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Sun, Oct 01, 2017

Can the Church survive?

The Kirk needs a strategy to defeat the narrative of atheism. The Gospel reading was St Matthew 13: 24-33
Series:July - Dec 2017
Duration:16 mins 2 secs
Sermon     Sunday 1 October, 2017
Lessons           Deuteronomy 26: 1 – 11                     Revelation 14: 14 – 18  St Matthew 13: 24 – 33
Prayer of Illumination
Let us pray.
Open our hearts and minds to the Transcendence within us, the Eternal dwelling in the soul’s darkness, sustaining us, nourishing us, in the joys, suffering and mediocrity of life.   Amen.
Jesus said, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’  
When we read the phrase ‘the kingdom of heaven’ we are to imagine a place filled with the Immortal, a land permeated with the Divine Presence, and a consciousness at one with the Eternal.   Like entering a beautiful garden, we are to see the meandering pathways and the beauty, the colours and tapestry of shapes, and we are to feel the fresh breeze on our face and smell the fragrances floating in the air.   The kingdom of heaven is a different world.   A master of metaphor, a storyteller extraordinaire, Jesus repeatedly invited His listeners to enter for themselves the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven.   After years of hearing it read, after a lifetime of familiarity, we may grow deaf to the spiritual depths which Jesus lays before us:  the kingdom of heaven is like this.  
The biblical scholar, the late Marcus Borg, said that the kingdom of God is the dream of God.   It is a vision of shalom, of total well-being.   Borg said shalom:
          includes freedom from negatives such as oppression, anxiety,
          and fear, as well as the presence of positives such as health,
          prosperity, and security.   Shalom….includes a social vision:
          the dream of a world in which such well-being belongs to
In contrast to the kingdoms of this world, the kingdom of heaven is the beauty and fragrance of shalom.   In The Lord’s Prayer, the prayer taught by Jesus to His disciples, He prayed, ‘Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.’   Without a doubt, the kingdom of heaven had social and political implications.   It is a vision, Jesus’ vision, in which everyone is valued and, in particular, the excluded are valued and included:  in His case, children, lepers, a haemorrhaging woman, a man, mentally ill, living among the tombs, prostitutes, a Canaanite woman, a Samaritan woman, a wealthy tax collector and a blind beggar.   Before we begin to reflect on the mustard seed, do we hear and feel what is meant by Jesus’ metaphor of choice:  the kingdom of heaven?
For Jesus, rabbi and mystic, the kingdom is more than something external, more, much more, than a material solution, more than an economic plan or road map for political peace.   As a teacher of the inner journey, of soul transformation, Jesus taught that freedom from the oppression and violence of the world was directly related to freedom from our own inner bonds of hatred, greed, insecurity and fear.   Unlike the dramatic story of the Exodus, of plagues, the parting of seas and the revelation at Sinai, in Jesus’ day, the people were not liberated:  Rome did not fall swiftly from power; persecution did not wane but intensified; and the Temple was razed to the ground.   Jesus, Jeshu, taught that mutual indwelling, communion with the Divine, was central to our inner journey and central to our transformation of the world around us.   In the Gospel of Luke, we hear Jesus say, ‘The kingdom of God is within you.’   God’s dream, that place of sacred beauty, of shalom, is within you.  
On Friday, I listened to the international mediator Ken Cloke talk about conflict in families, commerce, industry, between government departments and between nations.   In every case, without exception, Cloke said that conflicts centred on emotions:  fear, jealousy, insecurity, love, anger and hate.   An incredibly peace-full man, I asked him how he overcame these challenges, these demons, in his own life.   To an audience of lawyers and business people, he said, ‘I meditate every day.’  On a journey of ever deepening awareness, Cloke said, ‘I confront myself.’   Two thousand years ago, Jesus said that shalom in the world is directly related to shalom within.   At the Last Supper, Jesus took bread and wine.   He said, ‘This is my body; this is my blood.’   He said, ‘As the bread is in you, I am in you; as this wine becomes part of you, I am part of you.’   We are to let the Spirit of Jesus shape our soul, our decision-making, creating women and men who reflect God’s dream.   The Indian Jesuit, Painadath, spoke of letting Christ become our inner guru:  confronting ourselves, nurturing our own spiritual evolution.   When we hear the phrase the kingdom of heaven, do we hear what Jesus meant?
Once we have heard, we are to think of the kingdom as a mustard seed, the kingdom that is within us.   The mustard seed starts from the smallest, almost invisible, beginnings but ends up large, spreading everywhere.   There is intentional hyperbole:  the seed grows to the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree!   The point in this parable is that the mustard shrub was renowned for spreading everywhere.   Within us, on our inner journey, we are to let our faith, our sense of communion with the Presence, in all its smallness and fragility, grow, spread and touch every part of our life.   It is to take over everything:  shape, make and break us.   Shalom in the world begins with shalom in the human heart.  
Today as we reflect on creation, the Earth, climate change, justice for the poor, moral stewardship of the Earth’s resources and on our care and protection of animal life, what might that sense of shalom mean?   As people of the Spirit, a first step, surely, is to value the Earth, its resources and life, not as mere commodities but as holy:  ‘Divine presence is woven into the fabric of the universe.’   Rowan Williams has said that our relationship to the Earth is about ‘communion not consumption’.   As we make use of the Earth’s resources, we are not to confuse our wants with our needs.   Shalom in the world begins with shalom within.  
The French priest and palaeontologist, Teilhard de Chardin, said, ‘At the heart of matter is the heart of God…..We can only be saved by becoming one with the universe.’   De Chardin said that Christianity is coming to the end of one of its natural cycles:  it needs to be born again.   ‘We must let the very heart of the Earth beat within us.’   Our theology needs to be one which is creation-centred.  
This week The Times reported that more than half of the Scottish population has no religious affiliation.   Over the past seven years, the government study has found, among all the faiths and Christian denominations, that the greatest decline - by far – has been suffered by the Church of Scotland.   It may be of some comfort that today, in a world population of 6.9 billion people, 2.2 billion are Christian; Christianity is the largest religion in the world.   The religion founded on Jesus of Nazareth is now larger than it has ever been:  a mustard seed indeed!   But in the West generally and in Scotland, the Church has not only lost numbers; it has lost confidence.   Part of the reason that the Church has lost confidence is because it does not believe its own narrative.   Sure, some Christians do, but many have difficulty with traditional interpretations of Scripture, with miracles, with ethics seemingly rooted in the Bronze Age or Iron Age, and many find it difficult to compete with scientific materialism.  
For myself, the Church in Scotland, the Church of Scotland needs a strategy which creates a new narrative; Christianity reborn:  a narrative which directly challenges the assumptions of atheism and scientific materialism, a spiritually and scientifically credible narrative which can inspire confidence.   This narrative cannot remain of interest only to the few but must be at the fingertips of every Christian and on the lips of every minister.   People in Scotland are never going to believe in Christianity if the Church doesn’t believe in it.   Though it be the work of Christ, no matter how many homeless people we care for or bridges we bless, if we cannot undermine the narrative of atheism and face down scientific materialism, we will not recover.   Yet the truth is that we can face them and defeat them.   Atheism is not the rational position its followers would have us believe and scientific materialism is a denial of the complexity of what it means to be a human being.   
For myself, a Christianity reborn is one which nurtures shalom within, in which we nurture our own spiritual evolution; a Christianity which continues to work tirelessly to create shalom in the world, and one which is in communion with God’s creation, sensitive to the Earth beneath our feet.
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Mayfield Salisbury Church Memorials 1914-1918

  • Because God is both knowable and unknowable the tension of the symbol, the multilayers of the myth and the openness of the poetic are all vital to our desire to celebrate the Mystery to whom we relate and in whom we have our being.
    Mark Oakley

  • You must love him as he is: neither God, nor spirit, nor image; even more, the One without commingling, pure, luminous ...

    Meister Eckhart

  • The purpose of our life is God's glory. However lowly a life is, that is what makes it great.
    Oscar Romero

  • Faith may justify bigotry or fanaticism, as Church history tragically witnesses. It needs a safeguard. If it is not animated as it were by the greatest of the theological virtues (love), faith can become defective.
    Thomas Norris

  • Dry not, dry not, your tears of love eternal! Only to eyes that fail to weep does this world seem so dull and dead. Dry not, dry not, those long, sad tears of love.
    Johann von Goette

  • The post modern paradigm manifests itself as a unity which preserves diversity and diversity which strives after unity.
    David Bosch

  • There is only one assertion that requires no evidence. Children are a sacred trust...Unless we care properly for our children, we shall never build a better world.
    'A Good Childhood’ The Children’s Society

  • These are only hints and guesses, hints followed by guesses; and the rest is prayer.
    'The Dry Salvages' T.S.Eliot

  • According to strict truth, God is incomprehensible, and incapable of being measured.

  • Myth is a story about the way things never were, but always are.
    Thomas Mann

  • In the darkness ...The child of your love - and now become as the most hated one - the one You have thrown away as unwanted - unloved ..... The darkness is so dark .... I have no faith.
    Mother Teresa

  • I love the Bible. I owe my faith and my life to the Bible and its liberating message. It is in the Bible that I first met Jesus ... I too am included in God's embrace.
    Gene Robinson

  • It is this great absence that is like a presence, that compels me to address it without hope of a reply ....
    R.S. Thomas

  • Faith is not a proud self-consistent philosophy. It involves maintaining oneself between contradictions that can't be solved by analysis. It is therefore a living response to the grace of God as revealed in fragile lives.
    Mark Oakley

  • Any religion which does not say that God is hidden is not true.
    Blaise Pascal

  • The contemporary Church is losing aspects of its wide and generous memory and therefore condemning itself to become a 'swimming pool Church' - one that has all the noise coming from the shallow end.
    Mark Oakley

  • For all your doctrinal headaches take Paradox.
    Mark Oakley

  • The true vision and the true knowledge of what we seek consists precisely in not seeing, in an awareness that our goal transcends all knowledge and is everywhere cut off from us by the darkness of incomprehensibility.
    St Gregory of Nyssa

  • Death, death be hanged, the Lord has promised me that I shall live. This I believe!
    Martin Luther

  • We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life have not been put to rest.

  • Religion is the flight of the alone to the Alone.

  • Stupid clergymen appeal quite directly to a Bible passage directly understood ....
    Soren Kirkegaard

  • What is the point of the arts of reading and criticism as long as the ecclesiastical interpretation of the Bible, Protestant as well as Catholic, is cultivated as ever?
    Friedrich Nietzsche

  • A figure like Ecclesiast, rugged and luminous, chants in the dark a text that is the answer, although obscure.
    Wallace Stevens

  • Myth is the poetry of the soul.
    Sara Maitland

  • Our loss of the ability to think mythically, poetically, allegorically, creatively, theologically, and artfully is a greater threat to our religious experience than anything good scientists have to report ...
    Sara Maitland

  • In general, Zen attitude is that words and truth are incompatible, or at least that no words can capture truth.
    Douglas Hofstadter

  • 'God' is a one word poem
    Rowan Williams

  • What is today? Today is eternity.
    Meister Eckhart

  • Apprehend God in all things, for God is in all things.
    Meister Eckhart

  • The most powerful hunger we have, mostly suppressed and misdirected, is the hunger for God.
    Miroslav Volf

  • We frequently judge that things are as we wish them to be, for through personal feeling true perspective is easily lost.
    Thomas a Kempis

  • Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark.
    Rabindranath Tagore

  • God is the beyond in our midst.
    Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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