Friday, September 14, 2007

A Sermon for Sunday
the 16th of September

Pentecost 16

Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28
I Timothy 1:12-17
Luke 15:1-10

How do you put your groceries on the conveyor belt in the shops? Do you load everything on in whichever order the items happen to be sitting in the trolley or do you put your vegetables together – your meat, dairy, cleaning supplies etc?

Or do you mind? Maybe you don’t mind. You consider yourself a free spirit!

Or are you the sort of person who winces with pain when he sees things mixed up. What was that woman thinking? Who would put bleach next to eggs? Have you ever entertained the thought that if only the person ahead of you would turn his back for a moment you could reach forward and rearrange his shopping for him?

This would really embarrass your children who are already starting to shake their heads sadly.

I’m not that bad. I fear I’m getting worse, though. We don’t necessarily get wiser when we grow older – we do become more rigid in our habits and in our opinions. Some of us anyway – I’m told there are others who lose their inhibitions completely. Maybe that’s still to come and my children will have yet further cause for scandal and embarrassment.

The need to order our lives: “a place for everything and everything in its place” my father would drone at me when I left his tools out. I now have a sufficient number of books in my library – I think they breed in there at night - that I’d be lost if I didn’t have them grouped according to subject. Then there are dishes for ordinary use and dishes for posh dinner parties – bits of family china where it wouldn’t do to risk chipping them by putting them in the same cupboard as the everyday stuff.

We are classifiers – good Aristotelians – we arrange things in categories and we put things in little envelopes because it’s convenient that way, because it’s safer that way – because it’s easier to remember. Because it reduces risk.

I once lived in a small town where the old folks had everybody pretty well pigeonholed. One large family – the Robinsons – were Anglicans (after a fashion). Another large family – the Alexanders – were members of the United Church. Between them they grudgingly passed back and forth the control of the local Legion and the school committee. You could drive down the High Street with an old Robinson or an Alexander and they could tell you the family histories of most of the residents. “These ones drink. That one – she’s a bit wild. This one’s just like his grandfather – the whole family’s the same really”.

As a new priest in such a community you’d be a fool to neglect such an abundant source of information.

But you couldn’t help thinking, as you’re drove along with the old fellow that your source of information – your road map – your Rosetta Stone – your Oracle - was not so much describing the town so that you could understand it as he was desperately trying to nail it in place so that he could continue to control it. What do you think?

Luke puts it this way: “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

We are not all committed to change. Remember that and save yourself some disappointment.

Tell someone you’ve been married to for years that you’re turning over a new leaf – see how much they believe you. Tell the bank manager that the person described in your credit rating doesn’t correspond to who you’ve decided to become or to who you really are. See if you get a loan. For that matter, tell yourself that you, who have endlessly failed at a particular task for the last decade are going to change your life radically – see if you believe yourself. Why? Why these prejudices? Why this inclination to believe that we are who we are and will never change? Or as it is more usually put: that one is who he is and will never change.

There’s something safe about the well ordered life. You don’t lend money to somebody who’s proven himself a bad credit risk. You don’t lend your car to somebody who drinks to excess. You don’t let your daughter date one of those Adamson boys. You don’t lend your tools to a Robinson. And if an Alexander tells you he’s got a cunning plan you can bet your boots it’s just a power ploy to take over the School committee from the Anglicans.

Safety and efficiency. Take it as given that people will behave a certain way and you can organize your world in neat little packages. If you hope more than you should you’ll only have yourself to blame when people disappoint you.

In response to the prejudice of the scribes and the Pharisees, Jesus tells them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”

The parable was remembered, and gave rise to one of the earliest motifs in Christian art – a representation which you can find rendered in mosaic on the floor in the house of a wealthy Christian or scratched onto the wall of a house church by a bored slave with a nail – that of a shepherd with a lamb across his shoulders – Christ who seeks out the lost and brings them back to the centre of the sheep fold.

But like I said: We are not all committed to change.

The local councillor, the head teacher, the village worthy, members of the vestry, the priest or minister who has been in place for many years – we walk around with two very different pictures in our head. On the one hand we have a map of the world which we have drawn painstakingly. We know the children who act up, we know the troubled families, we are aware of neighbourhoods where there has been trouble. We know the people to avoid – those who’ve made the lives of our predecessors miserable – those who have been on the receiving end of much good effort and ministry but from whom the return has been feeble or non-existent. Those who said they would but then didn’t. Those who have not kept a confidence.

The information which makes up our little map comes to us from experience. We would be foolish to say that none of these things had, in fact, happened.

On the other hand, though, we have a Gospel which does not sit easily with the belief that people are nailed in place. Churches tend to be conservative in their appraisal of society. The Gospel is not. Churches tend to expect the same thing one Sunday after another and assume the presence of the same people one Sunday after another. The Gospels do not. Jesus seems perfectly prepared to disappoint worthy Robinsons and Alexanders and instead to bestow his blessing upon drunken Smiths and carnal Adamsons. Change and possibility are the currency of the Gospel account of Jesus ministry.

Our role as ‘knowing old goats’ who have got the goods on who’s who in our towns and churches may be a negation of our role as partners in the Gospel – the Good News of God’s Kingdom in the world. At the centre of this ministry is the personality of God – his very presence in the person of Jesus – extending the hand of welcome to those who have fallen off, wandered away, disappointed their pastors, made a spectacle of themselves, isolated and alienated their friends and family and burned their bridges.

Jesus says, in this morning’s gospel, that he would welcome such as these – that he will go out of his way to bring them in – to find where they’re hiding. To lift them up across his shoulders and bring them home. To restore their place at table.

Jesus risks the invite. The tax collectors and the sinners risk showing up and passing under the knowing gaze of Pharisee and scribe – the final question is not asked of them, nor even of the Pharisees and scribes present at the time - but of us – of men and women who are in Church this morning in Penicuik or West Linton or who are listening on their radios. Will we be partners in the Gospel or is the insult to our sense of order and propriety simply too great?

Did you appreciate this sermon? Did you sneak bits of it for your own sermon on Sunday morning? Here's the collection plate. The Old Brewery Mission is one of Canada's largest homeless shelters. It's 2=1 (CDN-GBP).

And no - I'm not usually this organized - having a full text on a Thursday. The circumstances this month are exceptional.

The recording was made as part of New Every Morning - BBC Scotland's Sunday Morning Service and is used with their kind permission. Follow this link to 'listen again' to New Every Morning or any of Radio Scotland's shows.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

For the Burns fans amongst us

A delightful video of a wee girl singing Ye Banks and Braes of Bonnie Doon. It won't embed. Follow the link to Youtube.