The Good Bouncer!

Psalm 23

John 10.1-4

My old school song was in Latin. And when I was taught it in primary school, we weren’t even given a translation.  So, even today, I can recite it at break-neck speed without the first idea of what it means. A tribute then to the memory of youth. A similar feat can be the ultra-swift recitation of the 23rd psalm. Since many of us were forced to learn it by heart. Yet the danger is the same as with the school song, words without understanding.

Modern_Bouncers

By Xxinvictus34535 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Let us then take time today to tease out this, the most famous of psalms. Let us take time to meet it afresh not as a memorising chore but as a friend. Let us indeed find within its refreshing depths, meaning that will get us through to those green pastures and quiet water flowing by.

 

Of course, the key word in the 23rd Psalm and indeed our lesson from John’s gospel is ‘shepherd’. Now this conjures up those overly sentimental portraits of Jesus carrying a lamb in his arms. Yet this meek and mild image is somewhat misleading. For, in the Old testament, the descriptor ‘shepherd’ was often used for a king. Therefore, we should perceive from our psalm not just God’s promise that we will get through that valley of darkness but that he has the means of doing so.  In fact, it is his rod and staff that comforts, protects and gives us peace of mind. In our personal reflection on this psalm, then, let’s swap the shepherd motif for one of a commanding power guiding us into righteousness. The right way of helping to spread tables with food, of providing overflowing cups of clean water and of ensuring safe dwelling places. That indeed means restoring the soul of a community so that we all fear no evil.

 

Let us now leap forward many centuries to meet the mind of the writer of John’s Gospel. Here again the image of the shepherd is invoked. And once more, the picture of a rather strangely Anglo-Saxon Jesus carrying an adorable lamb comes flooding into mind. Yet, once again, I must counsel caution. Ok we should continue to hold onto the powerful king concept, but I am also aware of a fly in the ointment. Since, the 1st Century Jewish listener to Christ’s teaching would have other views on shepherds. It a point I don’t often raise at Christmas. The reason being no nativity play would complete without the traditional appearance of small boys adorned with mums’ tea towels.

 

But a two thousand years ago in the Holy Land, shepherds were viewed as outsiders. They lived rough wandering lives in the hills, they didn’t go to the synagogue and they could not observe Jewish rituals.

 

Therefore, we could make our lesson from John more contempory by reading Jesus as saying – I am the good bouncer. No one comes through to God expect via my security. Some other places have real thugs on the door but with me you are safe and will be secure inside.

At first this reading is disconcerting. But then with some thought, not least of the events of the past few weeks, we can get a fresh feel for that level of comfort Christ is offering. Put directly, he is someone who rushes towards danger when everyone else is running away. Someone who will fearlessly intercept the bad before injury is caused. The person who will push into the smoke and flame to carry us to safety no matter the pain and risk to themselves.

 

Here then is an image for us to carry into the next week. The vision of a powerful and courageous Christ as our rescuer and protector; the idea of him being our fourth emergency service.

 

Talking of the fourth emergency service, I believe that the Automobile Association used that catchphrase in their advertising a few years back. I have to say, I have just paid my annual subscription that organisation and it wasn’t cheap. But when you need them, you need them. So it is with Christ the king Shepherd and Christ the guard Shepherd.  Therefore, we do need to pay our subscription. We do need know what Christ offers and be part of his security team. Moreover, need to keep in touch ready to call in any emergency.

 

There is a story told of an old vicar being asked to party. He went along but to his dismay the other guests were the rich and famous. Not surprisingly, he felt like a fish out of water. Suddenly someone had the idea that all should take part in the entertainment. A well-known pianist played entrancingly, a celebrated singer gave full voice and a great actor recited. He had just played the role of a saintly missionary and repeated the 23rd Psalm version from the script. Then it came to the minister’s turn. He protested he knew nothing except the 23rd Psalm and that had already been done. Everyone demanded he did something. Then our actor stood up and said – I knew only the Psalm’s words but you know the Shepherd himself.

 

Let us then know words less and the shepherd more. Let us talk less shepherding and rely more on the shepherd. Let us dine now with the shepherd as King and protector. For then alone will we not want for more.

 

Amen

 

 

 

 

 

How long?

Psalm 13

How long is a piece of string?  When we go into the garage and ask how long it will take to fix the car – we don’t expect that answer. We don’t expect the mechanic to shrug his shoulders and say – how long is a piece of string? When we put an order in to Amazon we don’t expect that answer. We don’t expect an email saying we will deliver when they get to the end of piece of string. Yet when we talk to a doctor or a minister or even a politician we often get that answer. How long is a piece of string?

pocket-watch-1637392_960_720

Because the unvarnished truth is that often the most important questions we have, begs that answer. Put more bluntly still, our key questions in life have no answer here on earth.

 

This was also the point by David in his psalm. It starts with that yearning even distraught question – how long O Lord? Moreover, it is amplified in its dismay by the next questions how long will you forget me and hide from me? He concludes his dismal interrogation by seeking a time-line for his thoughts and sorrows and defeats. David then is asking a ‘how long is a piece of string ‘question and in return what did hear? – silence.

 

Here then is the time honoured conundrum. Since with the events of the last few weeks in mind we can sympathize with David. With the terrible fire in London scarred into our memories, we too can ask the same set of questions as David. More to the point, with so much trouble around, we are equally unable to accept the answer of how long is a piece of string? Indeed, we find the silence to be – unbearable.

 

Have you noticed that as you get older, time seems to go more quickly? Our perception of time also differs depending on whether we are waiting for a bus on a bitterly cold day or watching our favourite telly programme. In fact, Einstein’s theories tell us that time does go past quicker on the space station than it does down here. Or, in simplistic terms, our heads are older than our feet.

 

This also answers questions of string lengths. For time is an entirely different thing for God. It his creation and his tool.  He stands outside it and so he controls it. Therefore, he does know the length of every piece of string, of every human life and every joy and tribulation. It’s just that we cannot perceive it or understand it or command it – we just must take it on trust.

 

David too came to the same conclusion. He came to rely on God’s unfailing love alone to put the twinkle back in his eye, bring victory to his efforts and rejoicing in his heart.  Ultimately, he came to rely on God’s own time and not his own. Because he knew that to be not the good time or better time but the right time.

 

My step-father’s aunt did wonderful tapestry. In all honesty, the reverse was as beautifully sewn as the front. But it is not always the case. For frequently, when we see the back of some great work of art it looks, politely, a bit of a mess. Yet when we turn it round our breath is still taken away at what we could not see before. And so, we are stunned by the bigger, better and truer picture.

 

If then in this week you like David are challenged by imponderable questions, let us pray we can have faith like David. On this day, when our nation seems to have multitudinous questions, may we all have patience to trust in an answer. And in this moment, across our globe we hear continually questions of how long? But to each we must say – I cannot answer – but God knows. Because God’s time should always be our favourite and favoured time. Because, God does know the length of every piece of string!

 

 

 

 

Song of Joy

Psalm 100

 

I surprised myself last Sunday by sitting down and watching the last hour of the Ariane Grande concert from Manchester. Although I knew few of the artists or their songs, it was clear that the audience did. And so, despite that this great musical event as the result of the evil atrocity of a few weeks earlier, you could see there was healing in the music. Indeed, the global superstar Justin Bieber spoke not just movingly of the power of love but also brought up the subject of faith. The incorruptible faith that is of a good God yearning for his creatures to treasure their own individual lives by treasuring our common life. To be frank, he did a better job in front of those young people, than many a preacher.

 

whatchurchescouldbelrgAnd it is this joy – joy of worship – joy in music – joy in coming together even in adversity that is the heart of our psalm of this morning. For Psalm 100 gives voices to an unalloyed joy at being the people of God against the odds.

 

Yet it must be said, few people beyond our doors would think it a joyful treat to come to church. Moreover, they would not consciously take part in an act of worship. At best, they may offer the odd prayer in times of trouble or thanks in moments of sublime peace.

 

And why is that?

 

Well we could spend hours beating ourselves up about offering new hymns, differing forms of worship or even services at all sorts of hours and days.  And don’t get me wrong the result of our deliberations would be useful. But ultimately, there is much resistance to worshipping because it is neither a spectator sport nor a couch potato pastime. Because the unvarnished truth is good solid worship is hard work. Many, therefore, are not up for the effort.

 

But why must worship take mental, spiritual and even physical exertion?

 

Well, to achieve the joy of worship, we need to do the hard work that is quietly hinted at in the psalm. We need to strive to put our buzzing brains full of concerns and cares aside so that we can be surprised by joy. We need to press the pause button on all our interests and desires to find contentment in being with the one who made us. We need to put our whole self on hold to see the bigger picture and then be overawed by it.

 

Moreover, it is not only that. For, as it is often said – the things that give us greatest satisfaction are the things we must work hardest to get. And so, if we do the hard graft of worship we are rewarded by a sense of joy that is beyond our understanding.  We also get a sense of why we should be thankful for our own uniqueness and potential inner beauty. More to the point we get a sense of communion not with a distant and uncaring maker but an attentive father. And it is in that moment of unconsciousness to self, we win the medal of consciousness of God’s unbounded love.

 

Put then maybe a tad simplistically, the joy of worship is not of the adult who has achieved adulthood but an adult who has achieved their renewed childhood.

And who would not work for that?

 

Who would not want to sell this health tonic to others?

 

Who here can doubt that if we enjoy the wellbeing of strenuous worship that we should get our friends and family to sign up as well?

 

A famous preacher recounted his visit to the home of Leo Tolstoy in Moscow during 1971.

Here is his account.

There, tied in bundles and stacked against the wall, were Tolstoy’s handwritten manuscripts for all of his great novels – War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and Resurrection. For an hour, I leafed through the mountain of paper, seeing the man’s handwriting, his strikeovers, and even the doodles he made in the margins.

An elderly Russian woman, the curator of the museum, noticed my deep interest and began to talk to me. “He was a friend of the people, Leo Tolstoy was,” she said. “Would you like to see his desk where he wrote?”

She didn’t have to ask me twice! And the next thing I knew she had me seated in Tolstoy’s chair leaning over his desk and holding his writing pen in my hand! I tell you, it was an awesome moment for me!

Our clergyman goes on to say that often during the rest of his college days, his mind would wander back to that study in Moscow. He’d see himself sitting at that same desk, holding that same pen as the bearded Tolstoy himself opened the door and strode in. “Stephen,” he’d say, “I’m working on a new novel and I need your help! Let’s get down to work!” And our narrator would then sit up straight, look him in the eye, and say, “Yes, Leo, I’ll work with you.”

Well if that was one worship leader’s great commission, how much more so is it our commission to preach the joy of worship. For yes, we can try new ideas and offer a wide-open welcome. But, ultimately, we will achieve our task by talking about joy. The joy of finding the true answers to important questions in life. The joy of knowing that this is not a universe indifferent to our existence but a temple to one who is our shepherd, our pastor and our friend. The joy indeed of working with him, even in times of trial, on the greatest and truest story ever told.

 

May then there be the song of joy in in your hearts in the week ahead.

 

Amen

Getting Fired Up

Acts 2.1-8

Galatians 3.26-4.7

pentecost

A minister put a job ad in the local paper. The plan was for an all-round handyman who could fix things around the church and do the routine maintenance.

The very next morning after the ad ran, a well-dressed young man came and asked to speak to the minister. The pastor “sized up” the chap… and then asked him a flurry of questions:

 

– Can you start the boiler? “Yes!” Can you be here by 7 a.m.  every morning? “Yes!”
– Can you polish the silver and do woodwork “Yes!”
– Can you keep things tidy and mow the grass? “Yes Sir!”

 

And the minister continued: “And, of course, there will be electrical problems and unexpected leaking pipes and toilets overflows and…

Wait a minute! The young man interrupted, “I came here to make arrangements for my wedding. But if it’s going to be like that, I think I’ll just forget the whole thing!”

 

Well, the Holy Spirit’s coming was a bit like that story. You knew there was a punchline coming, but not what it was.

 

So, my question – what was the Holy Spirit’s punchline?

 

Well, the day that the spirit came gives us a clue. For Pentecost was the Jewish festival of harvest long before it had Christian significance. The name itself means 50 days – or 50 days after the Passover. Let’s then look for a harvest within the punchline of the Spirit. Let us look for a good harvest after Easter.

 

Our reading today from the Book of Acts tells of one fruiting of the Spirits’ bestowal. It was the gift of languages. Of course, we cannot fully understand how all the various Jewish pilgrims to Jerusalem could understand the words of the apostles. In fact, it would serve little value to speculate. Nevertheless, the why of the bestowal of tongues is obvious. Since, it was to show that the divisions in humanity were coming to an end. It was to illustrate that the message of the life of Jesus is of everyone. That the power of the risen Christ is available to all humanity. For, the spirit comes to aid, comfort and encourage all who is God-fearing. The tongues then of the Spirit are indeed of fire.

 

Certainly, this was the very type of language that Paul was using on the Galatians. As we have talked about over the last few weeks, this nascent Christian community was riven down the middle with the desire for rules and regulations. As a result, they were divided one from another. And so, Paul gives them a telling off as we heard last week. Because he writes to them – there is neither Jew or Greek, male or female or slave or free in Christianity only brothers and sisters in Christ.

 

And to make his case, Paul uses an argument that would have been strange to the pagan ears of 1st century. For they were used to gods being arbitrary, very human and decidedly unruly. This concept they used to explain the vagaries in their lives. Since, to them, this was the natural outcome of being the gods ‘playthings.

 

Even the Jewish people who knew the true God felt that there was a divine law had to be kept if they as a people were to show devotion.

 

Paul, however tells the Galatians the good news. For the gospel is always that we are not subject to any perceived divine law. We are not the slaves of a quixotic God. Instead we are a family under a God. Moreover, through his loving concern, we can call him – Abba – daddy in our parlance.

 

Why is that important. Because no truly loving parent constrains a child with silly boundaries. No mum or Dad express their power through insignificant rules. No father stifles their offspring with shackles simply to show their own control. No- every parent with their salt uses only rules for a child’s safety and well-being. They only direct for the benefit of whole family and its members.

 

So isn’t then a matter of ‘nanny knows best’ but the Spirit knows better than we do. Moreover, we usually need all the advice we can get.

 

What then might the Spirit be guiding us into today?

 

The well-known author and preacher Fred Craddock tells a thought-provoking story. A few years ago, he was a guest teacher at a theological college. Just before the first lecture, one of the students stood up and said, “Before you speak, I need to know if you are Pentecostal.” The room grew silent. Craddock said he looked around for the Dean! He was nowhere to be found.
The student continued with his quiz right in front of everybody. Craddock was taken aback, and so he said, “Do you mean do I belong to the Pentecostal Church?” He said, “No, I mean are you Pentecostal?” Craddock said, “Are you asking me if I am charismatic?” the student said, “I am asking you if you are Pentecostal.” Craddock said, “Do you want to know if I speak in tongues?” He said, “I want to know if you are Pentecostal.” Craddock said, “I don’t know what your question is.” The student said as he stomped out, “Obviously, you are not Pentecostal.”

 

Well that story reminds in this week, in particular, there are many who would seek to exploit our divisions. There are those who would rather drown out the quiet voice of sense with their own raucous tongue. Moreover, there are even some whose only message is to give a lie to us claiming we are living in a post-truth age.

 

So, let us again be energised by those tongues of fire. Let the Spirit guide us through the storm of noise to the voices of those who need us most to hear. Let the Spirit aid us to look beyond language, creed or race to what we, the Church, can do and be for them. Let the fiery spirit embolden us to speak for that truth which cannot be superseded; that gospel truth that under Christ we are not slaves but children of God and heirs to his kingdom.

 

Let then this week, each bare the fruit of our common language. Let each light up with the Spirit’s fire. Let us each be the gospel’s child.

 

Amen

 

Offering while Don plays

 

 

 

 

 

Do you understand?

Do you understand?

 

Acts 8.26-40

 

One of my favourite visits when we are on holiday in Durham is the local air museum. Very much a self-help operation, there is a certain air of how things used to be before electronic screens. This sense is heightened by their reconstruction of a wartime street. In a kitchen, an aproned woman is baking with earthenware bowls and an enamelled gas cooker. The air raid warden’s hut and Anderson Shelter give a reminder of the nation being ‘all together’ facing a common foe. And the toyshop’s window displays metal Meccano – now there’s memory from the past!

 

i12011And after a few moments, it is easy to say – those were simpler times, those were better times and then the real clanger –those were safer times. For one door lies ajar and it tempts you to push it open – only to find the undertaker on the other side. Those war years then were not safer times – they were indeed very dangerous times. This however doesn’t stop us from searching for that cheapest item of eye wear – rose-tinted spectacles.

 

Now nostalgia fuel myopia was certainly a risk facing the early apostles.

 

For, with the death of Christ, our faith’s ancestors faced a cross roads. They could have sought the apparent safety of a socially walled-off group within their exclusive parent religion. They could have cultivated the delicious ‘them and us’ syndrome that effects all sects.  They could indeed have run back to the known and possibly safer past.

 

Or – or they could grasp the alternative. They could break out into the risks of a new world; a future of hostility and opportunity. Put more directly, they could step out bravely into tomorrow.

Obviously, this would mean a geographical journey across the lands of the ancient Roman world. But it also meant a sociological journey across the boundaries between peoples, life styles, personalities and attributes. It meant, in fact, finding new ways of worshipping, living and witnessing.

 

Since – you see – the Ethiopian official in Acts would have been a different race, culture and class than Philip. It would therefore have been very easy for him to have seen this rather exotic character at a distance and let him pass. But he did not, he took courage from the spirit and did the right thing. He leapt the wall that divided them and ask the question – do you understand what you are reading?

In return, and to the Ethiopian’s credit, he pushed his pride to one side and asked for help from a foreigner. Help to understand the prediction of the good news of Jesus Christ for all peoples.  And so, the outcome of this interchange was a baptism and the message carried outward – carried forward into the future; the future where we live now.

 

We too can blind ourselves with rose-tinted spectacles and hanker for a past of packed churches complete with overflowing Sunday Schools.  We can hunger for everyone wanting to do church in the same way. And many Christian communities still look to this reminiscence as safe and sure and cosy.

 

However, it no longer exists any more than the whole family sitting around the steam radio listening to news from foreign fronts. Instead, our world today is multi-screened, multi-coloured and multi-choice – so let’s embrace it with the Spirit – let’s step out with courage – let’s get on with the job of being the future.

 

Yet even if we want to modern day Philips, we are unsure how to access this future. And the answer lies in those questions – do you understand what you are reading?  And, can you explain it to me?

 

A first-year student in a seminary was told by the dean that he should plan to preach the sermon in chapel the following day. He had never preached a sermon before, he was nervous and afraid, and he stayed up all night, but in the morning, he didn’t have a sermon. He stood in the pulpit, looked out at his classmates and said, “Do you know what I am going to say?” All of them shook their heads “no” and he said “Neither do I. The service has ended. Go in peace.”

The dean was not happy. “I’ll give you another chance tomorrow, and you had better have a sermon.” Again, he stayed up all night; and again he couldn’t come up with a sermon. Next morning, he stood in the pulpit and asked, “Do you know what I am going to say?” The students all nodded their heads “yes.” “Then there is no need to tell you” he said. “The service has ended. Go in peace.”

Now the dean was angry. “I’ll give you one more chance; if you don’t have a sermon tomorrow, you will be asked to leave.” Again, no sermon came. He stood in the pulpit the next day and asked, “Do you know what I am going to say?” Half of the students nodded “yes” and the other half shook their heads “no.” The student preacher then announced “Those who know, tell those who don’t know. The service has ended. Go in peace.”

The seminary dean walked over to the student, put his arm over the student’s shoulders, and said “Those who know, tell those who don’t know. Today, the gospel has been proclaimed. Well done!”

 

Here then is how to spread the good news of Jesus Christ today. Here is how we can break down the barriers of difference that so many are rushing to build up. Here indeed is how to make our faith live in this 21sr Century.

 

For we need to ask each other – do you understand? And where we hear ‘yes’ let us hear a resounding proclamation of the gospel’s experience. But where we hear ‘No’ – let us give witness from the depths of our own understanding. Our knowledge that Christ came for all humanity and creation. That Christ lives so that his presence can guide and sustain even when life is flinging its worst at us. That Christ is alive, that his church is not a museum and his people are moving forward.

 

So, this day – if you do not understand, then ask.

 

If you know, then say.

 

For then the gospel is preached, the kingdom is brought near and the past is made fresh for the future.

 

The sermon is ended – now, preach one to another.

 

 

 

 

 

Do you recognise him?

f12000d6bb28b9556b19bb3896add406_stationsresurrection4-road-to-emmaus-clip-art_350-480Luke 24.13-27

 

If I am being honest, I remember little of my divinity lectures of nearly 20 years ago today. Wish, of course, it was otherwise. However, one comment did stick in my noddle. And it is there in today lessons. For, it seems, that after Jesus was resurrected, he was somehow not immediately recognisable.
Now, I find that rather intriguing. For if you watched last Sunday’s episode of Maigret on the telly, you will know the real drama was in the unmasking of people. Indeed, the plot of every thriller is seeing people as they really are; in truly recognising them as it were.

Well, possibly Matthew was using this concept to entice you into his gospel narrative. The storyline being that you can only understand the birth and life and death of Christ from the viewpoint of his resurrection. For, it is only from that vista, can we recognize that time itself has been defeated. More to the point, time has been vanquished not by making it ‘never ending’ but rather by making time non-existent. Now, this is a wonderful hope for those who have lost a loved one. For, through Jesus’ cancellation of time, we know our beloved are still here but just out of our mortal sight.

However, there may have been another reason that Jesus was not directly recognised by his followers.

This leads me to a great story I heard from a Minister recently:
Some years ago, when he was a Parish Minister, he happened to be at the Western General Hospital in Edinburgh visiting a parishioner he hadn’t met before. He located the ward and the bed. “Hello, there, Mrs Bloggs, and how are you feeling today? “Not so bad, thanks, but I’ve got a bit of pain…about here” and she indicated her abdomen, and then proceeded to go into what the minister thought was very personal and indeed private, if not intimate detail about the effects of her recent surgery.
He was getting a bit hot under the dog collar by this time, and especially when she said that she would like to show me her operation scar.
“I think I’d better get a nurse, Mrs B”
“Right, DOCTOR” she answered
That’s when the penny dropped. DOCTOR a case of mistaken identity.
Needless to say, he made his excuses and left.

Put directly, we often don’t recognize Christ, because we have made a case of mistaken identification. More precisely, we have looking for the Jesus we have made up in our head rather than the real one. A bit like the mistake of the disciples on the Emmaus road.

For we often concoct an image up of him from childhood myths, others’ cod-theologies and even our own desires and prejudices. In essence, we want to hug the Jesus of our wants and run away from the Jesus of our haunts. And, as a result, we do not accept the real Christ with his own requests, his own goals and his own topics of conversations.
And so, we walk by; we do not recognize him in his own right.

It is here, I want to recount a tale I have told you before. For that I am sorry however it is very relevant here. Moreover, it is a great tale. It is in a book by Kathleen O’Sullivan. She says one evening she was in the queue at her local fish and chip shop. It was a bitterly cold and windy night. Everyone just wanted to pick up their food and get back to their warm homes. Suddenly, the door opened and in blew a gentleman of the road. The other customers drew closer together and away from him. The manager surreptitiously appeared and spoke to the arrival quietly. There was no problem as the tramp had enough money for a cup of coffee.
As Kathleen collected her order, she turned and looked at the man sitting alone at wall counter. Suddenly, her world reeled before her. For behind the unkempt beard, she saw the eyes of he who had seen Peter on the beach, the eyes of the one who greeted his followers on the road to Emmaus. The eyes of he who joined them on the mountain top. She saw too the eyes of one who knew her to the core of her being. Moreover, for a second, she also saw his amusement at that moment of recognition. She hurried from the shop in total confusion.

Let then the experience of the disciples on the road Emmaus be a warning to us. In fact, in the week ahead, let us try to put aside our preconceptions of Jesus and let him speak for himself. Let us look for him in the strangest and least expected places. Let us indeed not walk blindly and so allow him to pass us by. For we may not come that way again.

Oh, we say I don’t have the time.
Your right – but God has!

All we need do is recognise it in him and him out with it!

.

Amen

Surprised by resurrection

Luke 24.1-12

There is only one thing more annoying than forgetting the punchline of a joke and that is to remember the ending but not the jape that went before.

 

And that is relevant today, as I saw a sermon title but could find the text. To explain, I was researching today’s talk when I came across the heading ‘surprised by resurrection’. However, I then lost the page and never did read the story beyond it.

 

Nevertheless, you’ve got to admit it’s a cracking title – surprised by resurrection. So much so, it got me thinking. It indeed got be pondering the types of surprises.

 

For there are those pleasant ones of unexpected visitors or invitations to a party. And there are the nasty ones – I’ll leave their illustration to yourself. But there is a third category of surprise – the ones that leave us dumbfounded as we simply can’t fathom what has happened.

 

Now this seems to be the type of surprise suffered by the women and the disciples in today’s resurrection story. For, as we read their story, we get no sense of joy at the Lord’s resurrection – in fact, quite the reverse. Since, if the truth be told, what they were seeing was beyond their experience and comprehension. As a result, the whole experience must have been at best perplexing and at worse downright unsettling. Because, we as a species, are uncomfortable with the inexplicable, events that don’t fit a pattern and facts that cannot be bound with others to give understanding.

 

And it is for these reasons, resurrection is not a hot topic even amongst Christians today. For, we know we don’t see it in our every day. And, as a result, we fear it can be more a stumbling block to faith than a promise of that faith.

 

What then is to be done when we encounter this surprise called resurrection?

How do we cope with the incomprehensibility of resurrection?

Ultimately, what does resurrection genuinely mean for you and I?

 

Well, I believe we must start at a point where the disciples did not. And that means approaching the whole narrative with an open mind. Since Jesus’ followers had a lot of misconceptions about how his rule would be established. As a result, they were not ready to be surprised – surprised by the total newness of the situation.

Let us not make the same mistake – let us be ready to be surprised.

 

Next, we need acknowledge there is much in this physical universe we do not understand – indeed don’t know about. What other civilisations lie far out in space as an example.

 

When we do this, we prepare ourselves for the surprise of something totally different.

It is then we are ready put aside all the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ of the resurrection. We ready to set aside explanation. We ready to acknowledge our limitations.  And now are we are open to encounter – encounter with risen lord in our lives. We are open to companionship –  companionship with Christ with us. And we are open to love – the love of the living Jesus.

 

Finally, we in the right place to receive the real surprise at the core and purpose of resurrection.

 

Since in the early part of World War II, an American Navy submarine was stuck on the bottom of the harbour in New York City. It seemed that all was lost. There was no electricity and the oxygen was quickly running out. It seems the crew was lost.  A Navy diver went over the side of a rescue ship to the dangerous depths in one last rescue attempt. The trapped sailors heard the metal boots of the diver land on the hull’s surface, and they moved to where they thought the rescuer would be. In the darkness, they tapped in Morse code, “Is there hope?” The diver on the outside, recognizing the message, signalled by tapping on the casing of the sub, “Yes, there is hope.”

Here then is the real surprise of resurrection. Here is the real purpose of Easter. For it is not about chocolate eggs and bunnies. It is not even about days off and family get-togethers. It’s about being surprised by hope where we least expect it. It is about being surprised by hope in the darkest places. It is about finding hope when we least understand it. In fact, it is about coming alive again by more hope than we can handle.

 

And that is no joke!

Nice to see you!

Luke 18.31-42

Luke 19.1-10

 

The King James Version of the bible has many faults. But the one I enjoyed most, as a small boy, was the direct translation from Latin of the tax-collector as a publican. The mental image of some poor bartender polishing glasses up a tree amused me no end.

 

But the Latin word ‘publicani’ meant either to be contractor of public works or farmer of the Roman taxes. This confirmed that Zacchaeus was sub-contracted to collect customs duties and other taxes in his neighbourhood.

 

Now history tells us that he would have won this lucrative franchise from the Roman authorities at auction. Once that was done, he only had to collect dues at least to value of his up-front payment. In essence, his purchase price was treated as a loan to the Romans.

 

However, the danger was that the taxes collected would be less than had already been paid out. So, these collectors weren’t inclined to leniency. More to the point, anything he made on the side was his to keep. As a result, tax farmers would have lived a very good life with temptation for corruption never far away. Unsurprisingly too, these revenue men were pretty universally loathed.  So we can imagine him singing the old pop song – let’s make loads of money.

 

 

Therefore, Zacchaeus’ conversion to the side of good was not just to be welcomed it was a miracle. No wonder his change of heart would have been not just a matter of rejoicing, it would have been greeted with astonishment. For he was now singing another Pet Shop Boys’ hit:

 

When I look back upon my life
It’s always with a sense of shame
I’ve always been the one to blame
For everything I long to do
No matter when or where or who
Has one thing in common, too

It’s a sin

 

What a great sight Zacchaeus now has of himself!

 

It was if he was the blind man, in the first lesson, who wanted to see and had his sight restored by Jesus.

 

But that regained insight begs the questions – what are people not seeing today and why are they not seeing?

 

Certainly, the disciples could not see. They could not see the reason for our Lord’s passion. To them this talk of insult, injury and death were an anathema. This just wasn’t the way the script should be played out. Thus, we read – the meaning was hidden from them.

 

Yet here I suspect the gospel writer was being rather charitable. Since they probably were hid the meaning from themselves. For none of us willingly hear bad news. All of us what purely good news. All of us wants lazy ways. All of us want simple answers.

 

Therefore, in these troubled times, if we are not to fall into the same blinding trap, we need to start where the blind man was. We need to cry out to the Son of David with an open heart. We need to rush with expectation. We need to shout out – I do want to see. Because that is the only way to grasp the future as Christ sees it – the future not just of passion but also resurrection. That is the only way to face a future of pain as well as joy through God’s support and encouragement. For that indeed is the only way to run towards a saving vision with all the vigour of Zacchaeus, all the abandon of Zacchaeus and all the contrition of Zacchaeus.

 

Yet why not remain comfortable in the easy and simple solutions so readily on offer?

 

Why take the trouble to be persistent in seeking the Lord’s saving power?

 

Why be cured of our deluding blindness?

 

Well those questions have is a least one clear and honest answer. For it is through Christ alone will we be free of fear of the real future that awaiting us.

 

Shokoi Yokoi spent 28 years in a prison. Not a prison of walls, but a prison of fear. When the tide in World War II began to turn, Shokoi was a Japanese soldier on the island of Guam. Fearing that defeat meant certain capture and death at the hands of the American forces, Shokoi ran into the jungle and hid in a cave. He later learned that the war was over by reading one of the thousands of leaflets that were dropped into the jungle by American planes. But he still feared being taken prisoner, so he remained in his cave.
For over a quarter century, he came out only at night. He existed on frogs, rats, roaches, and mangoes. A few years back, some hunters discovered him and it was only after they sent to Japan for his aged commander to come and talk with him that they could convince him that it was safe to come out and return home.
Twenty-eight years of living in a cave because he was afraid. Twenty-eight years lost because of fear. What a shame. How could a person be so foolish? How could a person be so imprisoned by fear? A life wasted because he was afraid to see reality. A life lost. And it is all too common…

 

Let us not approach this Easter looking for the undemanding and simplistic. Let us not be blind to our risky future ahead. Yet us not also be imprisoned by fear. For the Son of David is listening. He is watching. Moreover, he is beckoning. Because this is the season of him coming to stay and stay for good. This is the season of his rising to restore glorious sight. This is the season of his merciful salvation.

 

And so, we need not say –‘ Goodbye, we miss you already’ we need only say ‘Hello – it’s nice to see you!’

 

 

 

Lost and found

My grandfather was a keen photographer. And in those days nearly 60 years ago, equipment and materials were expensive. So, he was delighted when he received a gift of an Agfa camera when he retired from his employers – the department store of Copland & Lye’s in Glasgow.

 

You can also imagine his distress when on his annual trip on the train to Lairg, he left the precious gift behind. My mother relates trying to think how the family could afford to replace it when it was handed in further up the line.

 

Well, this family anecdote hopefully illustrates the keen concerns that the parables of the lost sheep and coin evoke. However, the parable of the lost son is the more emotional, the more heart rendering and the more meaningful. Why? Well, it deals with a lost person, a lost relative and a lost son. And can we imagine any more heart gripping tale than that type of loss?

 

Nevertheless, if we are not directly involved in any modern version of this tale, we can feel slightly detached. For when we hear of a son or daughter going off the rails, we can be dispassionate. When the TV news reports the loss of someone possibly categorised as ‘a bad lot’, we can think quietly – no great loss.  When the headlines castigate a newly convicted offender we rarely think that they are also a son and daughter, mother and father, wife or husband.

Perhaps then the first point of the parable is to remind about the parent mired in the distress of losing a child not to death but to a fate of their own making.

 

So, as we hear the anxious wait of the father waiting of prodigal son, we need imagine the agonised feels of parents dealing with problem children. With a new compassion inspired by our rethinking, let us be there to listen, to support and give affirmation in their tumult and uncertainty. Let us indeed just be there without judgement for them and them alone. For then we part of the God’s solution and not part of the world’s indifferent condemnation.

 

Now when we hear about the prodigal’s behaviour we are tempted to utter Captain Mainwaring’s immortal words – Stupid boy. For his tale of profligacy is so common as to be unremarkable. Yet Christ does remark on it. And he does so not from the outsiders point but from the viewpoint of a fallen angel. As result, we spy something of the human condition when in default. In fact, I often meet our own congregational members who are no longer Church hungry. And they invariably give a string of reasons for not joining us today. We ourselves know the feelings of guilt if we have not been along to a club, group or other activity we used to enjoy. Moreover, we also understand the embarrassment about going back. This sense then must be amplified in those who are estranged from their families. Put directly, they want to come home but don’t know how too. So, in this week ahead, let us pray for those who are split from a relationship that was once crucial. Let us bring to God’s attention those who have fallen out of our company. Let indeed actively seek to run towards those who need to come back with the welcome of the fatted calf. We might feel foolish in doing so – but be in no doubt, we will only be fools for God.

 

Now, I have been to church services which have included participants giving their testimony. These personal stories tend to have a common thread. For, rarely, will the individual say that before coming to faith they worked in an office, were keen members of their local bowling or golf club and mowed their lawn every Saturday. Instead, the witnesses always have lived a life of profligacy even debauchery prior to becoming Christian. My response to these tales have often been somewhat less than worthy. Since in my scepticism, I did not appreciate the genuine gratitude being expressed about the change Christ has made in the speaker’s life. More to the point, on such occasions, I have expressed a less than whole hearted thanks for a God who has outreached himself to catch me, hold me and uplift me.  Therefore, my response has mirrored that of the elder son.

 

Let us then in this time of reflection, feel less like that older brother. Let us re-examine our own reasons for being grateful. Let us count our blessings and they say three simple words without reservation – gee pa ta!

 

Yet rather like the elder son, we can still feel that our loyalty has been taken for granted. Why should I give thanks for the fruits of my hard work and diligence?

 

An old legend tells how a man once stumbled upon a great red barn after wandering for days in a forest in the dark. He was seeking refuge from the howling winds of a storm. He entered the barn and his eyes grew accustomed to the dark. To his astonishment, he discovered that this was the barn where the devil kept his storehouse of seeds. They were the seeds that were sown in the hearts of humans. The man became curious and lit a match. He began exploring the piles of bins of seeds round him. He couldn’t help but notice that the greatest majority of them said, “Seeds of Discouragement.”
About that time one of the devil’s helpers arrived to pick up a load of seeds. The man asked him, “Why the abundance of discouragement seeds?” The helper laughed and replied, “Because they are so effective and they take root so quickly.” “Do they grow everywhere?” the man asked. At that moment the devil’s helper became very sullen. He glared at the man and in disgust he said, “No. They never seem to grow in the heart of a grateful person.”

 

Let us then give thanks for our parental God’s indulgence and his Son’s companionship. For then we will have the divine encouragement to place an arm around the one who searches for one lost and estranged. For then we can have the courage to go out and bring back the lost sheep and coin of this wholesome community. For then we will ourselves be fully reconciled as not a servant but child of the merciful Lord who quietly says during the party of reunion – you are always with me and all that I have is yours. So now come along, give thanks and celebrate! For what was lost is now found.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Are you the One?

Luke 7.18-35

 

Maybe today I should tell you a little of my past.

 

Well, as you know, after receiving a Nobel Prize in physics, I flew up to the International Space Station before founding a billion -dollar business empire which allowed me to sail round the world single-handed.

 

Of course, all of that is utter rubbish. Yet we seem to be in an era when famous people can make up the most amazing nonsense about themselves. They claim to be whatever they fancy with no qualms. They are happy not with one truth but alternative truths.

 

Yet the question is – why are they doing this in the first place? And it seems to come down to the fact, they know we are all still looking for ‘the one’; the one who is to come, the true saviour and the ultimate hero. And, thus, we are too easily a victim of our own scatter-gun approach to looking for a messiah.

 

Nevertheless, the antidote to those who would seek to delude us is in our hands. It is the same one as given by Luke. It is in the response we hear there from Christ. And it is don’t believe words – believe actions.

 

Let us then believe not in human champions with distinctly feet of clay but the One of good actions. The One who encourages, inspires and insists on helping the blind see, the lame walk and goodness preached to the poor. Let us put our faith this day in Christ alone.

 

So, why is Jesus not accepted universally as the beacon of right and saviour to righteousness. Why indeed do people prefer the idol of the Twitter feed or Facebook page over the One who is God with us and God acting for us?

 

Well, Jesus gives something of the answer in the second part of today’s combined reading. For here, he contrasts the two approaches to people between himself and John.

 

Now, firstly, we must accept that Jesus and John were ministering to two different groups.

 

John was called to be a guiding prophet to Joe and Josephine Soap of our everyday experience. He came to call ordinary people out of their rut and routine. Put bluntly, he was called to prod each of us here to go out into the wilderness.

 

Since it was only there he saw the possibility of renewal, refreshment and return to a better way of living. For he was saying come on out of your bubble and leave fallow life’s less productive fields.

 

Because, let’s face it, we can all feel that what was once powering our lives has gone a tad flat. Maybe our faith has become a bit threadbare with recent experiences. Maybe our spiritual life has fallen into disrepair due to our toils, burdens and distractions. Maybe our good intentions for ourselves have come to little more. And so, we may be in danger of saying what we should not and not doing what we should. Moreover, we may even be on the cliff edge of not being the person we want to be.

 

Yet despite its veracity, God’s call through John is unpopular because it is not just uncomfortable it is decidedly unsettling.  Better for most people today to ignore it.

 

However, Jesus had a different approach to a different ministry. For he was called not to the man and woman in the street but to those who were in genuinely dark places. Those whose lives were blighted by an overpowering badness. Those indeed who were outsiders often for very good reasons.

For Christ knew that, for those so afflicted and afflicting, there are few avenues to back it back their community’s fellowship. So, Jesus did not hold back, he did not just call out from the safety of a better place. Instead he went into the blackness and the stinking places. He went to meet those who were so far down they could not find their way up. He went to eat with the really ‘bad hombres’ – as current parlance has it.

 

Yet, despite the resounding virtue of Christ’s mission, few in any age feel able to follow in his footsteps. For this call is not just unsettling but nearly impossible even for the most committed.

 

No wonder then that while John was criticised from keeping himself holy from the mundanity of compromise, Jesus was condemned for getting ‘down and dirty’. No wonder, Christ called his critics ‘children’ and a perverse generation. No wonder every succeeding generation have continued to be perverse by rejecting the call to going into the wilderness and rescue from darkness.

 

However, John and Jesus two approaches also give us a way to conquer our natural human instincts. They help us to return to being the people we want to be. They guide us to the path of revitalising ourselves and retrieving people from bad places.

 

Because, in the week ahead, we will hear John’s call to go out to the desert if only for a few moments. By that I mean the wilderness of solitude without telly, phone or other distraction. For it is there we will reconnect with our hero and saviour. It is there we will rediscover a companionship that will reaffirm us and support us and inspire us. It will be there our faith will blossom once more in our aridity. It is there we will become ready to be prophets to our generation.

 

Then refreshed and refuelled, we can prepare to heed Jesus’ call to venture forth. To help others from their blackness and back to life and light and truth. To help ourselves be lifted out of our own bad places back to life and light and truth. To help everyone to hear, see and know the truth and to hear, see and know the wisdom. For the unalloyed truth and wisdom is that we are all God’s children if adorned with false glories and alternative riches.

 

Come on then, let’s believe in the one and only, let us believe in the one who is to come. Let us indeed take his call – and take it now!