bad dog…

Sermon. What a dull word. And more than one sermon has been less the sight of a burning bush than it’s been the smell of something fusty, as pages are turned. There are sermons were you feel nothing’s actually being said or what has been said is so blindingly obvious it shouldn’t need to be. What about the preacher who vents his theological spleen, so all the congregation hear is a kind of verbal waving of a finger: bad dog! bad dog! And they leave with their tails between their legs.

I’ve been guilty of all the preaching crimes and misdemeanors.

the end of sermons…

Let’s stop it shall we?

No lets not. Because there are other sermons when what’s spoken tingles with the electricity of more happening – a life changing more. In the deeply hidden, partly hidden, never forgotten, hoped for and regretted, where we keep our loss and longing for beauty and love – we are encountered. We might not even be able to articulate what’s going on. But we are spoken to. Listen to the Novelist Frederick Buechner describe what happened to him:

… for the first time in my life that year in New York, I started going to church regularly, and what was farcical about it was not that I went but my reason for going, which was simply that on the same block where I lived there happened to be a church with a preacher I had heard of and that I had nothing all that much better to do with my lonely Sundays. What drew me more was whatever it was that his sermons came from and whatever it was in me that they touched so deeply.

And then there came one particular sermon with one particular phrase in it that does not even appear in a transcript of his words that somebody sent me more than twenty-five years later so I can only assume that he must have dreamed it up at the last minute and ad-libbed it and on just such foolish, tenuous, holy threads as that, I suppose, hang the destinies of us all. Jesus Christ refused the crown that Satan offered him in the wilderness, Buttrick said, but he is king nonetheless because again and again he is crowned in the heart of the people who believe in him. And that inward coronation takes place, Buttrick said, “among confession, and tears, and great laughter.”

It was the phrase great laughter that did it, did whatever it was that I believe must have been hiddenly in the doing all the years of my journey up till then. It was not so much that a door opened as that I suddenly found that a door had been open all along which I had only just then stumbled upon. After church, with a great lump still in my throat, I walked up to 84th Street to have Sunday dinner with Grandma Buechner. 

Frederick Buechner – the sacred journey

That’s why the art of preaching is awesome. In a good sermon the spirit glides over the waters of our chaos and we are encountered by more than we know and more than we can say. It changes our direction and destiny. God in other words meets us in the stories, letters, poems as they are retold with graced imagination. And in hearing not only do we get to be known by God, we begin to know ourselves.

Anyway, faithful wee flock, we will now be regularly posting videos of sermons on the law parish church website (lawparishchurch.org) which means sermons won’t make the occasional visit here anymore.

There will be no bad dog sermons. I can’t promise there won’t be the odd whiff of fustiness. I hope they aren’t so obvious they shouldn’t need to be said. And mostly sermons are like manna – bread for the day.

A good sermon is a burning bush; a quietness that lets us hear more than the loops we keep playing to ourselves. God speaks – more than words through fallible sermons and preachers.

woof…

all saints sunday…

a reflection on Acts 3: 1-10
shared on 3rd November 2019 @ Law Parish Church

Maybe it was someone singing your praises or you felt the need to try and defend yourself, but for whatever reason you found yourself saying these words: “Well, I’m no saint…”

Around the world this weekend the church makes room to remember the saints. But who are they? Christian tradition has had different things to say about that. For Roman Catholics it seems a saint is a special category of Christian: Someone who lived a life of exceptional holiness and in death are associated with an answer to prayer. A person like Mother Theresa perhaps.

But in the reformed church, like the Church of Scotland, we’ve tended not to see sainthood like that – not that we would deny there are women and men who have shown how love and faith can be lived in exceptional ways.

But we think there’s something more going on in sainthood that doesn’t put it so out of reach from the little lives we lead. I think the apostle Paul would agree…

As he traveled around the Roman world Paul planted little churches no bigger than our own, in cities like Thessaloniki, Philippi, Galatia, Corinth and Ephesus, and when he couldn’t be with them in person Paul kept in touch by letter.

Listen to how Paul greets the churches in his letters:

Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God…to the saints in Ephesus.

Paul…to the church of God which is in Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Jesus Christ called to be saints…

Paul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi.

Is Paul addressing just a few exceptional Christians here? No, he is including everyone in his greeting. All who belonged to the Churches in Corinth, Philippi and so on. For Paul a saint and a Christian are one and the same thing.

So next Sunday as your arriving in Church we’ll maybe get Sheena to play… O when the saints Come marching in

what is a saint?

But what is a saint? In its original language the word Paul uses is ἅγιος (Hagios) – meaning Holy. The Saints are holy. Now in case you’re ready to say: well that rules me out, take a look at those early saints who belonged to the first church.

Listen to how Paul describe them in his letter to the Corinthians?:

“not many of you were wise…not many were powerful not many of noble birth.

but God chose what is foolish… God chose what is weak… God chose what is low…

1st Corinthians

Most of the saints weren’t much to write home about. And if Paul’s letters are anything to go by the saints in his churches were a right mixed bunch: sometimes faithful and generous, sometimes foolish and confused; they had questions that worried them; weren’t always sure what to do; suffered, rejoiced and fell out with one another.

Did any of this prevent them from being saints? No. Because a saint was and is someone who invites Jesus to become a living presence in their own story. a saint is someone who shows us the holy love of God in who they are. But aren’t our lives a poor and sore place for the holiness of God to find himself? What poorer than a stable? Sorer than a cross?

As one great saint has said:

Holiness in the New Testament

is Jesus going right into the middle

of the mess and suffering of human nature.”

Rowan Williams

It’s the presence of Jesus in the middle of our sore and messy lives that makes us holy. That make us saintly.  Not what we do. But what we allow him to do in and through us.

How d we become a saint? let’s ask one in this visual liturgy

(original loop purchased from the work of the people.com)

what we have lived…

What Peter has lived with Jesus and all he has lived with the other disciples is what he brings with him to the moment he meets a beggar asking for help. It’s all he has lived that empowers the hand Peter reaches out to help a lame man.

Like we bring with us what we’ve gone through to someone’s need, their question or brokenness.

We bring to someone’s bitter loss the hope in our life we coaxed out of hurt. We bring to someone’s crushing guilt the times we got it badly wrong and God didn’t walk away from us. The long road to finding ourselves lovable is the map we bring to those who haven’t yet found their way there.

What the saints have lived with God opens new possibilities in someone else’s life: like Peter takes a lame man’s hand and in Jesus name Invites him to stand. The saints encourage us to leave behind old ways of being us – not by making us feel guilt, not by accusing us -but with a kindness that understands how God meets us in our need and wound, in our flaw and longing- meets us not as we should be but as we are.

You’ll know a saint when you meet one. When Ally and I lived in Shettleston, many moons ago, there was an older man with a shock of white hair who went to the local Baptist church. And every time you met Nicol in the street he was delighted to see you. He would stop and blether about church or something he was learning or remembered, like he was breaking half of his pieces and sharing them with you.

And we’d come away from that meeting of only a few minutes or more feeling there was more: more to be lived, more to be explored – felt drawn closer to God. That’s what the saints do by what they have lived and share: they don’t compete, they don’t interrogate, they don’t make us feel inferior. The saints open a space in us to see ourselves kindly and God becomes a beckoning word and suddenly we are standing in different place, like a lame beggar helped to stand.

Who are the saints in your life? Maybe some of them are no longer around. This Sunday we remember them with gratitude.

To the saints in Law Parish today listen to a blessing the saints nearer God in heaven might pray over us:

May the village of Law discover grace

May they learn by your love

How God’s finger nails are dirty

And his knees are scuffed

With a holiness that refuses to stand at a distance

But works the middle of soreness and mess.

until everything comes together

And every loss is made good

Where sin is now known as that which is forgiven

And wounds are mended by the medicine of love.

for all the saints…

Today is all saints day. There is a long tradition of remembering the women and men who lived, loved, suffered and rejoiced to find in their days the shape of Christ happening to, in and around them. It goes back to the 4th century and the 1st of November was recognized as the day of remembering some 4 hundred years later. And here we are in the 21st century, trying in our own time and way to let Christ happen in us.

Not easy is it. But those before us are not beyond us. They form a cloud of faithful witness. Encouraging us on. Praying for us as we go- thank God.

Who do you remember today as someone who helped you recognize the reality of Jesus?

lets take time today to remember someone we’ve known, or whose life and work has become important to our own journey of faith, hope and love. For we know the rough terrain it passes and sometimes the soles of our feet get tired and our souls get winded. But the saints keep us in their prayers.

today I will imagine them singing of the mystery that finds us in Jesus. The mystery of Jesus finding us…

O great mystery

and wonderful sacrament

that the animals should see the newborn Lord,

laying in a manger!

Blessed is the virgin whose womb was worthy

to bear the Lord Jesus Christ

Alleluia!

though it linger…wait

Photo on Visual Hunt
summer house
paul, brandy, sarah jane, fiona

Sermon from Sunday

God, how long will it take before you do something?

We’ve all been around long enough to know where Habakkuk’s question comes from…We’ve asked it at a bedside vigil, in the aftermath of something out of control, asked it for someone we can’t fix, asked it when again the news is up to its neck in innocent blood.

We’ve asked for those who never seem to get a fair shake. Asked it for ourselves when we’ve had about as much as we can take. How long God does it have to be like this. Will you not do something?

I remember visiting the cold cobblestones of Auschwitz  and among the shoes piled high, sandals, brogues, slippers – I imagined the feet that once filled them, before stepping into the concrete bunker and disappearing as ash.

How long does it have to go on like this?

A question that’s a prayer. A prayer that’s an accusation: God you are too quiet…

That’s Habakkuk’s gripe: when Babylon’s armies come to town. And it’s our gripe too about this world not as it should be, where finding fairness and truth feels like looking for snow in a desert.

“ How Long Lord, must I call for help – but you do not listen?”

living by faith

Habakkuk’s question of God has something to tell us about what it’s like to have faith:

Faith doesn’t hand out immunity from trouble. Faith won’t come with an anesthetic for pain. Faith isn’t an answer to every question. And we don’t have to pretend it is: Habakkuk wouldn’t and neither should we.

When trouble finds us…if we haven’t a clue about what’s for the best… when the knife of what’s going wrong dismembers all we took for granted: we bleed questions to God – Questions that are a part of who we are and need to be voiced – or we would be living a lie…

I imagine Habakkuk. A red eyed old man who loved fairness, goodness, faithfulness, mercy like they were his children. But one by one each is lost as the Babylonian’s came to town.

I imagine old Habakkuk asking his questions of God -not with fury- but slumped down like a tired old sack, as hoarse as Jesus asking God from the loneliness of cross, why have you forsaken me?

And I imagine the presence of God slides down beside old Habakkuk and out from the silence between them God says:

Write this down in big letters. Write it on the biggest billboard you can find.Write for everyone to see:

There is more than this to come. More than war. More than violence. More than walking away from a grave of a life gone too soon.

Mercy, goodness, faithfulness, beauty, they are walking towards the world. They are not slow, but It will take time before they reach you again. Though they linger, wait…

Goodness is coming home…truth is on its way…beauty is returning…peace is bringing gratitude and generosity with them…they are on the long road here.

Has that ever been our experience? After the worst happened and we thought there was nothing left. Maybe we can’t say how or exactly when but in our bones, we knew life is yet a gift and friendship the bread that nourished our famished heart.

And though no answer ever came that could make things better we found a way to go on, get through and sometimes rediscovered joy and laughter.

faith as waiting

How does that happen? I Imagine this is how it happened for Habakkuk: God watches as he lifts himself up, dusts himself down and walks outside to where everything is still sore and unresolved.

Old Habakkuk looks back to where the presence of God was sat with him And says:

Even though the fig trees have no fruit
    and no grapes grow on the vines,
even though the olive crop fails
    and the fields produce no grain,
even though the sheep all die
    and the cattle stalls are empty,
18 I will still be joyful and glad,
    because the Lord God is my saviour.
19 The Sovereign Lord gives me strength

God is his strength, providing what he needs to get through. God can be trusted to work with the mess of what is unresolved, painful, because these are events which are smaller than the reality of knowing God.

This is the faith Habakkuk lives by. Whatever healing comes won’t be self administered. Whatever turn towards new life happens, God will need to bring him strength to find. Trusting that God hasn’t lost control isn’t a Cinderella ending for Habakkuk, or the rushing in of a happy ever after. Nor is it for us.

It’s finding the strength to make the next step and then the next, knowing I will be given all I need to pass through where I wouldn’t have chosen. Especially when that road feels high and steep.

So into the world as it is, not as we would have it be, the presence of God meets us in an old man who will trust even when there seems no visible reason to. Though newness and wholeness lingers off, he will wait. Like we wait. Because waiting is a part of faith.

We learn to wait with the patience of Jesus in the silence of Gethsemane… wait with the helplessness of Mary at the foot of her son’s cross…wait in the abandonment of Jesus, cold and dead as the rock they laid him on…wait until mercy, goodness, beauty and peace find their way back into our world as once they arrived in a tomb where a dead man woke into resurrection.

So Christian faith is not immunity from trouble. It’s not an anesthetic from pain. It’s not an answer to every troubling question. It’s living in such a way that despair doesn’t get house room: For though I didn’t get the life I wanted…though sadness found where I hid my tears…though love left by an unexpected door…yet will I trust the God who became a man in Galilee, who climbed the height of a cross and rolled death away like a toppled grave stone. Yet will he bring from the little story of my everyday a harvest of healing, wholeness, gratitude and life. It’s here I’ll find the strength to go on. Here the smell of healing rises like the ground smells on a dry summer just before it rains.

The song, summer house is about the weaving together of sadness, beauty, friendship, decay and unintended consequence. Or as we call it – life.

I heard the voice…

visual hunt
I heard the voice
Paul and Fiona

I am losing my hearing. What can I hear in that? The sound of growing older. The disharmony of life reminding me that I am no different from the crimson leaf that parachutes down to the silent applause of the other fallen leaves, gathering around the roots of the mother tree. No different from the amber light of sundown, burnishing the gable wall of next door, like a reflection from another world, then shrinking to leave nothing but white pebble dash.

Deafness. It’s the music of me happening to the beat of entropy. Out of the silence, a voice that for a moment finds other voices that weave in melody and cacophony, some rising, some finding a crescendo, some hardly heard at all until each one, ready or not, slips back into silence.

What is the gift inside my deafness: I am here. Soon I won’t be. A reminder of the event that has my name, my experiences, my gift, my flaw. My song.

Where does the song go? What happens at the other side of silence?

I was in a hospital ward as old as the Edwardian era that had built it. Surrounded by men in their illness and the harassed toing and froing around them that is the necessity of care. I sat with a man who sang back to me the song that was his.

From his hospital bed it sounded like grief, anticipating separation from others who sang along – some he had taught to sing- it also sounded notes of disappointment and improvisations he gladly made; but mostly it was gratitude for having this voice to sing this song.

With tears he recited the lines from a poem:

Since I am coming to that holy room,

         Where, with thy choir of saints for evermore,

I shall be made thy music; as I come

         I tune the instrument here at the door,

         And what I must do then, think here before.

John Donne, Hymn to my God, my God in sickness

Tears fell, like little boats, rowing from the heartlands to the world outside.

This is my grief, they said, and my gratitude.  

What he needed most was someone who’d never heard him sing, someone he could trust just to listen back with him to hear what his song had sounded like. Not to add new notes, or try and bring it to a different resolution. Just to let the listening be a space when the singer can hear for himself the sound of his own voice and the song he has been singing.

Is that not what Jesus does with our song. Does he not carry it into the heart of the father, and say, I’ve brought you a song. let’s listen.  

Beza’s song

Photo: Nick Kenrick Visual hunt
Beza’s song
Paul, Brandy, Sarah Jane, Fiona, Craig

I never intended to become a Christian. Not long after I did I took great encouragement from C.S. Lewis who wrote of his own conversion to Christianity

You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.

C.S. Lewis, surprised by joy

Most Christians I knew told stories were their life was joyously transformed. I felt miserable. I think I know why.

I began to go to Church and the Christians I met there were good and loving human beings. They were kind and thoughtful. They were serious about prayer and worship. They tried to convince me I was loved by God. They also believed Calvin was right. Right about what? listen to what he writes in the Institutes:

All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation; and, accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that he has been predestinated to life or to death.

John Calvin, the Institutes, book 3

Double predestination it’s called. It holds that you and I – before we ever existed – have been destined for eternal joy or eternal punishment. And that destiny is based on nothing more than god’s choice. The odds aren’t great for most of humanity – given most human beings aren’t Calvinists. So I tried to love this god like trying to love a monster.

Because I knew in my heart of hearts such a god couldn’t inspire anything other than fearful prudence. The god of double predestination is nothing more than a capricious, sadistic, tyrant -like a 16th Century despot (which is probably were Calvin got the image from) Such a tyrant is no more worthy of affection than Stalin, Hitler or any other dictator. At least human monsters can only torture you for a life time. The monster god Calvin gives us can (and will) torture you forever- as and when and who he capriciously decides. How can we love a monster? We can’t and we shouldn’t – not if we have any moral sensibility.

It took me a L O N G time to realize that Calvin’s despotic sovereign wasn’t God – a god maybe – one of the god’s no different from any other petty deity that human beings invent- but not the God and father of our Lord Jesus. It took God a long time to patiently open my eyes to who God actually is. But none of that time was wasted.

Long story short, over time in prayer and worship, fellowship and caring, by flaw and gift, suffering and gratitude, I slowly realized the wonder of knowing who God is, the kind of God C.S. Lewis (who wasn’t a Calvinist) came to know. He continues the story of giving in that night of his conversion, to the reality of a God who welcomes a reluctant and dejected convert.

 I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing; the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms. The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape? The words…compel them to come in, have been so abused be wicked men that we shudder at them; but, properly understood, they plumb the depth of the Divine mercy. The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation.”

C.S.Lewis, surprised by joy

The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of human beings. He compels us all towards his son, to invite us into the joyous freedom of being in Christ, who takes us to the heart of his father.

On Sunday we explored the great commission from Matthews gospel; “go and Make disciples“. That commission is good news, because we go on behalf of a God who is infinitely good, infinitely merciful, infinitely loving, in a way that doesn’t render these words meaningless.

Jesus will bring home ALL the lost sheep, like me, who kept trying to jump out of his arms and run away. What he won’t do is deliberately abandon the lost sheep out in the wilderness because he always intended to desert them, so he could demonstrate how he has the power to do so.

Why do you share the good news? I share it because it’s true. Because it is good news. God is the love that comes looking for us in the incarnation, cross and resurrection of Jesus – a love that is for us. Amazingly, we also have a love to give back to God that no one else in the universe can. Unrepeatable, irreplaceable, we carry the glory of God when we receive his love and return it. We show God’s glory when we become that love happening in the world.

The song above I wrote is called Beza’s song. It’s named after a contemporary of Calvin, Theodore Beza, who was another friend of the doctrine of double predestination. As far as I’m aware it’s the only anti – double predestination song around.

για τον Θεό τόσο αγαπούσε τον κόσμο

A tremendous powerlessness

Matthias Grünewald  (1512–1516 )
Letter from the Caucuses
Paul, Sarah Jane, Fiona

Last week I watched footage of Donald Trump directing the Chinese government to investigate a political rival. He said: “If they don’t do what we want, we have tremendous, power.”

The power to make something happen in the human world. We are well acquainted with power in these terms. So much of human history is a wrestling match to try to gain or limit this kind of power.

In the wrong hands power turns against truth and the unimaginable is given terrible form. As Joseph Stalin remarked: “One death is a tragedy, one million is a statistic.”

 “We have tremendous power.”

How does such expressions of human power compare with the power of God?

There are ways of speaking about God that sound like “We have tremendous power.” Usually when the sovereignty of God is put at odds with what we understand and experience as love. But I don’t think that voice is authentic – no more than a bit of theological ventriloquism.   

So what does the power of God look like in the world?

…like a child born in a basement where animals are sheltered. like a family seeking asylum in Egypt to escape a deadly tin-pot tyrant. Like a hand reaching into the isolation of a leper. Like a beggar at a well, asking for a drink from a woman no one else wanted anything from. Like a man staggering under the weight of a cross beam.

God’s power shows up in an abandoned, rejected life that is crucified. A man who might have said: “I have tremendous powerlessness.”

God lets himself be pushed out of the world onto the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us...

…Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.”

Letters and papers from prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I remember one morning listening to an interview on Radio 4. An Jewish man was recounting his experience as a child imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. He described the day that the SS guards dragged out a group of failed escapees. They were to be executed in front of the whole camp. However, the executioners wouldn’t come from among the guards; it would be friends of the condemned men who were forced to execute them.

He described how the hands of one man shook and shook as he held the executioner’s noose. His condemned friend bent low, put his own head through the noose and kissed the trembling hands of his friend.

A tremendous powerlessness.

The Nazi guard was furious. he kicked away the condemned man’s chair.

I wrote the song Letter from the Caucuses after reading an article in the Guardian about trophy war photo’s many years ago. It tries to catch something Hanna Arendt wrote about Eichmann, one of the engineers of the holocaust.

“The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.”

Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil , Hannah Arendt

The banality of evil she called it. I try to voice that banality in the letter writer who even refers to St Christopher without any irony.

The Cello piece (played beautifully by Sarah Jane) are the growing voices of the silenced.