Sermon – “Salt and light”

I wrote this sermon to be read out to the congregation by the Session Clerk in the traditional service, and the Sunday School Superintendent in the All Age Gathering. I couldn’t be there because I had a sore throat. What an interesting experience to write a sermon for other people to deliver!

Sunday 9th February 2014, Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Salt and light

As I’m writing this sermon to be read to you, I’m reminded of the way things used to work in the Church of Scotland a few centuries ago. In the 16th and 17th centuries there were few ministers available, so each minister had several churches under their supervision. This is also why many churches still have quarterly communions instead of monthly or weekly ones. The minister used to write a very lengthy sermon, and then send it on to the readers in each congregation. They stood in the pulpit and read the sermon, unless it was their congregation’s turn to have the minister in their pulpit. Some suggest that we may be going back to that model soon, albeit without the ‘lengthy’ part…

Last week we began a journey through the sermon on the mount. The passage known as ‘the beatitudes’ deserves a whole series of sermons, as each beatitude is so rich in meaning and implications for our daily lives. We should take time to reflect on each of them.

We were invited last week to look at happiness from God’s perspective, which is always surprising and counter-cultural. How can those who are persecuted be happy? How can one be happy when they are insulted, persecuted and slandered because they follow Jesus? The challenge was to look in our own lives at one issue or situation that we would rather do without, and reflect on the opportunity it could provide for us to deepen our faith, and to learn to live more fully in God’s grace. Continue reading

A new church? Embracing diversity

After my article on “The Future of Victorian Worship,” I decided to go into more depth regarding the three underlying values (conformity, compliance and standardisation), but this time looking at them from the point of view of new ways of being church, rather than just new ways of doing worship. This is first of three articles to come on this subject. The next two will be tackling the issue of stimulating the imagination, and then encouraging creativity.

1. What we take for granted

If you grew up in the church – depending on the variety of contexts you were exposed to – you will probably have a set of ideas about church that you take for granted. For instance, you may take for granted that a church needs to have a building, a membership roll, a board of elders, a pastor, and of course a Sunday morning service where we sing songs, say prayers, and listen to a sermon. These are only some of the things we take for granted. All these things are important to keep in mind when we set out to imagine new forms of church. Continue reading

The future of Victorian worship

For a time I was fascinated by traditional Presbyterian worship. There was just something majestic, dignified and deliciously predictable about it. That fascination slowly wore off, and for a time I could not tell why that was, and I found that troubling. I’m referring to the kind of Reformed Presbyterian worship on a typical Sunday morning in a 19th century traditional stone building, with uncomfortable pews, strange smell, pipe organs, massive communion table, elevated pulpit and sometimes a choir.

Coming from an Eastern European context where order is an exotic word, this type of worship was like a magnet to me. It is beautiful and dignified. It has a lot going for it. If I were to build a new form of worship, that’s where I would probably start. But it is not where I would end up. Not anymore.

It took me awhile to figure out why it just failed to satisfy. It just wasn’t buzzing for me anymore. What I initially regarded as different and refreshing soon became restrictive and oppressive. Trying to tinker with it as a minister lead to backlashes that shocked and disturbed me. That also contributed to my disenchantment. Continue reading

A short (fictitious) conversation with an 80 year old

“I’m worried…” John said to me, his eyes fixed on the carpet after we talked about the weather.

“What are you worried about?” I asked, shifting in my seat, struggling to find a comfortable position on his sofa, moving cushions and tucking them behind me.

“All my grandchildren were born in the church… went to Sunday School… and now they left the church. It’s just us old folk!” he replied, his face darkening.

I nodded silently, trying to be respectful to his grief even if I had 100 explanations in my mind as to why that is happening everywhere in the church. For an instant, I felt the clerical collar choking me. I know why they aren’t coming. Let me tell you!! I thought.

“Have you ever asked them why they don’t come?” I asked him breaking the silence.

“It’s not just my grandchildren… We don’t have any young people in the church!” he added.

“Yes, that’s true… to a certain extent… we do have some…” I attempted to correct him. “But have you asked them why they don’t come?”

“Yes, I did. I don’t remember exactly what they said… Oh, yes, they said it’s boring!” he recalled scoffing.

“Boring… yes. My children get easily bored too… The bored generation…” I said, enjoying a wee laugh with John.

“When I was their age I was in Sunday School, and then Youth Group and Boys Brigade, I was in church every Sunday, and I never stopped…” he told me emphatically.

“Were YOU ever bored in church?” I asked him looking for his gaze.

“What?” he asked, taken aback by my question, as if saying ‘What’s the point of that question?

“Were YOU ever bored in church growing up?” I repeated, looking straight at him.

“I… I think so… I mean… There was a lot that went over my head… I didn’t understand everything… But I still went. I didn’t give up!” he said.

“I was the same, John. I don’t remember ever not going to church. But here’s a question for you: Were you ever given the option to not go?” I asked him tilting my head.

“Huh? No… no…” he shook his head. “I know what you’re trying to say. You’re saying I didn’t have a choice!” he said with a grin.

“Did you?” I insisted.

“Of course I did!” he said with a higher pitched voice. “All my friends were there!” he justified.

“Mhm. Yes… it really does help to have your friends there, doesn’t it? I was the same. All my friends were church friends!”

“Exactly!” he said with some relief in his smile.

“Do you remember your parents ever asking you if you WANTED to go, or if you liked it?” I asked, taking him back to the initial rub.

He thought in silence, trying to jog his own memory, scratching his head. He shook his head.

“I can’t remember…” he said softly and sighed.

I nodded silently.

From life/work balance to life’s work

In my training for ministry – which involved a complex programme of academic study, conference cycle, ministry placements, learning networks and so on – we were taught again and again about the importance of life/work balance. We were told in no uncertain terms that ministers should have two days off. I remember I was told off by a retired minister who saw the Order of Service from my church that mentioned my day off is a Friday. “You’re supposed to have two days off, not one!” he told me.

But then I was ordained and inducted to a pastoral charge, and was soon overwhelmed by the sheer volume of work that a minister in the Church of Scotland has on their plate. Two days off? You’re joking, surely! When are you supposed to do all the work that needs to be done? “Remember, the church already has a Messiah!” – we were also told towards the end of our training. Hm… so I guess if I don’t get everything done the church would not cease to exist, or be less church?

As I reflected in my last article on the Protestant Work Ethic – a term coined by Max Webber – I was challenged to see work in a different way. What is the motivation for work? Is it to prove my worth? To earn my keep? To occupy my time to keep me out of mischief? Somehow, motivation seemed to matter a lot. Do I work myself to death in the church to prove to people that I am dedicated, that I am worthy, that they need me, that I am a hero of faith, that I am respectable? All these motivations ring so hollow.

Continue reading