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3 September 2017 – Moses and the burning bush [Exodus 3.1 – 15]

I had a ‘burning bush’ experience some years ago. I was at a day retreat in East Berkshire and I went for a walk in the countryside. The path took me alongside paddocks for racehorses and rare breeds of sheep. Each field was manicured with neatly clipped hedges until I rounded a bend, and to my astonishment, was a stretch of ancient hedgerow.

I guess its age was about 200 years, judging by the mature trees and the presence of every species of hedgerow plant that I recognised. Each twig was laden with autumn fruits, which shone in the sunshine as if they had been freshly polished, in every shade of the red spectrum through to purple. By its colour, the hedgerow appeared to be on fire. What added to this impression was the movement of the many gaudy butterflies, and all kinds of bees, wasps, hornets and flies, flickering like flames of fire.

I stopped dead in my tracks.

As I gazed at this wonder of nature, I sensed that I was not alone. Although I did not hear a voice demanding that I remove my shoes, nevertheless there was a voice in my head, that seemed to be engaging me in dialogue. The external landscape had invaded the interior landscape of my mind.

I admit that I had been feeling very unsettled at the time. I had recently retired, and had sensed that God was calling me to serve in a new way. Exactly what, I had difficulty discerning, but the fragile beauty of this rare ancient hedgerow, seemingly on fire, seared my heart, and in my mind I felt was urging me to make a bold change in my life.

That moment condensed a vigorous debate about the damage we were doing to God’s creation and I decided that the politics and theology academic study I was engaged in should take on an ecological dimension. It was the start of a new journey for me, after 40 years in the ‘wilderness’ of England, to where I am standing now.

What had been revealed to Moses was a sacred space, identified as the soil itself, which was holy, and out of which a miraculous bush had grown, nourished by God and from which God spoke. When Moses turned and gazed on the bush, he discovered the miracle of God’s presence, within a fire that blazed but did not consume the bush. When Moses removed his sandals, he accepted the claim that God was making upon him.

God called him to forsake the way of life that had protected him from Egyptian justice. He had killed an Egyptian. As he felt the holy earth between his toes, a connection was made between the fire of the bush and the fire that would be kindled in his heart until he was able to lead his people out of slavery.

Paul engages us in a discussion about what is meant by ‘living sacrifice’[Romans 12.9 – end]. He says that we should not conform passively to this world. As followers of Christ we are called to be holy and we re-affirm this discipleship in our regular worship. It means we are to value hardships and live through them in hope, opening ourselves to God’s love, expressed through Christ, even while experiencing these hardships.

In the West, we live in a culture that inundates us with advertising designed to keep us conformed to this world. The marketing industry spends billions annually on advertising, flooding our screens, newspapers, billboards, and invading our interaction on social media. The American theologian Walter Brueggemann argues that, “…life does not consist in frantic production and consumption that reduces everyone else to a threat and competitor.” [Sabbath as Resistance, 2014]

So not being conformed to this world is a big demand. The world will fight at every stage, with the power and determination of the Egyptians pursuing Moses and his people as they escaped from slavery. They want us to look the other way rather than glimpse the injustice, hatred, oppression, immorality, greed, and violence that surround us. So it will take transformation, renewal of the mind, to detach ourselves from the world’s attempts to occupy us with things that do not matter.

Most people care about their potential futures, and the future of their children and grandchildren. But the storm clouds are already here, gathering over parts of the world, as we are witnessing with the scenes of catastrophic flooding in America, the Indian sub-continent and the Far East. In the longer term, scientists expect that a “turbocharged water cycle” fed by global warming will lead to more of these extreme rainfall events that are causing these historic floods. Humans now dominate the planet so heavily that we are pushing wild animals and plants into oblivion. We use more than half of the world’s land for our food, cities, roads and mining; we use more than 40% of the planet’s productive capacity; and we control three-quarters of all fresh water.

The picture is an alarming one but as Brueggemann goes on to say, “God has complete confidence in the fruit-bearing, blessing-generating processes of creation that have been instituted. God exhibits no anxiety about the life-giving capacity of creation. God knows the world will hold, the plants will perform, and the birds and fish and beast of the field will prosper. Humankind will govern the earth in a generative way. All will be well, and all manner of things will be well.”

Why this optimism? Because we have been made in the image of God, we know when to take a Sabbath rest; we know when enough is enough. Brueggemann goes on to say “…the celebration of Sabbath is an act of both resistance and alternative. It is resistance because it is a visible insistence that our lives are not defined by the production and consumption of commodity goods.” If we are prepared to live out the image of God then, in so doing, we put God first. God has confidence in us to do this, just as he had confidence in Moses to lead God’s people out of slavery in Egypt.

We may try to argue like Moses that we do not have the gifts and skills for the task, but the different gifts we have been given in order to make that happen vary “according to the grace given to us”, as Paul says. This is grace as the transforming power of God, the renewing of our minds, the living offering. “I will be with you,” God says to Moses. This should be sufficient assurance that should lead us into a new way of living and point us toward a good, acceptable, and sustainable future. Yes, we may have to spend sometime in the wilderness but, “All will be well, and all manner of things will be well.” Amen.

6 August 2017 Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord

Exodus 34:29 – 35
2 Corinthians 3.7 – 18

If you had attended a morning service today and heard Luke’s Gospel account of the transfiguration of Our Lord, you will know that when Jesus led the disciples up a mountain they dozed of presumably because of the exertion. When they wake they see the glorified Jesus in dazzlingly white clothes; and the appearance of his face has changed. Moses and Elijah are with him and they are terrified.

In our first reading this afternoon, Israelites are standing in awe of God’s glory reflected in the shining face of Moses as he comes down from Sinai with a new set of tablets of stone bearing the ten commandments carved on them. Just as light shines from God’s face as a source of blessing and peace, so the light shining from Moses’ face is a signal of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness to Israel; giving the Israelites a second chance despite the fact that until now they had been worshipping a golden calf made by Moses’ brother Aaron.

Today we proclaim with confidence the gracious character of God, who offers us a second chance by renewing the covenant with us; and being present in our community. We, in turn, can reflect how God’s light shines through us, through our actions and the way we live our lives as ordinary people of faith; making God’s transforming presence known here and where we live.

Given the importance of Moses’ shining face, the purpose of the ‘veil’ is unclear. The Hebrew word only appears only here, so when the Israelites were quaking in their sandals at Moses’ appearance, presumably because they had a guilty conscience, so the veil on Moses’ face may have been some kind of protection and assurance of God’s grace.

The veil was not so general in ancient as in modern times, when it has tended to become associated with the Islamic tradition. Among the Jews of the New Testament age it was customary for women to cover their heads, not necessarily their faces, when engaged in public worship.

Today’s bridal veil has a number of symbolic meanings but in a Christian context it reminds us of the temple veil which was torn in two when Christ died on the cross. The removing of the veil took away the separation between us and God, giving believers access to the very presence of God. Since Christian marriage is a picture of the union between Christ and the church, we see a reflection of this relationship with the lifting of the bridal veil.

In the passage from Corinthians, Paul takes this story of Moses’ veil in reference to the old covenant which is set aside in Christ. Paul is making the claim that the old covenant, the old “good news,” if you like, cannot be properly understood and accepted until the veil is removed. Then with faces unveiled we will finally know the glory of God.

It would be wrong to read some of of Paul’s words as an outright rejection of the Old Testament. Paul does not reject the Old Testament. He does however argue for a particular reading of it, one that is possible only in the Spirit. Paul is advocating an unveiling of the heart in relationship to the gospel. This is his goal. If we turn to the Lord, the veil is removed.

The church in Corinth was proving a great heartache to the apostle. Yet, the apostle is certain that the church’s continued existence, in spite of itself, is a sign that God is at work within it. God has called the Corinthians to be God’s church, and God is actively at work transforming the believers.

Paul is filled with a hope that is firmly planted in God. Paul does not dispute that the written code was from God and conveyed God’s glory, but that glory was fleeting. The shining of Moses’ face came and went. Instead of tablets of stone, Paul writes of something inscribed on our hearts. His logic is simple. If something as holy as the law could lead to a fleeting transformation of Moses’ face, then surely God’s work through Christ can lead to permanent transformation in all of us.

Christ has removed the veil that conceals God’s transformative glory. The veil is a huge obstacle. For Paul, Christ’s removal of the veil cannot help but be a transformative experience. Seeing the glory of the Lord changes everything because we are no longer separated from the glory of God by Moses’ face, or by the tabernacle, or by the veil in the Temple.

Separation from loved ones is one of the hardest things in life. Whether the separation comes from death, or distance, or a breakdown in a relationship, it is something we all experience, sooner or later. Sometimes even faithful Christians feel separated from God. In any congregation, at any given time, there are people for whom separation, and the desire for re-union, is the defining issue in their lives.
People whose lives are defined by separation yearn for a sense of belonging.

They wonder if they will ever have a place with God and other people. They live as orphans, aliens, exiles, or outcasts. Their need is for God to ‘tear the veil’ of separation, and to reveal that a person does indeed belong – to God and to a community of faith. This is what Jesus can do for them. For them, salvation means coming home, being let into God’s presence. It means being in harmony with God at long last. Amen.

Sunday, 2 July at 3.00pm

This Sunday we are delighted to welcome a return visit of some members of the choir from St Andrew’s Cathedral in Aberdeen who will lead us in a traditional  Choral Evensong.

Please join us on this special occasion and stay for refreshments after the service.

 

Sunday, 11th June

Taken at our annual outing. Enjoying a sunny afternoon in the walled garden at Fyvie Castle after lunch in the castle.  No umbrellas were needed!

From top left: Gillian, Dilly, Stephen, Doreen, Richard, Esther and Pam

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Psalm 104: 23-35, 1 Corinthians 12.3b – 13, John 7.37 – 39

The Holy Spirit makes it possible for disciples of Christ to be who Jesus wants us to be, which is a light to the world. The Holy Spirit empowers us as individuals, and the Church as a body of disciples, to be this prophetic voice.

The idea of the Holy Spirit is not new in the Bible. The breath of God moved over the waters of chaos and brought the cosmos into being. (Genesis 1.2) Psalm 104 refers to this in v.30 “When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.” And in the Book of Job, it says, ”But truly it is the spirit in a mortal, the breath of the Almighty, that makes for understanding.”(Job 32:8)

The Holy Spirit is the fulfilment of the promises of God and Jesus Christ, which are now openly given to all of us as gifts so that we become the Spirit-filled disciples of the Kingdom.

Paul refers to the various gifts we have been given by the Spirit. Some of us are blessed with wisdom; some can understand complex issues and explain them in simple terms that we can all understand; some by their sheer energy and enthusiasm can bring about many good things in our society even if they have not been blessed by these other gifts.

But there can be problems with the way that we use the gifts of the Spirit.

When as Christians we exercise our prophetic voice we may do this in a number of ways. Some try to do it spiritually, but this can be a problem when it is done so carefully, so quietly, and so meekly that they are never properly heard.

Conversely, there are some shrill voices who speak dismissively about the ‘other’ or even ‘enemies of the people’ whilst at the same time playing to the faith gallery as the ‘good guys’.

Others may apply their voices in intellectual, abstract ways that are lacking in practicality. So for most of the time, we have to try to strike a balance, find a compromise, deal with things sensibly and realistically.

Pragmatism is a particular gift when applied to achieving results.

There may be occasions when the soft option is tempting to keep the peace; when the small gain may attract a lustre that suggests this is the only effective solution. However, we should not feel uncomfortable, when in the end we have to say something in the name of integrity when we have to say something which is God’s challenge to our modern society.

We may squabble among ourselves, and often we do but are one in Christ, whether we agree with each other or not. We are one in Christ whether we like one another or not. God desired unity with us so much that God became one of us. That is the mystery of the incarnation. And in that moment, we were drawn into the oneness of God, the Creator, the Son, and the Spirit. It is with God’s help through the Holy Spirit that we live into that oneness.

Today is Pentecost and Jesus reigns in heaven.

The Holy Spirit lives in us. We are called to celebrate a spirit filled life, rooted in love. The spirit of Pentecost promotes unity and prompts us to resist the forces of division.

We are living through a time in which there are so many challenges in our world, a time in which the prophetic voice of the church needs to be heard. There is growing disillusionment with politics, people are feeling alienated, and populist politics is on the rise. And what is often referred to as the public square, or political arena, has taken on a new virtual dimension, the world of social media, with its dark arts of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’.

But then, “What’s new?’ one might ask, when two thousand years ago, Truth was put on trial and judged by people who were devoted to lies.

Politics, in its broadest sense, is what we understand to be the way that we should live and organise ourselves in the community to preserve order; and bring about responsible management of God’s creation.

This is our calling as a people of God.

As individuals, we are called to play our fullest part in the political life of the world; whereas the church is limited to organising itself as a servant member of the community, be that at a local, national or international level.

So what does that mean for us politically?

God with us is not a political promise to provide a balanced budget over the next decade, or a fully serviceable NHS, or an education system worthy of our children’s future. God with us is to be present now with those in poverty, the disadvantaged, the forgotten and the oppressed. As we sang in our hymn by John Bell, ‘Jesus Christ is raging in the streets, where injustice spirals and real hope retreats’.

We have a General Election that will take place on Thursday. We must choose a candidate to represent us in Westminster and our choice will significantly affect our neighbours near and far.
It’s a big responsibility. We may seek to place all the blame for societal ills on political leaders but our choices, be they for political, economic, or ideological reasons, matter.

Our voices as people count: as does our engagement or lack of political engagement. We might hope that our political leaders will “execute justice and righteousness,” in the United Kingdom for the next five years. But it’s the choices that we make that will impact on whether issues of justice and righteousness prevail.

May we, therefore, rejoice in the assurance that Christ is with us, and the Holy Spirit will be our advocate when we place our cross on the ballot paper. Amen.

Sunday, 4th June at 3.00pm

Today, Christians around the world will observe Pentecost Sunday. This day signifies the day that Jesus Christ ascended to heaven and the Holy Spirit descended to bless the apostles. We hope you will come and join us in our joyful praise.

Please join us for refreshments after the service.

Sunday, 7th May

Please join us this Sunday at our Evensong Service at 3.00pm, after which we are delighted to welcome Mrs Jeannie Price, who will give a brief talk about the work of the North-East of Scotland Food Bank, our chosen local charity for this year.  There will be an opportunity to make a donation of food or money if you wish.  Refreshments and home-baking in the Meeting Room afterwards.

 

 

 

Sunday, 3 April 2017

Psalm 30: Lamentations 3.19-33: Matthew 20.17-19, 29-34
The default language to describe God is often expressed in terms of God’s majesty, or God’s transcendence, or the all-powerful heavenly Father dwelling in ethereal realms. It seems God lives in a far-off place. God never seems close. The relational God, the God who made us in God’s image and breathed us into life seems only accessible by escalator.
The biblical narrative is filled with examples of when God seemed not only above the world but against the world. And there are other times when God appeared to be in a perpetual struggle to transform the world.
Yet many of us will have experienced occasions when God has become real in a most powerful way. More generally, in the humdrum day to day life, our encounter with God can be messy. We hear examples of this in the psalms. The majority of psalms are psalms of lament and the one I want to focus on is the one we had this evening, Psalm 30.
Psalm 30 reflects the dynamics of a relationship, between an individual and a powerful loving God. In poetic form, the psalmist is writing from the vantage point of thanksgiving. It tells of the divine action of deliverance of the psalmist from his enemies that brings forth his praise and turns his ‘mourning into dancing’. But the psalmist’s praise is more than this. It is about divine involvement in all parts his life. The holy space between the heavenly and earthly dimensions have been bridged, adversity has eventually been overcome and the sackcloth has been cast off for party clothes.
It’s a short psalm but it has the power to resonate deeply. To bear witness to the experiences of many people who suffer. We are left in no doubt that there have been times when the psalmist has suffered hugely. Yet nowhere do we have the sense that the psalmist is being punished by God. His suffering seems to be more in terms of the absence of God, when God’s face has been hidden.
How often do we find ourselves in this situation? What do we do, and how do we carry on in faith when platitudes ring hollow or when they taste like ashes in our mouths when we utter them? How do we persist in faith when pain continues unabated, when God does not answer, when our life seems to collapse in ruins, when we are struck by personal tragedy and we find it difficult to believe all we have cherished?
The writer of Lamentations, who seems to have suffered times when God has not been moved to act and indeed the end of the book speaks of the divine silence. Although the poet seems to be left without answers, there is a certain determination in his writing. He has not lost his faith. His hope comes from beyond his current experience. Atheists cannot experience the absence of God because they do not believe in God. Conversely, believers experience the absence of God precisely because they do believe in God. And the poet here focuses on a hope in the true God whose compassion is never exhausted.
And we know this from the reading from Matthew’s Gospel. Our assurance is that we have a Saviour who worries about us even when his own life is in mortal danger. As his own imminent crisis draws near, Jesus puts aside his own concerns and against the expectations of the crowd he is “moved with compassion”. He finds time to restore the sight of the two blind men sitting by the roadside. This aspect of the ministry of Jesus is something we encounter endlessly, ultimately in the Garden of Gethsemane and beyond to Calvary.
Often the problem is that we get caught up in the rubble of of our seemingly ruined lives; we lose track of where we are going in the desolate scene before us. We are trying to find a way out but we are relying solely on our human reason.
The poetic imagination of the poet in Lamentations however takes him beyond where he is focusing, on the limitations of the present moment and lifts him up out of the mess, and reminds him of the God he really believes in,
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
   his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
   great is your faithfulness.
‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul,
   ‘therefore I will hope in him.’ [vv.22-24]

‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him.’ When we try to be too self-sufficient; when we want to take control of our lives; when we insist on sorting out our own problems. These are the times when we may call ourselves names, lament our shortcomings, even feel ashamed of ourselves. The problem is that it what may begin as a short-term gloom becomes a vicious circle and we fall into a spiral of depression.
So what I take from these readings is that we should try to remember the confidence of the poets and find our own voice to pray. When we pray we come consciously into the presence of God and have a sense of walking closely with God. Faith is not just about creeds and dogmas. It’s about the kind of God we believe in. And we do not need to be articulate. Our grunts and groans and wails of lamentation will be heard.
That great, sometimes doubting, poet-priest, R S Thomas, in his poem ‘Folk Tale’, compares praying to throwing gravel at a window.
Prayers like gravel
flung at the sky’s
window, hoping to attract
the loved one’s
attention. But without
visible plaits to let
down for the believer
to climb up,
to what purpose open
that casement?
I would have refrained long since
But that peering once
Through my locked fingers
I thought that I detected
the movement of a curtain.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Deuteronomy 6.4-9, 16-25, Luke 15:1-10

I am not giving up chocolate for Lent.  Good quality chocolate is an essential part of my diet so I shall continue to consume ‘Divine’ chocolate bars.  Chocolate, crisps and alcohol, are the favourite choices to give up at Lent, but we need to think beyond these easy choices.  Lent represents the period when Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness in what would have been to him unfamiliar and demanding territory.   Lent is not about being miserable; it’s not about what we do; but, like Jesus who was challenged in the wilderness, it’s about who we become.

There is of course a sacrificial element and in the Psalm and the other two readings we learn something about the value of what it is we are giving up; and what this means to God.  The Psalmist says that the people are going about this entirely the wrong way.  They think that they can buy God’s favour by offering the flesh of bulls and the blood of goats, in sacrifice in the Temple.  Trouble is, they are not in a good bargaining position because the sheep, cattle, and all that moves already belong to God. God does not need anything that we can give God.

Today we don’t do animal sacrifice as part of our worship, of course, but what we “offer” in worship we can get wrong too.  When it is not from the heart it is false worship.  When we make promises unthinkingly that deal too lightly God’s majesty and mercy, justice and righteousness, we engage in false worship.  Our worship is not a payment to God.  It is an opportunity to express our gratitude for all the things that God provides for us.  Above all, we want to thank God for God’s love which has been given to us even though we have done nothing to deserve it.

Deuteronomy covers this in more detail.  Deuteronomy’s use of the word ‘love’ has nothing to do with emotional love, important though this is. We demonstrate love for God by what we do and by what we do not do.  Here love is more about obedience.  Israel is to love God, to recognise the loveliness of God.  In this way, God becomes the supreme expression of love, motivating, inspiring, and making possible a deeper understanding of the nature of love in our lives.  As Jesus was to tell his disciples, it is not a performance of outward duties to be publicly observed and recognised.  Quite the reverse.  It is a matter of heart searching and looking inward, an attentiveness towards God that ultimately expresses itself as an outflowing of love towards God.  This is the true sense of obedience to God.

In the two parables of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is demonstrating the measure of God’s love to us.  The two parables share a basic structure.  They are both about something that is lost.  The owner goes to great lengths to seek out the lost item, be it sheep or coin, and when they are successful, invites friends for a celebration. We might think that’s a bit over the top. Would a shepherd really throw a party over the finding of one lost sheep? If the lost coin so concerns the woman, why should she then splash out on food and drink? But that’s the point.  The parables are really about the extravagant joy with which God, present in Christ, welcomes those who have been lost.

Any sacrifice we make in repentance for sin, such as giving up something in Lent, is not about seeking forgiveness, but about saying thank you to the God for God’s mercy.  We can never, ever, earn the love of God or our own salvation, nor can we ever achieve our own righteousness.  God’s love for us is always a step ahead of our own love. God’s forgiveness is real even before our repentance has taken shape. God’s love is always ahead of us. In my favourite thanksgiving prayer after the Eucharist we say, “…when we were still far off you met us in your Son and brought us home.”

So what do I intend to give up for Lent?  Well it’s busyness.  Now you may think that this is a bit odd.  So let me explain.  It’s one thing to be busy doing something that needs to be done.  But it is quite another to give just the outer show that you are busy.  Worse still is when we create demands for ourselves, our families, our friends or our colleagues that are impossible to achieve without putting their lives out of kilter. In today’s busy world, we have a tendency to rush about so much that we are in danger of experiencing everything, but missing the richness and depth of the present moment.   When I posted what I was doing on Facebook, as one does, a friend commented, ‘What is this life if full of care we have no time to stand and stare?’

What is sinful about busyness is when it makes you feel self-important; it can also be a sign of laziness because in truth you haven’t put the right effort into decisions about what is important and what is urgent; it’s deceitful when it’s a disguise for not really getting things done; and its addictive and burns you out when taken to extremes and we can become tetchy and rude.  That’s the list of seven deadly sins just about covered.

Time is more precious than chocolate.  It’s precious because it can’t be stored or managed; we only live once; and it’s a gift from God.  So my aim in giving up busyness is to create more space in my life.  Space to practise even more of the spiritual discipline that I already accommodate in my day and give thanks to God.  Space to get outdoors and explore the wonder of God’s creation.  It won’t be a wilderness sized space and may only last a couple of hours, but I shall wait to see where the Spirit leads me, perhaps even transforms me. And of course I hope to find more time to nibble on a bar of chocolate, while I watch and listen.  Amen.

Sunday, 5th February

Jesus called ordinary people in the middle of their lives to be in relationship with their neighbours and the world around them, helping them do extraordinary things… He still does.

You are welcome to join us this Sunday, and to stay for refreshments after the service.