This reflection was given during our Sunday Service which also acted as our Congregational Annual Meeting, and included a report from our Treasurer

Scripture Readings: Mark 2:23-3:6

2 Corinthians 4:5-12

It’s a bit odd for me to be reviewing the year 2017 in the life of our congregation, not least as I spent most of that year off for health reasons. As I returned to work towards the end of the year, I remember vividly feeling an overwhelming emotion of thankfulness. This year is the seventieth anniversary of the National Health Service- and I give thanks daily for the people and the technology that have enabled me to return back to work after what could have been a very debilitating problem with my heart.

But I am also thankful for what happened in this congregation during that time. Yes, as we have heard from Sandy, our finances reflect the fact that this congregation is in a difficult place. We need to be make hard decisions soon about what kind of future we will have as we go forward. Many of feel very downbeat about Old High St Stephen’s- and I have no intention of pretending that 2017 was not a difficult year, no intention of pretending that our difficulties are not going to go away, no intention of pretending that we face difficult times ahead, no intention of pretending that we will need to make hard decisions soon.

And yet, I am still thankful.

Thankful that, through a difficult time in my life, and in the life your manse family, that we continued to feel loved, supported and prayed by you. Thankful, too, for those who stepped in to help- Alastair Younger, our Interim Moderator, Arthur Sinclair, our Pastoral Assistant, and all the elders and members who went an extra mile to ensure that the life of the congregation continued.

Thankful that our Kirk Session was not content to simply mark time last year, but started two important pieces of new work in my absence- commissioning Kerrara Wilson to carry out a community survey, which attempted to identify needs in our parish which we might be able to fulfil; and commissioning architect Alan Marshall to undertake a conservation and development study of the Old High Church (we heard his preliminary thoughts yesterday).

Thankful for the impact of the St Stephen’s Community Choir, the concerts programme at the Old High, and the Handbells Group which allow so many people in our church and our community to make and enjoy music; and for the continuing contributions of the church choirs at St Stephen’s and the Old High, and the dedicated and talented musicians who lead them.

Thankful for the continuing work of pastoral care, and for the development of Meet and Eat, Tea and Chat and Afternoon Communions, providing new ways for our less able members to overcome loneliness and to continue to participate in our fellowship.

Thankful for those who continue to work on our behalf in the local community- at Cameron House, Southside Road Nursing Home, the Olive Grove and the Mackenzie Centre.

Thankful for those in the background: our Church Administrator, our cleaners, for those who keep our buildings in good nick, and our finances and administration on good order.

Thankful for those in our congregation who serve in Presbytery and on national Church of Scotland bodies in various capacities; and for those whose faith leads them to be involved in many other church and community organisations.

Thankful to all who ensure our worship services take place: beadles, crèche volunteers, sound operators, those who read Scripture and lead prayers, who count money and greet people at the door and serve coffee and cakes.

Thankful for those who meet together for study and discussion in order to strengthen their faith, and for all who pray for the good of the congregation and our communities in so many different ways.

Thankful for all who organise things like craft evenings, coffee mornings and other events to strengthen our fellowship.

Thankful for 5,000 midweek visitors from all over the world at the Old High, and those who welcomed them.

Thankful for loads of money raised for Christian Aid, and other good causes; and for food collected for the Food Bank, and meals cooked and meaningful gifts given for those in need and at Christmas.

Thankful for the hard work that goes into the Kirking of the Council and the Christmas Lights switch on which brings hundreds of people into our church- and leaves them with a positive experience of the Christian faith.

Thankful for the legacy from Nina Wallace, which I hope and pray we will use in imaginative ways to serve God’s kingdom and our community; and, just as important, for the faithful giving of time, talents and money by so many people in this congregation.

Thankful for so many other activities, and for so many other people: for people, not buildings, or money, are what make the church.

And what next?

Some think that the Church is about an unchanging faith, and that we should never challenge the tradition. Well, if that’s the case, what is Jesus up to in today’s Gospel readings?

Today we read two stories in which Jesus challenged traditional religious thinking. The Pharisees criticised Jesus for having a snack, and for healing to man on the Sabbath. Yes, the Sabbath is important, says Jesus, but-

The Sabbath was made for the good of human beings; they were not made for the Sabbath.

Jesus might have respected tradition- but he loved people more. We a congregation standing in the Reformed tradition, we are supposed to be open to change.

It’s 50 years since the Church of Scotland changed the tradition of centuries to open up the Ministry of Word and Sacrament to women- a few years earlier, they had also opened up the eldership to women. It took us almost 2,000 years to get there- but I am thankful for the women who have shaped my faith and shared my ministry as elders and preachers and pastors- and we all should be. God called us to recognise the ministry of women whom he had called to be elders and clergy, and our Reformed Church of Scotland was faithful when we decided to do so. For tradition was made for the good of men and women- we were not made to be slaves of tradition.

In our rapidly changing world, a faithful Christian congregation will be one which seeks to hear how God calling us to be his faithful people in a new generation. Unfortunately, much of what we do in the Church is designed for 1950, not 2018. But I believe that Christianity without the Church is impossible. The church exists for the good of men and women; we were not made for the Church.

And so the Church exists, not so that you and I can have a comfortable time with our friends for an hour on a Sunday morning enjoying a kind of religious entertainment. The Church exists to build up the faith of God’s people, and to take Christ’s message of God’s love to the world.

St Paul told the Church at Corinth that he did not preach about himself, but

we preach Jesus Christ as Lord.

Paul spoke of a God

who made his light shine in our hearts, to bring us the knowledge of God’s glory shining in the face of Christ.

These words should remind us that the Church is not an end in itself. The Church exists to point people to Christ as Lord. The Church exists to show the world the light of God that’s found in Jesus Christ. The Gospel of Christ is, truly, the greatest story ever told, the best news there has ever been, a blazing light in a world of darkness. And therefore the question for this, and for all the Christian churches of this city, is not, ‘How do we keep our congregation going?’ but ‘How do we keep the light of Christ shining in our part of God’s creation?’

Can we do it? Each of us, as individuals, very often feel we not really up to the task. We feel tired, discouraged, and even afraid, as we see the old, familiar ways of doing church and talking about faith apparently collapsing around us.

Yet, says Paul to the Corinthians, and to us: we possess spiritual treasure.

That treasure is not the work that we put into the life of the Church. It isn’t the money we give to the Church. It’s not the skills and talents we use in our Church life. It’s not the hours we put into the work of the Church. Although all those things are good, and we should all be thankful for them- those things are not the spiritual treasure which St Paul means.

St Paul- remarkable man- an ingenious thinker, a hard worker, a persuasive speaker- says to the Corinthians- I’m actually just a man. I’m just like a clay pot. Nothing much to look at. Really quite ordinary in fact. So- I’m not trying to sell myself, to boast about myself, to try to make you follow me. It’s not me that counts, it’s not you that counts. You and me, says St Paul, are like clay pots. Nothing much to look. But take the lid off, and you find treasure inside:

For it is not ourselves that we preach; we preach Jesus Christ as Lord.

Brothers and sisters, you and I are not going to save the world. You and I are not the light of the world. We are like clay pots- but we have within us a treasure which has been given by God. We are the Church when we share the real treasure that we possess: the message that Christ is Lord.

The mere survival of the Church is not good news to the world. The good news is the message that the Church is called to share. In a world which forgets God, or which worships false gods, or which despairs because God seems harsh or divisive, the only good news is the message we have to share- that

God’s glory [is] shining in the face of Christ.

That is why we are here- to share that very, very good news with the world.

Meantime, in the words of St Paul, let us honest about it:

We are often troubled,

but not crushed;

sometimes in doubt,

but never in despair;

there are many enemies,

but we are never without a friend;

and though badly hurt at times,

we are not destroyed.

 

And for those reasons, we can be thankful be to God!

God of our present, our past and our future, too.[1]

Notes

Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated

© 2018 Peter W Nimmo

[1] ‘O God, you search me and you know me’ (from Psalm 139) Bernadette Farrell (CH4 97)