A Short Service for Sunday 5th July

Kilmorack and Erchless Church

Prayer

Holy one, who imagined this great and varied creation, and who formed it and brought it into being, we take this time now to worship you.

Holy one, who dreamed of people who might live in your image, and created life that you might share your life with us, we take this time now to worship you.

Holy one, who put breath into our bodies and eternity into our souls and love into our hearts, we take this time now to worship you.

We quieten ourselves with the hope and the prayer that in this time, our eyes may opened and our hurts healed; that your love may be known and your good news heard.  We know that our lives have not been all they should be, and we confess how little good we have done with the abilities you have given us, as we also confess our share in the blame for the suffering of the world.  Grant us again, mercy and forgiveness, the vision to see how we should change, and the courage to make those changes.  Grant us again the faith to motivate us, and the hope to sustain us, and the love to cheer us, as we try again to live as your people.  Amen

Introductory Talk

I finished a book this week, which is a rarer occurrence than I would like to admit.  It is the autobiography of Richard Coles, who was an international pop star in the 1980s, and an award winning radio presenter on BBC through the 1990s, and who following a rather dramatic conversion when, as he put it, it felt as though a belt round his chest was removed and he was finally able to breath easily for the first time, applied to be priest in the church of England.  There are many interesting aspects to his story and I may come back to again, but for now one thing which struck me was his account of being interviewed as part of the process of considering the priesthood.  The grey haired archdeacon sat across the desk, looked at his file, and looked at Richard,  dressed as he always was at that stage in the finest designer gear, and asked – “why would someone like you want to get involved in a failed, washed up institution, which has lost any sense of its tradition, hasn’t a clue where it is going, and can’t pay the bills?”  Quick witted as ever, Richard replied – “Actually I’m thinking of leaving the BBC”.

Interesting to compare the established church with the BBC: both set up with a clear sense of purpose, both created with the intention of serving everyone in every area of the country, both now facing plenty of criticism, a funding crisis, and a temptation to look for novelty and popularity as they strive to win back their lost audiences.  Well that’s the Church of England.  The Church of Scotland isn’t like that of course.  We are clearly in a different situation because… well we are clearly different.

It might be easy forget, in these strange times, that before Covid 19 and lockdown, the church, even the beloved Church of Scotland, was not exactly riding a wave of popularity.  We rarely ran out of pew space on a Sunday morning, or of chairs on a Sunday evening, and the average age at our worship was distinctly more radio 4 than radio 1 – to keep the BBC analogy going.  I say that, because I think it is important for us to remember that when we ask, “when can we go back, when can we go back to church, when can we go back to normal?”, the place we will be going back to is not in the 1950s when everything seemed so simple and so strong for the church.  It would be back to a more complex time and an already rapidly change situation and a rather fragile institution.

So I don’t want to ask – when can we go back?  I don’t want to think about ‘going back’ at all.  I want to think about going forward, building something for the future rather than re-enacting the past, living out of faith rather than fear of what we might be losing.  That seems to me to be a more hopeful way to go, and it seems to me to be a more gospel way to go, the gospel which is about death and resurrection, taking off the old and putting on the new, to quote from Colossians.

What happened to Richard Coles?  Well I don’t want to spoil it for you, but he is now Rev Richard Coles, serving in a parish and still presenting on Radio 4.  Because despite everything unattractive that he could see about the church, and he is not shy in listing them, he felt irresistibly that there was something at the heart of it that he was called to part of, indeed something that he needed.

So lets not think of going back, but of going forward, taking the faith which is surely part of the future and kindling it gently, and living it boldly, and breathing it and celebrating it and sharing it.  We are not about going back.  We are about going forward.  So let’s turn to our scripture readings today, and listen for anything they may have to say to us.

Psalm 145 : 8 - 13

The Lord is loving and merciful, slow to become angry and full of constant love.  He is good to everyone and has compassion on all he made.  10 All your creatures, Lord, will praise you, and all your people will give you thanks.  11 They will speak of the glory of your royal power and tell of your might, 12 so that everyone will know your mighty deeds and the glorious majesty of your kingdom.  13 Your rule is eternal, and you are king forever.  The Lord is faithful to his promises; he is merciful in all his acts.

Matthew 11:16-30

“Now, to what can I compare the people of this day? They are like children sitting in the marketplace. One group shouts to the other,  ‘We played wedding music for you, but you wouldn't dance! We sang funeral songs, but you wouldn't cry!’  When John came, he fasted and drank no wine, and everyone said, ‘He has a demon in him!’  When the Son of Man came, he ate and drank, and everyone said, ‘Look at this man! He is a glutton and wine drinker, a friend of tax collectors and other outcasts!’ God's wisdom, however, is shown to be true by its results.”

Sermon

It is hard to keep up with all the changes that are creeping up on us as we make our cautious way out of lockdown.  But one change was particularly welcome in one part of the Manson clan this past week, because on Monday the swing parks were opened up again.  They are still relatively quiet, but hopefully all of our parks and playgrounds will soon ring with the sounds of childish excitement again.  That said, we used to live directly above one, and so I know at least as well as anyone that the sounds which rise up are not always those of the happy variety.

Looking down on such a scene can be fascinating, watching the interplay of the different characters and personalities; the friendships and the fallouts, the threats and the promises, the laughter and the tears, the groups that form and divisions that easily and regularly arise, the frustration and hurt and anger so freely and loudly expressed.  Of course, what starts out on the swings and roundabouts is what continues through life.  Children are meant to be childish, they have a lot of things to learn about; it is adults to are supposed to be mature, but we are not always as good at that as we might like to hope.

What we see in the playground is pretty much a picture of what we are like, it is life in the raw without the pretence.  So maybe it is no wonder that when Jesus expresses his frustration with the way people were responding to the message of religion, he pointed to children playing nearby as an illustration.  It seems that whatever was being offered to them – they didn’t want to join in.  They always found some reason to refuse, always found some reason to reject it.  So it was with the adults.  Some people looked at John the Baptist, living an austere and simple life and thought he was just ridiculous, why would anyone want to live like that without any comfort and luxury and… fun.  We’re not going to listen to him.  Then along came Jesus, eating and drinking freely and enjoying the company of what we might call “interesting” characters, and people said it was outrageous, a religious man living like that.  We’re not going to listen to him.

Of course many a minister will know that feeling.  One might be a great preacher but people will moan that he is awkward socially and awful slow at answering their emails.  Another might be really efficient with her administration and always on top of her timing, but folk will complain that she is really dreary in the pulpit, and is awkward socially.  Another might be really good socially and great fun to be around… well no, now that I come to think about it, I don’t think that has ever been the case.  Anyway, you get my point.  None of us can be everything to everyone, we can’t please all of the people all of the time.  If people decide to like you they will find things to like, and if people take against you they will find good reason for that as well.  It sounds childish, but yes, that’s the way we tend to be.

Of course the gospel passage wasn’t written out of sympathy for the clergy.  It was written to describe the reasons people had for rejecting the religious message of the day, suggesting that they might be convenient excuses for avoiding the deeper questions which the religion might poke us with if we let it get too close.  Like children, we resort to easy labels and the name calling which goes with them, rather than dealing with the potentially inconvenient truth that

lurks beneath the surface.  So back then it might have been – I’m not listening to John – not because I disagree with what he has to say, but because I don’t like the way he looks.  I’m not listening to Jesus – not because I have considered his message and found it wanting, but because he drinks too much and I don’t like the company he keeps.  And what about the people of our day?  What about us?  Now it might be… ‘I’m, not listening to the message of the church because the institution is old and out of date.  I’m not listening to the church because it has gone all modern and trendy.  I’m just not listening…’

Yet the final sentence of our passage states, “God's wisdom, however, is shown to be true by its results.”  What Jesus is saying is that, through all of this, through all of our defensive shields and excuses, somehow, remarkably, perhaps miraculously, there is a wisdom in the message which is so timelessly true and profound that it can still seep out through all the unattractive stuff which can still speak to us, and heal us, and change us.  At the heart of it, there is something ancient, something unfashionable, something that will never seem cool, which continues to beat, to be shared, to be heard, to be experienced.

No one is going to argue, well certainly not me, that the church is such a fantastic organisation that you should consider more deeply the message which holds it together.  No one is going to argue, well certainly not me, that we have the best music or the best furnishings or the best coffee, or even the best people.  Yet I will argue that within all of the messiness of the messengers there is an experience of forgiveness and acceptance and humility which is so deeply life changing and life affirming that we can dare to say that it must actually come from God.  And even here, even now, somehow, through all of the imperfection and the clutter and the committees, something shines through which is real, honest, authentic, something which you do not want to miss out on, just because you have found something you don’t like.  Somehow, somehow, God’s wisdom is still shown to be true.

Prayer

Almighty one, creator of all, before you we become humble, before you we see ourselves as we are, before you we recognise the childishness of many of our impulses.  We have turned away from that which isn’t to our taste, we have held back from that which we don’t like, we have kept a safe distance from that which doesn’t appeal to us, and in doing so, we may have missed out on much which is of value.  We have made quick judgements and stuck with them for a long time, we have clung firmly to what we are comfortable with, we have avoided listening to those we don’t agree with.

And yet, and yet, your wisdom still finds ways to seep into us.  Still we have heard something which speaks to us, still we have been touched by something which warms us.  So we thank you, and we pray for a spirit of openness, and we pray that good news may be heard by us, and lived out among us, and shared by us.

We pray for fresh blessing, on our communities, on our families, on our churches, on ourselves.  We pray that wisdom may be shown to be true, that generosity may be shown to be real, that love may be shown to be powerful.  Remembering the great challenges, and the great suffering, known by many around the world in these days, we pray for those in the worst places, and the worst circumstances.  We pray urgently for the wisdom we need to find ways to care, to support, to share what we have.  We pray for healing, and for hope and for vision, that we may go forward with faith, not wanting to go back.

Almighty God, your son Jesus Christ has taught us that what we do for the least of your children we do also for him.  Give us the will to serve others as he was the servant of all, who gave up his life and died for us but lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever, Amen