Moncreiff Parish Church
01355 223328 (Monday - Friday am)
Scottish Charity No. SC016751
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A Day of reckoning for all… 28 February 2016 Moncreiff Parish Church
Psalm 63:1-8, Isaiah 55:1-9 and Luke 13:1-9
Key text: “I tell you that if you do not turn from your sins, you will all die as they did.”
In William Bausch’s splendid book, Storytelling, Imagination, and Faith, he recounts the following story: “An old Mississippi country preacher believed in his bones that the Word of God is a two-edged sword. One Sunday morning he mounted the pulpit, and prayed: ’Oh, Lord, give thy servant this morning the eyes of the eagle and the wisdom of the owl; connect his soul with the gospel telephone in the central skies; illuminate his brow with the Sun of Heaven; possess his mind with love for the people; turpentine his imagination; grease his lips with possum oil; electrify his brain with the lightning of the Word; put perpetual motion in his arms; fill him plumb full of dynamite of Thy glory; anoint him all over with the kerosene of salvation, and set him on fire. Amen!”
There is something about that in the season of Lent. It is a season of examination – of examining our own lives, yes! Yet, also about being examined. It is about being confronted by passages such as the one before us today in Luke’s gospel. It is about a hunger and a thirst for that which proves of lasting value. It is about a willingness to turn toward Life…
So, special thank you to all at Moncreiff for the significant role that you have played in the examining of my own call. This will be my last sermon at Moncreiff in my capacity as ‘one on trial’. One does not know what the future might hold as I continue in the Hamilton Presbytery. All I can say at this point in the journey is “Thank you!” Thank you to Rev Neil Buchanan, to the board and session, to those I have been privileged to minister alongside and to the wider congregation and community – for a wonderful introduction to life in Scotland. It is an amazing gift to have your ministry affirmed in a new country. Thank you!
My closing word is thus a word that is in keeping with the season of Lent that is before us:
1) Firstly there is a place for urgency and decision.
I am from Africa – a place of heat, passion and purpose. We live with a sense of Life (capital L) but we also live with a sense of Death (capital D). South Africa is a country with alarmingly high rates of murder and death and yet it is also a place where there is great colour, vibrancy and love.
I find it relatively easy to identify with this passage in Luke’s Gospel. One of the challenges of the early Christian community was the delay of the Lord’s “Return in Glory”. It remains a challenge to this day as different Christian communities seek to resolve it.
Some want an immediate resolution – they long for a ready-made judgement. A clear indication of who might be in and who might be out. A sense of the crowd in this passage of Luke’s Gospel, who want their worldview affirmed. Good people have good things happen to them. More importantly – sinners get judged. A “cause and effect” type universe – you get what you deserve in this world, and people who disagree with me, get judged.
Jesus, however, will have none of it. He tells the story of a fig tree. A story of one more year. A story of a little manure and a little patience. A story of the opportunity to seek and to find Life.
Such is the story of an American by the name of Catherine, who wrote for the New England Monthly, a fairly small magazine that was in print through the second half of the 1980’s. Now the 1980’s were a time of individualism and consumerism and Catherine’s journey was no different. She sensed, however, that she wanted something more, something different, something that spoke of Life.
Catherine grew up Anglican and her religious memories, good memories, she writes, go back to colouring books in Sunday school and the crucifix over her bed. And that was about it. In college she continued her search for God somewhat, but admits, “I rarely went to church, and indeed, I scoffed at the organized religion of my upbringing.” She found forty-eight listings of the Anglican church. So she said she chose one, the Harvard Cambridge Church, but she found it to be more social and political than theological, adding that “I was almost embarrassed to admit that.”
She tried another church famous for its choir and liturgy. It was a big architectural landmark and she found a certain comfort and anonymity here. But on the other hand, she said, she felt she was being a part of an audience, not personally engaged.
And so she went to still another church where the minister was very good, but he moved and so she moved too.
This approach may strike us as a “pick and choose” kind of religion, but it was common in the 1980’s and continues to this day. She, nevertheless, was searching for the Lord and she would not be put off her search.
Well, where did she wind up? She wound up with a simple church that preached and lived the cross of Jesus Christ. It wasn’t the music, the liturgy, or the minister, but it was the Lord and the Crucified Lord at that. She, in her article, quoted the great writer Martin Buber that “religion is essentially the act of holding fast to God,” and then she adds herself, “and church-going is merely one way to tighten the grip.”
But, most of all, she testifies, “It’s difficult to explain exactly why I go, but I suppose the reason is this: in a soft life it is good to hear hard words.”
Her words ring a bell and so we return to the words of T.S. Eliot who writes a poem entitled the Rock, where the chorus says:
Why should men love the church?
Why should they love her laws?
She tells them of life and death and all they would forget.
She is tender where they would be hard and hard where they would like to be soft,
She tells them of evil and sin and other unpleasant facts.
Yes, indeed, but for Catherine and for many others, in a world often jaded by its ongoing fascination with individualism and consumerism – it was enough. Grace might well have been dormant in her life, but it was merely waiting to be resurrected by the cross of an earlier time in her journey. Her longing for Life.
2) There is within the human heart a hunger and thirst for that which truly matters.
The reading before us in Luke’s Gospel awakens us to the urgency of it all and yet the Psalmist reminds us of the rhythm inherent in the journey. God’s grace and the rhythm of the Church’s worshipping life reminds us – God will meet with us, again and again. What is demanded of us, is some evidence of hunger, some evidence of thirst.
The challenge is an all too human one – we forget how important God is to us. We forget how desperately we need a Voice to address us from beyond ourselves. We forget our need for a life centered in the possibility of the Spirit.
Lent thus reminds us. By shocking us, yes. Dramatic images such as those that we hear in Luke’s Gospel. But also by inviting us. The Psalms are a powerful gift in the life of the Scottish Church and we can see why…” Your constant love is better than life itself and so I will praise you.” (Psalm 63:3)
And so we come to our senses and we remember: That in our better moments, in fruitful prayer or rewarding action, we have tasted what might be deemed the ‘divine sweetness’. Yes, we have felt what might be considered the ‘glow of godly presence’ in our place of quiet. We might well have some sort of experience of peace, of what it means to rest in the ‘arms of the Lord’. We have known the contentment of sensing closeness with the God who is the author of our life, the God of all creation. Yes, that more even than we think that we need food or drink to live, so we also need God to have true life.
Yes, and in our individual journey with God throughout the season that is Lent, we know that to ignore these nudging’s of the Spirit is to be an enemy to our struggle for wholeness. To accept the nudge of the Spirit, to delight in it, is to accept the possibility of change. Not change, simply for the sake of change, but change that leads us in the direction of God, of Life, of Love, of Spirit. It is through praising God and rejoicing in divine goodness, that we reject our self-defeating ways, that we nullify them, and that we realize our dream of truly being alive, of being open to God. The reality is that in our daily living we are drawn toward and away from Life.
We are drawn away in that we think we can do without God. We are drawn toward when we realize that to long for the Lord is to long for life.
The reality is that in our daily living we are confronted by both oppressive and liberating images. We, at times feel rushed, harassed, overwhelmed and yet the liberating offer throughout this season of Lent is…to find rest, to know peace, to rest in a prayerful awareness of God’s presence.
Prayer: We have been blessed, O Lord, at least on occasion, with cherished spiritual experiences. We have known, at times, hints of Your presence. We have sensed at times the gift of Your peace. Such godly presence is our greatest source of contentment and power. Let such moments multiply. Let us grow spiritually. Let us enjoy you more.
3) And so we Return. We return time and time again to a place of reckoning…a place of decision…a place of commitment
Back to that decade of change…unsettled as it was and yet defining so much of our modern world. I smile to myself as I surfaced from school in 1984, teenage years shaped by so many powerful forces…conflict in Africa, the threat of the A bomb, Cold War in full flow…and a man by the name of Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev. He would prove to be the eighth and last leader of the Soviet Union, having served as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1985 until 1991 when the party was dissolved. He would serve as the country's head of state from 1988 until its dissolution in 1991.
Gorbachev was born in Stavropol Krai into a peasant Ukrainian–Russian family, and in his teens operated combine harvesters on collective farms. He graduated from Moscow State University in 1955 with a degree in law. While he was at the university, he joined the Communist Party, and soon became very active within it. Within three years of the death of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, Gorbachev was elected General Secretary by the Politburo in 1985. Before he reached the post, he had occasionally been mentioned in Western newspapers as a likely next leader and a man of the younger generation at the top level.
Gorbachev's policies of glasnost ("openness") and perestroika ("restructuring") and his reorientation of Soviet strategic aims contributed to the end of the Cold War (1945-1991). He removed the constitutional role of the Communist Party in governing the state, and inadvertently led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
He was awarded the Otto Hahn Peace Medal in 1989, the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 and the Harvey Prize in 1992, as well as honorary doctorates from various universities.
In the spirit of glasnost, an unusual film was permitted to be shown in Moscow in the mid 1980’s, entitled Repentance. It was such a popular film that it opened in seventeen Moscow theaters and the lines for tickets were even longer than the lines for the great Russian passion, the ballet.
There was a review of that film in The Christian Century which described it as very searing, very poignant, very touching, and made all the more so by being set within the horrific Stalinist era. It was a difficult film filled with metaphors, symbols and strange visual touches. It was a powerful protest against dictatorships of all sorts and forms. It was an indicator that change was in the air…that not only individuals could change, but that nations could find new forms of life.
In one episode of that surrealistic film, the people line up at the prison gate to get letters from relatives, and often on many of these letters are scribbled the words, “Left no forwarding address.” The people look knowingly at each other. They all know what that means, and they weep. In another episode, the women are shown in a muddy timber yard, desperately picking up logs one by one and examining the ends of them.
One woman finds her husband’s name carved on one and weeping she caresses the log as if she were caressing her husband’s face. The reviewer said he commented to a friend of his, “I suppose this is a kind of surrealistic statement.” But the friend who was Russian replied that no, it was not. It was no statement, no dream. It was reality. “You see,” he said, “it was common for people to search for the names on the end of logs because the prisoners who worked in the forests would carve their names and the last date as a sign that until at least that date, they were still alive.” And the film goes on to make of the women’s insistent search for their husbands in a muddy timber yard a powerful parable of the Russian’s search for God in a muddy society. In the midst of devastating and unrelenting horror, torture, and death they continued to look for God--and found God--even though the search was officially forbidden.
And, finally, after that terrible era and with the fall of Communism, these same people and their children are flocking to the now open churches in the Soviet Union. No wonder the film is so popular for a people who, until recently, could not seek the Lord openly. How real and alive did they make today’s first reading from Isaiah, “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call to him while he is near.”
There is the wonderful story of someone who left the snow covered Chicago for a sunny holiday in Florida. His wife was on a business trip, but was planning to visit him the next day and so he sent her an e-mail. Unfortunately, he lost the piece of paper on which he had written the address and so he got it wrong by one letter. The email was thus sent to a preacher’s wife whose husband had passed away a day before. Well as the preacher’s wife opened the email and read it she got the shock of her life. It simply read as follows: Dearest Wife Just got checked in. Everything prepared for your arrival tomorrow. PS Sure is hot down here…
I come from a hot place. I was watching golf two weeks ago…live broadcast of the Tshwane Open in Waterkloof, Pretoria. The sun looked inviting, but the commemorators were reminding me, the viewer…sure is hot down here. Lent is a pretty hot time in the life of the Church…the biblical passages press us into a mood of urgency, of decision making, of recognizing that there is a day of reckoning for all… Psalm 63:1-8, Isaiah 55:1-9 and Luke 13:1-
9. The key text from Luke has been: “I tell you that if you do not turn from your sins, you will all die as they did.” Yet the urgency is balanced by the rhythm of the worshipping life of the Church…Psalms, Prophets, Prayers…the importance of laying good foundations, of the rightness of us being here, the praise we are giving God, the worship together, the example and witness--in short, the grace of God that we are helping to shape for this community and this parish. Thank you for including me in this search and longing, in this Lenten season. May we never forget Isaiah’s message, “Seek the Lord while he may be found, and call to him while he is near.” As we hold ourselves accountable, as we remember the goodness and patience of God, so will others remember Life. Yes, and we will slowly find our way home: Together!