lanarkshire. If you hadn’t heard it, don’t worry, because it’s not been reported much in the media (presumably they had run out of space, what with budget and everything). Dungavel is, effectively, a prison, though those who are there have never appeared in an ordinary court. Their ‘crime’ is that they have failed to prove to the authorities that they have a right to asylum or refugee status, and they are kept there until they can be taken home. Many of them are there for months, and the conditions are not pleasant. The detainees include women and children.

Their plight has brought a call from the Church of Scotland, and others including the Scottish Trades Unions Congress, for a delegation to visit to hear about the detainees’ concerns. The Rev Sally Foster-Fulton, Convener of the Church and Society Council, has said: ‘As a nation we must be deeply concerned at the news that a number of asylum seekers being imprisoned at Dungavel have become so desperate that they are refusing to eat in an effort to bring attention to their plight’. But I wonder if, as nation, we are all that concerned? A million people have signed a petition to get Jeremy Clarkson back on the telly. But Dungavel has hardly made the news. ‘I was sick and in prison and you would not take care of me’. What a judgement.

And in Holy Week, we see Christ himself under judgement, imprisoned, tortured and condemned to die. What’s fascinating about this parable is that it begins by asking to imagine Christ as a Judge and King- the person who decides what happens to the least of these. But by the end of it, we are seeing Christ in the sick and hungry- and even in the imprisoned. Our judge is one of the judged. For our sake, he chooses to be judged as one of us. At the start of his preaching career, Jesus was himself baptised by John the Baptist in the River Jordan. It was as if he was saying, ‘I’m going to stand alongside these imperfect, broken, hurting human beings who absolutely deserve God’s judgement, and be judged alongside them’.

And there, I think, is what our baptism represents, the heart of the Gospel- the possibility that Jesus, life, death and resurrection both judges us, and makes forgiveness and renewal possible. We can only lose our sense of guilt if we let God take care of it. And then we will be set free to serve the world- ready, joyfully, to look after the stranger who needs a home, and prisoner who needs a visit, the sick person who needs our care. For now we know that when we see their face, we see the face of Christ, who is both our judge- but is also judged in our place, to make forgiveness possible.

Ascription of Praise

How deep are the wealth
and the wisdom
and the knowledge of God!
How inscrutable God’s judgements,
how unsearchable God’s ways!
From God and through God and for God
all things exists-
to God be glory for ever! Amen!

Romans 11.33,36 (alt)

Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2015 Peter W Nimmo