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Reflection for Trinity IV Sunday 5th July 2020

Submitted by Dean on Sat, 04/07/2020 - 11:16

Trinity IV 5th July 2020 Year A Proper 9

You open the lid of the box and your eye glides around the selection of individual chocolates. You pause for a moment and then you pick the one you think you want and bite into it. THEN you either savour the delight of tasting that dark chocolate caramel or grimace that you had mistakenly taken the strawberry creme. Sometimes we make the right choice and at other times our choice totally dismays us.

St. Paul in today’s epistle extract (Romans 7:15-25a) is struggling with the act of making a choice; of making the right choice. He is quite despairing of himself:

“I do not understand my own actions. ... I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.”

We all make choices every day, in fact probably in every hour of our waking day. We make so many choices daily that most of the time we will be unaware of the process. Do I want tea or coffee? Shall I watch Fr. Brown or Grand Designs? Shall I have potatoes or rice with my meal? At the time these are important decisions or choices but in the bigger picture they are rather insignificant and even if one regrets one’s choice it is not really a disaster that can’t be rectified, the next time we face a similar decision. There are also the rather more important choices we make.

Who is the one I love the most? Shall I take that job offer or that one? Do I really want to move to that flat or to that house? These choices are significant and they are not, for most of us, decisions we have to make on a regular basis. Yes, our choice will have consequences but even if they prove to be the wrong choice in the long-run they can often be corrected.

Then there are the choices we make that are very important and can affect us at a profoundly deep level. These are the choices between good and evil, sin and not sin, good and bad. As St.Paul expressed two thousand years ago:

“For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”

Paul is really struggling with some of the actions he has done and decisions he has made in the past, just as we do. This is Paul at his most human. Like him we can despair of ourselves at times when we have committed an act that we immediately regretted and one that we felt soiled our souls. We are all guilty of these actions but thankfully, for most of us they are not something we often do. We don’t often offend because we have a sort of rule book or code of conduct that we follow.

For those of us of faith we have Scripture and the example of Christ to follow. They both give us a path to follow that we can choose to walk along or not. Most of us for most of the time walk that path and because we do so we always know when we have stepped off the path and gone another way. Our faith gives us a framework around which we can build and live our lives with thought to God, others and ourselves. We are not dictated to by God but freely offered a ‘life giving way’ by which to live happy and contented lives.

Paul refers to this as the ‘Law’:

“So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self.”

He rightly expresses his joy in the Law as a guide to life but he acknowledges that with every major decision the opportunity to ‘sin’ or not to get it right is always there. This is the dilemma we all live with.

A dilemma many of us are facing as lockdown eases and we seek to re-enter ‘normal’ life. Good intentions may not always be the right decision. Yet, that is the ‘normal’ life we lead. The best prayer we can send to God is always:

“Lead us not into temptation...”

For in doing so it makes us question the choices we make and can help us live with the outcomes of that choice. We can be assured that in making any decision we are not alone. God is with us and the example of Christ is there to guide us, should we choose to follow him.

We can also be assured that even when we muck it all up and rue the choices we have made, we can try again and that God will forgive us if we ask him. None of us are perfect and we will all continue to make choices good and bad but it is in the trying not to make the wrong decision that can keep us out of the temptation of sin.

Commentary on the readings for Sunday 28th June by the Rector

Submitted by Dean on Sat, 27/06/2020 - 11:30

Trinity III 28th June 2020  Year A Proper 8

Jeremiah 28:5-9

When I read this short passage from Jeremiah I noticed something that I had never noticed before. That fact, that this is about two prophets having a discussion about theology and what God is going to do in the future.

In the previous chapter of Jeremiah there is much talk about the Babylonian captivity of the Hebrews and how the King Nebuchadnezzar took most of the sacred vessels from the temple in Jerusalem with him, when he invaded and subdued the people. Jeremiah reminds the people that Nebuchadnezzar did not take everything from the temple and that they should be content with what he left rather than worrying about what he took. Basically, he says that somethings would be nice to have back but stop looking in the past and look to the future.

In his discussion with the prophet Hannaiah, Jeremiah gets him on board and the two of them begin to say that same thing because they both see that in order for the Hebrews to flourish they need to begin living in the present with and eye to the future rather than harking back to a past time that will never come again.

In the verses that follow today’s reading Hananiah states that he is symbolically removing the yoke of the past from Jeremiah’s shoulders and breaking it asunder in order to allow all the Hebrews to move on, to live a fresh and to live in peace. Hananiah  says that it is right to pray for the return of the Hebrew exiles but not right to stop living in the present. Jeremiah he says is a prophet of peace and he encourages the Hebrews to listen to him as he believes that in doing so the Hebrew society will prosper again and go from strength to strength.

These two prophets knew what they were about. They knew that they each had their followers and those who listened to them but that they need to work together in order to enable the Hebrews as a whole to flourish as a people secure in their beliefs and ways.

All too often in the church and in society we have competing voices and personalities who say; look at me or follow me or do as I say and ignore him or her over there and I will lead you to great things. Usually, they achieve very little. When great voices or leaders collaborate and work together great things happen. More is achieved by positive co-operation than can ever be achieved by individuals alone.

I wonder how different our governments in Westminster and Holyrood might be if our elected representatives actually worked together for the common good rather than for each party? How strong and forward looking might our church be if all denominations could work more closely together? It makes you think!

Romans 6:12-23

We talk a lot about ‘sin’ in the church but what do we really mean by it?

Is it a long list of things done or not done that are evil and wicked? Is it the fact that I am human and not divine? And what actually is a sin?

There are somethings that are more easily definable as sins, such as acts of terrorism, abuse, torture and conniving for the ill of others but what are my sins? If I try to live a good life doing what I hope is good, where do I sin? Are my natural imperfections a sin?

Basically I would say no. If you are trying to live a good life and to do your best then if you don’t get things exactly right then that’s not a sin; simply because you were trying to do your best for others. I think sin in our daily lives, aside from the awfully big sins that we can easily identify, might be things that get in the way of our relationships with each other and with God. That might be our pride or our inability to see that we have any faults that drive others mad or that we never say sorry for anything we may do that hurts another.

In daily life, perhaps the biggest sin we commit is when we set out to do something that does not seek to do the best for other beings or our planet. When our intentions are selfish and self-seeking or deliberately malicious that’s when we sin not when we muck it up trying to do something with the best of intentions.

Sin, I believe are those deliberate acts that seek to destroy others or harm creation in ways that serve only the perpetrator. Sin is awful, our occasional slip ups are not. What we need to remember that God is with us and offers us a choice to do good or to do evil but the choice is ours. What we have to do is listen to God and to our hearts and souls and to try and act for the good of others and not for our own ends.

Matthew 10:40-42

Two verses from Matthew but what a message! He tells us that as a Christian as a follower of Jesus we are called to welcome all God’s people. To welcome the stranger, the known friend, those in need, to try and welcome everyone you encounter regardless of who they are or what they might be like.

You are not, Matthew suggests, welcoming in order to like everyone you welcome but you are welcoming them in order to love them and there is a big difference between liking and loving.

Liking can be quite specific - because quite frankly we all know that we get on better with some people more than others  and there are always those few that we can’t abide. Some of those we like are easy to love, others take a bit more effort and some seem impossible to love at all but Jesus calls us to love them the more simply because they might just need to be loved by us more than we realise.  And quite often we just might need to be loved by them more than we realised as well.

Over the years our Scottish Episcopal Church has challenged itself as to how welcoming it actually is and who is really welcome and who is not. Generally, we would say that all are welcome and that all have a place in God’s heart and on our pews but is it true?

My response is ‘mostly’ and I say this after years of seeing our wee Episcopal church trying to be inclusive of all God’s people. Not all of us will agree with things our church has said or done and that is for each of us and our own consciences to grapple. I see, however, a church that is increasingly prepared to live with difference and to try and welcome all people into faith and into our Christian communities.

Living with difference is never easy but it does lead to interesting debates and discussions and above all if Mission 21 taught me anything in the years I ran it; it was how we are all called to support each other in our welcoming.

I used to ask folk who replied that their church was very welcoming just to stop and think who they personally would be happy to see in their church and more importantly who they would happily budge up and invite to sit next to them. Who would you do that to?

It makes you think, doesn’t it? For there are always those who you might say are welcome but who tax you personally. The thing is though, that person you find difficult might not be difficult for someone else in the church to budge up for. Just as the person you budge up for might be more difficult for another individual to do so. What we have to acknowledge and do as a congregation and as a church is to support each other in supporting those we find difficult and thank them for doing what we can’t do. That way we can say we are a truly welcoming church or congregation because we take ‘welcoming’ as a corporate act and not just an individual act.

Just because you can't do something or accept someone or something does not mean that another can't either. What we have to do is to try and love each other as we try to welcome all God’s people into fellowship.   

Sermon for Sunday 21st June 2020 'Father's Day'

Submitted by Dean on Sat, 20/06/2020 - 12:54

Romans 6:1b-11 for Father’s Day

By the Rev'd David Warnes

“He’s the image of his father!” Those words are sometimes used by proud grandparents when they recognise that a new-born baby looks very much as his father did in early infancy. They pithily sum up the Swiss-German theologian Karl Barth’s important insights about the fatherhood of God.

Father’s Day challenges us to think about what it means to us to speak of God as Father. It is, like all the language we used about God, a metaphor, and metaphors can both illuminate and distort. Much will depend on our individual experience of being fathered, and whether that was intimate and affirming, distant and judgemental or even, in some tragic cases, abusive. For many, the metaphor will also be coloured by their experience of fathering, of the joys and sorrows, the commitment and vulnerability that parenthood involves. And this year the coronavirus has made Father’s Day particularly difficult, with so many families recently bereaved of their fathers and unable to say a final farewell, and with the painful separation of parents and adult children that lockdown has involved.

Barth, who wrote a memorable commentary on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, was well aware of the danger that applying the father metaphor to God might lead to misunderstanding and hurt. He wisely said that human fatherhood, however good, is a flawed, blurred and inadequate approximation to the fatherhood of God. There are a few passages in the Hebrew Scriptures where you will find God referred to as a father, but the fatherhood of God is a dominant theme in the New Testament. Jesus frequently refers to God as “my father”, addresses God directly as “Abba” (Father) and teaches his disciples a prayer which begins with the words “Our Father”. Karl Barth suggested that our ability to think of God as our Father came about because God fathered Jesus – “the image of his Father” - and that it is through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection that we are able to know and experience God as our Father.

In today’s reading from the Epistle to the Romans Paul writes about the way in which Jesus enables us to experience the fatherhood of God. It is a dense and difficult passage, filled with ideas as richly as a Christmas pudding is packed with fruit and, because of that, not easily digested. It may help to focus on just two of the words that Paul uses – grace and life.

By grace, Paul means the freely-given love and generosity of God the Father, a love and generosity made visible in Jesus, a love and generosity which we can experience in many ways, not least as forgiveness for our human errors and shortcomings, a forgiveness that is freely given and that can be transformative; the amazing grace of which John Newton wrote in a well-loved hymn.

When Paul writes of the life that Jesus lives as being “lived to God” he is reminding his readers that this is a life, a relationship with God, that is open to us; a family life into which all are able to enter. The implications of that life are profoundly challenging. Karl Barth put them like this:

“...we have to think of every human being, even the oddest, most villainous or miserable, as one to whom Jesus Christ is Brother and God is Father; and we have to deal with him [and her, he might have added] on this assumption.”

Recent events in America have reminded us of the evils of racial prejudice, and of the ways in which those evils can become institutionalised. For us in Scotland that has meant confronting the fact that the wealth of the merchants and aristocrats commemorated in some of our statues and street names was accumulated through their involvement in the slave trade and slavery. We have also been reminded that, after many centuries of accepting slavery as part of the status quo, Christians such as Thomas Clarkson, John Wesley and John Newton came to see that it was incompatible with the Gospel and began a campaign to abolish both the slave trade and slavery itself. The most powerful image of that campaign – its logo, to use a contemporary term – was a picture of a slave in chains, kneeling and saying: “Am I not a man and a brother?”

That John Newton became an abolitionist is remarkable, given that he had been the captain of a slave ship and thus directly responsible for the cruelty and inhumanity of the triangular trade. It was, as he himself acknowledged, an example of amazing grace. The fatherhood of God ceased, for him, to be merely a familiar and unconsidered Biblical phrase. He was enabled to grasp a richer measure of its meaning. That shift in his understanding was personally life-transforming and moved him to work for the transformation of society. He helped to open the door to the way of thinking that we now call Liberation Theology.

On the bookshelves in my study is my late brother’s copy of A Theology of Liberation by Gustavo Gutiérrez. Father Gustavo autographed it for him when he came to speak to the Anglican Society at Aberdeen University. Gutiérrez understood that political and social activism, while necessary, is not of itself enough. All members of God’s human family are in need of the gift of Grace. He put it like this:

“Without liberating historical events, there would be no growth of the Kingdom [of God]. But the process of liberation will not have conquered the very roots of human oppression and exploitation without the coming of the Kingdom, which is above all a gift.”
The gift to which he refers is the gift of Grace. His words remind us of the imperative to work for justice and peace and also of the universal human need of the amazing grace that transformed John Newton and gave him a deeper understanding of the Fatherhood of God.

A time for everything

Submitted by Dean on Wed, 17/06/2020 - 13:06

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8  Everything Has Its Time

3 For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: 
2 a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; 
3 a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up; 
4 a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance; 
5 a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; 
6 a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away; 
7 a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; 
8 a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

I have been pondering these words of 'The Teacher' as the author is described in some sources over the past few days. These are very familiar and popular words from Scripture and I think they are very relevant to the time we are living through at the moment. The phrase; 'there is a time for ...' seems to sum up the pandemic changes to our lives.

In the present climate there are things we cannot do such as embracing or spending time with loved ones out with our households but what this piece reminds us is that there will be a time again when we will be able to do those things which we cannot do today. In the coming future as lockdown phases change we will be able to embrace our friends and loved ones and spend time with them.

This, has also, and will continue to be a time of hardship and pain for many. Weeping is something I suspect we have all done at some point and for those who are bereaved, anxious or fearful it may be something that it all too familiar to them. These are difficult times but we are promised that there will be other times ahead when things will be different. This promise can give us hope. Hope for better times, hope for an end to the pandemic and a hope that the future will be better than we may think it will be at the moment. 

As we lives our lives we experience many changes both good and bad but one thing that does not happen is that we 'stand still'. Life is about change and every day is different but of one thing we can be assured is, that the love of God is always around us. Even if we doubt it or are angry with God (and sometimes we need to shout out our anger towards God) that love is always there as a comfort and a an encouragement.

If anything these words from Ecclesiastes tell us is that whatever happens things will change and hopefully for the better. 

Sermon for Trinity I by the Rev'd William Mounsey

Submitted by Dean on Sat, 13/06/2020 - 10:09

A sermon for The First Sunday after Trinity 2020

Romans 5:1-8

In his novel “Time Regained” Marcel Proust describes the search for the heart of any experience. Most of us go though life with little insight into the essence of our life because we spend little time below the surface of our day to day existence. Although our lives are necessarily mundane much of the time, occasionally we are caught unawares and our understanding is illuminated for a moment by a glimpse of something deep and mysterious.

This is true not only for religious people who practice their faith but for those who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious’.

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You are suffering, St Paul tells the Christians in Rome. Don’t be cast down. Suffering leads to endurance; endurance to character; character to hope. This is Paul’s strategy, not only for survival, but for mission in a time of persecution.

Our days are different. We are not being persecuted but for many the coronavirus has brought suffering - illness, bereavement, loneliness, poverty. For the churches it has brought the loss of meeting in the fellowship of the liturgy.

However, innumerable people have demonstrated endurance, character and hope and there is real evidence that woven through all of this many are seeking some kind of ‘spirituality’. They know that much of what we have taken for granted in wealthy countries sits on very shaky foundations. They want to ‘get deeper’ rather than ‘getting more’. They have learned that the love they experience with families, friends and local communities must have wider application for wider relationships in the nation and the world. In other words, they reach towards the very convictions the Christian faith offers.

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Skills learned and applied by Christians during the coronavirus pandemic have provided new ways for seekers to engage with the church. Online services are open to those who would be fearful, embarrassed or uncomfortable entering a church building. Comments left on social media pages and via church websites provide evidence that countless “spiritual but not religious” people are encountering the church in ways which are accessible and appropriate.

When the worst is over and church buildings are open once again we must continue to value and welcome all spiritual longing.

The Reverend William Mounsey, Associate Priest, St Vincent’s Chapel.