Old High St. Stephen's, Inverness

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Our reliable God: sermon for 20 October 2019 (Proper 24 Year C, RCL)

Scripture Readings: 2 Timothy 3:14-4:1-5
Luke 18.1-8

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

Spirituality is a word which is much on vogue these days. And like many vogue words, it has many meanings, for it is a very vague concept. We hear about Celtic spirituality, and Buddhist spirituality. You hear of people whose spirituality doesn’t seem to have much connection with religion- for example, there are those who say they find the sacred when they climb high mountains. In fact, I think that for many people, spirituality is a word they use to talk about what are really religious things. The trouble is that ‘religion’ has become a bogey word. It has become associated with fundamentalism, with violence, with everything that’s not progressive. And so, rather than speaking about religion or faith, people use that nice vague foggy term, ‘spirituality’.

Many people think of spirituality as ‘religion-lite’- slimmed down religion, without doctrines or a commitment to a religious organisation, like the Church. In fact, of course, the spirituality industry has its doctrines and beliefs. It has commercial organisations behind if, for it has become a money-spinning business. So we should be a bit suspicious of anything or anyone who uses the word ‘spirituality’ in that loose way.

Yet spirituality is at the heart of all the great religions of the world. I would go as far as to say that if Christianity is to recover some of its lost vitality, we need to rediscover the importance of Christian spirituality. What do I mean by that? Let me explain.

Sometimes people think that the Bible is just a list of doctrines or dos and don’ts. But the Bible is at the heart of Christian spirituality.

For the Bible is full of spiritual resources. There are many prayers in the Bible (not just the ‘Our Father’ which the Bible tells us Jesus taught to his disciples). The Bible has its own prayer book, the Psalms. And the greatest hymn writers and spiritual writers were soaked in the imagery and stories of the Bible. But in order to release the power of the Bible to assist our spirituality, we need to use our imagination. For the Bible is a book of stories and images and ideas, full of things to spark our imagination as we think about our spirituality. ‘The Lord is my shepherd’… bringing me through the valley of the shadow of death to cool waters and green pastures- what a beautiful image!

Today’s Bible readings give us some clues about the ingredients of a truly Christian spirituality. The passage from Second Timothy is about the Bible. The Gospel passage is about the Bible, and prayer. Those should be good places to start to think about our own, Christian, spirituality. So let’s think for a moment about them each in turn.

But today’s Epistle reading doesn’t seem to encourage much imagination. This is a letter which was written to someone who was concerned with getting the doctrine right. He writes:

All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching the truth, rebuking error, correcting faults, and giving instruction for right living.

And so it is. But we have to watch that we don’t think that ‘teaching the truth, rebuking error, correcting faults, and giving instruction for right living’ causes us to boil the Bible down, so that all it consists of is a list of doctrines and dogmas, of dos and don’ts- which is, sadly, what many people have done to the Bible. Yet the Bible is above all a book of stories, telling the grand story of how God has interacted with human beings. You wouldn’t read a story book as if it were a car maintenance manual. So why don’t we let the stories of the Bible speak to our imagination, as well as our intellect? Treat the Bible, not as an instruction manual, but as a work of art. Let it speak to you- not just to your mind, but to all your being. You are allowed to use your imagination when you read the Bible. That way, you will find that the Holy Spirit will speak to you from the pages of the Bible in a much deeper way.

But Second Timothy reminds that, for Christians, the Bible is going to be central to our spirituality. You know, sometimes other Christian denominations somehow find it easier than we Presbyterians to use the language of spirituality. And as a result, sometimes we get a bit suspicious about what they are getting up to.

When I was a teenager, I got a job as a Church organist (I sometimes think that I should keep quiet about being a Church organist, in case some day I arrive to discover that the organist isn’t well and I end up getting two jobs on a Sunday!). Anyway, this organist job was in the local Episcopal church. It was quite a challenge to me, because they had this (as I thought) elaborate sung liturgy. I wondered, for a while, where all these words had come from. But slowly it dawned on me that most of what they sung- the Gloria in Excelsis or the Kyrie Eleison, all these prayers with strange names which I really didn’t know much about- it all came straight from the Bible. All those fixed prayers of which I had a Presbyterian suspicion were full of quotes from and allusions to the Bible. It was a thoroughly Biblical service.

In the Church of Scotland, instead of prayers books we make much of our hymn books. But the best hymns are just the same- full of Biblical imagery and quotations. Consider our first hymn this morning: ‘Immortal, invisible God only wise’. That first line is almost a direct quote from the first letter to Timothy in the Authorised Version, chapter 1, verse 17:

Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory forever’.

The best, classic, hymns can be taken apart, line by line, and you can trace their origins back to something in the Bible. Truly the poets and the hymn writers have been much better at bringing the Bible alive than the theologians and the scholars. We need to be creative, use our imaginations, let God speak to us from the Bible to all our personalities- not just our minds, but our spirits as well.

The Gospel reading today is a story- a parable of Jesus. As usual, he has taken a familiar situation from everyday life, and used it to say something very deep and important about God. For Jesus understood the importance of imagination. His stories are works of art. He can take a rather unpromising idea and use it to great effect.

There was once a lawyer in the High Court in Edinburgh, who, in pleading in mitigation for his client, told the court how much a week his client had to live on. ‘How much?’ said the judge, ‘I spend that amount on my lunch’. So why are judges are paid so much? Well, part of the reasoning is that that way they should be incorruptible. It’s no use trying to bribe them, because they are well off enough, thank you very much. Well-paid judges, it’s claimed, help to ensure that the law is administered fairly.

But it is not always thus. Certainly not in Palestine in Jesus’ day. Jesus tells us a story about a corrupt judge,

In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected people.

And he’s saying to his listeners- you know the sort of judge I mean- a judge susceptible to a bit of bribery. So even if you have a good case, unless you’re willing to pay, you might never get a hearing.

But here’s another character in the story:

And there was a widow in that same town who kept coming to him and pleading for her rights, saying, “Help me against my opponent!” For a long time the judge refused to act…

…for this was just a poor widow woman- she had no clout. But she was persistent: she kept on and on at him, and

at last he said to himself, “Even though I don’t fear God or respect people, yet because of all the trouble this widow is giving me, I will see to it that she gets her rights. If I don’t, she will keep on coming and finally wear me out!”

And Jesus says to his listeners, ‘Do you hear what this corrupt judge is saying? Even someone like this can be persuaded to listen to the plea of someone in need’. If even a bad man can be persuaded, imagine what God is like:

Now, will God not judge in favour of his own people who cry to him day and night for help? Will he be slow to help them? I tell you, he will judge in their favour and do it quickly.

This little story about from a corrupt legal system becomes, in the hands of Jesus, a masterful illustration to remind us of what God is like. God will not be slow. God is reliable. God will listen to us. These are all factors which should inform our spirituality.

The letter to Timothy warns that that at times people will ‘give their attention to legends’. And strangely, today is one of those times. For much of what gets called ‘spirituality’ is little more than superstition. There are people who think crystals can heal you. We can put a man on the moon, send probes to Mars and look with space telescopes at the most distant galaxies, but still people read the horoscopes (although there is not an ounce of scientific evidence for it). I think it is very sad that people put their future in the hands of astrologers, when at any time they could turn to God. Put away your tarot cards, throw away your crystal balls. There is a much simpler way of dealing with your worries about the future. Jesus taught that God will listen to us: ‘Take it to the Lord in prayer’, as the old hymn has it.

And so one mark of a genuine Christian spirituality is that it will be a confident spirituality. Jesus tells us that we can rely on God. We are not in the hands of fate. The stars do not determine our destiny. We don’t need to learn what the Tarot Cards mean so we can get a glimpse of the future. No- we have a God who will listen, who loves us, who will be there whatever lies ahead of us. As Paul put it in his letter to the Romans:

For I am certain that nothing can separate us from [God’s] love: neither death nor life, neither angels nor other heavenly rulers or powers, neither the present nor the future, neither the world above nor the world below- there is nothing in all creation that will ever be able to separate us from the love of God which is ours through Christ Jesus our Lord.[1]

It’s so simple. Perhaps it’s too simple for many people. But a truly Christian spirituality will be a straightforward and confident sort of spirituality. For our God is one doesn’t need bribed or nagged. You don’t need to be through a great spiritual rigmarole in order to get in touch with our God. For the Bible assures us that the immortal, invisible, inaccessible God has come to us in Jesus Christ. God has come to us in a teller of tales, an artist of parables, a carpenter who healed the sick, made time for the outcast and who despised those who made religion complicated, or superstitious, or who tried to sell God’s grace. The God of Jesus of Nazareth doesn’t require an exotic or complicated faith. We just need to be confident that God is there for us, and hears our prayers. That, my friends, is a truly Christian spirituality.

Ascription of Praise

To God be honour and eternal dominion! Amen.

1 Timothy 6.16 (GNB)

Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated

© 2019 Peter W Nimmo

[1] Romans 8.38-39

I almost forgot to say ‘Thank you’: sermon for 13 October 2019

Scripture Readings: 2 Timothy 2.8-15

Luke 17.11-19

I almost forgot to say ‘Thank you’

Every so often, I get a tune stuck in my head, something catchy which I can’t shift all day. It happened this week, as I was pondering our Gospel story for today. It’s a story is about gratitude, and I was thinking of the one man who came back to say thank you to Jesus, when a song- which I must have heard when I was a child, in Sunday school or a school assembly- sprung into my head. I didn’t have the sheet music (so you’re not getting to sing it today), but I found the words, and goes something like this:

          I nearly forgot to say: Thank you!
For flowers and thrushes and things,
For daisies that dapple the meadow,
And patterns on butterfly wings,
For stars that shine, for winds that blow,
The sun that melts the ice and snow;
I nearly forgot to say: Thank You!
For rainbows that follow the rain;
But really I want to say: Thank you!
Again and again, and again.[1]

Does anyone recognise that? It comes from a Christian musical of the 1970s: here’s a recording.

‘I nearly forgot to say thank you’ is what I imagine the one man who came back had to say to Jesus.

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Lost and Found: sermon for 15 September 2019, Proper 19

Scripture Readings: Psalm 14

Luke 15:1-10

Lost and Found

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

One of the brainiest Christians of all time was man called Anselm, a Norman who became Archbishop of Canterbury around 1,000 years ago. He’s famous for writing a treatise on the existence of God which began with the first words of our Old Testament reading, Psalm 14: ‘Fools say to themselves, there is no God’. And he went on to try to prove, through a very subtle philosophical argument, that the fools were wrong.

With atheism being so fashionable among some people nowadays, it’s tempting for us to misunderstand the beginning of Psalm 14. We all know people who say, ‘There is no God’, and they are not all fools. Perhaps in Anselm’s day, when the existence of God was taken for granted by so many, it did seem you’d have to be a fool to deny the existence of God. Today we have no such consensus. Indeed, there are plenty of people claiming we’re the fools: people like you and me who do believe in God are the fools!

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The Wisdom of Humility: sermon for the Kirking of the Council, 8 September 2019

Click here for the order of Service for the Kirking of the Council 2019

Click here for more information about the Kirking of the Council 2019

Scripture Readings: 1 Kings 3.4-15

Luke 14:1, 7-14

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

I have just been reading a remarkable account of a British traveller who, just a few months after September 11 2001, walked across Afghanistan. It was just after the American-led invasion of the country, which drove the Taliban out of Kabul. The author writes:

The country had been at war for twenty-five years; the new government had been in place for only two weeks; there was no electricity between Herat and Kabul, no television and no T-shirts. Villages combined medieval etiquette with new political ideologies. In many houses the only piece of foreign technology was a Kalashnikov, and the only global brand was Islam.[1]

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I have called you by your name, you are mine: sermon for 1 September 2019

Scripture Readings: Jeremiah 1:4-10

Luke 13:10-17

I have called you by your name, you are mine

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

This morning at St Stephen’s we had the joy of celebrating the Sacrament of Baptism. We baptised Caitlin Liddle, the granddaughter of Sandy and Rosemary Cumming. The baptism of a child is a time of great joy for the child’s family and friends. But it is also a celebration for the Church for family. For baptism remind us of many of the joyful truths of the Gospel. It reminds us that God calls us by name, that we all of us belong to God. And it reminds us about how new beginnings is at the heart of our faith.

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The family meal: sermon for 25 August 2019

Scripture Readings: John 6.53-59

Mark 14.22-26

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

I used to belong to a student Christian organisation at university. At the end of each term, we would meet, as we always did, for a meal together. But at the end of the meal, instead of hearing a guest speaker as we usually did, we would remain around the meal table and share the Sacrament of Holy Communion, led by a local clergyman, a chaplain, or one of the Divinity Faculty staff. That experience completely upended all my thoughts about Communion. Sitting around the same table where we had just shared our meal was a powerful spiritual experience for someone who was more used to our rather formal and traditional services in my home church. It was a reminder, also, that sometimes in the church we make things too complicated! This was a reminder of how it started- a meal with friends in an upstairs room.

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Which gods? Sermon for 18 August 2019 (Proper 15)

Scripture Readings: Psalm 82

Luke 12:49-56

Which gods?

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

God presides in the heavenly council; in the assembly of the gods he gives his decision (Psalm 82.1).

Today’s Psalm asks us to picture a strange scene. The scene is a ‘heavenly court’, or an assembly of gods. The Lord God of Israel presides- but he’s not the only god there- he’s speaking to other gods.

This Psalm must be harking back to the earliest days of Israel’s religious history. In ancient times, people tended to believe in a lot of different gods- the Greeks had Mercury, Apollo and Zeus, the Egyptians made gods of the Pharaohs and worshipped Ra the sun god alongside other lesser deities. The genius of Israel’s faith was that they began to see that their tribal God, the God Moses had met in the desert, this God who had no name, this strange God who insisted on love and justice- this God was maker of heaven and earth, was greater than all the other gods, was, indeed, the only true God. This was an incredible insight that changed the world. But it was a change that happened gradually.

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Where your heart is? Sermon for Sunday 11 August 2019 Proper 14

Scripture Readings: Isaiah 1:1, 10-20

Luke 12:32-34

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

I once knew an elderly lady who told me she had been worshipping in the same local country church all her life. She told me that, when she was a wee girl, her family had to go to church each Sunday. Her father was a gamekeeper, and if he wasn’t there the laird would have noticed and he’d have lost not just his job, but his tied house as well. Homeless and jobless if they didn’t go to church.

Thank goodness, we live in a different age nowadays. There is no great cultural expectation that we have to go to church. We come because we want to. It’s our own choice. And that old lady in continued to come to church, not because she was forced to, but because she wanted to.

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The Tyranny of Things: sermon for 4 August 2019 Proper 13 Year C RCL

Scripture Readings:

Ecclesiastes 1.12-14; 2-18-23

Colossians 3: 1-11

Luke 12: 13-21

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

If I was to set you homework, it would be to ask you to read the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes this coming week. For it is a remarkable book. As one commentator says,

…many readers find this book to be one of the most intriguing books in the Hebrew Scriptures, a fascinating mixture of darkness and light, confidence and doubt, piety and irreverence.[1]

I first read it as a teenager, struggling to make sense of the world, and the Christian faith I had been brought up in. It was amazing to discover a book, in the canon of Scripture, which seemed so honest about the world and the mystery of life. We tend to think of the Bible as a book of answers. Ecclesiastes is not afraid to say that sometimes we do not know all the answers. Ecclesiastes may be a rather gloomy book, but it reminds us that life, and faith, is ultimately a mystery.

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Pray for the city: sermon for 28 July 2019: Proper 12 Year C RCL

Scripture Readings: Genesis 18:20-32 GNB

Psalm 85 NRSV (said responsively)

Luke 11:1-13 GNB

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

This week, I have been thinking about a minister friend of mine, now retired after long and varied career. He had served in a number of very ordinary west of Scotland parishes, and had also served as a university chaplain and with a major Christian charity. Not long after his retirement he started to work as a locum in a church in Fife, and found himself preaching to a congregation which, on most Sundays, included the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown. But my friend took it in his stride, because he realised that the Prime Minister needed to hear the Word of God as much as an old lady in a housing scheme in Paisley.

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