Archive for the ‘Sermons’ Category

Recently BBC Scotland broadcasted a programme A Church in Crises to mark the 450th Anniversary of the Reformation in Scotland. The broadcast focused mainly on the Church of Scotland, the national church in Scotland. While the program was one sided presenting the down side of the church it had given food for thought to many in the Church. This week I attended the presbytery meeting and the outgoing Moderator gave a sermon which could be taken as a partial response to the BBC program. I found the sermon very good and I asked Peter for a transcript and the permission to share it with the world. He was so kind and as a result below is the transcript of the sermon delivered by Peter Kershaw the outgoing Moderator of the Westlothian Presbytery on the 7th of September 2010 at Bathgate High Parish Church. Thanks Peter!

“It’s been a very busy two years as Moderator of West Lothian Presbytery. At the communion service which opened the new Presbytery year, after which I handed the moderatorship (if such a word exists) to Rev. Norman Macrae, I had the chance to offer a few reflections on the last year. Scott has very generously allowed me to publish them in the magazine. The Bible readings which are referred to later in the address are Paul’s Letter to the Romans, chapter 12: 9 – 18 and the Gospel according to Matthew, chapter 20: 1 – 16

There are two starting points for the reflections: one is the recent BBC television programme “A Church in Crisis?”. The other was Terry Pratchett’s latest book “I shall wear midnight”, where one of the characters reflects that “You need to know where you have come from to work out where you should be going.”

So where do we come from? This year we mark 450 years since the Scottish Parliament decided that the reformed church should be the national church of Scotland, commonly referred to as “450 years since the Reformation”. Of course nothing is ever that simple, and the work of reform had begun some considerable number of years earlier, and continued for many years after that date. I don’t think that John Knox would recognise the Church of Scotland if he saw it today. We no longer paint church interiors green for one thing — and please don’t tell Historic Scotland the the reformers had all churches painted green, or they will want to insist on it for all churches of that date! That is as it should be, for as a church we must continue to look for new ways to preach the gospel message, ways that will reach out beyond the walls of the churches to the whole of society.

With such a significant anniversary, you would expect the media to take some notice of the church. But the most prominent media event so far has been the programme on BBC Scotland, “A Church in Crisis” – its claims to accuracy were somewhat undermined by the illustration shown before the programme on the iPlayer, which was a picture of one of the Free Church buildings in Edinburgh. It claimed to find out “what the Reformation did for us” and “whether we would miss the Kirk” – I’m not sure who the “we” refers to. It was a very strange programme, and in the end somewhat depressing. It was very good on the “what did the Reformation do for Scotland” part: highlighting both the provision of state education and the provision of a nation wide framework of care for the less fortunate in society as two of the major gifts to Scotland from the reformed church.

But when it moved to the question of the place of the church in society today, all that there was ultimately was a hole. You were left with an impression of a young minister working hard in his parish, but with a “dwindling” congregation for a Sunday service in a community centre – and he had to set the chairs out himself – and over all the pictures of his parish work and the service you heard the usual commentary about the decline in numbers, a note about the dire financial straits that the church finds itself in, a comment about possible splits, and lots of pictures of closed churches, and a prediction of the end of the Kirk by 2030. And inevitably it came to the conclusion that the Kirk would have to change to survive. Not exactly a revolutionary conclusion.

But make no mistake about it, the Kirk would be missed at a national level if it suddenly disappeared. And one of the greatest threats to the Church of Scotland at the minute is the possibility of splits within it. There are many issues on which we disagree: liberty of opinion on matters which are not part of the fundamentals of faith is built into the DNA of the church – if it were not so we would not need the guidance of the Spirit to find new ways of living and preaching the good news – and we constantly need to do that as the needs of the society within which we live change constantly. But this is an agreement which only holds as long as people in their weakness, and in their humility, continue to stick to it. Paul would describe it as “Be not wise in your own conceits.” We must find a way of staying together to carry out the tasks Christ has entrusted to us: our witness to the nation is weakened if we cannot reconcile our different insights into the ways in which God is working in the world today, and recognise that what unites us in Christ is far far stronger and more important that anything that can divide us. We will shortly gather round the Communion table to celebrate our deep unity, not just with each other but also with all the faithful throughout the ages. Let us all remember this in all we do.

Despite this it has to be admitted that the message that is coming down from the central administration and leadership of the church is distinctly down beat if not depressing. This picture could have been replicated from parts of the General Assembly and these sessions were the ones that hit the newspapers and the television – they love bad news, it gives them something to comment on at great length! I wasn’t a commissioner, but I was at the General Assembly on the Saturday, when the report of the Ministries Council was debated. It was a debate which left all of us in no doubt that cuts were going to have to be made, and the plans that all Presbyteries had spent time and effort creating and implementing over the last 10 years were going to have to be completely re-written, as there was no longer enough money to fund them. And that of course means that plans which individual parishes have made will also need to be re-thought. It was a really down-beat debate, the Assembly Hall was hot and airless, it finished well after 5 pm, and the majority of the commissioners left wearily at the end of it – many were staying outside the centre of town and had arranged meals, and there were evening events starting at 6.30. All those who left were under no illusions that there were hard choices ahead of the Church, and that the near future promised lots of hard work and no certainty of a good outcome.

But it was followed by the report of the Social Care Council. It didn’t pull any punches, it didn’t pretend that things weren’t difficult. But it gave a picture of the church as the body of Christ in the world, people exercising their gifts for others, “contributing to the needs of God’s people” as Paul puts it – and doing it in Christ’s name. It was a most inspiring session, and those who had to leave early missed a treat. – and I suspect it’s a long time since a General Assembly debate was called a treat! The Church of Scotland is the largest provider of social care services in Scotland today. Caring for others in Christ’s name – it’s one of the things we are called to do, and it is one of the legacies that the Reformation has left to Scotland But what of the church in the parish? After all, that’s what most of us know as the church – we may realise that the church does other things as well, but the place where church happens for most of us is in the parish. Would the church be missed?

Well, the answer to that question is to ask what the church is actually doing – and if you look up and down the country you will find that the church is actually doing far more than those outside imagine. Even leaving worship out of the balance, churches up and down this Presbytery are vibrant, living places. Look at the way that young people are catered for – the group that is supposed to be untouched by Church. Again, leave out the work that is traditionally called “church”, i.e. the Sunday School, there’s hardly a Church in Presbytery that doesn’t support at least one youth group – in may cases a number of groups. They may be uniformed organisations, they may be youth club type groups, they may be groups of singers, they may be Scripture Union groups – but without the church none of them would exist. Add in the “caring groups” – after school clubs, holiday clubs, mother and toddler clubs – and then people say that the church wouldn’t be missed?? And then multiply that by the number of organisations which bring together people of all ages. That’s how you get a sense of the reach of the church through Scotland today, and find an answer to the question of whether Scotland would miss the Kirk.

This is why our two readings this evening have focused on working for the Kingdom. Paul points out that we all have different gifts, that we all need to use them with all out hearts in Christ’s service, in love for Him and the world. It’s one of the themes that he comes back to again and again: the overarching love of God for his world, and the way in which we as Christians need to reflect that love to the world. That was one of the things that so impressed the Greeks and Romans about the early church – “See how these Christians love each other” is a quotation from a writer around 200 years after Christ’s birth, and it was one of the reasons that he became a Christian. Things aren’t that different today: the “outside world” judges us not on what we say but on what we do: if we preach love to all but reject some, how can we seriously expect anyone to listen to us?

It’s not easy, Paul says we need “unflagging energy”. Live the Christian life according to the precepts he lays down, and we will be able to witness effectively to Scotland and the world. And we can do it – we know we can do it because we are doing it, person by person, each according to his or her gifts. The gospel passage, the Workers in the Vineyard, is a very profound one with many different shades of meaning: I think it is one of the deepest parables that Jesus gave us, and I really only want to look briefly at one aspect of it here – you could preach sermon after sermon on it, and still find new things to say about it. In some ways it is a very simple story, with a very simple message: God has chosen us to work for him, and has set each one of us tasks. But it also reminds us that God doesn’t have favourites: he loves all of us equally, no matter what the task he has given to each of us may be.

And that need to carry out the task God gives us brings me back to where we started. The reformers carried out the tasks that were set before them. They may still be remembered by name, like John Knox or Andrew Melville. Their names may have been forgotten on earth, though still remembered by God. But whether we know their names or not, we owe them a great debt. And we repay that debt by witnessing to Christ in the very changed society that we have today. That’s the real way to celebrate what they did for Scotland, the real way to celebrate the 450th anniversary of the Scottish Reformation – to carry on their work of bringing the Gospel to Scotland by prayer, preaching and practical ways of showing God’s love to the world”.


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I know this is not the season but I was so busy for the past few weeks so I thought I might post a script of a sermon I preached this year. This is part of a sermon Script preached on Thomas’ Sunday.

Reading John 20:19-31

Today is Thomas’ Sunday. Many churches reflect today on events that happen the week after Jesus’ resurrection. It is this week that he shows himself to Thomas.

My intention in this talk is to question the often too familiar understanding of Thomas in our Christian tradition. His role in the resurrection story is traditionally seen in a negative light, the disciple who is immature, weak and one who needed special signs to believe – don’t be a Thomas, you doubting Thomas. However I do not want to be his apologist, my intention is rather to ask questions, in other words to ‘doubt’ the traditional understanding of Thomas and to suggest that we needed a disciple who embodies his role – one that questions the, often so called, conventional way of seeing things, for both our churches and our personal faith journeys.

The passage in John, which actually is not mentioned by other gospel writers, tells us that on the day of resurrection Jesus appears to his disciples while they were behind closed doors in Jerusalem, more probably in hiding. Jesus comes miraculously among them and imparts them peace, which they needed so desperately, as they were still badly shaken by events that happen during that Easter. Jesus does not just give them peace but breaths on them power through the Holy Spirit, to help them overcome their fears and empower them to face all those challenges resulting from the responsibility Jesus also gives them: To go in his name to proclaim and assure people of the forgiveness of sins. Thomas missed this encounter with Jesus, as he was elsewhere at that time. He also missed the benefits of this encounter with Jesus. As a result a week later when he meets with the rest of the disciples in the usual meeting place, again locked, from inside I suppose, he is told what he missed. But he is not moved by their story and does not believe their rattle. Could you fault him?  Classical traditional readings often did.

If you were listening to me preaching on Thomas a number of years ago you would have heard me being very hard on him. And I could give some indications of my indignation with Thomas then:

  1. How could have he missed the encounter with the Lord on Easter Day? Where was he? Why did he miss the sweet fellowship and communion with the other disciples? Was he too busy with other things in life when he was supposed to focus on spiritual things and his own salvation? Was he too frightened for his life and cowardly left Jerusalem?
  2. Then, how could have he doubted the disciples, and the Lord’s resurrection? How could he show such little faith? Did he forget the words of Jesus? Did he not remember the prophecies of the Old Testament? This man was to be pitied, and those people who manifest same lack of faith today, are to be looked upon with shame and even disdain.

I wonder how many sermons being preached today might sound like me then?

But, well, today my message is different, I do not only have more time and understanding for Thomas, but I think Thomas is one of the giants of our Christian faith. I see him now as an inspiration rather than the prototype of a weak faith or a doubtful trouble maker.

Then I read the text now I see him as probably the person who was the closest to reality, a level headed disciple who probably understood better what was going on, than the other disciples. I am sure that I would not be wrong if I was to say that Thomas was more courageous and brave than the other disciples. He dared venture out, beyond the locked doors, after Jesus’ violent death. He was ready to face the reality of life, to engage with what the life was throwing at him. It is often easier to stay locked inside, closer to your support network rather than face the world. He was also grieving but he was dealing with his grief constructively.

But what happened to me that I have changed my view of Thomas so radically? How did I come to this? Early in my Christian life I felt the call to embark on a journey with God: a journey to discover Him, to understand Him more deeply, so that I would be able to better serve him and be acceptable to him. This faith pilgrimage took me through valleys and mountain picks, through high and lows. But this is not the point here, and I am not the subject of this sermon. However it is worth mentioning that this journey of discovering God and discovering things about myself, also changed me: some might probably say not all in good, (and I would have to agree), but I want to believe that God is still working on me.

-When I embarked on my quest I opened myself to challenges

– by journeying with Him to different geographical places, social locations and spiritual stations. It has often been very difficult: vulnerable

– there were Spiritual journeys, when dealing with different theological traditions, new forms of worship, believers from different backgrounds, different ways of reading the scripture texts – ufff! these were great challenges for a person coming from a very traditional conservative church background;

– there were also cultural challenges: often misunderstood by people, many times seen as acting strangely, sometimes marginalised because I stood out as a foreigner with a strange accent and peculiar habits.

I want to believe that consequently I came to understand Thomas better and now I see him from a different perspective, as a sincere person, one who dares to ask questions, who dares to stand up and ask clarifications, when necessary challenging the assumed belief and orthodoxy, and often questioning the discrepancy between belief and practice.

I believe that we can see Thomas’ spirit in many great people who throughout history have made a significant contribution to church and society. I see Martin Luther the reformer who dared doubt the orthodoxy of church’s doctrine and practice in his days. William Wilberforce, who with the help of many others, two centuries ago challenged the common practice of selling people and treating them as commodities, [since the Slave Trade was not just tolerated by the church and Christians in his time, but some churches and Christians were even part of it and benefited greatly from it (and now when it comes to seek apology they shy away)]. Then, Martin Luther King who questioned the racist attitudes of church and society in American; Bonhofer who challenged the church under the Reich and finally paid for it with his life. And I am also thinking of those courageous people today who are struggling to make sense of the resurrection in their personal life and in their social and political context.

We live in a very fast changing world where the pace of changes at all levels of life and society is frightening. As a result our personal faith and our common practising are continuously challenged not the least by our social norms which are continuously redefined.

We could be overcome by those challenges and lock the doors behind us in the cosiness of our fellowship and celebrate Jesus’ resurrection, being full of his peace and filled by the spirit. Did not the disciples do the same in the second Sunday after resurrection? As a result we could remain in our comfort zone clinging to our orthodoxy (or right doctrines) and probably dogmatism (of which we are so sure). But often when churches find themselves in this position they risk becoming defensive, or oppressive and even frustrating the spirit of the resurrected Christ who breaths and brings life anew. As a result these churches could become anachronistic. At the personal level the individual believer could become a split personality – not being able to integrate personal belief with life in a secular society.

Or we could open ourselves to challenges, questioning the status quo: by asking if our belief or theology of resurrection fits in with the ‘peace’ and the mandate Jesus bestowed upon us? Jesus sends his disciples as He was sent by the Father – what does that mean? Go and serve, love and be like me. How do we measure that? Jesus’ showed his disciples – his hands and side and invited Thomas to put his finger in his hand, and his hand into his side. It is the wounds of Jesus in the world today, it his suffering with those that are in need of salvation from sin (in whatever form this is manifested today) and desperate to be free from its consequences. That is the measure for our faith and commitment as the church and people of faith.

In conclusion I suggest that we need Thomases today: At the community/church level we need people as Thomas to ask uncomfortable questions. At the personal level I suggest faith that is not shaped by doubt is not faith at all, but certitude./certainty. Doubt is not and does not mean rejection of faith, but doubt is an essential part of our growth in faith and maturity. In the bible reading Jesus does not admonish Thomas for doubting, but he encourages him and the rest of the disciples to ‘go on believing’, to go on living a life of commitment.

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