Friday, September 28, 2007

Sunday 30 September
Pentecost 18

Amos 6:1a, 4-7
1 Timothy 6:6-19
Luke 16:19-31

I once encountered a Grizzly Bear in the southern Yukon Territory. I was all on my own – rather in the middle of nowhere. There had been other occasions when I’d been part of a group hunting moose that we’d seen signs of grizzly bears – their droppings and the places where one had dug under fallen trees. We’d felt quite confident and not a little emboldened by the presence of the rifles hanging on slings at our shoulder. I’d once seen a couple of grizzly bears fishing for salmon in the river. That time my mates and I were in a pickup truck and we pulled to the side of the road and watched the bears through binoculars from the safety of the truck.

The occasion of this solo encounter with a grizzly bear was merely a hike, however, and I was unarmed.

I am pleased to say that I was less than a hundred yards away from it and that I was completely unafraid. I could see the bear and it kept moving its head back and forth and sniffing the air so it was aware of me. Yes – your preacher this morning stands unafraid in the presence of grizzly bears. That's the kinda guy he is. Did I tell you, though, that there was a chasm nearly a hundred feet deep between myself and the bear?

I meant to put that in the sermon. I should have. I suppose that might moderate slightly any thoughts of my being particularly heroic.

Yes, I’m afraid I’m as prudent as anyone else. The only reason I was able to stand there looking at this bear with my good eyes and he was able to sniff the air, grunt twice and smell me with his very good nose without any fear or incurring of risk on my part was the presence of a deep chasm separating the bear and myself – sixty feet of it vertical rock leading down to a small river. One of those chasms. Not worth the bear’s efforts for the dubious reward of a skinny sixteen year old.

In Jesus’ parable the rich man is being tormented in Hades while poor Lazarus has finally been rewarded for his years of suffering by being at the side of Abraham in paradise – in the ‘bosom of Abraham’ as the song goes. The rich man asks whether Abraham could ask Lazarus to dip his finger in the cool water and come over to him to cool his tongue. Abraham tells him that this is not possible. The rich man has received his reward in the course of his earthly life. Besides, he says, a chasm has now been established between us and nobody can cross over.

There is not a little irony in this story. Not only that a rich man ends up in Hades and a poor man in paradise. This is meant to be a ‘tale’, by the way, not a comprehensive geography of what the afterlife will look like. No – the irony is that the chasm always existed between the rich man and Lazarus. As Lazarus was being stepped over, as Lazarus was being looked through, when the rich man assumed that the scraps from his table were going into the bin or being fed to the dog and was unaware that there was a human being unofficially attached to his household. There had always been a chasm. The invisible chasm became, eventually, visible.

Our parents may well have wanted to insulate us from the rough life. They may have taken a look at the catchment area for the local school before they bought their house. They had the best of intentions. They wanted us safe. There were always friends your parents like and friends they don’t. I’m aware that the town where I live contains four or five towns – that people sometimes keep to themselves and that our churches – most of them anyway – are drawn from certain pockets and not others. John Street in Penicuik is a bit of a chasm. We don’t always know our neighbours.

When we gather around the altar on a Sunday morning are we aware of the spiritual presence with and beside us of men and women in countries we will never visit who speak a language we will never learn but are doing the same thing on a Sunday morning as us? Our children are less likely to be able to navigate the family globe than we were. Gap years are often spent on Australian beaches. Travel is involved, I suppose.

The chasm is comfortable. It keeps the Grizzly bear at a distance. I just finished hacking back the hedge which surrounds the Rectory in Penicuik. It’s a job one avoids and my ladder and I sank rather dramatically into the Rose and Hawthorn at one point. They’re meant to be a little impassable. They guard our privacy. You can hear the neighbours or the dog walkers but you’re guaranteed of a certain distance and certain degree of solitude.

What should the rich man have done? What is being criticised here? Is Hades the final destination of every wealthy person who does not – St Francis-like – stride from the comfort of his mansion to embrace and care for lepers? Is it as simple as that? Is it just another way of saying that rich men fit into the Kingdom the way camels fit through the eyes of needles? Maybe - maybe not.

What is being criticised here is the absence of vision. The rich man, after all, is just a character in a story – the real men and women who are the object of Christ’s concern and pointed words are the men and women listening to the story – either there with him when he told it or in Church this morning or listening to this sermon on their radios while they’re making their coffee. You are the object of Christ’s concern. Your community contains a multiplicity of souls – and you know very few of them. The shirt you’re wearing this morning was possibly made by a young person in another country earning a miserable wage who has not had the benefits of a comprehensive education and you did not know that. Your best attempts to provide suitable playmates for your children may be increasing their loneliness and not diminishing it. You are one of the rich man’s five brothers who has not had a visit from Lazarus. You are Scrooge before Marley’s ghost comes to visit him. You don’t think you have anything in common with a whole lot of other people and the economic ice floe your living on – the social ice floe you’re living on – is growing smaller and smaller. That’s more like it. It’s not riches per se which is the problem – it’s ignorance and the ultimate loneliness which it engenders.

Before there can be any change or repentance there needs to be vision. The scales can fall from your eyes because some aspect of the story of another person’s life has finally pieced your hedge or crossed the chasm and reached your heart and mind. But that sort of thing sounds like an accident – like one of those things that might happen to some people if they’re lucky enough. Jesus does not appear to be asking you to play the lottery.

No – there is a clearer message here. You are part of a world which contains people not of your clan or language or colour or religion. They are citizens in the towns and the cities in which you live. They dig minerals out of the ground for you and they sew your shirts. Pretty well every government service we depend on was once an act of charity. We used to be better at benevolence than we are now. The working conditions we enjoy were struggled for by other generations at enormous cost to their safety and their liberty. We used to be better at advocacy than we are now. It’s out of style. But there is still an enormous army of volunteers at work in the world. They build schools in Mozambique, they provide medical services where there are none. That sort of vision which sees the fortunes of other people as being necessarily linked to our own lives is still alive. It’s just a rather slim portion of society that sees things that way.

Take a moment to look around you. What doesn’t seem right? What can be done about it? What are you going to do about it!

Some blogs from Burma

from a variety of sources including a Christian pastor.

These may well not be updated often or recently since the government is cracking down on internet access as well.

In most cases these are people who are normally in and out of Burma - students, foreign workers and one pastor - who are now receiving reports via phone calls, emails or text messages.

One reads these things, obviously, understanding that they are fragments and come from anonymous sources. Important, nonetheless.

Burma (Myanmar) Blog

Ko-Htike's Prosaic Collection

Ka Daung Nyin Thar

Yangon Thu

Mizzima News

The Irrawaddy

Monday, September 24, 2007

A Saturday Visit to Reverend Ruth

St Mark's Church in Portobello put on a music festival on Saturday afternoon. It worked out well for us. Mrs Rabbit-to-be had worked two shifts in a row and was finishing at about 8 in the morning. She came over and crashed chez moi until about 1:30 and, after coffee and a fag was chipper enough to go out and enjoy a sunny day and so we decided to show face at the Music Festival at St Mark's. I gather that one member of the congregation was well placed with a number of local music groups and was able to coax them into coming along.

Ruth's church is one of those churches where the pews have been ripped out (or 'removed' as I think the politer term has it) and it actually doesn't look that bad. The place didn't have that gutted look that some depewed churches have. I was favourably impressed. It's a funky little church to begin with - very square and built to resemble a temple.

We arrived just as a small band of men with tartan trousers, accordians and lowland pipes were finishing. They were succeeded by a string quartet and then by a collection of younger people in various combinations.

There were stalls. There was tea and fairy cakes. I picked up some DVDs. It was well worth the visit.

At one point somebody was speaking into a microphone introducing the next piece of music and the crowd kept on talking. Now I don't know whether Ruth's church was one of those listed in the SEC Red Book as 'requiring a strong hand' but she belted out the word 'quiet' in the sort of manner that reminds you that she has successfully raised sons and is well able to enforce order.

Well done Ruth - your patch looks like it's thriving.

A friend of mine made me this cool graphic. The original idea was to ferry over a few audio bits-and-pieces that get done for a local Edinburgh radio station - 45 second 'drivetime bumff'. I thought I might tell a few stories later on. That's its tail, by the way, hanging between its legs.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Psalm 150 - FAMU Gospel Choir

More ideas for youth group meetings