Stocki Sermons

SURMISING PREACHER'S REPEATING THEIR STORIES

Steve IF

I would love to be able get up on a Sunday, perhaps after a week of feeling inspirationally dry week and say to the congregation, “Any favourites?” I have long envied the singer of songs. Not only can they ask for favourites but they have to repeat themselves. People want their favourites, every night. Springsteen has to play Born To Run every night, Elton John Rocket Man, Coldplay’s Yellow

As a preacher I have the feeling that if I repeat a story that I’ll be judged for it. Oh I’ve heard that one before. What was the point in hearing it again!

Now, I am not sure that I have ever preached the same sermon twice. Even back in the day when I was filling in as preacher for ministers who had three churches to look after, I am not sure anyone could have said that the second sermon bore any resemblance to the first even if it was from the same passage. By the third I would have been bored and was definitely onto something else even if I riffed off the first two.

Yet, still I have themes that I return to… and stories. When I was Chaplain, living in a residence community in Derryvolgie Hall, the students joked about a bingo card that they ticked off - 

Rich Mullins’ “Don’t be good, be God’s”

Douglas Coupland’s “If you are not opening every waking moment of your life radically rethinking the nature of the world… you’re eating your day”

Bono’s “Grace, name for a girl and a thought that can change the world”

The truth is that when I hear those that I minister to quoting my quotes I feel I have embedded something, got some truth across. You rarely pick things up on one listen.

Tomorrow I might end my sermon with a story I have used before in Fitzroy, maybe more than once in my thirteen years there. I will use it in a different sermon and therefore give it a different angle than I have given it before. 

For some of the congregation it will be the first time they have heard it. Others will have no memory of me using it. I hope that those who have heard it before will allow my story’s point to lower deeper into their souls.

For some I know you don’t mind and might be happy to hear it again. For others I feel that I need to explain myself. This blog is me giving myself licence to do so. What’s the point of a good story if you don’t use it often. Just like having a good song… any favourites?


STOCKMAN'S TALK AT THE CLONARD NOVENA - ON MARY!!!!

Stocki Novena 5

As a 17 year old I had a Damascus Road conversion. An atheist for about 10 years I realised that not only did God exist but that he loved me. Knowing God existed, creator and sustainer of the Universe, I wanted some of that. Yet, when I said to God, “take my life and do with it what you want,” I never thought I would be speaking at a Clonard Novena… on Mary!!!

Fr Gerry Reynolds has to take much of the blame.

I was brought up to be suspicious of Catholicism and Catholic priests. I saw Fr Gerry one day in Fitzroy, ten years before I became their minister, I walked across the room wondering if I should shake his hand or keep my spiritual distance. When I shook his hand his Christlikeness simply eroded that gap that I had set up.

I am deeply honoured that I and my family got to spend so much time with him.

Many times we debated our differences. He was deeply hurt that he couldn’t offer me communion But Janice and I are Presbyterians who don’t take communion as seriously. We were just so happy to receive his blessing.

About Novenas I used to tell him that I struggled with Mary as the mother of perpetual help. That isn’t how us Presbyterians see her described in the Bible. I told him that  in all these prayers to Mary I change the name to Jesus!

So I wonder if Fr Gerry was walking around heaven and noticed a Suggestions Box and suggested that Stockman would speak about Mary at a Novena! 

Now let me balance this out. I used to stand at Windsor Park, watching Northern Ireland, and hear sectarian songs that said horrible things about Mary.

Whatever way we look at Mary we need to see that she was the mother of Jesus. It was Luke not the Catholic Church that called her “Blessed among women…”

Let’s take a look. For 400 years God had been silent.. Then God interrupted time and space. 

Luke chapter 1 tells us that an angel appears, first to a man named Zechariah, and then to a teenage girl called Mary. 

The angel uses a phrase that repeats itself throughout the Gospels - “Do not be afraid!” Really! Easier said that done! Imagine that you are heading home on the Glider and a big white angel wings and all sits down beside you. “Do not be afraid?!?!?!”

For Mary the appearing of an angel is not the most frightening bit. The angel tells her that she is going to become pregnant by the Holy Spirit and give birth to the son of God; the Messiah! 

I’d be frightened. Mary takes it with a deep spiritual maturity for one so young and heads off to her cousin Elizabeth also miraculously with child. 

I have to say that when I ponder the words of an angel, a pregnant teenager and a supportive cousin, I find myself unsettled on the fault line between earth’s expectations and the strange and mysterious ways of heaven. 

Mary lived the rest of her life being misunderstood. The neighbourhood’s most loved girl became the biggest scandal and disappointment. Pregnancy outside marriage was not the respectable way but, in adding to a million mysteries, that is the way God chose for his son to be born - the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, the Saviour of the world.. 

Mary responded to God with a huge life changing “yes”. Maybe we should have that up over City hall at Christmas. “Mary says Yes!”

Mary gave herself back to God. She took the rumour and gossip and carried the defamation of her character; in the name of God and for our salvation. Elizabeth’s words jump out, transcending the human cost to Mary with her heavenly accolade; “Blessed are you among women.”

Our Gospel reading today touches on this but gives us the main thing we should learn from Mary whatever our theology of her. 

Jesus is dealing with demons and he is being accused of being demonic.

Out of the blue someone shouts:

27 As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.”

28 He replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.”

Mary is blessed because she heard God speak to her and obeyed. She believed. She trusted. She committed. She sacrificed. She gave back to God all that God had given her.

Mary’s obedience calls to us all. We can all be blessed as those who hear the word of God and obey it. Maybe after nine days of Novena. Of hearing God’s word and remembering Jesus death. Maybe on the way home on that Glider, without angels, we should ask how the Novenas have changed us.

Like he did Mary, is God asking us to do something transformational for him? It might cost. It might destroy our reputation. It might help in God’s work of salvation. Will we respond like this most remarkable teenage girl? 

 

Cursed for the life that’s befallen you

Mary, Blessed among women

Cursed for what neighbours are calling you

Mary, Blessed among women

Cursed that no one believes in you

Mary, Blessed among women

Cursed that the holy men grieve for you

Mary, Blessed among women.

 

Blessed for giving back to God

All that God had given you

Blessed that you no matter what

Did all that he asked you to

Blessed by ending up in doing

What you were born to do

Blessed for giving back to God

All that God had given you

 

Cursed by what your future serves

Mary, Blessed among women

Cursed for always living on nerves

Mary, Blessed among women

Cursed that you would suffer loss

Mary, Blessed among women

Cursed by the shadow of that cross

Mary, Blessed among women.

 

Blessed for giving back to God

All that God had given you

Blessed that you no matter what

Did all that he asked you to

Blessed by ending up doing

What you were born to do

Blessed for giving back to God

All that God had given you.


LET US DREAM - MY CLONARD SERMON; June 15, 2022

Stocki Cloanrd 22

(photo: Brian O'Neill)

 

How good is this? The Novena is back. Yet, as we celebrate being back together it would be good to stop and consider the world that we are meeting in. It is very different than 2019.

We’ve been through over two years of Coronavirus. It has taken its toll. I think it is like grief. Invisible. Yet exhausting. 

I used to take students to Cape Town to build houses with HFH. We dug three foundations in one afternoon. Now a Presbyterian minister isn’t used to that. My hands were so sore that I couldn’t get the lid off my bottle of water to help me take my pain killer tablet. And I understood. I had seen the work that had made me exhausted.

With Coronavirus and grief we don’t see what makes us weary but we are. Lockdown, isolation, loved ones sick and dying on their own and not able to visit. Masks and social distancing and all the regulations to try and to avoid this killer virus. Then vaccines and boosters and hope yet inconvenience and hospitals not being able to cope. Tiring.

Just as that seemed to be easing we have a war in Ukraine,  refugees pouring out across Europe, oil and food price hikes. 

In our Gospel reading sees Jesus is in the midst of the wearying madness going on around him. So he goes and finds a lonely place to pray and no doubt reflect and refresh. 

And so a nine day Novena might be just the ticket. As in our Ecclesiastes reading there is a time for everything - to be born and a time to die… a time to plant and a time to uproot… They Novena might be a time to reflect.

The theme for this Novena is the title of Pope Francis book Let Us Dream. It was written in Lockdown about what opportunities we had for deep spiritual change coming out of Lockdown.  

Pope Francis speaks of Lockdown as a “stoppage”. God didn’t create Coronavirus but he offers it to us a “stoppage”.  A time out!

I reviewed Let Us Dream over a year ago. I found it personally challenging and inspiring as well as prophetic in our Coronavirus world. Many things caught my attention but let me share my favourite paragraph.

Pope Francis wrote, “In every personal ‘covid’, so to speak, in every ‘stoppage’ what is revealed is what needs to change; our lack of internal freedom, the idols we have been serving, the ideologies we have tried to live by, the relationships we have neglected.”

Let me look at those 4 things that Pope Francis invites us to change.

1. OUR LACK OF INTERNAL FREDOM 

Are we caught by cultural or material dependencies that leave the soul captive and unable to follow Jesus radical call to grace, compassion and generosity…

2. THE IDOLS WE HAVE BEEN SERVING

Are we like the children of Israel in the wilderness. Is Moses lost? Where is God. Let’s create our own idol, the golden calf. Are we struggling to find God in Covid-Times. Instead of God are we trusting idols of materialism, of nationalism, of political correctness or theological purity? 

3. THE IDEOLOGIES WE HAVE TRIED TO LIVE BY

Capitalism… socialism… unionism… republicanism… any ideologies that have become out dated and are getting in the way of the Kingdom of peace and the common good

4. THE RELATIONSHIPS WE HAVE NEGLECTED

Who? Who have we neglected. The homeless? Refugees? How are any government send their refugees to Central east Africa! Is it our traditional enemies? Creation? How is our relationship with the environment doing? With God? Or even ourselves? 

Seven weeks ago Janice and I had the privilege along with Fr Martin Magill  and Fr Dominic McGratton and students from the Catholic Chapliancy at Queens of a private audience with Pope Francis. He is an impressive human being.

During an amazing time Pope Francis told us all that we should carry the gospels in our pockets. Every chance we get… over a coffee or at lunch we should take out the Gospels and read about Jesus. Doing this he said you will eventually wear Jesus. This is astoundingly simple BUT profound advice for the Jesus follower. Cloth yourselves in Jesus life.

Pope Francis believes that the Jesus of the Gospels can rip us free from fears, cultural attachments and relationship neglect. That Jesus can knock down the idols we build when we fear God is not answering. That Jesus can give us a social, political and spiritual manifesto that far out does the ideologies of this world. Check out the Sermon on the Mount!

Pope Francis dream is nothing short of a revolution.

He suggests that if we just tidy up the old normal we miss a powerful opportunity to create a new way to live based around people and creation. 

As we begin 9 days of Novena, let us ask how we can use this stoppage. Can we use it to change what needs to be changed.

Let me finish with a story from Belfast man CS Lewis.In the first of CS Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles, chronologically, Diggory and Polly find magic rings that transport them to Narnia this amazing other world through a stagnant pool. Polly is frightened by this strange other world. Diggory plays the tough boy and says to Polly, “There’s not much point in finding a magic ring that let’s you into other worlds, if you’re afraid to look at them when you’ve got there.”

As we come up soon to remember Jesus death. What point would there be in Jesus arriving as a baby in a manger, dying on a cross as “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”, bursting through the tomb in resurrection power and ascending to God’s right hand… what points would there be in all of that if we left the church the same weay that we arrived. 

Let us use the Novenas as a retreat. Let us change what needs changed. Let us immerse ourselves in the Gsopels so that we wear Jesus as we walk this broken world. Let us dream! 


JESUS TURNING UPSIDE DOWN OUR SOCIAL INTERACTIONS

Stocki McCrea shot

photo: Philip McCrea

 

September 19th 2021's lectionary was Mark 9:30-37 and I found me looking deeper at a mantra verse of mine, down through many years.

Jesus revolutionary idea that“Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” lives with me on a daily basis. It sums up the radical upside down world of the Kingdom and is also a description of Jesus himself - he who was first became last that we who were last could become joint heirs with God. Wow!

In this sermon I pan in closer and look at how such a Kingdom impacts our social decisions about who in the room, on the street, across the city and the world are the most important people. The world around us seems in Jesus view of a bogus idea of prestige. Let's look at how that should change our day.

Withs tories about singer Rich Mullins and an out of tune choir and author David Dark with a physically challenged young man I unpack what Jesus showed us when he brought children into the circle and embraced them. 

 


JOHN 3:16 - DON'T DOMESTICATE IT - BBC RADIO ULSTER SERMON SCRIPT

3-16 5

(this is the script of the sermon I preached on BBC Radio Ulster for their Morning Service on May 30th 2021)

 

My friend Rev Tracey Cowan Henry asked on social media recently what people’s thoughts were on 3:16. She didn’t even have to add John. 3:16. It is like a brand.

I was fascinated by the responses and a little surprised at my own. There was uncertainty if not a little confusion.

John 3 verse 16 is Bible gold. It is this wonderful verse that expresses it all. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” 

It is the good news. The best news. It is this unbelievable truth that God loves his world. That God loves people. That there is hope of eternity.

It might be the verse that I have used the most in my forty years sharing my faith. As I said, Bible gold.

Yet, when Tracey posted I was not at all elated. I sensed that this mighty verse had been tarnished. It is such a concise verse that in recent decades it has been so over used that we have somehow abused it. 

Seeing it at sports events, music events, every kind of event and on the side of buildings and buses. Bible gold has been reduced to a cheap cliche. Oh it is impossible to lose its truth but it might have lost its impact.

Perhaps the truth has been dulled too. It is a verse that has been domesticated and confined. The breadth and depth and height of this cosmic truth has got almost entirely personal. 

It is as if this great love and giving of God was simply for me to ask for forgiveness for a few bad words and sneaky cigarettes when I had my Damascus Road with God in May 1979. It is like I was handed a little formula to put in my pocket so that I could pray for help when the exam paper looked a bit tricky.

Oh, thank God all of that is included in this verses truth BUT 3:16 and the chapter as a whole is so much more than that. This is God loving the cosmos. For God so loved the world…

The words of 3:16 and the entire chapter are the record of a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. It is a late night chit chat. Yet Jesus is full of theological insight. Let us unpack some of them, starting with the Trinity.

Lectionaries all over the world use this as a pericope on Trinity Sunday.

 

TRINITY

You can see why. Vesre 16 has God the Father giving his son to save the world. Those who Nicodemus is told will be reborn as a result of this work of Jesus will be born of the Spirit and what a bunch of unpredictable mavericks they will become - v 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

As believers, and churches and the church world wide this needs to be a verse to ponder every day. The unpredictability of humans filled with the Spirit of God. People always refreshed, always throwing a curve ball to the states quo of the fallen wold. Yet I often ask is this how the world would define us?

 

THE DIFFERENT GOD

God three in one, weaving a dance, harmonies all different but one. This is a different God. And there is a whole lot more different about this one.

This God that Nicodemus hears about is so different than the other gods of the day. So different that it impossible to imagine a human coming up with such a mad radical thought.

The gods in the world of Jesus’ day, and that first century of the early Church, were not gods who loved. Roman gods needed loved and more than that appeased. They didn’t visit or sacrifice themselves. 

As a teacher Nicodemus should of course have been well aware of this God. There is that incident in the Temple in Isaiah 6 that gives us that amazing scene of a holy God high and exalted and a human being (Isaiah) feeling his unworthiness is the presence. When Isaiah thinks all is lost and he is ruined… God moves… God acts… the Holy God reaches to the unworthy human and saves.

God moves first towards those he has enmity with. He does it because he is love. He does is by his grace, not our works or religiosity or sacrifices.

We too should move towards anyone we are enmity with… first… and with the unmerited favour of grace. God didn’t wait until humanity repented. That is work, an appeasement. Ephesians 2: 8 & 9 reminds us For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. Repentance comes after God has moved towards us, lives being turned around and upside down by that Holy Spirit.

 

HUMANITY

If there is a theology of the Trinity and the Spirit and a different kind of God in this conversation, there is also a theology of humanity. John 3:16 itself tells us that humans are precious to God. This makes sense. God made us in His own image. After what we call the Fall, where we reached to be more than human and ended up less than human in that temptation to be like God, God never stopped loving humans.

It is a truth that we need to take to heart. They say that a nation’s humanity can be judged by how it cares for its most vulnerable. Those most vulnerable are those made in God’s image. Jesus told us to feed them, give them water, shelter, visit them. Anything less is disobedience but it is all driven by our theology of humanity

Could I add that I think any nation can be judged by how they treat and love their enemies. If we dehumanise the other whoever the other is in our particular eyes then we are out of sync with the heart of God.

This is why Jesus said in Luke 6: 27 & 28, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” Of course he did because the Trinity loves our enemies.

 

JESUS

Let us turn then to Jesus. In John 3, Jesus is again the God of the manger, the donkey, the towel and the cross. As described in those inspirational verses in Philippians 2:6-8:

 

Who, being in very nature[a] God,

    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;

 

rather, he made himself nothing

    by taking the very nature[b] of a servant,

    being made in human likeness.

 

And being found in appearance as a man,

    he humbled himself

    by becoming obedient to death—

        even death on a cross!

 

God so loved the world that he gave…” Here is a theology of Jesus humility and giving. As John put it earlier in his first chapter, “The Lamb Of God who takes away the sin of the world”. There is hope for life and eternity, through a loving, humble, giving God

 

THE WORLD

The cosmos - God loves it. This is not just about people. It is about the world. As Paul tells us in Romans 8 verse 22the very earth is groaning for new birth”. 

I love the great Dutch theologians Abraham Kuyper’s quotation - “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”

Jesus mission and the mission that the church continues is one of redemption for the world. Salt on earth. Light in the world. These verses are huge with universal and eternal implications.

Care for the environment comes into this too. Our commitment to recycle and hatred of plastics come back to this theology of how God loves his earth. 

A sign of our spirituality will be our hearts beating with the same heart of God. God loves what he created. That we would have a deep love for our Father’s art in the environment around us.

 

BACK TO MY FEARS

Back to my fears over the over use and abuse of 3:16.

I often fear that there is a danger that we could and maybe have domesticated, tamed, confined this massive far reaching theology. A danger we have made it to personal and lost that societal, world reach. 

I was impressed and at time distressed when I read the Presbyterian Church in Ireland publication about The Troubles called Discovering Grace. 

It is a book full of stories of the wide range of people impacted by the troubles. It was hard reading the accounts of first responders and ministers who were first on the scene at some our worst atrocities. It was also disconcerting to read that church services went on in the same streets as bombs had been going off on and it wasn’t even mentioned or prayed for in the Sunday worship. That is a shrunken Gospel. A very diluted 3:16.

Jesus conversation with Nicodemus is so full of truth and Jesus call is always the call to follow. The entire conversation but particularly 3:16 tell us of a huge ginormous and love lavished Gospel. It is wonderfully good news. Let us protect it. Let us give it its all. And marvel that in this cosmic encounter us humans get the hope of life and eternity. More than anything let us live the radical ways it calls us precious humans too. 


CHANGING MY THINKING ABOUT CRIMINALS

Jailkeys

Cape Town made me wide eyed. Oh my, the beauty! Then it opened my eyes. To the ugliness of crime. I had just brought a group of students in. They were robbed. They lost all sense of security. We had to move them fast. 

If I had gotten the hold of the wee urchins who stole clothes and electric devices I would have pulverised them myself before taking them to the police. I was angry. I wanted justice. Vengeance probably.

The next evening, we were at a Ronan Keating concert! I know, not my thing but the students needed a night out and my friend was playing bass guitar! 

Keating didn’t grab too much of my attention but then he sang a cover of Elvis Presley’s In The Ghetto. Elvis didn’t sing many profound potent political songs. In the Ghetto might have been the only one.

That song changed my whole perception of the crime against us. Originally called The Vicious Circle, In the Ghetto does a few things. It rehumanises the criminal. It asks questions about a society that causes the crime. It points the finger at all of us for being blind to this.

A few years later I was talking to my friend Sandi. Sandi was from the Cape Flats and he told me that as a teenager he made a choice to get himself onto an Operation Mobilisation ship because if he had stayed on the townships without education, jobs and hope,  he would have ended up on drugs and in crime, probably in prison.

We can have a lazy response to crime. They deserve all that they get. They get it too easy. Put them in and throw away the key.

I believe this to be wrong in several ways. The dehumanisation of the criminal. Our blindness to the part of our complicity in not doing anything about the social injustice that allows crime to flourish. We also need to remember that almost all our prisoners will one day be back on the streets and those on probation are already in our communities, so a mindset of restoration, rehabilitation and redemption is for the good of everyone.

Of course, for the follower of Jesus this should be obvious. If I was a sportsman in the dressing room before a game, I would listen to all of what the coach says. What they might say first and then the last thing they say before leaving us to go and play might be the most vital advice to remember.

Jesus started and ended his ministry talking about prisoners. Then on the Cross Jesus promised a man sentenced in the courts to be with him in Heaven. Restoration, rehabilitation and redemption are at the heart of Jesus’ Gospel. 

We as Jesus’ followers need to be about that too. Jesus had no desire to leave anyone wallowing in a prison cell. He came to offer everyone “life and life in all its fulness.” (John 10:10).  It therefore seems to me that the Church should be working in close relationship, as individuals and congregations, with the  Northern Ireland Prison Service and the Probation Board for Northern Ireland and others to transform the lives of all of those sentenced in our courts so  that they might eventually become contributors to a City of Grace that they should be benefiting from.  

No one is beyond the influence and redemption of Jesus. As I wrote in a poem awhile back... 

I came across Jesus

Hanging on a cross

Carved in sand on a Spanish beach

His sparkling eyes 

Cut through the night

Like no one was out of his reach.

 

Incredibly and very tragically, as I used this story of Sandi in my speech in Hydebank College and Women's Prison I had no idea that he had been taken seriously ill back in South Africa. By the time I used the story again in my Sunday sermon Sandi had died. He was too young. This goes out in his tribute and with prayers for his wife Zimbini and family. You made your contribution brother. Thank you!


STOCKMAN'S CHAPEL TALK IN TAYLOR UNIVERSITY, 11.11.19

Stockman in Taylor

In November 2019 I had the privilege of speaking at Chapel in Taylor University, Uplands, Indiana.

It is a University I had been to many times and love very much. 

This year I brought a few things together in my talk - BEING WITH OUR ENEMIES. Basing it in Luke 6 where Jesus asks us to love our enemies, I unpacked a 10 week series I had preached in Fitzroy on Sam Wells' idea of BEING WITH. What is it like to be with our enemies? I then used 4 Corners Festival as an example of how we are trying to be with.

In the end this is a very good way to hear a lot of what I preached at the end of 2019 crammed into 25 minutes... follow the link below...

WATCH MY CHAPEL TALK AT TAYLOR UNIVERSITY HERE

(with thanks to Sam Wells and Jim Wallis, from whose work I got my American illustration)

 


BEING WITH JESUS - THE SNOW PATROL COMMUNION

What If This - SP

In Fitzroy, just now, we are in a series called BEING WITH. We are seeing the greatest problem at the heart of our humanity as being isolation. The following was posted on social media by Fitzer, John Trinder. It seems that Winnie The Pooh was into our BEING WITH SERIES

 

"Today was a Difficult Day," said Pooh.

There was a pause.

"Do you want to talk about it?" asked Piglet.

"No," said Pooh after a bit. "No, I don't think I do."

"That's okay," said Piglet, and he came and sat beside his friend.

"What are you doing?" asked Pooh.

"Nothing, really," said Piglet. "Only, I know what Difficult Days are like. I quite often don't feel like talking about it on my Difficult Days either.

"But goodness," continued Piglet, "Difficult Days are so much easier when you know you've got someone there for you. And I'll always be here for you, Pooh."

And as Pooh sat there, working through in his head his Difficult Day, while the solid, reliable Piglet sat next to him quietly, swinging his little legs...he thought that his best friend had never been more right."

 

As well as Pooh, Snow Patrol seem in on BEING WITH too. In this morning’s communion we are going to listen to their song What If This Is All The Love You Ever Get. Gary Lightbody was not thinking Jesus when he wrote these words but listen to them as if Jesus was speaking from the Lord’s Table.  

 

“What if it hurts like hell

Then it'll hurt like hell

Come on over, come on over here

I'm in the ruins too

I know the wreckage so well

Come on over, come on over here”

 

Gary Lightbody says of this song:

 

"That song is less about love as it is about friendship. A lot of my friends in L.A. and back home in Northern Ireland were actually going through break-ups and divorces around the time that I wrote the song. And I wanted to let them know that I’d been there, you know? And to just come over and sit together. Don’t have to talk, don’t have to say anything. Just know that I’ve been there too. I’ve been in the ruins too. You don’t have to talk immediately. You do have to talk […] but you can both sit together and just know that you’re there for each other."

 

BEING WITH

And then Jesus

In Matthew 26 (26-28) we read:

 

“While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

 

One of my favourite writers James K A Smith writes in his book Embracing The Kingdom:

 

“The tangible display and performance of the gospel in the Lord's Supper is a deeply affective practice. Its sights and smells, its rhythms and movements, are the sort of thing that seep into our imaginations and become second nature.

Marshalling the mundane and universal human practice of eating, and thus also taking up the common connection between food and fellowship, the table of the Lord is a catalyst for reconciliation...In a broken, fragmented world, the church is called to be the first fruits of a new creation by embodying a reconciled community; and the way we begin to learn that is at the communion table.”

 

The Lord’s Table is not an add on to the worship service. It is not just a liturgical ritual. This is a table where Jesus, in radical grace, invites us to sit down with him. To BE WITH him. To find him in bread and wine. 

BEING WITH people people transmits their values and traits to you. BEING WITH a spouse for 25 years will change who you are. You will pick up many things, good and sadly bad! 

BEING WITH Jesus is the only way to find his radical life and different rhythms becoming a part of you. 

Sitting at his table and you can soak in the welcoming nature of Jesus, his Emmanuel - God with us -companionship and his forgiving spirit. Be alert also to the humility of his cross, his sacrificial character and that servant heart for the isolated, the alienated, the lost. Look closer and see vibrant imagination, a fresh vision of how it can be and the passion for reconciliation. BEING WITH JESUS, soaking up his presence, should transform us. 

We can know about Jesus. We can hear sermons, or go to lectures, listen to pod casts or read books. Knowledge about someone is not the same as BEING WITH and knowing in that sense. We need to saturate ourselves in the presence of Jesus. Worship helps but best of all is this little piece of bread and sip of wine. Here in this intimate space we can sit in the wreckage and ruins of a broken world and find companionship in Jesus. Now… “what if this is all the love you ever get?”


BEING WITH THE OTHER - JESUS MODEL, JESUS CALL & THE CHARACTER OF GOD

Stockman 4C Launch

Two 4 Corners Festival quotations have struck a long chord with me. The first was at The New Irish Arts performance in Clonard Monastery in 2015. Taking a mainly evangelical Protestant group  onto the Falls Road for the first time is very 4 Corners Festival. That the them was the First World War, even more so! In that performance was a line, “Hatred is compromised by friendship”.

Then in 2019 we had Catholic Priest Fr Greg Boyle spoke in Skainos on the Newtownards Road about radical kinship. The responder to Fr Greg was PSNI Temporary Assistant Chief Constable, Tim Mairs. This was again poignant as we were just days after the murder of Ian Ogle just a few streets away. In Tim’s address he said, “It is hard to demonise someone you know”. 

Recently, in my BEING WITH sermon series in Fitzroy I was looking at BEING WITH THE OTHER. Friendship. Knowing someone. It is all about relationship. BEING WITH.

Jesus was WITH the OTHER. Whether a Samaritan woman who was OTHER in gender, politics and religion. Zacchaeus who was OTHER in being seen as a traitor, collecting taxes for the oppressing Roman Empire. A Roman centurion who Jesus described in some of the most radical of all his sentences, “Never have I seen such faith in all of Israel”. Oh my!

Jesus modelled BEING WITH THE OTHER. He also called us to it. For those of us who live in conflict zones Luke 6: 27-36 is a tough Gospel passage. Here Jesus calls us to “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you”. This is heavy stuff. Jesus most radical call perhaps. 

Yet, Jesus goes on to explain to us that this is the very stuff that his followers are about. To love those who love you? Anyone can do that. He then repeats the loving and the doing good before he brings this call back to the character of God - “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

When I sued to take University Chaplaincy team sto South Africa we met with a man called Rev Dr Spiwo Xapile. Spiwo used to say how we always seem to have excuses about feeding the poor or looking after the marginalised. Oh how that is the case with BEING WITH THE OTHER. We have so many excuses. Political, theological even. Yet, in this sermon on the plain Jesus leaves us no excuses.

BEING WITH THE OTHER, compromising hatred with friendship and eradicating the demonising of people by getting to know them. It is the model Jesus leaves us, the call that Jesus gives us and it all comes from the character of God. Let us quit the excuses!


THE QUESTION MARK IN LIFE ON MARS? - PAT DUIGNAN'S FUNERAL SERMON

Life On Mars?

Not even Janice, my wife, knows this but Pat Duignan helped in a spiritual awakening for me. In my early 40s I discovered, at the school gates, that I was socially incompetent. 

Since I was 17 I had spent almost all of my time with Church people. I studied Theology at Queen’s, in Union College. I went to the Christian Union. I was then placed in a Church and worked in Churches for the next two decades. It was a bubble, an ivory tower.

When Caitlin and Jasmine went to school I discovered people who were not living in my bubble. I felt insecure. What do I talk about? Pat was the one I was most drawn to. He seemed to have as many rock t-shirts as I did. I so wanted to talk to him about music. What would he think of me, a minister? Well, I guess in the end it seems to have gone quite well. Here I am! Thank you Pat.

Over the last fifteen years, every time we saw each other we talked music. Bowie, Arcade Fire. Bowie. The Waterboys. Bowie. Dylan. Bowie. Van Morrison. Bowie. 

I will always see Pat when I hear David Bowie. Goodness he is wearing a Ziggy Stardust t-shirt in his coffin today and I am gutted I didn’t think of wearing one over my clerical shirt.

Thinking of today I was immediately down to Bowie’s song Lazarus, released just days before Bowie died:

 

“Look up here, I'm in heaven

I've got scars that can't be seen

I've got drama, can't be stolen

Everybody knows me now

Look up here, man, I'm in danger

I've got nothing left to lose

I'm so high it makes my brain whirl

Dropped my cell phone down below

Ain't that just like me?

 

This way or no way

You know, I'll be free

Just like that bluebird

Now ain't that just like me?

Oh I'll be free

Just like that bluebird

Oh I'll be free

Ain't that just like me?”

 

Just like Pat.

Now, over these past few days I have had the joy of listening to a lot of music. Self indulging in Bowie and Arcade Fire and calling it work. I even bought a couple of Bowie books. I wonder can I claim them against tax!

I was drawn to Changes - “Time may change me/But I can't trace time”.  There was Lazarus that I just mentioned and features in the Bible. There was (You Will) Set This World On Fire that I will mention a little later. Of course, there is also Ashes To Ashes which I might have to avoid at the committal later. Yu don’t need to hear me say at the Crematorium:

 

“Ashes To Ashes Funk to funky

We know Major Tom’s a junkie”

 

Sorry. I am aware that I need the right amount of Pat’s irreverence and a little of what as a reverend I need to have. This is all about balance!

In the end I decided to build this address round the song Life On Mars? There was some debate about which song Pat wanted is coffin carried out to. Alex (daughter) thought it might be Space Oddity but Gloria (wife) was sure it was Life On Mars? She remembers him mentioning the question mark. That question mark was the detail that convinced me.

Who knew about the question mark other than Pat… me… and a few other anoraks! My feeling was that the question mark was important to Pat.

In his first book on Bowie’s songs, Rebel Rebel, Chris O’Leary writes: “In a few lines Bowie captures a teenagers life, its slights, its cosmic sense of injustice, its losing war against tedium, its restlessness, its uneasy cynicism.”

You can see why it caught Pat’s teenage soul. Oh! You Pretty Things with its exclamation mark is also about questioning:

 

"Written in pain, written in awe

By a puzzled man who questioned what are here for"

 

Surely Pat’s songs were his way into the questions? What is this life all about? Is there life after? What about God? Many of us enjoyed following in the slipstream of Pat’s energy… the energy of the question mark.

BUT the question mark doesn’t end here. The family will have many questions. How did this happen? How did he fall? Why was there no medical way to save him? 

My prayer is that all those sharp question marks in the family’s hearts and souls and minds will be comforted by God. Jesus called the Holy Spirit a Comforter and I hope Jesus is proven right. 

Of course we all have question marks. I have. I am asking if Pat heard the Bible verses I read to him in hospital? Did he find the peace that I prayed that he would have? A peace beyond understanding. A peace that the world cannot give.

All of us are on what I call sacred ground in these days. We are in this space between earth and the beyond. It is ground to reflect on good times. We laugh a lot on this sacred ground. We weep a lot. We question a lot. My Bible readings today from Isaiah 40 and Luke 9 had lots of question marks. Who is God? Who can compare to God? Who is Jesus? Do we gain the world and lose our souls?

The morning after Bowie died I had to do Pause For Thought on BBC Radio 2. Here is what I said:  

 

“Bowie will be remembered way beyond his innovative songs… as an actor, an artist in its widest sense, a pusher of the boundaries of fashion, a blurrer of the lines of sexuality… 

Perhaps some think that as a Reverend being a Bowie fan is a guilty pleasure… BUT we shouldn’t forget his spirituality either.

I remember the shock when he dropped to his knees during the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert at Wembley Stadium and recited the Lord’s Prayer. 

He said afterwards, “In rock music, especially in the performance arena, there is no room for prayer, but I think that so many of the songs people write are prayers. A lot of my songs seem to be prayers for unity within myself. On a personal level, I have an undying belief in God’s existence. For me it is unquestionable.

On his 2013 record The Next Day Bowie took the words of St Catherine of Sienna and made them into a guitar strut of a Pause For Thought. The song (You Will) Set The World On Fire is taken from St Catherine’s words “Be who were you were meant to be and you will set the world on fire”.

In the lyrics of this song and the riffed up music he sets it to Bowie expressed perfectly Jesus intentions for all of us when he told his disciples he had come to give them life and life in all its fullness. 

As a rock star David Bowie lived a full life and if we lean and listen closely to the tributes and reminisces this week then we will hear him encourage us to do the same… like David Bowie “Be who were you were meant to be and you will set the world on fire…” … and as with Major Tom, “may God’s love be with you”

 

Here in Fitzroy we believe that God answers a few questions. We believe that God knows what we are made for. Not just as a human race but as individuals… 

We believe something in humanity broke down. Humans reached to be more… and became less. Jesus was born, died, resurrected and ascended to heal the brokenness. God came to earth to deal with the questions marks. 

So thank you Pat for leaving us to ponder Life On Mars and its question mark. Gloria, Alex and Christopher, may God comfort all your question marks. All of us, let us take these question marks about God and life, the the after life and who we were meant to be into the rest of our lives.