Who is my neighbour?

“Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

“Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”  

                             Luke 10:25-42

These are the Gospel readings from the past two Sundays. The latter follows immediately on from the former in the Gospel according to Luke, and I wonder why Luke felt these stories go together? I wonder too, how these stories apply in our lives today?

I would like us to turn initially to the story of Mary and Martha and to journey back in time to the original Greek. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the reading of Mary and Martha is thus:

“Now as they went on their way, he [Jesus] entered a certain village, where a certain woman named Martha received him. And she had a sister called Mary, who also having sat at the feet of the Lord was listening to his word. But Martha was distracted about her service; she came and asked, “Lord, does it not concern you that my sister has left me to serve alone? Therefore, speak to her that she might help.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled by many things; one thing however is necessary, and Mary has chosen the one thing, a good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”     

The differences are subtle but the nuances and way in which the story is told changes our understanding of the story. Many generations of scholars, teachers, and preachers have read so much into this story and have made it quite a gendered story. Martha is portrayed as being in the kitchen preparing food. She is usually pitted against her sister with the ultimate question asked of whether one is a ‘Mary’ or a ‘Martha.’ Mary’s decision is described as being ‘better,’ but this is not what is written in the Greek.

We make the assumption that Martha received Jesus into her home. The Greek does not mention the disciples being received as well as Jesus. The two of them (Mary and Martha) were listening to Jesus. Our more literal translation includes the word: also. Mary, wherever she had been, came in and also listened to Jesus. But Martha was distracted. Yes, this could have been about food preparation – the hospitality required for guests. In many Bible translations, this distraction appears to refer to the tasks that a woman would be doing in the kitchen because this was the woman’s job in many different societies throughout the ages. However, the word used for service is diakoniaand is where we acquire our word ‘deacon.’ It is only in this point of Luke’s Gospel that the word is translated as ‘tasks’ (NRSV), ‘preparations’ (NIV & NEB), ‘serving’ (NKJV), ‘work’ (GNB). Strong’s Concordance shows that elsewhere in the Bible, diakonia refers to ministry, service, contribution for relief, mission, and support. 

Let us, therefore, take away the assumptions about food in this context and think on what really matters in this story. Martha was distracted. She was sitting and listening to Jesus but was possibly feeling guilty that she wasn’t doing what she felt she had to do – her ministry – whatever that entailed. Her ensuing conversation with Jesus shows that she felt able to talk to Jesus freely and that he treated her as an equal. Something we take for granted but was not common in that culture. She obviously wanted Mary to help her in her ministry and felt that Mary would obey the patriarchal figure of Jesus if he told her what to do. But of course, he doesn’t do what is expected of him. Jesus speaks of the necessity of listening to himself as the teacher. We have no idea what he was speaking on and who else was listening as this is irrelevant to Luke’s story. Therefore, what is Luke’s point? Could it be about our focus? When presented with a situation where we have a teacher with something important to say, what are we doing? Because whatever we are doing at that point in time is the most important thing in our life at that particular moment. What does that say about us as followers of Christ? This then is where the parable of the Good Samaritan comes into our lives.

“Just then a person stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?” Jesus replied, “A person was going from ‘A’ to ‘B’ and broke a leg/fell ill/had a stroke/was hospitalised. Now by chance a pedestrian was going past; and when the person in need was seen, the pedestrian passed by on the other side. He said to himself, “I have no time. Someone else can meet their needs.” So likewise, another individual, when the person in need was seen, passed by on the other side, shrugged and said to him or herself, “I don’t really know that person.” But a Samaritan while travelling came near.. [you know the rest of the story].. “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the person who was unable to help themselves?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Now, in the original story, Jesus typecasts the two who passed on the other side as members of the Judaistic priestly class because he is teaching Jews. He uses imagery abhorrent to the Jews to make a point. He uses the idea of a Samaritan, a person cast away from the Jews because of their beliefs and principles as the kind, caring and compassionate one. Imagine, then, if I were to typecast the pedestrian and individual above as Christian No. 1 and Christian No. 2 and the Samaritan as a homeless person?

The pedestrian and the individual in the story above are so involved in their own lives that their focus is not on Christ. Martha is possibly feeling guilty that she is not getting on with her ministry – whatever that might be. Her focus is no longer on Christ, even though he is in her house at this very moment in time. 

This, then, is where our diakonia comes in. This is not just the responsibility of an ordained deacon in the church but is the call of everyone who chooses to follow Christ. To be a Samaritan to the person in need wherever that person is. Whether that person in need is visible and in front of us or is housebound or in hospital. The story of Martha and Mary shows that it is possible to have Christ live within us and still be caring and compassionate to those around us. We no longer have to choose whether we are a ‘Mary’ or a ‘Martha;’ we can be both. We can sit and learn from the Teacher of whom we follow as Christians and we can retain that focus and be in service and be a Samaritan. To do so shows that we are a part of the community around us and that our faith is relevant to the people we know and don’t yet know in our communities.

Rural Sunday, 14th July 2019

The sermon was given by the Revd. Dr. Anne Tomlinson, Principal of the Scottish Episcopal Institute. The latest newsletter for SEI is in the ‘News’ section of this website. [The first three years of my training were through SEI and my curacy is also overseen by SEI – Ellie]

Last year I sat through a preaching exercise that another member of staff at SEI had set the students. The exercise was to deliver a short sermon on the passage we’ve just heard as our Gospel. So I sat through the multiple interpretations of this well-known Parable – and because it is so well known, each student had done his or her best to find a new angle on it. Thus we heard accounts from the perspective of the lawyer, the Levite, the Samaritan, Jesus, the robber and even in one case – the gentleman in question was an ordinand from this diocese – from the perspective of the animal upon whose back the victim was placed. 

What I found surprising was that in all these renderings – 23 of them in total – no one had imagined what it was like to have been the one who was jumped upon, stripped, beaten, and left in a state of semi- consciousness, half dead by the side of the road. Nor what it must have felt like subsequently to hear the voice of your rescuer, have your wounds bathed with oil and bandaged, be placed on an animal and gently led to the safety and care of the inn. Not one of these students stood in those shoes  – and yet they are the very shoes in which each one of us stands .. as Paul reminds the Christians at Colossae:

He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son

Our lives as Christians are predicated upon that experience of being rescued from darkness and led into light. In Baptism we mark that transference.In the liturgy we say

Bring those who are baptised in this water with Christ through the waters of death, to be one with him in his resurrection.

And again, in one of the prayers for the baptised: 

God our Saviour, when your kindness and generosity dawned upon the world, you saved us in your mercy through the water of rebirth and the renewing power of the Holy Spirit.

Through the kindness, generosity and mercy of God shown in Christ  we have been rescued from the power of darkness. The core of our being should thus be one of thankfulness, of gratitude to God for this act of redemption. It is from that wellspring of grace that we should live our lives.  We should live, in other words, as Eucharistic people, thankful at all times and in all places for all God’s good gifts around us, constantly cascading the grace and generosity we have received on to others. The great Christian novelist G.K. Chesterton once wrote:

You say grace before meals. All right.  But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.”  

Generosity of being should be what characterises our Christian living. It should be our default position. Rowan Williams once said being a Christian was akin to being a little crevice halfway down Niagara Falls. We are saturated and soaked by grace that descends and passes on and draws us in. ‘There’s not a great deal of point in the rocky crevice halfway down saying, “Well, I think I would like to hold on to some of this water.” You really haven’t got much option. It falls on you and it bounces off, that’s what waterfalls do! It’s given to us to be givers, to pass on an intensity of outpouring.’

Being Eucharistic people means living lives of graced giving. But do we?  Or do we live by another ethic? An ethic governed by prudence and obligation, worthiness and deservingness. I remember being pulled up shortly by my spiritual director some years ago when I was explaining how I differentiated between the neediness of those begging on the streets of Edinburgh where I live. ‘But Anne’ he gently remonstrated ‘what calculus does God use at communion?’ 

At Communion rich and poor, old and young, well-educated and those without much schooling, the haves and the have-nots, those whose faith is firm and those who are unsure what they believe, kneel together with outstretched hands. All are welcome, all receive and all receive the same.  God does not discriminate or turn some away. God does not do maths with our worthiness. To each of us he says ‘You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat’.

As Christians we are called to rise from that meal, and go out into the world to love and serve the Lord in all whom we meet, sharing the generosity that we ourselves have received all unworthily. To live it as individual Christians in our homes and our neighbourhoods, at work and in family life, with colleagues and loved ones, neighbours and strangers. To live as missionary disciples.

And to do it also as congregations. Local Christian communities that live by this ethic of generosity spread a powerful message far and wide. When he wrote this letter Paul had not visited Colossae, and yet had heard of their faith in Christ Jesus and the love that they had for each other all the saints.

The great missiologist Lesslie Newbigin once asked how people might come to believe. He wrote:

I am suggesting that the only answer is a congregationof men and women who believe (the gospel) and live by it. I am, of course, not denying the importance of the many activities by which we seek to challenge public life with the gospel – evangelistic campaigns, distribution of Bibles and Christian literature (and so on). But I am saying that these are all secondary, and that they have power to accomplish their purpose only as they are rooted in and lead back to a believing community.”

People come to believe through meeting a congregation of men and women who believe (the gospel) and live by it. Nowadays we have to think cannily about how that first ‘meeting’ happens. Research shows that in rural areas today, the predominant way for folk to get to know a congregation is via social media. You use Facebook, twitter and the like to great effect here, I see, communicating who you are and what you are about in an attractive welcoming way to people far and wide. This is good – would that more congregations followed your lead. 

Yes, people come to believe through meeting a congregation of men and women who believe (the gospel) and live by it. It’s a useful annual audit for any AGM or Vestry to undertake. To assess just how far the congregational actions and the messages given out – by noticeboards and via social media, by the kind of interactions between members outside the church –  are in tune with an ethic of thankful generosity. I remember ministering in one church which held its coffee hour in a glass narthex, and so visible from the street. An elderly man joined the congregation because, as he put it to me, ‘I saw you all chatting to one another and embracing each other and I wanted to be part of a loving community like that because I am lonely’

So why not check that every decision you make here about worship, children’s work, outreach, budget, fabric is made with such an ethic of thankful generosity in mind? To ask yourselves, does this action communicate a message of graced generosity towards others? Does it speak of our thankfulness for what we ourselves have received? Does it mirror of our sense of having been rescued from darkness and our desire to rescue others in turn? 

Jesus said to the lawyer, “Go and do likewise.” As you go, dear people of St John’s, dear people of St Peter’s, 

may you indeed be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding. May you lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God. May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power. And may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.

What is love?

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”                                                                                  John 13:34-35

On Sunday we explored these three sentences. What it means to love one another without hesitation, or resistance. A command that sounds so simple, yet can become so incredibly complex when human emotions are factored in. As the Easter people, why is that we find this so hard to do?

To place these verses into context, we discover that they are part of the discourse that Jesus has with his disciples immediately after the Last Supper and before leaving the upper room for prayer in the Garden of Gethsemene. Judas has just left the room and now there is no going back. Jesus talks to his remaining disciples and tries to explain to them what he means, but they just don’t get it. They haven’t got the rest of the Gospel or the rest of the New Testament as we do, and what Jesus was talking about wasn’t part of their perspective. The bigger picture for them involved Jesus coming in and rescuing Israel and fighting those who were the oppressors. Not this talk about being with them for only a little longer. Their faith was in a Messiah who would rescue their nation from their woes. Jesus needed to radically transform their understanding of what woes they really had and how they would be rescued for them to be able to speak to others. He needed to change their ideology from fighting talk to loving talk. He needed to change their aggression (and denial) to that of love. He needed to change their perception of us and them, of Jew and Gentile, to that of God’s children, regardless of creed, colour or race.

All of the Gospel of John points to the cross. This is where understanding and illumination happen. God is seen in Christ, and Christ in God. What is revealed in the cross is the love of God in Christ. Sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Love. To love one another. Yet, we also seem to find such difficulty in doing so. Most of the Hebraic Scriptures is about love. Just as Israel was designed as a loving community, who treated those who came into contact with it with respect and care, so it is with what Jesus asks of the disciples. They and we are to be a community from which the love of God shines across and out. 

Here is an excerpt from Shakespeare’s one hundred and sixteenth sonnet:

“Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove:

O no! it is an ever-fixed mark

That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

It is the star to every wandering bark,

Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken. 

Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks

Within his bending sickle’s compass come:

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,

But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

If this be error and upon me proved,

I never writ, nor no man ever loved.”

This goes to show that the complexities of love are woven through the centuries. Poets have wrangled with how to describe love and what it means in our lives for millennia. What is this love? It is love that knows no bounds, that does not alter or bend. It bears out to death. Jesus’s love for us that goes beyond human expectation or knowledge, that takes us just as we are, warts and all, specks or logs in our eyes, and loves us. 

This great new commandment can fill us with a great sense of hopelessness and failure, if we do not read the Gospel carefully. We know that we are wholly incapable of showing the love of God in the way that Jesus asks us. This is a commandment given to a group of disciples who seem utterly incapable of grasping the message and are also about to run away when the going gets tough. Jesus entrusts his message to them simply because they are loved by him and by God. There is no other qualification required. However, our love for others is dependent on our ability to accept love, and to love ourselves as God loves us. It is love that knows no bounds, that does not alter or bend. This, then, is where we begin to struggle. Who knows what we despise in ourselves and think that cannot be forgiven? Who knows how much we are capable of ‘beating ourselves up’ over something said or done that was in some way hurtful? Who knows what ‘love’ was shown to us in the past that turned out to be a sham. It is things like this that make us withdraw from others and from God. We begin to question how these things could be allowed to happen and why did it happen to us? How could God love someone who is frightened, in denial, outspoken, frequently puts their foot into their mouth and hurts others on the way? This was Peter, and God chose to build his church through Peter. A man who denied Christ three times in a single night and God still believed in him.

Knowing that we are loved and trusted by God is the beginning of fulfilling this commandment. We do not generate this love in ourselves, because it is already there. We do need to cultivate it of course, and that is material for another day. As Christians we know that God is love, not a set of tasks, or works, or rituals, but simply love. We’re not better at loving than anyone else, but God has loved us from the very beginning and trusted us, even before we began our journey in Christ.

It takes time to allow God’s love to seep into our souls, our hearts and minds. We have a choice to allow God in, to explore where God was in those moments that we felt bereft and to follow Him. Or we could choose to carry on, being very much in control of our lives. What does it mean then, to love one another without hesitation? Having allowed for our emotions, one can see that God himself has made allowances of our emotional and mental state. In fact, one could say that he has thought of everything. 

My challenge to you this month is this: will you, as a member of the Easter people, show the light of Christ in you to others without hesitation? The light of God that we carry inside is a precious cargo: “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, and give glory to our Father in heaven.”

The Asst. Curate’s letter: Easter.

Happy Easter to you all. Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

As I write this, the sun is shining and birds are singing. There is wall to wall blue sky and children are outside playing in the warmth of this April morning. We are so fortunate to have land that we can access so easily and to enjoy the diversity of His creation.

One of the weeks of the Lent course that was run in both Wick and Thurso explored Orthodox theology and our role in that. Being part of the created cosmos and seeing God in all created things. We learned about the art of iconography and one person’s discovery that she could pray an icon into existence, using her paintbrush. Another week, we explored how to use a finger labyrinth and how that can be used to still our hearts and minds and focus on God.

We have explored and discussed deep and meaningful quotes by some of our earliest theologians and practised different ways of connecting with God. All of which are provided to help us determine how each of us as individuals connects with God on a deep and personal level. Because there is no ‘one size fits all’ in the journey of Christian discipleship. So it is with our journey with Christ as we lead to the Cross and reflect on our part in that story.

This, combined, with my questions for previous letters, “Where do our priorities lie?” and “where does our future lie?” gives us a springboard to launch into the post-Easter future. What lies ahead? The easy answer is that the liturgical year of the church is already mapped out for us. We begin to look to Ascension Day and Pentecost. However, how do we use what God has provided for us in terms of ministry and mission in and around Caithness?

I was very aware, in running the course on Christian Spirituality and Mysticism of just how much spiritual hunger there is in Caithness. The course in Thurso was held in the Community Caféon Harbour Road in Thurso and that allowed various people to come to the course who would not have attended otherwise. What other opportunities do we see around us, but don’t necessarily think are relevant to the Church in Caithness? We can no longer think of the church continuing as it has done for decades, Now is the time to think outside of the box. What initiatives have you seen elsewhere that might, given the very specific geographical nature of Caithness, work in reaching out and spreading the Good News of the risen Christ? 

Can we choose intentionally to be as radical as Christ? N. T. Wright wrote: “If someone in the first century had wanted to invent a story about people seeing Jesus, they wouldn’t have dreamed of giving the star part to a woman.” In a heavily patriarchal society, no thought was given to a woman being party to the first resurrection appearance of the risen Christ (John 20:16-18). If you read from Luke’s Gospel, the men thought an idle tale was being told to them by the women (Luke 24:11). These were the women who stuck with the Lord through thick and thin, who catered for his needs, who were there at the cross, and who had the courage to go to the tomb with spices on the third day to prepare his body for burial. They were not expecting to see the risen Christ, but they did. And they went and told the others. 

My point is not to raise one gender up over the other, but to ask where you might have seen, noticed or thought of a way in which to reach out to others that you have then put aside as being a nonsensical idea. I would like to know what those ideas are. We are the church in Caithness, as a corporate body, but we are also individually searching for God on our own spiritual journeys. Different viewpoints and different ideas carefully and respectfully shared enrich our journey together as we search out radical opportunities to be a witness and light to the many different nationalities that we meet every day in Caithness.

We meet in Christ’s name. Let us share His peace.

Curate’s Letter: Easter

Last month I asked where our priorities lay. I asked if we choose to be outward focussed? Who could choose, whatever the cost, to reach out to others? Who would choose to help others in poverty, despair or addictions so that they may come to know the love and peace of Christ? 

This month I am asking you where does our future lie? This is a multifaceted question, with many different answers possible. In one sense you may well be asking how the question this month is any different from what I asked in Lent’s Outlook.

I would like us to begin by spending some time on some of the verses of our reading from Isaiah 55:

“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

The first two lines remind us of a situation that Jesus found himself in, described in John 4:1-15 where he meets a woman who has come to draw water at the well. Our bodies need actual water in order to survive but our spiritual needs can only be nourished by the water God gives us. It is so easy for us, as the people of God to forget how much we need God. In the passage above, the people are beckoned forward to eat and drink from what which God is offering us, freely and without charge. How often do we forget God does not charge us for his overwhelming abundance and grace? Jesus says that everyone who drinks of the water that he gives them will never be thirsty again. 

I wonder how many of us have searched high and low, for many years for a certain amount of satisfaction and it has never quite appeared. The search goes on and on and the void inside has never been quietened or stilled. 

We go on labouring for that which does not satisfy. We make ourselves busy because we’re too afraid to stop. We’re too afraid to make space to listen and seek God, because we’re afraid of what we might find. But I put it to you that fear should not hold us back, because all we need is a mustard seed of faith. To be able to look forward to the future. To partake the rich feast that God has for us, to incline our ear to him. To listen, so that we might live.

Do we trust God? Do we trust that he knows our future, and that he wants only the best for us? If we do, can we place our worries, anxieties, needs and wants in his hands? Can we have the grace to allow God to work in ways that we don’t think are the way we would do something?

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

Dare we allow God to reside with us, alongside us, in all that we do and say? Our deeply held traditions and set ways of doing things must be done with grace and reverence otherwise there is a very real danger that these duties become nothing but automated tasks that have no spiritual purpose. Can we allow ourselves to acknowledge that God does not think like us and never will?

Would it be possible for us to actually allow God to lead us? As individuals and as a Church? Will we be as welcoming to all as the writer of the book of Isaiah is, in his greeting to all? Will we welcome the very young as well as the very old? Will we be as gracious to those who make any sort of noise in church, regardless of their age because we trust that God knows best? Even though we may not be able to remain focussed.

What does this have to do with our future? If we think back to last month where I asked about our priorities, then the question was whether we would choose to live and hold on to the way things have been done for as long as one can remember, or whether we chose to live like those rooted in streams of water, drinking deeply of God’s grace and wisdom. In that sense, water is a recurring theme and the need to refresh oneself is stated again. I believe it is stated again because we are such obstinate creatures and we forget, continually, to drink of the life-giving water that is presented to us, free of charge.

In a more physical sense, does our future lie within the confines of the church building? Or does it lie in the chaos and spontaneity that we sometimes find in our churches? Does the awkwardness of such stark differences to the easy going well rehearsed routines of our services startle us out of our reveries? If so, then I say that is good. Because that means the Holy Spirit is with us, and we are present with the Holy Spirit. Our future lies with allowing God to lead. With allowing the noise of exploration to occur throughout our church buildings, however uncomfortable that might be. 

God knows where our future lies, quite literally.  We might be abruptly removed from our comfort zones to make space for the Holy Spirit to move, and we need to be okay with that. We need to be welcoming of everyone into our churches, regardless of their dress, or age, because the future of the Church lies with them. Not us. Can we allow them to become accustomed to the presence of God without imposing our wishes or preferred style of worship on them? Can we seek God together as we realise that both ourselves and the stranger we meet are both represented by the woman at the well? Our future, and the future of the Church in Caithness lies in our hands. Are we prepared to hand over to God the ways and means with which he wants to move and allow the water that we seek to become a spring of water in us, that gushes up to eternal life (John 4:13)?

Mothering Sunday

This Sunday is Mothering Sunday. A day when we recognise and give thanks for the many different strands of motherhood – both physical and spiritual. 

We perceive in the Gospel reading, a mother watching her son die and yet the compassion that Jesus had in asking a friend to take in his mother and love and respect her as his own mother. An act that involves so much emotion and comprehension to allow Mary to grieve yet giving her the chance to process that grief while remaining in loving community. Wrapped up in all this, is the brief nod to the consolation that comes from others, and in this case, this comes from the disciple.

An etiquette that wasn’t just about honouring the customs of the Jewish culture but was about being human. Acknowledging the rawness of grief, but enfolding that into a family situation. Bringing and holding it in community. Something that can be lost in the passage written by Paul. Although Paul is writing to a community, the Corinthians, these are words that can serve to meet each of us in our own needs. We will never know what the afflictions were that the Corinthians were being affected by, but we do know that God consoles us as we console others. Something we can only do, if we are in community. 

Mothering Sunday is about community. It’s about allowing ourselves to be a part of a community. Historically, around the sixteenth century, Mothering Sunday was less about mothers and more about Church. People would make a journey to their ‘mother’ church once a year. This might have its origins in the annual pilgrimage one sees across the world in different traditions and indeed religions. Or in the grand estates of wealthy landowners who allowed their estate workers to travel home for a day off, to see their parents on the fourth Sunday of Lent.

The ‘mother’ churches, which may or may not have been a cathedral, would have provided a service to commemorate the coming together of families. Life more or less surrounded the church, so people would have gone to church, followed, I guess, by community gatherings to allow various folks to catch up with each other.

In contemporary society, that sense of community has become more dispersed. We have at our hands various forms of social media – social, while being passive. We don’t need to talk to anyone any more. We can just text, or email, or send an image. But that in itself is not enough. It is so easy to withdraw from the world and not interact with others. The sense of community changes with our expectations. Or, are our expectations dictated by our use of social media? Do we find ourselves subtlely changed by what we perceive the etiquette of social media expects of us? The desire to be in contact and able to converse with others and articulate ideas is central to the development of societies, and therefore of community.

The Church celebrates community on Mothering Sunday. Communities that have come together in many churches across the world, gathered by those who love and nurture others. Those, who have endured afflictions as Paul describes, who are able to console others. Who are willing to allow God to work through their afflictions and consolations to reach out to others. Because, as Paul writes, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God.” 

The process is reciprocal. As God gives to us, so we give to others. Unbelievably simple in concept, like so much of what Jesus’s theology is, yet incredibly complex in actually setting out to achieve it. Human emotions get in the way, as painful memories come to the surface, that might inhibit what we feel is being asked of us. Then there is the draw of social media where we can be absorbed into a passive, unspoken world where we don’t have to interact with real people. The danger there is that we don’t deal with the grief that sits in our hearts. Being in community makes us interact with others, where others can listen. 

Communities, and here in St Peter and the Holy Rood, need to be places where the young and the old, the vulnerable and the quiet can come and be. Be present and feel safe. Feel that they can begin to trust those around them. To reach out in their time of need and know that we’ve got their backs. In this community, I hope we can continue to support and nurture those who need to grieve or struggle through what Mothering Sunday might mean to them, and continue to reach out, not just on one day but continually, just as the disciple who Jesus loved did, the day he took Mary into his home.

What it takes

Genesis 15:1-12. 17-18, Psalm 27, Philippians 3:17-4.1, Luke 928-36

Stories of transformation. Stories of gritting your teeth and getting stuck in and being encouraged from those around you and those who have gone before you. Realising that you’re not the only one who’s gone through or is going through a tough patch. Abraham quite clearly aches for an heir, one of his own. Paul speaks of the Philippians holding fast to what they have learned. Moses and Elijah meet with Jesus to encourage him for what lies ahead.

Earlier this week I spoke about the ‘dark night of the soul.’ A time in one’s spiritual journey where it seems as though God is so very distant. That he doesn’t answer, and you begin to wonder whether there is actually a God. Gone are the times when you intentionally sat somewhere waiting, listening, obedient because you knew he would show up and you could enjoy his creation, his laughter in your life, his being with you. You knew you were a child of God because with him your life was changed. 

Our Gospel passage is of the transfiguration. The point in life where Jesus was affirmed as God’s son and his appearance changed and his clothes become dazzling white. I wonder how many of you have seen someone’s face shine and pondered about why or how? I wonder how many people have experienced a transfiguration in an instant. And I wonder how many people experience a transfiguration or transformation (change) over many months or even years.

St John of the Cross speaks of this dark night of the soul, a time when God appears withdrawn from your presence. Note that this is not when we’ve withdrawn from God’s presence because we do this all of the time. We make ourselves too busy to pray or even acknowledge God. Yet, we complain when God seems distant from us. When he doesn’t appear to be at our beck and call.

The dark night of the soul can go on for months or even years. Thomas Merton suggests that to keep going to church, and to keep saying your prayers, as if nothing has changed within you, will help your journey through this dark night. Keeping your friends around you and being encouraged by their stories helps keep your faith alive.

At some point, when God feels the time is right, he may make an entrance in your life again. But it won’t be with a fanfare, a ta-dah moment. That’s human. That’s a ‘look-at-me’ moment, ‘I’m back!’ No. God’s way will be through the small, the insignificant moments, the blink-and-miss-it moments. 

Your journey through this dark night, through the sheer anguish of wanting something so much, might result in a realisation that your love for God is no longer dependent on what you experienced in the early years of walking with Him, but it is now much more of a long-term relationship. One where you realise that your love of and for God goes beyond those expectations you had for him.

In the verse directly preceding our Epistle reading, Paul talks about holding fast to what has been attained. He then goes on to ask the Philippians to imitate him. Why would he do that if he thought they all loved Christ? Perhaps this is about lifestyle choices that allow oneself to keep a hold of the love of Christ through the really tough and gritty and dark times? 

The enemies Paul speaks of here may well have been real people, but I put to you that the enemies of the cross of Christ could also be trust in human power and wisdom rather than in God’s redemptive nature. We too need to hold fast to what we have attained in Christ. If we feel God is distant, perhaps we too need to imitate Christ, even if we feel like a fraudin doing so.

These enemies of the cross of Christ that Pauls writes of don’t just exist after the Cross. They existed back in Abraham’s time too. Even though Abraham had the grisly job of cutting up several animals and laying them out and trusting that God would show up. He still ended up investing in his own means in order that he might have an heir and tried to short-cut what God had already promised him. In the Epistle, we have Paul encouraging the Philippians to focus on Christ and not those that would set their minds on earthly things. Paul like in many of his letters chooses to play on the words that have obviously been supplied to Paul in a letter from the Philippians, back in a form that they find encouraging. The enemies of the Cross are seeking power for themselves, those who are accumulating earthly wealth and who might be focussed on their bodies in some way. Paul writes of the transformation of the body of humiliation to a body of Christ’s Glory, through a power that only Christ has.

In the Gospel reading, we have this mountain top experience, a thin place where Jesus meets with those who have gone before, while being there in the present with some of his disciples and being encouraged for what lies ahead. 

Who, in the grit and determination of pushing through what seems like an incessantly dark place, doesn’t appreciate encouragement for the journey ahead? Perhaps our response to this is to do with our own transformations? Our job is not to build a shelter for Jesus, like Peter wanted to do on that mountain. Our job is not to ask God to covenant with us. Our job is not to run ourselves ragged, running around after everyone else with all their expectations and needs and wants.” 

Our job is simply to do what God asks of us, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

The transfiguration

Exodus 34. 29-35, 2 Cor 3. 12- 4.2, Luke 9. 28b-43.

The transfiguration. Three stories of transfiguration in our three passages, because the magnitude of what we hear about today isn’t limited to Jesus. The transfiguration was the point in life where Jesus was affirmed as God’s son and his appearance changed and his clothes become dazzling white. I wonder how many of you have seen someone’s face shine and pondered about why or how? Perhaps it is to do with our own transfigurations? The point where one knows something deep in one’s heart – that he or she is a child of God and nothing or no-one can ever take that away.

But how we get to that point from where we are? Well, there’s a clue in the story from Luke’s Gospel:

“Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

There was no agreement from heaven to do something, i.e. build three shelters. Instead, a voice issued forth that God’s Son, Jesus, should be listened to.

In true Jewish tradition there are three aspects of the event of the Transfiguration as recorded in the Bible. In the present (on that mountain), there was the acknowledgement of what had happened in the past. And there was the expectation of a prophetic future. 

The appearance of Moses on the mountain – whose face shone when he had spoken with God, all those years before. Moses represented the Hebrew Scriptures – the law which had been written on stone tablets and revered as God’s word. Jesus came as a fulfilment of that law. He did the things the law could not. Where the law pointed to a problem, Jesus gave the solution. Then he became the ultimate solution for all of us.

John 1:17: For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 

Why was the third person on the mountain Elijah? What was his significance? He was a great prophet. I wonder if you remember the story of the prophets of Baal? How they were to call fire on to their sacrifice and none came? And then Elijah poured water onto his sacrifice and asked God to come and consume it. Fire came and even the water that had been poured on to the sacrifice could not quench the flames. It takes guts to stand up to people who would lead God’s people astray, yet Elijah did so. His appearance on that mountain testified that Jesus fulfilled what the Hebraic prophets had pointed to. Jesus was also a great prophet. One who was stepping into the unknown, the future.

The voice of God points to the future. “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” What does that mean for us? Let us look at what Paul had to say. I’m going to read from the passage, but actually include a little that precedes our passage today because I think it puts it in a better context:

“you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

“Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness, not like Moses, who put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the glory. But their minds were hardened. Indeed, to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there, since only in Christ is it set aside. Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”

Okay. Paul’s words seem to be pretty self-explanatory. But how do we get to that point from where we are now? Do we seek God in here? In this building? Do we seek him in what we do? Do we seek him out beyond the confines of our comfort zones? How do we seek him? Is he in our busyness? If we buy extra tinned food for the foodbanks, is that all we need to do? Is that our acknowledgement, our off-the cuff ‘nod’ that says we did our bit for God? Have we patted ourselves on the back in some sort of justification for what we do? I’m including myself in this, because I realised in my writing that I’m preaching to myself too.

Did we find God in any of that? Did we feel a transformation? Did our faces shine as we realised who we are in God? Did you discover deep down that you’re a child of God through what you just did? I’m not passing judgement here, I am simply asking if you found God in what you did last week?

I’m going to put it to you that what we’re doing is but a small part of what God is actually asking of us. Our danger is that we tend to make it a much larger part of who we think we arein God than we should. God didn’t envelop them all in a cloud on that mountain and say “You must run yourself ragged running round after everyone else with all their expectations and needs and wants.” He simply said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

How many of us do that? Listen? How many of us take time out to actually listen to God? How do we respond to the grace of God that meets us where we are? “Just as I am, before my God” to paraphrase a line from a hymn. Do we have a vision of where we are and where we would like to move to? To travel, not just as a community but as individuals? Because when we all acknowledged, somewhere, at some juncture of our lives that we needed God, we entered onto a journey. Not some static point on a travellator that allows the world to pass us by, or for us to travel through the world without any effort on our part. But a journey that involves all of our being – our head and our heart as well as our hands and our feet.

What does it mean to listen to God? How do we do that? Sunday attendance isn’t actually a sign of spiritual growth. Bums on pews means absolutely nothing when there’s no commitment to wanting to find out who God is. Who He is to each of us. How he can speak to us and why that is so important. Some of you may be feeling spiritually bereft, dry, and just putting one foot in front of the other in some semi-automated way, doing, doing, doing because what else is there? 

Come to the Lent course. Starting on Wednesday in Wick after the Ash Wednesday service and Thursday at the Community Cafe in Thurso. Come and discover why Chris and I were so keen for you to learn more about the Christian saints. Come and discover different Christian pathways in finding out more of who God is and why he loves you so much. Come and read the Bible with others, and be encouraged. Come and be transformed by your experience and participation with others in community and allow that inward transfiguration to take place.

March 2019: Curate’s Letter

I wonder where our priorities lie? This was my opening gambit of Sunday’s sermon. Three texts of the Beatitudes from the Bible, of which two were from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament. Jeremiah 17:5-10 illustrates a curse as a shrub that is parched that will never see relief and then immediately shows the reflection of one who is rooted in God’s grace. This person is like a tree planted by water that continues to bear fruit. Psalm One is also a collection of Beatitudes. It begins with a positive statement where people who follow God are once again likened to trees planted by water. Whereas the opposite image is likened to the chaff of wheat that blows away when the grain is being prepared on the threshing floor. The Gospel reading from Luke (ch 6:17-26) is part of Jesus’s Beatitudes and as such is the most well-known. It is full of blessings and woes that illustrate the opposite of each other.

Beatitudes were a common way of expressing spirituality in Jewish and Hellenistic traditions. A contrast is drawn between the ways of wisdom and of irrationality. Wisdom that belongs to the Kingdom of God and what happens or can be expected to happen when one steps outside of that sphere of grace. All three texts of Beatitudes can make for uncomfortable reading. However, the two sides of the coin are there to see the choice in following God or not, as the case may be. Regardless of the route chosen, we are all on a spiritual journey and God may or may not be a large influence on that journey at this time in your life. 

I come back to the question, as to where our priorities lie. Do they lie in the way that things have always been done? Are our priorities to hold on to the traditions that occurred somewhere in our lives and for some unknown reason, will we hold on to them as if our lives depend on them? Do we intend to keep hold of negativities because somehow, we have become accustomed to the reaction they incite? If we choose to live like those rooted in streams of water, drinking deeply of God’s grace and wisdom, then inevitably, our choice will be to turn to God. Our mourning will turn to joy. Our despair will turn to laughter. 

In last month’s Outlook, we were asked whether we can be Christ’s hands and feet and I wonder how this can work with what I have asked in the paragraph above? Perhaps, we each need to make a choice in how we approach God before whom we pray, praise and speak our devotions? Perhaps as we approach Lent, we can consciously make a decision to be rooted more in the stream of God’s grace and allow that to wash over us. Particularly as we begin a time of preparation to renew our baptismal vows.

What are your priorities? Is it to know God more deeply? Is it to see a Christian presence on the streets in your neighbourhood? Is it to share Christ with those around you? Looking once again at the Beatitudes, we see that nowhere in each of the passages does it mention that life will be easy, or comfortable. The way of life that God is calling us to will have its fair share of hardships, but in community we have the opportunity to share those hardships with others. We do not travel on this journey alone. We are part of a community, and as spiritual beings, we find fellowship together. This enables us to grow and deepen our relationship with God. 

In Caithness, this does not just occur in the two Episcopal congregations in Thurso and Wick, but will occur elsewhere in the county, such as cafes, supermarkets, pubs and castles. In order that we may grow deeper into who God is calling us to be, we need to ask ourselves what our priorities are. Will we choose to be a people who are outward focussed? Who choose, whatever the cost, to reach out to others? Who choose to help others in poverty, despair or addictions so that they may come to know the love and peace of Christ? 

Our priorities should reflect that of Christ, who always reached out to the lost and the broken. He knew that the greatest need was beyond the four walls of the buildings he found himself in, which is why so many of the stories in the Gospels are of Christ as he walks from village to village. To be able to share Christ throughout Caithness requires an understanding that Christ’s model has to be echoed in the here and now. 

As our priorities become more like Christ’s we will find solace in God. We will find peace, and we will find rest. Anxieties will disappear because they have no foundation in God. The peace of God that passes all understanding.  What is there about this that we do not want to share? So, therefore, I finish this letter with one question. What are your priorities?

Lost in translation

Gen 45:3-11, 15Psalm 37:1-12, 41-42, 1Cor 15:35-38, 42-50,Luke 6:27-38

My title I gave to my sermon today is ‘Lost in Translation.’ I wonder how many of you can remember the film with the same title that came out in the early 2000s with Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson? Both play characters that appear to be lost in the current situations with their spouses, neither of them speak the language of the country and any nuance is lost on them as they wander through their lives there as they try to make sense of what is going on.

Why have I chosen to begin with a film title? There’s one thing I have noticed and I may have even said it here from time to time. We don’t know the tone of how the passages read out today were said. We tend to take passages from the Bible and read them with no nuance, with no inflection, with no exaggeration or drama. We read from the Bible in the way we have been taught, as though it were dry and always in a written form. But of course, the Scriptures weren’t. The Hebrew Scriptures passed down for years as an oral tradition until they were finally written down. But even then, and can you imagine this, the characters of the alphabet used only had consonants. It wasn’t until later, many hundreds of years after Christ that vowels were added. The Hebrew Scriptures were still dependent on an oral tradition that would only have been passed down through the teachers in the synagogues.

The Gospel of Luke, which scholars suspect was written in the latter part of the first century, was written in Greek. No oral tradition to speak of and wasn’t written on its own. There’s a second part to the story that was penned by Luke and that is book of Acts. Scholars will refer to Luke-Acts as a whole. It was separated by the Gospel of John somewhere in the Canon’s creation, but actually Acts should be read as a continuation of Luke. 

So, to read Luke or indeed any other book of the Bible, we have had to translate it. But in doing so, we automatically think of our social conventions, and place our own suppositions into the story. We don’t take time to intentionally think about the customs, cultural and historical context of when the passage was written in order to understand its meaning more fully, before trying to apply it to our lives in the 21stcentury. There is always a loss in translation of inflection and nuance, but we need to be careful that we don’t lose more than has already been lost. We need to ensure that our reading of the passages is insightful rather than taking it as it is.

Last week we heard about the blessings and the woes in the Beatitudes and this week we have the passage that tends to be read as though we should let people walk all over us and take what they want. After all, that’s what it says in the following verse:

“If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.”

If you don’t read too much into these passages, or think about them too hard, then it’s quite easy to gloss over what Jesus is recorded as saying. But if you think about how people might react to such tactics, then you might realise that Jesus is being really rather cheeky. He’s being creative with the demands of those who would seek to bully you, or those who would choose to abuse their position in power. 

It really does sounds as though you should lay yourself open to abuse. What’s Christian about that? Jesus doesn’t say anywhere that you must give the abuser the right to do what they want. He doesn’t say that the person demanding your coat has the right to demand it. What he is saying is that if someone demands something from you then you can offer the shirt off your back to go with it.

This was illustrated in the film Les Miserables when Jean Valjean was recuperating in the French monastery and decided to steal the candlesticks. When caught ands brought back to the abbot, he is told that he forgot to take all the other gold and silverware because that was his too. The police were ashamed and confused because they couldn’t make sense of the response of the abbot, Jean Valjean was humbled because the abbot decided not to press charges and his life was turned around because the abbot decided to show how a different way, that of God, could bring positive change into the world.

The abbot did not lose his wit or self-control. He was provocative and creative in his response. If somebody is taking from you only what you are prepared to give, then you remain the victor. Very few people are ever prepared to take the risk of winning by not caring if they lose. We normally fight back with the same method that was used in the first place, which means nothing will ever change. 

What the abbot did was to do exactly what Jesus suggests. A change in the ground rules. Don’t respond in the way the world expects. Respond in the way that God would. After all, you’re a child of God. He’s resident within you, so therefore responding in God’s way should seem intuitive.

Jesus’s life illustrates this perfectly. He accepted the violence without retaliation and creates something new without ever having lost his wits or his control of the situation. We did our worst, through hatred, by nailing Christ to the cross and it didn’t change how God felt towards us. His love is greater than any hate we can assemble.

Joseph did the same in the first reading we had. His brothers expect a savage response – it what they would have done. But it’s not what they receive. Because Joseph chose the gentle route, they could become a family again. Something that Joseph had yearned for since being sold into slavery. If he had done anything else, he would have probably lost that chance.

Our reading from the letter to the Corinthians shows Paul’s exasperation with them. “You fools!” Corinthians, Greek to the core, logical and rational because of the way they have been taught. Philosophical questions about the resurrection body that no-one can answer. The Corinthians are attempting, as many of us do, to make God fit into our world. To make him small; the assumption being that God can only do things the way we understand them. But in fact, we understand almost nothing. The Corinthians didn’t have much knowledge then, and we don’t either. Granted, we have 20 centuries more knowledge then they did, but in actual fact we don’t know that much. 

Paul speaks about a seed turning into a plant. We forget the miraculous nature of this because we see it every day. Somewhere, the miracle of this is lost in translation because we somehow think that God’s creativity can only happen in what we see.

The Corinthians were in danger of losing in translation what Paul was trying to tell them. His exasperation with them shows this. Their logic was killing off this chance of growth into God, of trusting that God’s ways were better then and still are better than our own, today.

Do not fret yourself because of evildoers; do not be jealous of those who do wrong. For they shall soon wither like the grass, and like the green grass fade away. Put your trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and feed on its riches. Commit your way to the Lord and trust in him.