The Baptist’s Cry: Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent, 10 December 2017

Scripture Readings: Isaiah 40.1-11

Mark 1:1-8

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

This is the Good News about Jesus Christ, the Son of God (Mark 1.1)

And so begins the Gospel of Mark, the Gospel with which we will largely be living with in the coming Christian year. Mark is thought by the scholars to be the earliest Gospel written. It is certainly the shortest. And Mark is always direct and to the point. His style is vigorous, almost breathless, as he tells the story of Christ without very much in the way of elaboration. Continue reading

Lord of the Least: sermon for Christ the King Sunday, 26 November 2017

 

Scripture Readings: Ephesians 1:15-23

Matthew 25:31-46

Lord of the Least

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

This Sunday is Christ the King Sunday- the last Sunday of the Church year, for next Sunday is the First Sunday of Advent. The parable which Jesus tells us today certainly shows him as a king- but also as a judge. Kings and judges were often the same thing in ancient history- the king gave justice, either in person, or through judges whom he appointed. To this day, judges in Britain sit beneath the royal coat of arms- judges, in a way, represent the Queen.

First sitting of the Sheriff Appeal Court: http://www.scottishlegal.com/2015/11/05/6704/

First sitting of the Sheriff Appeal Court: http://www.scottishlegal.com/2015/11/05/6704/

And so, in the parable of the last judgement, we meet Jesus as both judge and king- because part of a king’s role is to be a judge:

When the Son of Man comes as King, and the angels with him, he will sit on his royal throne, and the people of all the nations will be gathered before him. Then he will divide them into two groups, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the righteous people on his right, and the others on his left.

Continue reading

For the healing of the nations: Sermon for Remembrance Sunday 2017

Scripture Readings: Revelation 22.1-5

Matthew 5.38-48

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

In 2013, a few weeks before Remembrance Sunday, we were contacted by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. They had a project to put a sign on the gates of every graveyard containing one of their graves. We hadn’t realised it, but there is a World War One War Grave within the Old High Churchyard. That’s unusual, because most of those graves are, of course, near the battlefields where the soldiers died. Angus Fairrie of the Cameron Highlanders Association kindly provided some information about the young man who lies in our graveyard:

James Finlay McCulloch was born at 58 Shore Street, Inverness on 15 October 1894, the son of Finlay McCulloch and his wife Flora Smith. Finlay McCulloch worked as a fitter at the nearby foundry.

By 1911 Finlay McCulloch had moved with his family to Foyers where he worked as a fitter for the British Aluminium Company… His [then] 16 year old son James McCulloch had a job as a luggage carter at the Foyers Hotel.

In early 1915… James McCulloch volunteered for military service… Between March and July 1916, while serving with the 1st Battalion of the Cameron Highlanders, James McCulloch was badly wounded and was evacuated to the UK. He died of his wounds in the University War Hospital in Southampton on 21 July 1916.[1]

James McCulloch, baggage carter of Foyers, was 21 years old when he died. He is buried next to his parents and other members of his family in the Old High Kirkyard. Continue reading

Reformed… and always reforming!- a sermon for on the Reformation 5 November 2017

Scripture Readings: Jeremiah 31:31-34

John 8:31-36

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

Luther bookcase

Sometimes the great figures from the past of the church- the Saints whom we remember at this time of year- can seem very remote. But not always.

Those who attend at St Stephen’s may perhaps remember a lovely lady named Renate Krebs, who died in 2010. She was a lovely, fascinating lady who had lived in Scotland for many years. Born in Germany in 1922, but went to live abroad during the Nazi era, marrying a Swiss gentleman. Later her home town was part of Communist East Germany, which made it hard to return home. A love of all things Celtic brought her to settle in Scotland. Renate was born in the town of Eisleben, and told me once that she had been baptised at the same font in the parish church as Eisleben’s most famous son, Martin Luther. How’s that for a link to history? Continue reading

More than we expected: sermon at Old High on 29 October 2017

Scripture Reading: Matthew 22:34-46

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

Luther 2

Today marks the five hundredth anniversary of the event we think of as sparking the Reformation. Martin Luther is said to have nailed a list of forty-nine theses- discussion points, if you like- the door of the church in Wittenberg. In doing so, he provoked arguments which continue to resonate in the Church to this day.

We’ll be thinking more about the Protestant Reformation next Sunday. But I mention now because the Reformation began with an argument, and it reminds us that Christians are prone do to get into arguments. You might think that we shouldn’t- are we not supposed to love one another? Well, perhaps. But turn to a passage like today’s Gospel reading, and you’ll find that Jesus always seemed to be arguing. Continue reading

Belonging and believing: sermon for Sunday 22 October 2017: Proper 24 (Year A, RCL)

Scripture Readings: 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

Matthew 22:15-22

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

Joseph Andrew Crisci, whom we baptised today, has a Scottish mother, and an Italian father, but he was born and will grow up in Spain. He is also, as his mother reminded me the other day, a citizen of Europe. And today we baptised him in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Scottish, Italian, Spanish, European, Christian- Joseph is a young man who already has many different identities.

We all of us have different, overlapping, identities. But some people feel threatened by the notion of different identities. They say that you cannot have one identity, but also claim to have another. When that happens, the results can be horrific.

Last week, I visited two small rooms in a house in Amsterdam. An hour’s flying time from Inverness Airport, and during the lifetime of my parents, eight people, including two children, hid in those two rooms in order to save their lives. They had to go into hiding simply because they were Jewish. For in a speech at the Concertgebouw concert hall in 1941, Arthur Seyss-Inquart, the Nazi ruler of the German occupied Netherlands, had stated ‘We do not consider the Jews to be members of the Dutch nation. The Jews for us are not Dutch’. That Jews had been part of Dutch society for centuries made no difference whatsoever. Having a Jewish identity was, the Nazis said, incompatible with being Dutch- or, for that matter, Belgian, French, Danish, or German.

Anne frank Continue reading

The Great Reversal: a sermon for Harvest Thanksgiving 1 October 2017

Scripture Readings: Exodus 16:2-15

Matthew 20:1-16

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

Two stories. The first, from a man who makes his living growing our food.

frank-zulu-pigeon-pea-field-thumbFor Frank Zulu of Chithumbwi village, Malawi, abundant life is in part denied because the rain is no longer reliable. He says: ‘Sometimes it rains heavily and washes seeds away and then it suddenly stops; sometimes it rains very late so our seeds die in the ground; sometimes it doesn’t rain at all.’

The consequences for the maize harvest, and therefore communities, is devastating. Frank says: ‘In Malawi, when we say somebody is hungry, we mean they don’t have maize. When the maize is not in harvest or there are shortages, people starve.’

With support from Christian Aid partner Evangelical Association of Malawi (EAM), Frank has diversified his crops to include sweet potatoes and pigeon peas, which are better able to survive low rainfalls… However, even with a successful harvest of pigeon peas, the poor market prices for individual farmers prevent Frank and his family from getting a good price for his crops…

Frank and his community [often experiences corruption] at the farm gate where he sells the pigeon pea crop to traders. Often, these middlemen use illegal buying scales and exploit individual farmers. These ruthless tactics have the effect of driving prices right down. For Frank, this is a disaster: ‘Even though I am growing more pigeon peas than ever, my life is miserable because of the low prices offered by the traders. The money is not enough to feed my family or pay school fees for my four children’.[1]

Continue reading

Around the Table: a Communion sermon. Sunday 24 September 2017

Scripture Readings: Romans 12:1-8

Matthew 16:13-20

Around the Table

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

Communion

In many ways, these last few weeks have been a time of new beginnings for me- and the weeks ahead are also going to be full of new beginnings. Today is another first- the first time I’ve led a Communion service here at St Stephen’s (I led the Communion at Old High last month).

After I had been off for a few months, I realised how much I was missing the Sacrament. So I was grateful to our Pastoral Assistant, Rev Arthur Sinclair, came to the Manse and led a Communion service there with me, my wife, Katharina, and our elder, Andy Pyott. Our living room coffee table became, for us, the Table of the Lord, and I was reminded that even if I couldn’t get to the building, I was still part of the Church.  Continue reading

Cherish the light! Sermon for The Kirking of the Council, 10 September 2017

Order of service

Scripture Readings: Philippians 4.4-9

Matthew 5.1-16

Cherish the light

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

Buzz Aldrin on the moon, photographed by Neil Armstrong. Photo credit: NASA, via Wikpedia

Buzz Aldrin on the moon, photographed by Neil Armstrong. Photo credit: NASA, via Wikipedia

On the 20 July 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin approached the surface of the moon in their fragile Lunar Module, the Eagle. It was a fraught descent. Aldrin was calling out computer data to Armstrong as they approached, but the computer played up- and only cool heads meant that the landing was not abandoned. And as he approached the surface, Armstrong spotted that their landing site was strewn with boulders the size of small cars. In his attempt to find a clear site to land, Armstrong almost used up all his fuel reserves, which would have meant that they could not return home, or crashed among the boulders.

Continue reading

Faith in the storm: Sermon at Stephen’s on Sunday 13 August 2017, Proper 14 (Year A, RCL)

Scripture Readings: Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14.22-33

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

Votive ship in Nexø Church on the island of Bornholm, Denmark By Hberlin - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15968261

Votive ship in Nexø Church on the island of Bornholm, Denmark
By Hberlin – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15968261

In our text from the Letter to the Romans today, Paul reminds his readers- members of a small, persecuted Church- that we Christians live by faith in Jesus Christ. We are saved by confessing that Jesus, whom God raise from the dead, is Lord- the One we can put all our trust and hope in. This is our message- a Gospel of hope for all people, without exception. It’s an inclusive Gospel- in Paul’s day, good news for both Jews and Gentiles; by implication, an inclusive Gospel for people of all nationalities and races and religions. The good news is that ‘…everyone who calls out to the Lord for help will be saved’.

And then Paul writes:

But how can they call to him for help if they have not believed? And how can they believe if they have not heard the message? And how can they hear if the message is not proclaimed? And how can the message be proclaimed if the messengers are not sent out? As the scripture says, “How wonderful is the coming of messengers who bring good news!”

A more literal translation of the final sentence is: ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’ (Paul is quoting from the book of Isaiah). Perhaps I should have worn new socks today. For after a gap of many months I find myself back in this pulpit at St Stephen’s. I’m back at my trade: to wrestle with Scripture, and bring you good news. Whether my feet are beautiful or not you will have to guess for yourself!

For Paul’s words to the Romans reminded me this week of what I am called by God, and by you, to do among you. We each of us have our different ministries- different ways in which we serve the church, serve our neighbours, serve God. Last week I preached my first sermon since mid-September, at the Old High Church, and I reflected with the folks there that it was a struggle to prepare it during the week (and I was pretty worn out after delivering it). And yet, it was great be once again wrestling with a Biblical text in order to find a word from the Lord to share with the congregation. So this week has been my second week of reading the Bible, not just for myself, but for you folks as well. We are all called to be messengers of good news. But my particular vocation is to preach that message among you all, and it’s been good to be back at my trade.

But this week, I wanted to say to St Paul: where’s the message in this difficult story about boats and storms and walking on water? What is there to be said about this story from the Gospels, that is really good news for this congregation? Should I say to you that you have to believe that a man can walk on water? But that’s not very good news if it’s too difficult for you to take literally. Or should I chide you, complain that you’re like Peter the disciple, who tries walking on water only sinks when he gets frightened? But making you feel guilty about your lack of faith doesn’t sound like good news either. No, I need a change of plan- or even a change of socks!- if we are to hear some good news from our Gospel passage story.

In many ways, this Gospel story is about the presence of Christ in our lives. And yet, it is a story that begins with the absence of Christ. At the very beginning of the story, our translation says that ‘Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side of the lake,’ while he goes off to pray alone. He ‘made’ them get into the boat without him, says Matthew- you can actually translate as he ‘pressurised’ them into getting on the boat[1]. It’s almost like a test- how will they cope without him?

Into the boat they get. Many writers, down through the centuries, have understood the boat in this story as a symbol of the church- and I won’t disagree with that. The boat goes out into the darkness, is not making much headway, for the wind as against her. How’s that for symbolism for today’s church? So often the church seems to be making heavy weather through a dark and stormy night. No wonder we want to sing words like ‘When the storms of life are raging, stand by me’[2].

A lot of people nowadays imagine that Christians are really weak people. They think faith is a sort of crutch to get weak people through life. Such people don’t know about the real experience of believers- that faith is often uncertain, doubtful. Believers can feel like those disciples whom Jesus left to sail without him on a boat on a dark and stormy lake. Yes, the disciples remembered Jesus telling them God would be faithful. But as the night got darker, and the winds got higher, and the waves began to slop over the side, it wouldn’t be surprising if they thought less of God, and more about whether the people in charge of the boat knew their job.

And that, if we are honest, is quite often how it feels to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. We’ve been told he’s with us- but he seems to have left us to his own devices. We are all at sea- and we hope the sailors are good.

Those of you who have been through serious medical procedures will know that feeling. Like the disciples on the boat, you’ve found yourself in the hands of people whom you hope know what they are doing, for your life depends on it. That was dramatized starkly for me, when I found myself recently in the hands of my consultant as he wiggled a couple of wires inside my heart as I watched it, live, on an X-Ray TV screen. I did so hope he knew what he was doing!

Yet every day we are in the hands of other people. We hope the person who fitted the brakes on our car knew what he was doing. We trust that the people who brought us our breakfast egg made sure it wasn’t contaminated. We hope that when the gas installer came to our house, she did the job properly. We hope that the builder used fire-safe materials in our house. We hope that those who are advising Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un are careful people who know what they are doing. Every day of our lives, we depend on other people.

And yet- this does not mean that we do without God. Yes, following Christ can seem sometimes as if we have been sent on a boat trip on a dark night on a stormy lake. But that is precisely what faith is all about. Often, the language of faith in the Gospels is the language of journey, adventure, going out into the unknown. ‘Take up your cross and follow me!’ says Christ. ‘Go out into the world, baptising people everywhere!’ Faith is a movement, a process, a journey. Faith is not about sitting still, staying where we are taking no risks. Faith pressurizes us to get on the boat, set sail for the unknown. We are not called to live in a cocoon, wrapped up in pious sentiments shielding from life’s harsh realities. Faith is an adventure, a journey in the unknown, dangerous, treacherous. A voyage on stormy waters.

Now, the next thing that happens in this happens, says Matthew, happened between three and six in the morning. I love that wee detail. Because some of you may know I used to be a hospital porter. Sometimes I did night shift, and any of you who have done night shift, or had to stay awake all night, will perhaps agree with me that the worst time of night are the few hours before dawn. We had done all the routine stuff, like clearing away beds. Patients were mostly asleep, and it was unusual for us to be asked to take someone somewhere in the hours before dawn. So we would sit around in the porters’ room, and as the night went on, we’d soon we’d be too dozy to talk or read or watch TV. We had all wore walkie-talkies strapped to our belts; if yours bleeped and buzzed at that time of night, it made you jump.

Presumably on that boat, someone was at the wheel, or the tiller, or on the watch- I don’t know much about ancient Sea of Galilee fishing boats, but presumably someone was in charge. And even if it was choppy and windy, they were (if they are at all like me between three and six in the morning) finding it hard to keep awake. And then, through the mirk, he sees something which makes him jump- it looks like a man walking on the surface of the water. No wonder they thought it was a ghost, and cried out in panic!

But Jesus says to them: ‘Courage! It is I! Do not be afraid’.

And in the wee small hours, when we feel things cannot get any darker, when we are dozy and disorientated, distracted by the winds change and the storms that threaten to sink us- ‘It’s me’ says Christ. If he did walk on water, it’s because he’s Lord of Creation. For we Christians do not put our ultimate trust in other human beings (no matter how expert they may be), and on technology (no matter how safe it seems to be). The gas fitter, or the general with the nuclear codes, might be having a bad day. Sometimes ships sink, planes crash, houses burn, wars start- all of these, different kinds of human failures. But everyone who calls out to the Lord for help will be saved, because the God of Jesus Christ is hands of the God of Creation.

I really think everybody has got faith. Even those who say they don’t have faith still have to put their trust in something. Christians think that nothing created can ultimately be trusted- and it takes a lot of courage to think that. We face the darkness and the darkness by singing with the Psalmist: ‘Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth’[3]. For, after all, it would be daft to depend on anything less.

And so Peter, the impetuous fisherman, see his friend Jesus, now Lord of the Waves, and shows us exactly what the risk of faith is all about. He clambers over the side. We should celebrate Peter’s courage, instead of bemoaning the failure of his courage once he’s out there. Jesus says that Peter lacked faith, but I think that’s unfair to Peter. For even as he began to sink he knew what to do- he cried out to Jesus to save him. For Peter knew that ‘Everyone who calls out to the Lord for help will be saved’.

If you don’t like being in a boat, if sailing makes you queasy, then I’m afraid I’ve got bad news for you. For all of you (apart from the choir) are sitting in a ship right now. The English word for the area of a church where the congregation sits is the nave– which comes from the Latin word for a ship (it’s also related to the word navy). If you’re part of the Church, you’re all at sea, whether you like it or not!

There were places in the Highlands and Islands where, when the Disruption in the Church of Scotland took place in the nineteenth century, the new Free Church congregations literally had to have their services in boats because the landowners wouldn’t let them build their churches on the land. We should remember that all our churches are boats. For then we would remember that we are all on a journey, for faith is a journey. We would remember that on the journey of faith there will be storms and danger. We would remember that Christ sent his disciples on a voyage: a voyage to bring light to a dark world, a voyage to speak peace to a stormy world. A voyage in which we put our trust in the Lord of the Creation, and no-one and nothing else.

As Paul says, our God is the Lord of all people and stretches out his hand to save all who call to him for help. In our stormy, uncertain, dark world, that, brothers, and sisters, is, I hope good news indeed!

Ascription of Praise

The God of grace who calls you all

to his eternal glory in Christ

restore, establish and strengthen you.

All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.

Based on 1 Peter 5.10-11: c.f. BCO 1994, p584

Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated

© 2017 Peter W Nimmo

NOTES

[1] Arthur van Seters, in Allen, Ronald J. Preaching God’s Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year A (p. 347). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] Charles Albert Tindley: CH4 570 (sung before the sermon)

[3] Psalm 124:8