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Preview: The Reverend Garibaldi McFlurry

The Reverend Garibaldi McFlurry

Sermons, book reviews and randomness from the Reverend Garibaldi McFlurry.

Updated: 2017-11-17T12:34:10.535+00:00


Sermon: Luke 1: 1-25 A People Prepared (1) - Zechariah


I asked this question the other night at Bible study, and everyone was in shock. So let’s see how the evening congregation gets on with it... Are you all set for Christmas?You know it’s getting closer when the Sundays are in the countdown before Advent; when the Christmas stuff is in the shops; and the reminder comes that it’s just 42 days to Christmas. And perhaps your mind starts racing about all the things you have to do to be ready for Christmas. buying presents, ordering the turkey, cleaning the house, putting up the tree, and so much more, before you’re prepared.On these Sunday nights leading up to Christmas, though, we’re going to get ready in an entirely different way. Forget the list you might be making, and checking it twice. Instead, we’re going to prepare for Christmas by revisiting the preparations for the very first Christmas. It’s not so much the house prepared, but (as we read in verse 17) a people prepared for the Lord.Luke will tell us about the shepherds and the angels and the stable, but before we get there, he starts his story a bit further back. He tells us of the things that happened in order to get to the manger in Bethlehem, as he begins his good news story.We all know how stories begin. ‘Once upon a time, there were...’ Or even ‘A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away’. But that’s not how Luke begins. You see, this is no fairy tale. This isn’t another part of the Star Wars story. Luke is writing history, having carefully researched what has happened. He writes ‘Since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus.’ (3-4)Theophilus (friend of God) is a Christian, and Luke has carefully studied what happened, met the eyewitnesses, and has written it down for him, and for us, so that we can be certain about the life, teaching and events of Jesus.Have you ever watched a film and enjoyed it, only to discover as the credits roll that it’s based on a true story? This is the true story of what happened - you see it in the details Luke includes: that Herod is the king of Judea (5), that Zechariah is a priest, married to Elizabeth, and details of which section of the priesthood he’s in. Luke is telling us the true story, something we can rely on and trust.It’s the true story of a special child - as we can see from the special circumstances of the birth.As we’ve said, Zechariah is a priest, and we’re taken with him to Jerusalem, to the temple. You see, there were 24 sections of priests, each taking their turn in serving at the temple. Zechariah and the rest of the priests of Abijah went up to Jerusalem for their week. While there, one of them would be selected by lot to go inside the holy place to offer a sacrifice of incense on the altar. It’s reckoned that this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance - some men never got the opportunity.He knew what he needed to do - go in, light the incense offering, and then return outside to bless the people waiting outside. Simple. Except when he went inside, things weren’t as he expected. There was an angel inside, waiting to see him! I wonder what you think of when you hear of angels - fluffy wings and white robes? Zechariah is terrified - the sight is awesome - fear overwhelms him.The angel Gabriel tells Zechariah that he is going to become a dad, that him and Elizabeth are going to have a child. No pregnancy testers here, nor 12 week scans. Just a heavenly messenger straight from God announcing the forthcoming birth. What a special child this is going to be. But that’s not all.Just think of the parents of this child. Back in verse 7, we were told that ‘they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.’ It’s what Zechariah says himself in verse 18: ‘How can I be sure of this? I am an old man, and my wife is well on in years.’ All those years of childlessness, all that pain, and suddenly the news comes of this special birth of this special child.You might be reminded of a[...]

Sermon: Galatians 5: 1-15 Freedom to love


Today, we pause to remember - to remember those who gave their lives in the service of others, and the cause of freedom. Men from this village, and from every village, town and city, signed up to serve, and to stand against the forces of tyranny in Europe and around the world, to bring about the freedom we enjoy. We are free today, because of their dedication and sacrifice.And yet, as our Bible reading tells us today, there was an even greater sacrifice, which has brought about an even greater freedom. We’re told in Galatians 5:1 that ‘It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.’ As we’ve been working our way through this letter over the last few weeks, we’ve seen how the death of Jesus on the cross brings freedom. Christ has set us free from sin, and the law, as we trust in him.That freedom is available to you today - the freedom from guilt and shame; the freedom from the burden of our sins; Paul describes it as being released from prison, and coming to the end of school. Freedom! But what does our freedom look like? Can we really do whatever we like?When I was becoming a teenager, one of the songs that played nonstop on the radio said this: ‘I’m free to be whatever I, whatever I choose and I’ll sing the blues if I want... I’m free to say whatever I, whatever I like if it’s wrong or right it’s alright... Whatever you do, whatever you say, yeah I know it’s alright... Whatever you do, whatever you say, yeah I know it’s alright.’ (Oasis)So when Jesus sets us free, is it for us to be whatever, say whatever, do whatever we want? Well, imagine that you had a goldfish in a bowl in your living room. And, if it could think for long enough (because it has its short term memory), and it decided that it was imprisoned in the water in the bowl. Goldie might decide that freedom for him is to jump out of the bowl, to be free of the water. But if Goldie does manage to jump out of the water, and free himself, is he really free? Well, no. He can’t survive outside the bowl! He’s only free in the water.In our reading today, Paul shows us what our freedom in Christ really looks like. In verse 1, we are free to not be slaves again. Jesus died to free us from the demands of the Old Testament law. We simply couldn’t obey them by ourselves. That was what Paul taught the Galatians when they became Christians. But now other teachers, false teachers had arrived, and they said that to be a real Christian, you needed to become a Jew. You needed to obey the Old Testament laws, in every detail. And it was as if they were coming to make the Galatians slaves all over again.But what the false teachers were doing was stopping the Galatians from being free. And Paul uses a couple of pictures of what they were doing in verses 7-8. So, imagine it’s sports day, and you’re running in one of the races. You’re doing really well, you might win a medal, and then someone gets in your way, trips you up, and puts you out of the race. The Galatians had been running a good race, but someone had cut in on them and kept them from obeying the truth.Or, imagine you’re baking some bread. You’re going to make some flatbread, but you accidentally add in some yeast. The yeast will work through the whole batch of dough, it will affect everything. And the false teaching in these churches was affecting everyone. So much so that, if they followed that teaching, they would be alienated from Christ, fallen from grace. So in Christ, we are free to not be slaves.In verse 13, we are free, but not to sin. Paul says: ‘You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature.’We are free, but not to do whatever we want. You see, each of us has a sinful nature, we want to do what we want to do. We want to please ourselves and have other people serve us. We want to go our own way, rather than God’s way.But Jesus has freed us from our sinful nature. So we don’t have to follow it any more. We shouldn’t follow it any more.Rather, we are free, to serve one another in l[...]

BB Enrolment Sermon: Mark 1: 14-20 Attention! About Turn! Quick March!


Now I’ve got a question for the members of the BB. What is so great about BB?And what kinds of things do you do at BB? Anchor Boys? Junior Section? Company Section?I know that there are lots of things you do at BB. But the one I want to focus on this evening is drill. So who is the best boy at drill? Come on up.Now, you’re going to take on one of the officers at drill. Who are you going to take on? Who will win?Drill competition - Stand at ease; attention; turn about - about turn; move to the left, left turn; move to the right, right turn.Well done!When you’re doing drill in the BB, you need to know who you’re listening to. So imagine, when the BB Battalion parade comes around, and you’re marching down the road towards the church, when someone from the crowd shouts out something. In the middle of the parade, this voice suddenly shouts out ‘squad will retire, about turn!’ Would you do what the voice told you?Hopefully not! Instead, you listen out for the officer who is giving you commands. You don’t just listen to some randomer on the street. You listen to your commanding officer, and do what they say.Well tonight, we’re listening in to something our commanding officer is saying - not James, or John, but the Lord Jesus himself. He is our great Captain and Saviour, so we want to listen to him. And the things he says in our reading from Mark’s gospel are illustrated by some of the drill moves.So first up, if you’re standing at ease, what’s the first command? Attention! And what does that look like?So when you hear the command - attention - you know that you’re to be listening, ready to obey. Some important commands are coming, so you need to be ready for them. And we see that in verse 15. Jesus says: ‘The time has come. The kingdom of God is near.’Jesus appears on the scene here at the start of Mark’s gospel. And he says - pay attention!I’ve got a question for you - whose alarm goes off the earliest in the morning? You’ve maybe been off school for a week, and tomorrow is back to school, but who gets up the earliest? What time does your alarm go off?... Any of the adults beat that for an early alarm?The alarm clock in the morning is saying - pay attention! It’s time to get up, the time has come for you to get up for school. And Jesus appears on the scene saying, pay attention - the time has come, I have arrived, I’m here.Jesus is the king, and so the kingdom of God is near (or has arrived). For thousands of years, the people had been waiting for God’s kingdom to come. For the last 400 years, there had been no prophets. No word from God. Then Jesus appears - the king is here. So pay attention. Listen up! Get ready for action!The next drill movement is this - about turn. So what happens in an about turn? You change direction. If you’re facing this way, you face that way. Or if you’re marching, then you move from going one direction to going the opposite direction. You turn around. Jesus the king says that we need to turn around. That’s what the next word in verse 15 means: repent.Jesus says that we all need to repent, to change direction, to turn around. We’ve been going our own way, we’ve been doing things that are wrong, and we need to turn back to him.If I decided to go to Portadown some day, so I go out onto the main road, but instead I’m heading towards Armagh, is it ok if I keep going the wrong way? Well, no, not if I want to get to Portadown! I need to realise I’m going the wrong way. I need to admit my mistake, and turn around and go the right way.Jesus the king says, repent, about turn. Stop going away from God (by your sin), and instead turn back to God.The last drill movement is this - quick march. What happens when you hear that command? You go! And that’s what Jesus wants us to do - when we hear him telling us to pay attention; when he calls us to about turn; then he tells us to go in the right direction - ‘repent and believe the good news.’Believe the good news means to hear that Jesus is our Savio[...]

Sermon: Galatians 4: 8-31 Freedom from slavery


I wonder if you’ve heard of Stockholm Syndrome? It’s not where you start to shop in Ikea and develop a fondness for Abba music. The idea of Stockholm Syndrome was developed after a hostage situation in a bank in Stockholm, Sweden in 1973. Two men walked into the bank, and took four staff hostage. After six days, the four were released - but ended up siding with their captors. None of them would testify in court against their captors - indeed, they even raised money for their defence fund.That was the first time it had been analysed and identified, but now it’s a seemingly common problem in hostage or kidnapping situations. The person who was a slave is freed, but then decides to go back to the person who enslaved them.Or think of some who have been in prison, they’ve been released, but they just can’t cope with life on the outside, and so they reoffend, to be able to get back into prison. They can’t cope with freedom, they would rather be on the inside, prisoners again.Now perhaps those thoughts seem strange to you - the idea of Stockholm Syndrome, falling for your enslaver; or reoffending to re-enter the prison system. We like our freedom, we wonder why anyone wouldn’t want it. We would find it strange that someone, having been freed would want to become a slave again. And yet that’s exactly what Paul says the Galatian Christians were in danger of doing.And it could be that we are in the same danger. It seems as if our Galatians series has been significant for some of us; that we’ve been understanding the gospel of grace through Christ alone in a fresh way; that we’ve been enjoying the freedom of knowing that we are forgiven and welcomed into God’s family; that we have been saved, and we’re now sons of God. Now if that’s you, Paul has a warning - you’ve been freed, so don’t become a slave again!As we dive into the passage, we see that Paul is reminding them of how they were freed; as he warns them of the dangers of slavery. V8: ‘Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. But now that you know God - or rather are known by God - how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again?’ Do you see what he says there? You used to be slaves - slaves to the pagan way of thinking, slaves to the demons. They were freed from being slaves, by knowing God (and being known by him) - isn’t that what we pray in one of the morning collects? ‘To know you is eternal life, and to serve you is perfect freedom...’But now, they’re turning back to the weak and miserable principles they knew before - in a different form, perhaps, but with the same basic idea. Do all this, and you’ll succeed. Observe these rules, do these things, keep these feast days, and you’ll make it by your own efforts. They’re in danger of being enslaved all over again.In verse 12, Paul makes his appeal to them. He’s pleading with them. (This is the first imperative, the first command, the first thing they should do in the letter). ‘I plead with you, brothers, become like me, for I became like you.’ He reminds them of how he became like them - how he lived among them, because of an episode of ill health. Now we’re not told what it was, but there’s a hint it might have been eye trouble of some sort. He says there in v15 that they would have torn out their eyes and given them to him.Whatever the exact problem, this was the reason Paul stopped in Galatia and preached the gospel to them. And even though his illness was a trial to them, they welcomed him with a great welcome - as if he was an angel, or even as if he was Christ Jesus himself. Why the welcome? Because they heard the good news of the gospel, and they experienced the freedom Paul proclaimed - freedom in Christ. But now - ‘What has happened to all your joy?... Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?’They knew the joy of being freed, but the jo[...]

Sermon: 2 Timothy 3: 1-17 The God-Breathed Bible


I want to ask you a question this evening. What is it the church needs to do in these changing times? There's no doubt about it that things are changing very rapidly all around us. The past century was one of amazing technology and development. Things are vastly different to when our grandparents were children themselves. Communications, working patterns, education - all are changing. One of my parishioners in Fermanagh turned 99 earlier this year. He would sit and chat about the changes he had seen in his lifetime. One of the biggest for him was moving from ploughing with horses to getting his first tractor. He would still rather have the horses, though.But think how much has changed even in the last few years. On the lectern sits a wee box, recording my words. Later this week, this sermon will be available to whoever wants to listen in, anywhere in the world. And as for Facebook, video calling, and so much more - it’s incredible. As a news report recently put it, the smartphone in your pocket is more powerful than the NASA computers that put man on the moon.With all these changes going on, let alone the social changes with proposed new definitions of marriage and relationships, we’re left wondering - should the church be changing its message to fit in with the times?Some in the emerging/emergent church are saying precisely that. Because things have changed so much, the church needs to change the message it once proclaimed, so that we can fit in better with a new society, enlightened, multicultural, influenced by reason and not superstition.This evening, though, on Bible Sunday, we come to the apostle Paul writing to a younger church leader, Timothy. Paul knows that he is near the end of his life; he's now in prison again, the time is short, and soon he will be killed for being a Christian. Timothy seems to be shy, fearful, so Paul is writing his last letter to Timothy to encourage him. Here, in chapter 3, he tells Timothy to know two things - know the times, and know the message.Know the timesBoy Dylan sang in 1964 ‘The times, they are a-changing,’ and yet there's a sense in which things are still the same as ever. We have increased mobility, wealth, possessions, education, and yet things are as they ever were. Sin continues unabated. Paul says that this is the way things are going to be.Verse 1: ‘But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days.’ He then outlines a catalogue of sins, a litany of lawlessness. ‘People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God - having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with them.’It all sounds horrible, and yet, we realise that this is what our world is like. All these things are all around us. That’s because we’re in the last days. You see, sometimes we think that the last days are just the last couple of days before Jesus returns. But we are already in the last days. We have been since the resurrection of Jesus. The last days are every day between the first coming of Jesus and his second coming. So this is our world, these are our times.And alongside these worsening morals, we also have the threat of false teachers. We see them in verses 6-9. They worm their way into households, they gain control over weak-willed women, spreading their false teaching, leading people astray. Jannes and Jambres (8) aren’t named anywhere else in the Bible, but they’re thought to be the magicians of Egypt who opposed Moses, opposing the truth.So this is the world that Timothy was ministering in, and it’s still the world that we are living in. The last days.Do you remember the theme song that brought New Labour to power in 1997? The D:Ream song 'Things Can Only Get Better'. Twenty years on,[...]

Sermon: Galatians 3:15 - 4:7 Freedom in Christ


A couple of weeks ago, an Australian court decided that an unsent draft text message was indeed a valid will. A man had died, and his widow had expected to keep everything, but this unsent text message was found on the man’s phone, leaving everything to his brother and nephew. After a long court case, the judge declared the will to be valid, because the man’s intentions were clear. This human covenant had been duly established, so it couldn’t be set aside or added to.I’m not sure that the law is the same here in Northern Ireland, so don’t be depending on a text message to serve as your last will and testament. So why am I talking about wills and such like? Isn’t it a bit morbid to talk about? Well, no, it’s better to have such things in place. But the reason I’m talking about wills is because that’s what Paul turns to in this part of Galatians.Last week we saw that Christians receive the Holy Spirit - not by obeying the law (because we can’t do that), but by faith in Jesus. Jesus obeyed the law for us, and redeemed us on the cross, so that we receive the promise given to Abraham, the promise of the Holy Spirit. And now Paul is continuing with his line of reasoning. And, as Jimmy Cricket would say, come here, there’s more... We’ll see that we’re not just justified and left like that - there is even more for us than that.So Paul introduces the idea of a will in verse 15. He does that to help explain the relationship between the promise given to Abraham and the law given to Moses. Just as a will isn’t set aside or added to once it comes into effect on the person’s death, so in the same way, God’s promise to Abraham isn’t changed or added to. The promise stands throughout the Old Testament period, and isn’t changed even though the law was given 430 years later.As we saw last week - verse 18 - the inheritance doesn’t depend on the law; it depends on the promise given to Abraham - by God’s grace. But straight away, Paul knows there’ll be some objections. He voices it in verse 19. ‘What, then, was the purpose of the law?’ Why did God bother to give the Old Testament law? What’s the point of it?He goes on to answer it in verse 19: ‘It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come.’ The law was given because of sin - to highlight and flag up our sin. We can’t be saved by the law, but the law shows that we need a Saviour.We see that in verses 21-22. ‘Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not! For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law. But the Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe.’The law shows us that we’re prisoners of sin. The law declares what sin is, and so when we do those very things, then it declares that we are sinners. The law only condemns - but it shows us that we need the Saviour, the Saviour we put our faith in.In verses 23-25, Paul gives us two pictures of what the law is. In verse 23, the law is a jailer, a prison guard. Perhaps you’ve been on a tour of a prison - Crumlin Road or at the Down County Museum in Downpatrick. You’re put in the cell, and the door is locked. That’s what the law did - it kept us as prisoners, ‘locked up until faith should be revealed.’ There was no other way out; only by believing in Jesus, trusting that his death has paid the sentence, and so we can go free.In verse 24, Paul says, ‘So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith.’ That phrase ‘put in charge’ is the idea of a tutor, nanny or governess, who is in charge of the children to make sure they go to school and do their lessons. Harsh, perhaps, but only has power until the child grows up. Now, paul says, ‘Now that fait[...]

Sermon: Galatians 3: 1-14 Freedom from the Law


In 1936, Dale Carnegie published one of the first self-help books. It contained a series of principles on how to handle and deal with people, how to get on in business and in the home. The title? ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People.’ The promise is that if you follow these steps, then you’ll succeed by making friends, and influencing people to come round to your way of thinking.The very first principle is simply this: ‘Don’t criticise, condemn, or complain.’ That’s the first step to winning friends and influencing people. Well, as we open up to Galatians 3, it’s quite clear that Paul hadn’t read How to Win Friends and influence People. Don’t criticise, condemn or complain? ‘You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?’I’m fairly sure Carnegie wouldn’t advise calling the people you’re trying to influence - fools! But this is to show us how desperate Paul is to bring them back from the brink, to shock them out of their foolishness. If you’re jumping into Galatians for the first time, or if you’re fairly new around here, don’t worry, we’re not in the habit of calling people fools as directly as Paul does here. The reason he does it is because he’s so concerned for the Galatians. Paul had originally planted the church there, but now they were listening to false teachers, who were urging them to observe the law and be circumcised in order to be truly accepted by God.Paul has already showed them that listening to the false teachers would be dangerous and wrong, now he says that they’re being foolish. They haven’t thought things through. So he’s going to get them to think about their experience of becoming a Christian, and their experience of being a Christian. And so he sets a question before them in verse 2. Here’s what he wants to know: ‘Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard?’In asking the question, he’s saying that they do have the Holy Spirit living and working in them. If you’ve been listening carefully, you’ll have noticed that this is the first time the Spirit is mentioned in Galatians. But it won’t be the last time we hear of the Spirit. In fact, the presence of the Spirit in the Christian is a big deal for Paul, and should be a big deal for us as well. The third person of the Trinity, living and dwelling in us, giving us power to live for God and become more like the Lord Jesus. Over the next few weeks we’ll see more of the Spirit’s work in our lives, but for now, the question is, how did they receive the Spirit? Was it by observing the law, or by believing what they heard? What do you think? (It’s like Who Wants to be a Millionaire - a 50:50 chance of getting it right, or 100% chance if you know what Paul has been saying).In verse 3, he asks them again are they foolish? After they began with the Spirit, were they now trying to finish off by their own efforts? As if the Holy Spirit is like jump leads when your car battery is flat - just get me going and I’ll be ok by myself after that. They had even suffered because they were Christians, because the Spirit was in them - was that all for nothing now that they were turning their back on the Spirit and trying to do it themselves?Again Paul asks in verse 5: ‘Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?’To help them answer the question, he points them to the Old Testament, and to Abraham. ‘Consider Abraham: He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’ Abraham (or Abram) was minding his own business, when God called him to follow him. God made promises to him - promises of descendants, and a land, and great blessing. And in Genesis 15, the promise of a son hadn’t yet come about. Abraham was 75 by now, and Sarah his wife was 65. But God told Abraham to go outside, and said that Abraham’s desc[...]

Bowlers' Service Sermon: Philippians 3: 4-14 Paul's Aim


Tonight, we gather to give thanks to God for sport, and particularly for the friendship and fellowship we enjoy through the Bowling Club. While I haven’t thrown any bowls here yet, I was first introduced to bowls at the age of 8, when my great-aunt Rebecca brought me along to the Cathedral club in Dromore. I played for about 12 years or so, then took it up again when we moved to Fermanagh, playing for the Aghavea church team. Hopefully I’ll get an opportunity to play in the near future.As I was preparing for this evening, and thinking about playing bowls, our Bible reading from Philippians came to mind. When you’re playing bowls, you count up, or you keep the score; there is the only thing that counts - being close to the Jack; and there’s the way you aim for it. Score, what counts, and aiming. And those three elements of bowling are the things that the apostle Paul talks about in relation to his life.So first, let’s think about the score. In a friendly match, or when you’re having a practice night, it doesn’t really matter what the score is. But, this week as the tournament has been progressing, and especially tomorrow night when the finals are being held, the score is very important. It’s how you know who’s winning, who’s succeeding.And in terms of life, Paul outlines in verses 4-6 the points he has scored, the reasons he had confidence in the flesh. He lists his religious achievements - the things that showed how successful he was. He was circumcised according to the Old Testament law; he was a Hebrew of Hebrews, his parents were Israelites from the tribe of Benjamin. Those things were given to him, but the next ones he chose to pursue - he became a Pharisee, a strict follower of the law; in terms of his zeal, he persecuted the church, because he thought they were false teachers; and as for legalistic righteousness, doing what he could do to obey the law, he was regarded as faultless. For a religious person, this was a high score. We might also try to score ourselves highly, even if we use different categories - the charity work we do; the help we give to people; our paying in to church; or whatever it is that we might think - that’s in my good book. That's to my credit. A few months ago, the team I was part of won our section of the Fermanagh Churches League. Section D, mind you, the lowest section on the league - and it wasn’t because of anything I had done. We made it to the playoffs. As our team was playing, I was keeping an eye on the scores on the other mats. And over on the far mat, their scoreboard was ticking over nicely. I was thinking to myself - our rink over there is doing well, that’ll help our overall score. And then I happened to be watching as an end finished, and I realised that it was the other team scoring all those points! The high score I thought we had was actually against us.And that’s what Paul realised about putting his confidence in the flesh, what he could achieve: ‘But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.’ And on over in verse 8 he says that he considers them ‘rubbish’ - or dung. The things he prized, his high score, he now realises it’s useless, something to be rid of.And he says that, because he now knows the one thing that counts above everything else; the only thing that matters. On a bowling mat, the only thing that matters is being close to the Jack. Well, the apostle Paul says that the only thing that matters in life is being close to the Lord Jesus. ‘What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.’ Knowing Jesus is the only thing that matters for Paul, the only thing that counts.And the way he does that isn’t by his own achievements, it’s only by faith in Christ - and receiving a right standing with God. The Lord Jesus is the one who gave himself for y[...]

Sermon: Galatians 2: 11-22 Freedom by faith


Have you ever noticed that before a football match, the two captains come into the centre with the referee. They’ll toss a coin to see who kicks off. They shake hands, but once the whistle goes, it really does kick off. For a moment they were friendly, but now they are sworn enemies, out to beat the other team. As the bowling club tournament runs in the hall this week, you’ll see the same idea - a polite handshake one minute, then opposed the next.As you listened to this morning’s Bible reading from Galatians, you might have wondered if the same sort of thing was going on. Glance back to verse 9 in Galatians 2 and you might remember from last time (before the harvest) that Paul and Barnabas shared the right hand of fellowship with James, Peter and John. They shook hands to show that they were in agreement, they were on the same team.But was that just a formality? Was it all for nothing? Did it mean absolutely nothing, when you read verse 11, just two verses later, and discover that suddenly Paul is opposing Peter to his face, calling him out in public! What is going on? Why were they friends and brothers one minute, and then the next are at each other’s throats?And when you see why Paul was opposing Peter, you might think, was it a storm in a tea cup? The row arose over something as small as eating arrangements - who sits with who, and what that says. Now, maybe you’ve planned (or are planning) a wedding reception, and you have all the names on bits of paper, seeing who can sit with who, and which people need to be kept apart for everyone’s sake. That gets us so far in thinking about the importance of sitting and eating together. But the actual issue is there in verse 12. Peter was visiting Antioch - a city in modern day Turkey. The church was made up of Gentile believers. Peter would gladly share in fellowship with them - sharing meals with them, sitting at the table together, with no problems. But all that changed when some people came from Jerusalem - members of the circumcision party. They were those who insisted that Gentiles had to be circumcised in order to be real Christians. And when they arrived, Peter withdrew from the Gentile Christians, wouldn’t sit and eat with them as he had before, and would only eat with Jews. When Peter did this, he influenced all the other Jewish believers to also draw back from the Gentiles, in effect making a distinction between Jews and Gentiles.It was as if Peter was saying there are Premier League Christians - those who are Jews; and there are second division Christians - the Gentiles. Or imagine that as you arrived for church today, the churchwardens asked which football team you supported, and you only sat with people who support the same team - and then insisted that Man United supporting Christians are the real deal, while the Liverpool supporting Christians are at best, second rate.Paul gets to the heart of what Peter is up to in verse 13. ‘The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy.’ None of us wants to be a hypocrite - saying one thing but doing another. But that’s what Peter was doing - he was saying that all Christians are the same, but then by his actions he was showing that some were more important than others. That to eat together, you Gentiles would have to be circumcised. Without it, you would miss out.But as Paul says, in verse 11, he was clearly in the wrong. Peter was in the wrong because, verse 14 ‘they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel.’ Peter was a bit like a picture hanging on the wall that isn’t level. Maybe you never notice, but sometimes when you see a picture that’s askew, it just needs to be straightened up, to hang right. Peter was out of line when measured against the plumbline of the gospel.And so Paul confronts him - not privately, but publicly. It’s right that in Matthew 18, Jesus gives [...]

Harvest Sermon: Luke 12: 22-34 Consider the lilies


This morning we’re celebrating God’s goodness to us. We can see it all around us. We can smell it, but just don’t taste it! Our school used to go to my church for our harvest service, and if there were apples along the window sills, people would take a bite out of the apples and then turn them around... Don’t be doing that today!But even as we’re surrounded by God’s goodness, it might be that some of us are feeling like the man on the screen. How do you think he feels? Is he happy? Don’t think so. How does he feel? He’s worried. And you might be worried about something today. Health, money, school, family, work, or not having work - lots of things we might be worried about. But Jesus tells us that we don’t need to be worried.Here’s what he says: Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. Life is more than food, and the body more than clothes.Jesus is speaking about two particular worries - food and clothes - but as he does so, he helps us deal with all our worries.Sometimes I bring along something to look at, but today the harvest decorations are a great reminder of the truth that Jesus teaches. Because Jesus also told people to look at things, and think about things, to help them see what he was saying. In today’s reading, he says look up, and then look down.So here’s his first picture, looking up. Does anyone know what this is? It’s a raven. In Matthew’s gospel he talks about the birds of the air. Now think about the birds. When was the last time you saw a raven driving one of these - a John Deere tractor? Never! Or when was the last time you saw a robin driving a combine harvester? I’m fairly sure you haven’t - unless the farmer’s name was Robin, but that’s different!The ravens and the other birds don’t have to plan and prepare. They do not sow or reap; they have no storeroom nor barn. So how are they fed?Yet God feeds them. God the Father cares for them and feeds them. You don’t see the birds worrying about food, they get enough to do them, fed by God.Now Jesus isn’t calling us to start eating like the birds, as if we’re Bear Grylls eating all the bugs. He’s not urging you to change from eating spaghetti to eating worms. Here’s the point: ‘And how much more valuable you are than birds!’You are more precious, more valuable to God than the birds. If he cares for them, he will care for you as well. If he feeds them, he’ll feed you. We can depend on God.And we have to depend on God, because our worrying won’t actually make a difference. Does anyone know who this is?The man on the right is the world’s tallest man living - Sultan Kosen from Turkey, at a height of 251cm or 8ft 2.8inches. And to the left, maybe you haven’t spotted him, is Chandra Bahadur Dangi, the shortest man in the world, at just 1ft 9.5inches.Here’s a short video of them meeting in London in 2015.VIDEOWould anyone like to be a little taller? Or maybe a lot taller? So we’re going to try an experiment. I want you to worry about your height, and try to make yourself grow taller. Ok, go! ... So how did that work out? Jesus tells us how that will work out: Who of you by worryingcan add a single cubit to his height?Worry won’t help us. So why worry about anything?Having looked up, Jesus now gets us to look down. Does anyone know what these are? They’re lilies. And Jesus tells us to consider them, how they grow. Just look at the variety of colours and shapes in the flowers that are here. Or imagine walking along a path and suddenly finding a whole field of wildflowers. Or walking into a florist’s shop. Now how do the flowers do it? Do they have floral fashion shows with all the latest looks? Do they worry about being designer daffodils? Of course not.Does anyone know what this is? It[...]

Harvest Sermon: Luke 12: 13-21 The Foolish Farmer


Here are some famous sayings, let’s see if you can finish them off: Look before you... leap. Too many cooks... spoil the broth. A stitch in time... saves nine. And the last one: Where there’s a will... You might think it’s ‘there’s a way’, but it seems that where there’s a will, there’s a lawyer.And if not a lawyer, then certainly some kind of dispute. It’s what causes this man to interrupt Jesus as he is teaching the crowd. His dispute is brought to Jesus in verse 13. ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.’He obviously didn’t like the fact that his brother had inherited something, and he hadn’t. And so he comes to Jesus, wanting Jesus to get involved, wanting him to go and sort out his brother. Now, you might have thought that Jesus would go and sort it all out, but that’s not what happens. Instead, Jesus gives a surprising answer.‘Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?’ It wasn’t that the two brothers came together, wanting to get things sorted out, asking Jesus for his help. This was just the one brother, wanting Jesus to force his brother to give him something. So Jesus says no. It’s nothing to do with me.Jesus then speaks to the crowd, but he’s also speaking to this man in particular. And he issues a warning. ‘Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.’If you’ve ever been to Buckingham Palace, you’ll have seen the Guardsmen - they look about 8 feet tall, standing very straight and still in their red jackets and huge bearskin hats. It might look as if they’re just there for the tourists to watch and take photos, but they are there guarding the palace. If anyone jumped over the fence, they would spring into action to protect the Queen.We’re told to be on our guard - against all kinds of greed. We’re to watch out for greed trying to control us. Jesus sees that this was what was going on in this man’s heart - he wanted a share of the inheritance out of greed. And so Jesus gives the warning. ‘A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.’At 8am on Tuesday the 30th May, the removals team arrived at the Rectory at Lurganbrae, Brookeborough. In a couple of hours, everything we owned was packed into the back of two lorries. Our whole life was in those lorries - and then I remembered the words of Jesus: ‘A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.’ How easily I was believing the lie that all that stuff was the sum total of our life. How quickly greed was trying to sneak in unnoticed. We need to be on our guard against greed.To help us grasp his point, Jesus then tells a parable - an ordinary, everyday story that teaches us something about heaven. We’re introduced to a rich farmer. It’s harvest time, and he’s been busy in the fields, gathering it all in. Things have been good this year - the weather has been perfect, so there’s a good crop. And yet, he’s faced with a problem.His land has produced so much, his barns simply aren’t big enough. So he thinks to himself: ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ As he thinks about it, he comes up with the answer in verse 18: ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’Now you might be thinking, doesn’t that sound great? One crop big enough to retire on. A big bonus, and no more worrying about anything. A few years ago I read of a mega-rich family in England holding a retirement party for the latest person to retire from the family business - at the [...]

Sermon: Galatians 2: 1-10 Freedom in fellowship


Has anyone ever ran a marathon? Just in case you’re wondering, I haven’t either. I might be able to run the 0.22 miles, it would just be the other 26 miles that would give me bother. But imagine that you had done all the training, you ran the race, and then discovered that it was all pointless, that it wouldn’t count, that you were disqualified. That’s what’s happened to the 5000 participants in the Marathon of the North in Sunderland in May 2013. It turns out that along the way, they followed the wrong directions of the marshals, and the course they ran was 264 metres short of a full marathon (288 yards). One runner went the right route, but all the rest went the wrong way. They hadn’t run a marathon; they didn’t get a finishing medal; they had run their race in vain.Imagine how they felt when they heard it was all for nothing. All their efforts wasted. Well, that’s the same fear the apostle Paul had - as he says at the end of verse 2. ‘For fear that I was running or had run my race in vain.’ But it wasn’t a messed up marathon that caused this fear. He wanted to make sure that he really did have the true gospel - he wanted to be sure that he hadn’t wasted the last fourteen years of his life, running in vain, by preaching the wrong thing.If you’re jumping into Galatians this morning for the first time, it might be good to help you catch up. Paul is writing this letter to the churches in Galatia to call them back to the gospel of God’s free grace, the gospel that he had preached to them. But since he had been with them, false teachers had arrived in the churches, insisting that to be a real Christian, you first had to become a Jew - by observing the law, and particularly by being circumcised. Paul has been saying that circumcision isn’t needed, that it’s not part of the gospel of grace, received by faith.Last time we saw how Paul had received his gospel directly from Jesus. But the false teachers seem to have been saying that Paul’s gospel was different to the other apostles’ gospel. That Paul was missing something important. So Paul tells us about a visit to Jerusalem, where he just wanted to make absolutely sure that he was in the right. In verse 1, he tells us who he brought with him - Barnabas and Titus. And in verse 2 he tells us what he did to be sure that he was right.Notice that he went to Jerusalem because of a revelation. We find this in Acts 11:28 - where Agabus predicts a severe famine, and so Barnabas and Saul (Paul) were sent to Jerusalem with a gift for famine relief for the Christians in Judea. It wasn’t that he had been summoned by the apostles, like being sent for by the headmaster. He was there for one reason, but while he was there, he ‘set before them [the apostles] the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles.’It would be a bit like checking your homework on the school bus - not copying, but just making sure that you had the same answers as someone else. Just to make sure that you weren’t barking up the wrong tree, that you hadn’t run your race in vain.So what was the result of Paul’s visit to Jerusalem? He has confirmation that he is preaching the one true gospel. We see this in a couple of ways. The first is there in verse 3. ‘Yet not even Titus, who was with me, was compelled to be circumcised, even though he was a Greek.’Titus, was a Greek, and therefore a Gentile, and therefore uncircumcised. But the apostles didn’t say, hold on, we’ll get a knife out. They didn’t require or compel him to be circumcised. This despite the desire of some ‘false brothers’ to have it done. These false brothers were undercover spies, trying to spy on the freedom Christians have in Christ Jesus, and to try to make us slaves. But Paul and the other apostles didn[...]

Sermon: Revelation 19: 1-10 Church is the bride of Christ


I seem to have a knack of having important life moments the same day as moments of national significance. My Institution here, as you might remember, was on the day of the General Election. As it turned out, my 30th birthday also fell on a nationally significant day - the Royal Wedding. As I was saying farewell to my 20s and lamenting the fact that I was an old man of 30, Prince William and Catherine Middleton were getting married.If you can remember back those 6 years, or maybe even 36 years to Charles and Diana’s wedding day, you’ll know that the wedding was the big thing in all the newspapers and the TV news. All day long, the TV was filled with every detail of the wedding. It’s not every day that a royal wedding comes along, and so (it seemed like) everyone was watching this royal wedding.Some friends travelled over to London, wanting to be there for the day, even sleeping on the footpath to get a good spot, to catch a glimpse of the bride and groom, the Prince and his new Princess. They were caught up in the excitement of the royal wedding.As some people said at the time, it was like a fairy tale come true. The Prince had his bride, and they lived happily ever after. Now, normally in a fairy tale, there are some dangers to be faced, an enemy to be overcome, and some excitement along the way. But, when you think of it, even fairy tales point us to the real true story. A prince overcomes his enemies, slays the dragon, and rescues the girl, who becomes his princess. A fairy tale? Maybe, but it’s also the true story of the Bible - what God is doing in the world through Jesus.And the Bible is moving towards the true fairy tale ending - the real royal wedding, which we hear of in our reading from Revelation. In Rev 19:7 we read these words: ‘Let us rejoice and be glad and give him the glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready.’All of history is moving towards this royal wedding. The groom is obvious enough - he’s the Lamb. All through Revelation, the Lamb is the Lord Jesus, the one who was slain, the one who has conquered, the one who is getting married. But who is his bride? Who is he getting married to?Verse 8 gives us a peek of the bridal gown. ‘Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear. (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints.)’ Notice that the linen, the righteous acts, was given to her to wear. She didn’t make her own dress, it was given to her. Later in chapter 21 we are given an invitation to see the bride again: ‘Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.’ (21:9) And the description there is of a city, the Holy City, (new) Jerusalem. A cube of a city, as high as it is wide and long; with twelve gates, twelve foundations, a city which is pure, and bright, and clean; dazzling in its beauty, with the precious stones and the streets of gold and the pearly gates.And you might be thinking - is Jesus marrying a city? But this is picture language - Revelation is like a picture book, as it teaches us truth in vivid imagery. You see, we talk about going to heaven, or meeting in the new Jerusalem, but the truth is - we are that new Jerusalem. The church is the bride of Christ, the wife of the Lamb.To see that, we need to turn back to Ephesians 5, and what can sometimes be a controversial passage these days. (page 1176). And maybe even before you turn to it, you know which passage it is. It’s the one in which it says: ‘Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord...’ It also says, and probably just as difficult: ‘Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her...’Now, at some point, I promise, we’ll come back to those words when we preach through Ephes[...]

Sermon: 1 Peter 2: 4-10 Church is the temple of God


This evening we gather to celebrate the 180th birthday of St Matthew’s. We give thanks to God for his faithfulness, and his steadfast love to this congregation over many generations, with this parish church in the heart of the village being at the centre of peoples’ lives through all those years. The celebrations of Baptisms, the joy of weddings, the grief of funerals; and the regular, weekly gathering of God’s people around his word and his table, bringing prayers and praises.For 180 years, St Matthew’s has held out the gospel to Richhill and beyond. These stones have echoed with our Saviour’s praise. But if you’re in the main aisle this evening, then these old stones have stood far longer than just the 180 years we’re celebrating tonight. Back in 1752, what is now the main aisle was built as the market house for the village, by the Richardsons of the castle.When the market ended, it was decided to convert the market house into the parish church for the new parish of Richhill, in 1837. In our first reading, we heard how the Lord Jesus lamented that the temple in Jerusalem, the place of prayer, had become a marketplace, with traders crowding in. Well here in Richhill, we went the other way, with the marketplace becoming a place of prayer.Tonight we rejoice in God’s goodness in the past; and give thanks to him for all that he has done in and through St Matthew’s over the past 180 years. But we can’t stop at that. We must also consider what God is still doing, and what God will do in the future in and through St Matthew’s. And our second reading, from 1 Peter, shows us that God is in the business of church building.We’re given a glimpse of the plans, we’re brought onto the building site, in order to see how God is building his church. And it all begins in verse 4: ‘As you come to him, the living Stone - rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him...’ Now if you go onto a building site, you might see plenty of stones, but you won’t see any living stones (unless the builder’s name is Livingstone!). Stones are just stones. But this living Stone is described in greater detail by Peter: rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him. He’s talking about the Lord Jesus - who was rejected by men. Do you remember before the crucifixion, the crowd were offered a choice - Jesus or Barabbas? They chose to free Barabbas, and to crucify Jesus. Isaiah 53 says of Jesus, ‘he was despised and rejected by men...’ (Is 53:3). Everyone may have rejected him, but he was chosen by God and precious to him. God showed he was chosen and precious, because he raised him from death, gave him life - made him the living Stone.Jesus is the living Stone. And Peter remembers a verse of Scripture, from Isaiah, which promises that Jesus would come. ‘See, I lay in Zion a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.’Jesus is this chosen and precious cornerstone. Now, what is a cornerstone? It’s the most important stone in the whole building. It’s the one set at the bottom corner, from which everything else is built up - it’s the one that keeps the whole building straight, like a foundation stone. So what do you do with a cornerstone? You build on it, of course! But it’s not with bricks and mortar. It’s not with stones. Rather, what is the building material? It’s us. ‘As you come to him... you also, like living stones are being built into a spiritual house...’Peter is talking about building the church - a spiritual house, a place for God to dwell - but it’s not a parish church, not St Matthew’s itself. We used to sing a song in Dundonald ‘Church is not a building, it’s the people there[...]

Sermon: Galatians 1: 11-24 Freedom from the past


One of the games we used to play at Youth group was a game called Telephone. You might know it better as Chinese Whispers. The young people sat in a line, and a message was given to the first person. They then had to whisper it to the next person, and so on, down the line, until the last person would reveal what they had been told. If it worked, you’d hear the same message, but most times it didn’t, and you’d get something entirely different! So you’d trace back to see where the message came from, and who said what.The more grown-up version is when you hear some piece of news (or is it gossip?), and you ask them, where did you get that from? Who told you that? This is the question that Paul addresses in this next section of Galatians. Last week we began the letter by hearing that Paul is God’s man with God’s message, so don’t turn away from the gospel of grace. And Paul was quite insistent that his gospel is the real thing, the genuine article - whereas any other gospel is no gospel at all.The Galatians may well be asking, well, how can we be sure that you’re right? Could Paul have been at the end of the Telephone game and got it wrong? Had he missed out on something that the false teachers said was true?To help us understand all this, we need to know a wee bit about the false teaching. It was insisting that in order to be a real Christian, you also had to be a Jew, by submitting to the whole Old Testament law, and especially by being circumcised. Paul was saying that you didn’t have to be circumcised, or obey the law to be saved - you just had to believe. So which is right? Had Paul misheard the real gospel? Was he lacking some important element of it? So the question is, Paul, where did you get your gospel from?He tells us in verse 11-12. And in these verses, he tells us where he didn’t get it from, first of all: ‘I want you to know brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up.’ This isn’t something that Paul invented one day; he didn’t make it up; this isn’t just a wee story. Ok, so, maybe he heard it from someone else? ‘I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it.’ So he’s clear that he hasn’t misheard when someone else told him the gospel, that he hasn’t missed out or added to it. So where did he get it from? ‘rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.’There were no middle men, no bits added or missing, Paul received the gospel directly from Jesus, by revelation. We can be sure that Paul has the real thing, the genuine article. And Paul shows it by pointing to two things from his story - his testimony, and his travels.First up, Paul reminds them his testimony. A testimony is a story of how you came to faith - and also how God is continuing to grow you. At it’s most basic, it’s divided in the same way that time is - BC and AD - Before Christ, and Anno Domini (the year of our Lord, or after Christ). Paul’s BC is there in verse 13-14. ‘For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.’ Before Christ, Paul was a persecutor. He was intense, he tried to destroy the church. Move on to verse 16, ‘so that I might preach him (Jesus) among the Gentiles...’ The persecutor became the preacher. What a turn around! From one extreme to the other. And how did this happen? What was it that brought about the change? We see it in verse 15:‘But when God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him a[...]

Sermon: 1 Corinthians 12: 1-31 Church is... the body of Christ


Thursday nights when we were growing up was always an exciting night. After dinner, we would go to get the big grocery shop. And that meant that it was new cereal night. We didn’t tend to get the same cereal week after week. Instead, we’d pick whichever one had the best toy inside, or the most unhealthy E-numbered filled cereal. Most weeks, my brother and I would agree, but on the odd occasion, when he wanted Frosties and I wanted CocoPops, our eyes would suddenly light on the genius of Kellogg’s cereals - the Variety pack.Eight little tiny boxes of cereal, each different, and a solution to all our troubles! Each morning you could try a different one, and you wouldn’t have to eat the same cereal all week. Mr Kellogg knew what he was doing when he made the Variety pack. Cereal for everyone, and all different.I was reminded of Kellogg’s Variety when I read our New Testament passage for this evening. But rather than small cereal boxes, Paul has in mind the great variety of spiritual gifts God gives us, and the ways in which we use them. The church at Corinth had asked Paul about spiritual gifts, and so this part of 1 Corinthians answers their question.Incidentally, sometimes you hear people say that they want to get back to the New Testament way of doing church. But which kind? The Galatian church (which, as we’ve seen this morning, was turning to a false gospel)? The Corinthian church, which had all sorts of issues and problems and difficulties? There were problems in the churches, but this led to the writing of most of the letters in the New Testament.In the New Testament we find lots of different pictures of the church, and over the next few Sunday evenings we’re going to look at a few of them. This evening, we’re looking at the church as the body of Christ. But to get to that picture, we need to go through spiritual gifts. This is the context that gets Paul to that picture. Over the next few minutes, we’ll think about God the giver, God’s gifts, and God’s good design. In verses 4-6 we see God the giver. And that’s a really important thing to remember as we begin to think about spiritual gifts - they are gifts, given to us by God. Listen out for the common words as we read those verses again:‘There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men.’Three times we’re told there are ‘different kinds’ or ‘varieties’ (ESV), and three times we’re told there is the ‘same’. Do you see what Paul is saying, underlining and putting in bold? There is one God, and he loves variety. It’s not just that there is one spiritual gift available; there are many. It’s not just that there is one kind of service (and he’s not talking about Morning Prayer or Holy Communion there), there are many ways of serving the Lord. Do you remember Henry Ford’s words when the Model T was first launched? You can have any colour, so long as it’s black. There was no diversity or variety there! But God doesn’t work on a mass production line - he shapes us and makes us individually - no two of us are the same!Now if you were following closely during the reading, you might have noticed a clue as to why this variety is available. It actually goes to the heart of God’s nature and being. Look again at the verses - ‘different kinds... but the same Spirit... different kinds... but the same Lord... different kinds... but the same God.’ Paul shows that God is, in his very nature, variety in unity - three persons in the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Just as th[...]

Sermon: Galatians 1: 1-10 Freedom by grace


Some mornings when I’m working in the study, I hear when it arrives, but other days, when I arrive home, I take a wee peek into the box to see if there’s anything there for us. What am I talking about? The post / mail, of course! Most days there are a few different things, so in the porch you sort it out - things for Lynsey, and things for me, But then, you still have to sort out the post further. It seems that there are three categories of mail: the things you want to get - wedding invitations and thank you cards and such like; the things you don’t want to get - all the junk mail which is quickly filed in the recycling bin; and the things you don’t really want to get, but that you need to get - bills, or appointment letters.This autumn, we’re focusing on a letter that Paul sent to the churches in Galatia. But which sort of a letter is it? As the churches gathered to hear the letter read to them, would they want to get it or not? We’ll see that it’s one of those letters that they might not have wanted to get, but that they needed to get. We’ll see that Paul says some hard things to them, but only because he wants to bring them back from a dangerous place. He sees that they’re in trouble, so he writes to them, calling them to get back to safety, to see the danger that they’re in.So this morning we come to the start of the letter. When we sit down to write a letter, we know how to go about it. You start off with the ‘dear so and so’, and at the very end you finish off with (is it) yours faithfully or yours sincerely, and your name. Well, here, the name of the person writing the letter comes first. The author introduces himself: ‘Paul, an apostle - sent not from men nor by a man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead - and all the brothers with me.’You know if you’re writing to people you don’t know, you might include a wee bit of background to help them understand who you are? Well, Paul knew these people. They know him already. He had started their churches. This would be a bit like a husband turning to his wife and saying, hello, I’m your husband, we met so many years ago and got married on this date... So why does Paul write all this in verse 1?He’s showing that he is God’s man, God’s apostle. The word apostle means someone who is sent - and Paul makes sure that the Galatians know that he wasn’t sent by other people, that his authority isn’t from anyone else. He was sent ‘by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead.’You might remember that this happened on the road to Damascus. Paul (who was known as Saul at the time) was on his way to arrest or kill Christians, but then he met the risen Lord Jesus. His life was turned around. Jesus sent him to share the good news, to make other people Christians. Paul didn’t wake up one day and think, I’m going to be an apostle; he wasn’t sent by other people. He was sent by God to proclaim the news that Jesus is alive. Paul is God’s man, God’s apostle. And he’s writing this letter.So who is the letter to? Verse 2: ‘To the churches in Galatia.’ Galatia is the middle bit of modern Turkey, including the capital Ankara. Paul had travelled through the region planting churches on his first missionary journey which you can find in Acts 13-14 - Antioch, Lystra, Iconium and Derbe.And to these Christians, Paul the man of God brings the message of God in verse 3. It’s so easy to just pass over those first words. ‘Grace and peace to you.’ This is more than just a formal greeting, this is the summary of salvation. God gives us grace (his undeserved [...]

Sermon: Matthew 13: 47-52 The Net


A few years ago, we were away on holiday. One morning, we took a walk down along the harbour. A crowd of people had gathered, so we decided to see what everyone was looking at. The fishermen had arrived with their catch, and they were gutting the fish, ready to be cooked and eaten in the restaurants along the promenade. There was a good crowd of people watching - maybe picking out their dinner for that evening - but there was another pair of eyes on them as well. A wee black and white cat made its way across to them on the rocks, waiting for its dinner as well. Then off, away it went, carrying a piece of fish in its mouth, and disappeared to devour its dinner!Perhaps you’ve been in a fishing village and you’ve seen a similar scene. (Maybe without the cat, though!). I’m sure you can picture it, even if you haven’t witnessed it. The scene would have been even more familiar to the disciples as Jesus tells his last kingdom parable recorded for us in Matthew 13.Matthew 13 is set by the lake shore - some of the stories were told in public, to the crowd, while some of the stories were told in the house, to the disciples. So Jesus could have pointed out the window to the lake, and what may have been happening at the time. But remember, that some of the disciples were fishermen. This was what they had done every working day. They knew the example, and so they could understand the point Jesus was making.So let’s look at the story, first of all. ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. They they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away.’Maybe some of you are fishermen. You probably stand or sit by the shore or on the river, with your rod and your line, waiting for a bite. This is a bit bigger than that. Here, the net is dragged along behind the boat. It catches everything that’s in the water - all kinds of fish. But just because it’s a fish, doesn’t mean that it’s food.So when the net is full, it’s brought up onto the shore, and the fish are sorted and separated. There are just two categories - good fish and bad fish. You keep the good ones to eat or sell, but the bad ones are thrown away.That’s how the fishermen worked, and the disciples would have known that well enough. Now, in some of the parables, Jesus just told the story and left it at that - the treasure and the pearl last week - we had to work out what it was about. But with our parable tonight, Jesus gives us the meaning. Here’s the point he is driving at, in verse 49.‘This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’Just as the net gathers all kinds of fish, so there is coming a day when everyone will be gathered up. And on that day there will be just two categories of people - we’re either one or the other. So what are the two categories? Wicked and righteous. The question is, which are you?When we think of the category of ‘wicked’, we can all think of people who fit in that box. The really bad people like Hitler or Saddam Hussein. That box is surely only for really bad people. Surely we wouldn’t be in the same category? We like to imagine that we’re good, or at least good enough.But it’s not a sliding scale. With GCSE results the other day (and realising that it was 20 years since I got mine), there are lots of different grades. In England now they go from 9 to 1; but in Nor[...]

Sermon: Psalm 9 Tell out, my soul


The uniforms are ready. Pencils are sharpened. School bag is packed. And at some point this week, school will start all over again for another year. For some pupils, though, this will be their first time at school. They’ve maybe made it through playschool or nursery, but now they’re big P1s. And those P1s will be having some playtime, and some story time. They’ll learn numbers, and they’ll be learning how to read.Nowadays, they do it by learning sounds, but when I was in P1 and Mrs McDonald was teaching my class, we did it by learning our A B Cs. A is for ... apple; b is for ... ball; c is for ... cat and so on. Around the wall there was a border with pictures of something for each letter, A to Z. Well, our Psalm this morning, Psalm 9, is written in the same way. It’s (the start of) an A-Z of praise. The first verse starts with the first Hebrew letter; verse 3 starts with the second Hebrew letter and so on. (Kind of - Psalm 9 does half the alphabet, apart from 1 letter which is missing; Psalm 10 covers the second half of the alphabet). Verse 1 shows us that this is a Psalm of praise. David says to God all that David is going to do: ‘I will praise you, O LORD, with all my heart; I will tell of all your wonders. I will be glad and rejoice in you; I will sing praise to your name, O Most High.’David begins the psalm full of joy and praise. Do you see the ways in which praise bubbles out of him? Praising God with all his heart - it starts on the inside, from his will and emotions. Then he tells others about God and about God’s wonders. He will be glad and rejoice. He will sing praise to God.So often we can imagine that praise is only singing, but here we see just how full and how active praising can be - a heart activity, a telling activity, a rejoicing activity, and a singing activity. From the inside out, David is going to praise.So why is David praising God? That word wonders could mean any number of things, couldn’t it? If you sat down to think of reasons to praise God, you’d come up with quite a few. So why is David praising God here? Look at verses 3-6. There’s a repeated phrase; two words come up over and over. What are they? ‘You have...’ David is praising God because of all that God has done. David’s enemies turn back, they stumble and perish, because ‘you have... upheld my right and my cause... sat on your throne, judging righteously... rebuked the nations and destroyed the wicked... blotted out their name for ever and ever... uprooted their cities.’God has done all this, and that’s why David praises God. God is on the throne. He’s in control. God has been a righteous judge, judging justly, working to uphold the righteous and working against the wicked. Their defeat has been so complete, that David says even the memory of them has perished. (Which is a wee bit ironic, because he remembers the enemies he says that the memory of them has perished!). So that’s what God has done.But it’s not just that God used to be like that. It’s not that he did these things before, but he doesn’t do them any more. No, what God has previously done shows us what he will continue to do. In verse 7, David moves from speaking to God, to speaking about God. He’s telling us about the LORD. ‘The LORD reigns for ever; he has established his throne for judgement. He will judge the world in righteousness he will govern the peoples with justice.’ I don’t know if you’ve been keeping up with the daily rollercoaster of Brexit news. Maybe you’re fed up with the whole thing. But this week, one of the issues has b[...]

Sermon: Matthew 13: 44-46 Treasure and Pearl


I wonder if you’ve heard of the Broighter gold? These days, you probably know it as the rapeseed oil with its distinctive gold colour, grown and produced at Limavady and available to buy down the street in Supervalu. But the original Broighter gold was discovered outside Limavady in 1896. Tom Nicholl and James Morrow were ploughing on farmland near the shore of Lough Foyle when they came across some items buried 14 inches under the surface.They described it as a lump of mud, but when it was cleaned up, it was stunning. There was a model boat, 7.25 inches by 3 inches, weighing 3 ounces. There was a torc, a collar 7.5 inches in diameter; a bowl, two chain necklaces and two other torcs. All gold. One of the finest discoveries of treasure in Northern Ireland. Perhaps we should invest in a metal detector! Derek McLennan was out in a field in Dumfries and Galloway in Scotland (think Stranraer / Cairnryan - that southwestern part of Scotland). In 2014 he discovered Britain’s biggest ever Viking treasure - about 100 items including silver bracelets and brooches, a gold ring, an enamelled cross and a bird-shaped gold pin. The Queen’s and Lord Treasurer’s Remembrancer (who rules on the value of items declared to be treasure) valued the find at £1.98 million - which the National Museum of Scotland would have to pay to the treasure finder. (It’s different in the rest of the UK - the money is split between finder and landowner). Not bad going for a day’s metal detecting! The Broighter gold and the Dumfries field are real life examples of one of the stories Jesus tells in our reading this evening. Over these summer evenings we’ve been listening in to Jesus telling some stories. But these aren’t just stories about the good old days, or just made up stories. They’re stories with a point - they’re to teach us something about the kingdom of heaven. What is God’s kingdom like?Now tonight, we have two stories that, on the surface, seem very similar. They’re both about a man, and something very valuable, and what the man does to get the valuable item. So was Jesus going on a bit too long, as sometimes preachers are in the habit of doing? Or what is Jesus teaching us through these two stories? Let’s look at them in turn, to see what the kingdom is like.Verse 44: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.’In this first story, we’re introduced to a man who is out digging in a field. He doesn’t have a metal detector like Derek McLennan. He’s just working in the field - like the Broighter farm labourers. And as he digs, he comes across something he’s not expecting. Treasure, hidden in the field. There were no banks or safes when Jesus was telling the story. The only thing you could do with valuables was to hide them in a field.The treasure was hidden in the field, and found by this man. Immediately he knows how precious his find it, and he knows he must have it. So he goes and does what he has to do. He hides the treasure again, goes and sells all he has and buys the field (and with it, the treasure).The second story starts in verse 45. And it sounds the same. But it’s different. See if you can work out what’s different as I read it: ‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.’Now, he goes and sells all he has to buy the precious pearl. But what’s the d[...]

Sermon: Psalm 8 What is man?


David asks a question this morning right at the centre of Psalm 8. It’s a question we want to think about for a moment or two. And here is the question: What is man? Or, to put it another way, what are people? So what are we?Today as we welcome baby Arthur into the church family, that might be the question that family and friends are asking - who is Arthur? Who does he look like? How will he get on with his two older sisters? Already his personality is developing, becoming the person he will be.But what about the rest of us? What is a person? Well, I thought about the recipe for a person. Now, forget about that wee rhyme that says ‘sugar and spice and all things nice - that’s what little girls are made of. Snips and snails and puppy dogs tails - that’s what little boys are made of.’ Here’s the recipe for a person - here’s what we’re made up of.35 litres of water. 20 kg of carbon. 4 litres of ammonia. 1.5kg of lime. 800g phosphorous. 250g salt. 80 g sulphur. 7.5g fluorine. 5g iron. 3g silicon, and fifteen other traces of elements.How does that make you feel? Now, was that what David was asking? What is man? And he was wanting the chemical breakdown of what goes into us? I’m sure not.He asks, what is man, but in Psalm 8, he’s asking the question in relation to who God is. You see, man comes in the middle of the Psalm, but it’s the LORD where he starts and finishes.‘O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!’ He’s saying to God that God’s name is majestic, is glorious, is super-fantastic (even supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!). And why is God’s name is special?Well, first of all, because God’s glory is above the heavens. Everywhere you look, you see the glory of God. And even beyond what you can see, God’s glory fills it as well. And God’s glory brings forth our praise.What do you do when you see something you like? You clap, or you shout, or you sing! So when you favourite team scores a goal (or even four goals like Man United yesterday), then you cheer. You praise them. Or when you see your favourite singer in concert, you cheer, or sing, you praise. It’s the same with God - but in fact, it should be even more so with God. When we think of all that God has done, and who he is, then we should praise - Psalm 8 tells us that even from the lips of children and infants God has ordained praise. He wants us to praise him, because it silences our enemies.When we praise God, the devil can’t reply, he can’t say anything. So today, we have the opportunity to keep the devil quiet, as we sing our praises to God.David then thinks a bit more about God’s glory, and about all that God has done. Have you ever been out on a dark night, with no streetlights around, and seen the stars?‘When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place...’David looks up at the night sky, and he sees loads of stars. Someone cleverer than me has worked out that David might have been able to see about 2000 - 3000 stars. With a good pair of binoculars, we could see up to 100,000. Or here’s a tennis ball. If the earth was the size of a tennis ball, then the moon would be the size of a marble, and it would be 2 metres away. The sun would be about 7.3 metres in diameter, 783 metres away - about 8 football pitches in length.Now that’s just the earth, the moon, and the sun. Astronomers reckon there are between 200 - 400 billion stars in the Milky Way (not the chocolate bar!) - our galaxy; and there a[...]

Ambassador: What's Your Name?


Over the last few weeks, there’s been one question repeatedly on my lips. “What’s your name?” We’ve been overwhelmed by the welcome we’ve received since our move to Richhill at the start of June. Thank you for all your kindness to us over the past few weeks.

Thank you also for your patience, when I’ve not just asked “What’s your name?” but “What’s your name, again?” for the twentieth time! As we get to know each other, and as I try to remember all your names, I’m struck by just how important names are.

You might have heard someone say, “I feel like I’m just a number.” That can seem the case when you’re asked for your National Insurance number, your phone number, even your PIN number (but don’t give that one out to anyone!). You might think that maybe God works in the same way. He is saving a vast multitude that no one can number (Rev 7:9) - could we just get lost in the crowd?

Definitely not! In the Old Testament, God says through the prophet Isaiah: ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.’ (Is 43:1) God calls us by name! That same truth is spoken by the Lord Jesus, as he speaks of the shepherd: ‘He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.’ (Jn 10:3) He then goes on to say: ‘I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me.’ (Jn 10:14).

While I might not get your name right first time, the good shepherd knows you by name. He is calling you to follow him, and to receive eternal life.

This article appeared in The Ambassador, the Armagh Diocesan magazine, which was published in August 2017.(image)

Sermon: Matthew 13: 31-35 Mustard Seed & Yeast


What did you make of the reading from Matthew’s gospel this evening? Perhaps you thought to yourself - is that it? Just five verses. A wee short reading. Nothing much to it. Just a couple of wee stories from the garden and the kitchen. Something small, and seemingly insignificant. But that’s the very thing that Jesus is teaching us tonight - that just because something is small, barely noticeable, doesn’t mean that it is insignificant. Rather, these small things become very noticeable, and very significant, in the course of time and the purposes of God.Over these summer evenings, we’ve been listening in as Jesus tells some stories. They’re kingdom parables - stories of ordinary, everyday events which teach us something about the kingdom of heaven. So far we’ve heard the parable of the sower - that when the seed of God’s word is sown there are different reactions (but we shouldn’t give up). We’ve thought about the purpose of the parables - so that some hear but don’t hear, while others listen and understand. We’ve also heard last week of the wheat and the weeds - that the children of the kingdom and the children of the devil are growing up side by side, but by harvest there’ll be a separation.The stories so far have all been about farming - sowing seeds and the wheat and the weeds. They’ve been about growing - and we see that theme continuing tonight, in several different ways. Again, we find ourselves in the field for the first story, so if you’ve got your wellies on, let’s head out onto the farm.‘He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field.”’ (31).What is the kingdom of heaven like? It’s like a mustard seed. And what’s the point that Jesus is driving towards? ‘Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.’ (32).So the mustard seed starts off small, very small, the smallest of all your seeds. Jesus is talking to people who would plant these seeds. They know just how tiny they are. They’re 1 millimetre in size, or about half an inch. So small. You wouldn’t think much of it. You mightn’t even be able to see them very well.But that’s not the case when they grow. Then you can’t miss the plant that comes from the seed! When it grows, it’s the largest of garden plants, it becomes a tree. Those small mustard seeds - the plant can grow up to ten or twelve feet in height. Something so large coming from something so small.And it becomes so large that it’s not just a plant, it’s a tree, and a place for birds to come and perch. I wonder did you notice that phrase ‘the birds of the air come and perch in its branches’? Jesus is referring back to our Old Testament reading, from Ezekiel 17:23. In the prophecy, God says that he will take a cutting from a cedar tree, and plant it in Israel, and the tree will grow, so that birds come and nest in it.He’s speaking of the Gentiles coming and taking shelter in Israel, being joined and included in the kingdom. And that’s the point Jesus is making here too. The kingdom starts small, like a mustard seed, but it grows so big that others are included, the Gentiles (you and me) come for shelter. Jesus speaks of the mustard seed. We have a similar saying - great oaks from little acorns grow.Both have the idea of something big coming from[...]

Sermon: Psalm 7 You are my refuge


When we were growing up the summer holidays were long, and carefree, and the sun shone every day. (Or so it seemed). We had loads of friends on our street, and we rode our bikes, played tennis, and did lots of things together. The game we loved playing, though, was what we called pom pom home. It was like hide and seek - except the person looking for you had to get back to base and shout ‘pom pom I see Gary’ for me to be caught. Again. The whole idea of the game was to make it home, to get back to base, then you were safe. You couldn’t be caught. You were safe.This morning, we’re thinking about taking refuge, finding shelter. So what comes into your mind when you hear those words - refuge, shelter. Perhaps it’s huddling under an umbrella, when the rain comes tumbling down, finding some protection from the elements. You get the same idea with a bus shelter - when you’re waiting for a bus, you can stand in under it, to get out of the rain or the wind. With the children going back to school, though, I began to think back to the best time of the school day (and it wasn’t the home time bell, but it was just better than that) - breaktime and lunchtime. If it wasn’t raining, we were allowed out into the playground. You could play football, or chasies or swop football stickers or pogs or top trumps. If you were ever annoyed by someone, or someone wanted to fight with you, then you knew what to do - get close to Mrs Malcolmson / Osborne / Clarke / Barr. The dinner ladies took no nonsense. No one would dare come near you if you were beside them. The dinner ladies were a shelter, a safe place. A person was a safe place, a refuge. And that’s the idea that David shows us in verse 1. ‘O LORD my God, I take refuge in you; save me and deliver me from all who pursue me.’The title of the Psalm gives us some idea of what is happening - ‘A shiggaion of David, which he sang to the LORD concerning Cush, a Benjaminite.’ And verse 2 shows why David needs to take refuge in the Lord - ‘or they will tear me apart like a lion and rip me to pieces with no one to rescue me.’ David fears for his life because of his enemies, and in particular this Cush boyo. So he takes refuge in the Lord. God is (firstly) David’s refuge. Is he your refuge, your shelter?Next, in verses 3-5, David maintains his innocence before his judge. Do you see the way he says ‘if, if... then let’ this happen. He’s appealing to God the judge. If I have done this and there is guilt on my hands - if I have done evil to him who is at peace with me or without cause have robbed my foe - then let my enemy pursue and overtake me. If this was true, then he would deserve for his enemy to triumph over him. He feels so strongly, he feels wrongly accused, so he cries out to God, who sees all and knows all.Whenever you’re accused of wrongdoing, how do you handle it? Do you go on the attack? Or do you take it to the Lord, your shelter, your refuge? David it takes it to the Lord in prayer. He appeals to the judge, and rests his case. Selah - that pause, that turning around.From verse 6, we see David owning God as his vindicator, the one who will show and prove that David is in the right. I wonder would you talk to God like this? ‘Arise, O Lord, in your anger; rise up against the rage of my enemies; awake my God; decree justice.’ Do you see the action of those three lines? Arise, rise up, awake. God, don’t just sit there allowing this [...]

Sermon: Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43 Kingdom Parables: The Wheat and the Weeds


I'll hold my hands up, just so that you can see for sure: I don’t have green fingers. As I sometimes say, the only things I can grow are weeds. And that was definitely the case when we got married and had our first home together. There was a bit of a garden at the front, and more of a garden at the back. Our neighbours on either side were great gardeners, so the pressure was on. So off we went to a garden centre, got a few nice plants and so on. We planted them, watered them, and waited.After a wee while, there was something growing, shooting up tall, and bringing these great flowers. I was so pleased at our efforts, until one of our neighbours pointed out that the bluebells I had been proud of were actually a weed. I quite liked them, but they weren’t what we had planted. Their seeds were already in the soil, waiting to come again.And come they did. Better than any of our own plants! If you keep any sort of a garden, even a wee window box, then you know that you have to keep weeding it. To show off the flowers that you want, you have to get rid of the weeds. What’s a weed? Anything that shouldn’t be there. In our Bible reading tonight, Jesus tells another of his kingdom parables. It’s an earthly, everyday story to teach us something about the kingdom of God. The story will show us some detail of what the kingdom of God is like. So let’s look at the parable, beginning in verse 24.We’re told of a man who sows good seed in his field. He’s happy with his work, and waits for the plants to sprout. But unknown to him, in the dead of night, an enemy has come along and sowed weeds among the wheat. At first, it’s not obvious what has happened. It just looks like a good crop is growing.But, verse 26, ‘When the wheat sprouted and formed ears, then the weeds also appeared.’ Alongside the wheat, there are the weeds. You see, the weeds here are probably darnel, a mildly poisonous weed that looks like wheat in the early stages. It’s only when the grains appear that the weeds are seen to be different. But by then it’s too late.The wheat and the weeds are growing in and out through each other. It’s not that all the wheat are in this side of the field and all the weeds are in the other field. They’re side by side and through other. The servants of the farmer are surprised when the weeds appear: ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did the weeds come from?’ (27) If you sow good seed, you expect a good crop - not weeds. It’s as if they’re asking if he’s still got the receipt for the seed. Or if he’s still got the packet the seeds came from. Are you sure they were good seed that was sown?The farmer realises an enemy has done this - something which was devastating, and illegal in Roman law. The weeds would threaten the wheat growing. Remember the parable of the sower - where the thorns grow up and choke the plants? So what should be done? We need to do the weeding! We need to get rid of the weeds!So that’s what the servants ask: ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’But the farmer tells them to wait: ‘No, because while you are pulling the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest.’ The roots and shoots of the wheat and weeds are tangled together, it would be too messy to get rid of the weeds now. In taking out the weeds, you might also threaten the harvest. It’s only when the ha[...]