Lay Preachers Sunday 2014

Genesis 32:22-31; Psalm 17:1-7, 15; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:13-21

So, “Lay Preachers’ Sunday” eh?  What a blessing it has been to me this week to prepare this service of worship and this sermon text because the lectionary has offered up three excellent readings to connect to the theme.

In the Psalm we read the cry for justice of a righteous man, a man who honours and worships God and a man who tries to act obediently to the LORD’s precepts.   In the same way the preacher seeks to do justice to the Word of God (Jesus) by honouring his call to instruct the people and also to live a life worthy of emulation.

In the Epistle we read the cry of grief from a truthful man as Paul weeps before the LORD for the lost nation of the Jewish people, Paul’s own people.  In the same way the preacher seeks to intercede for Word of God (Jesus) by honouring his call to speak prophetically to the people.  As a lay preacher he understands that his ministry is necessarily local, therefore he will be speaking to his own people in his own congregation.  The lay preacher speaks to his friends and neighbours, and often to his own family.  Lay preachers speak to the people dearest to them.

In the Gospel we read of Jesus feeding 5000 men. In the same way the preacher seeks to act on behalf of Word of God (Jesus) by honouring his call to feed the people.  Where Jesus gave bread and fish, so the lay preacher proclaims the message of Christ the bread of life, where those who come receive the promise that they will never hunger; and the message of the Church as the fishers of men, where those who participate in God’s own mission of salvation receive the promise that they will see a rich bounty and a ripe harvest.

The lay preacher is the man, or indeed in the Uniting Church the woman, who stands before God in submission to God’s glory, and before the people in humility to God’s purpose, to lead God’s people in hearing the spoken word, meeting the living Word, and giving glory and worship in the songs, prayers, and rituals of the local congregation.

In view of that let’s unpack the fourth reading this morning, our lectionary Old Testament reading which is found in Genesis 32:22-31.

So, in brief, while Jacob was left alone a stranger came and wrestled with him until daybreak.  Jacob refuses to release the stranger until the stranger will bless Jacob.  The man renames Jacob “Israel”, a name that indicates the double meaning of one who strives with God and one with whom God strives.

In the same way the preacher seeks to wrestle with the Word, both the word as the text and the Word as the LORD Godself as he sits in prayer and discussion with God about what God wants to say to the people of this congregation at this time from what God initially spoke to a completely different people in an ancient time.  The event described this morning actually took place around 1750 BCE and in the area we now call Israel.  To write and preach is to wrestle, if not to struggle.

So, getting back to Jacob and some actual Biblical teaching for the day.  As your preacher I know you expect me to dig into the text a bit, pull out some worthwhile lessons or concepts, and draw some reasonable conclusions about those points that are both Biblical and relevant to life in the twenty-first century.  The way I have been taught to do that is to ask questions, and then answer them.  So let’s do that.

Question One:  Where is the missing girl?   In verse 22 we read of Jacob’s two wives, his two maidservants, and his eleven sons.  So what has happened to Dinah, the daughter of Jacob and Leah?  Aren’t you worried about Dinah?  Did you even notice she was missing?  Should I spend the next ten minutes discussing her?  This is the sort of question a good preacher will ask about the text.  It’s a valid question, and perhaps if I were writing an essay on a feminist critique of the scriptures I’d go into it, but church on Sunday is not the place for essays.  So I’ll not bother with that question since the absence of Dinah is not the key to understanding this passage.  A good preacher sticks to what is relevant.

Question Two: So what is the key to understanding this passage?  Actually I’d like to call that “question zero” because it should come before question one.  Read the passage, find the key, and then ask questions about it.  So we have question zero.  And the answer to that question poses another question.  Question Two: Who is the vampire?

Have a look at verse 26.  What’s with the stranger needing to leave at daybreak?  Simple, logical, Biblical answer is that he is a vampire.  We all know that vampires hate daylight, so it’s obvious what’s going on here.

Okay, so the vampire is Biblical, but is he relevant to the life of a local church in twenty-first century Australia?  Remember, a good preacher sticks to what is relevant.  So are vampires relevant?  Of course vampires are relevant, have you not seen all the fuss about the Twilight books and movies, or the new one Vampire Academy?  Australians, especially teenaged Australians, love vampires.  So we can go with that.

So back to our question: “who is the vampire?”  And the obvious answer is…anyone?…c’mon it’s obvious…no?  The vampire is Rumpelstiltskin.

Have a look at verse 29.  What’s with the vampire being so protective over his name? Huh?  Eh!  It’s Rumpelstiltskin who would not release the maiden from her promise to yield up the baby unless his true and secret name could be recited.  And so, amazingly, we have an answer to question one now.  We know where Dinah went; the mad vampire imp stole her!

Question Three:  Why did the vampire steal the little girl?  Are you keeping up?  This is culturally relevant, solidly Biblical stuff here, you might want to take notes.  Answer: because the vampire is Palestinian.  Scholars say, (which by the way is a great phrase to use because it suggests you’ve read the commentaries), scholars say that the stranger who wrestled with Jacob was not a real man but was indeed some sort of spiritual being.  Well duh, he’s a vampire, but anyway that’s what they say.  But the scholars are divided on what sort of spiritual being he was.  An angel?  A demon?  The pre-incarnate Christ, the one who sat with Abraham beneath the trees of Mamre in Genesis 18 and stood in the fire with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in Daniel 3?  I believe that this vampire was indeed pre-incarnate, but not Christ.  He was a pre-incarnate Hamas leader appearing in the demonic form of an ancient Canaanite demi-god.  Why do I believe this?  Well to me it is obvious, he is trying to keep “Israel” out of “Palestine”.

So in the course of the sermon the questions are both asked and answered and we come to the logical, Biblical, relevant conclusion which is a word from God for this congregation this morning.  Impish vampires, masquerading as Arab settlers, living on the occupied West Bank territories managed by the Palestinian Authority are preparing to launch a supernatural attack by blood-sucking child-stealers at the secular Jewish state of Israel.  Ignore the bombs, it’s the bats and the spinning wheels with golden thread you need to be looking out for.

For the Word of the Lord, thanks be to God.  Amen.

I mean, really?

gel se-ar as it is in Hebrew, because all great preachers need to quote words in Bible languages.  Cattle dung.  You can translate that into Australian-English if you wish, you have been doing that over the past five minutes.  At least I hope you were!!

Preaching is far more than just reading and interpreting the Bible, and then speaking in front of a crowd.  In theory my exegesis of Genesis 32:22-31 was logical and appropriate to the task, but of course it leads to a message of utter bullsnot, no matter how eloquent my enunciation.

As a lay preacher my first allegiance is not actually to the Bible, it’s to the community.  If I didn’t go into the scriptures thinking of you then who knows what I’d find in there.  Vampires?  Psh!!

As I stand before you this morning, and every other morning I am offered the privilege to speak to you, I constantly remember that you are not my sheep.  You are my F/father’s sheep and it is H/he who is responsible for your spiritual care.  And yes I am deliberately using two senses of father here.  You belong to God, and God has entrusted you to the care of Rev Rob, the man who is my dad.  Now this is not a call to you to “listen to my dad”, although since he is our minister I hope you listen to him even as I do as an adult Christian.  I’m not here to raise the profile of our local priest but to remind you, and myself, that the lay preacher in role is not his or her own person.  I am responsible to God for what I say or don’t say to you.  I am responsible to the Minister of the Word and the Council of Elders, and ultimately I’m responsible to you.  I hope that if I’d not tipped off several of our leaders before preaching this morning I’d not have made it as far as I did.  I mean, vampires?  Come on.

Lay Preaching does not mean that “everyone gets a turn”.  Paul is quite clear where he writes in Ephesians 4:10-12 and mainly verse 11 that while some are called to the ministry of preaching and teaching, many are called to other ministries.  If you are not called by God then you can’t expect to be chosen by the local church.  If you are called by God then what are you doing to work out your call?

What Bible study are you doing?  I’m not asking where you spend your Wednesday night rather I’m asking what you are doing with the scriptures to build your own faith and life of witness.

What is your theology and what is your understanding of the Uniting Church?  Are you prepared to honour the heritage of our form of Christianity or do you just want a platform to grind your own axe?  What conversations have you had with Rev Rob and the elders around your sense of call?

Lay preachers in the Uniting Church are accredited so that there are checks in place to determine the call and discipline of those to whom this great privilege is offered, the privilege of proclaiming the Word of God to the people of God.  It is not the inalienable right of the locals and no-one “deserves a turn”, not even the accredited.  In this congregation we use recognised non-accredited people who have studied under other denominations such as the Lutheran, Churches of Christ, and Baptist Churches, but these people while labelled “helpers” on the preaching plan are still expected to be people of integrity, faith, discipline, and learning.

My job is to point you to God so that you are looking in God’s direction when God draws you close.  I do this through private study that leads to public preaching, and personal devotion that leads to leading corporate worship.  It is a privilege I have worked towards because I place great value on it, but I acknowledge that this pulpit is not mine; it is God’s.

Wrestle, cry, and feed.  This is the preaching work of the LORD.

Amen.

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Ambassadors of Hope

Psalm 139, I Corinthians 13:13

Last Sunday afternoon I had the privilege of participating in “Beat the Blues”, an event self-described as an “interactive arts space affirming the ups and downs of life”. This was a Christian event organised by several members of the Uniting Church from across South Australia and Adelaide and it was held at The Corner UCA in Warradale. It was a time of reflection on the journeys many people make through mental illness, and a celebration of those who are surviving the passage. There was music, poetry, coffee, and space to “just be” and to respond creatively to what was being said. It was also a fundraising event for beyondblue and I was invited to speak on their behalf. Many of you known that I am a volunteer speaker for beyondblue, and those of you who know that also know that I am myself a mental illness survivor who is in the “resilience” stage of Generalised Anxiety Disorder and Social Phobia.

As an organisation beyondblue is not Christian: it is not un-Christian or anti-Christian in any way but it is secular in orientation. But that is not to say that it is an organisation which is unaware of the place of spirituality and religion and the role faith and ritual can have in healing and recovery from mental illness, and in ongoing positive mental health. Of course beyondblue are aware of these things: I work with them after all and I never shut up about Jesus when I’m in conversation with the team in Melbourne! As a speaker for beyondblue as well as my telling basic information about what our organisation does in terms of research, advocacy, and support, and some facts and statistics about what depression and anxiety look like in the Australian community, my main role is to tell my personal story of survival and to pick up on the three core words that beyondblue wants to get out there. These words are Hope, Recovery, and Resilience.

In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church, (or at least the first letter of his of which we have copies), he writes about three core words: faith, hope, and love. By Paul’s way of seeing the world when all is said and done these three things remain, and of these three things one thing is greater than the other two. The greatest thing is love. When I began speaking to the group last Sunday night, and remember that I was addressing a Christian crowd, I quoted I Corinthians 13:13 to them and allowed them to fill in the final word. But sadly, like St Paul, they got it wrong.

The greatest of these is not “love”, it is “hope”.

There is no faith without hope: because hope-lost people do not know how to believe.

There is no love without hope: because hope-lost people do not know how to belong.

Perhaps it is better to feel loved than to feel hope-filled, and without love hope can seem to dry up, but love is dependent upon hope, especially if your emotions and thinking are affected by the faulty wiring that typifies mental health problems and mental illness.

The first event in recovery, as mapped by a beyondblue speaker doing his organisation proud, is the recognition that help must be sought. “I am sick and I want to get better”. As a Christian who has walked this path as both a survivor and a speaker I want to suggest to you that seeking help is coming to the understanding that what I am searching for is hope.

Recovery is the second great word. Recovery is believing in hope. There is light at the end of the tunnel.

Resilience is the third great word. Resilience is living by hope. Even though there may well be another tunnel at the end of this light, there will be another light at the end of that further tunnel, and no matter how many more tunnels this journey enters each one ends in light and more light.

As a speaker for a secular organisation like beyondblue, and it is much the same for them as it is for Schools Ministry Group for whom I was a Christian Pastoral Support Worker (or “school chaplain”), I’m not expected to talk about God. And generally I don’t. My responsibility is to tell my story of hope, recovery, and resilience to encourage and direct others to find their own way along that same journey. My own story of hope is a story of my Christian faith, and as such that is the context that I speak about, but I see my role as a speaker as pointing towards hope rather than pointing towards God. But just between you and me, and whoever reads this on my blog, I have confidence that if I point people towards a journey of hope they will continue along that road until they find Jesus because it is only in him that hope has a home and our deepest senses of longing are filled. If such people don’t actually “become a Christian” before they die, well that is as it is, for me. You may disagree with me on that, you may see the work of a Christian as necessarily pointing toward conversion, but as an advocate of hope I understand my job is to point toward hope, and help people start that journey. It is up to them and to God to end the journey well. In parabolic language I am a sower; let others tend and reap.

In Psalm 139 we read the private thoughts of a man who has found hope and who sits in quiet wonder and reflection on the source and shape of that hope. This man has done some hard yards and he is still walking the journey of hope. This man has found both belief and belonging on that journey.

Open your Bible up and read along with me:
1-6 God knows me intimately and knows everything about me, even more than I know about me.
7-12 I can never be lost or far away from the God who knows me, even when I want to be far, or try to be, or believe myself to be. Look at 11-12 with a mind toward poor mental health.
13-18 I was made by God, deliberately, for a purpose and according to a design and plan. Look at 14 as a response to feelings of poor self-worth.
19-24 I can be honest and transparent before God, confident that I am acceptable.

In his book “Naked Before God” Bill Williams, who as he writes is in his mid-thirties and is slowly dying of Cystic Fibrosis, writes “I am trying to remember who I am.” This is the struggle that many people outside the walls of the Church face, not only those struggling with the unhelpful thinking patterns of mental illness but also the unhelpful thinking patterns of a broken world. Indeed there are plenty of people inside the Church who struggle with identity too. Williams reminds us that the work of Jesus is to remake us and to restore the broken and dishevelled likeness we currently exhibit to the good likeness and image of God we were created with. Psalm 139:14 tells me quite clearly that I was not made poorly, I was made good, but I have been broken. The Gospel of Hope is that there is a real me, the image of God to which I shall be restored and repaired.

Our job as the local church is to be ambassadors of hope. In beyondblue there are two categories of public agency trained to speak on our behalf: the Speakers (like me) and the Ambassadors. A beyondblue ambassador is basically a speaker with a high public profile, not necessarily a Jeff Kennett, a Jessica Rowe or a Johanna Griggs, (indeed your name need not begin with J at all), but someone who if they have an opinion also have a following who makes that opinion noteworthy. I wonder whether Kangaroo Island has a number of speakers of hope, but not many ambassadors.

Are we people of influence in our community?

Do we want to be?

Who are we in this community to speak about hope? Who would listen to us if we did?

Bill Williams says a lot of things I’m not sure I agree with, but then he’s dying so I’m prepared to cut him some slack. But one thing I am warming to is his idea that when Jesus says to someone “your sins are forgiven” he is doing more than absolving their guilt; he is saying to them “you are acceptable to God”. Grace tells us that none of us are worthy of forgiveness, but each of us is chosen to receive it nonetheless. Perhaps the scribes and Pharisees of his day thought Jesus was only a speaker of grace and not an ambassador. They did not accept that he was authorised to speak of God’s prerogatives with such boldness, but that is not what we believe of Jesus. We read in John 1:1 that Jesus is the Word of God, the greatest ambassador of hope ever to be sent.

So the Word of God tells us that we acceptable to God. The scriptures tell us that we are amazingly and intricately made, never truly alone in the darkness, wonderful and able to be restored. The Church tells us that all of this is true, and that this message has been effective since Jesus walked out of his own tomb proclaiming life and restoration.

The question today is, who are you going to tell?

We are ambassadors of hope, we speak from personal experience.

Amen.

How can we sing the LORD’s song in estranged land?

Psalm 137

The psalm I have chosen for today is not the one set by the lectionary for this week, although it does appear in the lectionary elsewhere. It’s one of those psalms that the lectionary cuts back for public reading so not all of the verses are set to be read aloud in worship. We tend to drop the final two verses of this one because they aren’t really conducive to the family-values ethic we are going for in the Christian Church.

Psalm 137 was probably written during the time of the Exile of the Jewish people in Babylon and so was written around the same time as the events it describes. It’s full of raw emotion, spur of the moment type stuff, and that is why it can make for uncomfortable reading. This song of God’s people speaks about their deep sense of despair; they have lost their reason for hope and they have lost all of the joy that comes from belonging and believing. Babylon is a place of defeat and ridicule, the people feel displaced and despondent. They are being mocked by their captors.

When have you ever felt like that? What sort of situation might cause you to feel that way?

But loss and displacement is not everything that is going on here; this is also a song of remembrance. “We shall not forget” is the key statement of this song. We shall not forget Zion and the place we came from, and we shall not forget the abuse we are suffering now. We will see this through, we will rise again, and we will be vindicated, because if we don’t remember then we are finished.

I like the word remembering and the idea of breaking it down into its syllables. To remember is to re-member, because what is not remembered is not only forgotten it is dis-membered, and may be lost forever. In the film “The Monuments Men”, set during the last months of WWII, a group of US soldiers runs ahead of the D-Day landings and the Allied advance into France to stop the retreating Nazis from destroying all of the loot they have plundered from across Europe in the previous four years. In particular they want to save and preserve the great art works and literature of the Jewish people. The commander of the group, played by George Clooney, says “if you destroy an entire generation of a people’s culture it’s as if they’ve never existed.” Hitler probably knew at this stage that he would not wipe out the Jews, there would be men and women who survived the camps and in hiding, as well as those not living in Europe at all; but if Hitler and the Wehrmacht could wipe away the Jewish people’s art then these survivors might just forget their culture . Some people will live on but their “Jewishness”, if not Judaism itself, will be lost. The Psalmist writing in Babylon is facing a similar threat and he sings that that loyalty lies in the work of remembering and actively resisting forgetting. A remnant will return to Zion eventually, but what will be the point if they have forgotten how to be Jewish?

“We await redemption with perseverance” is their motto, even if they are made to wait in tears and grimaces.

So what about those final three verses? What do we think about the people of God praying against grace that God would remember the sins of Edom and Babylon and repay those nations for their goading against Israel and Judah? “We are angry at what has happened to us and we demand vindication and relief” says the Psalmist.

What do we think?

I think these verses say that it is okay to be angry at what has happened to you, and at the attempt made to destroy the work of God in history because anger shows concern. The indifferent may be passive, but the passionate show their care by their resistance. May those who tried to cut us off from our Past be themselves cut off from the Future. Like you I’m not keen on the idea of babies being dashed against rocks, and even if someone were to murder my one year old nephew in that way I don’t think I’d be raiding the local kinder-gym to return the favour to the children of my enemies, but I understand the strong feeling of wanting to obliterate those who have hurt me so maliciously. I am comfortable with these verses being in the Bible, not because they are a teaching to “go thou and do likewise”, but because they demonstrate that God can handle our blinding fury at injustice and the attempt of our enemies to deny and remove God’s name from history and God’s people from existence.

But this is where the message gets hard, and as preacher I become somewhat introspective. Allowing that the service so far has been focussed on remembering the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australia, how does this verse sit? On what side of the psalm are we, the Second People in this land?

In Australia the situation is radically different to that of the Judahites in exile because here the people of the land weren’t removed, they were just overwhelmed by newcomers. Australia is more like the occupied Judea of Jesus’ day, full of Jews but full also of Romans and Greeks. Australia is more like the Israel and Palestine of today, full of Israeli Jews but full also of Arabs and Palestinians, both Muslim and Christian, and fuller still of Jewish émigrés from Europe and North America. We can ask in the light of Psalm 137 how First Nations people feel about living in a Second People’s religious and social culture.

How can they sing the LORD’s song in estranged land?

Do the Kaurna who sit by the rivers of Adelaide weep when they remember Karra wirra-parri or Tarndanyangga? What do the Cadigal people think, that sub-tribe of the Eora nation who inhabited Cadi, the place we now call Circular Quay (Sydney Cove)? How do they sing the LORD’s song? Or do we persist in the belief that the LORD’s song was not known until the British turned up in 1836 and 1788 respectively?

I don’t want to talk too much about this, not because I don’t think it important but out of respect that I am not aboriginal. My people, on both sides of my family, are English. Dad’s ancestry is London back five generations from him, Mum is Kentish but her parents are from the North of England, grandpa was a Yorkshire man and nana was a Geordie from Co. Durham. I am in the same place as you, a whitefulla looking in. This Australian sense of exile is not my story.

But I can imagine how I’d feel.

I think I’d feel alienated and cut off from reality. The words don’t match the pictures any more, kind of like watching an advertisement for Australia overseas where the images are of Uluru but the words are in Czech. Or perhaps going to Hahndorf and drinking European beer in a European building surrounded by the nasal twang of Strayan accents.

I think I’d feel like this is where I am from, but I don’t feel welcome. This is how I felt in Melbourne last month when I was in the city I was born in, and hanging out with the kids I went to school with, (all of whom, like me, are 42 years old) but I did not recognising anyone or anything. Waverley of the 1980s no longer exists and there’s a weird place called Monash there in 2014 with much larger buildings, much fewer gardens, and wide, busy roads. I would feel like a stranger in the one place where I should feel completely at home.

I think I’d feel like I don’t belong anymore. And that would make me angry because this is where I am FROM, God-bless-it! This is my land, my home, my inheritance and my present from God. It is my responsibility and it is under my stewardship but these pasty-faced buggers on their sailing ships and their green-and-gold face paint are mucking the whole place up!!! To have lost a sense of belonging in your own homeland is to feel exiled and alienated everywhere

As Christians we are citizens of another place, and many immigrant Australians know that even if their family has been here for generations, (like my dad and his family have been), that they are not “from here” in the way that the local Nunga and Anangu, Koori, Yolngu, Pallawah and Lia Pootah are. Christians are always far from home, and like the Judahites in Babylon we must never forget who we really are, but at the same time we must respect those upon whose territory we walk as newcomers. We must share the good news of Jesus Christ died and raised to life, but we must never isolate and estrange people from the unique image of God in which they were made, and the specific acts of stewardship entrusted to them by our same God. The gospel of grace does NOT authorise us to be bullies. We must tread boldly but with respect: we are walking on holy ground on holy business, but we are not the first persons to do so.

Amen.