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A reflection for Remembrance Sunday by the Rev'd David Warnes

Submitted by Dean on Sat, 13/11/2021 - 11:23

Remembrance Sunday 2021

Matthew 5:38-48

Today’s Gospel is a doubly challenging one. It seems to set impossibly high expectations:

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

And it is particularly challenging on Remembrance Sunday, for it has been seen by many as a call to pacifism. Yet today we rightly remember those who were called to bear arms, those who lost their lives in combat and those civilians who paid the highest price for the aggression and incompetence of political leaders.

In the early 1970s, the headmaster of the school where I began my teaching career took the step of inviting a German Lutheran pastor to preach on Remembrance Sunday. It was less than 30 years since the end of the Second World War, a war in which many of my older colleagues in the staff room had served. In advance of the occasion there was much criticism of the headmaster from them, for they still viewed Germans as the enemy and for them Remembrance Sunday was, very properly, about remembering the friends, comrades and family members who had been killed in the war.

The pastor, a man who had himself risked his life by smuggling Jewish refugees out of Germany, chose to tell in very simple terms, the story of another pastor, a close friend of his and a relative by marriage, whose involvement in the resistance to Hitler resulted in his execution. His sermon was heard in respectful silence, and at least some of the critics came to understand why he had been invited to preach. The preacher’s name was Eberhard Bethge, and the friend whose story he told was Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Bonhoeffer was a convinced pacifist yet was close to people, including members of his own family, who were involved in plots to assassinate Hitler. One of his brothers and two of his brothers-in-law were executed because of this. Bonhoeffer himself used his cover as an agent of German military intelligence to make visits to neutral countries and pass messages to the British, telling them that an attempt to overthrow Hitler was being planned and pleading for a negotiated peace if it succeeded. Yet at no point did he abandon his pacifism. Rather he believed that the use of violence to overthrow the Nazi regime was sinful, but that it might be necessary to act sinfully and accept the consequences so that others might live in freedom. He thus remained faithful to what he saw as a Christian calling to non-violence, while also acknowledging that one should live and, if necessary, die for the good of others. That too was at the core of his Christian calling, for he described Jesus as “the man for others”.

His life and his death are reminders of the painful truth that there are no easy answers for the Christian who seeks to follow Christ in a fallen and complex world. The counsel of perfection with which today’s Gospel ends is profoundly challenging:

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

But it is important to understand what Jesus meant by perfection. He wasn’t referring to the ancient Greek philosopher’s notion of perfection as a moral absolute, for that is something that none of us can possibly achieve. He probably used the Hebrew word Tamim or its Aramaic equivalent, and he almost certainly had in mind the most famous use of that word in the Hebrew scriptures

“You shall be perfect before the Lord your God.”

[Deuteronomy 18:13]

And Tamim means perfection in the sense of wholeness, integrity; a wholeness and integrity that is very difficult to achieve as we wrestle with the moral ambiguities and complexities of life. Those ambiguities and complexities mean that, as Christians, we may not always come to the same conclusions about what is the right course of action,

Important, therefore, to remember that we do all this wrestling within the love of God. Important also to remember that our Christian calling is, as Bonhoeffer wrote:

“…not to establish a community of the perfect, but a community consisting of people who really live under the forgiving mercy of God.”

A reflection for Sunday 7th November 2021 by the Rev'd Russell Duncan

Submitted by Dean on Sat, 06/11/2021 - 12:02

For all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but the widow out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on (Mark 12:44)

My maternal grandmother was a widow for over forty years. A long time to be on your own. I never knew my grandfather. She used to tell us that having grandchildren opened up a new lease of life for her. Without that, life may have been difficult and more challenging. Those were the days, for many, when there were no credit cards or easy cash available unless you had a friendly, local bank manager. You were expected to live within your means. Sometimes she would comment upon the cost of living or how prices had risen.  As young boys, that meant very little to us. Only when I started to work myself, to pay bills and to have a mortgage did I begin to understand the need to balance the books.

If I was to ask you whether anything struck you about our gospel reading, what would you say? Would it be the large crowds listening to Jesus or the scribes walking around in their long robes being greeted with respect? Would we feel impressed watching the rich people putting large sums into the treasury or them sitting in the best seats in the synagogue?

What struck me was that Jesus sat down opposite the treasury and watched people putting money into it. He took the time, despite the crowds, to notice and comment upon the actions of people - in particular – a widow.  I doubt anyone else noticed her or paid much attention to her. Even if they did they would probably have been dismissive and rather disdainful.

The only thing we know is that this widow was poor. She gave everything she had. We are not told anything more about her. We don’t know her name nor do we know how long she had been a widow. We don’t know whether she had any family who supported her or where she would get more money from.

The widow might have kept one coin. It would not have been very much but it would be something, yet she gave everything she had. Why? If I was honest, there is invariably some part of our lives or our activities, some part of ourselves which we do not give to God. Invariably we want to hold onto something or hold something back.  We don’t want to give it totally up.

Professor William Barclay comments that “It is a strange and lovely thing that the person whom the New Testament and Jesus hand down to history as a pattern of generosity was a person who gave a gift of little value in monetary terms.  We may feel that we have not much to give in the way of material gifts or personal gifts to give to God, but if we put all that we have and are at his disposal He can do things with it and with us that are beyond our imaginings”.

In the well-known hymn “Take my life and let it be” by Frances Ridley Havergal (1836-1879) she refers to us offering up to God our life, our hands, our voice, our silver and gold, our will and, in the last verse, our love. As we reflect upon the generosity of the poor, un-named widow may we sing in our hearts

Take my love; my Lord, I pour,

at thy feet its treasure-store;

take myself, and I will be,

ever, only, all for thee.

A reflection for All Saints and All Souls 2021

Submitted by Dean on Sun, 31/10/2021 - 14:47

What are we doing today as we commemorate the saints and remember our loved ones departed? Simply put, we are remembering with gratitude those who we have known and loved who have died and gone to God before us and we are giving thanks for those deemed to be saints and asking for their prayers as we try to live a good Christian life.

The saints are those named by the church as being good examples to us of how to live a life dedicated to the service of Christ and to God’s people. They range from the obscure and eccentric to the known and remembered. They are remembered by the Church and us today as an encouragement in how we attempt to live our lives in the light of Christ. Like us the saints are flawed and all too human but that I think can be more of a help than a hindrance as we can see in them ourselves and we can be, as I say, encouraged in the lives we are trying to live.

Alongside the saints we are also today remembering the departed. Why?

In some expressions of the Christian Church the belief is held that by praying for by name at the altar, those who have died get days or years knocked off their time in Purgatory. Purgatory is deemed to be a place of trial that the soul goes to after being judged by God, time is spent there working off one’s sins because one needs to be fully cleansed before one can enter heaven or if one’s sins were so great to be confined to hell fire.

Some Christians remain happy with this concept but it is not one that I subscribe to and I suspect that there are many of you who would not do so either. The God, I have come to believe in is not a God of rejection but one of loving acceptance, who always offers us the chance to repent and enter fully in to his presence without having to jump through hoops or to endure hell fire.

The most helpful comment I have ever heard about what might happen to us on our death was from Canon Jane Millard when she was working as chaplain to those living with HIV and AIDS. She said that through the many journeys to death that she had accompanied the dying, she had come to believe that we die at the point that we reach our ultimate human perfection and that when we do so we are too perfect to remain in this world and thus enter in to the presence of God.

The second most helpful comment for me comes from the late Cardinal Basil Hume, who once wrote that he believed that at the point of death we get to whisper into God’s ear all the things we want to tell him, with the opportunity to say sorry for the things we got wrong, knowing that as we do so we are fully accepted and welcomed into his loving embrace.

We are given the choice to do this or not at the point of our death. If we chose not to then by our own choice we spend eternity out with the presence of God. God does not reject us we do it ourselves.

For me it is this act of whispering that takes us to the point of perfection and leads us into our death. These comments have helped me move away from any idea of Purgatory and to hope that in death we come fully into God’s being in ways that we cannot comprehend in this life.

As helpful as these comments may be they do not, however,  remove the pain of loss and separation that we feel when our loved ones die. That pain is often raw for a long time and I actually think that one never really gets over it but learns to live with the pain better as time passes. The one thing we never do is to forget those we have loved and lost – they remain alive in our memories, hearts and consciousness. In the SEC revised funeral rite there is a phrase in one of the prayers of farewell that asks that the departed will:

“...live on in the hearts and minds, courage and consciences of their family and friends...”

What this means is that every time we think of them be it with tears or with laughter, or when we do something they taught us, we keep their memory alive and in doing so bring ourselves comfort.

There is another funeral prayer that talks of using the time that we have left aright:

“Grant us, Lord, the wisdom and the grace to use aright the time that is left to us here on earth. Lead us to repent of our sins, the evil we have done and the good we have not done; and strengthen us to follow the steps of your Son, in the way that leads to eternal life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

I like this prayer for it reminds us that we all pass through this life quite quickly and that we should try and make the most of it as we do so. We need to regularly reflect upon our lives and to give thanks for the good things and to make amends for the things we got wrong wherever we can. It is a prayer that encourages one not to live one’s life with regrets and to get on and do the things we want to do. We cannot change the past but we can apologise for it, we live in the present and we can deal with things as they arise and we can hope for the future and perhaps control it to some extent too.

Our commemoration today encourages  us to remember our loved ones both with smiles and sorrow and it tells us not to squander the time we have left. I also think it says to us not to worry about what we may or may not leave behind either. For what we leave behind is ultimately decided by those who are left, for it is they who remember what is important to them about us. The saints did not know that they would be declared ‘saintly’ - it was after their death that others decided their lives merited that honour. This does not mean that we should not try to live a good life, far from it in actual fact because I suspect we would all like the memories we leave behind for others to be good ones and who knows thy might think us saintly too!

 

A reflection for Bible Sunday 24th October 2021 by Canon Dean Fostekew

Submitted by Dean on Sat, 23/10/2021 - 16:09

In 2000 years what little seems to have changed. The Second Epistle to Timothy could easily have been written for a 21st century audience for all that it describes:

3For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, 4and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.”            2Timothy 3:4:3-4

What a wonderful phrase; 'itching ears' is and what egotistical desires it highlights.

Christianity has always been, to some extent, counter-cultural. It may have got the upper hand in this country in the medieval and early modern period but in today's post-modern society it is, I believe, once again very counter-cultural to be a Christian and to challenge the norms that one sees around us. When Jesus and his radical teachings first burst onto the scene in first century Judea few listened to him. Even less followed him Why? Simply because Jesus' teachings were difficult for 'itching ears' to cope with. In our society, today, a society divided by wealth, class and aspiration (to list but a few divisions) Christianity seems to challenge the accepted norms too much and for the majority of the population that challenge is one they would rather not acknowledge or think about, let alone respond to.

I see 21st century Scotland and perhaps much of Europe to be very much like the first century Greco-Romano culture. Both had a focus on the individual and that individual's immediate family rather than the wider common good of the whole community or population. Individuals today, like then, are encouraged to think firstly of their own needs and wants rather than of those around them. You can see this expressed in the response to the migrant and refugee crisis in Europe. Very few people want to respond generously to their plight. Instead the first concern is how will this effect me. Helping these strangers might stop me achieving all that I want to achieve or to acquire.

Christianity, however, teaches us and challenges us to do something different. It instructs us to be welcoming and generous to the stranger and to those in any need; to be hospitable and to think of others before we think of ourselves. Dangerous stuff in deed.

This is a counter-cultural message today just as it was revolutionary in the first century - you can see why the Early Church was persecuted and many martyred for their compassionate faith. Christianity has always encouraged the development of an attitude of acceptance and outreach to others. An attitude that says that; 'all are welcome' and all are acceptable in the eyes of God and in the Christian community and that all are expected to share in what we have to offer. As St.Paul wrote:

"All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof and correction and for training in righteousness, so  that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, and equipped for every good work."       2Timothy 3:16-17

This implies that all of us should read our Scriptures and put what they tell us into action. If you further put St.Paul’s words with those of Isaiah and St.John (the additional readings set for today) you will also see that it is through Jesus that Scripture is expressed in its purest form and that when we encounter the living Christ we meet the ways of God face on. In doing so we are also transformed and encouraged to live a life inspired by Jesus and to copy the things he did, rather than the things we might want to do.

Scripture is rich food in deed, but it does not feed us unless it also inspires us to live a Christ-like life and in order to do that we have to try and live our lives in the ways that Jesus taught and showed us. We are to care for the orphan and the widow, to reach out and welcome the stranger and the refugee to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. Basically, Jesus challenges to remember who are neighbours are and what we might need to do to make their lives more bearable and wholesome. The ways of Jesus and the Scriptures of God call us to be counter-cultural and not to be afraid of doing things differently to the ways of Society. It is a difficult path to tread but it is one that leads to a more fulfilled life for ourselves and for those around us as well. Scripture encourages us to be radical because if nothing else Jesus was radical before us.

A reflection for Sunday 17th October 2021 by the Rev'd David Warnes

Submitted by Dean on Sat, 16/10/2021 - 14:24

Hebrews 5, 1-10

Immediately after this morning’s reading from the Epistle to the Hebrews come these words:

“We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain...”

Explaining who Melchizidek was and why the writer makes a link between him and Jesus Christ would indeed be hard, a task more suited to a Bible study than a short reflection. It would also distract us from the two simple and profound truths that this difficult passage contains.

The first of those truths is that the people who are called to the priesthood are human, yet their very humanity – the fact that they are “subject to weakness” – can make them effective in their ministry. This calling involves, in the words of Archbishop Michael Ramsey,

“caring for humanity in loving identification”

It is precisely those human weaknesses that make it possible to identify with other people, to understand something of their needs and their fears. And that is a ministry to which all Christians, lay and ordained, are called, a ministry of caring and service.

I was reminded of this when a friend phoned me while I was working on this reflection. My responses to the difficulties and fears of which he spoke was shaped my own difficulties and experiences. Those are not identical to his, and I was careful not to say “I know just how you feel” because I cannot possibly know that. What he and I share, as baptized Christians, was well expressed by Rowan Williams when he wrote that “The baptized person is not only in the midst of human suffering and muddle but in the middle of the love and delight of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

That brings us to the second profound truth in this passage from Hebrews. Jesus Christ has a full and perfect ability to care for humanity in loving identification precisely because he lived a human life and faced the profound challenges with which life and death confront us, including fear, grief, physical pain and the sense of feeling abandoned by God.

Because of that we can be sure that the mind of God knows us far better than we know ourselves and that the heart of God is full of a loving understanding of what it means to be human and how difficult and painful it can be. God truly does know just how we feel.

The compilers of the Lectionary cannot have known that this passage from Hebrews would fall on the Sunday before Russell’s ordination to the priesthood, nor that he will be exercising a priestly ministry at the Church of the Good Shepherd. The Epistle to the Hebrews may be densely argued and difficult to understand, but it ends with a resounding climax which will serve well as a prayer for Russell, and for all Christians, for we are all called to exercise ministries of love and service.

Now may the God of peace, who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, make you complete in everything good so that you may do his will, working among us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever.   Amen.