SERMON FOR THE WEEK OF PRAYER FOR CHRISTIAN UNITY 2015
"THE WELL IS DEEP"
How many of you here this afternoon grew up with a well?
We had one in the house where I grew up.
It was a new-build in 1958 but retained its own well for many years until my father eventually filled it in.
Who Is the "woman at the well" today?
The gospel story of a Samaritan woman who is transformed
by an encounter with Jesus has been told and retold in novels, films, and more than a few sermons.
It is an iconic story of second chances,
of faith that can change the course of a person's life.
The "woman at the well" has been called a sinner, a prostitute and a troubled soul. By whatever name we call her, she represents the people we marginalize every day: the homeless, the poor, and anyone who chooses to live differently than us.
We find them in every walk of life, in every profession,
in every neighborhood, and yes, in every family.
For preachers, the focus of this story is often Jesus' declaration that he is the Messiah, the Saviour of the world. Yet, stopping there makes the story two-dimensional.
Instead of simply being a policy statement, this story is about an encounter with a human being, an encounter that led to the transformation of a life.
Jesus isn't supposed to talk to this woman.
She is not Jewish, she is a woman,
and she is living with a man who is not her husband.
By the standards of her day, she is a fallen woman and an outcast.
Instead, Jesus asks her for water and, amid her protests,
speaks calmly to her about her life.
The woman, so profoundly changed by being treated as a real person, forgets her water jar and enters the town
square declaring, "Come see a man who told me everything I ever did."
Jesus spoke to her on the basis of who she was, not what she did.
He looked past the brokenness of her life to see a human being with value.
So, for me, the real question is:
What is our response when we encounter her or him or them?
We have two choices. First, we can follow the dictates of our culture, the advice of parents and friends and even our church and simply objectify the person.
In other words, categorize them and explain their life choices as anomalies.
This allows us to feel better about our own life choices
and to absolve ourselves of responsibility individually and collectively.
Or we can take the harder path Jesus took, to look into her (or his) eyes and see the woman at the well as a human being made in the image of God as are all people.
We can recognize that all of us, if given the chance,
would do things differently in our lives.
Most people, especially those with loving family support,
usually find a respectable and an accepted place in society.
They go through their lives with only the usual bumps in the road that are endemic to being human.
Others struggle. For some, the temptation of addiction, emotional or physical, the crushing shame of mistakes is simply too much.
They find themselves caught in a vortex, whirling out of control spinning from one attempt at acceptance to another.
When we encounter the "woman at the well," what will we do?
We may not know everything about a person as Jesus does,
but this we do know: Everyone we encounter,
those in the safe and secure middle of society or those on the margins, are all the same.
We are people yearning for hope, yearning for peace of heart,
yearning for acceptance, wanting to love and be loved.
But back for a moment to this image of the well
and the title of this year’s Week of Prayer, “The Well is deep'.
Many years ago, I heard a preacher at the Christian Conference “Spring Harvest” speak about there being a Black Hole at the heart of God.
I didn’t like what I heard then and nothing has changed my mind in the intervening years but maybe if I see that black hole as a very deep well, then I can reclaim and redeem the image.
A negative concept but maybe not if that black hole is one of forgetfulness, where God deposits our sins and failings “and
remembers them no more”, as the psalmist puts it.
A negative concept but not if it speaks of the infinite depth of God’s power and of being a resource that can never run out or run dry.
A negative concept but not if it speaks of the depth
and inclusiveness of God where differences over theology or churchman-ship become ultimately irrelevant in the light of eternity.
I am reminded of the evangelical preacher who in his own way was trying to deride division between Christians but chose to put it like this;
“At the end of the day it doesn’t matter what label you wear,
Methodist, Anglican, Congregationalist, Pentecostal or whatever.
On the Day of Judgment, if you’re going up - the label will fall off
and if you’re going down - it will burn off!”
I don’t go along with his theology in its entirety but I do agree that ultimately in the grand scheme of things,
what matters most is not our loyalty to our own particular “brand” but to a common Saviour and Lord.
And in the depth of his love and grace there is room for all of us and all of our seemingly competing and contrasting theologies and ways of organising our church structures..
The well is deep – it is not shallow. Our faith, our compassion
and our relationships with one another must not be shallow either.
I’m reminded of a chorus we used to sing in Sunday School all those years
ago; I’m sure that some of your know it too;
“Wide, wide as the ocean, high as the heavens above,
deep, deep as the deepest sea is my Saviour`s love....”
I close with the words of the Rev Dr Henry Montgomery,
one-time minister of the First Presbyterian Church, Dunmurry South Belfast, the church from which I was sent as a student for the Christian Ministry;
“The Divine Being is not the God of a sect or a party,
but the Father and the Friend of all ;
the Lord Jesus is not the Redeemer of a few,
but "the Saviour of all men" who will accept of His love.
"Look unto me, all ye ends of the earth, and be saved;" "Many shall come from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south, and shall sit down in the kingdom with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob."
I do not say that all theological systems are equally conducive either to the temporal or eternal interests of mankind, for I am persuaded that they are not ;
but I do believe that even the most erroneous creed
will not shut out a good and sincere man from an humble mansion in the Father's house !
In these views I may be far wrong ;
but I am certain I feel more pleasure in believing that even my opponents and enemies may be saved than they have in believing that I shall be damned.”
And I end with Dr Montgomery`s prayer,
“May the Spirit of grace purify our faith,
enliven our hope, and enlarge our charity!"
SERMON FOR BACK TO CHURCH SUNDAY 2013
What do the following things have in common:
a stuffed puffer fish;
a case full of dentures;
a human skull;
hundreds of umbrellas;
and a pound coin.
All have been lost on the London underground!
These are just some of the thousands of items that pass through the Lost Property Office of Transport for London.
Every so often a newspaper or a website will have a few photos or a report from there, and some of the ridiculous things that have been left behind on the tube.
Most people here this morning know the story of Daniel Defoe`s famous book written in 1719, widely considered the first English novel. It's the tale of an English sailor marooned for 27 years on a deserted Caribbean island surviving by his wits; hunting wild boar on foot; rescuing his man, Friday, from a cannibals'feast; a symbol of our ability to survive the ultimate tests of nature; so adapted to his solitary environs he's loath to rejoin civilization.
Three centuries later this story still has a hold on us, evidenced by movie versions and a host of other spin-offs:
Swiss Family Robinson,
Cast Away, a handful of TV reality shows
and a book Life of Pi. We're fascinated with such stories —
The castaway, the marooned, the lost. Yet one of the major flaws in Defoe's book is that Crusoe is so unrealistically resilient during his plight.
Far more fascinating is the story of Alexander Selkirk whose real-life adventure was the basis of Defoe's novel.
Born in Scotland in 1676, Selkirk was a trouble-maker. At 19, he was brought up on charges after his brother`s trick of making him drink seawater resulted in a family fight.
Before his case was heard, Selkirk fled to sea, hoping to make his fortune by privateering — legalized piracy on the King’s enemies against Spanish vessels off the South American coast. But in 1704, the hot-headed Selkirk quarreled with his captain over their ship's seaworthiness, saying if he was determined to continue on without making repairs, then it could go to the bottom without him.
The captain replied, "Very well, you will be accommodated," and stranded Selkirk on the uninhabited island of Juan Fernandez, 400 miles west of Chile, with nothing but his sea-chest.
Selkirk remained there until 1709.
While Crusoe immediately began making the best of things, the real-life Selkirk was human in the face of his lostness. As his ship sailed away, he cried piteously to be taken back.
For months he lived in terror and dejection, regretting his rash actions. Selkirk did provide for himself. Yet he constantly dreamed of escape and kept a constant lookout for passing ships.
When Crusoe's finally rescued, Defoe's hero is reluctant to leave his "paradise." But Selkirk, seeing his rescuers, rushed to the beach, built a fire, and signaled madly. When brought aboard, he was so overjoyed that for a great while he was unable to speak sensibly. As one shipmate said of him, though Selkirk "diverted and provided for himself as well as he could" he "had much ado to bear up against melancholy and the terror of being left alone in such a desolate place.”
We like stories of people who become lost, I think, partly because we can identify.
Though perhaps never shipwrecked, we've all been lost: in the shop or supermarket separated from our mothers; hiking in the woods; driving through an unfamiliar city at night. Think of yourself as lost and what do you feel? Alone, disoriented, confused, fearful, terrified.
Face it. Being lost is one of the worst things that can happen to us.
This universal feeling was what prompted Jesus to tell the Parable of the Lost Sheep.
We can readily imagine what the lost sheep is feeling. Jesus' purpose is to prompt us to identify with the sheep - feeling our loneliness, our vulnerability, our fear — because he wants us to take heart, that God, like a Shepherd won`t rest until each lost sheep is found.
Interestingly, we never learn why the sheep became lost. Was it chased away by wolves?
Was it stolen? Did it just wander off? Was it the "black sheep," always running away; like Selkirk, the cause of its own lostness? The beauty is we don't know.
So we`re free to identify with whatever lostness we may be experiencing in our own lives. For though we may be lost, that doesn't mean we're "locationally challenged."
I've been thinking how most of us get lost. Perhaps you`ve seen it, if you`ve ever been out in the country, and noticed the sheep. And maybe we`re a bit like them. We're nibbling on grass in the field, moving from one tuft to the next. Before we know it we're munching up next to the fence.
Then, noticing a nice clump of green on the other side we stumble through a gap and — suddenly! — we're out on the road. We don't intend to get lost. We just nibble our way into lostness; a gradual process.
I'm reminded of Lost in Translation, an Oscar-winning film that explored this common way we can wake one morning – feeling lost.
It features a brief friendship between a middle-aged actor and a young college graduate who meet in a Japanese hotel.
They're jet-lagged and sleep-deprived, and suffer through confusion and hilarity due to the huge cultural and language differences they encounter in Tokyo.
But, all of this is really just to emphasize their underlying suffering — feeling lost.
Bob's a has-been movie star, reduced to doing whisky commercials, fully aware his movies were never much to brag about. Nor is his 25-year marriage.
Phone conversations with his wife focus on new carpet for his study and, conspicuously, never end with "I love you." When he tells her, "I'm completely lost," she says, "Bob, it's just carpet." Charlotte`s also in a dead-end relationship, tagging along with her photographer husband whose always rushing off without her, captivated by the celebrities he works with and who she finds shallow. "I don't know who I married” she says.
She listens to a self-help tape — Soul Search: Finding Your True Calling but she confesses, "I just don't know what I'm supposed to be."
It`s about navigating through a foreign environment and finding that the process mirrors your fear that you've been stranded in your own life, marooned on an unrecognizable shore, with no idea how to find your way back.
Therefore, the film stands out for being a humane depiction of the experience of lostness, with its alienation, aimlessness and loneliness.
Our lostness comes in many forms. You know your marriage or relationship is shipwrecked as you find yourself yelling at your spouse
or simply being silent.
You feel washed up on a desolate shore as you awaken from another night of drinking.
You lose your moorings, as serious illness changes everything for you and your family.
You're cast away, discarded when an employer decides that you are expendable. Marooned, when you are stuck in a career with all the trappings of a desert island.
You feel set adrift, and you cling to your raft, or to be more exact - the couch — unable to rise - maybe both emotionally and physically for your depression.
Being lost is a part of life.
The good news, this scripture tells us, is that, no matter what our lostness may be, we will be sought out by a gracious and loving God.
Various human philosophies and psychologies are debate and discuss mankind`s search for ultimate meaning.
Other world religions tell the story of mankind`s search for God.
Christianity alone tells the story of a God who searches for us.
You recall the story Jesus told, known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son? It has been suggested that a more fitting title might be, the Parable of the Forgiving Father. Despite the fact that the son lost his self-respect, his dignity and his identity as a beloved son – the Father never stopped loving him.
The Father never gave up hoping that the son would return and in one of the most moving passages in all the gospels we read,
“But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion: he ran and out his arms around him and kissed him.”
Where is the lostness in my life?
And, perhaps more important, what would being found mean to me and feel to me?
May our God give us courage to ask such questions and may the ministry, the worship and the fellowship of this church always be a means whereby all who experience a sense of lostness can find their way back to the God who is seeking and searching and waiting for them to come home.
SERMON FOR THE WEEK OF PRAYER FOR CHRISTIAN UNITY 2014
A member of my congregation said to me the other week,
“This flag controversy in Belfast – what’s it all about?”
To the best of my ability, although with a particularly strong Unionist if not Loyalist bias, I tried in a few minutes to explain the anger and frustration of sections of the majority Unionist community at what they see as yet another concession to Irish republicans and a symbolic weakening of the British culture in Northern Ireland.
I summed it up by saying,
“It’s all a matter of identity”
I`ve lost count of the number of times that I have, sometimes with a distinct lack of grace or tact, corrected people when they have referred to me as Irish and witnessed their surprise that I have reacted so strongly.
Identity is important, important enough in the history of Northern Ireland for soldiers, policemen and women and thousands of civilians to have lost their lives.
How you identify yourself and how you identify others is crucial to how you relate to your environment and to the wider society.
People identify themselves in terms of their race.
I don’t know how many of you have filled out an official form recently.
It might have been for a job or maybe a form from the local authority.
It will no doubt have contained a section where you have to state your ethnic identity,
having previously negotiated your way through an almost baffling variety of gender identities and sexual preferences.
(“White – British” by the way, for the ethnic bit!)
The issue of gay marriage has been much in the headlines of recent weeks.
How people react to the issue is sometimes, although not always, determined by their own sexual identity.
People sometimes define themselves in terms of their sexual orientation. That for them, is central to who they are.
People define their identity by their football allegiance.
In this part of the world you have Man City and Man United.
I lived in Liverpool for a number of years so I realise just how important that identity is.
And it’s not just the rivalry between Liverpool FC and Everton.
There’s the even deeper rivalry between Liverpool and Manchester United!
I’ll never forget visiting the home of one of my members at Gateacre Chapel in South Liverpool. Joan was a Scouser to be reckoned with!
I knew she took her football seriously but I didn’t realise just how seriously until I saw a poster on the wall in her kitchen.
It didn’t proclaim, as I would have expected,
“I love Liverpool FC”
Instead it read,
“I hate Manchester United!”
And they say that Ulster people are bigoted and extremist!
Some people identify themselves by their school.
That is a big thing back home, where Grammar schools still flourish and indeed compete.
In my home town of Lisburn it is significant to be able to identify yourself as a Wallace High School person or a Friends School person.
Others identify themselves by their university.
Others by their politics.
Entire families and communities vote along tribal lines.
Born Labour and die Labour!
And to a lesser extent in this neck of the woods,
Once a Conservative – always a Conservative!
Others define themselves by their religious persuasion,
although that can be equally tribal and unthinking.
Whether we are Christian, Muslim, Jewish or some other faith
is largely determined by where we are born, which culture and ethnic grouping we were born into.
But having identified ourselves as one of those faiths, we go on to further identify ourselves in more detailed terms.
Sunni/Shiite, Orthodox/Liberal and when we get into Christianity, the options are seemingly endless!
No wonder that non churchgoers are often confused and turned off.
I worked for a few years recently in secular employment,
with a group of lads who were what our American cousins call
“un-churched” and had little or no knowledge of Christianity. Some of them would ask me from time to time the $64,000 question – Why are there so many different churches?
One of the lads, Matt who at least had a respect for the clergy, would ask quite sincerely.
In fact he told me that if there weren’t so many competing cults and isms, he might just be tempted to take the whole thing more seriously.
I found that a challenging response and one worth thinking about in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
When people look at us on one of the rare occasions that they do see us doing something together, (like the Good Friday walk of Witness, for example)
what do they think, if anything?
Others should look at us and ask, “I wonder what holds them together?
What do they have in common?”
Which is when we point to Jesus Christ and say,
“In Him is the power to transcend the barriers of a fearful and fragmented world.”
Some years ago I discovered online a short address
given by the Rev Michael Kinnemon, General Secretary
of the National Council of Churches in the USA, a much bigger and even more diverse grouping than the Council of Churches for Britain and Ireland.
From time to time, I watch his sermon again for inspiration on the nature and necessity of ecumenism. (If you want the online link, ask me afterwards.)
The National Council of Churches in America defines itself thus,
“The NCC is a community of Christian communions” who,
because of their shared faith in Jesus Christ,
“covenant with one another” to manifest ever more fully the unity that is our gift (not our achievement, but our gift) in Christ, and, through the power of the Holy Spirit,
to engage in mission together to the glory of God."
I like that! I know that our own Churches Together in Walkden is looking at its constitution and maybe this mission statement is worth considering!
Kinnemon goes on to make a very powerful point about language in how we identify ourselves.
Let me share it with you as the message of this brief address this afternoon.
But first let me put it into context for you.
He was addressing a church convention in a city in Missouri called Independence and he made this point, which is not lost on me, as Congregationalists were originally called Independents!
“I am,” he told the convention “delighted to be with you here in beautiful Independence.
But surely there is no word that less belongs in the Christian vocabulary than “independence.”
Yes, we are set free in Christ; but, as Paul puts it in Galatians,
it is the freedom to be servants to one another.
Yes, we have each received spiritual gifts;
but, as he tells us in Ist Corinthians, they are all to be used for the common good.
Yes, we are diverse; but it is the diversity of the parts of an interdependent body
in which the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you.”
But he went on to make an even more powerful point
which I have adapted slightly for our gathering today
and want to share with you in closing;
“When I was a seminary professor," he said "I used to tell students that the goal of the ecumenical movement is to improve our grammar.
Baptist, to take that example, is a wonderful adjective but an idolatrous noun.
Our sisters and brothers down the street aren’t “Baptists,” they are “Baptist Christians.”
In the same way, your identity is not to be Methodists,
but to be Methodist Christians,
not Anglicans but Anglican Christians,
not Pentecostalists but Pentecostal Christians,
not even Congregationalists but Congregationalist Christians,
all part of one body that, thanks be to God, stretches around the world and across time.
Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, Protestant.
American, Haitian, Congolese, and Indian.
Through Christ we have been reconciled to God and one another.
This is the gospel! And it is very good news!”
SERMON - FIRST SUNDAY BACK AFTER LOCKDOWN - JULY 19TH 2020
No, I`m not undergoing some spiritual "dark night of the soul"!
That was a question posed by a member of a Facebook Group to which I belong,
with the somewhat unsubtle title "I Hate Ugly Churches"!
The man`s question was in response to a photograph
that another member had posted of a modern Roman Catholic Church.
Being a very traditional, somewhat old fashioned Roman Catholic when it comes to liturgy and church architecture,
(like many other members of the group,) he and others of a similar outlook were bemoaning the absence,
(in what I thought was a rather attractive sanctuary,)
of an altar rail and in particular, a clearly visible Tabernacle.
Now, for the uninitiated in Roman Catholic theology and liturgical practice, the Tabernacle is a smallish container in which the Reserved Sacrament, the consecrated "host" or bread for Communion is kept.
Because of the Roman Catholic belief that the host or Communion wafer, when consecrated by the priest, becomes the actual Body of Christ, the Tabernacle, where this is stored, is a thing of veneration and is the place where Jesus is physically, not just spiritually present.
In the photograph of the modern church,
the tabernacle was not centrally located and wasn`t even visible in the picture;
hence the question, "Where`s Jesus?"
I`m afraid I just couldn`t resist! I just had to respond with one of Congregationalism`s favourite texts,
"Where two or three are gathered together in my name,
there am I in the midst of them."
Needless to say, my comment (even though I was quoting Jesus) didn`t go down that well. But let me come back to that verse in a moment.
Today`s Old Testament lectionary reading from Genesis is that familiar story, much loved by Sunday School children of every generation, of Jacob`s dream at a place he was to name Bethel, meaning "House of God".
Now, was this Jacob a highly spiritual man deserving of wonderful divine revelations?
As you say in this part of the world, `Was `e `eck as like!`
He was on the run.
He was a liar and a deceiver.
He had wronged his brother.
He was in big trouble.
He is tired and needs to rest but can only find a stone for a pillow and yet manages to get off to sleep, no doubt aided by sheer exhaustion.
He needed reassurance and help nonetheless
and God granted him a vision of a ladder reaching up to heaven, with angels ascending and descending and God himself at the top of the ladder.
(By the way, the verse that says God was at the top of the ladder, can also be translated `God was right beside him`.
How wonderful that the God who is "up there"
is also "down here" with us.)
It was a profound spiritual experience.
But does it take place in a temple?
The Jewish Temple hadn`t been built then, so no!
Does it take place in the Tabernacle?
(not the kind of tabernacle I mentioned earlier; that would be a bit difficult!)
The Tabernacle was the Tent of Meeting, a portable place of worship.
But, no. It doesn`t happen there either.
It takes place in the most unlikely of settings,
a stony piece of ground where the only pillow is a rock.
And yet Jacob says of this spot,
"Surely the Lord was in this place and I did not know it.
...This is none other than the House of God and Gate of Heaven."
This morning, we are not meeting for worship in what we designate "The Sanctuary".
But cannot God meet with us here?
Some years ago, I am informed, when the original chapel was being repaired and repainted following a fire, the congregation worshipped in the Emlyn Hall.
Did not God meet with them there?
Today and for how long we do not yet know,
we meet in a hall used by the community but part of our church premises.
If you`ve never visited Pilots Group in the past
or any of the many community groups who use this hall week by week, then indeed the room will be unfamiliar to you.
Unlike the room we normally use for services
it was most likely not consecrated for worship
but does that prevent God from meeting with us?
Jacob had a profound experience of God when he was alone and frightened.
You too can know the power and the presence of God when alone and isolated.
We trust that as you have used the prayers and readings sent out weekly,
that you have been able to worship on your own.
But scripture reminds us that the fullest experience of worship and fellowship
comes when we are together.
We are blessed this morning to be able, once more,
after many months of being apart to come together,
out of our aloneness and isolation
and rejoice in the words of Jesus
"Where two or three are gathered together in my name,
there am I, in the midst of them."
I pray that the `two or three` may become more and more
in coming weeks and months.
But no matter how many or how few there are who gather,
I trust that we are able with Jacob to declare,
"This is none other than the house of God and the gate of heaven".
May it be so for you and me today!