Sunday reflection

Make your paths known to me, Lord, teach me your ways. Lead me by your faithfulness and teach me, for you are God my saviour.

Our readings are from John 15: 9 – 17 and Acts 10: 44 - 48

Every minister has a story to tell about baptisms, weddings and funerals, some of them sad, some of them funny, and some of them so outrageous that if we told them we wouldn’t be believed, people accusing us of exaggerating or making them up. Tales of babies throwing up down the front of the minster’s gown, or bridegrooms fainting – brides tend to be far more resilient than their future husbands – it’s the men that cry and get nervous, the brides just shout and get angry. And funerals . . .well they provide the funniest stories at the worst of times, the kindnesses and the gratitude and the amazement of lives well lived through difficulties and prevailing despite challenge. They provide insights into lives of small communities and families coming together – the first wife turning up to the husbands funeral when wife number 2 didn’t even know she existed, and grown up children behaving so badly towards one another that their 90 year old auntie stands up in the middle of the service to berate and tell them, in language we are not accustomed to using in church, that if they don’t stop their silliness, she’ll prove that they’re not too big to go over her knee and be smacked . . or words to that effect. These and many more have happened to me, and just as it is often the men who faint at weddings, it is the women who usually do the fighting at funerals. A funeral isn’t a funeral until there’s been a fight in the car park.

Baptisms tend not to come with the same hilarity or shocking behaviour, although I’ve baptized a few weans with names I suspect the child will choose to change or adapt when they are of an age to do so. But of all the stories my colleagues and I have shared about hatches, matches and dispatches, baptisms come with the saddest of stories – thankfully not because something has happened to the child or their parents, although that does happen, but because we have all been told stories about our colleagues in the past and the present day, who have refused to baptise a child, and sent the family off to consider the mistakes they have made and their supposedly sinful ways. Those stories are horrible to hear. The adoptive parents of a newborn told that their child was born to a single mother, conceived in sin and therefore not worthy of baptism. The 15 year old mother bravely bringing her child to be blessed and told the same. The teenage couple, usually unmarried but supported by grannies and greatgrannies while trying to finish school, wanting to do the right thing by their baby.  The cohabiting couple asked to live apart for a year to prove their fidelity and dedication to one another and then to come back to talk about the possibility of blessing. These aren’t historical events, but recent statements made by some of my colleagues and received by people who are trying to do what they think is the best and most loving thing for their new child, and are surprised and shocked and hurt by the intransigence of the minister and therefore, as they see it,  of the church. What has balanced some of these reports is that those same people have found another church, and another minister and made the request for baptism again, this time finding a more charitable response and a more willing minister, but for every story told of a positive baptism, I suspect there will be many more where the parent or parents in question didn’t ask another minister and their relationship with the church has come to an abrupt and painful end.

Approaching a minister and asking to have a child baptized is an act of faith in itself – faith that all are welcome and understood, faith that all are loved and worthy, faith that this wee baby, or toddler or 8 year old is as precious in God’s eyes as he or she is in the eyes of those who love them, and that act of faith – in my humble opinion – is something precious that needs to be nurtured and encouraged and supported. But baptism has often been a bone of contention, an act of exclusion or inclusion, and we heard from our reading in Acts that that experience, sadly, has been around even since the days of the first disciples.

Peter’s words of witness have been so persuasive, so uplifting and inspiring that his listeners have been touched by the holy spirit – and not just his Jewish listeners, but gentile listeners too. This new movement of faith has no boundaries, it seems, no rigidity of race or habit or practice, no ‘them’ and ‘us’, no laws of food purity or cleanliness that will prevent individuals or groups from access to God, nor God access to them. All that was required was faith in the risen Jesus, and Peter commanded his listeners to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Needless to say, this act of openness and welcome got Peter into trouble with the beautifully named circumcision party – would you have voted for them had they had a candidate standing in Thursday’s parliamentary election? They were a faction within the Jewish faith rather than a political party, whose concern was to keep Judaism pure, and to eat with non Jews as Peter had also done, was a terrible act, associated with cleanliness or more specifically uncleanliness. But in a dream Peter had been shown that nothing created by God was unclean, and to gentiles as well as Jews God had offered baptism – who was I that I could withstand God, Peter asked. It echoes the words we heard in verse 47 – can anyone forbid water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?

There is a moment in verse 18, which wasn’t in our reading, where Luke writes that the circumcision party was silenced . . .and then they glorified God saying; then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance unto life. Its good to read about thoughtfulness and change rather than people digging their heels in more deeply.

Change brings change – a change of practice has brought a change in outlook, a change in habit has brought a change in possibility, and a positive response to a request for baptism has brought faith and growth and life. But while the circumcision party might have changed their minds and adopted a new understanding of faith, many more didn’t and Peter’s words caused fear and consternation and judgement. I suspect that part of the responses some have received from the Church of Scotland about baptism have come from the same emotions – a fear rather than a faith, control rather than trust, exclusion rather than inclusion.  Peter’s argument was that the Holy Spirit had fallen equally on all listeners, and it couldn’t be in the hands of one group to withhold water for baptism for all who had heard. He was celebrating that which binds us together rather than what makes us different, and celebrating faith where he found it, rather than seeking perfection.

Christian Aid have used Peter’s words to highlight their 2021 campaign about the importance of water and how it is shared and used around the world. Rose is a sixty year old grandmother whose day begins with a long walk to find water. She remembers when her home was surrounded by trees and vegetables, but climate change has meant times of drought – and water shortage – followed by downpours that ruin vegetation and destroy the dams the community have built to try to preserve what water they can. You can read about her story on the Christian Aid website. Which one of us would choose to withhold water from Rose and her grandchildren? None of us, I’m sure, and there are donate buttons on the Christian Aid website to help Rose and her community build dams that will withstand the unpredictable downpours.

But how many of us might be willing to change what we do and how we live in this country to help slow climate change and allow Rose and her community to live more sustainable and predictable lives? That’s a bit more difficult – a bit less direct. Or it is? We are being asked to change some of how we live, and what we consume and how we dispose of it, and how we get about, in order to look after the planet, and in looking after the planet, thinking about Rose and her family and community and many other communities like them.  The habits – or choices – of inclusion and exclusion we heard about in the stories of baptism both here in Scotland today and in Peter’s day in Caesarea are habits we can choose to perpetuate or to bring to an end, habits of power replaced by habits of healing, habits of judgement replaced by habits of hope, habits of indifference replaced with habits of love. Donating to Christian Aid is the easy bit – changing how we live in order to allow others to live at all is a more difficult, but vital part of our faith.

Today we pray for Rose and her community, and for ourselves and our world as we seek God’s strength to celebrate life and allow all to participate.

Let us pray:

Loving god, ever present, enveloping us in love,

Help us to recognize your presence in our midst –

In words of peace and forgiveness, new beginnings offered and received,

Hope brought, life flourishing, simple blessings in ordinary places.

In you we live and move and have our being,

Made in your image and called precious.

Help us we pray to use the gifts you have given us for the good of the world,

Sharing our talents, using our voices and hands in building trust and possibility,

Seeking the best in all we meet and being pleased when we discover not a stranger

Separated by colour or creed or outlook,

But a neighbour, a friend, a fellow child of yours.

We pray for those for whom the church has been a place of judgement rather than welcome,

For those whose faith has not been deemed fit, whose lives have contained fault.

Which one of us is perfect? Which one never doubts or makes mistakes?

And yet in your company we find ourselves heard and understood,

Encouraged and made whole. Grant us the grace to afford the same to all we meet.

We pray for our country, our leaders and politicians,

For those elected to office and decision making,

That equity and inclusion guide their decisions,

That community and justice guide their ways.

Help us to praise rather than pillory, and commend rather than condemn.

Bring peace to those who are at war –

Those who struggle with health and well being,

Families in dispute or at a distance,

Those in pain or fear,

The violent and the victim,

The hungry and homeless,

Those who grieve.

May your light be known and your love discovered,

That peace replaces conflict, and love hate.

In Christian Aid week we pray for the work of aid agencies and relief organizations,

And pray for Rose and her community.

Give us the resolve and the understanding to change how we live at all levels,

To love and value your planet, and one another.        

We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ and pray together in the words he taught us saying: Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors, and lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, forever. Amen.


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