Unexpected guests? Sermon for 12 October 2014

Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 12 October 2014: Year A, Proper 23
Texts: Isaiah 25:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

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

The churches in Scotland, in common with churches around Europe, are facing challenges like never before. We are seeing fewer people wanting to join us in our communities of faith. Our influence is decreasing, in the face of enormous cultural changes.

Faced with the challenge of the way faith is changing in our culture great change, religious people are often tempted to go back to their holy books, believing that there they can find precepts which are unchanging and comforting. The idea is that when we are faced with change and challenge, we should go back to scripture to find words of comfort and hope.

Now, there certainly is comfort and hope in the Bible. We just sung the 23rd Psalm, the Lord’s my Shepherd. Who could not take comfort from those words? Even when we go through the valley of the shadow of death, God goes with us. I don’t know about you, but I cling to that idea. It helps me to be grounded in faith, even as I deal with the worst the world can throw at me.

But comfort and hope are not the only messages of the Bible. Continue reading

A strange generosity: sermon for Sunday 21 September 2014

Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 21 September 2014: Year A, Proper 20


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

Old Testament reading: Exodus 16:1-15

The people of Israel are now in the wilderness. Finding the water undrinkable, they have complained to Moses, and God has made it potable. He has tested their faith: will they accept him by trusting that he will feed and rule them? Now the Israelites grumble once again.

1 The whole Israelite community set out from Elim, and on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had left Egypt, they came to the desert of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai. 2 There in the desert they all complained to Moses and Aaron 3 and said to them, “We wish that the Lord had killed us in Egypt. There we could at least sit down and eat meat and as much other food as we wanted. But you have brought us out into this desert to starve us all to death.”
The Lord said to Moses, “Now I am going to cause food to rain down from the sky for all of you. The people must go out every day and gather enough for that day. In this way I can test them to find out if they will follow my instructions. 5 On the sixth day they are to bring in twice as much as usual and prepare it.”
6 So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “This evening you will know that it was the Lord who brought you out of Egypt. 7 In the morning you will see the dazzling light of the Lord’s presence. He has heard your complaints against him—yes, against him, because we are only carrying out his instructions.” 8 Then Moses said, “It is the Lord who will give you meat to eat in the evening and as much bread as you want in the morning, because he has heard how much you have complained against him. When you complain against us, you are really complaining against the Lord.”
9 Moses said to Aaron, “Tell the whole community to come and stand before the Lord, because he has heard their complaints.” 10 As Aaron spoke to the whole community, they turned toward the desert, and suddenly the dazzling light of the Lord appeared in a cloud. 11 The Lord said to Moses, 12 “I have heard the complaints of the Israelites. Tell them that at twilight they will have meat to eat, and in the morning they will have all the bread they want. Then they will know that I, the Lord, am their God.”
13 In the evening a large flock of quails flew in, enough to cover the camp, and in the morning there was dew all around the camp. 14 When the dew evaporated, there was something thin and flaky on the surface of the desert. It was as delicate as frost. When the Israelites saw it, they didn’t know what it was and asked each other, “What is it?”
Moses said to them, “This is the food that the Lord has given you to eat.

It has been quite a week. A week of conversations- not all about the same subject, but many of them were. A week when we suddenly realised that history was in the making.

When I went into the polling booth and looked at the form, I surprised myself by suddenly being overcome by the immensity of the question: ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’

On Thursday night, a colleague of mine commented, ‘It’ll be like going to bed on cruise ship tonight. I’m not sure which country I’ll wake up in tomorrow’. Some people woke up disappointed. Some people woke up relieved. My overwhelming reaction is that I was not surprised it was no, although I have been surprised by how close it became in the last few weeks. But I think we did wake up in a different country on Friday morning. When I left the manse on Friday, the first person I knew whom I met- a member of this congregation, as it happens- told me he had voted no. ‘But I didn’t vote no for nothing to change’, he said.

Change is in the air. Exactly what kind of change we do not know. But something has to happen when we have come through the sort of national experience. All those thousands of people who voted for the first time- not just the youngsters, but people of all ages who have felt that their votes didn’t matter before. All the people- in both campaigns- who discovered that they were interested enough to get involved in campaigning, who talked about it all with family and friends, who went to public meetings for the first time ever. A turnout of 86 per cent. It remains to be seen if people continue to be so interested- I hope so, for that’s healthy for a nation. In many ways, it has been a good week for democracy. We needed to have this vote, and on the whole, we’ve done it very well. I think we should be a bit proud of ourselves.

I always thought that the time after the referendum would be an uncertain time for us all, and I don’t think I’m wrong about that. Neither a yes or no was going to take us into the promised land. Funnily enough, in the Old Testament text set for today we meet the people of Israel, just escaped from Egypt, and starting out for the promised land. They are complaining to their leaders- you’d think they were Scots- that they have nothing to eat. It is going to be a long, hard slog across the desert, and there will be plenty of complaining ahead. And yet Moses is able to tell them that God will provide for them. They are fed with manna and quails, and they discover that the food from heaven will appear each day, and that there will be just enough for everyone.

After crossing the Red Sea, the Israelites faced long, wearisome years of wandering in the desert before they got to their promised land. Just leaving slavery behind didn’t end it. We have may thought we had done something decisive on Thursday- that cross in the box seems to foretell so much. Yet now we know that, however we voted, it was just the beginning.

Many of us today are used to having our desires met immediately. We find it hard to be patient. We, too, demand a lot from our leaders, and of our God. And yet God promises that he will sustain us, even- especially- when we seem to be in a desert. Parched and hungry we may be, but there will be food, manna to keep us going. Jesus referred to this story when he said, ‘I am the bread of life’ (John 6.35; John 6.48). For those of us who follow him, Christ is indeed the one who sustains when we find ourselves in a wilderness of confusion, uncertainty and doubt. Whatever lies ahead, may Christ continue to be for each of us the bread of life, the spiritual food we desperately need as we wander in the wilderness.

And the New Testament give us another tale- a parable of Jesus- to live by and to help sustain us. It is, for us, a strange story, both in its setting, and in its meaning:

Matthew 20:1-16

Peter has asked Jesus about who has priority in the kingdom of heaven. He has suggested that there must be greater rewards for himself and the other disciples, who have left everything. Now Jesus explains what the kingdom of heaven is really like.

1 “The Kingdom of heaven is like this. Once there was a man who went out early in the morning to hire some men to work in his vineyard. 2 He agreed to pay them the regular wage, a silver coin a day, and sent them to work in his vineyard. 3 He went out again to the marketplace at nine o’clock and saw some men standing there doing nothing, 4 so he told them, ‘You also go and work in the vineyard, and I will pay you a fair wage.’ 5 So they went. Then at twelve o’clock and again at three o’clock he did the same thing. 6 It was nearly five o’clock when he went to the marketplace and saw some other men still standing there. ‘Why are you wasting the whole day here doing nothing?’ he asked them. 7 ‘No one hired us,’ they answered. ‘Well, then, you go and work in the vineyard,’ he told them.
“When evening came, the owner told his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, starting with those who were hired last and ending with those who were hired first.’ 9 The men who had begun to work at five o’clock were paid a silver coin each. 10 So when the men who were the first to be hired came to be paid, they thought they would get more; but they too were given a silver coin each. 11 They took their money and started grumbling against the employer. 12 ‘These men who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘while we put up with a whole day’s work in the hot sun—yet you paid them the same as you paid us!’ 13 ‘Listen, friend,’ the owner answered one of them, ‘I have not cheated you. After all, you agreed to do a day’s work for one silver coin. 14 Now take your pay and go home. I want to give this man who was hired last as much as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do as I wish with my own money? Or are you jealous because I am generous?’”
And Jesus concluded, “So those who are last will be first, and those who are first will be last.”

We hear of landowner who hires men for the day to work in his vineyard. He goes to the marketplace early in the morning and hires some men for the day. And because, presumably, he needs more of them, he goes back at nine o’clock and twelve o’clock and three o’clock and even at five o’clock.

This seems a strange situation us, but it is probably how things were done in Jesus’ day. As usual, he’s telling a story based on what his hearers were familiar with. How come there are all these men standing around in the marketplace, waiting to be hired? Because Palestine in Jesus day was a poor country, and so this is perhaps what Jesus saw- unemployed agricultural labourers, waiting where employers would come to find them. For the landowners would hire men when they needed them- perhaps for the harvest, or to dig ditches or do whatever work was needed done that day. Within living memory, farm workers in this country were often hired and fired in this way. And perhaps its coming back, with the zero-hours contracts, where employers pay people for only the time they need them. Maybe this isn’t such an unfamiliar concept to people today after all.

But what will seems strange to us is the conclusion of the story. Regardless of what time they started, the landowner pays each of them the same. In the evening, the men who started at five o’clock are paid a silver coin. And so is everyone else. Those who worked all day- from early in the morning- complain to the employer (there’s a lot of complaining going on in today’s Bible readings!). ‘These men who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘while we put up with a whole day’s work in the hot sun- yet you paid them the same as you paid us!’ And there is absolutely justice in that complaint- why shouldn’t they get more for all the extra hours.

But the landowner had contracted at the beginning of the day with the early morning workers that the pay would be one silver coin. It happens that he said the all of those he hired, at whatever time of day. ‘”Listen, friend,” the owner answered one of them, “I have not cheated you. After all, you agreed to do a day’s work for one silver coin. Now take your pay and go home. I want to give this man who was hired last as much as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do as I wish with my own money? Or are you jealous because I am generous?”‘ Seen from that point of view, the landowner seems, indeed, generous. The men who worked for an hour still had to wait for work all day. He’s given them enough to live on. This is no zero-hours employer, but someone who thinks everyone deserves a full day’s wage.

And after telling this story, Matthew says that Jesus said: ‘So those who are last will be first, and those who are first will be last’ (a phrase he’s used before (Matthew 19.30). God’s grace is not given out in different quantities. God makes no difference between us. But it is a generous grace, more than enough for us.

I once went to make a pastoral visit in a block of flats. Just as I rang the bell, another door on the landing opened, and one of the neighbours came out of her house. She was surprised to see her minister standing at her neighbour’s door. I explained I was there because her neighbour had just moved into the area and had come to our church for the first time the previous Sunday. I was visiting him because that’s what I do when new people turn up at church- I try to visit them right away to welcome him and to encourage him to keep coming. But the lady drew herself up straight, and looked at me rather fiercely, and said, ‘But I’ve been coming for years, and you’ve never come to visit me’. I was flabbergasted, and I have no idea what I said to her, but afterwards I thought of the elder brother in the story of the prodigal son, and of the labourers who thought they should have been paid more for working longer in the vineyard.

Why is it that when God is good to us, we can’t just accept it? Why is it we must always be comparing ourselves to others? How do we come to think that, for whatever reason, other people are worth less than us? We may passionately disagree with one another. We might even be quite sure that we were right and they were wrong- whether it was in a political vote, or even in a church matter. But we must never forget that each of us is worth exactly the same to God. When people start to think that their god thinks some people are worth more than others, terrible things can happen. At the extreme end of that way of thinking are people who drive others out of their homes, shooting and raping and beheading those they believe that the heretics and unbelievers are worth less to their god.

But God has no favourites. And ours is a good and generous God. He treats us all, not as we deserve- because we really don’t deserve very much from God. But God treats us with generosity- that unfailing grace which is like spiritual food, the bread of life, to we who believe. We stumble in the wilderness, unsure what to say yes or no to, unsure what the future will bring. But regardless or our yes or our no, God says yes- not to a question on a ballot paper, but yes- an unexpected, generous yes- to each one of us. Thanks be to God for his boundless grace.

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 © 1992 American Bible Society

Introductions to readings from Comments: Commentaries on the Revised Common Lectionary

© 2014 Peter W Nimmo

Choose life!- Sermon for the Kirking of the Council 2014

The Kirking of the Council is an annual community event when members of the Inverness City Committee of Highland Council, and other community representatives, process to the Old High Church to take part in our Sunday worship.

Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 14 September 2014: Year A, The Kirking of the Council

Texts: Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 5:1-11,33-37

Choose life!

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

There’s an story about an English vicar who always seemed to give away his politics by his choices of hymns. If the Tories won an election, the first hymn the following Sunday was something like ‘Now thank we all our God’. If Labour won, it would be ‘Dear Lord and Father of mankind, forgive our foolish ways’. On one exceptional occasion, the Liberals won the local council election. So it was with great anticipation that his congregation came to church the following Sunday. The first hymn given out was, ‘The Lord moves in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform’. Continue reading

Who needs reconciliation anyhow?: Sermon for Sunday 7 September 2014

A note from the Minister: after completing this sermon I fell ill and was unable to deliver it on Sunday morning. I’m grateful to the Rev Morven Archer who took our services in my place, and who used much of the material below. This is the sermon I would have preached had I been able to. I’m glad to say I’m on the mend, since you ask!

Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 7 September 2014: Year A, Proper 18

Texts: Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 18:15-20

Who needs reconciliation anyhow?
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

This week the Moderator of the General Assembly, the Rt Rev John Chalmers, chaired a ‘respectful dialogue’ on the independence referendum. It was held in a Glasgow church, but the rest of us could participate because if was put out live on the Internet. At the Crown Church, we watched the speakers live on a big screen, had own audience comments section, and emailed our thoughts back to Glasgow. It was a fascinating experience, being linked up in that way to others around the country. As I was checking that I could communicate with the person receiving the emails in Glasgow, I suddenly thought of the Eurovision Song Contest- ‘Hello, this is Helsinki, here are the votes of the Finnish jury’. Maybe one day the General Assembly will be replaced by this kind of technology- although perhaps the Assembly will be unlikely to turn into a version of Eurovision. Continue reading

Walking on water? A sermon for 10 August 2014

Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 10 August 2014: Year A, Proper 14

Texts: Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14:22-33

Walking on water?

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

We live in a noisy, busy age. Especially for those of us who live in cities, we are so used to noise we often no longer notice it. We will switch on the radio when we get up. We might watch TV during breakfast. We will be assailed by recorded music in shops. Our phone constantly interrupt us with calls, emails, tweets and Facebook updates. Looking after children can be a non-stop whirlwind. Trying to make a date for something- for example a church meeting- can be a trying process, as each of us goes through our diaries, desperate to find a space.

A Christian ought to be someone who tries to live like Jesus. So why don’t we learn from Jesus? Continue reading

Reflection for the centenary of the outbreak of World War One

Reflection for World War One commemoration, 3 August 2014, Old High Church

Rev Peter W Nimmo, minister of Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness

from The Glimmering Landscape, Charles L Warr

Throughout that glorious summer of 1914 the Suffragettes became noisier and noisier, smashing windows, breaking up meetings, chaining themselves to railing and pouring acid down pillar boxes.

The crisis of Ulster darkened and deepened. Sir Edward Carson and Galloper Smith were still addressing impassioned crowds and the impassioned crowds were becoming more and more impassioned. “Ulster will fight, and Ulster will be right,” shouted Galloper Smith, quoting Lord Randolph Churchill, who had said it first some thirty-odd years before. The whole situation was becoming very alarming, for people were beginning to whisper that it looked like civil war.

So with all that going on, the murder of an Austrian archduke towards the end of June at some place called Sarajevo in the Balkans could hardly be expected to interest us much. Where was Sarajevo anyway, and what was an Austrian archduke but a figure of Ruritanian fun?

But a month later the country was thoroughly startled. On 28th July Sir Edward Grey made a statement of sensational gravity in the House of Commons. Austria, he said, had rejected the reply by Serbia to an ultimatum demanding satisfaction for the assassination at Sarajevo. So anyone could see that international trouble of the utmost seriousness was swiftly boiling up.

The next few days were days of utter bewilderment. Events moved with confusing rapidity. Sombre shadows were obviously falling over Europe.
It was shocking, stupefying and incredible that we, who had been nurtured on the optimistic visions of Lord Tennyson, should be on the brink of a general European War.

But by the fourth of August, though not one European ruler and hardly one European statesman wanted it to happen, the shocking, stupefying and incredible thing in fact had happened. The great Powers of Europe had stumbled and blundered into a fight to the death, and the long grey ships of the British Fleet, fortunately assembled at Spithead for the King’s Review, put silently out to sea.

The dreadnoughts of the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet sailed for Orkney. A few weeks ago I sailed across Scapa Flow, to the former naval headquarters on Hoy. I tried to picture what that lovely bay must have looked like filled with naval ships. And it turned out that our ferry had sailed over the graveyard of another fleet.

For one of the causes of the war had been an armaments race- a naval race- as Germany built more and larger ships to try to catch up with Britain- and Britain built more and larger ships to try to stay ahead. And at the end of the war, the Kaiser’s High Seas fleet was disarmed, and, manned by skeleton crews, sailed across the North Sea to a point just off the Firth of Forth, where they were met by much of the British and French navies. The flotilla- the largest fleet ever assembled in the history of the world- sailed up the east coast of Scotland to Scapa Flow, where the German fleet was interned during the Armistice negotiations.

But as the negotiations dragged on, the German Admiral decided it would be dishonourable to surrender his fleet, and his crews opened the water cocks and scuttle some 52 ships. Many have since been salvaged, but some lie still under the Orkney waters. Weapons like that were, people were told, to keep the peace. But as the historian AJP Taylor put it, at the end of his famous book on the outbreak of the war, War by Timetable, in this case, ‘The deterrent failed to deter’.

A few weeks later, I was in Fife, and visited the Secret Bunker- an underground command centre which would have served as the seat of government for Scotland had we ever faced a nuclear attack. From here a few government ministers and civil servants would have attempted to provide help to a population devastated by nuclear weapons. But the country would probably have been dead, blasted and irradiated by weapons much more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. There were those who hoped that the First World War would have been the war to end all wars, but until the 1990s we were still planning for a Third World War which would definitely have been a war to end all wars.

I have spent much of the summer reading about the origins of the First World War, and Charles Warr’s description of the great powers having ‘stumbled and blundered’ into war seems to me to just about sum up what happened. There is a theological word we use in Christianity to describe the causes of the stumbling and blundering which leads us into disaster- that word is sin. It is a strong term, but for Christians, war can be nothing more than sin, for its effects are so horrendous, and it has few redeeming qualities. Our Old Testament reading, in which the prophet Joel speaks of God’s judgement falling like a plague of locusts, like a marauding army, reflects the horror- complete, apparently unstoppable destruction.

A century later, and still it goes on- in Gaza, in Syria, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Libya, and in so many other parts of the world, people try to impose their values on others through violence, death, terror. It is as if we cannot learn. The technologies of industrial death which so shocked people in the early part of the twentieth century are now refined to a pitch.

A few years ago, I heard George Reid, former Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament, who used to be an official of the International Red Cross, tell a group of military chaplains what I suspect many of them had already realised- that war nowadays impacts civilians so much more. Whereas in the First World War, 90% of casualties were military, and 10% civilians, today the proportion is reversed: 90% of casualties are civilians, and only 10% are combatants. And that is why there much be other ways.

We heard Jesus give in the gospel his radical prescription for taking the violence out of human relationships- no more eye for an eye, no more hatred of enemies. One hundred years after 1914, why are the children of Gaza still suffering, why are the Christians of Syria being thrown out of their homes, why are civilian airliners being shot out of the sky above Ukraine? The moralists used to say that war should be the last option. But truly, it ought not to be an option at all. If we could make war never an option, that would the best way to remember the victims of the Great War.

More from our  World War One commemoration service.

Faith in public: sermon for 29 June 2014 communion at St Stephen’s

Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 25 May 2014: Year A, The Fifth Sunday of Easter

Texts: Acts 17:16-31
John 14:15-21

Faith in public

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

In the Church of Scotland, all our Sunday services are traditionally described as ‘public worship’. For the death and resurrection of Jesus were public events. But how do we proclaim this in the public arena, how do we take this message into the world? Today’s reading from the book of Acts gives us some clues about how we can do it. It tells a story about St Paul visiting Athens. Luke, the writer of Acts, says that ‘all the citizens of Athens and the foreigners who lived there liked to spend all their time telling and hearing the latest new thing’. It was a world city, a centre of civilisation and philosophy, at the crossroads of east and west, multicultural and multiethnic. Paul must have been fired up by the opportunities it presented to argue out the case for the Christian message with representatives of all the other competing philosophies of the day.

Continue reading

Religion in schools again

With the ‘Trojan Horse’ claims that schools in Birmingham were the targets of takeovers by Muslim extremists, the place of religion in schools is back in the news again.

Perhaps it’s worth recognising that the schools involved are in England, and that they are what in Scotland we call non-denominational schools, ie not formally linked to any church or other religious group.

Earlier this year, I spoke about the place of religion in schools in a sermon. I wrote as a parent, a school chaplain, and a member of the Church and Society Council of the Church of Scotland.

You can read the sermon here. Comments welcome!


God of many names- a sermon for Trinity Sunday 2014

Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 15 June 2015: Year A, Trinity Sunday

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

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

There’s a joke about a man who was once asked what he had wanted to be when he grew up, who answered, ‘When I was growing up, I wanted to be an orphan’! Fortunately, for most of us and for most of the time, our parents provided security and love as we grew up. And so, on this Father’s Day, as on Mother’s Day, children say ‘thanks’ to their parents; and parents ponder what their children have meant to them. Family relationships are often deep and enduring. But they all have their ups and downs. Some are frankly disastrous, which is why not everyone feels they can celebrate Fathers’ Day and Mothers’ Day. For we humans are not perfect. Our relationships are not perfect. Not all children are perfect, and not all parents are perfect. Continue reading

Gifts for all: a sermon for Pentecost Sunday 2014

Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 8 June 2014: Year A, Pentecost
Texts: Acts 2:1-21
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13

Gifts for all

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

I’m having an ecumenical week this week. On Wednesday night, we hosted a service at the Old High church for the local Methodist community, at which the President of the Methodist Conference, the Rev Ruth Gee, was the preacher. We were remembering first visit to Inverness of the founder of Methodism, John Wesley. Wesley was one of the most remarkable men of the eighteenth century. He sought to bring to ordinary people a much warmer, more personal, experience of Christianity than was commonly found in the 18th century Church of England. Continue reading