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

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Make me a seer

Make me a seer! Not the kind that sees the future, but kind that sees the present. One that really sees the present. One that sees under the surface of politics, niceness, neatness, coverups, the games people play, the games I play, the things people say that they don’t really mean, the things I say that I don’t really mean, the discrepancy between the saying and the doing etc.

Is this not the primary role of the spiritual leader in a community? Is this not the source of all spiritual leadership? Is it not true that without seeing the spiritual leader becomes a mere religious functionary? What else does ‘the blind leading the blind’ mean? To me, it suggests that seeing is kind of a big deal for a leader! (It also suggests why we don’t want to do that very much: once you see, you can’t un-see.)

Of course I’m not talking about merely engaging your visual cortex. That should be obvious from the first paragraph. It is also about seeing with your ears, with your heart, with your hands, with your mind, with your whole body. It’s really about wholeness, which is actually the goal of Christian spirituality. Or so it should be. It is about integration.

Continue reading

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

Pain is my teacher

“Pain is my teacher.” Say what? I said, pain is my teacher, not my friend. There’s a difference. A few days ago I woke up with a sharp pain in my neck, running down my spine, preventing me to turn and bow my head properly. Yeah, prayer was almost impossible! So was humility.

This is not a post about S&M. I will leave that for later. I don’t like pain. Pain is not my friend. I fight pain. I try to kill it. Give me paracetamol and ibuprofen, and anything else I can throw at it, especially the strong, funky stuff.

I went to a massage therapist who asked me to sit with the pain and learn from it, as she was guiding me. Pain is an indicator, a signpost to many kinds of disfunction – physical, mental, emotional, spiritual – that I am not paying attention to. Pain invites me to pay attention and learn from it. Killing it is useful only because you need to function – I didn’t take time off work – but that is not enough.

That is so counterintuitive. Sit with the pain? Learn from it? Pay attention to it? No, no, kill it! Give me the big guns, kill it dead! And if we can’t kill it, distract from it. Right?

Well… no. The therapist’s invitation reminded me of several sermons I preached about the cross – namely about the requirement to pick up our cross daily if we are to follow Jesus. There is something about being a disciple that requires a different approach to pain.

I noticed my first reactions to that pain. I was angry and upset. “Why is this happening to me?” Notice I said it’s happening TO me, not that I did anything to cause it. No responsibility there. I rebelled against it, got angry with it, wanted it gone. I turned my pain into suffering, and not the good kind. I think we do that a lot with necessary pain: We turn it into unnecessary suffering by bitching and moaning about it, and refusing to take any responsibility for it or learn from it.

As part of the therapy, I was invited to sit with the pain, to pay attention to my body, to what it’s saying to me, to regain control over my muscles. That requires presence, and in this case it was painful. But only when I accepted the pain and began to pay attention did it begin to subside; not immediately, but soon after. When I realised, after paying attention, that I was doing all sorts of things that caused that pain, the pain began to make sense. On top of that, our bodies are depositories of emotion. Often we have to work very hard at being present to figure out the source of unaddressed pain. (Physical pain doesn’t always have a physical cause.)

Then I realised that a good minister, a good preacher will invite people to do the same with the pain that comes in their lives. They will teach and invite people to listen to their pain, to pay attention, to not run away from it or distract themselves from it. It is not enough to say to someone in pain that Jesus loves them. People may demand spiritual pain killers, and a minister may have to administer some of those. But that is not enough. They also need to be taught and lead sensitively in learning from their pain. Is this what Jesus meant by ‘the way of the cross’? I think it is, in an existential sense. We made the cross to be about setting ourselves up for being killed or victimised, as if we are actually looking for pain as an indicator of spirituality. That’s masochism, and not spirituality.

Pain is my teacher. Pain is not my friend. I’m not looking for it. But when it comes to me, it comes for a reason, to tell me something. “Have a seat, pain, let’s have some tea…”

Disciples panic, Jesus sleeps

Here’s my latest sermon on one of the biblical narratives where we miss the point by reading it through hollywood glasses: you know, a crisis is afoot and everyone is in trouble, here comes the superhero to save the day, and everybody lived happily ever after? You know the drill, right? See what you make of it!