Archive for the “United Reformed Church” Category

I haven’t published a sermon for a long time.  They’re available on the St Ninian’s website but it felt like following the events of the last weeks and months this was something that needed said.  You can listen and the text is below.

A sermon on 1 John 1:1-4

1 John is a letter about the humanity of Jesus.

The community that grew up around John’s Gospel were profoundly influenced by the mysticism of it.  Jesus is the Messiah who performs signs and wonders and is so much more than just a mere mortal.  And they travelled down that route.  Christ is divine.  And they forgot about the other part, the part that is so important to the Gospel of John… Jesus was God incarnate.  God in the flesh.

The earliest arguments in the church were about who Jesus really was.

One line of thought, Docetism, was the belief that Jesus’ physical body was an illusion, as was his crucifixion; that is, Jesus only seemed to have a physical body and to physically die, but in reality he was incorporeal, a pure spirit, and hence could not physically die.

This first letter to John is countering the heresy of Docetism, the idea that Jesus was in effect God just pretending to be human.

These first sentences of this letter manage to balance those competing ideas beautifully.

The Message says it this way:

From the very first day, we were there, taking it all in—we heard it with our own ears, saw it with our own eyes, verified it with our own hands.  The Word of Life appeared right before our eyes; we saw it happen!  And now we’re telling you in most sober prose that what we witnessed was, incredibly, this: The infinite Life of God himself took shape before us.

We saw it, we heard it, and now we’re telling you so you can experience it along with us, this experience of communion with the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ.  Our motive for writing is simply this: We want you to enjoy this, too. Your joy will double our joy

The divine and the human… together in Jesus.

We have seen it!

We have heard it!

We have smelled it!

We have touched!

That Jesus is divine, the Son, part of the Trinity, is hugely important.  We don’t worship just a man.  We worship God… But we worship God revealed to us in human form.  Jesus shows us what God is like.

This letter starts with a reminder of the beginning… Genesis.  In the beginning God creates the humans and says “Let us make them in our image”.  

All of them.

Not just some of them.

Not just the men.  Not just the white people.  Not just the ones with blonde hair or who are heterosexual or who don’t have piercings and tattoos.  Not just the ones who call God by the name we use, in fact people who don’t even believe God exists at all.  

All of them.

All of them.

Over the centuries the Bible has been used to justify horrific things.

It has been used to justify war, and still is.

to justify slavery, and still is.

to justify the subjugation of women, and still is.

to justify beating children, and still is.

to promote racism, and still is.

to justify homophobia, and still is.

to promote greed, and still is.

This week we have seen the Bible used to promote the separation of children from their parents.  

This week we have seen the Bible used to justify the detention of children in camps.

It says in Romans that you should obey the law. 

Immigration isn’t just an issue in America.  It’s an issue here too.  It’s one of the biggest issues we face.  And it’s used as cover for all kinds of other things because it allows us to talk about ‘them’ as different to ‘us’.

But when the Bible is used to defend separating children from their families, it is time for all of us to decide…

When the Bible is used to give one group of people power over another, it is time for all of us to decide…

When the Bible is used to justify Empire, it is time for all of us to decide… what do we believe?  I mean really believe!

The first Christians lived in a brutal world ruled by dictators with cruel laws enforced by the biggest military power ever seen.  They lived in a world where they were persecuted and tortured and killed because they made a bold and faithful statement… Jesus is Lord, not Caesar.

But that statement was underpinned by a way of living that was different.  They didn’t just say that Caesar wasn’t lord, they acted like Jesus was lord.  They lived like it.

Because they had seen God.

They had heard God.

They had smelled God.

and they had touched God.

God incarnate.  God in the flesh.  The man called Jesus.

I think we make two mistakes with our faith.

The first is what we might call ‘social Christianity’.  We come to church to see our pals.  The rest of it is just the price of meeting up.  It’s ok, and sometimes it’s even good, but it’s not the main reason we are here.

The second is over spiritualising or intellectualising our faith where we live our faith in our head.  Or we spend all our time in prayer and study and never get beyond that.

Marcus Borg, the American writer puts it this way:

“The point is not that Jesus was a good guy who accepted everybody, and thus we should do the same (though that would be good).

Rather, his teachings and behaviour reflect an alternative social vision.

Jesus was not talking about how to be good and how to behave within the framework of a domination system.  He was a critic of the domination system itself.”

People who say that religion and politics don’t mix mystify me.  Unless they are politicians and then I totally get why they think that.  Jesus is dangerous.  Especially if you are trying to keep hold of power, especially power over other people.

People, voters, you and I, people like us who thing that religion and politics don’t mix, that I don’t get.  If faith in God isn’t the single most important thing in your life then what is?  Self interest?  Your bank balance?  Your own status?  Your house or car or clothes?  What else should influence our politics if not our faith?

What we believe matters.  What we do with what we believe, the way that affects our lives, that matters just as much.  If we don’t live out our faith then what’s the point of it?  It’s supposed to show.  We are meant to be changed by it.

The early church new that.  It matters that Jesus was both divine and human.  To recognise the humanity of Jesus is to recognise the responsibility we all share to each other.  It’s just not good enough for us to shrug and think that it’s ok because they are not like me.  

They are like you!

They are us because we are all humans, just like Jesus.

Ah… but charity begins at home.  The Bible says so.

Yes.  Yes it does.

That saying comes from a passage in 1 Timothy about our responsibility to each other.  It’s a passage about how the believers should behave and provide for those most in need in their community.  And it’s there because the early believers were just like us.  They were greedy and self interested and didn’t really want to share their stuff or their money or their food with others because they had bought into the same lie that we are told;

That money gives you status.

That to be poor is somehow your own fault.

That to be in need is someone else’s problem because I pay my taxes and the government should fix it.

Charity begins at home comes from Jesus’ teaching… ‘Love God, love your neighbour and yourself’.  If you can’t live that out in your own house what chance have we of living it out in the world where we discover that Jesus’ neighbour was the foreigner.  The enemy.  The outcast.  The person who you think is most unlike you, but who is exactly like you because God created humans and said “let us make them all in our image”.

I wanted to write that a time is coming when we need to decide.  But the reality is that the time is already here.  It’s been here for quite some time.  Right wing nationalism is on the rise.  And let’s not be lazy and conflate that with whatever side of the Scottish Independence debate you’re on.

Racism is on the rise.  It always happens when times are tough.  We look for people to blame.  People who are different from us.

It’s always a lie.  Every time we’ve seen it in history it has been a lie.  It was a lie then and it’s a lie now.

And it has to stop.

It has to stop!

It has to stop, not because I’m some kind of bleeding heart liberal snowflake who believes fake news and doesn’t understand how they come here and bring their different languages and food and customs and they undermine our society.  Scotland is full of immigrants.  The Scots came from Ireland.  And the Vikings.  The Normans.  The Anglo-Saxons.  The Indians and Pakistanis.  The Italians.  The Poles and the Syrians and the Somalis.  We all come from people who came here from somewhere else.

So this has to stop because they are us and we are them… and all of us, every single one of us are made in the image of God.

We know this because the disciples told us.  They writers of the Gospels told us.  The writers of the Epistles told us.

And they knew because they had seen God and heard God and smelled God and touched God.  They had met God and he was called Jesus…  And his message was one of love.

And God looks like us, and sounds like us and smells like us and feels like us… all of us.  Not some of us.  Not people like us… but all of us.

It’s time for us to decide what we believe because each one of them is us and could be us.  But more than that, each one of them is Christ.

And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”  Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”  Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?”  Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”

 

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Why? How?  What?

Why do we do the things we do in the way we do them?

I wonder what the most important part of the question is?  Is it the things that we do?  Is it the way that we do them?  Or is it the why?

For me the ‘why’ is the most important part but it’s also the part that I fear we think about least.

I have this picture on my whiteboard to remind me.

As a church, both in the local and the larger scale, we are known for what we do and how we do it.  So, at St Ninian’s when I ask about who we are the answers might be ‘friendly’ or ‘hospitable’ or ‘welcoming’.  The how and the what of that look like weekly coffee mornings and the Guild and the Boys’ Brigade and Girls’ Brigade and hosting the Hope Cafe and the Folk Club.  As far as worship goes we have a pretty standard hymn/prayer service with a sermon in the middle, and morning prayers on Monday and Thursday and Night Church through the darker winter months.

Those are good things.  They are our ‘doing’ church.

But what do they say about ‘why’ we do or are church?

Making a case for  being ‘friendly’, ‘hospitable’ and ‘welcoming’ is pretty easy.  Loving you neighbour surely involves putting the kettle on.  But friendly to whom?  Hospitable to whom?  Welcoming to whom?  Do we just put the kettle on for people we know?  Do we bake just for our friends?

We’ve actually been talking about our ‘Why’ at St Ninian’s for a year now.  We started the day I started.  That’s what all the questions are about.  That’s what all the ‘so, you think this is about this… but what if it is about that…?’ has been for.  To help us think about what we believe and about why we believe it.  A safe space to be free to think and question and doubt and change our minds and play with new ideas and keep some of them and throw other ones away.

Over the past few weeks we’ve been looking at the 10 Commandments.  I’ve suggested that they might be our high level strategic plan because they tell us how we should relate to God, how we should relate to each other and what it means to be fully ourselves.  These 10 words from God create a space for all of us to be free.  

All of us.

Not just some of us.

All of us…

Free from fear.  Free from violence.  Free from worry.

I wonder if creating that kind of space is our ‘why’?

And if it is our ‘why’ then surely that pushes us out beyond what we do now to bring that freedom to more and more people.

The next question is ‘how’?  How do we know who we are dealing with?  How do we make contact and build relationships?  How do we choose our priorities?  How will we work?  Will we do things for people or should we do things with people?

And only then, once we have worked out our ‘why’ and our ‘how’ do we think about the ‘what’.  

What will we do?  What will we need?  What will it look like and smell like and taste like and sound like and feel like?

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The Gospel of John is about revelation.

Who is Jesus?

Who are we?

All the encounters we have witnessed as we journeyed through this Gospel tell us the truth about Jesus, the people he met, and about ourselves.

The trial before Pilate lays bare humanity.

Our humanity.

It shows us just where power really lies

what love really looks like

and just how much we need God’s grace.

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Several years ago I began a chapter in a book about the state of the Church of Scotland with these words, “This isn’t working!”.  I was talking then in particular about how as adults we don’t take learning very seriously in the church, but I think the statement applies more widely to the general malaise we find ourselves in.

And that bothers me.

A lot.

Because it’s not the case everywhere… but we seem to be plunging headlong into policies that will make things worse, not better.

Multi-church pastorates or hubs or groups or whatever you want to call them are only about spreading a resource (ministers) more thinly.  There is NO evidence that they stimulate church growth.

2, 3, 4, 5 or even 6 sets of everything.

No room for relationship.

No space or time for innovation.

Just spinning the every more wobbly plates of what is.

The Church of Scotland wants every parish to have a fresh expression of church by 2020.  The URC is promoting fresh expressions with great enthusiasm.  Brilliant.  Except the timescale shows that there is no real understanding of what a fresh expression is or how developing one works.  A truly new expression of church is a community that gathers and grows to a point that they might want to create their own culturally appropriate version of church.

There are two parts of that which are vital; creating community and innovation.  Those take time, lots and lots of it, and space.  (And coffee)

So, I’m now a minister.  I’m not about to complain that I’m too busy.  If I am then that’s my fault.  But I work with just one church.  Just one set of meetings, one building, one set of organisations and one place to be on a Sunday.  And I could spend as much time as I have just keeping that all working.

Throw in another church and all space for creating community goes out the window.  Throw in any more and innovation goes too.

Of course we should involve people in helping lead worship.  Most Sundays I announce the hymns and preach.  Other people do almost everything else.  But the preaching part is the bit I’m trained for.  Not that others can’t do it.  They can.  Of course they can.  But what’s the point of me if not to do that.  I’m a minister of word and sacrament after all.

Perhaps it comes down to this…

Spreading a limited resource ever more thinly has never been the solution to anything.

Should we deploy some ministers to one church and have others to maintain the rest?  Like a midwife and palliative care model?

Should we hold our hands up and admit that training people as theologians with skills in Greek and Hebrew but no community work training or serious input on work with children and young people might not be the best model of training, important though those things are?

Should ministers be facilitators?  Has the one person show de-skilled and debilitated our churches to a point where we are so stuck we are paralysed?

The answer to all this lies somewhere in our experience.  I wrote a series of posts a few years ago where I wondered if the church was similar to someone living with the symptoms of depression and anxiety.  Interestingly people who had experienced those thought I was onto something while those who had not thought I was completely wrong.  I mention this because recovery almost always begins with a decision to get well.  To change.  To take control.  Without that decision things often stay the same.  Often that is helped by talking to people who what already made the same journey.

So, are we ready for recovery?

What do you think?

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Who else needs your space?

My churches hosting co-working revelation got me thinking…

Church halls have often been a hive of activity with anything from Boys’ Brigade to dance classes and slimming clubs.

That’s all good.

But who are you missing?

How can you help your community to engage with each other and make things better?  How could your church support community projects and create and nurture community at the same time?

Detroit SOUP – image by Dave Lewinski

 

 

Detroit SOUP inspires me.  Why? Because it’s easy and effective.

Here’s what SOUP say about SOUP:

SOUP is:

Detroit SOUP is a microgranting dinner celebrating and supporting creative projects in Detroit. For a donation $5 attendees receive soup, salad, bread and a vote and hear from four presentations ranging from art, urban agriculture, social justice, social entrepreneurs, education, technology and more. Each presenter has four minutes to share their idea and answer four questions from the audience. At the event, attendees eat, talk, share resources, enjoy art and vote on the project they think benefits the city the most. At the end of the night, we count the ballots and the winner goes home with all of the money raised to carry out their project. Winners come back to a future SOUP dinner to report their project’s progress.

Perhaps it’s easier to watch what happens:

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So, could you do something like SOUP in your church hall?

I think you could.

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I came across an article about church as a space for co-working yesterday.

It was one of those moments when you think that something is so obvious you can’t believe everyone isn’t already doing it!

We know that working patterns have changed.  Loads of people work from home now.  That’s great.  You don’t have to commute.  You can work in your pjs, listen to whatever music you like as loud as you want, video conference, email, work hours to suit your life… Home working has lots of upside, but it can also be a lonely existence.

That’s why you see so many people camped out in coffee shops with their MacBooks.  They are looking for company.  The presence of other human beings.  And cake.

nomad worker http://www.travelandworkonline.com

But we also know that being with others is a creative way to work.  Those conversations where people ask what you’re working on and then add some insight or suggest a contact that could help, or suggest working together on something…

So, why doesn’t your church create a space for these nomadic workers?

You have a hall that probably doesn’t get used much during the day.

You have tables and chairs.

You have a kitchen and toilets.

All you need is some good, reliable wifi, power sockets, a wifi printer and someone to be around to welcome people and put the kettle on and make a decent cup of coffee.  Stick in some whiteboards and plants and you have just created co-working nirvana.

It’s like a constant coffee morning for people with jobs.  And they will pay to use your space.

I’m not suggesting you become a start up incubator, yet, just a nice friendly place with space and a welcome.

There are some great examples of churches who are already doing it…

St Lydia’s in Brooklyn is my favourite.  They do dinner church so they were already half way there.

Sy Lydia’s Co-working

So, what’s stopping your church from being a space for co-working?

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Does church maintain the status quo?  We talk a good game about transformation and renewal but are we organisationally set up to avoid it?

Broken Rhythms

This isn’t a new question for me.

I remember thinking about it when I was training for youth work at Jordanhill in 1991.  Apparently other people had been thinking about organisational inertia it for longer than that because there were books written about it.

In youth work this questions appears in the guise of ‘Do we train young people to be good, middle class, well mannered high achievers?’ or ‘Do we just want young people to be like us?’.

There is some really interesting stuff around at the moment about how we might work with young people to develop an authentic expression of church with no expectation that they should or would even want to worship and gather in community in the same way we might.

There is another aspect to this question… Does the church maintain the political and social status quo?

I remember sitting in a Church of Scotland General Assembly where someone suggested a change.  The Principle Clerk stood up and stated that such a change would require an Act of Parliament.  The clear implication taken was that this would be too difficult and the proposer should sit down and shut up.  Which they did.  This is just one fairly extreme example but in many ways all of our decision making processes mitigate against change.  We consult widely, we need broad agreement, we take ages to change.

These can all be good things.  Taking time prevents lurching from one position to another, making snap decisions and encourage reflection and consultation.  It gives time for discussion, consideration and prayer.  These ‘safeguards’ prevent the loudest voice winning out, include a wide range of people in the process and hopefully listen to what God might be saying to the church.

They can also kill enthusiasm, limit growth and stifle innovation.

What really baffles me is when the church seems to be in agreement about the need for change but is completely unable to make that change happen.  Perhaps it is be cause too many things would need to change all at once.  Perhaps it is because we don’t have a clear idea what that change would actually look like.  Perhaps it is because we aren’t training people to be creative, risk taking leaders.

The recent Church Growth Research from the Church of England seems to paint a clear picture of the recipe for growth:

Church Growth

 

 

I’ve managed to get myself nominated to be on a United Reformed Church task group considering 20-40s.  It would seem to be ‘money where your mouth is’ time.

So, what do we need to do to become the kind of church that people in the 20-40s would engage in?  What might that kind of church look like?  What are the things that really stop people engaging with church?  Are they big philosophical issues?  Are they relational?  Are they about time and energy?

Answers on postcard, Facebook comment, tweet, email, text or more preferably over a coffee… 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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