Saturday, May 31, 2008

Everyone's agog about a dog

Friday, May 30, 2008

Matthew 7:21-29

A Sermon for the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost

We all stop working when the bell rings.

Not the sharp little bell indicating that a client is at the counter looking for some attention. Not the bell that announces the end of the day or time for lunch but that constant droning bell designed by some bright person to be able to cut through background noise and cause us to straighten up and pay attention which indicates that the fire alarm has been pulled somewhere in the building.

A mistake? Possibly. A drill? Were we to expect one – was one announced? You look around the office and everybody has stopped work. There are a few weak smiles. Your colleagues shuffle their papers on the desk. It’s possibly nothing. But we are on the seventeenth floor. There’s a long way to go before we can leave the building.

When it is all right to alarm somebody? When your children are playing outside you’ll hear one of them cry out because they’ve fallen. They cry. It’s nothing, you say to yourself, and you just hope they don’t come in sniffling and requiring too much attention because you’re in the midst of a conversation. But there’s a different sort of cry which gets you up out of your chair. It’s the real thing. Somebody’s hurt.

The reading from Matthew’s Gospel this morning is alarming. It is intended to alarm. It’s not just a general call to vigilance. These words were meant to alarm particular people. They were not spoken, remembered and written down in order to alarm those who have never made a profession of Christian faith. They were not intended to provoke someone who’s never given the Gospel a second thought. So they are not a fairly aggressive evangelical thunderbolt aimed at those outside the Church (because, after all, words to the stranger on Jesus’ part are generally words of invitation). No – these words are directed to us – to people who may never have allowed the thought to pass through their heads that they might be on the wrong track.

We are, after all, members. We are card-carrying Christians.

What would it say on your card? Maybe you actually have a card. If I dug around long enough I’d find my card. I filled one out at an evangelical crusade some time back in the seventies. It had a space for your name and a space for you to write down the date and a prayer which you were supposed to say. I think I’m supposed to be able to recite the date – tell you which evening it was that I made a commitment to Jesus Christ but I can’t be that specific. Maybe you don’t have an actual card but if you did, what would it say? That you were born here – that these pews and that Sunday School room were home turf for you – that you were raised in a Christian home, that you attended this or that Church, were part of the Sunday School and the Youth Group. Maybe you were part of the Christian Union at College.

Now none of us are the sort of folks who believe that the book of life is just a collection of parish rolls from all around the world. We know more than that – there’s something which comes from the heart which is counted for more than our names on any piece of paper. We know that or we think we know that and so to supplement our sense of well being and ‘being at home’ in the Church we will recount the times that we have ‘felt’ something like God in the midst of our services or the times we have ‘resolved’ to be better Christians than we are. We can tell the story of our own lives and can underline the parts where we believed we drew near to God and He to us.

How safe is that story – safe in the sense of it being an accurate telling of men and women growing gradually closer to their Redeemer over the course of years?

After all – any story can be told in the best possible light. And we do have some investment in telling our own story like that. We belong. We reassure ourselves in moments of doubt that we belong.

The tale Jesus relates is that of two houses - one which is built upon rock and another which is built upon sand. It’s not a complicated image. We might be familiar with it as it was retold in the story of the Three Little Pigs.

I live in a frame house in Penicuik which was built on fairly inadequate foundations back in the late sixties. It’s a great little house – purpose-built as a rectory with the office and a large entrance allowing people to come and visit without dominating the whole place and which leaves the family adequate protected space to carry on their lives. But I’ve seen cracks in the wall which indicate to me that there is movement going on. I know that eventually these cracks will widen. This is not a rectory which will survive a hundred years. The choices made back in the late sixties about expenditures and construction costs will eventually come back and haunt us.

What can be done? Nothing much really – the place is nicely tarted up. Every time the place is painted the cracks have been plastered. That’ll do it for a few years. But they open again and show themselves. There is a problem.

Most church basements in Montreal see at least one twelve step group in the course of the week. Narcotics anonymous, Alcoholics anonymous – gamblers maybe. They shuffle in – from all walks of life – and they tell of the years in which they patched up the cracks in their walls until eventually the walls gave in. They will recount – sometimes quite dryly and dispassionately – the lengths to which they would try and convince themselves and others that they really had no problem at all – that every man has the right to a drink or two at the end of the day – that a few pounds spent on the horses really didn’t amount to anything – that other people consumed much more cocaine than they ever did and managed to hold down a job and stay out of the hospital. These lies eventually cost them jobs – it cost them their marriage – it pushed them into activity which may have ultimately cost them their liberty.

They may even count themselves the luckiest of people the wall came tumbling down because it was footed on a tissue of falsehood and that when it came tumbling down they found themselves owners of the only thing they had left and the greatest gift of all – time. Time to rebuild. Time to take stock and form an accurate assessment of their situation.. Time to make amends. Time to come to know their ‘Higher Power’.

When will we be honest? One thing that stands out in the Gospel is that Jesus does not abide fakery – will not remain silent as those who find themselves privileged proceed to tie heavy burdens upon those around them. He does not defer to the religious leaders of his day. He finds strength in people who others have given up on and he finds deceit and untruthfulness in people who ought to know better. “You are a teacher of Israel” he says to Nicodemus, “and you do not know these things” “Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees” he calls out “blind guides”.

We could get agitated about this. The reading begins this morning with a word of doom

Depart from me you evil doers - I never knew you!

spoken to a group of people who claim to have done great things in Jesus’ name but who have not been formed by his words nor have they done what these words require – they have only ‘spoken them’. With these words men and women have felt special, honoured, included. With these words men and women have differentiated themselves from the others – from the great unwashed – they have forged identity – Christian identity – with words such as these. But the inside has not matched the outside. The truth has been kept secret – the lonely existence of men and women who should have been alarmed but weren’t has finally been revealed for what it is. A sham – a show. As with so many things – a good dose of bad news early enough can be the best thing that has happened to us and the one who faces us up to the mirror only feels like our enemy.

We have heard this story. It was written for us. It was designed to place within us a germ of self doubt – a pebble in our shoe. Faith is tried and proved in adversity. How do we do in adverse conditions? Love is tried and proved in those circumstances where love is required by somebody not overly loveable and may prove more difficult a commodity to find than we ever thought. How do we measure up in our gift of love to those around us?

And you have heard this Gospel story read, preached and proclaimed on the morning of June the first, 2008. It was remembered and written down for us – not merely to reflect on the fact that we are probably doomed but with adequate time on our hands this morning to reflect on whether the inside looks like the outside and whether the story we would tell about ourselves resembles in any way the true story of who we are.

Did you appreciate this sermon? Did you nick bits of it for your own sermon on Sunday morning? Here's the collection plate. Fr Kenny's congregation in Dumbarton raises the lion's share of the budget of a primary school in Serrakunda, the Gambia.

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.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

There's always room for one more

Monday, May 26, 2008

One hopes this will not be the case

Thought for Today

Good morning

News this last few days of a series of dramatic photographs from the polar region of the planet Mars. At one time Mars was simply a reddish disc which transited across the night sky - early photographs of the planet reveal a mottled red blob.

Not so these days. I have a photograph on my hard disk taken by one of the Rover land vehicles in 2005 of a Martian sunset behind a ridge of rock. It’s crystal clear. So clear, in fact that one could almost imagine a silhouetted figure leaning on a stick watching the sunset - perhaps with his faithful dog seated beside him – something of course which can never be since the atmosphere is primarily carbon dioxide and the planet spends most of its time clutched by temperatures which would make the South Pole look summery. We will continue to accrue accurate knowledge about and even more stunning photographs of a place where we can never live.

Jesus' parables are also glimpses into a world which seems unfamiliar to many of us. It's a place where you gain your life by losing it, where forgiving those who have wronged you makes sense and where worrying is a waste of time. It's a world where you do not need to fear those who can kill the body or nick all your stuff. Much of what we spend our life doing, or fretting over or being outraged about makes no sense in Jesus’ world – many of our desires and even our sense of justice and retribution would wither and be strangled in the atmosphere of the Kingdom of God.

And yet its alien logic is put forth as the key to tremendous courage in the midst of this life and gives rise to love and renewed purpose and happiness. The man (with or without his dog) can live in such a world - in fact he won't be truly happy and whole unless he does.