My house in Umbria


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For on Tuesday on returning home from a series of Church meetings, I caught the second half of that great film – My house in Umbria. This is a bitter-sweet comedy which nevertheless deals with some very dark themes indeed.

It starts with a terrorist bomb going off on an Italian inter city train. The foreign survivors of the bombed carriage all end up recuperating in a chaotically rustic pension ruled over by a somewhat fey and often tipsy Emily Delahunty played by Maggie Smith. The main plot revolves around a small American girl who has been orphaned by the atrocity. She is destined to return to the States with her desiccated and self-absorbed uncle.

In time, it is revealed that the gentle young German student, Werner, who is so attentive to the child – almost like a brother – is in fact the bomber.

At the film’s end, with the child entrusted to this rag-tag group’s care, they walk in the warm Italian sunset and Maggie smith’s character says to Ronnie Barker’s, I forgive even Werner. Shocking the others, they ask why. And she replies we all need forgiveness.

It seems then by the good action of offering forgiveness, they could give to each other their brokenness as well. And as a result they found peace, they found acceptance, they found even contentment.

Now as we approach Easter, let us do the same.

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Called to be a wind of change

Matthew 4.1-4

Most of our ideas of what the desert looks like come from Laurence of Arabia. And that means we think of smooth sand dunes rolling across the landscape like the waves of the sea. However, a TV programme this week disabused me of that image. For in it the desert was stone strewn and mountainous and ravine torn. A desert then is not defined by what it looks like but by something else. And that is, of course, a lack of water. Needless to say that fatal shortage, in turn, gives two other characteristics of deserts – a lack of food and a lack of living things. A desert therefore is a place where there is no generous provision.

Now it was each of these scarcities that Christ had to contend with in his tempting stay in the desert. For who can doubt that hunger, thirst and loneliness were the key components in his temptation. But, in overcoming the enticement to feed himself at the expense of God’s will, he insured the return of generous giving. Since, it was his subsequent teaching of God’s word that inspires and motivates self-centred hearts. It was his living the word of God that challenges self-seeking minds. And it was his generous dying for the word of God that became a powerful wind of change in all human barrenness.

Well, this Sunday we celebrate not a dearth of provision but an excess of generosity. For in our harvest festival we show gratitude to God for his bounteous gifts to us. And also at the end of our stewardship campaign we celebrate the generosity we have found in ourselves and in others. Put directly, we give thanks by answering the same call as Christ did and that is to put aside self and to be part of his wind of change.

For just as in the time when Jesus was led out into the wilderness by the Spirit, so to there is an overriding need for the winds of change in our today. The wind of change in a physically starving world that hungers for our Christian giving – a wind of change in a spiritually thirsting community that could flower with our Christian witness and a wind of change in a multitude of individual solitary deserts that would celebrate after even a few moments of our Christian time.

Indeed, there can be few countries in greater need of that wind of change than Afghanistan. Now sadly that benighted nation is daily on our news for all the wrong reasons. And so I thought today we could celebrate with one of its good news stories. Since, it was from western Afghanistan that Mari Mishmast tells of when her husband died she had to sell 5 of their 22 goats to feed her 7 children. Then drought came and the remaining animals died. She says she wouldn’t have known what to do if Christian charity had not gifted her six new goats.  Now she and her family had enough to live at least. But that is not the end of her story. Because her village is located in an arid region which has practically nothing of value except – you’ve guessed it – wind. Indeed that part of the world experiences 120 very windy days a year. It is so strong that you have to wrap a scarf around your face to prevent you breathing in the airborne sand; so strong in fact that often you have to brace yourself to prevent yourself being blown over. Yet that is why Christian Aid then chose to dig a water well deep down and set up a wind powered pump. The outcome is that the local inhabitants now not only feed themselves but gain some wealth from the 2000 animals that they breed.

Moreover, dare I suggest that such a generous wind of change is also likely to change hearts and minds as much as any political initiative to prevent the hatred that evil seeks to fester in that country.

Mari goes on to say – I am very happy and I want to say thank you directly from me to you. So at this harvest and stewardship celebration, let us also say thank you – me to you. Thank you to God for his generous providing. Thank you also to each other for resisting the temptation to keep and for freely giving. Above all, thank you to ourselves for being part of Christ’s wind of change. Because, it is that self-giving wind of change alone that provides the very water of life.  It is that God-serving wind of change alone that can make arid deserts bloom. In truth, it is only that grateful wind of change which fulfils the words of Isaiah: waters shall break forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground – springs of living water.

Amen

A Marketing Strategy

Luke 10.1-9

Acts 3.1-10

Not so long ago Black & Decker were preparing for a large promotional campaign. And to get the angle just right for their advertising, they sent out market researchers to find what ‘Joe soap’ actually wanted. They returned with the discouraging news that people didn’t want drills they wanted holes. In other words, they weren’t interested in power tools only what they can do for them.

Now that was not a surprising discovery really. Few of us get on a bus to have a ride in a Van Hool special – we get on to go somewhere. And here is an important point for the church. Because it is often said that those in church don’t want to evangelise others they just what full and vibrant services. On the other hand, those outside Christianity don’t want uninvited missionaries selling them religion on their door-steps. Where then is the answer?

Well let’s have the courage to do a little honest market research. Let’s ask what those out there want from the church in here. Would it be someone telling them how bad they’ve are and how they can be as clean as the driven snow – possibly? Would they want a group of worthies mouthing various platitudes about changing the world – possibly? But what about the offer of healing, what about the offer that their lives could genuinely be better – what about the possibility of throwing aside the meaningless sleep– work – TV – sleep cycle – for a life full to the brim with hope, opportunity and harmony?

Now, I suspect we are cooking with gas! Because sure as eggs are eggs, the crippled beggar wasn’t in the market for a character assignation – he had enough on his plate for that. Neither was he fussed about a dissertation on the woes his economic situation. After all – he isn’t one of the much lauded ‘hard working families’? No what he was desperate for was the healing of his situation and the lifting up from his disability. He wanted real quality of life. And in Peter – he got it. In that disciple sent out by Christ, the cripple found what he wanted to buy. In fact, he got what he needed not what someone else thought he needed. And as a result he understood the true meaning of the kingdom of God.

Yet what about the people in churches? What about us here? How are we going to get what we want? Well, often we are harangued to get ‘out and about’ evangelising – we vaguely chatter also about sharing the good news of Jesus Christ – we even whisper in fear and trembling about taking the gospel out to the people. But the problem is we haven’t a clue how to do it. We have no marketing strategy to sell what we find valuable in our faith. We have indeed no real idea what every woman and man wants.

So what is to be done?

Have you heard the story about the elderly woman who lived in a small country town? Well, one day she had car trouble on the way to the supermarket. Her car stalled at a stop sign. She tried everything to get her car started again, but no luck. Suddenly, a man in a van came up behind her and with obvious agitation started honking his horn at her impatiently. She redoubled her efforts to get her car going. She pumped the accelerator, turned the ignition, but still no luck… the man in the pick-up continued to honk his horn constantly and loudly. So very calmly she got out of her car, walked back to the van and motioned for the man to lower his window and then politely she said: “I’ll make a deal with you. If you will start my car for me I’ll be happy to honk your horn for you!”

Now she certainly handled that very difficult situation well. But, more importantly, she handled it by knowing what he and she wanted. He wanted her car out of the way and she wanted to get her car started. And so she sold him their common need – and low and below -they went on their way together in peace.

Now Christ knew what he wanted and that was to bring people into the Kingdom. He knew too what people wanted and that was what all that the kingdom could offer them. So he sent his followers out to find those who needed their message – those who were willing to hear their good news – those who were looking for something more in life. They were then to bring peace beyond all the world’s troubles– they were to bring solutions to all that needed healing and they were to bring fulfilment to life in all its dimensions. The outcome was that not only were doors opened but so was that big one to the Kingdom of God. and so, in a nutshell, they went on the way together.

What then was the kernel of this marketing strategy of Jesus Christ?

It is well illustrated for us in this story.

A man fell into a pit and couldn’t get himself out. A subjective person came along and said, “I feel for you down there.” An objective person came along and said, “It’s logical that someone would fall down there.” A Pharisee said, “Only bad people fall into a pit.” A mathematician calculated how he fell into the pit. A news reporter wanted an exclusive story on his pit. A fundamentalist said, “You deserve your pit.” A government official asked if he was paying taxes on the pit. A self-pitying person said, “You haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen my pit.” A charismatic said, “Just confess that you’re not in a pit.” An optimist said, “Things could be worse.” A pessimist said, “Things will get worse.” Jesus, seeing the man, took him by the hand and lifted him out of the pit!

Well, if today we want to be true evangelists – if want to offer the Kingdom that is near – if want bring healing to life –let us do as Peter did by lifting the beggar– let us do as Christ did in that story by lifting up the lost – let us rediscover the church’s unique selling point – and do likewise.

Amen

HYMN

The gift of Revelation – Sermon

John 14.1-7

Colossians 1.15 – 20

It is a strange story – it is a moving story – it is a story that hits you between the eyes and stops you in your tracks. It is a story that has so much to ask us today.

Because, just recently I was told of a middle aged German who visited Auschwitz a couple of years back. He was looking at the various photographs when became very agitated. When they eventually got him calmed down, he managed to explain that he was looking at a picture of the unloading ramp at the concentration camp. It was there that a SS officer decided who was to live and who was to die. Behind him in the photo was a SS guard taking down the decisions. That man was his father. Now, the visitor went on to explain, that his father would never say what he had done in the war and taken his secret to the grave. They then asked him – what had his father done after the war. He had been a Lutheran pastor!

Well I suspect we think to ourselves there can be no hope for this Nazi no matter what he did later. Yet we also, strangely, come away from that story saying to ourselves but if there is hope for him, then there must be hope for me.

However, is this heart’s demand for such a hope misplaced?

Well no – it is certainly not.

Because that hope is the gospel hope. It is the hope we ca not so much overcome who we are but can escape from who we are and we can climb out of who we have become.

And that very hope comes to each and every one of us from a gift from God; the gift that concludes our series on divine gifts and the gift which exceeds and overshadows all others. Because, that gift is the revelation of Jesus Christ.

Now Jesus reveals many smaller details about God, but he also reveals two huge facts as well. And the first is that God is a loving God, a caring God and even an indulgent God. If it were not so why would have Jesus told us not to have troubled hearts? Why would he have told us that his divine father would be concerned about such things? Why indeed did he sacrifice himself so that we could have the fruits of that act of love today? Since in bread and wine this morning we do remember as the letter to Colossians has it – he made peace for us though his blood shed on the cross.

More to the point, however, is that the quality of God’s love is not weakened by what we do; what we are and what we have become.

Instead that love is constant and unbreakable and eternal. Indeed, the quality of God’s love is the same as that Vernon Scannell wrote of in his poem – contradictions in Love:

As fragile as an eggshell bauble

On a Christmas tree

But as durable as gleaming steel

Of knife, or sword or key.

Sweet as the fragrance of the rose

Or honey from the bee

But cold and scentless as the snow

And salty as the sea.

As gentle as a summer’s breeze

Or mother’s lullaby

But burly as a hurricane

Or thunder in the sky.

As magical as witches spells

Or blackbirds in a pie,

But plain and simple as good bread

Without which we would die.

Yet the revelation that Jesus makes about God has more to say.

For, our loving God is not like the old woman who lived in the shoe – full of love but unable to act out that love. Quite the opposite, our God shows his love by intervening in human affairs. And so he does bring change to human hearts; he does resolve nearly impossible situations and does help us to be different and better and more worthy of his Son’s gospel.

Ah we say – I’ll never change – He’ll never change – she will never change!

Well on our own that is true. However the point that Jesus made by talking of himself being the way is that – God can. The point of the whole passage from John is that – Jesus will. The point of the lesson from Colossians is that Jesus – is more than able to.

But what about our concentration guard whose life had seriously gone of the rails? What about those who today are consider beyond the pail? What about ourselves when we, on occasion, we feel really beyond the love and saving arm of God?

Well, there is an ancient legend about Judas that Madeleine L’Engle tells. The legend is that after his death Judas found himself at the bottom of a deep and slimy pit. For thousands of years he wept his repentance, and when the tears were finally spent, he looked up and saw way, way up a tiny glimmer of light. After he had contemplated it for another thousand years or so, he began to try to climb up towards the light. The walls of the pit were dark and slimy, and he kept slipping back down. Finally, after great effort, he reached the top and dragged himself into an upper room with twelve people seated around the table. “We’ve been waiting for you, Judas,” Jesus said. “We couldn’t begin till you came.”
What Christ ultimately reveals then is that he wants all of us to return to him no matter the situation. He wants each of us, with every fibre of our being, to climb back and desire for him to bring change forever. Since all he ever requires, is for us to accept his active love into our lives.

For, at this moment, we cannot know how in the end the concentration guard stood with God. We cannot even know where he or she next to us in the pew stands with God. That is for them and their creator. But we do know where Christ stands – he stands ready to show us the way – he stands willing us to ascend again to him. He stands waiting so that he and we can each begin and begin and begin again.

Amen

Offering

HYMN…………

The Bible – A gift from God

Text: Matthew 5.17-20

It wasn’t often that we had rabbit served up onboard ship. But the one time it did happen was just when I was reading Watership Down. Proof if any was needed that the Good Lord has a sense of humour. For you cannot read that tale of rabbits with human feelings and not look at a warren in an entirely different light. In essence then, stories change us – they move us to look at the world differently – moreover – they force us look at ourselves more closely. And so it is with the greatest story ever told – that immense literary work – that wonderful gift from God – the holy Bible.

However, to try to justify the Bible as God’s gift to humanity in a thousand words or so, on the face of it, is facile.  Yet, if we cannot explain the main purposes of our sacred book in a few words – how can we expect to do so in many.

Therefore, here goes!

Well, at its most basic level, the Bible answers fundamental human needs. And by that I mean the almost primeval urge that we each have to survive by knowing ourselves to be safe and secure. And this almost biologically programmed need is really only met when we live in an ordered community. Yet a wholesome and trustworthy society only comes about when each member knows what is right and what is wrong and when we find a way to encourage others to live by the same moral standards. Therefore, at its most elementary, the Bible’s purpose is to declare there is an external source of morality and there is also a living source that is also the judge of how each of meet that benchmark. But, more important than these, the bible makes abundantly clear this ethical source has supernatural powers to reward human obedience with permanent effects. For, in a nutshell, the Bible is saying – obey God’s laws and you and the human race will be forever restored. Or, as Deuteronomy puts it:

The Lord commanded us to obey all these decrees and to fear the lord our God, so that we may prosper and kept alive. If we are careful to obey the law, that will be our righteousness. (Deut. 6.24 ff)

Nevertheless, the Bible is more than a code of best practice; more than a lifetime highway code; more than a manual for communal survivability. Since, it also meets the needs of the mind. And so, it is the foundation stone of our Christian beliefs. Just it was Christ’s Jewish beliefs. For this morning did we not hear him say:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.

The bible then, through its account of how God has spoken to a variety of people, allows him to speak to us now.  Therefore, just as scripture was Christ’s source-book and inspiration, it is also the basis of our own personal encouragement, devotion and admonishment in good times and bad. It helps us to answer why we should obey as well as what we should be obedient in. Indeed, it is ever the sword and shield for our minds as we try to influence the whole of our society towards values that will make it worth redeeming in the first place.

However, the most crucial role of the Bible is in the spiritual dimension of our being. Because it may teach us how to survive physically and it may tell us too how we battle our own fears and the failings of others, but it still has something more important to tell us. For, far exceeding its other purposes, the Bible offers the gospel of Christ to each and everyone of us. And that is the good news we can individually have new life, we can individually be forgiven for renewed life and we can individually be saved into eternal life. To put it as Paul did to the Romans;

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through Jesus Christ through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace that we now stand.

James Merritt, in his Collected Sermons, remarks that when a merchant ship of any size, enters a port, it takes on board what is called a pilot. In fact, we often see the pilot cutter rushing past Broughty on its way to some vessel entering the Tay Estuary. Well this pilot knows the waters of his or her port backwards, he knows the length of it and he knows the depth of it. He knows where the hazards are. He knows where the tides and currents are; what direction they flow in and how strong they are. When this master mariner comes on board then, he takes control of the ship, and he gives the orders for its safe navigation. Put simply, he is an outside expert who is brought in to make sure that ship docks with certainty.

Well, we to have a pilot in our lives. We have a gift of God in our lives. We too have a guide to safe harbour in our lives. And it is the Bible. For God can only be known to the extent he reveals himself. Certainly, we have no way of knowing otherwise. And the clearest way of him revealing himself is in the pages of the bible. Similarly, we can know nothing of Jesus without the Bible. And so again the Bible reveals his gospel and the way to Christian living. Finally, it is in the keeping of the Bible central to our community of the church that we ensure we have its moral compass and upright companionship.

Let then, every Christian prize this gift from God; let every Christian be obedient to its guidance. And let every Christian make it a basis for all that is said and done. Because it is only then that our Bible’ story will ring out again in our daily living.

Amen

Prayer for creative thanks

Lord God, we give thanks for the many gifts

You shower into our lives

Not least the music, books & art that we enjoy.

But we particularly give thanks for the wonderful world around us.

May its majesty always remind us of you.

However, we are not always beautiful

and creative in how we deal with others.

But in Jesus, you always recognised

people rather than stereotypes;

Challenge us thenwhen we treat other people as commodities,

When through our lifestyles we use, humiliate,

or rob others of their self-worth.

Give us the humility to recognise
how much we need to seek forgiveness for,
And as forgiven people,

to lead lives of extravagant love, gratitude, hospitality and service.

Indeed help us always to glimpse your glory now,
Wherever injustice is resisted
And support is extended to those

Who are grief-stricken and destitute.

Above all else, we ask for your blessing

on all who are shunned by society,

And on all who respect and value the dignity of their neighbour.

Amen

Creating with God


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Psalm 8

Galatians 3.23-4.7

We have all seen them. It the headline on the tabloids – Man plays God. And usually this purple prose accompanies some breakthrough in medicine or biology. Take the latest such utterance. It was when scientists recently copied some DNA from one cell and replaced into another. Personally, I am not sure that a Chinese copy of a Rembrandt makes it a Rembrandt. Yet the newspapers and news channels blared out their siren warning of Armageddon – Man plays God.

Now whilst we humans have neither right nor probably any realistic chance of playing God, can we in any way help God? Do we have a part to play in his creativity?  And the answer is – yes we can. For scripture, carefully read and with an open mind, does say that humans are called to help God in his creation. In fact, they called to be co-creators. And it is this opportunity and responsibility which form the gift of God we will look at today; the gift of being creative as part of divine creativeness.

Many years ago, I heard of a famous Scottish preacher who, on the day of his ordination, had his much cherished piano removed from his home. That was in case it became a distraction from his ministry. I always find that a bit sad. For surely, we easily glimpse the hand of God in a Mozart concerto or in a Michelangelo painting or just in a beautifully fiery sunset. Because in encountering true beauty just as much as with real goodness we should feel closer to God; we should feel inheritors of something of his creative gift; we should start to understand the wonderfully generous gift of being imaginative daughters and sons of God.

Let us then go about our daily routine more carefully looking for created beauty; let us more often allow our minds to be enlivened by anything made wonderfully; let us never forget to worship God when we find something created with God’s glory in mind . Moreover, let us never stop opening our hearts to the magnificence of divine creativity. For Moira Lipmann’s husband, the playwright Jack Leventhal, said just before his death when being wheeled through a park – look – it’s all so wonderful.

It’s amazing how often we forget the many traditions of our own homeland. Other times we just take them for granted. That is until someone from abroad reminds us of them. And so it was when I read the writings of an American recently. For, he was telling of how the Royal Standard of the United Kingdom allows us to track the Queen around her realm.  Because when the Queen is at Windsor Castle or Balmoral, the Royal standard flutters overhead. When she is in Buckingham Palace or Holyrood the Royal Standard flies brightly in the wind. But when she is not in residence, the Royal Standard is replaced by either the Union Jack or Royal Standard of Scotland.

The UK’s Royal Standard then is a sign of the monarch’s presence.  And so it is when we too are genuinely creative. For no matter what we attempt, if we make or do something in God’s honour, then he we will make it into a thing of real beauty. For, whether it is great or small, proud or humble, well or rudely made, it will point to God. It will also confirm our kinship with God and it will ‘signpost’ his valuing of us. May then all that we create, be done in his name and in heart-felt thanks for his creativity of ourselves, his world and his son who offers us eternal life.

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Oh we say – that’s all very fine – but I can’t make anything at all –I cannot sing or play an instrument or paint a picture. Where then can I show I am a co-creator for God?  Well, we can always create things that are intangible; things like peace and security and justice. We can always reconcile, comfort and advise. We can all make life better for our fellow heirs of creation and siblings in Christ. Since these are the greatest creations that honour God.

And the reason for their supreme loveliness is that they truly reflect what Paul wrote:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female, for you are all one in Jesus Christ. You are a son or daughter of the living God.

Because when we do create a genuinely handsome world for those who have not seen beauty but only hardship, then we do release the possibility of creativity in them as well. We do allow them to see God’s creativity in things beautifully made. Indeed, we show what it means to be co-creators of God’s creation which honours humans to the degree recorded by the psalmist when he asked:

What is man that you are mindful of him?

You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings

And crowned hum with glory and honour.

On Monday we took ourselves off to visit Kellie castle outside Pittenweem in Fife. Now until it was taken over by the National Trust for Scotland, it was the home of the ultra-artistic Lorimer family. In fact, he last occupant of this medieval pile was the sculptor Hew Lorimer. Indeed, his workshop or studio is still there with an exhibition of his work. However, a display board proclaims that, as a devout Roman Catholic he believed not that an artistic creation was an expression the individual but was a gift from God. Since he is then quoted as saying:

I came to see that human imagination is not paramount in the creative process; that what is paramount in the creation is he who created it. That which the artist is expressing is not himself but his response to the eternal process of creation.

May then is day and all the days to follow we be aware of the gift of creativity. May we be aware of the responsibilities of being a co-creator. And may we never fail to respond to God’s creation of ourselves. For then, the whole world is our canvas, the whole family of God is our score and the whole future is our play of delight.

Amen

Prayer for music

What music makes our hearts sing?

What music opens us up inside?

What music enables friendship for us

We do not know

Yet we recognise it when it is there

And when it is here.

Let us pray

Living God,

You are the creator

Indeed you are the very first artist

The first writer and the first composer.

For, Lord you are the craftsman

who shaped each of us wonderfully

Shaped this church beautifully

And you shaped the world around us

magnificently.

Therefore we pray for ourselves, our Church family

And the Christian community across the globe.

May it be a welcoming place for all

So that in word, song and music

We may know your son’s companionship

We may know the joy of worshipping you

And we may know your power and glory and love

In everything we do.

Amen


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