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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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.

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Grace vs. Protestant Work Ethic

Yes. I want to write against the famous Protestant Work Ethic. I think it damaged the church in the West and it continues to do so. I really do. It created competitive capitalist economies and a considerable degree of prosperity in the West, but the price for all of these on the weak and the under-performing have been devastating. I had a sense that this was the case the moment I moved to Western Europe. Something didn’t feel right. Why did the poor in Glasgow tell a minister friend of mine: “Church is no’ for the likes of us!” Why did one of our non-church-going friends tell us that church is elitist, and only the well-off are really wanted there? That seemed a bit harsh to me. This was not something I experienced in the East.

It took me awhile to begin to realise why the church is NOT perceived by people living in poverty as a place of grace and acceptance, but rather as a place of judgement and condemnation. I believe we have the Protestant Work Ethic to blame for this situation. I know it’s controversial, but I will say it nonetheless.

Here’s how the wretched PWE works: If you want to amount to anything, you have to work hard, be frugal, and perform to your maximum ability. If you don’t, you starve. Or in other words, you’re not really worth very much. That’s it. Wait a minute! What? What about grace? Oh, here’s how it works: the results of your hard work and high performance are SIGNS of the grace you already freely received. Ooooh, right. OMG! This, friends, is how you render a word like ‘grace’ meaningless. Prosperity gospel anyone? That’s where it comes from! Not the same thing, but a logical consequence.

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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…”

Riots and youths

While watching this whole riots mess in London and other places in England, it’s struck me how often ‘youths’ are mentioned. The UK already had a problem with young people, which I am seriously afraid has become even worse now. When I lived in the East End of Glasgow I could see that wherever young people got together in the local park, a police patrol was sure to turn up and search them. Now, that could be seen as preventive action designed to keep us safe, but has anyone considered what it means to be young and constantly under police supervision? I know the feeling as I grew up under communism, and regarded the police as abusers. That is a serious problem which is getting worse in the UK.

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Sermon – Not to condemn

John 3:1-17

Sermon preached in Bishopton Parish Church, on 20th March 2011, Second Sunday in Lent.

There is a special time in everyone’s life when they come face to face with the vastness of the ocean or the sea for the first time. I remember many holidays we took at the Black Sea as a child, and I distinctly remember every time the train approached the sea shore and I could just spot the shore over the top of some buildings. The excitement of that first view of the water extending all the way to the horizon never really died down for me. I still feel that excitement today, whenever I go to the sea side. This is true perhaps because the sea has a special capacity to bring eternity within our reach.

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