Bible Text: Isaiah 64 1-9 and Mark 13:24-37 | Preacher: Rev. Bruce W. Kemp An Early Morning Prayer Last week I spoke to you about how without the middle part of the life of Jesus, we would be left with a biography like a tombstone. There would be a date of birth and a date of death. We might learn that his birth was surrounded by great expectations and signs and we might learn that his death was not only horrible but probably not even a just death. Beyond that, there would be precious little to encourage us to see him as the Saviour, the one to guarantee the forgiveness of our sin by his blood. There would be precious little to cause us to believe that God had indeed been present in the form of Jesus and encourage us to live our lives both for this time and the future. I also spoke to you about how the people in the churches in Asia Minor were finding their enthusiasm flagging as they waited for the day of the return of the Lord. Life in the middle between the ascension of Christ and his promised return was getting long. The apostle John encouraged them to remember that all things will come to pass as God has ordained. But in the meantime we are to remain faithful to the God who has been, is and always will be faithful to us and all the people who have, do and will follow the path of God in Christ. But we all need something in our lives to give us focus. For many people the focus is found in a time of devotion at the beginning of the day. Over the years I have had a number of morning rituals to prepare myself for the day ahead. For about 10 years now I have found myself drawn more to the ancient tradition of the Celtic church and the strong connection that they felt between God, themselves and all creation. The sense of hope, peace and connectedness that I discovered has continued to support me day by day. And while there are prayers for early morning, morning, evening and night, I find that I mostly pray the early morning prayer but I need to make a habit of the night prayer as well. I usually arise around 6 in the morning and go to my office which is my work and prayer space. My time with God begins by standing and repeating the following: “As the morning sun brings light to the world once more, I come in prayer to you, my Lord. You created me and you know me. I am your child.” Before I even ask for anything in prayer, I recognize that the coming of the sun heralds a new day for me to remember my relationship to and with God. I recognize that for me I understand God to have created me and I acknowledge that he knows me. I accept that I am one of his children. Then follows the prayer which you have heard me recite on more than one occasion. The first thing I ask for is guidance and help. The next thing I ask for is courage, courage to face the problems that lie ahead. I have no doubt that there will be problems and I have no doubt that some of them will take more courage to face and deal with than others. The next thing I ask for is a heart wide open to the joys God has prepared for me. It is not easy to approach life with an open heart but without an open heart it becomes difficult to receive any joys for a closed heart only sees sorrow and hurt. But I believe that God has prepared for me to find joy and so with an open heart I can recognize it and receive it when it comes. Only when I have asked for courage and an open heart can I begin to think of asking for forgiveness of my many sins. But I seek forgiveness of my many sins so that I can begin the day anew. The prophet Jeremiah in his book entitled Lamentations reminded the people that the mercy of the Lord fresh each day. God truly does not hold anything against us except what we choose to let be held. Asking for forgiveness in the morning is an opportunity for us to recognize that the grace, mercy and kindness of God are there to be received. But forgiveness is a two way street; and so the purpose of asking for forgiveness for my many sins is so I can learn to be forgiving and compassionate to others in return. The purpose of going through this exercise in prayer is so that I can better serve God in a way that is right and pleasing to God in all that I do and all that I say. That is what I long for but it doesn’t mean I will always get it right. And while that is the main prayer that I pray I then ask for a blessing of God. I seek to bind unto myself the strong name of the Trinity by asking for: “The love of the Father who made me, The love of the Son who died for me, The love of the Spirit who dwells within me, To bless me and keep me.” I then go through an action that reflects the ancient Celtic belief in the thin veil that exists between heaven and earth. As a mark of the Trinity which I have asked to bless me, I then draw 3 circles around myself with the index finger of my right hand held high and say: “May the angels of Heaven protect me this day and circle me with the fragrance of peace. May Christ my Lord and loving friend protect me this day and circle me with affection and love. May the Spirit of truth who dwells in my heart protect me this day and circle me and fill me with joy.” I then close my prayer time with this affirmation: “My Father, I am your child. I go forth in your name. Keep me safe. There’s no magic in this prayer but there is power, as much power as I am willing to accept and acknowledge. The purpose of my sharing this with you today is to encourage you as you live in the middle of your life in this time to find your meaningful way of recognizing and remembering and living your relationship with God.
Bible Text: Revelation 1: 4 b-8 and John 18:33-37 | Preacher: Rev. Bruce W. Kemp Let’s be honest with ourselves. The last thing we expected to hear when we came to church today was a reading from the Gospel of John – especially one that is from John’s account of the trial of Jesus. Seems out of place with the time of year we are in. After all, we are starting to prepare ourselves for a more joyous event in the Christian calendar – that being Advent followed by Christmas and the Epiphany. None of those celebrations are what we could call downers. In fact every one of them is filled with the gifts of the season – hope, joy, love and peace. Yet here we are faced at the end of the official church year with a passage of Scripture that heralds that final significant event in the life of Jesus Christ. It’s as if we have skipped the middle and gone right from the miracle of birth to the catastrophic event of the crucifixion. Surely there is a better way for us to prepare for the coming weeks than to be reminded of one of the darkest moments in the chronicle of the Christian faith. And yet there is good reason for this passage to be here. We are a people who are living in the middle. We are a people who love to be reminded of the birth of Jesus Christ and yet do not necessarily want to be reminded of the death of Jesus Christ. But to be reminded of Christ’s death at this time of year as the trees lose their leaves and we get ready for the coming winter is probably a good thing because it reminds us that while the birth in Bethlehem may be seen as the beginning of our new life with God, the crucifixion is not the end. In fact the crucifixion and subsequent resurrection of Jesus becomes the new beginning for the people of God. It puts us once again at a place where we are living life in the middle. All of life is truly lived in the middle, is it not? Each of us has a moment of birth and each one of us will have a moment of death. Along the way we will experience other moments of significance but most of our life will be lived in the middle. And even though we focus so much of our attention to moments in the life of Christ, it is that life in the middle that really gives meaning to everything that happens at the beginning and at the end. It is all the encounters Jesus has with people as he journeys through the land and it is all the lessons he imparts through different situations that shapes and gives meaning to his coming into this world and his departure from this world. Taken in isolation, the moment of his birth would simply stand as a fact in history just as any other fact. His death would simply stand as a statistic recorded in a book of ancient writings. His resurrection might not have even made an impact. After all, if all Jesus was remembered for was being born and dying, his story would be not unlike the story of anyone else who walked the earth. What gives real meaning to his life and his death and even his resurrection is the life he lived in the middle – the life he shared with those who were living their middles with him. And as much as the coming season of Advent and Christmas may give us warm fuzzies and fill us with a sense of hope and mystery; as much as our reflection on the crucifixion of Christ may give us shudders as we reflect on the cruelty of that act; it is only as we live our lives between and around these events that we will find real meaning and purpose. We need to remember the season of Advent and Christmas throughout the year just as we need to remember the season of Lent and Easter. There needs to be a middle - a connection between the seasons from both sides. That is why we have this reading from John. But what of our reading from Revelation? This reading is the beginning of a most curious letter. It stands in the genre of literature known as Apocalyptic which simply means literature that speaks of a future time or end time. It paints a picture of what the future will be for the people of God and the world in general. But the Revelation of John is different in that it does not just speak of future things; it also very clearly speaks about the present. John ties together present and future as he addresses the seven churches in Asia. He does this because he knows that while the people in the churches have a future hope that they are looking for and preparing to receive, they also need to be fully alive in the present time. They cannot simply sit back and wait for the second coming of Jesus to put all things right. They need to recognize and live their life in the middle. Their middle is like our middle for them; like us they lived in that time between the resurrection of Jesus and the second coming. They faced the daily, weekly and even yearly challenges of life as Christians expecting the coming of the Lord. Perhaps they lived with even more expectation as the last words of Christ seemed to herald a quick return. But even they were beginning to become weary of waiting. As humans we can only hold our excitement for so long. Have you ever been part of a surprise party? Gathering for the event in order to surprise someone you know well can be a wonderful thing but if the person gets delayed for too long, the excitement can begin to fade and we can even lose interest. John knows that life has lost its excitement for the people in the churches. The expectation of Christ’s return has been so anticipated that they were on high alert. But time has been passing and nothing has happened. How to keep the excitement going? All John can do is to encourage them to keep the faith, to keep believing that their commitment to God in Christ is not in vain. He encourages them to maintain their hope for Christ’s return by reminding them that the love of God in Christ is ever there. He encourages them by reminding them that they are a part of God’s kingdom and that even though the time seems long, they should not lose hope. Using the Greek alphabet – which they all would be familiar with – he reminds them that as alpha stands at the beginning of the alphabet and Omega stands at the end, so Jesus who is the very creative Word of God from the beginning of time is also the same Word of God that will be there at the end. The life they live in their middle is bookended by God Himself in Jesus Christ. It is for them to live their lives in the middle assured that the same God who began all things will be there at the end of all things. They are to be assured that the same God who appeared in this latter time as a child in Bethlehem living, teaching, and healing is the same God who will come again. He is the Alpha and the Omega; he is the beginning and the end; but he is also the middle. He will be with us through it all so that we can live our lives now in the middle of this time with hope and strength and grace! AMEN.
Bible Text: Hebrews 10: 11-14, 19-25 and March 13: 1-8 | Preacher: Rev. Bruce W. Kemp The letter to the Hebrews is filled with much imagery that comes from the people of Israel and their places of worship and worship practices. For us today these practices and the buildings in which they were offered seem an eternity away from where we are today. Even if we read about the Temple in Jerusalem and learned something of the rituals practiced in the Temple, I am sure that it never really made a great impression on us as something that was vital to helping us understand what God’s incarnation in Christ meant and how that forever changed the rituals of faith. Over the centuries religious practice among the people of Israel had evolved from a simple tent to a permanent temple. The people had gone from finding God wherever they wandered to believing that the presence of God resided in one place and that was in Jerusalem. And even though the exile had shown them that God could indeed be found anywhere, there was still the strong belief that only in Jerusalem could God be properly and fully honoured and worshiped. Jerusalem was the heart of the faith. It was the royal seat of the kings of Judah and it was the place where the High Priest – the most important religious leader of the people – resided. Along with the other priests and servants, the High Priest presided over and was responsible for the religious life of the people. It was his responsibility to ensure that all things were done decently and in good order and that God would remain the ally of the people. To that end, the people would come and make their sacrifices according to the prescriptions laid down in the law as they sought to honour God and pray that God would remember them and protect them. And while the offering of sacrifices to God was a daily ritual, there was one day on which the nation would ask for forgiveness from God for its sins individually and collectively. This day is the Day of Atonement. That day is still kept by Jewish people. I remember my friend Larry telling me of this day and how he was expected to visit everyone against whom he had sinned and ask for their forgiveness. In the time of the Temple in Jerusalem, this was the one day of the year that the High Priest could enter into what was the inner sanctum of the Temple – the Holy of Holies. On that day the High Priest and only the High Priest – provided that he was free from all blemishes himself – on that day he would go behind the curtain that separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple and offer a special sacrifice on the behalf of the nation. The hope was that the sins of the past year would be forgiven and a new year could begin with a clean slate. But as often as the people made their sacrifices and as often as the High Priest visited the Holy of Holies on an annual basis, the people and the nation never felt that full assurance that indeed their sins were forgiven and that all was right between them and God. As close as they may have felt to God, there still was this gap. And when we consider that the High Priest needed to be physically perfect before even he could begin to ritually ask for the people’s sins to be taken away, we begin to understand how people could believe that only our perfection could bring us into the presence of God. But the author to the Hebrews reminds the people of an event connected to the death of God in Christ. On the day of the crucifixion, at the moment of death, it is said that the curtain in the Holy of Holies was torn apart. For the first time anyone could look into the Holy of Holies. That place wherein only the High Priest had been able to enter to stand in the presence of God now was open to all. The author to the Hebrews reminds the people that the torn curtain was a sign that no longer would there be a barrier or division between God and the people. No longer would the people need an intermediary to seek forgiveness for their sins. In fact the people could now be assured not only of the forgiveness of their sins for today and even this year but forgiveness of their sins for eternity. But it wasn’t just the act of forgiveness that was signalled by the tearing of the curtain. It was a sign that God was no longer to be feared but to be embraced. It was a sign that God was no longer distant and isolated from the people but that now the people could gaze on the glory and face of God and live. Those who had been alive and met God in Christ as He walked on the earth and even those who had not met God in Christ in that time could be assured not only of the forgiveness of God for their sins, not only be assured that God loved and cared for them but they could also be assured that they could approach to the very throne of God without fear and look on His face and live. Certainly this was a great revelation to a people who for so long had felt God to be anything but close and loving. The relationship which was now open to them was one in which they could see God as a loving parent, as a good friend, as a trusted companion. All the barriers between them were gone. They were now invited to enter into that most inner place where God was thought to dwell and encounter a Person whose true heart was one of love and mercy. That’s the truth which the author to the Hebrews is seeking to impress upon the readers of his letter. But it seems that many of them have lost the vision of what God had done in Christ. They had begun to doubt that it was real and their hope that truly God had accomplished an everlasting forgiveness of sin had begun to wane. Many of them had begun to question the value of their weekly meetings for worship. Their community and their lives were losing purpose and meaning. Hold on, says the author; hold fast to the confession of your hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. When our life in Christian community becomes simply keeping the faith, doing the ritual, maintaining the shell, we lose the real reason for why we are here. Certainly we are here for ourselves but we are also here for one another. We are here to reveal the love of God to one another. We are here to care for one another, to be kind and merciful to one another. We are here to encourage one another as we seek to live a new life that has come to us from God in Christ. Our challenge is not to just hold on to that new life in Christ but to grasp that gift and live it as best we can knowing that no one of us lives for ourselves. We live for one another. I remember one of the first lessons I learned in choir was this. If you are not singing a solo, you should not be heard above the others. A choir is to be one voice even if it be composed of 10 or 20 or 100 or more. So we in this community are many and yet we too need to be one voice for we share a common faith, a common baptism, and a common life. May God richly bless us as we seek to be a community of His people in this place and may we not just hold on to our faith in God but grasp it and live it in word and action! AMEN
Bible Text: Hebrews 9:24-28 and Mark 12:38-44 | Preacher: Rev. Bruce W. Kemp, Reverend Bruce W. Kemp OF SACRIFICE AND LOVE OF SACRIFICE AND LOVE This is a day that in our churches we set aside as a time of remembrance. It is a tradition that has been maintained for close to 100 years. It is a tradition that saw its beginnings with the end of a war that came to be known as World War 1. Of all the conflicts known to the modern era of history, this was the first war that effectively engulfed the whole world. And while it essentially was fought in Europe, Africa and the Middle East, it changed the landscape of the world. Unfortunately, it did not satisfy all conflict and there have been many wars to follow it. But for large parts of our world today, war is something we read about on our computers and perhaps see images of but have little personal contact. For others – even in our community – war in our present day is something which continues to be very real. And while they may not personally live in the midst of that conflict, they deal with the pain and suffering of those who have chosen to be part of the solution to conflicts in various parts of the world. Often I was asked why a man of the cloth would even consider being a chaplain in the armed forces. For many people it seemed like a contradiction. In their minds, they had images of the chaplain blessing guns and condoning death and destruction; but the reality is far from that. The reality is that the chaplains are there to provide spiritual comfort and counselling to men and women who are asked to face situations that we can never imagine and help them to make sense of the crazy world in which they find themselves. And while as chaplains, we are not allowed to use weapons, we would find ourselves exposed to many of the situations that those who are armed face and may even face many of the same dangers. And so we have taken time this morning to remember not only the sacrifice of those who died in the major conflicts of the past century as well as the conflicts of this century, but to remember all those who came home and have had to live with the memory of what happened to them and to their comrades. We remember the families of those who served and are serving. We remember the civilians caught in the places of conflict, those who have died and those who have lived. As a nation and as a people our responsibility to those who served cannot end when they come home. All of us carry baggage from our lives; our experiences shape who we are and who we become. For those who experience severe traumatic experiences, the baggage can be more oppressive. And just as we know that emotional, mental and physical baggage cannot be just dropped like a sack of potatoes, so for those who served the baggage often hangs on. In our lives as Christians, we carry not only emotional, mental and physical baggage, we also carry spiritual baggage. The interactions that we have as a community of faith bring to us challenges that touch mind, body, heart and spirit. And we can carry that baggage with us from place to place. For many of us we will spend a lifetime trying to find a place to deal with the baggage that we have picked up. One of the struggles we have is finding an appropriate place to unpack that baggage. Nobody likes the experience of opening their suitcase at the airport to repack. Our life is exposed to the world. True enough, most of us will find the same items in all our bags but we may have something different or special, something that we have kept hidden in our bag, something that maybe even those closest to us now have no idea. Unpacking our baggage in a safe place with people we trust is something for which we all hope. What I am speaking about is finding a place and/or a person with whom we can unpack that baggage and begin to lighten our load. When we come to a place of worship, we may have an expectation that we can open our spiritual baggage. We may believe in our heart and mind that this is a place where we can lighten our load and find that peace of spirit that we seek. We may believe that we will be able to find forgiveness and healing for the hurts that we carry. I put it that way because too often our expectations are not reflected in the reality of what we find. In my first congregation there was a lady who was faithful to worship but never attended communion. When I asked her why, she replied that she was not worthy to come to the table because she was not perfect in her life. Often we judge ourselves or others harshly for the sin in our life. We struggle to be perfect but realize all too often that perfection is beyond us. For some this realization ends in despair as they come to believe that they are beyond redemption and that they will ever be known by their sins. The author of the letter to the Hebrews knew all too well the struggles of the people to whom his letter was written. He knew that they were not perfect people and that their struggle to be perfect – as so often they believed they need to be – would lead many of them to despair of any future with God. They feared that God would only love them if they were so perfectly following the lead of Christ. And often we have brought that kind of perfection into our communities. Its effect is often to cause many to turn away from God believing that only when they are perfect will God receive them. If that’s the case, I should never feel the hand of God or the voice of God or the Spirit of God in my life. The author to the Hebrews wants us to reflect on the reality of our lives. We will sin, we will carry baggage but we do not need to despair of our sin or be afraid to reveal our baggage. In Christ God has become the mediator between Him and us. The death of God in Christ was to give us freedom from our sins and hope that we will not be afraid to reveal our baggage to Him and to one another. For many the second coming of Christ is seen as judgment but it is a judgment that people will place on themselves. Our sins have been paid for – not only the sins of those alive in the time of the incarnation but the sins of all those who have come into this world since and who will come into this world until the end of God’s time. The second coming of Christ is to receive those who have committed themselves in this life to loving God and striving to follow the example of our Lord Jesus Christ. And so as we remember this day the human sacrifice of life made by those who died and those who survived that we might live in freedom, let us not forget that sacrifice of God in Christ who not only died for us but lives that He may come again to receive us not in judgment but in love. AMEN
Bible Text: James 3:13-4:3 AND Mark 9:30 - 37 | Preacher: Rev. Bruce W. Kemp, Reverend Bruce W. Kemp HOW TO BE A GREAT PERSON One of the greatest struggles we have as people and as people of the Word is how to live a life that honours God but also soothes our ego. Everyone seeks to be recognized and acknowledged for their contributions to the life of the community here in this place as well as in our homes, our places of employment, our social clubs and with our friends. Being recognized and acknowledged as having value and worth is critical to our well-being. But too often we either boldly assert ourselves over others so that our value will be acknowledged or we retreat in abject humility to a place where any value or worth we may contribute to the community becomes muted or even ignored. Becoming a great person, though, is neither about being so humble as to never allow us to feel any pride in our abilities or talents nor is it about being so bold as to believe that we possess talents and abilities unrivalled anywhere in the world. Becoming a great person is about finding our place within the community and allowing others to encourage us as we encourage them to share our lives together. God seeks for us to find fulfilment in life but not at the expense of another person. When Jesus speaks to the disciples and tells them to be first you must be last, he is reminding them that the greatest among them will be the one who is willing to recognize and acknowledge the value and worth of those around them. The world in which we live encourages us to be bold in our dealings with one another. We are encouraged to look out for ourselves, to grab the bull by the horns, to be aggressively assertive, and to promote ourselves. Certainly there is nothing wrong with sharing with one another our vision for the life of our community and how we may be able to make contributions but we are to be conscious of how our thoughts, words and actions may impact the life of someone in the community who is not as sure of themselves or who feel that they have less to contribute. And who does Jesus look to when he is seeking for an example of how the disciples can start on the path to greatness? He points to a child. He then takes the child and places the child in the midst of them and then takes the child into his arms. The child probably has the least ability to make a difference in the world at that moment but for Jesus this child represents the very heart of greatness. To have the ability to see, acknowledge, accept and love a child whose life is just beginning opens us up to see, acknowledge, accept and love those whose lives have been lived and influenced in ways that will bring challenges to us. If we cannot take time for them, we probably will not be willing to take time for others. If we think ourselves too good or too important or too great to bother with a child, chances are we will think ourselves too good, important or great to bother with anyone else whom we may feel are beneath us. It is a fact of our human existence and dilemma that even though we will acknowledge our God and the physical presence of God in Jesus Christ as the greatest person among us, we will still seek to know who comes second, third, fourth and so on. Somehow we need that pecking order. In the letter that the apostle James wrote, we find that Jesus’ words concerning greatness are still a struggle for the people. It seems that everyone in the community wants to be seen as the most important. People were seeking to become teachers in the community but without the necessary skill and aptitude. People were boasting of their faith in God but not showing it in practical ways. In a real sense, people had lost the heart of wisdom. Wisdom is not just a matter of knowledge. People can have great knowledge but lack wisdom. Wisdom is about knowing how to apply knowledge in such a way as to truly encourage and teach others the lessons of life as God has given them. How often we want to share our knowledge or experience. We want others to know how knowledgeable we are. We fear someone else might be seen as having more knowledge or a greater experience than ourselves and we will not be valued. But remember the wisdom of Solomon who knew so well that a wise person often says little while a fool will run on at the mouth. Someone once said that he didn’t like silence. He said it was like death but silence is fuller of meaning than we may imagine. In silence we can observe movement, we can hear breathing, and we can feel our heart. But silence scares us. It scares us because we are so surrounded by the sound of traffic and commerce that the idea of being silent is to us a void. It seems to be an empty place that we need to fill but in truth that so-called empty place is fuller than anything we may imagine. It is a place where God can be heard, where he can be felt and where we can touch and be touched. In this passage, James does not tackle all the issues that cause us to struggle with what it means to be great people of God but he does touch on a number of them. He begins by cautioning us against a wisdom that encourages bitter jealousy and selfish ambition. Such wisdom brings disorder to our community life as a Christian congregation and disorder to our life in general. When we become jealous of the abilities or talents of others, we can find ourselves seeking for ways to derail them and promote ourselves instead. We can find ourselves working to bring division within the community and so disrupt its life and peace. He then points to the wars and fights that he sees. He knows too well that the jealousies we feel come from our desire to have something we can’t or to be someone we cannot be. He recognizes that we all struggle with finding our place in the community and recognizing the gifts and talents and abilities of one another. When such things become all-consuming, the community is in grave danger of dissolution. Even more, he would say, we are at risk of losing the vision and goal of our faith and life and descending into an abyss of self-promotion and aggrandizement. To counteract this tendency within us, he encourages us to seek for the real wisdom of God. He tells us that such wisdom is pure, that is, it is untainted by the jealousies that afflict us for it seeks to honour the life of all. Further he adds that such a wisdom is peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, without uncertainty or insincerity. The true wisdom of God that we are to seek for and practice in our life will not desire to cause war and strife but will desire to find peace for mind, body and spirit. It will desire to gently instruct and persuade rather than be heavy-handed. It will be open to reason for it will be willing to listen to the thoughts and ideas of others and see whether there is any truth and any good in what is being suggested. The ideas and thoughts of others will not be summarily dismissed. The true wisdom of God will be full of mercy for it will not seek to condemn but to inform and teach and it will be a wisdom that will not be seen as temporary or fleeting nor will it be easily shaken. It will be a wisdom that can be trusted. We can be certain of what we believe and express it in a firm yet gentle way. We can be sincere in what we believe and yet reveal that we are open to listen. We can be great people without being dominating or domineering. After all, no one of us is perfect. Every one of us will make mistakes. How we deal with our mistakes and the mistakes of others will reveal whether our wisdom is of God or of man. Remember the words of Paul in speaking of Jesus. He reminded the people in Philippi that Jesus was above every other creature in creation. In other words, he is the greatest person to ever walk on the earth yet he did not celebrate his greatness by lording it over others. Instead he emptied himself of all vanity and self. He put himself in the position of one who serves, of the lowest in the pecking order. His greatness came not from people looking to him to worship him but from him looking at people with compassion and mercy. Who among us will be remembered as the greatest? Perhaps we will never find the answer. Perhaps we should never seek to be that person but each of us can be a great person by striving to encourage, uplift and forgive others, by recognizing the heart and life of others in the community and by bringing peace and sincerity to others through words and actions.
Bible Text: Deuteronomy 4:1-2 and 6-9 anbd James 1:17-27 | Preacher: Rev. Bruce W. Kemp What does your reflection look like? – James 1:17-27 The letter of James is a short one and is not sent to any one group of people as Paul’s letters are. James is one of the apostles whose Jewish roots are very evident. He is one who wanted to see the new faith remain within the synagogue and be accepted as a new and fuller revelation of the God the people had known throughout their history. And so his letter is sent to all those who came to faith in Christ as Jews and who are living in what came to be known as the Diaspora or Dispersion. Many of the people who lived in ancient Palestine had left the area to pursue business interests or for other reasons. They lived all over the ancient world in small communities. They continued to practice their faith even in these remote places. James wanted to be sure that these communities would ever remain open to receiving new people and he wanted them to present to the community and the world around them a picture of the faith that would draw others to them. He also knew how important it was for the community’s continued existence that they be reminded of how they were to conduct themselves. And so the letter of James focuses on remaining true to the tenets of the faith and even more on how that faith is expressed in the community’s life with one another. In his opening message to the scattered communities, he encourages them to always seek the wisdom of God. The people are not to rely on their own wisdom or strength but to constantly look to God to inform their choices in life and guide them on the path to full life. Further he reminds all in the community that whatever their status in the society outside the community, they are not to bring that status or hierarchy into the community. The lowest in the society and the highest in the society are to find that place where both can be honoured and valued. James believed very strongly that we all stand equal before God and that the prayers of all are heard. Each person, regardless of their position in society, is an equal in the eyes of God and in the community of faith. Whatever path the society around may choose to follow, it is for the community of faith to follow the path of God and to uphold each person. After all, whatever we may amass in this world will ultimately be lost to us but the life we gain in God will be to us an everlasting gain; and that gain is open to all in an equal measure. First of all he encourages us to be quick to hear. It is often said that we have two ears and two eyes because we are to listen and look more than we are to speak. Listening to others and watching them is something that is often hard for people. If someone feels that no one is ever listening to them or really seeing them, they can have the tendency to not be willing to share their thoughts or feelings. And if we are concerned that people will dismiss us if we are not constantly sharing, then we will fail to listen and observe others. What James is seeking for here is for us to learn to listen and observe one another and discover how best to blend our lives in such a way as to respect the life of one another and enable everyone to feel valued in the community; doing this will enable us to be slow or slower to speak for we will be taking the time to consider more carefully what we are to say. What a blessing it would be if we could ever achieve this! James knows it will not be easy but he also knows that the communities can splinter and fall apart if we fail to even try. Of course hand in hand with being slow to speak comes being slow to anger. Anger often arises from an impulsive reaction to something that is said or done; perhaps it comes from a feeling of frustration with a person or situation; perhaps it is something over which we have no control; but our reaction can have disastrous results not only for us but for others and so often it is difficult to put the words back into our mouths and swallow them. I want you to note, though, that James does not say that there will not be times of anger or that anger is totally inappropriate at all times; rather, he is saying that it should not be the first reaction we have. It is his hope that these words of wisdom will save us from putting our feet in our mouths too many times and perhaps save us from tearing our communities apart. He then goes on to remind the people that we need to be more than just hearers of what God asks of us. In other words, when we ask for wisdom, when we ask for patience, when we ask for grace and forgiveness, we need to put such things into action. We can accept all kinds of things in our minds but they must go from our minds to our actions if people are to see that we truly believe in the word of God. James likens it to looking at our reflection in a mirror. If we look at our image and then forget what we look like, we are like people who hear the Word of God and then act in a way that totally contradicts it. But James knows that looking at the law of God like looking in a mirror will never make that law real except that we carry that law of God with us in our mind, heart and spirit just as we carry that image of our face that we see in the mirror. He closes his message in this chapter by speaking to the people about what he really thinks makes a person religious. What makes a person religious is not how often they attend worship or how much money they can give or what status they have in the community; what makes a person religious is when their whole person reflects the image of God. It is when the words of God take root and become real. It is when their faith is more than words or ritual but becomes the pattern of their life. It is when the needs and concerns of the community are heard and responded to. James identifies two things that he sees as true religion. The first was a great concern because there was no social network to care for widows or orphans. The community had to care for them. The second is as true today as then. It is about how we choose to express our faith in our daily life. Today how we express our faith may be different in some respects but it remains essentially the same. We need to look at who we are called to be by God in Christ and then not forget what that looks like as we go into the world as the people of God!
Bible Text: Ephesians 6:10-20 and John 6:60-69 | Preacher: Rev. Bruce W. Kemp The passage of Scripture from Ephesians 6 is one of the most cited passages in all of Paul’s writings. It portrays an image that would make great sense to the people of his day – even more than in our own time. The world in which Paul lived was one in which a military presence was always evident. Unlike our world in Canada, you could go nowhere without seeing at least one soldier in full armour with sword and shield. Many of you have probably visited or know someone who has visited a country in the world today where that reality still exists. And while the soldier in full armour and carrying weapons is often seen as a sign of trouble and aggression, it can also be a source of great comfort in a troubled place. At the time of writing the letter to the church in Ephesus, Paul was a prisoner being transported to Rome for his trial before the Emperor. He was constantly under guard and would daily be seeing at least one soldier in full uniform prepared for battle. In his mind he would have remembered and seen soldiers entering battle and probably witnessed how the soldiers’ weapons enabled them to defend themselves against the attacks of their enemy. And so Paul – as so often he does – finds in the images and situations of his life, examples that he can pull from daily life to encourage and support those who have come to faith in God through Christ. And while that image may not be a constant presence in our daily life, we can still relate well enough to it as we have no doubt read this passage or heard it many times. The first thing we can notice about this passage, though, is that Paul uses the image not so that we will don armour like a soldier or arm ourselves as if to fight a human foe. Paul does not see other humans as the enemy of our faith and life in Christ. While certainly it may appear that those who seek us harm are very human, Paul would assert that it is forces beyond the human that are at work here. All of the words Paul uses to explain these forces are for him ways in which to acknowledge that there are spirits and demons present in the world whose whole reason for being is to disrupt our life with God and cause us to turn away from God. As the Celts acknowledged, evil exists in the world and seeks to pull us away from finding and hearing the heartbeat of God in our life. Evil forces seek to cloud our vision, dull our hearing and generally convince us that God is not real and that His love and grace are not as deep and embracing of our human condition. Our struggles in mind, body and spirit can cause us to lose faith or to doubt the reality of God. We can become convinced that God is either dead or is no longer interested in our well-being. Paul sees these things as attacks of the devil, of the evil forces in the world. However we may think of that which is opposed to God’s hope and vision for this life, we certainly know that there are times when our minds cause us to doubt and to question. There are times when we can be convinced that belief in God and the wisdom of God are not real. In those times of struggle – and without a doubt they will come – Paul knows that the people need support. They certainly need the support of one another and so he encourages them to gather together for prayer, worship and to share their concerns and fears as well as their joys and hopes. But there are going to be times when we will be in a place where there aren’t others around. There will be times when we will be on our own. How are we to protect ourselves in mind and spirit from the attacks on us that can cause us to doubt our decision to live for God? Paul encourages us to think of the soldier. The soldier needs to protect himself from the harm that the enemy would bring upon him. To do so requires him to have certain equipment. He needs a breastplate – a special piece of armour to protect the vital areas of his body. He needs a helmet to protect his head for without a head the body cannot survive. He needs a shield to deflect the arrows and blows of other weapons. He needs protection on his feet to ensure that he maintains a solid footing. But he also needs a weapon to strike back against the aggression that he faces. But Paul does not suggest that we become soldiers like the Roman soldiers. He does not suggest that we should annihilate those who seek to destroy our faith in God through physical violence. He suggests that we prepare for the battle of life by adopting and adapting the imagery of the soldier to ensure that we are prepared to stand firm against any and all attacks on our faith and life. Before we can even put on the armour, we need to ensure that we are able to support our life in Christ and so we use a belt to surround our body with the truth of God. It will hold us firm and enable us to move in the world with a freedom. Then we don the breastplate of righteousness. This is our protection in our most vital areas for this reminds us that it is through Christ Himself that God brings us that perfect peace and forgiveness of sin. The breastplate wards off thoughts that would disturb that peace and sense of forgiveness. With the sandals on our feet, we are encouraged to step forward in faith assured that we need not fear where we go. We wear the helmet of salvation by which we consciously remember that God has placed His hand upon us and blessed us. Through our Lord Jesus Christ we have been granted forgiveness of our sins – not only those past but those present and those future. Now we take up those things which will enable us to ward off attack and meet the challenges of this life. The shield represents our faith. It deflects the attacks upon us. In the days of the Roman Empire, the most common fear was that of the flaming arrows. The Roman shields were designed in such a way as to best be able to deflect and extinguish those arrows. The people would see this as an encouragement to know that whatever was directed at them that their faith could provide a shield and protection. Finally they could take up the sword – the sword of the Word of God. The Word of God would be their constant companion. The words of God would be like a sword for they would become their defence and their hope. Perhaps our daily lives are not so much a battle as those of the Christians in the early days of the church; but we do not know what the future holds. But let us ever remember that preparation and vigilance are needed even in the most innocuous of times and places. It is when we fail to remember the past that we find ourselves unprepared for the future. In closing his letter, Paul writes these words and I am quoting them to you today as we depart from this place to live in God’s world: Peace be to all the [people of God], and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord, Jesus Christ. Grace be with all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with love undying. (Ephesians 6:23-24)
Bible Text: Ephesians 5:15-20 and John 5:51-58 | Preacher: Rev. Bruce W. Kemp It comes as no surprise to me that there are probably some among you who find today’s passage from John to be quite puzzling. How on earth are we to make sense of the words of Jesus? This passage in which Jesus speaks of himself as the bread of life is the end of a long narrative in chapter six of John’s gospel that begins with the feeding of the five. Jesus then seems to disappear only to reappear on the other side of the lake. When the people find him, they wonder how they managed to not see him cross the lake. But to their surprise Jesus instead says to them that they have been looking for him because they were all fed through the miracle of the loaves. Then Jesus encourages them to look beyond the physical to the spiritual. They are to work for the food that never spoils. But they still are focused on the physical miracle and so the challenge to believe in Jesus who has been sent by God the Father does not hold truth for them. They are still seeking a sign. They remembered the manna that God sent which provided food for the people as they passed through the wilderness. In their minds, bread from heaven was still a physical sustenance. And even if Jesus was indeed the new manna, the new bread from heaven for that generation, they still could not imagine that Jesus was the one sent by God from heaven for he was known to be the son of Joseph the carpenter from Nazareth; and as no good thing ever was considered to be capable of coming from Nazareth, the idea that Jesus could indeed be the bread of heaven seemed implausible. Even more so was Jesus’ assertion that this bread of life was his flesh and that his blood. Bread and water are two of the most common of staples for so many people in the world. And while water shortages are a reality for many the idea that we can substitute some other liquid for water does not have a lot of support. Of all the liquids that we have available to us, even if water is the primary ingredient, there really is no beverage that does a body better than water. Water is the only beverage we are encouraged to drink 8 glasses of each day and it is the one beverage that we are so careful about ensuring it is safe and tastes refreshing. When it comes to bread we have far more choice but we choose to find the most nutritious bread to consume. In fact bread and water are probably the two elements which we use for the sustenance of our physical selves that we can’t imagine being without and that we take great care to savor. When the people of Israel were thirsty, God provided water from a rock. When there was no source of food, God provided manna that appeared with the morning dew. Provision for the physical had always been at the heart of the Jewish experience of God and thankfulness for such a provision had ever remained a part of the ritual of the people from the earliest days through the temple period into the exile and right through the time of the restoration and even during the Roman occupation. The challenge that came with Jesus was showing the people that God was not only making provision for physical daily sustenance but that he was making provision for spiritual sustenance. Furthermore, this spiritual sustenance was not just for the duration of this physical time on this planet but it was a sustenance that would take them into a life with God that would have no end. For this bread and water were not just elements from the earth to nourish a present physical need and then be released back to the earth to be drawn forth again; this bread and water were physical in that they could be touched and pondered but spiritual in that they were symbols to draw us into a deeper and more lasting relationship with God. The bread of heaven that Jesus brings to earth is in fact his body for he embodies within him the words and works of God. Symbolically, as we listen to the words of Jesus, as we follow his footsteps, as we study his encounters with people, we ingest the bread of life. It probably never really occurs to us in terms of our relationship to God, but when we learn lessons in school or at home, we are eating life lessons. We are ingesting truths which will guide us through this life. Jesus’ desire for us to share in his flesh as the bread from heaven is for us to understand that we need to ingest the truth of what that God means. Through this ingestion we digest and process in our minds, hearts and spirits what it truly means to be the people of God. Through this we develop our spirits as they are nourished by the words of God in Christ. As the bread of the soil nourishes our physical beings, so the bread of heaven nourishes our spiritual beings. Both are needed for us to live a complete life. And just as water energizes our physical bodies and restores our organs to their full capacity, so the blood of Jesus, the water of eternal life energize our spirits and restore us to that full and lasting relationship with God for which we were created. Jesus describes his flesh as being real food and his blood as being real drink for that which come from God and is given to us for the nourishment of our souls is that which finds our very center, the core of our being and fills a spot in us that no earthly food or drink could ever reach. And the gift of the body and blood of Jesus which we remember when we share in the Lord’s Supper is a tangible reminder to us that God has shared with us a truth that is meant to not only sustain us for as many years as this body may give us but to carry us forward into the future that God assures us is waiting for those who are prepared to eat the bread of heaven and drink the Is this a great mystery? Of course it is but not necessarily one that is like an abyss but rather one that is fantastic and compelling. John is speaking to us not about rules and regulations, moral codes and traditions; rather, he is speaking to us about the essence of life, about the ultimate purpose and destiny of life. He is speaking to us once again about our relationship with God, one that encourages us to listen for and discover for ourselves the Is it a strange thing to imagine eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood? Of course. But to think of deepening our relationship with God by absorbing his words and ways and lapping up his truth so as to be filled with his grace, forgiveness and love, that is a whole other thing. And that is what Jesus is seeking for us to understand! Eat of his body and drink of his blood knowing that through this you are being filled with the knowledge of God, a knowledge that will remain with you both now and forevermore.
Bible Text: Amos 7:7-15 and Mark 6:14-29 | Preacher: Rev. Bruce W. Kemp | Series: Celtic Spirituality Two Ways of Listening As we come to the end of this exploration of Celtic spirituality, it has become clear that the path chosen by the early Celtic church was not unbiblical; rather, it was not the path adopted by the dominant church tradition. The dominant tradition preferred to base its theology and spirituality on the tradition of St. Peter and the authority which was conferred on Peter by Christ Himself. The theology and spirituality of the Celtic church had taken its lead from St. John. Both paths were valid and biblical but in its push to reveal a united faith, the people of that time chose to see the issue as needing to be decided one way or the other. A little more understanding of each other’s position might have led to a different outcome. And so while the battle in 664 for the hearts and minds of the people came down to a decision for Peter or for John, we in this day and age can recognize the strengths and contributions of each stream and so find a place for both of them as we live our lives today. It is interesting to note that many of the mystical traditions of the Church followed the path of St. John. John was seen as the ultimate guide to the inner self. It is also interesting to note that John Scotus, whom I spoke of in an earlier talk, believed that there was room for both ways. He got in trouble for daring to promote the Celtic way. But he saw John as representing the way of contemplation while Peter the way of faithful action. It is interesting to note that Pelagius never advised people to only a contemplative way of approaching God. He firmly believed that it should issue forth in action. But the emphasis on the interior life and seeking for God within and in creation rather than in the heavens and in the holy places alone is what got him into trouble. Balance between the contemplative and the active is what we should all be seeking for. The strength of the John tradition is that it produces a spirituality that sees God in the whole of life and regards all things as inter-related. John’s way of seeing makes room for an open encounter with the Light of life wherever it is to be found. It is a tradition that is not bound by four walls for the sanctuary of God is to be found within the whole of creation. The strength of the Peter tradition is precisely that it has four walls. It enshrines the light of truth within the Church and its traditions and sacraments. It is a rock, a place of security and shelter, especially in the midst of stormy change. It allows us to turn with faith to the familiar house of prayer where others before us have found truth and guidance. And so to hold these two traditions together enables us to celebrate the sacraments and remember the traditions and teachings of the faith while allowing for the fact that the love and grace of God are not just for those who know God but for every person and every form of life because God is with and in all that has life. Even our own experiences in life have taught us that there are times when we have found God in the light of the morning or evening or the freshness of the wind. Sometimes we need the solitude of a hill to be still and attentive to God while at other times we find the time of communal worship, the celebration of the sacraments, the hymns and prayers a comfort. There is room for both the contemplative and the action, for the individual and the communal. Another difference between the two ways of listening is when it comes to sin. To John’s way of thinking, God’s goodness is at the heart of each one of us. In repenting of sin, we are not turning away in order to be someone else, but re-turning to our true selves, made in the loveliness and goodness of the image of God. It is a recognition that we have been created in the image of God to be holy as he is holy but that that goodness has been covered over. We need to peel back the layers to reveal again that light that is at heart of our own beings. To Peter’s way of seeing, we are ever capable of sin and are to be warned against this tendency in ourselves and others. Eventually this led to the Augustine belief that the essential goodness in us was totally erased with Adam’s fall. Here we need to find a balance where we believe and hope in our God-given goodness on the one hand and yet wise and alert to our sinful leanings. But how can we do this? From the John tradition we hear the emphasis on the new commandment from Jesus: “love one another just as I have loved you.” (John 13:34) To John change will come through love. John’s spirituality is guided above all else by a sense of the welling up of love from life’s deepest springs, the place of God’s abiding. In the Peter tradition, great confidence is placed in the outward strength and rightness of the law. It is important to note that we need both perspectives. Otherwise, our faith will be either a vague, unproductive enthusiasm for the sacredness of all life or a joyless moral dutifulness. And so while the focus of this series has been on the lost Celtic spirituality and the tradition of St. John, let us remember that we can learn from the many different ways of approaching God that have been followed by people over the centuries. In closing I would like to acknowledge the contribution of Philip Newell and his work to helping us delve more deeply into this ancient way of listening for the heartbeat of God. Perhaps for some of us this has met a longing within our hearts for a way that made sense to us but that we hadn’t heard expressed before. Perhaps our awareness of this neglected tradition will assist us in the future to go beyond these four walls and to become a place where people can step into and out of daily life and be reminded that the cathedral of God is the whole of creation. Perhaps then we will see and others will come to see that God can be found in the whole of life for that is where his heartbeat is and as we listen, we too may hear that heartbeat within us.
Bible Text: Ezekiel 2:1-5 and Mark 6:1-13 | Preacher: Rev. Bruce W. Kemp | Series: Celtic Spirituality Last time we were learning about the attempt of Alexander Scott to reintroduce to the Presbyterian Church in Scotland a way of seeing God’s presence as embracing all of creation. His radical notion that God’s love and grace were for all people was not welcomed by the established church at that time. However, there was a younger Scottish minister who had been influenced by Scott and the novels of George MacDonald. His name was Norman MacLeod (1812-1872). In 1843 there was a split in the Church of Scotland. While MacLeod remained with the established church, he began to have a profound influence on the direction of its spirituality and theology. In a real sense, he reawakened within the Scottish church that ancient Celtic spirituality and presented it in such a way that people began to accept it as a path for the modern church. The Celtic trait of seeking God’s presence in the whole of life and not just within the Church and its traditions led to a relaxing of the Sabbath laws in the Church and enabled places of beauty and nature to be opened on Sundays allowing families to enjoy the beauty of God’s creation in the parks and gardens on what was - for most people - their only day off work. When the Church allowed the Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh to open on Sundays, it was a sign that the Church was beginning to acknowledge that God could be found and worshipped beyond the four walls of the church. The people were once again allowed to listen for the heartbeat of God in the whole of life. But as much as Norman MacLeod was a key figure in the rediscovery of this ancient way of seeing, it was Norman’s grandson, George Fielden MacLeod (1895-1991) who found a way to get the Church to see that it was not a matter of either/or but rather two ways of seeing and finding God in life. MacLeod emphasized that we are in touch with God every moment that we live, “for the simple reason that God is life: not religious life, nor Church life, but the whole of life….God is the Life of life.” (Newell, p. 76) Spiritual awareness, then, is not about becoming aware of God in a setting created by human hands but rather it is about being aware of God in the midst of the change and movement and flow of life, in the rising of the morning sun, in the work and relationships of daily life, in the interior life of the soul, in times of rest and sleep, and even dreaming. God is at the heart of all life. We don’t have to try to reach God through acts of devotion, for God is closer to us than our very breath. “We have been given union with God whether we like it or not,” MacLeod said, “Our flesh is his flesh, and we cannot jump out of our skins.” (Newell, p. 76) MacLeod was both a Celtic mystic and a Presbyterian minister. He was more concerned that people understand themselves to be Christian than Presbyterian and he encouraged people to not take too seriously the religious boundaries by which we so often define ourselves. After all, God is the Life of the world, not merely some religious aspect of it. When it came to his understanding of spirituality, he warned against believing that becoming more spiritual led a person away from the world. Rather, it was meant for us to go more deeply into life, to find God at the heart of life and to liberate God’s goodness within us and in our relationships, both individually and collectively. “It is the primacy of God as Now that we must recover in Christian mysticism,” said MacLeod. (Newell, p. 80) Our innumerable ‘nows’ as we go through our day are our points of contact with God. (Newell, p. 80) But while MacLeod emphasized a spirituality of awareness, a looking and listening in the midst of every moment of life, he also believed in setting aside time for formal private and communal prayer. He also firmly believed that God is not found apart from the stresses of life but within them. Our time of prayer need not be seen as an escape from the pressures of life but rather our conversation with the God who is there in the midst of life where life is lived. But he also had a vision to re-establish that ancient Celtic community of Iona and so in 1938 he gathered together a group of craftsmen and began to restore the old monastic buildings and begin a community dedicated to the discipline of prayer, rebuilding justice and re-establishing the foundations for peace. MacLeod brought into the mainstream of the Church a way of seeing that had never died out. Repressed for centuries, it continued to be sought for by the people who descended from that early Celtic community. Through this way of seeing, the essential goodness of creation is affirmed and the image of God is firmly visible in all humanity. Yet there is a keen awareness within this way of seeing that there is evil in the world and that the believer must be aware and vigilant. As vibrant as creation is with God’s life, there are forces of darkness that would bind us. We need the saving grace of God to liberate us in order that we might once again discover the essential goodness of our creation. The Celtic spirituality also reminds us that the spiritual realm is closer than we may think. Heaven and earth are connected in ways that are invisible and yet very visible. MacLeod’s plea for the modern day Church was for a recovery of the vision that would free us, individually and collectively, to see both the heights and depths of the mystery in which we live, the glory within us and in the matter of creation as well as the darkness, which, close and imprisoning, threatens each life. MacLeod saw danger in separating the secular from the sacred. When we do that, we make our faith an appendage to our life rather than life itself. Our salvation in Christ is not just for that part of us that makes time for God; our salvation in Christ is for every part of our life. When MacLeod passed away at the age of 96, the final prayer read at his funeral was this one composed by MacLeod himself: Be thou, triune God, in the midst of us as we give thanks for those who have gone from the sight of earthly eyes. They, in thy nearer presence, still worship with us in the mystery of the one family in heaven and on earth… If it be thy holy will, tell them how much we love them, and how we miss them, and how we long for the day when we shall meet with them again…. Strengthen us to go on in loving service of all thy children. Thus shall we have communion with thee, and, in thee, with our beloved ones. Thus shall we come to know within ourselves that there is no death and that only a veil divides, thin as gossamer. (Newell, p. 93) His prayer was written in the conviction of the closeness of the saints, and his belief that death is not a departing from life but a returning to its Heart. Next week will be the conclusion of this series.