Nourishing Faith

April 10, 2016
Bible Text: Revelatin 5:11-14 and John 21:1-19 | Preacher: Rev. Bruce W. Kemp Nourishing Faith – John 21:1-19 It is only in the Gospel of Luke that we sense the depth of anguish felt by the disciple Peter when the cock crowed twice and Peter came to realize that he had denied his Lord three times – just as Jesus had predicted. It is significant that we remember this detail from Luke’s account because I believe that in this encounter of Peter and Jesus in John’s Gospel, Peter is still feeling that anguish and grief. In that moment before the crucifixion of Jesus, Peter came to realize how weak he truly was and how unprepared he was to really follow Jesus. And as the events of that last day played themselves out, Peter was no doubt racked by great swings of emotion as he would have chastised himself for his weakness and yet struggled to imagine how he would have responded differently. True enough, he had remained with the others after the crucifixion and burial of Jesus. He had even run to the tomb to check out the story of the women who had told them that Jesus was raised from the dead. But there still seemed to be a nagging doubt within him as to his suitability to even consider carrying on the mission of Jesus. Even the gift of the Holy Spirit does not seem to impress upon him that he is still worthy of being one of God’s ambassadors for the coming kingdom and the return of God in Christ. But when Jesus appears to the disciples while they are fishing, it is Peter who does not wait for the boat to reach land but jumps out and wades in to the shore. After they have all shared a meal, Jesus asks Peter a question: “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” Peter cannot say whether his love for Jesus is any greater than the other disciples. His answer is simple: “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” A second time Jesus asks the question but this time he drops the end of the question and just asks if Peter loves him. The answer is the same: “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” When Jesus asks the question again, Peter declares not only that the Lord knows that he loves him but that he knows this because he knows everything. Through this trinity of questions, Jesus affirms the heart of Peter. Through this questioning as to whether Peter loves him, Jesus is encouraging Peter to acknowledge that despite everything that has happened, that his love for Jesus has never waned. But Jesus goes a step further. While the questions Jesus asks encourages Peter to realize that he has never stopped loving Jesus even though he denied ever knowing him, Jesus is affirming to Peter that he still has a place in Jesus’ plans. He wants Peter to feed the lambs, tend the sheep; feed the sheep. Peter is often spoken of as the one who is the Rock, the one upon whom Jesus founded the church; but while one branch of the church adopted Peter in the physical sense, there is far more to make of Peter as the Rock in a spiritual sense. Peter is the closest example that we have of a disciple of Jesus who revealed his full humanity. Peter is the one who deeply loves, who acts impetuously, who makes mistakes, who comes out with profound statements, who makes bold assertions. He encompasses all of our human emotions and many of our human reactions to the divine. He is anything but meek and mild and yet he can be that too. Here Peter is being asked by Jesus not to found an organization with its own rules and procedures. Jesus is asking him to be a shepherd to those who will put their faith in God and who will seek to follow the will of God for their lives. As John described Jesus as the Good Shepherd, so Jesus calls on Peter to be a shepherd like him. He asks Peter to take the role of Protector, Nurturer, Sustainer of the sheep and lambs. Peter is to be a teacher and a guide. He is to love the lambs and sheep as much as he loves Jesus. Certainly there will be a need for discipline but the discipline is to be exercised in love. It is clear from the Acts of the Apostles that Peter takes this responsibility seriously. We learn of his struggles when he is challenged to know how to accept people who were not born in the Jewish tradition of faith in God. He struggles to reconcile how God can reach out to people well beyond what he understood from history. The result is that he learns to grow in his understanding of God but also learns more of what it means to feed the lambs and tend the sheep. For so many people today, the church has become an institution that is full of rules and rituals. It is shaped by its traditions and trappings. But it has also become compartmentalized. Our emphasis on our buildings and our structures and our procedures has led us in many cases to take the heart of the faith and make it the window dressing. And that is precisely what Jesus was trying not to do when he spoke to Peter. He did not want Peter to focus on building an institution but building up people. He wanted Peter to focus his time and attention on giving to people what they needed to live their lives in such a way that we felt nourished and filled. This didn’t mean that Peter would always do or say what the people wanted to hear but it meant that he would be seeking to guide them in their lives so that their faith in God could be strengthened. He would encourage them to read the Word of God and learn the lessons Jesus taught that they might discover for themselves the true meaning of life. He would encourage them to seek for God in every moment of their lives. He would encourage them to be mindful of one another and conscious of their need to support one another. And when they were following a path that could potentially harm them, he was to intervene and guide them on the right path. I have said before that more than 90% of our lives are lived outside of the place where we gather as a community of faith. It was rare that we heard of Jesus in the temple or synagogue teaching the people. Life lessons were shared where people were and when they needed to hear them because nourishing faith is not a once a week thing. It is a daily thing, even an hourly thing. We will never be known for what we say or do inside these walls as a community of faith. We will be known for what we say and do outside of these walls. But if our faith is to be an active part of our daily living, we need to think of nourishing our faith every day. No one feeds a lamb one day a week; no one would think of seeing if the lamb is safe one day a week. Feeding and caring for sheep and lambs is a daily task. And so is our faith. Peter was called by Jesus not to found an organization but to nurture an organism. He was called by Jesus not to be a rule maker but a nurturer and a guide. In this time it is critical for us as communities of faith to recognize that the most important role we can have with each other is not that of gatekeeper but of shepherd. I encourage each one of you to nourish your faith in God and to be an encouragement to one another as you live your life seeking the will of God wherever you go. AMEN
Bible Text: Isaiah 50:4-9a and Philippians 2:5-11 | Preacher: Rev. Bruce W. Kemp May the mind of Christ my Saviour – Philippians 2:5-11 Perhaps it seems strange that we didn’t have the traditional reading for Palm Sunday. True, we need to be aware that not every one knows the story and so I will speak of it in my message to you but I wanted to explore a little bit of the mind of the person who comes to Jerusalem on this day. There is a wonderful feeling of celebration and hope surrounding the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. The crowds who have gathered to celebrate the coming feast of Passover are delighted to see the Teacher from Galilee. His presence is welcomed by shouts of praise. He is recognized as a blessed person sent from God who has brought healing and hope to so many. But the adulation of the crowd is also cause for concern among others. There is fear that the response of the people to Jesus may cause a physical and political rebellion that could spell disaster for the people of Israel. The fact that Jesus enters on the back of a colt or a donkey is a sign that a conquering hero has come to Jerusalem – for that is how conquering heroes enter a capital city and the shouts of praise and the spreading of palm branches and cloaks are signs of the people’s thankfulness for the victory the hero has attained. But note that Jesus does not come on a majestic steed emblazoned with jewelled saddle or bridle or bit. He comes on a young colt which is a sign that while he is a conquering hero, his victory will not be of this world or simply of a physical deliverance but rather that he is a humble hero – one whose victory is more concerned with the soul, the mind and the heart. His victory will not be a temporal one that tomorrow could change but rather an eternal victory that nothing will ever be able to reverse. Of course the path to that victory will bring much grief and pain and suffering but for today it is a joyous celebration. Now, were the people who welcomed Jesus that day aware of the symbolism of his actions? No doubt they were not. Even though it was clear that Jesus knew of the colt and that its use could be secured, there does not appear to be any recognition among the disciples of the significance of Jesus’ choice or of the subsequent adulation that his entry received. What is clear to us in this day is that Jesus knew what the symbolism of his choices were and further he knew what the coming week’s events were to be. And so it is that we will explore the mind of the one who chose to enter Jerusalem in such a triumphant yet humble manner. In the passage from Isaiah we read what has come to be known as one of the servant songs. These are prophecies which are believed to speak of Jesus and the path that he would take to secure the salvation of humankind. It is clear from the passage that the one described here will be a teacher, a healer, a Sustainer of people. It is also clear that he will not allow himself to be distracted or deterred from following the path ordained for him. No amount of physical pain will cause him to abandon his mission. He will stand before those who seek to judge and condemn him and prove that there is no good reason on earth to declare him guilty. In fact Pilate himself will come to the conclusion that there was no law broken by which he could condemn him. And while it may have appeared that he was shamed by what would be done in his trial and crucifixion, he saw no shame. He saw only a need to sacrifice himself for the sake of humanity itself and knew that in his sacrifice there would be vindication and hope. In the passage from Philippians, Paul encourages the people in the church to ever keep before them what was in the mind of Jesus Christ. The greatest temptation we can have as believers is to believe in our own greatness. We can be tempted to see ourselves as better than others – perhaps more righteous, more truthful, more honourable, more worthy of praise or thanks. If the one who was indeed God in the flesh and who could have chosen to save himself chose to follow the path the Father had placed before him and remain obedient even to the point of surrendering this present life, can we or should we do anything else or less? That is the challenge that Paul places before the people. If the one who could have made the world go his way chose to follow the path of the one who sent him into this world, what is to be our choice; what is to be our path? The path we are encouraged to take as followers of God in Jesus Christ is the path that Christ revealed to us in his ministry and life. And that path was revealed to us through his teaching and example which revealed to us what was in his mind. And that mind that was in Christ Jesus is to be the mind that is to guide us as we wind our way through this veil of flesh. We are to seek to do nothing from a selfish motive or out of a sense of our own self-importance. We need to be aware of our own needs and interests but also be willing to balance those needs and interests with the needs and interests of others. In other words, we need to consciously live in such a way as to be supportive of one another and allow each of us to feel fully engaged in the life of this community of faith and wherever life takes us. We are to be mindful of the emotional, physical, mental and spiritual state of one another and seek as much as possible to bring wholeness into all our relationships with one another in community and beyond. Paul appeals to the people to strive for unity in thought and action. He makes this appeal by directing them to think of what it means to each of them to be in relationship to God through Jesus Christ; he appeals to them by directing them to think of what it means to them to have received the Spirit of God into their lives. If their relationship to God in Christ, if the Spirit of God in their lives means anything to them, then their desire will be to seek to live with one another in such a way as to show a deep love for one another. May the mind of Christ my Saviour live in me from day to day Jesus’ love and power controlling all I do or say. Could we have faced what lay ahead of Jesus when he entered Jerusalem? No doubt we would have failed. But then we were never expected to take that path. The path we are asked to take is that of disciple and it is a path we are called to take with each other. We are called not to be Christ but to be like Christ. We are called not to have the mind of Christ but to let the mind of Christ influence our daily thoughts and actions so that we may ever remain mindful of the one whom we acknowledge as Lord and Saviour and so that we may ever remain mindful of our calling to be servants of God as we live with one another in our community of faith!

Healing the Breaches

February 21, 2016
Bible Text: Genesis 15: 1-12, 17-18 and Philippians 3:17-4:1 | Preacher: Rev. Bruce W. Kemp Healing the Breaches – Philippians 3:17-4:1 Last week was the first Sunday in Lent and a traditional time to reflect on the personal and yet communal struggle of our Lord as he dealt with the temptations of life as a creation of God. Each of the temptations plumbed the depths of our most basic desires as humans and each temptation was answered with a strength of mind and spirit that exceeded anything we could even imagine. The purpose of such testing was to ensure that the frailty of our humanity could be saved by the divine heart and spirit of God as found in Jesus Christ. In such a perfect union of God and human creation, God could draw us into a relationship that would not only enable us to better handle the temptations of this world but enable us to know the love and support of God for our lives both now and into eternity. As much as the plan of God was for us to share this world with him in perfect peace and harmony, his heart would not allow him to force us to accept that plan. And so as we read through the history of the people of God, we discover over and over how God seeks to share his vision for life and how each successive generation responds. Our Old Testament reading today speaks of one of the responses that Abraham – then known as Abram – made. He knew that he was old and that his wife had had no luck with having a child. And yet when God told him that he would have a son of his own and that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky, it is recorded that he believed the word of God and that it was counted to him as righteousness. As hard as it was for him to accept, he made a choice to believe. Of course he still had his doubts and his struggles; and though other responses of Abraham were not so wise and he didn’t always act in the most righteous of ways, he never lost faith in the God who had called him to leave his birthplace. The Apostle Paul was well aware of the doubts and struggles of those who had felt the call of God and had committed their lives to following the will and plan of God. He knew well enough how important it was for people to have not only a proper understanding of their relationship to God but also a proper attitude. He knew full well the challenges of living as a follower of Christ but he also knew full well the consequences of not living as a follower of Christ. Paul’s invitation to the people to imitate him is significant for he was asking the people to not just do as he said; but to do as he did. It is so easy to speak words of encouragement and then not actively encourage; to speak words of comfort but not actively comfort; to speak words of peace but not bring peace. The people needed to be reminded that they had come to faith in God through Jesus Christ not that they might build their kingdom but that they might build the kingdom of God; they were to remain keenly aware that they were to follow the path of God in Christ. And as a fellowship of believers each of them was to remember that the focus of their life was not their own glory or praise but the glory and praise of God. Conflicts in the church are nothing new. Differences of opinion and thought have ever been a part of faith for it is foolishness to believe that we will all see everything with one heart and one mind. There is a great temptation for people to try and mould any community of faith into a reflection of their own desires and hopes and not that of God. William Barclay in his Daily Study Guide on this passage reminds us that “our only safety against temptation [be it of body, mind or spirit] is to be in the Lord, always to remember him, always to walk with him, always to feel his presence around us and about us…..The Church and the individual Christian can only stand fast when they stand in Christ”. (Commentary on Philippians, p. 88) That wonderful catch phrase that gained such popularity WWJD – like any catch phrase – only holds ultimate and real meaning to those who not only ask the question but are prepared to hear and follow the answer. Certainly we are free to decide the path we desire to take through this life; we are free to love or to hate; we are free to be generous or selfish; we are free to enter into a relationship of mutual love and friendship with God and with each other or to see God as someone to call upon in time of need. But let us ever remember that to be called Christians will require of us not our own perfection but our desire to be led by the Spirit of the One who can ultimately bring us to perfection. As we approach the table of the Lord, let us remember that we come to remember the sacrifice he made for us and because we seek to deepen our relationship with God in every way. And let us ever be willing to share with all who come to this place not only the blessings of this sacrament but the blessing of living as a community of God’s people gathered to share our joys and sorrows, our hopes and our disappointments in communion with one another as we journey in faith.

Listen

February 7, 2016
Bible Text: Exodus 34:29-35; Luke 9:28-36 | Preacher: Rev. Bruce W. Kemp It is interesting to note that the record that appears in the Gospels of the transfiguration of Jesus is not the first time that such an event took place. Way back in the history of the people, a similar event occurred with Moses when the covenant between God and the people of Israel was being renewed. Previously Moses had gone to Mount Sinai where he received the tablets containing the Ten Commandments. Moses was 40 days and nights receiving laws and guidance from God for the people. On his return he noticed that the people had grown weary of waiting for him and had made an idol of gold. In anger, he broke the tablets. Now he was back on the mountain to meet with God again to receive anew the tablets. Once again he spent 40 days and nights on the mountain with nothing to eat or drink. This time when he returns it is recorded that his face shone. The brightness of it was a sign to the people that Moses had been in the presence of God Himself. Moses was glowing with the glory of God. How long this glow stayed with Moses is not clear but certainly it lasted quite a long time as evidenced by the Scripture which records that Moses veiled his face when speaking to the people but removed it when he entered the tent to speak with God. It is clear from this passage that the idea of transfiguration is not new. But it is also clear that this is not a normal thing as well. In fact, the only two times that anyone is seen as transfigured is in the time of Moses and then Jesus. The first is the leader who freed the people of Israel from their bondage in Egypt in a physical deliverance and the second is the leader who will free the people from their bondage in a spiritual deliverance. Both Moses and Jesus spend 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness in preparation for the task they will be expected to complete. For Moses it is to bring a renewed covenant to the people and to gain their acceptance of it and for Jesus it is to bring an everlasting covenant to the people and to gain their acceptance. Further to this the people as a whole spend 40 years being prepared to be the people who can inherit the land promised to them and live in the land according to the covenant they make with God. It is not without significance that the three figures who appear transfigured on the mountain are Moses, Elijah and Jesus. Moses and Elijah are leaders who overcame great obstacles and who renewed the covenantal relationship between the people and God - Moses in the great exodus and Elijah in confronting the false gods of the king’s wife. Both also have no known place where they are buried. Moses disappears into the hills and Elijah is swept up into the heavens. Jesus comes as the last in a line of great prophets and teachers. He will not only call the people to a renewal of the covenant in baptism but he will ensure that they will have an eternal place with God by the sacrifice of his life as atonement for the sin of the people. It is indeed a strange quirk of the church calendar that we are still in the midst of winter and just recovering from the events of Christmas and the Epiphany when we will be thrust headlong into a series of events that will culminate in the remembrance of the final days of Jesus upon this earth. One of the more difficult things for us to grasp as we live in this time and place is how to live the whole of the Christian message and yet at the same time relive in such a short period of time events that transpired over a period of more than 30 years with the majority of what we know of Jesus coming in just 3 years. We are set on a brief tumultuous ride between Christmas and Easter. We cover all the main events of his life and death and resurrection. We then settle until Pentecost when we celebrate the full gift of the Holy Spirit upon us and then we seem to go dormant until the whole thing begins again at Advent. The event recorded as the transfiguration is meant to be a pivotal point in the ministry and mission of Jesus. Up to this point Jesus has been speaking with the disciples about the fact that he has been sent from God to redeem the people and draw them back to a relationship with God but he has also told them that this will mean his suffering and death – death on a cross. The disciples would no doubt be deeply distressed at the thought of their teacher and friend – one who had great power to heal and to guide – being led to a cruel death. In the transfiguration the disciples not only see the glory of God shining on the face of Jesus, they also see with him two pivotal leaders of the faith. Their presence was significant because they represent turning points in the history of the people of the covenant and the message to the disciples would be that the one whom they were following was also one who would make a significant impact on the life and faith of the people. While they may not yet understand that Jesus is indeed God Himself in the flesh, they would certainly be able to understand that God was present. And then in the midst of Peter’s stumbling words, a cloud comes and overshadows them as in the days of Moses. And from the cloud comes the voice of God encouraging – even commanding – the disciples to listen to Jesus as he is the Son of God. The event of transfiguration is never repeated. The event is never marked by any visible outward sign but no doubt it left its mark on the hearts and minds of the disciples that day. The words that echo from this story are simple: God reveals to the disciples who Jesus really is. And while the disciples only have a glimpse of what is to come, they already have seen that there is a connection and a continuity between the old covenant established with God in the time of Moses, reaffirmed in the time of Elijah and the new covenant with God to be established in the time of Jesus. They have but one thing to do and that is to listen – listen to the voice of God in Jesus. Jesus knows the path that he must take and he knows the sacrifice that he must make. The disciples in that day could not change that path and we cannot change history. But just as they were encouraged, so we are encouraged today to listen – listen to Jesus!
Bible Text: Jeremiah 1:4-10 and Luke: 4:21-30 | Preacher: Rev. Bruce W. Kemp Not by Choice – not my Choice! – Jeremiah 1:4-10 Back in high school I was struggling with Physics. Nothing seemed to work for me and I was failing. I quipped to a friend that if I didn’t pass I was going to go into pastoral ministry. I passed physics but had come to the conclusion that my path in life was not to be in the sciences. Of course passing or not passing one course should not be the determining factor as to a choice of vocation in life. On reflection my decision to enter ministry seemed rash but somehow I couldn’t stop thinking about why that thought had come to me. In a separate incident I was sitting in the choir at my home church. No one was around me when suddenly I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned around to see who it was. There was no one there. My back was to a wall and I was the only one sitting in my row. Puzzled, I spoke to my minister about it. He believed that I had been touched by the hand of God. Whether or not this was a call to pastoral ministry had yet to be determined but it was another sign. A process of discernment began which continued through the rest of high school, college and into my university years. And even though I was pursuing studies designed to lead to eventual ordination to ministry within the Presbyterian Church, I kept praying and asking for confirmation from God as to the legitimacy of the call I felt. St. Augustine said that if you can do anything but pastoral ministry, do it. He said this not to discourage people from seeking to serve but rather to encourage them to be very sure that their motives for serving came from a place of genuine servant hood. As many of you know I left pastoral ministry for a period of 16 years. The decision to leave was not an easy one nor was the decision to return. I felt great trepidation and uncertainty about the process of returning to pastoral ministry. I have never seen what I do as anything but a calling. It is not a job, it is not a career. It is a vocation but one that I can only be effective in if I am prepared to listen for the leading of the Holy Spirit and let God direct my days. The prophet Jeremiah experienced the call of God as a young man. Yes, he was the son of a priest but his call to serve as a prophet of God was not something to which he aspired or even imagined. When you read about the life of this prophet and the suffering he endured, you find not a person who asked for any kind of mercy or understanding from people. He was not a person who sought to be revered or loved. He was a person who – with great compassion and empathy – spoke the words which God gave him. His task was to call the people to return to their God. And nothing swayed him from that task. Jeremiah was destined to take the path of a prophet for God from before the time he was born. God had his eye on Jeremiah and had determined that he would be the one to be God’s messenger to the people in this time. Despite all the protests of Jeremiah about his youth, God insists that he has been chosen. God then reassures the prophet that no matter what he will deliver him from any situation that he finds himself in – and Jeremiah will find himself in some very bad situations as he speaks to the people. But Jeremiah’s story is not unique. Over and over again in the Bible, we find the record of people like Jeremiah who have been called by God to be spiritual guides, prophets, and leaders of the people. In some respect, they are all not the kind of people that we would imagine as leaders but they share one thing in common. They are prepared to listen to the word of God and to serve God as faithfully as they can. And while they will have their personal struggles - and even show weakness and fear - in the end they will do what is asked of them and help the people to rebuild and strengthen their relationship with God. When Jesus came to the synagogue in Nazareth, it is recorded by Luke that he read a passage from the book of the prophet Isaiah in which the role of the prophet is proclaimed. The mission of Jesus was the same mission given to the prophets throughout history. It was to preach good news, to proclaim release, to open eyes and to free people from oppression. But Jesus knew that while these things would be welcomed by many, others would find these things disturbing. For it is one thing to speak of such things but to have them actually come to fulfilment is quite another. And while Jesus wanted nothing more than for the people to accept that the prophecy of Isaiah was to come to fruition, he knew that people had always found it easier to accept change when change happened somewhere else. To that end he mentions other prophets like Elijah and Elisha for whom the words of God for their generation struck a chord not with the people of Israel but people outside of the nation and yet people with a deep faith in God. Jesus knew the path that he had chosen to take would not be an easy one. He knew that miracles of healing of the body would not mean anything without the miracle of the healing of the spirit. But while many people were excited to be healed in their bodies, they were often not as excited about a spiritual healing. And so the prophet - whose message usually involved people making a change in spirit or heart – finds a cold reception in his or her own country. But a true prophet will never give up. The true prophet will hold fast to the message he or she has been entrusted with and will proclaim that message to the best of their ability no matter what. That kind of tenacity takes courage and strength. Those are the very qualities exhibited by the different prophets over the centuries and most excellently exhibited by God in Jesus Christ. Each one was chosen by God to be the messenger of their time but not one of them would have dared to choose that role for themselves! It was not their choice; it was God’s choice of them and they honoured that choice with the strength, wisdom and compassion that they received from him. AMEN
Bible Text: Isaiah 6:1-8 and John 3:1-17 | Preacher: Rev. Bruce W. Kemp Robbie Burns has grown to become a figure of legendary importance in Scottish culture. The way in which he captured life in his time was unique. He wrote of the struggles of the common people. He found themes in religion, politics and love. Many of his poems have been set to music and their messages have inspired love and hope for more than 200 years. The poet was born in a thatched cottage in Alloway, Ayrshire. His father William was a well-educated farmer who was responsible in large part for the education of his children. William was a free thinker who had his issues with the church. He even wrote his own relatively liberal catechism as an alternative to the recognized catechism of the day. Robbie became an avid reader with an interest in most subjects including the philosophy of Adam Smith and John Locke. You could say that Robbie Burns was destined to be a rebel. The emerging Reformation of the 15th century had taken hold in Scotland largely through the influence of John Knox but the transition away from the Roman Catholic and Episcopal churches to the new Reformed church was not without its trials and tribulations. In the mid 16th century a group of Presbyterians decided that the time had come to take a stand once and for all. They banded together in a movement that was known as the Covenanters. They made a pact with each other that they would accept no head of the church except God himself. The Reformation had freed people to have a relationship with God that did not depend on the intercession of a priest or religious leader and the covenanters were determined that they would never change. Thus were planted the seeds of free thinking in the church. Eventually this led to the great disruption of 1843 when the Free Church of Scotland came into being. It was in this period between the rise of the Covenanters and the great disruption of 1843 that William and his family lived. While not rejecting the church, William taught his sons to have a healthy skepticism when it came to matters of faith. As a result, it seems that Robbie – like his father – was not one to easily accept the authority of the elders of the local church. As a young man Burns studied local religious practices and read with interest liberal theological works of his day including that of the Unitarian thinker John Taylor. He was attracted to the preaching of two Ayrshire clergymen who held to the belief of Arius who argued that God the Father and God the Son were two separate entities. This was in direct opposition to the accepted belief in the church that God is a trinity but that all three entities are equal and one creation. His free-thinking father had given Burns a mind that sought to debate the issues of theology but his neighbours came to shun him as they found him to be what they called “Rab the Ranter”. Burns was ever the lover. However, his choice of partners never seemed to go well for him. He often got the cart before the horse and landed himself in hot water with the Church and the father of his first love – Jean Armour. His first thought was to escape and go to the West Indies to make a fresh start. To raise the funds needed, he published a collection of poems. He soon became a local celebrity. His fame spread and he abandoned his plan and moved to Edinburgh where he became known as the “ploughman poet”. Burns struggled with the conventional religious practice of his day. He believed deeply that every one needs to decide for themselves the truth about God and redemption. He struggled with the concept of original sin believing as the ancient Celts that the creation of God was good and therefore we are inherently good. He also felt that being scared into heaven by a fear of hell was not a good way to come to faith in God. Rather he believed that people were to be guided into living an honourable life. Eventually Burns was able to marry his longtime sweetheart but he only had 5 short years with her. The church and Jean’s family were now willing to grant their blessing. It was no doubt the sincere concern that Burns had always held for her welfare and the guilt that he expressed for his part in the trials of her life that made the difference. Burns was searching for the God of love and hope. He was searching for the God who would meet him where he was in life and encourage him to be all he could be. He was searching for a God with whom he could argue and discuss and through such times of conversation come to a place where his faith in that God made sense. The church of his day seemed to leave little room for such debate. The Calvinist influence was strong and Burns found himself in opposition to its theology, piety and social attitudes. Burns was a poet to be sure but he was a poet with a deep social conscience. He sincerely believed that all humans were to be treated with dignity and equality. He was concerned for the injustices that he saw in the society and remained outspoken until the end of his days. He took issue with both the clergy and the lay people in the church over the unwillingness of any of them to debate the matters of faith in such a way that people might come to understand for themselves what they believe. Orthodoxy ruled in the church and views that ran contrary to it were not tolerated. In one of his poems Burns even dared to wonder whether or not the Devil could be saved. The Calvinist interpretation of predestination was still quite strong in his time and his poem “Holy Willie’s Prayer” highlights the difficulty he found with the doctrine: O Thou, that in the heavens does dwell, Wha, as it pleases best Thysel’, Sends ane to heaven an’ ten to hell, A’ for Thy glory, And no for onie guid or ill They’ve done afore Thee! All in all, Burns was a simple farmer at heart but one whose free-thinking father had shaped him into a person who would never accept anything at face value. In his Epistle to the Rev. John McMath, he denounces the hypocrisy of the church: But twenty times I rather would be An atheist clean, Than under gospel colours hid be Just for a screen. As to the afterlife Burns was not sure whether he would merely moulder with the clods of earth of the valley or go to some reward for having acted an honest part among his fellow creatures. Burns believed that God had created us to enjoy life. Perhaps Burns enjoyed it too much but he did not see much joy or love in a faith that denied all the pleasures of life. He wrote: “We came into this world with a heart and disposition to do good for it, until by dashing a large mixture of base Alloy called Prudence alias Selfishness, the too precious Metal of the Soul is brought down to the blackguard Sterling of ordinary currency.” However we choose to remember Robbie Burns, it is clear that there was more to this person than perhaps we have come to believe. Though his life was short and troubled, though he found some success with his poetry and songs; perhaps the real story of Robbie Burns is a man who sought to have a relationship with his God – one in which he could feel a sense of joy and peace, one in which he knew in his heart that all who walked upon the earth could be embraced and made whole.

A Quiet Miracle

January 10, 2016
Bible Text: John 2:1-11 and 1 Corinthians 12:1-11 | Preacher: Rev. Bruce W. Kemp A Quiet Miracle – John 2:1-11 It has been said that Presbyterians are cold and boring people who deny themselves pleasures when it comes to life – at least life in the church. In days gone by, it was believed that solemnity was to be maintained at all costs. Everything done within the church had an air of seriousness not found in other parts of life. Frivolity or anything approaching unbridled joy or enthusiasm was frowned upon. And yet it is clear from the reading in John’s gospel today that even Jesus himself took part in festive celebrations and was not opposed to the serving of wine. Of course we could always contend that the wine served in those days was not as strong as what we have today but the Scripture clearly indicates that it was quite possible to get drunk on the wine being served. Now saying this is not to suggest that we should not show discretion or sensibility when it comes to frivolity or festive celebrations; nor do I mean to suggest that we approach them with reckless abandon; but perhaps we need to ponder how best we can honour God with our lives and still allow ourselves to be joyful and celebratory in our living. Well, I digress; but clearly Jesus was at the wedding of a friend of his mother’s and his new disciples were with him. At this time, Jesus had been quietly gathering followers. Among the new recruits were two of John the Baptist’s followers. One of them, Andrew, then went and brought his brother. The next to join were Philip and Nathanael. As far as we know these were the only ones who were with Jesus at Cana. It is also obvious from the record in the Gospel that Mary was well aware of the powers her son possessed even though he had not ever revealed them in public. Remember that Mary pondered everything that she had heard from God concerning this child and everything that the prophets and the magi had confirmed. If indeed her Son was truly the incarnation of God himself, then it was more than likely – even inevitable – that he could do anything he desired. Her desire was that he use the power he had to help out her friend who had obviously miscalculated either the number of guests that were expected or how much each one would be capable of consuming. Whatever the case, there was a crisis. Mary knew that Jesus was capable of solving the crisis. Her faith in him was great. She instructs the servants to do exactly as Jesus will tell them. He points to jars that are reserved for solely for the rites of purification. In other words, these jars were not just common vessels but vessels to be used for religious purposes. Jesus then tells the servants to fill each to the brim with water. He then proceeds to perform the miracle of turning water into wine – 180 gallons worth. When the servants take the new wine to the steward, he is amazed at the quality. He remarks to the bridegroom how unusual it is to reserve the best wine for the latter stage of the party when many of the guests would not appreciate what they were drinking. But what is so interesting about this story is not the water turning into wine so much as the fact that the servants never disclose to the steward how it came to be; and none of Jesus’ disciples speak of it again. But it makes an impression upon them. Somehow this miracle reveals to them the truth about Jesus. And I think that what makes the difference in terms of this being a true miracles is not the mere turning of the water into wine but that it is the best wine the steward has tasted all night. Jesus not only will do signs that will amaze people, he will do signs that will reveal his desire to not just give people what they need but give them the best he can possibly give. When he heals a blind man, it is not partial sight he gives but full sight. When he heals a crippled man, it is not partial restoration but full mobility. This miracle is meant to announce to the disciples that the one in whom they have put their faith and trust is indeed the Son of God, indeed God Himself in human form and that this person has come to bring full and lasting healing and life to all who will listen and follow. It is also meant to show the disciples that Jesus will act not out of showmanship but out of love and compassion. When it comes to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he is reminding the people of the very mind of Jesus when it comes to sharing the gifts of the Spirit. To receive spiritual gifts is the hope and desire of all Christians. And in fact all of us receive spiritual gifts. But Paul wants the people to be aware of the fact that not everyone will receive every gift and that the gifts are given to us not as a matter of personal pride but as a means of encouraging and building up the people of God. What the Spirit of God gives to one person will not necessarily be given to another. Further Paul is concerned that we might seek to rate the gifts of the Spirit in an attempt to claim that our gift is of more benefit to the community. As tempting as it is to want to show off our gifts and make sure that everyone is ever aware of our wisdom or powers, it is so important to remain mindful of the reason for the gift and the purpose and end to which the gift has been given. When I was a much younger man, I learned a valuable lesson from my friendship with three clergy of various backgrounds. We all came from different religious schools of thought and followed different forms of worship and government but we shared one thing in common – our faith in God as expressed through Jesus. We also firmly believed in the power of the Holy Spirit. I had struggled with the whole notion of the gifts of the Spirit especially when it came to speaking in tongues. It seemed that many people I had met who had that gift made a great show of it and told others that it was a true sign that the Spirit of God was in them. These three friends reminded me that speaking in tongues was just one sign of the presence of God’s Spirit and not even to be counted as the greatest. One of them then said this: “The gifts of the Spirit are not given to us so that we can let them jangle; they are given for the building up of the people of God.” When our gifts become a matter of pride and perhaps arrogance, we lose sight of the reason for the gift of the Holy Spirit from God and the gifts that come with the presence of the Spirit in our lives. How does all this relate to what I said at the beginning of this message? Well, for one thing, we are encouraged to be joyful in our living recognizing that God has given us gifts in order that we may live a full and blessed life. For another, the wedding in Cana and the miracle of the water into wine is a sign that the miracles of Jesus were ever about drawing people to God by opening up to them the best possible path for them in their lives. He did it not for honour or prestige but out of love and compassion. And so we in this time and place are to do what we do as a community of faith not for our honour or prestige but out of love and compassion for one another. It is for each of us to be committed to live this life to the fullest with our God and to encourage others to do the same!

Signs of the Times

December 20, 2015
Bible Text: HEBREWS 10:5-10 AND Luke 1:39-45 | Preacher: Rev. Bruce W. Kemp