Old High St. Stephen's, Inverness

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Month: May 2015

Sermon for Christian Aid Week by Rev Dr Craig Gardiner

Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
10 May 2015, Christian Aid Sunday
Scripture Readings: 1 John 5:1-6
John 15:9-17

A sermon from Christian Aid by Rev Dr Craig Gardiner, a member of Christian Aid’s worship collective. Born in the North of Ireland, he is Tutor in Christian Doctrine at South Wales Baptist College, a member of the Iona Community

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Today’s gospel reading follows on from Christ’s image of the vine and the branches- and here Jesus tells the disciples to remain in him, to abide in his love. It’s all part of John’s long account of Jesus at the Last Supper- these words are, in effect, a part of his farewell speech to those who have followed him for years and to whom he will entrust his unfolding purposes on earth. Final words often have an urgency to them and so, too, here. Jesus reminds the disciples that he has chosen them to carry on and bear fruit that will last. Central to those purposes will be the costly ways in which they learn to abide in Christ: ‘greater love has no one than they lay down their lives for each other’- the disciples must learn to live in faith, inspire hope and show such sacrificial love.
The idea of abiding has associations of homemaking: our abode is often the safe space in which our body, mind and spirit are strengthened, a sanctuary against the ravages of a broken world and our own wounded soul. Such a home might become a place where our hearts turn in upon themselves, seeking comfort and self-interest, but not with Jesus. Abiding in Christ means our home is open and turned outwards to love and embrace others. Our motivations are transformed from revenge, greed and safety. Instead, we choose to abide in compassion and solidarity with the poorest and weakest neighbours of the world. But as we seek to do so, we discover a stubborn and global injustice- wherever any people are excluded and exploited, it is the women of that society who will suffer most.
Worldwide, women are estimated to spend 40 billion hours collecting water every year. Compared to men, they can spend more than 10 times the amount of time doing unpaid care work. In these respects, it’s certainly true that poverty has a woman’s face. In many communities, the cost of being a woman is paid from birth- girls are denied a proper education and are soon put to menial work.
Deprived of an education, they must then rely on men for their survival, men who often deliver the horrifying reality where one-third of the world’s women have been beaten or sexually abused. There is simply no way to remain in the love of Jesus and ignore such facts.
There is no way to remain in the love of Jesus and fail to respond to people like Adi Abduba.

Adi was one of the poorest of the poor. A widow with no education, no livestock and eight hungry children, she was without status in her community. But for all that, she believed that her life ought to be better. Through a Christian Aid Partner organisation- HUNDEE- Adi was given a cow that opened up a world of possibilities. With that cow, Adi got milk, churned butter, made a little money and saved enough to build a small shop by her home. As 1 John 5:5 affirms, everyone born of God will overcome the world, and Adi, through her hard work, has indeed prevailed over the prejudice and injustice that flourished all around her.
With a little love from Christian Aid supporters, she has not only found a new hope for herself, but inspires such hope in others, too. She says: ‘When I think about my situation and some of my friends, how the livestock are giving birth and our lives are improving, I feel so happy I could cry.’ The words of Psalm 98 might well be the song of Adi’s heart as she milks and churns, as she saves and dreams of a better tomorrow, ‘sing to the Lord a new song for he has done marvellous things…the Lord has made Heaven’s salvation known upon the earth’.

So, too, might Loko Jarso join in that song of praise: she, too, might ‘shout for joy and make music to the Lord’. She might do one day… but not today… for this song is not yet the rhythm of her heart. But it could be: if this Christian Aid Week, churches in Britain and Ireland live faith, inspire hope and abide in love, then her songs might yet be transformed from deep lament to hymns of praise.
For now, four times a week, in a remote corner of Ethiopia, Loko still makes a dangerous, back-breaking eight-hour trip to gather firewood, which she sells to keep her family alive. Loko walks alone, her thin plastic shoes punctured by thorns, afraid she could be attacked by hyenas at any moment. It’s a task she dreads, but she steels herself to do it because if she doesn’t her children will starve. Yet with each burdened step, she keeps faith and prays to God: ‘Change my life and lead us out of this.’
For now, collecting wood is the only means Loko has of earning money. On the days when she is not out collecting, she’s at the market looking for buyers. It’s the only way she can afford to give her children even one small meal of boiled maize each day. There’s no safety net for Loko. No one else will step in if she falls ill or injures herself. As a woman living alone and without livestock, she is shunned, isolated and ignored. ‘What makes being alone difficult is not having the respect of your community,’ she says.
With so little, Loko’s faith in God refuses to give up hope. She dreams of owning a cow. The milk would keep her children strong; the money saved could help her establish a business. Just £5 would allow her to start selling tea and coffee. With £150, she could buy a cow like Adi’s. Such simple actions can and ought to transform her life from songs of lament into hymns of praise.
Adi and Loko are examples of the way in which, with Christian Aid’s support, churches in Britain and Ireland might abide in love, live our faith and inspire hope. Christian Aid is also teaching women like Adi and Loko about literacy and maths, and how to adapt to climate change by growing more resilient crops. It’s also encouraging men to rise above gender prejudice and include women in the decisions that affect them both. Surely this is nothing but the coming of the Holy Spirit, as in Acts 10? As with the Gentiles back then, and as with many women today, those who have previously been excluded from society and denied the blessings of God are now to be gathered into a new community, a gospel people, a family in which we are brothers and sisters to Loko and Adi.
Whether we abide in this family through our giving, our actions or our prayers, whether we collect from house to house, do a sponsored event or get involved in our worship, the challenge is to exceed the £12m raised last year during Christian Aid Week. That challenge is one for us to meet today with our donations as we support our church collection.
Imagine how, with such resources deployed, other lives might be transformed, imagine how the rivers might echo the Psalmist and clap their hands, imagine the mountains singing for joy as creation bears witness to the Lord’s salvation, moving through women like Adi and Loko.
Imagine the joy in Heaven when justice is done upon the earth. Imagine the joy in Jesus’ face, imagine that joy in your heart and mine: for living our faith, inspiring hope and abiding in the love of Christ is not simply what will make Adi and Loko sing for joy; Jesus assures us that it is what will make our own joy complete.
In truth, we do not need to imagine much of this at all.
We have already heard the stories. We know that such Kingdom transformations are already happening. God is already at work, so come and share in the joy.
Come and join in the work of the Kingdom. This Christian Aid Week,
let us live the faith, inspire with hope and show God’s love for the world.
Ascription of Praise

Now to God
who is able through the power
which is at work among us
to do immeasurably more
than all we can ask or conceive,
to God be the glory
in the church and in Christ Jesus
from generation to generation for evermore, Amen.

Ephesians 3:20-21 (REB)

© 2015 Christian Aid

Not ashamed? A sermon for 3 May 2015, Easter 5

Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
3 May 2015, The Fifth Sunday of Easter
(Year A, Narrative Lectionary)
Scripture Readings: Romans 1.1-17 (NIV)
Matthew 9.9-13 (GNB)
Not ashamed?

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

What makes you ashamed? In today’s text, Paul says that he is not ashamed of the Gospel- that is, he’s not ashamed of the message he has about Jesus Christ. Shame is a strong word. But what makes you ashamed?
We often don’t normally talk to others about things we feel ashamed about- it’s too hard. If we do speak to someone about such matters, it needs to be someone we trust deeply. But on the other hand, we might talk about things which are done in our name. I’m rather ashamed our government for withdrawing rescue ships from the Mediterranean when refugees were drowning. I’m ashamed we live in a country which is so quick to blame the poor for their problems.
And at times, I’m ashamed of Christianity. I’m ashamed that Christian people can use their faith as a cover to discriminate against gay people or women. I’m ashamed that we don’t seem to be willing to be much more adventurous about finding ways to take the good news of Christ into our world. I’m ashamed that we allow all kinds of injustices to go on in our communities and our nations, and we don’t speak a word about them from the point of view of our faith. I’m ashamed that we are too often smug and complacent, as if the fire of the Spirit had grown dim among us. I’m ashamed that parts of the Christian church has been complicit in the abuse of children.
But when St Paul was writing, he was writing to a young church, a church in the first few decades of its existence. Most of the failings of the church still lay in the future. So Paul isn’t talking about the church and it’s many faults when he is writing to the Christians of Rome. He’s not saying he’s not ashamed of the church- he’s saying he’s not ashamed of the Gospel. And this letter of St Paul to the Romans is one of the first systematic attempts to think through what the Gospel of Jesus is really about.
The Letter to the Romans is one of the key texts of the New Testament, and, indeed, of the entire `two thousand years of Christian tradition. Paul founded many Christian communities around the Roman Empire in the first few decades after the resurrection of Jesus. His letter to the Romans is unusual in that it is a letter in which Paul wrote to a church which he hadn’t founded or visited- as we heard in the dialogue earlier. Quite often Paul’s letters were written in reply to a set of questions from a church. They tend to be quite specific, dealing with just a few matters. But in the letter to the Romans is a letter St Paul attempts something like a systematic account of the content of the Gospel.
First he introduces himself- for he does not know most of these Christians of Rome. He give his credentials as a preacher and church leader, an ‘apostle’- someone authorised by Christ himself to take his message into the world. He greets them, says he hopes to meet them soon, praises them for their faith, assures them he is praying for them. Already gives some hints about what is going to be in this letter- that he will speak to them about the importance of Jesus, what his life, death and resurrection means for them. And it all builds to a climax in the last few verses, where he offers a very personal confession of faith:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed- a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

So Paul says that this Gospel (the Gospel of which he is no ashamed) is the power of God, and that it brings salvation. But when Paul speaks of power, he doesn’t, of course, mean something like electricity or wind power. He’s means a kind of spiritual power. Power that doesn’t move trains or windmills, but changes people.
Let me explain. As it happens, we are in the middle of a power struggle in our country at the moment. We are having a General Election to decide who gets the political power in our nation. In other parts of the world, such power struggles are raw and violent- Syria, Libya, Yemen are places where there are struggles for power which leave people dead, homeless, disabled. Thank God our power struggles are not like that. We ought not to moan too much that all we have to put up with are a few weeks of TV debates!- at least the politicians are only bombarding us with leaflets, and not bombs!
Yet the same thing is at stake in our election as are causing war and violence in other places- the question of who gets power in the land. Power is about being able to do things, to make thing happen, to be able to mould things as you would want them to. Politicians seek power because it lets them do things. It allows them to legitimately boss people around!

Ancient Rome: The Arch of Titus (Wikipedia Commons)

Ancient Rome: The Arch of Titus (Wikipedia Commons)

Paul understood about power. Writing to the Christians of Rome he’d be well aware that they were living at the heart of the most powerful state which had ever existed. Writing to the Romans would be like writing to Washington today.
Roman power was coercive power. For the Roman Empire was created by conquest and relied on slavery. It as an empire held together by the threat of violence. Earlier Paul had described himself as a ‘slave’ of Jesus Christ. This was a powerful metaphor, for the economy of the Roman Empire was largely supported by slaves. Slaves were people with nothing like what we would call human rights. They could be bought and sold, they could be used at their masters’ whim. And, if they rebelled, they could be put to death. Slavery is the ultimate abuse of power, for it can only operate when one group of people has absolute power over another group. The power of Rome was used to keep people in slavery, and conquered nations in subjection.
Munkácsy Mihály: Ecce Homo! 1844-1900  (Wikipedia Commons)

Munkácsy Mihály: Ecce Homo! 1844-1900 (Wikipedia Commons)

Against the power of Rome, what was the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ? After all, Jesus himself was a victim of Roman power. When the Roman governor of Palestine thought that Jesus was a threat to his power, and to Roman power, he had Jesus put to death, as if he had been a runaway slave. Strange, then for Paul to speak of the power of the Gospel of Jesus, who had been put to death by Roman power, to the Christians of Rome, surrounded by magnificent buildings which spoke of the power of Rome.
There is a clue to the nature of the power of Christ in the Gospel story we read. It’s the story of a tax collector named (coincidentally for today’s baptism) Matthew. Tax collectors had power- they could compel you to hand you over money. They were part of the Roman power structure, for the tax collectors of Palestine were collecting taxes from their Jewish compatriots on behalf of the Roman occupiers. They actually worked on something like a franchise, or commission, basis. They got to keep a proportion of what they raised. The more money they could squeeze out of the population, the more they earned. But, as you could imagine, it was an uncomfortable position they held in society. They may have been powerful, but they weren’t exactly popular.
Our Gospel reading speaks of ‘tax collectors and other outcasts’, lumping excise men like Matthew together with others on the edges of society. So I don’t suppose Matthew was a very happy man. Spurned by his neighbours, with a bad conscience that he was a cog in the Roman imperial wheel, perhaps he needed sometime to tell him that God, at any rate, loved him. He’d no doubt heard and Jesus speak already, and he was ready to respond to this man who seemed to have a lot of time for outcasts. How else do we explain the story, which the Gospel writer tells in such terse terms:

Jesus left that place, and as he walked along, he saw a tax collector, named Matthew, sitting in his office. He said to him, “Follow me.” Matthew got up and followed him.

Matthew sounds like a man who was ready for a new life, ready to leave behind even his job in order to follow Jesus. He got up and followed Jesus, found a new direction for his life, and, indeed, ended up as one of ‘the Twelve’, one of his closest disciples.
We often wonder in the Church what message we have for the world. What words should we used to express the Gospel in today’s language? St Paul said the Gospel is God’s power at the work, bringing salvation to everyone who believes. Matthew’s story is an example of what that means in a person’s life. God’s power is salvation to Matthew- he’s saved from being an outcast, he’s saved from his toll booth, he’s saved from his life of contradictions- earning plenty of money, perhaps, but despised by his Roman employers and hated by his Jewish compatriots.
Yet in order for salvation to come to Matthew, he has to respond. Follow me, says Jesus; and Matthew got up and followed him. So I think that ‘Follow me’ is a good way of putting the Gospel challenge. The church’s job is to say to say to people, on behalf of Jesus, ‘Follow me’. Those are powerful words. For if, like Matthew, we get up and follow, then that can be salvation for us.
We may not think ourselves outcasts, but all of us, like Matthew, are a maze of contradictions. Our neighbours may not know that, but we know that within us there are all sorts of things unresolved. We all, in our most honest moments, have a sense that all is not right. We have things we are ashamed of which we can hardly talk to anyone about. We all of us yearn for acceptance, love and grace.
So here is Jesus bringing the power of God to save us- follow me, he says- and that is a demand, and it will need courage to leave our old selves behind. But it also implies a promise. When Jesus says ‘Follow me’, we know that here is a leader who, unlike any political leader who might call on us to follow them, who will never let us down. The power of the Roman has long since fallen to dust. But the Gospel still has power because those who, like Matthew, hear Jesus saying ‘follow me’ and who get up and follow him find salvation. They know themselves forgiven, and they know the power of God in their lives.
Jesus said to a tax collector in ancient Palestine- a despised lackey of the Roman occupiers- follow me. And by some mysterious power, Matthew found the courage to follow, and it transformed his life. For Jesus broke down barriers. He would go to dinner with outcasts like Matthew, and if the prudish religious leader were scandalized, he didn’t care. ‘I have not come to call respectable people, but outcasts’, he says. That is the power of God at work- breaking down barriers, giving hope where there was no hope before.
We baptized another Matthew at St Stephen’s today (the baby grandson of Rosemary and Sandy Cumming). And, as in every baptism, we acted out the power of the Gospel. We spoke of death and resurrection, of a spiritual washing which makes us new, of the possibility that the power of God can bring new life, forgiveness, a new start. We spoke of the Gospel of salvation- salvation which is there for anyone- absolutely anyone- who hears Jesus call to ‘follow me’ and gets up and goes with him.
Ascription of Praise

Now to God
who is able through the power
which is at work among us
to do immeasurably more
than all we can ask or conceive,
to God be the glory
in the church and in Christ Jesus
from generation to generation for evermore, Amen.

Ephesians 3:20-21 (REB)

Biblical references from the Good News Bible, except for Romans 1 citations from the New International Version (unless otherwise stated)
© 2015 Peter W Nimmo

Old High Music – Reykjavik Wind Quintet

The Reykjavik Wind Quintet are performing on Thursday 7 May 2015 at 7.30pm, the latest concert  in this year’s Old High Church music programme.
Rekjavik wind quintet
Click here for the concert programme.
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