“SATURDAY NIGHT AT EIGHT”

“LIKE A LITTLE DIAMOND SHINING IN THE NIGHT”

 

A long time ago, a diamond was born in a cave, deep in a hillside. He was not particularly beautiful, somewhat rough like the rest of his family. It was dark in the hillside, but that didn’t bother him and he was content with his life. He had heard tales about how some of his ancestors had left the darkness to go to a place of light, but that didn’t concern him.

 One day he heard noises in the distance. It was the sound of machinery with which men were boring into the hillside. As time passed an opening was made in the cave where he lived. One day a man came into the cave, he was limping and in pain. The diamond learned that this man had been hurt while working and was worried that he would not be able to support his family. As he heard this the diamond shed a tear. Suddenly the diamond felt himself being dislodged from the place where he had been born, loaded on to a truck and carted away. Once he was outside of his cave, the light worried him. It was too bright and intense and he kept trying to roll somewhere dark, like the cave where he had lived all his life.

 Over the next few days he was carried here and there; he never knew exactly where he was or where he was going. One day, a beautiful woman picked him up. She smiled at him and said, “You are afraid of the light, aren’t you?”. “Yes,” said the diamond, “I am a child of darkness.” She smiled again and said she understood, but told him that he was going to have a ‘Light Bath’.  At first the diamond was afraid, but as the light began to pour over him he felt a great sense of relief. The women told him, “Now not only can you enjoy the light, but you will have the ability to reflect the light to others.”

 The woman handed him over to the gem cutter. Although it was a bit painful, he could see that with every small edge that was removed he was able to reflect more and more light. Finally he was given a polish and then mounted on a ring and sent to an expensive jewellery shop.  After a little while, a posh lady came into the shop, saw the ring and thought “This diamond is bigger than my friend’s,” When she bought the ring, the diamond shed another tear at the way this woman was thinking.  A long time after, this same woman walked into another store to buy more things to impress her friends. It was a Charity shop where everything had been donated to help the poor. She wondered why people would donate such nice things. It was just has she had this thought, that she saw a sign on a box on the counter which said, “For Christ’s poor everywhere.” Something very strange happened to her at this moment. Exactly what is uncertain, but she took off the ring and placed it in the donation box. At the end of that day when the shop was closing, the shopkeeper was very surprised to find the ring. He took the diamond ring and placed it on display in a beautiful velvet box. It was not long before a young man, head over heels in love with his fiancée, came to the store. He saw the ring and knew immediately that this was the ring that he wanted for his true love. He bought the ring and all the money went to the poor. When the diamond realized what had happened, his tears were dried and he gave thanks for his ability to share his light with others.

 

(Let your light shine before men)

John R

“LOOKING TO SUNDAY” Lent B5

Lectionary Readings:

Jeremiah 31:  31 – 34
Psalm 51:  1 – 12
Hebrews 5: 5 – 10
John 12:  20 – 33

We are now getting to the ‘sharp point’ of Lent.  It is important that we do not arrive at Easter Sunday without experiencing the passion of Jesus.  There is only one more Sunday (Palm Sunday) before Holy Week begins and how we use this Sunday in worship needs to be carefully planned.  Some churches name, this 5th Sunday in Lent, as Passion Sunday, which gives us the opportunity to concentrate on the necessity of the Cross for Jesus and our calling to be cross-bearers.  The link between the OT and Gospel reading is the New Covenant that God is making.  This supersedes the covenants of the past and is ratified in the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross.  The Hebrew reading is difficult. Even the writer admits in verse.16 that it is “hard to explain”.  He doesn’t get many Brownie points for going on to say that this is because we are “dull of understanding”. If we can manage to pronounce the name of the ancient High Priest, there will still be a lot of explaining to do.  An overall theme for this Sunday might be “New Life for Old” or “Dying to Live”.

Jeremiah 31:

Jeremiah is often called ‘The Reluctant Prophet’.  Perhaps we might also be if we had to say some of the things that he felt compelled to say.  The ‘Doom and Gloom’ of much that Jeremiah had to say is lifted in chapters 30 – 33.  These chapters, sometimes given the title,”Book of Consolation”,  have a different tone.  He is speaking to a people who have been long in exile and have almost given up all hope.  Here Jeremiah offers them a future to look forward to.  The opening verse of Chapter 30 says, “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel”.  This hope is to be in the form of a new covenant which will be based on ‘heart knowledge” rather than on external obedience.  This new covenant will not be just a rainbow in the sky, be inscribed on tablets of stone or given through others, but it will be  in God’s handwriting on every persons heart.  “I will put my law within them and I will write it on their hearts;  and I will be their God and they shall be my people.

“Help us, O Lord, to learn
The truth your word imparts,
To study that your laws may be
Inscribed upon our hearts.”

“At the Heart of the Matter”:

“May your shadow fall across me,
Liberate this heart of mine.
May I see the face of glory
And know the power of love divine.
Holy Jesus, may your Spirit
Fill my heart, my soul, my life”.
 
 
 

A child is reprimanded and told to sit down.  They do so unwillingly, knowing that they haves no alternative.  They pout, and say “I may be sitting down on the outside,but inside I am still standing up”.  This is not whole-hearted  obedience only compliance.   Jeremiah spoke to a people who had over and over again failed to fulfil their part of the covenant God had made with them, and at best had only given it lip-service.  Now God invites them to listen to him and know him in their hearts. 

 Psalm 51:

 This is David’s prayer for forgiveness and in today’s worship will serve well as the prayer of Confession.  The Psalmist words connect with our own human experience and offer a way forward even when it appears at first sight that there is no way.  Through confession the hope of renewal is born.

 John 12:

 When I read the opening verses of this passage, I did begin to think that we were going to get a story or a report of a particular incident to hang John’s theology on.  We are rather short of story based text in this gospel, though admittedly we do have some wonderful word pictures. 

The reported arrival of some ‘Greeks’ turns out to be a non-event.  We hear of their request to Andrew to see Jesus. Andrew consults with Phillip and together they go to inform Jesus. We are not told if the meeting ever took place.  John may have connected this visit of the Greeks with the words of the Pharisees in v. 19, “Look!, the whole world has gone after him.”  Could it be that Jesus did in fact have a conversation with them.  (v 23 “Jesus said to them“.   The ‘them‘ might include the Greeks, Phillip and Andrew and other people in the crowd. 

 In John’s gospel there is no reference to Jesus’ Transfiguration and no record of his Gethsemane experience.  Perhaps both of these moments might be hinted at in v. 27 and 28.  In these two verses there is the anguish of Jesus, “Now is my soul troubled.  Father save me from this hour”, followed by a voice of reassurance  from heaven.  In these two verses is there  an echo from Jesus’ Baptism and also from the Mount of Transfiguration, where in both instances Heaven touched Earth.

(“Unless a grain of wheat fall into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain:  but if it dies, it bears much fruit”)

In the bulb there is a flower; in the seed, an apple tree;
In cocoons, a hidden promise: butterflies will soon be free!
In the cold and snow of winter there’s a spring that waits to be,
unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.

There’s a song in every silence, seeking word and melody;
There’s a dawn in every darkness, bringing hope to you and me.
From the past will come the future; what it holds, a mystery,
unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.

In our end is our beginning; in our time, infinity;
In our doubt there is believing; in our life, eternity,
In our death, a resurrection; at the last, a victory,
Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.

Dying to Live is not so much a contradiction as it might at first seem.

John R

LENTEN REFLECTIONS

DOES YOUR CHURCH NEED A DOCTOR – 4

Though meeting with God occurs through personal prayer, meditation and individual  Bible reading, it is only when the people of God meet together week by week that worship in its fullest sense takes place.  If we neglect to meet together, whether it is in the grand setting of some great cathedral or in the back street church of “St. Gertrude by the Gas Works”, we become spiritually arid in ourselves, we have nothing of lasting value to offer the world and we dishonour God.  Worship means ‘worthship’ which is the honouring of God.  (Ps. 96, “Ascribe to the Lord the glory that is due to his name”). 

William Temple’s definition of worship captures the length, breadth and depth of what it should be.  Worship in its fullest sense must make us itch and want to scratch at the point of our deepest need.  Be it in our hymns, prayers, or preaching it must take us from where we are to where God wants us to be.  Worship is both an acknowledgement of the ‘worth’ of God and a calling out of the worshipper a response..  In our declaring of what we believe about God we should find ourselves changed into something of his likeness.  Worship is the life blood of everything that we seek to do and from it  springs  our call to mission and  outreach.  It’s outcome should be, in the words of Charles Wesley

What we have felt and seen
With confidence we tell
And publish to the ends of the earth
the signs infallible”,
 

How then do we ‘do’ worship?  This question in the contemporary church is the cause of much division.  Traditionalists and Progressives fight worship wars that divide congregations down the middle and disrupt the harmony of the church community.  My thoughts on this leave me frustrated and confused.  I can only reflect that,” The Church is a divine instituation  administered by humans”.  It may be that an increase in graciousness toward each other would help heal our self-inflicted wounds.  The people of Jesus’ day, who most singularly failed to understand and accept his revelation of God where the religious folk who were blind and deaf to anything that challenged their preconceived ideas and assumptions.  The power of  gospel does not lie just in dogmatic assertions but rather in its winsomness and attractiveness.  Jesus over and over again both challenged and ignored some of the religious practices of his day.  Outside of the church of his day, he walked and talked with people and “Loved them into the kingdom”.  He identified with them in the nitty-gritty of their everyday lifes and got alongside them at the point of their greatest needs.  If our worship is just a re-run of ‘All our Yesterdays’  it becomes trapped in an historical ‘time-warp’ of our own making.

“If we serve a Living Saviour
who is alive today
Why in much of what we say
Do we paint him grey.”

If our worship is to be infectious and compelling it must have  the vibrancy and vitality of Jesus’ personality.  Let our worship be then a joyful  celebration  of our faith and of the presence of God in the world.

“Dream Church

This is the Church of my dreams –
The Church of the warm heart,
Of the open mind,
Of the adventurous spirit;
The Church that cares,
That heals hurt lives,
That comforts old people,
That challenges youth;
That knows no divisions of culture or class;
No frontiers, geographical or social,
The Church that inquires as well as affirms,
That looks forward as well as backward;
The Church of the Master,
The Church of the people;
High as the ideals of Jesus,
Low as the humblest human;
A working Church,
A worshipping Church,
A winsome Church;
A Church that interprets truth in terms of truth;
That inspires courage for this life and hope for the life to come;
A Church of courage;
A Church of all good men –
The Church of the Living God.”

  (Anon. Found in “Flowing Streams” compiled by Donald Hilton).

John R.

“SATURDAY NIGHT AT EIGHT”

SAINT PATRICK’S DAY

Although it is the great mans big day, I am not ‘Wearing Green’ because there is not a drop of Irish blood in my veins.  Nor do I think that there was any in his.  Herein there lies a problem with the Patron Saints of the British Isles.  Only St David of Wales can lay claim to be a native of the country that honours them.  St. George of England was probably from Lod, a town south-east of Tel Aviv.  St. Andrew of Scotland was one of the Twelve Disciples and certainly was more at home by the shores of Lake Galilee than the banks of Loch Lomond. lt was only his bones that arrived in Scotland by a circuitous route. St. Patrick was probably born in the Severn Valley or on the Welsh Border. Never mind, we all need a little outside help sometimes!

At the age of sixteen St. Patrick was captured by some Irish raiders who came over ‘on the ferry’ from Ireland to do a bit of plundering and pillage.  He was taken as a slave to Ireland where he lived for six years before escaping and returning to his family.  While in Ireland he tended sheep and cattle and started to think about things, which is a useful occupation while you are watching sheep.  On his return to Wales he set himself to study and was ordained into the priesthood. Later he went back to Ireland with a dual mission – to minister to Christians already in Ireland and to convert the pagan Irish.  This mission contradicts the widely held thought that Patrick introduced Christianity to Ireland.  In his missionary activities he chose to incorporate traditional Irish beliefs and rituals into his preaching of the Christian faith.  To celebrate Easter he used bonfires because the Irish folk were used to honouring their gods with fire.  He also superimposed the Sun onto the Christian cross to create what  is called a Celtic cross. 

As with most Saints, legends and myths have grown up over the centuries which have little or no historical basis.  One of the most popular myths attached to him is that he drove all the snakes out of Ireland.  As snakes were never native to Ireland after the Glacial Era, this tale might have grown up around his exploits against the Druids who were the ancient Pagan Priests in Ireland.  We ought to be ever grateful to St. Patrick for his famous parable of the Shamrock.  This he used to illustrate the Doctrine of the Trinity.  St. Patrick would hold up a Shamrock and challenge his hearers with a question, “Is it one leaf or three?” The answer he usually received was, “It’s both one leaf and three”.  Patrick would then conclude by saying “And so it is with God”.  “Thank you, St. Patrick”. All I will need for this coming  Trinity Sunday is a shamrock and the job will  be done!!  Interestingly in Texas, USA, there is a town called Shamrock, given no doubt by early Irish settlers. 

Most familiar to us is the hymn with the title, “St. Patrick’s Breastplate”. this was translated by Cecil Francis Alexander in the 19th C.  Not the easiest hymn to sing in its original form, yet it captures something of the life of St. Patrick and speaks to all those who today journey with and for Christ.

“I bind unto myself today
  The power of God to hold and lead,
His eye to watch, his might to stay,
  His ear to hearken to my need,
The wisdom of my God to teach,
  His hand to guide, his shield to ward,
The word of God to give my speech,
  His heavenly host to be my guard.
 
Christ be with me, Christ within me,
  Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
   Christ to comfort and restore me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
  Christ in quiet, Christ in danger
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
  Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.”

In celebration of the day I think I will go and dye my bath water green and sculpture a leprechaun out of the soap bar.

John R.

“LOOKING TO SUNDAY” Lent B4

Lectionary Readings:

Numbers 21:  4 – 9
Psalm 107: 1 – 3, 17 – 22
Ephesians 2: 1 – 10
John 3:  14 – 21
 

The rigours of the Lenten season are beginning to take their toll.  There are the ashen sunken faces of those who have given  up for Lent those things that perhaps they should never have indulged in the first place, and which they have every intention of returning to once the 40 days are over.  Also noticeable is the physical posture of folk, who because of their acts of penitence and self-flagellation have become bowed into the ‘crouch’ position by their efforts.  Hopefully everyone will be down on their knees in the next fortnight.

For all, help is at hand this Sunday in the guise of what is called ‘Refreshment Sunday”.  Like as in Advent this is a relaxing point just in case we get too fatigued. (We are allowed this because Sunday’s are not counted has being part of the 40 days of Lent.)  It seems to have got this name from years ago, when the Gospel reading for this particular Sunday in Lent was the account of the miracle of the “Loaves and Fishes”.  The Latin name for the Sunday is, Laetere Sunday.  This word means ‘Rejoice’, and is connected with the words in Isaiah 66, “Rejoice O Jerusalem………”. 

In the past 40 years or so, Mothers Day has come on the scene and is celebrated in the UK and other places on this day.  Mothering Sunday, not to be confused with Mothers Day, was in the past a day in mid-Lent when families gathered together and attended their Mother Church for worship.  It certainly never had anything to do with biological mothers. Perhaps its popularity owes much more to the Greeting Card industry than anything else.  We in the Church would do well to lay any emphasis this Sunday on the original meaning of Mothering Sunday.  It can be an uncomfortable day for some women and may cause some to feel excluded.

Numbers 21:

We don’t in the 3 year lectionary cycle pay many visits to this book.  This may be as well if the passages are like the one prescribed for today.  I have often wondered how the book got its name.  There are two passages in the book that speak about  censuses and if ‘counting by numbers’ is what a census is about that might be a clue to its name – but that is a non-starter.  The book apparently got the name by which we call it today, from the Latin word ‘bemidhbar’, that means “in the wilderness”.  Through the tortuous translations of the centuries we have ended up with “Numbers”.

The selected passage needs a lot of work doing on it if it is to have relevance and meaning for our congregations.  Snakes are not my favourite creatures.  I prefer fur on my pets.

Again, on the Israelite trek in the desert there is grumbling and grousing.  After a long time they are still a long way from reaching their destination.  The food God provides is horrible.  Manna is described in an earlier chapter as, “Cakes baked in oil” and is compared unfavourably with the rich fayre that was on the table in Egypt.  Cucumbers, Melons, Leeks and Onions (chap. 11).

In response to all their complaining God becomes both their enemy and redeemer.  The snakes, no doubt a real threat to people wandering in the desert, run loose among the people as punishment.  God, their friend, does not take them away but leaves the threat in force.  At the same time he provides a cure for their venomous bites, in the form of a bronze serpent lifted high, that they have only to look up to for a cure.

“Beneath the cross of Jesus,
 I vain would take my stand
The shadow of a mighty rock
within a weary land.”
 
“My sinful self my only shame
My glory all the cross”.

John 3

Although this passage contains the best known text in all of the NT, it is not this which calls for our attention this Sunday.  John 3:16 is a brilliant summary of the Christian faith but when it is used just as a ‘faith mantra’ it is robbed of much of its real value and power.  It pulls one up short to find Jesus in this verse saying that God loves this God-hating world so much that he is willing to give himself, in the form of Jesus, to save it.  What do we most need to hear this week?  About God’s love or his justice.  To tell about His promises or His judgements. 

There were certainly ‘snakes on the ground’ at the time when John wrote his gospel.  The young Christian community was dominated by the culture of the day which was prepared to destroy this new faith movement.  This may be why John’s division of humanity into two neat categories  was at that time necessary.  Those who loved darkness and those who loved light.  Those who do evil and those who do what is true.  Applied to our day this can lead to moral arrogance and a thinking that the world is so wicked that we are best out of it.

The setting of this passage is the visit of Nicodemus to Jesus. He, a leader of the Jews wants to know more. We are not told of Nicodemus’s thoughts at the end of the conversation, but is later defence of Jesus in a debate with the Jewish religious authorities and his actions after the crucifixion of Jesus, might lead us to believe that they were lasting ones. Nicodemus came out of the dark of the night into the presence of Jesus who is the ‘Light of the World’.

Verse 17 says that God did not send Jesus into the world to condemn it, but to save it. In darkness we can only see dimly what is close at hand, but in the full-blown light, revealed through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, we get a larger view of God’s will and purpose for the world.

                      “Growing Light”
 
 
“The kingdom of God
is justice and joy’
for Jesus restores
what sin would destroy;
God’s power and glory in Jesus we know,
and here and hereafter
the kingdom shall grow”
 

John R

 

(Bryn Rees)

“LENTEN REFLECTIONS”

DOES YOUR CHURCH NEED A DOCTOR – 3

How do we face up to the situation we find ourselves in?  First we must look at the facts as best we know them.

Of the church congregations that we presently have, up to 60% will not be in existence in ten years time.  Take a look at churches that you personally know.  What percentage of their congregation are over 75 years old?  How long can they carry on?  In ten years time 50% of ordained ministers will have retired.  Of those in training now only about 5% are under 35 years old.  The majority of these are already aged fifty or over.  After they are ordained they will only have about ten years of ministry. 

Perhaps the crunch question is, not how many churches will survive but what kind of churches.  They will certainly not be the present ‘one style fits all’ congregations,  because that style fits only those who already belong.  There is nothing wrong if a congregation wants to keep things as they are, with a paid staff person providing a sort of ‘I will hold your hands until you die’ kind of ministry.  As long as that is really what they want.

Any re-visioning of the church will demand that we give up on the expectation that the next generation of Christians will be the ‘spitting images’ of us.  It has been said that God “Does not do the same thing twice”.  Like the trek through the desert that the Israelites undertook  under the leadership of Moses, he is always beckoning us onward to new destinations and new things.  Like them, we will at times long for what was in the past and will in the rigours of the journey sometimes despair of our present situation.  Yet when we look up to the distant horizon, we will always find there the presence of God, “As a cloud by day and a pillow of fire by night”, WE WILL NEVER WALK ALONE.

In Part 2 we remarked that “the clock is ticking”.

What do the various clocks that you have around your home look like?  Plain and functional, embellished with decorative designs, grandfatherly or digital – perhaps the Cuckoo shoots out twelve times at noon.  Yet behind all these differences there lies two essential components.  One bit that knows the time – the mechanism. The other is the bit that shows the time – the clock face.  Without these two things the clock will either not know the time , or it won’t we able to show it to you.

The Church Clock

Oh, thou who dost these pointers see,
And hear’st the chiming hour.
Say, do I tell the time to thee:-
And tell the nothing more:-
I bid thee mark life’s little day.
By strokes of duty done:-
A clock may stop at any time,
But time will travel on.
 
I am a preacher to a few, –
A servant unto all,
As here I stand tick, ticking,
Like a death-watch in a wall:
And, it were well that those who see
These fingers gliding on,
Should think a moment now and then,
How fast the moments run.
 
(Evelyn Waugh)
 

In local church life also there are also two essential components.  The bit that knows the good news for its community and the bit that tells the good news to its community.  These two things must be at the heart of any venture in mission.  You cannot have one without the other.

You know how it is?  Something has happened!.  You are so excited about it that you can’t stop yourself telling the first person you meet.  That’s mission, outreach, “Go ye into every place and preach the good news”.  But how do you tell it?  In your excitement it just comes bubbling out, sometimes so incoherently that the person you are telling can hardly get a grasp of what you are saying.  Effective mission depends on knowing what you are saying and how to say it. 

Just firing off a few gospel arrows at random in the hope that some of them will hit the target and then retreating again behind the battlements, is not the way that Jesus went about the kingdom work.  His whole life was one of being with and along side the people he sort to ‘capture for God’.  Put another way, ‘He talked and walked’.  How much we need to ‘Walk the Talk’.  Jesus was not selective in the company he kept.  He was called the “Friend of Sinners”, he stood alongside  the outcasts of his day and also spoke to those who thought they had got it all ‘sussed’ out.  What’s more he had the happy knack of speaking in a way that grabbed people’s attention and in such a way that what he spoke of connected with their everyday situation. 

Firstly, we must know our faithIt almost goes without saying that the Bible must be the dictionary, encyclopedia and source book for that. We would not attempt to assemble and then operate a complicated piece of machinery without reference to the assembly module or the operating instructions.  Nuff said!

Secondly because the church is a community, it only functions properly when we do things together.  The primary source of that sense of community and ‘belonginess’ is when we come together in WORSHIP.  Even evangelism and mission must take second place to that.  True worship  is the birthing stone and reason for everything else that church does.

” To worship is to quicken the conscience by the holiness of God.
to feed the mind with the truth of God,
To purge the imagination by the beauty of God,
to open the heart to the love of God,
to devote the will to the purpose of God.
 
(William Temple)
 

John R

“SATURDAY NIGHT AT EIGHT”

As I have still got a functioning Internet Connection and the house phone is working properly it seems as though the ‘Solar Storm’ has passed by without major incident.

We are apparently in that period of the Sun’s cycle where she is doing a bit of interior spring-cleaning and throwing stuff in our direction.  Viewed from where we are the Sun doesn’t seem to alter, but close up she is a dynamic active beast.  The Sun is really just one massive nuclear reactor and from time to time massive explosions throw vast quantities of debri into space.  In 1859 one such solar storm caused telegraphic communications to break down when the wires shorted and caused fires to break out in North America and Europe.  More recently, in March 1989 another such storm brought down the electricity grid in Canada, and for over 9 hours there was a black-out.  We may be subjected to more of these cosmic happenings in the next couple of years as the Sun reaches the height of its active cycle.  Fortunately we have a space ‘umbrella’ that protects us from the worst of the effects.  If the sky is clear during the next few nights we may be treated to a spectacular celestial laser show.

I don’t think that the psalmist, who penned the words of the first part of Ps. 19 which we will be using in worship tomorrow, knew much about all this.  But what he did feel when he looked up at the heavens brought on him a sense of awe that cut him down to size and got him on his knees.

“The heavens are telling the glory of God and the firmament proclaims his handiwork”.

At least I know where all this is coming from, which is more than can be said about our ancestry. According to another news item this week, researchers in Cambridge have succeeded in profiling the genetic make-up of Gorillas.  What they have discovered seems to indicate that we may owe more to them than to chimpanzees, for what we as humans are.

(I see a faint resemblance to my great-great-great Uncle Fred)

I have often wondered why I have sudden urges to swing from trees and to beat my chest with clenched fists.  I have checked with “Ancestry UK” but they say their records don’t go as far back as that.

Reading about all this, I got down my copy of Carl Sagan’s book “The Dragons of Eden”.  Much of what he writes leaves me baffled, but what does hit me is the period of time over which this evolutionary process has taken place.  Like the immensity and power of the Sun, the time span over which we have evolved is almost beyond comprehension.  As Sagan says in his book, “The world is very old and human beings are very young”.  If we plotted all of the history of our planet since it came into being, we humans only come onto the scene in very recent times.  If we condensed all time, since the Big Bang and chartered all of the Earth’s existence into 1 year we would find that the most primitive forms of life only appeared at 1.30p.m. on Dec. 31st.  On that dayour first real ancestors would appear at about 10.30p.m.  The chart would show that the era of the Roman Empire and the Birth of Christ occurred at 11.59.56 on that first New Years Eve.  Again thinking about our bible readings on Sunday, we shall read from the OT about the giving of the Ten Commandments to the Isrealities on their desert journey.  On the time scale of the universe, we may find that the paint on the tablets that Moses brought down the mountain, is hardly dry. 

“O Lord my God when I in awesome wonder
Consider all the works thy hand hath made  ……..
Then sings my soul, my Saviour God to Thee
HOW GREAT THOU ARE”
 

John R.

“LOOKING TO SUNDAY” Lent B3

Lectionary Readings

Exodus 20; 1 – 3, 7 – 8, 12 – 17
Psalm 19
1 Corinthians;1,22-25
John 2 ; 13 – 22

Though we are now  deep into Lent, the OT reading continues the Covenant theme.  The selected verses of Exodus 20 skirt round the bits about, “visiting the sins of parents onto their children”, and the details of what should or should not happen on the Sabbath.  Psalm 19 has two distinct sections and may well have been combined from different sources at an earlier time.  Read as a whole we might think that the Psalmist, having reflected on the majesty of Creation is so awed by what he sees that it prompts thoughts in him of penitence and supplication.  The Gospel reading is an account of the day when Jesus got angry.  John puts this incident at the beginning of his gospel whereas the other gospel writers place it in the final days of Jesus’ earthly life, during the Passover Festival.  Paul’s words in the Corinthian reading cuts us down to size.  The sight of a mangled body offends our normal human values.  We are called to a ‘re-think’ of our human wisdom in the light of what the world would consider to be the foolishness of God.

Exodus 20:

It is time for a bit of Law and Order.  For the Israelite people the initial euphoria after their release from slavery in Egypt has evaporated.  The going is tough and the destination distant.  They are beginning to give both Moses and God a hard time.  The commandments that they are given are not just prohibitions.  God isn’t  saying DON’T DO THIS and DON’T DO THAT, or I won’t be your God any more.  Rather they are given to the people as a road map that they can follow.  This will get them through the desert and into the Promised Land.  Once there, they will also serve as the building blocks for the nation that God wills to bring into being.  Curiously, the narrative begins not with the listing of the first and most important rule but with God reminding them of what they have experienced of his deliverance and salvation in the past.  The commandments are not just pieces of good advice from a powerful God but the required response of a grateful people.

The set verses to be read leave out verses 4 – 6.  While acknowledge that the mistakes of one generation may have long-standing consequences in the future, we may feel that it is fundamentally unfair that we should be held responsible for the sins of our parents and grandparents.  Also not included in the set reading is the reaction of the people after the commandments are given, “When all the people witnessed the thunder and the lightening they were afraid and stood at a distant”.  God’s presence with them was sobering and frightening.  This caused them to ask Moses to speak to God on their behalf.  It seemed to them that direct contact with this Mighty Powerful God might prove fatal.  With the insights of the New Testament we can now say

“Your words to me are life and health,
They fortify my soul.
Enable, guide and teach my heart
To reach its perfect goal.”

John 2:

This was the day when ‘all heaven broke loose’.  The Temple in Jerusalem was the epi-centre of Jewish worship.  Three times a year those living within a certain distance were obligated to go to Jerusalem and to the Temple.  People who lived far away, have to this day, a saying at Passover time, “This year in ….. , next year in Jerusalem”.  Whether what Jesus said and did on this occasion, was on one of  a number of visits that he made to Jerusalem during his life, or during the final visit after his entry into the town on Palm Sunday, depends on which of the gospel accounts you are reading.  If, as in John’s gospel it was at the beginning of his ministry, it would serve to lay a marker down to indicate the challenge he would make to accepted religious practices of the day.  On the other hand if it occurred on his final visit then the action he took would have mirrored all that he had sought to show through his teaching and actions. Verses from the hymn below seem to me to sum up the thoughts of Jesus on this day:

“O Thou not made with hands,
Not throned above the skies,
Nor walled with shining walls,
Nor framed with stones of price,
More bright than gold or gem,
God’s own Jerusalem.
 
Thou are where’er the proud
In humbleness melts down;
Where self itself yields up;
Where martyrs win their crown;
Where faithful souls possess
Themselves in perfect peace

(Francis Turner Palgrave, 1824 – 97)

It was on this day that religion got in the way.

“An outsider would have thought
That it was a pet shop’s fire sale.
And the outsider, in some ways
Wouldn’t have been far wrong.
 
Only, it wasn’t household pets,
It was pigeons that were being purchased
And it wasn’t a fire sale,
it was a ‘rip-off’ in a holy temple.
Bartered birds for sacrifice,
And the price was something that only the rich could afford.
No discounts for students, pensioners or the disabled.
 
Then he’
The holiest man on earth
went through the bizarre bazaar
Like a bull in a china shop.
So the doves got liberated
and the pigeon sellers got angry
And the police went crazy
And the poor people clapped like mad.
Because he was making a sign
That God was for everybody.
Not just for those who could afford him.
 
He turned the tables over that day …
The day that religion got in the way.

( Adapted from a piece inStages on the Way”. Iona books 1998)

There is a notice circulating that says,  “It is Church Cleaning Week and they are asking for volunteers”.  Its going to be the biggest clean-up in years.  But before you rush to volunteer and grab your brush, cloth and bucket you might give a thought to this.

It may be that our Lord will be in this working party too.  He will roll up his sleeves and do his bit.  Just for a moment, more human than divine.  Will he find it fairly tidy or an absolute disgrace?

Oh!, he won’t find us selling things like pigeons and the rest.  Fair Trade is our game and we only sell the best.  But might he find us pedalling ill will and discontent and selling truths so different from the Truth he spoke?

Oh!, he won’t find us running ‘changing-booths’.  A Free Will Offering is what we make.  But will he find us selling short, His openness and grace.  His unconditional love, that offers all a place.

Oh!, he won’t find us operating like thieves in a den for if you measure our righteousness we’d score ten out of ten.  But might he find our holiness shallower than it seems, with cant and hypocrisy as the underlying theme?

Be careful then if you are going to volunteer.  For Christ may slip in too and find whats lain hidden for years.  That might mean that the very temple that we thought was just fine, needed a cleaning that’s divine.

( Adapted from , “With an Open Eye” by Tom Gordon, Iona Community)

John R.

REFLECTIONS FOR LENT

“DOES YOUR CHURCH NEED A DOCTOR” 2

The Doctor puts his stethoscope down and switches off the cardiac monitoring machine.

You ask “Whats wrong with me, Doctor”. 

He replies “It could be a number of things”.

 

This is always going to be the case when we have an ‘in-depth’ look at our churches.  Always we will have to diagnose the disease before we can do anything about it. 

 
 
 

A church illness is simply some situation within it that impedes its spiritual growth.  There are many causes for this.

 OLD AGE:  The church is made up mostly of elderly people and they do not have the energy to do much about church growth.  Nothing on earth lives for ever.  Perhaps things could have unfolded differently but they didn’t.  Life expresses itself in circles of birth and death.  The continuation of anything is assured not by the preservation of an individual specimen but by the capacity of the present generation to sow the seeds of the next.

LACK OF CLOSE CONTACT WITH THE COMMUNITY IN WHICH IT IS SITUATED:  The church in the sense that it is a building and congregation in a specific place, depends for its essential life blood supply and vitality on the people who live in its ‘catchment’ area.  If through its methods of out-reach and worship programmes it fails to be seen as attractive and openly welcoming (and that means more than a handshake at the church door and “a pleased to see you”.  It will be viewed by those outside in a negative light and not come very high on the list of options at the worship hour on a Sunday morning, or any other day or time it chooses to meet.

PEOPLE BLINDNESS:  Churches that suffer from this believe that all Christians should talk alike, worship the same way, like the same music, have their services at the same time and of the same length.  A second symptom of this is when any evangelism is focused only on special missions which are largely conducted by those thought to be ‘the experts’. 

THE LAODICEAN CONDITION:  When, for whatever reason people lose “their first love”.  The people at St Laodicea are described as “being neither hot nor cold”.  Other things have taken priority in their lives, self-worth and self-sufficiently have taken away the ‘towel and basin’ brigade and their worship and fervour for Christ hangs now as a tattered garment in need of repair.

THE ST. JOHN’S SYNDROME:  When soul winning takes a back seat to other activities.  When we are always in ‘maintenance mode’ and not ‘mission mode’.  When the past in one way or another interrupts the present moment and interferes with the changes that are necessary for progress; the desire to preserve memories, to retain power, the wish to protect our ‘own turf’.

THE CLOCK IS TICKING:

The moment an illness is diagnosed, there is no time to lose. In the mainline churches time is not on our side.  In the world things are changing at a speed that we can hardly keep up with.  It is in that changing world that we are called to fulfill the Great Commission, “Go ye into all the world and preach the good news”.

The American preacher and writer, Barbara Brown Taylor tells of a visit she made with a group of friends to Turkey.  “One afternoon in the middle of no-where our guide led us up a dirt road toward a small settlement hidden behind some trees.  We turned a bend and the outline of a ruined cathedral appeared.  Grass grew between what was left of the roof tiles and the whole structure was crumbling”.  She goes on to say, “Stepping into that empty shell, the whole group fell silent, looking for permission to enter.  No permission was needed.  No living thing remained inside.  I sat down on a stone chair and surveyed the ruins of God’s church. It is one thing to talk of the post-Christian era and quite another thing to walk around inside it.  Christianity died in Turkey – the land that Paul found so fertile for the sowing of the gospel – the land of Ephesus, Galatia, Colossae, Nicaea”.

Superimpose an image of your own church onto the picture that Barbara Taylor paints – a disused building in the centre of your town or village, its doors tightly shut, the peeling paint work, the windows broken, the sacred things removed to a museum and the records and history archived in some denominational library.  All you see are the faded reminders of a faith no longer practiced.

Barbara Brown Taylor commented when she returned home to her own church, “God has given us  Good New in the person of Jesus and the grace to proclaim it..  If we do not attend to God’s presence in our midst and bring all of our best gifts to serving him where we are, we may find ourselves selling tickets for a museum”.

 John R.

.

“SATURDAY NIGHT AT EIGHT”

A favourite book that I read as a child and that, as I have aged, have grown into rather than grown out of, is Kenneth Graham’s Wind in the Willows.  A couple of weeks ago on Transfiguration Sunday, I used a passage from a chapter in the book entitled “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”.  This is where Mole and Rat searching for Portly the Otter come to an island in the river.  There, just as dawn is breaking they have a deeply moving experience.  Hearing again the music of the Piper they leave their little boat and clamber onto the island. 

Rat whispers to Mole
Here in this holy place, here if anywhere surely we shall find him”.
Suddenly Mole felt a Great Awe fall upon him. 
Though the piping is now hushed, the sense of call and summons fills the whole of his little body. 
 In this moment both animals see the Friend and Helper. There, nestling between his hoofs they also see the round, podgy figure of baby Otter.  Still trembling and wondering Rat turns to Mole and whispers,
Rat! are you afraid”.
“Afraid”, murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love, “Afraid of Him?  O never, never, and yet – and yet – O Mole, I am afraid”.

Imagine my surprise and delight when I discovered that an Anglican priest, Rev. Leslie J. Francis, has written a little book of meditations using this and many other passages from ‘Wind in the Willows’ and set each of them alongside an appropriate Gospel readings, To each of them he has added a brief meditation and prayer.

As there are 40 of these, the book is described as resource for use during Lent, yet reading through it I feel that they would be useful at any time for story type preaching.  Each individual section of Rev. Francis’s book follows the first eight chapters of Graham’s original work. This allows one to read both books along side each other.  Sometimes the meditations go in an unexpected direction, but that is the way of  meditations.

This  book “The Gospel in the Willows” is published by Darton, Longman and Todd and is available at Amazon Books.

Of the many Lent Courses that are offered each year for individual and group study, this is something rather different and is well worth the few pounds that it costs. 

Without infringing the author’s copyright I can’t print any extracts from the book, yet I feel after reading and using it, that Mole, Rat, Toad and other inhabitants of the River Bank will have to be added to the list of Disciples.

 Rat, had been swimming in the river with his friends the Ducks. Having throughly annoyed them by tickling their necks when they dived. he is now sitting on the river bank in the sun. .He feels a song coming on.

“DUCKS’ DITTY”

All along the backwater,
Through the rushes tall’
Ducks are a-dabbling.
Up tails all.
 
Ducks’ tails,drake’ tails ‘
Yellow feet a-quiver’
Yellow bills out od sight
Busy in the river!
 
Slushy green undergrowth
Where the roach swim –
Here we keep a larder’
Cool and full and dim.
 
Every one for what he likes!
We like to be
Heads down, tails up’
Dabbling free.
 
High in the blue above
Swifs whirl and call –
We are down a-dabbling,
Up tails all! 
 

John R.

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