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A reflection from the Rev'd David Warnes for Sunday 30th August 2020

Submitted by Dean on Sat, 29/08/2020 - 11:53

Trinity XII Proper 17 Year A 2020  Romans 12:9-21

As a young teacher I was given the job of instructing a group of thirteen-year-olds in map reading and orienteering skills. At the end of the course, which involved learning how to use a compass, a colleague and I took them out for a night under canvas on a disused airfield. Once it was fully dark, we set them the final test – navigating by compass bearings at night. The first bearing took them away from the camp, and then a succession of bearings mapped an irregular circuit around the site, with the last one bringing them, in theory, back to their tents. For the next hour, the colleague and I sat and watched as distant torches flickered in a many directions, most of them wrong. The cries of the lost filled the night air. In the end, we turned on the headlights of the school Land Rover to guide them back to camp. We had given them detailed directions, but most of them had not been able to establish a sense of direction.

That night came to mind when I read Professor A.M. Hunter’s commentary on today’s passage from the Epistle to the Romans. He points out that Paul sketches out a general pattern for Christian living:

“a compass rather than an ordnance map, direction rather than directions.”

Paul’s compass points unwaveringly towards Jesus. If you study the passage you will find echoes of the Sermon on the Mount. Earlier in the letter he had emphasised that Christians are justified – re- established in relationship with God – by faith in Jesus Christ, not by “works of the law”. Some years ago, a professor in a Lutheran seminary in the USA, asked his students this question:

“Now that you don’t have to do anything for salvation, what are you going to do?”

It’s a question that confronts all Christians as we face different situations and challenges. Paul’s answer is “point your compass towards Jesus.” He offers no detailed set of rules of conduct. Instead he suggests that Christian behaviour should be rooted in a special sense of what it means to be human. To be human, Paul argues, is to be made in the image and likeness of God and also to fall short of that, to be a sinner. By giving his readers a compass pointing towards Jesus, he is telling them “Look how much God loves you, but not just you, all of humanity. Therefore, you must love one another; not just your fellow Christians but also your fellow human beings. All of them. Without exception.”

This inclusive approach to Christian living is very open-ended and that is why it remains relevant almost two millennia later as we face situations and challenges that Paul never envisaged. He knew from experience that Christians can disagree heatedly among themselves about issues of morality and church order. That remains true to this day. Paul tells us that such disagreements must be negotiated in the light of the Christian imperative to love one another.

He then suggests that if your compass points towards Jesus, your love should extend beyond the Christian community to those outside it, even to those who are hostile to it. The Roman Christians lived in a very precarious situation. Many of them, together with Paul himself, were to fall victim to a vicious persecution ordered by the Emperor Nero. Nevertheless, Paul urges them not to cut themselves off from society, but rather to engage with their neighbours, to empathise with them and not to fall into the trap of feeling superior to them. He warns of the danger of seeking revenge, of entering into the power struggles that result from that, of trying to get even rather than working to achieve justice. That warning speaks directly to the dangerous and divisive situation in the United States, where the struggle for racial justice has led to violence.

It speaks also to the divisions in our own society, the disagreements about politics, racial justice, and gender identity. Spend a few minutes on Twitter, experiencing the anger that is expressed about such issues, and you will be reminded just how counter-cultural Paul’s suggestion that we should blessing those who curse us is. We live in an era of “Cancel Culture” – the tendency publicly to condemn, shame and boycott those with whom we disagree. That isn’t the Christian way, and recent academic research suggests that it is counter-productive because it is likely to entrench the beliefs of those who are condemned rather than to bring about a change of mind and heart.

Last week a Muslim woman in New Zealand showed us the power of forgiveness. Her son was killed in the Christchurch Mosque massacre. At the sentencing hearing, Jana Ezzat told the terrorist:

"I forgive you. The damage is done, Hussein will never be here. I only have one choice and that is to forgive."

The policeman who was guarding the prisoner later told her daughter that that was the only moment in the proceedings when the convicted man showed any sign of emotion; a moving commentary on what Paul meant when he wrote those puzzling words about acting lovingly towards your enemies and heaping burning coals on their heads; not to hurt them but, perhaps, to prompt a change of heart.

We are unlikely to face the kind of challenge that Janna Ezzat faced, but we all have our bêtes noires. They might be difficult work colleagues or particular politicians. Paul is not requiring us to agree with them, nor to condone their actions. He is not even asking us to likethem in the sentimental sense of that word. Rather he reminds us that we must never lose sight of their humanity, the dignity that they have as beings made in the image and likeness of God, and the Gospel imperative to love them. Point your compass towards Jesus, Paul teaches, and you’ll find that you are called to an all-encompassing love.

Amen.

Reflection for Sunday 23rd August 2020

Submitted by Dean on Sat, 22/08/2020 - 10:31

Proper 16  23rd August 2020 Year A

“Who do you say, I am?” That was some question for Jesus to ask Peter and the other disciples. Can you imagine what your response might have been should it have been you that Jesus asked that question of?

In actual fact, Jesus has already asked you that question. You might not be able to answer it, as I suspect that like many of us, you might still be trying to fathom out who Jesus actually is for you. It is easy to give a quick, impulse response to his question; ‘Who do you say I am?’ by simply saying; ‘the Son of God’ but what does that response really mean?

Personally, I do not think that we can give one single, definitive answer to the question because Jesus and ultimately God are revealed to each of us individually. We all get to meet God in our own way. For me if I try to answer Jesus’ question as to who he is I have to approach my answer from an exploration of his human nature, for it is Jesus’ humanity that speaks most strongly to me. For you it might be his divinity or through his miracles, or whatever.

As a human male, I approach Jesus from a point of masculinity and my human male experience. I relate very strongly to Jesus the man, in the ways he is shown to interact with his friends and disciples; in the way he uses words to explain things; and through his emotions of compassion, laughter, joy and anger. These are things I know about and understand within myself and I am therefore more able to translate my personal experience of Jesus through them. I come to Jesus via my own personal experience but I also have to acknowledge that because I do this my understanding of Jesus will be different to yours and that I can never fully understand who he actually is because I am not Jesus and he is not me. For me it is from the similarities I share with him that I come closer to an understanding of who he is.

But what if I was really pushed to say who Jesus is? What would I say?

I think I would have to say that for me, he is the being who is the human personification of our Creator God. A being that showed both his humanity and his divinity in how he lived his life. A man who through his human attributes was able to show us what God is like, perhaps not what God is but what it is like to be ‘of God’.

To be truthful I do not think that I could ever know what God is because only God can know that and I am far from being God. Yet, saying this because we are told that we share in the image of God, I also believe that we have within our knowledge of who we are, an inkling of who God is and thus who Jesus is; but it is only an inkling.

This does not confuse or disappoint me, rather on the contrary it excites me and spurs me on to further exploration. I think about and pray through who I believe God is from the ways he is revealed to me and when I say God I also take it to mean Jesus as well. This act of mental and spiritual exploration is basically ‘doing theology’ - for theology means ‘thinking about God’. We are all, even if we do not acknowledge it, theologians because we all think about God, whether or not we decide to believe in him or not. As theologians our thinking will lead all of us to different conclusions and understandings and will cause us to ask different questions and that I find exciting and fascinating. I also strongly and passionately believe that it is when we interact with each other and share our thoughts that we gain glimpses of God and who he is.

To be honest, I can’t definitely answer Jesus’ questions as to who he is but what I really want to do is to keep on asking my own questions as I ponder on my answer to him.

And, the best way to ask those questions? Well, it is to ask them in the company of others and then to get the discussion going. Isn’t theology great?

Amen.

Reflection of Sunday 16th August Trinity X Proper 15

Submitted by Dean on Sat, 15/08/2020 - 10:51

Proper 15 Sunday 16th August 2020 Year A Commentary on each of the readings:

Isaiah 56:1, 6-8

When one usually reads the Old Testament, one tends to hear about how God’s chosen people are to be increased in number and how they are to extend their influence by conquest, battle and breeding. You also quite often hear about all the good things that God will do and has done and has planned for his chosen people – that very select bunch known to us as the Hebrews.

These few verses from Isaiah, however, seem to counteract all that I have just said for they suggest that God is a lot more inclusive than other writers in the Old Testament suggest. The Old Testament tends to be full of the stories of how the Hebrews became God’s chosen people – his delight above all other peoples. Sometimes you might even wonder if God actually created the other races just to be able to show his favouritism towards the Hebrews.

Isaiah, however, (and this is tertiary Isaiah, that is the third author writing under that name) tells us quite strongly that God is not impartial at all and that anyone is acceptable in his sight if they chose to keep his ways and follow his laws:

“And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
 to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord,


and to be his servants,
 all who keep the Sabbath, and do not profane it,
 and hold fast my covenant— 

7 these I will bring to my holy mountain,
 and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
 their burnt-offerings and their sacrifices
 will be accepted on my altar;
 for my house shall be called a house of prayer
 for all peoples.”                                                                                              Isaiah 56:6-7a

To read this is almost mind-blowing for it sets the scene for Christ’s ministry and shows us that we human beings have always had the opportunity to be one of God’s most beloved people simply by following his ways. I wonder though, if other people were as acceptable to the Hebrews as they appear to have been by God? In fact I know the answer to that question and it is no, the Hebrews could not even accept each other and it led to three distinct Jewish groups developing who tolerated each other but did not accept each other. All too often we human beings can be too exclusive and not follow the ways of God or try to ape his inclusive nature. We humans are selective NOT God. For God says:

“8 Thus says the Lord God,
 who gathers the outcasts of Israel,
 I will gather others to them
 besides those already gathered.”                                                                                   Isaiah 56:8

Until reading this piece of Scripture for today’s commentary I had never been cognisant of Isaiah’s particular take on God’s nature. This piece now amazes me and excites me for it tells me that God has always been accepting and loving of all his Creation, should they follow his ways – always since the time of creation and not just after the birth of Christ. It does however; make Christ’s birth for me all the more important as it shows me how far we humans had strayed from God’s ways that he needed to send his son to redeem us.

Yet, it also offers us hope. Hope that as 21st century people if we continue to turn to God’s ways then we will be accepted by him and loved beyond measure. God’s nature is not to reject, it is to accept but we humans have to decide to seek him out and come to him. He offers us unconditional love we just have to accept it.

Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32

I have to admit that I find the last verse of this Scripture passage from Paul’s epistle to the Romans somewhat disconcerting:

“For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.” Romans 11:32

Why? Because on the face of it, it seems to say that God plays games with us in order to show how loving he actually is. I really don’t like the idea that God has ‘imprisoned’ us in disobedience in order to show us mercy. It makes God seem like some grand puppet master and us human beings incapable of behaving well by choice – our own choice. I hope that Paul did not mean what we read in translation. In fact I suspect that he didn’t because his opening question and short immediate answer are very powerful and decisive:

“I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin.”                                                    Romans 11:1a

That verse is pretty blunt and to the point; God has not rejected his people and if you remember back to what Isaiah said when we use the term ‘his people’ we mean ALL who have turned to God and who try to follow his ways. I do wish that Paul had left it at that, as it makes it very clear that God loves us. As it is though I think he over complicates things and almost negates what he first suggests. If we ignore that last verse of this bit from Paul’s writings we have just read, then I think Paul is actually re-affirming what Isaiah said – that God loves all his creation regardless of who they are.

Matthew 15:10-28

It is what comes out of our mouths that defiles for if it comes out with malice behind it then it will destroy our souls and hurt those to whom it is directed. How true are these words of Christ?

How often have you, like me, wished that you had not said the things you said but had kept a hold of one’s tongue? We all have times when we do this without thinking, times when our anger, fear or hurt cause us to lash out with our tongues and it is perhaps understandable why we do it. The problem arises when we use our words to destroy and hurt intentionally with as they say ‘malice aforethought’.

Jesus tells us that we are not to live lives driven by malice. To be a Christian is to try and live a life with good intention and without malice. What I mean by this is that we are called by Christ to live lives that seek to do good to and within God’s creation. We are called to be co-creators not destroyers. Matthew says, it is not eating with unwashed hands that defile us it is our own impure and imperfect thoughts and actions that do that.

None of us are perfect and we all struggle to live harmonious lives and that it is in that struggle that we can be assured that God will be with us loving us as we try to live good lives. It is when we choose to live lives of malice that we run into trouble and face God’s wrath, for it is then that we are failing to love our neighbours as ourselves. Malice defiles everyone and everything it touches.

Today’s Gospel reading is a warning to us to be careful; careful in what we do and say. If we do anything with an evil intent, then we will be defiled and thus become unacceptable to God, until we repent of our ways and follow his paths once again.

But remember too the words of Paul and Isaiah; we are unconditionally loved and God will always forgive us when we truly repent for the things that we do that defile his image within us. God says you choose how

you live your lives but not all choices will bring you into my loving embrace.

From the Diocesan Magazine August 2020

Submitted by Dean on Sat, 08/08/2020 - 13:56

PRAYER GARDEN AT GOOD SHEPHERD CHURCH

The Church of the Good Shepherd, Murrayfield, has opened its grounds to allow visitors to ‘pray their way around the garden’. By coincidence I
 happened on the church on Sunday, and took a look around.

The building itself is modest but dignified, nestled between rows of typical Edinburgh townhouses, and its well-kept garden offers sanctuary from the bustle of Corstorphine Road. The idea is ingenious – since the church building is closed the churchyard has been turned into a space for reflection, with short prayers, poems or meditations posted around the garden on weather-proof boards. Despite the somewhat grey sky the garden looked resplendent in the sunlight! The porch of the church, with its door remaining open to the elements, is also available for prayer if desired.

The visit very much reminded me of that phrase we seem to hear a lot currently – “it’s the little things that count”. Although a far cry from the social, active experience of ‘Church’ we might be used to, my time in the prayer garden at Murrayfield felt like a moment of closeness with God.

A prayer of Guerric of Igny, a 12th century Cistercian, as seen in the garden at Murrayfield:

Oh Lord Jesus, true gardener, work in us what you want of us, For you are indeed the true gardener at once, maker and tiller and keeper of your garden you who plant with the word, water with the spirit

and give your increase with your power.

David Lewis (Communications Diocese of Edinburgh)

 

Sermon for Sunday 9th August 2020 by the Rev'd David Warnes

Submitted by Dean on Sat, 08/08/2020 - 13:47

Proper 14 Trinity IX Year A Sunday 9 August 2020

Mood swings and faith

This time of Covid is a time of mood swings, a time when even people whose emotional weather is generally mild and sunny find themselves disturbed by items in the news and by the high degree of uncertainty about the future and by the fears about the safety of those closest to them that we are all experiencing; a time when it is very important to know what can lift your spirits and to resort to that, whether it’s exercise, music, time out in nature, baking, or the prayer that can accompany any of those activities. It is also a time when faith may be challenged and when we may be tempted, in those down moments, to fall into the trap of judging our faith in the light of our current mood.

Today’s reading from the Hebrew Scriptures has the prophet Elijah experiencing a massive downward mood swing. He’s recently experienced a very big high – his triumph over the prophets of Baal on the summit of Mount Carmel when God vindicated him by sending fire from heaven – but now Queen Jezebel has ordered his death and he has fled into the wilderness, fearful and depressed. He has journeyed to Mount Horeb, the place of Moses’ encounter with God, the place where he received the Ten Commandments, and has bedded down in a cave. He is so depressed that he is exaggerating how bad the situation is. When he says that the prophets have been killed and that he alone is left, he is forgetting that King Ahab’s steward Obadiah has hidden one hundred of the prophets in a cave, fed them and saved their lives.

Elijah is told that he too will have an encounter with God, but the encounter is not what he expects. God is not in the earthquake, the wind or the fire, not in the transformative and destructive forces which can reshape nature and destroy people. Rather, to hear what God is calling him to do, he first has to listen to what the King James Bible calls a “still small voice”, the “still small voice of calm” of which the Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote. It’s interesting to note that “still small voice” is a mistranslation, and the New Revised Standard version – “a sound of sheer silence” – is apparently more faithful to the original Hebrew. And out of the “sound of sheer silence” comes not some dramatic intervention by God. Instead God tells Elijah to pass on the burdens of political leadership and prophetic ministry – a gentle reminder that it doesn’t all depend on him and that a part of his vocation is to prepare those who will come after him. He is also reminded that God works through human beings, knowing their mental and physical frailties and remaining faithful to them, whatever their mood.

We who know that all human relationships have their ups and downs should also remember that they need not, unless a relationship is abusive, be judged or defined by the downs. God does not judge us by our downs or reward us for our ups. God sees us whole and is lovingly faithful to us.

There will, of course, be times when faith is difficult to sustain; times when it seems impossible to sustain. Peter seems to experience one of those moments in today’s Gospel, but the story of his attempt to walk on water is often misunderstood. When Jesus identifies himself with the words “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid”, Peter only half believes him. His request to Jesus is conditional – “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” That conditionality shows that his faith at this point was not secure. He is putting Jesus to the test. For a little while he is able to walk on the water, but then he notices the strength of the wind. His mood changes from one of hope and growing faith to one of panic and fear and he begins to sink.

Misreadings of this story are often based on Jesus’ words, rather than on what Jesus does. Jesus says: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Too many sermons have been preached suggesting that if Peter had had more faith, he wouldn’t have panicked and his walk on the water would have continued. The point at which Peter doubted was not, however, the moment when he became fearful and began to sink, but somewhat earlier in the story, when he responded to Jesus’ words of reassurance by saying “Lord, if it is you...” What Jesus does for Peter in this Gospel story is more important than what he says to him and comes before it.

“Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him...”

Faith is not about a constant and unswerving belief in God. Even Elijah, the greatest of the Hebrew prophets, was not capable of that. Nor is it about believing that if we have enough faith the laws of Physics and Biology will be altered in our favour so that we will be able to walk on

water or be immune from illness. Rather, to quote the New Testament scholar Eugene Boring, a man whose commentary on Matthew is much more stimulating than his surname might suggest: “Faith is...daring to believe, in the face of all the evidence, that God is with us in the boat, made real in the community of faith as it makes its way through the storm, battered by the waves.”

With us, too, in the ups and downs of our moods; faithfully with us in the time of despair that Elijah experienced and the moments of fearful doubt that the Apostle Peter knew.

Amen.