Reflection for Sunday 17th January 2021 Epiphany II

Submitted by Dean on Sat, 16/01/2021 - 12:56

Epiphany 2 Year B 2021 

The philosopher Immanuel Kant famously wrote these words:

“Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made."

The evidence that human beings can truthfully be likened to crooked timber is in plain view, whether we think of the recent disturbing events in Washington D.C. or contemplate the mendacity of politicians closer to home. And there is some wisdom in Kant’s warning, for it reminds us that utopian projects and dreams often end in bloodshed and tears because those pursuing them are all too willing to trample people under foot in pursuit of their dreams. Yet Kant’s view is not derived from Jewish and Christian thinking about humanity and today’s Gospel shows that very clearly and gives us grounds for hope.

In today’s reading Nathanael’s first response to Philip’s words about Jesus is a cynical and sceptical question:

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

Nevertheless, he responds to Philip’s invitation to “Come and see”. The encounter with Jesus which ensues needs some explanation. When Jesus says “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit” he isn’t praising Nathanael for his bluntness, rather he is picking up on Nathanael’s question about Nazareth. Nathanael’s cynicism about Nazareth was geographical. Nazareth was an unimportant northern town, remote from Jerusalem. It’s as though an inhabitant of Edinburgh were saying “Can anything good come out of Dingwall.” And there’s nothing in any of the prophetic writings in the Hebrew Bible to suggest that the Messiah was going to emerge from Nazareth. Nathanael’s scepticism arises out of where he thinks that Jesus is coming from.

Jesus responds with a witty remark which focuses on where Nathanael is coming from in a sense that is cultural and religious, rather than geographical:

“Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”

In calling Nathanael an Israelite, he is reminding him of their shared descent from Jacob; deceitful Jacob who impersonated his brother in order to trick their father and gain his blessing. The story of how he stole his brother’s birthright supports the view that human beings are hewn from crooked timber. Yet Jacob went on to experience a very disturbing and painful encounter with God and to receive a new name – Israel – a name which means “the one who struggles with God.” Jesus was reminding Nathanael that God can work with the crooked timber of humanity and make something of it. It’s unlikely that Nathanael understood that immediately. His first reaction was to ask: “Where did you come to know me?” and Jesus says:

“I saw you sitting under the fig tree before Philip called you”.

Nathanael responds to this as though it was an astonishing piece of clairvoyance, as perhaps it was. He acknowledges Jesus as “the Son of God” and “the King of Israel.” Jesus reacts to this confession of faith by steering the conversation back to the story of Jacob, now putting himself in Jacob’s place:

“Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

Nathanael would have immediately understood that Jesus was referring to the vision that Jacob experienced, his dream of a ladder linking earth and heaven and the angels of God ascending and descending on it and the promises that God spoke to him in that dream. Jacob recognized the place where his dream happened as holy and renamed it Bethel:

“How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”

Jesus is saying that the encounter with God is not about place – not about Nazareth or Bethel – but about a person, about himself. In Jesus the earthly and the heavenly meet and can be encountered. In Jesus, the crooked timber of humanity is straightened and we are made aware of our true potential, a potential only to be realized through close encounters with God of the kind that Jacob and Nathanael experienced, and to which both of them responded.

Immanuel Kant believed that human beings cannot have any knowledge of God, that we are intellectually incapable of grasping the nature of God’s reality. In a narrow sense he was right – God cannot be defined or explained using human language and categories and all attempts to do so have at best remained incomplete or at worst have projected human desires and human anger onto the divine. There was evidence of that in the recent attack on the Capitol in Washington. The violence was shocking, and the fact that at least one of the protestors was carrying a placard showing Jesus wearing a “Make America Great Again” baseball cap was deeply disturbing. God cannot be defined or explained, and God should not be recruited to the crooked purposes of fallen humanity, though that all too often happens. The good news of Epiphany is that God can be encountered in Jesus, as Nathanael encountered him, an encounter which has the potential to dissolve our cynicism and selfishness and to make something good and enduring out of the crooked timber of humanity.

Reflection for Sunday 10th January 2021 "The Baptism of Christ' by the Rev'd Russell Duncan

Submitted by Dean on Sat, 09/01/2021 - 11:36

Epiphany 1 – Sunday 10th January 2021 – Baptism of Christ

You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased

I wonder how often we have been told that we are “beloved”? No matter how many times, I suspect that it is never enough.

An elderly acquaintance used to speak fondly of his “beloved”. His wife had died some years earlier. Although I had never met her there was something deeply personal and touching about how he spoke. There was a sense of something that had been lost, of something that would never come back and even a sense of deep longing.  All I could do was to listen.

In today’s gospel the one whom John the Baptist has proclaimed is here. It is as if John can now say with confidence “this is he of whom I have long spoken Look everyone. Take note. He has arrived”. There was no fanfare, no procession, no important officials.

If we look closer there is a lovely, intimate encounter between the members of the Trinity. There is a voice coming from heaven (whom we take to be the Father although not specifically identified in the narrative) telling Jesus as he comes out of the water that “you are my Son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased”. The Spirit is also present descending on him like a dove. What wonderful affirmation and assurance.

Not surprisingly, the baptism of Jesus has been depicted since the earliest days in Christian art. We will all have our own favourite pictures or images.  One of mine is by Piero della Francesca, painted c. 1450 which is in the National Gallery, London. One art critic comments that “all is momentarily still in the light of revelation. It is that luminous stillness which the painting captures so well.

The theologian, Jane Williams, also comments that “As Jesus comes out of the darkness of the river, into the light, we see the one whom God loves, and through whom he shares his love with us. God’s creating word, spoken at the dawn of the world, is spoken again, to draw us into his community”.

The sacrament of baptism signifies our initiation or incorporation into Christ and his body, the Church, of which we are part. But how does it actually affect us each day?

The liturgist and former Bishop of Gloucester, Michael Perham, comments that “For generations people have undervalued their baptism. They know it was something that was done and is now long since past. What needs to be rediscovered is the sense, not that I was baptised, but that I am baptised. What happened then committed me to a style of living that is still being worked out. There is a sense in which we all need to be able to remember our baptism by being able to reclaim its promises and celebrate its meaning through the cycle of the Christian year”

I want to end with the Prayer of Petition which we all say together each Sunday from the 1982 Scottish Liturgy. It reminds us of our baptism and how it is being lived out by us, individually and collectively.

“Help us, who are baptised into the fellowship of Christ’s body

to live and work to your praise and glory;

may we grow together in unity and love

until at last, in your new creation,

we enter into our heritage

in the company of the Virgin Mary, the apostles and prophets,

and of all our brothers and sisters, living and departed”

You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased

Suspension of worship in Church

Submitted by Dean on Mon, 04/01/2021 - 15:56

As from Monday 4th January until further notice all services in the church building are suspended under the guidance and regulations of the Scottish Government. The Rector will continue to pray the services in Church on Sundays at 10am and Wednesdays at 11am and you are encouraged to join in using the 'Praying at Home' (Spiritual Communion) worship booklets. Please pray for each other at this time of Lockdown. 

Sermon for Epiphany 6th January 2021 by the Rev'd William Mounsey

Submitted by Dean on Sat, 02/01/2021 - 13:07

PUZZLING JOURNEY   Matthew 2:1-12

In your mind flick through the Christmas Cards which have decorated your homes. I’m sure there were several bearing a picture of wise men making their lonely way across the desert led by a star. Kings laying their gifts before the baby in the manger. Camels sharing the world's silence while Jesus lies cradled in straw. Pictures like that have been with us since childhood.

Has it ever crossed your mind that this story is one of suspense, of fear, and of high anxiety? The long years of Christian devotion have emptied it of its true content and left us with happy pictures on Christmas cards and perhaps no more than that. But we cannot afford the loss. We must open ourselves to the tension lying along the backbone of this story.

It was terrifying for Mary. For the last seven or eight months she had been the victim of whispers from behind the lace curtains of Nazareth. "Always such a nice girl", they said to one another, "and now look at her. A baby on the way and not married!" Mary had been able to cope with the gossips. When she told her story of the messenger, the gossips had wagged their heads and said, "Yes, dear" with their lips, and "No, dear" with their eyes. She had expected that. But when Joseph had done the same, it had nearly broken her. But at last he was convinced, and so they could face the world together.

But just when her baby was due, there had been the summons from the civil service, a hurried scraping together of a few bits and pieces for the journey, and a trek from one town to another. Every jolt of the journey had shaken right through her and she had ended up in a reeking byre giving birth to her child. Exhausted, she lay in the straw, drained of energy; reaction had set in, and depression struggled with the joy she felt over her new baby.

Then terror leapt to the forefront of her mind once more. The doorway of the cattle shed darkened and a group of shepherds stood there muttering. Exhausted as she was, Mary took her baby in her arms, ready to protect him at all costs. Mary, of course, had never seen any Christmas cards. All she knew was that shepherds had come and shepherds were dangerous. Shepherds lived on the edge of decent society. They knew how to move silently, snatch a purse and melt quietly back into the hill country. Decent townsfolk went in fear of shepherds.

But the crisis passed. Amazingly, they had an embarrassing story of heavenly messengers to tell. Mary relaxed. She knew how hard it was to tell a tale like that. The fear relaxed, they were held together in a strange peace; the barriers between them, normally so strong, melted away around this baby's cradle.

But terror lurked in the shadows still. Later, new visitors arrived, unannounced. Men the like of whom Mary and Joseph had never seen before pushed into the stable. They were wearing clothes which looked, literally, outlandish. They spoke a language which was gibberish to decent Jewish ears. They were plainly pagan, precisely the kind of person that obedient Jews were instructed to avoid. What were they doing here, what did they want?

They gave the little child gifts which Mary didn't understand and with which the baby could not possibly play.

They seemed as puzzled as Mary by what was happening, yet held in their puzzlement by the same sense of being caught up in a purpose that was greater than their suspicion of each other. It was that which opened the door of understanding between them. The reserve and anxiety which held them apart melted away around this baby's cradle.

The visitors left. Mary hoped that she and the baby would soon be strong enough to leave Bethlehem and go back home. But it was not to be. Word came that Herod's soldiers were on the move. Sword in hand they were going from house to house bent on the slaughter of a generation. The alternatives were flight or the death of the child. There was no alternative. In a fumbling of haste and fear the donkey was loaded and a silent, secret escape made south and west.

Far from being a beautiful memory, these weeks haunted Mary. She would wake up at night, shivering as she dreamed about them.

Out of this we have made our Christmas cards and pretty stories.

It is this tale of terror which lies behind our carols about 'Peace on Earth towards people of goodwill'. Have we made a mistake? Have we subtly transmuted this terrible time into a fairy story for our comfort? Perhaps we have.

We stand two thousand years away from those days and we can see things in perspective. There is no doubt that the terror was there, and that Joseph and Mary were right to feel themselves in mortal danger - a danger being repeated for tens of thousands of migrants in today’s world.

But the pain was but the birth pangs of the new order which Jesus was bringing.

Let us turn back again to the Epiphany story, the story of the wise men, and see the way in which the terror which accompanied their coming blossomed into an awareness that a new era had begun.

The cause of Mary's fear, when she saw these strange figures at the door of the stable, was that they were foreigners, they were different. Taught from childhood to keep herself distant from such people, to retain religious and ethnic purity, her emotions marshalled to the defence when the wise men came in.

But, as yet unrealised by Mary, she was caught up in the stream of ancient promises which included the expectation that God's blessings should embrace all the people of the earth. That stream was now at full flood, and old barriers began to give way.

To Mary, who all her days had been sheltering behind the old religious and racial barriers, that was a fearful experience. But it was the beginning of hope for the world.

Look around the global Church now. We are men and women of every race and nation; we are living proof that this fear of Mary's was but the birth pangs of a larger hope. The wise men were the first of the Gentiles to gather around the Christ. We are their heirs today. The stream of grace has flowed widely enough to reach even us and we have cause to be thankful.

Then, secondly, Mary's fear sprang from her realisation that these men were men of rank. The gospel merely says that they were Wise Men or Magi. That is, leaders of forbidden religions who practised magic and sought to foretell the future. In our fancy we have given them crowns to wear and camels to ride. At this point our tradition has been coloured by the words of Isaiah which the coming of the wise men is said to have fulfilled:

'Kings shall come to the brightness of thy rising ...
the multitude of camels shall cover thy land ... they shall bring gold and frankincense.’ Isaiah 60:3, 6.

But these are matters which can hardly have concerned Mary. All that was plain to her was that these were men of commanding appearance, the kind of men who had always spelled a threat to the ordinary folk among whom she belonged. She was afraid.

Yet these men offered her and her child no harm. They provided valuable gifts for the baby. Mary was amazed. Her fear vanished and so it has been all along the centuries since that day. In Mary’s son people of seemingly no significance have discovered their true worth, found themselves to be loved and so have had significance beyond limit bestowed upon them.

But Jesus draws the powerful to him also and the mighty discover that although they may hold much power, it is power, for the use of which, they are obliged to give an answer. They are themselves men and women under authority and are no longer a law unto themselves. It is no chance that so many of the beneficial reforms of society have grown at times when people have been deeply aware of the authority of Jesus – not always the authority of the church – but the authority of Jesus.

The peacemaking, which began at Bethlehem has continued through long centuries until today. We are heirs of a rich tradition - not to be hoarded but to be shared, to be lived in this unpeaceful world.

So maybe we can live with an easy mind about our Christmas cards after all. The happy peace and familiar comfort which they speak to us at this season is no misstatement of the truth.

In its beginnings that truth made Mary afraid - it was so different, and so much more wide-reaching than she could ever imagine. But in the end, Mary's terror has proved to be the door to the possibility of peace and joy to the world.

William Mounsey Epiphany 2021

Reflection for Christmas I 27th December 2020

Submitted by Dean on Sat, 26/12/2020 - 12:01

Christmas I 27th December 2020 Year B

After the very bright light,
And the talking bird,
And the singing,
And the sky filled up wi’ wings, And then the silence,

Our lads sez
‘We’d better go, then
Stay, Shep. Good dog, stay.’ So I stayed wi’ t’ sheep

After they cum back,
It sounded grand, what they’d seen: Camels, and kings, and such,
Wi’ presents – human sort,
Not the kind you eat –

And a baby. Presents wes for him. Our lads took a lamb.

I had to stay behind wi’ sheep.
Pity they didn’t tek me along, too. I’m good wi’ sheep,
And the baby might have liked a dog After all that myrrh and such.

                                                                                  ‘The Sheepdog’ by UA Fanthorpe.

UA Fanthorpe is one of my favourite poets and especially for this time of the year. Her Christmas and festive poems seem to sum up what Christmas is all about in just a few words and to say it better than any sermon I could write – but you are still getting a sermon because this is too exciting a time of the year for me not to share my excitement and hopes with you.

Today’s readings are relatively short and they are all hopeful. The first few verses from Isaiah 61 and especially verse 11 are words of great hope:

“11 For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
 and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.”

These words were originally written to give the Hebrews hope in their God and their future with him. They take on, however, a new meaning when Christ is put in to the text. The Hebrews longed (and still long) for the Messiah to come and rescue them from their oppressors and to give them new hope. Isaiah is encouraging them not to give up because as he says just like seeds there is more to come than first seen or expected and what is to come is glorious.

Paul takes this hopefulness to a deeper level in the three verses form Galatians we heard read. He tells these early Christians (mostly Jewish converts) that the Messiah has been born and that through him we can come very close to God, so close in fact that we can call God ‘Abba’. Abba is probably best translated as ‘daddy’ and its use implies a close, loving relationship. What Paul’s words imply are that through the birth of Christ everything has changed. No more is God a distant reality, he is actually as close to us as a parent can be and because of the love he has for us (and we should have for him) we can rightly call him ‘Abba’ or daddy. It can sometimes be all too easy to forget that it is in Jesus that we see God and in his humanity we can come to know something deep about God’s divinity. No wonder the shepherds were amazed when they went to the stable!

Whether or not shepherds actually visited the Holy Family, is subject to debate and discussion but what this tale implies is that Jesus was born for all of God’s people and creation; not just for the chosen few or the wealthy. By having the shepherds visit him we are shown that Jesus is our Messiah and that he is the Messiah for all whom chose to acknowledge him.

The shepherds were basically outcasts living nomadic lives. A motley crew of undesirables and not all of them Jews either. They visited the Christ Child to pay homage and as such opened the way for all marginalised peoples to come to Christ in hope of liberation and acceptance. Just as the magi did for all non-Jews. But for me the most powerful words this morning are the last few words of the poem:

"I had to stay behind wi’ sheep.
Pity they didn’t tek me along, too. I’m good wi’ sheep,
And the baby might have liked a dog After all that myrrh and such."

Why? Because for me these words speak so clearly of the humanity of Jesus. We can at times get too caught up in the glories of Christmas that we lose sight of the Messiah’s humanity and the sheepdog Shep’s regret brings it home. Jesus might well have liked a dog. A boy and a dog – well many a story has been told and a song sung about that type of companionship. Jesus may have been God but he was also human and in need of love, acceptance, support and encouragement and a dog alongside him might have given him what he needed. We humans like our pets and this poem reminds us that Jesus was just as human as we are, even if he was God as well. For many of us in ‘Lockdown’ our pets have been great company or an excuse to get out of the house and I suspect even those of us without pets have smiled on occasion at the antics of the neighbour’s cat or dog. Pets can and do lift our spirits.

So despite all the religious ‘stuff’ around his birth what we are quite simply celebrating is the fact that a boy was born who was to change the world. To change it by his extraordinariness in the ordinary!

Happy Christmas