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A reflection for Sunday 20th June 2021 by the Rev'd Russell Duncan

Submitted by Dean on Sat, 19/06/2021 - 16:01

Peace, Be still.

Many years ago I used to be invited to go sailing with friends who kept their boat at Tayvallich, a small village on the shores of Loch Sween. You may know it. The family were experienced sailors with their father being a marine engineer.  I was more than happy to join them as I trusted them and their nautical skills. I remember being told that we had to be particularly careful when sailing through the Gulf of Corryvreckan, the narrow strait between the islands of Jura and Scarba.  If we didn’t get our timings right when crossing we would be at the mercy of one of the largest whirlpools around. To say that I was frightened would be an understatement. The sense of relief when we passed through it safely was unbounded. I could relax and enjoy the rest of the holiday.

In today’s gospel we encounter an unexpected storm. Although we are not told of the weather conditions when they set off, we do know that it was the evening. There were other boats there too. A great storm arose – which must have been terrifying in a small boat – with waves beating into it so that it was already being swamped. It seems almost unreal, that as the disciples were rightly terrified about perishing, Jesus was asleep on a cushion in the stern. How was this possible?

Do you recall that today’s readings involve whirlwinds and great gales with no shortage of questions being asked too?

In the first reading from Job, there are deep questions asked by God. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Who determined its measurements? Surely you know?”    

In our gospel from Mark, the first question by the disciples is “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” The second  and third ones from Jesus are “Why are you afraid? and “Have you still no faith?” The fourth one again by the disciples  is “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?

What is so reassuring is that Jesus did wake up. No one drowned. He rebuked the wind and simply said to the sea “Peace. Be still”. The wind ceased.  There was a profound calmness which prevailed. Not only were the disciples greatly relieved but I image all the others who were on the lake too.

When talking recently to a teacher friend about today’s gospel, she mentioned that when she faces storms or when things feel out of control, she imagines that she is lying at the bottom of the boat. Jesus is there too. The safest, most stable part. He is alongside protecting her. She stops worrying and begins to experience something of that peace. That was an image I had not thought about before.

But what about us and the storms which we face? Some of us may be in the thick of one. Others have just come out of one. We may be fearful of one approaching. We may feel alone, anxious, frightened, exhausted, uncertain, overwhelmed and more. Not unlike the disciples.  There may be no easy resolutions or endings. Whatever our situation is, whether we keep it to ourselves or share it with others, may we hear those comforting words “Peace, Be still”; and may we know his presence and calmness as we listen to Him each day.

 

Jesus Christ, Prince of Peace

Still us, as you stilled the storm,

Calm us and keep us from harm.

Let the troubles within us cease.

Enfold us in your deep peace.

Reflection for Sunday 13th June 2021 Trinity II by the Rev'd David Warnes

Submitted by Dean on Sat, 12/06/2021 - 10:30

Jesus also said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth;”

As a small child I found the parable of the mustard seed baffling. The mustard and cress that we used to sow on damp pieces of flannel, which we placed on the kitchen windowsill so that we could watch them germinate and grow, fitted the Gospel in the sense that the seeds were tiny. The results, however, did not look remotely promising from the point of view of birds looking for a place to make nests in the shade.

The first time I preached on this parable I scoured the commentaries and encountered New Testament scholars arguing the merits of different species rather like panelists on Gardeners’ Question Time.         I gathered that something called Sinapis Nigra was the experts’ favourite to be the plant to which Jesus refers in this parable.

Sinapis Nigra is an annual which grows and propagates like a weed. Any farmer who planted it would incur the displeasure of neighbouring farmers, who would find mustard plants springing up all over their wheat or barley fields next season. And the fact that the mustard plant attracts birds would make it doubly unwelcome, for the birds would not only eat the mustard seeds but any other grains and seeds growing in the vicinity.

So this parable offers us important but rather surprising pointers as to the nature of the Kingdom of God and our role in it. Firstly, the smallest of human actions can lead to rapid growth and development. Secondly that growth and development isn’t about producing lasting structures or institutions that human beings can control. It’s about the brief surging into life of a short-lived plant – an unstoppable weed-like species whose growth is strong enough to crack open sun-baked soil and which gives shelter to the hungry and homeless, but which then dies back, having produced the seeds which will make new plants and new growth possible in the future.

When Jesus used the words “the Kingdom of God” most of his hearers, including his disciples, would immediately have thought in terms of liberation from colonial rule and the re-establishment of a single Jewish kingdom governed in accordance with God’s law. In telling this parable Jesus set out to challenge those expectations and replace them with something different. I think that those commentators who have seen the parable as foretelling the rapid growth of the Church as an institution in the years after the Resurrection have only understood part of the story. Yes, this is a parable about rapid growth, and about tiny actions having massive results but it also a parable which suggests that the growth of the Kingdom is not about the creation of institutions, not about getting things right once and for all and then hanging on to them, but rather about an on-going cycle of growth, death and renewal.

The parable of the mustard seed conveys a simple message. God’s  kingdom isn’t a structure, a system of government, a management initiative or a set of rules. It’s a tenacious, short-lived, rapidly-spreading thing which keeps popping up all over the place, in the hearts of people very different from us and at times in our own lives when we least expect it; a popping up which may disturb the orderly patterns that we prefer but which often involves new ways of living the Christian life. We have our own Mustard Seed Community in this diocese, a mission initiative based at St Margaret’s, Easter Road. They describe themselves as “rooted in prayer” and valuing “kindness, hospitality, creativity, justice and joy”. Their work and witness are very much in the tradition established by the 18th century German Christian Count Nikolaus von Zinzendorf, who founded what he called the Order of the Mustard Seed. Some of his ideas might strike us as a bit odd – for example, he warned his followers against the temptation of “having even the slightest dealings with clergymen” – but the principles of the Order of the Mustard Seed were simple and profound:

Be kind to all people. Seek their welfare. Win them to Christ.

And the order in which he placed those principles is, surely, very significant, for it is through the small acts of kindness, hospitality, creativity, justice and joy, the mustard seeds, that God’s kingdom grows and develops.    Amen.

A reflection for Sunday 6th June 2021 Trinity I by Canon Dean Fostekew

Submitted by Dean on Sat, 05/06/2021 - 10:27

From the novel; ‘The whole day through’ by Patrick Gale (Laura’s elderly mother has fallen in the garden in the early hours of the morning):

“Mummy didn’t see her coming and was still calling up at her bedroom window as she emerged, keeping her voice low in an effort not to draw attention from further afield. She was sitting, heavily, inside a rather pretty pink-flowered leptospermum, naked, naturally, and clutching her secateurs in one hand and a Fabian Society mug in the other. She had managed to lose her balance without spilling all the tea and took an absent minded gulp of it as she awaited rescue.

The tableau might have encapsulated the sad decline of a brilliant mind, the pathetic geriatric dementia of the eminent virologist known to her students and peers as Professor Jellicoe. Her mind seemed as sharp as ever, however; only her limbs, not her wits, were failing and her nudity was not a symptom but a decades-old private habit.

Laura’s late father had introduced her to naturism early in their relationship and Harriet Jellicoe – Mrs Lewis, as he jokingly called her in conversation with Laura – had practiced with a convert’s zeal ever since.”

I have always struggled with the tone of today’s reading from the Book of Genesis where Adam and Eve go from being happy and innocent and relaxed about their bodies and themselves; to becoming racked with guilt and shame. Because of their human weaknesses we are told that all humanity has to carry the burden of their indiscretion for all time. It has never seemed fair to me.

Adam and Eve’s guilt and their shame about being naked is all tied up with the concept of original sin and I think that concept has done humanity a great deal of harm. Even with the fact that in the New Testament we are told that Jesus was born for our redemption and the wiping away of our sins old and new, the idea of paying for Adam and Eve’s original sin still continues to be prevalent in the minds of many. Despite knowing we are redeemed we do still spend too much time focusing on our unredeemed state.

The doctrine of original sin says:

“… everyone is born sinful. This means that they are born with a built-in urge to do bad things and to disobey God.”

Original sin tries to explain humanity’s dark side and basically states that despite all the good we do and can do, we still have to be ashamed for being who we are! Many within and without the church have used this doctrine to explain their behaviour and their treatment of others. Much mediaeval persecution, especially of women as witches, was linked to the doctrine of Original Sin. It assumed that women, far more than men, were naturally tainted with evil and in no way to be fully trusted. You can see this persecution today as people, governments and churches decide who is in and who is out of their particular society; because of their gender, sexuality, race or colour. In the 21st century one might have hoped that we could get over the idea that humanity is basically bad and see that it is on the contrary basically good.

I may be naive but I have always seen my fellow men and women as being on the whole good people. Yes, there are those who choose to do evil; and we can all muck things up at times, but very few human beings ever actually set out to deliberately hurt others or to be destructive for the sake of being destructive (those who do usually hit the headlines big time) but they are the small minority, the exception and not the rule.

The theologian Matthew Fox a former Roman Catholic Dominican and now an Episcopalian coined the term ‘Original Curse’ as he came to see humanity as being good and creative and that we have been cursed by sin. Fox sees humanity as good, but unable to live up to the expectations God has of us and we (most of us) have of ourselves and each other. Fox acknowledges our imperfections but encourages us not to dwell on them but to use them as a means to try harder in living a ‘good’ life.

This approach has led to the idea of  Original Blessing (which speaks volumes to me as it sees humanity as being at heart good) and it puts the doctrine of Original Sin into a realistic light. For example:

  • No more Goodies versus Baddies.
  • It can make me tolerant of others.
  • It helps me with fellow Christians.
  • I no longer need to justify myself.
  • I am more able to accept criticism.
  • It puts attacks in perspective.
  • It can help me keep myself in perspective.

Far healthier, as I see it because it does not dwell on our weakness but on our inner goodness and I think ‘Godliness’. It does not force us to despair of our weaknesses but to accept them and to do something about them. A bit like Laura’s mother, she is totally relaxed about her body and nudity, accepting who she is and what she looks like.

I am not suggesting, however, that we all cast inhibition aside and rush out to sunbath in the nude on the church lawn. Each to their own! I am, however, suggesting that we do need to shake the burdens we carry from our shoulders to accept who we are and to recognise that the burdens and baggage we carry are our own and different to someone else’s. What each of us has to try and do is to identify what our burdens are and to set about dumping them and lightening our loads. Jesus came to us and died for us to remove the burdens we carry but we are never very good at believing that he did redeem us and thus wiped away our sins. For years I knew that I did not really believe that Jesus had redeemed me, I believed passionately that he had redeemed all of you but could never quite accept that I was included too. It screwed me up and stopped me seeing who I really am and accepting myself. Today life is different and I am content with me because I have finally come to believe that:

1. I am not awful

2. That Jesus loves me as much as he loves anyone else

3. That I too have been redeemed, just as you have.

I acknowledge that I am not perfect but then none of us are and I further acknowledge that I grow and change in the love of God and it is the knowledge of the love of God that makes all the difference.

In Christ we are made new, it is he who loves us and he who sees the best in us and who encourages us to deal with the bits of us that need changing. Jesus or God loves you should be the shout of every Christian as we walk down the street. We need to get over the idea that we are tainted with ‘original sin’ and set about coping with the times when we are cursed with not getting it right. For with God’s love we can get it right the next time if we try.

Trinity Sunday 30th May 2021 - a reflection by Canon Dean Fostekew

Submitted by Dean on Sat, 29/05/2021 - 11:17

Trinity Sunday is often a Sunday that clergy try to get someone else to preach. I haven’t managed that this year, as you can see. So what to say about the Holy Trinity?

In writing this sermon I began as I always do by reading the lessons set for the day in the hope that they might give me an easy answer as to what the Trinity is all about. No such luck! I ended up confused as to why today’s readings were chosen in the first place.

We have the piece from Isaiah, which I can only think is trying to refer to God, the Father, but quite where the ‘tongs and hot coals’ come in are beyond me. The second reading an all too short piece from Paul in conversation with the congregation in Rome doesn’t help to explain the Trinity AT ALL as far as I can understand. It does, however, tell us that we are God’s children and siblings of Christ. So perhaps it is hinting at the Son. The Gospel reading from John’s account of the life of Christ remains as confusing as the event it records. How is one born of the Spirit?

The Trinity has never been an easy doctrine to comprehend or explain and the longer I ponder on it the worse my comprehension becomes. I can remember almost 30 years ago back at Theological College thinking that I was sure the Early Christians didn’t tie themselves up in knots trying to explain the Trinity. I also wondered if I could get away with leaving my paper blank except for the sentence; ‘It’s a mystery’ for essays and exam questions on the Trinity as I thought the blank paper would make as much sense, if not more, than my jumbled words and thoughts might. In fact a blank page may speak more truth than I could ever discover, simply because the Godhead, the Trinity is actually a mystery. For how can one God be three persons and not be three Gods but just the one?

Confused?

After thinking about the Trinity, when I actually began to write this sermon I suddenly wondered if I’d been going about trying to comprehend and explain the Trinity in the wrong way. Rather than trying to rationalise and theorise on the Trinity wouldn’t it be better and make more sense to try and explain it by starting from what one already knows about each of the three godly manifestations of the whole.

Firstly, God the Father (or Mother, Creator, Parent) is the pre-existing, before time began, eternal God. God who is the essence of the Universe and the creator of everything that is. Everything we see and know is of God and from God the ultimate Creator. God is quite literally everything - big bang, the universe, and us!

Secondly, Jesus: Jesus is the human face of our Creator, parent, God. God chose to become human and to live a human life, just as we do. He did it in order that we might come to know him better and so that he might be able to show us who he is. Jesus, true God and true human being both divine and human is probably the one person of the Trinity that we can perhaps understand best. Simply because he was as much like us as he was like God.

Thirdly, the Holy Spirit, the invisible power, medium of change, life force of God that can go anywhere and do anything. From hovering over the beginning of Creation to raising Jesus from the dead and renewing our souls on a daily basis. When we pray to God, we are asking God to send the Holy Spirit into our lives or the lives of others to effect change. And hopefully change for the better.

Praying for the Holy Spirit to do things is a dangerous business for the Holy Spirit cannot be controlled by us. The Spirit does as it wills but because we have a God who listens to us and who knows us and what are true needs are the things the Spirt does may not be what we expect but is rather what we need.

So what of the Trinity?

God as parent, Creator; Jesus the Son and the Spirit as the life force and agent of change. Three distinct persons each with their own personalities and actions but all the same God, one God.

As I have written this sermon the more I have relaxed in my thinkings about the Trinity and its complexities. In fact the more words that I have spent or wasted, the more I have come to realise that trying to fully and utterly comprehend the Trinity is probably not that important. To fully understand the Trinity is I think impossible and unnecessary? Perhaps?

In coming to this realisation I was thrown back to a few words from the first reading from Isaiah:

“Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said;’Here I am send me’.”     Isaiah 6:8

Rather than trying to explain away God, I have realised that it is better that we try to use what we know about God, Jesus and the Spirit from our own experiences to live lives that seek to make the lives of others better. That we seek to follow and live out the essence of the Trinity rather than explain it and the essence of the Trinity, of God is simply LOVE. And God, in whatever person we encounter him is simply a different way of loving. Let us use our knowledge of the Trinity that we have learned from God loving us to use it to love others and let’s not spend time trying to explain God away and to confine him to mere words.

Here we are God, send us.

A reflection for Pentecost Sunday 23rd May 2021 by the Rev'd Russell Duncan

Submitted by Dean on Sat, 22/05/2021 - 12:39

Sunday 23rd May 2021 – Pentecost

Imagine my great disappointment. A large box awaited me when I arrived home sent by dear friends. I opened it quickly but much to my dismay it was full of flowers that appeared to be dead. What should I do? Should I put them in the compost heap or in a vase of water? I chose the latter. To my surprise they slowly came to life, lasted at least a week or more and brought much pleasure and delight. Recently this happened to my mother too.  My younger brother told her in advance what to expect. We were able to share something of our own experience and even bewilderment. I now know that sending flowers in the post this way is not uncommon.

Today the Church celebrates the Feast of Pentecost marking fifty days since Easter Day bringing the Easter Season to an end. We recall how Pentecost (which comes from the Greek word for “fiftieth”) had its roots in the Jewish “Feast of Weeks”. We also recall how God’s Holy Spirit was given to the apostles after the ascension of Jesus, empowering them to begin the work of making followers of him, of guiding them, of inspiring them.

In today’s reading from Acts, we are reminded “when the day of Pentecost had come, the apostles were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of violent wind, and it filled the house where they were sitting”. What was happening?

As we look around the Church this morning we see the colour red. A bold, bright colour. It represents the tongues of fire appearing above the heads of the apostles as a sign that they had received the Holy Spirit. Some of us here I can see are wearing red.  I am too, but mostly hidden.

If you visit Worcester College Chapel Choir, Oxford you will see a painting by Nicholas Mynheer (b.1958). In it he has captured the moment when flames of fire pouring down from heaven enter the mouths of the apostles. He has chosen their mouths rather than their heads, for it is from their mouths that the words of the gospel come. The apostles’ faces are turned upwards, eyes closed, as if in a rapture. Mynheer depicts the apostles as huddled together in a small space; for although we are often on our own, our Christian life is essentially life with others and for others.

The Spirit descends to live within us and to lift our hearts to God. So in Mynheer’s painting, the streams of fire are also the songs and praise of the chapel choir going heavenwards. It is only through the Spirit that prayer and praises rise.

But what about us? Where does the Holy Spirit fit in? Why do we often feel  dry and spiritually  withered  like those flowers I mentioned at the beginning? Perhaps we need to turn to God and ask to be filled afresh on this and every day. As we do so, may we be filled with that new life and love.  May his presence and power transform us and fill those empty spaces.  And may something of that eternal life flow within us and out into the homes and communities in which we live.

Oh Holy Spirit, giver of life and light,

Impart to us thoughts higher than our own thoughts,

Prayers better than our own prayers,

Powers beyond our own powers,

That may spend and be spent in the ways of love and goodness,

After the perfect image of Jesus Christ our Lord.