My Opia

This is the text of the message I preached at Lakes Entrance Uniting Church on Sunday 30th July 2017.  Immediately following this service was the congregation’s Annual General Meeting

Genesis 29:15-28; Psalm 128; Romans 8:26-31.

In 2007 while I was still living in England I attended a rather well-known church.  This was not the rather well-known church I have spoken of previously, the famously musical one where I belonged between 2003-2009, no this is another church.  This church, the other church, was famous not for its music but for its mission-minded community groups.  Anyway, one evening at this church, following a particularly pointed message from the vicar, I ordered and then received by post a book written by him, and in that book, was a story.  Here’s my take on the gist of that story:

The parish church of St Osram’s in the rural village of Great St Osram had a weekly attendance of ten people, the youngest of whom was 72.  They were faithful people and they enjoyed each other’s company over tea after the service, and the rituals and rites of the Order of Common Worship during the service.  Anyway, there came a time when old St Osram’s, with its twelfth century bluestone nave and sixteenth century oak-board porch, needed some major repair.  Money was requested and then forthcoming from the diocese and from the pockets of the parish.  When all the tithes, gifts and offerings added to the cake-stall takings, grants and loans had attained a sufficient sum, St Osram’s was closed temporarily and the congregation moved across the road to the WI hall for worship.  (Now Women’s Institute is the UK version of CWA.)  Now, because the WI hall was a 1950s edifice and was brighter, warmer, and larger than old St Osram’s, the congregation decided to run a midweek playgroup and coffee morning for the village in addition to its Sunday worship.  This became very popular, and soon enough the mums and bubs who had been popping in on a Tuesday started coming to church on Sundays as well.  Then some dads came, and a few school aged-kids with their parents too.  And other people, younger adults without kids started coming.  The church grew marvellously, a Sunday school was set up, a Wednesday Bible Study was started by one of the young couples, and at the end of the six months that it took for St Osram’s to be renovated, the church had grown from ten people to thirty-five.

Are you with me so far?

So, when after the six months the church council met specifically to facilitate the move out of the WI hall and across to the renovated St Osram’s they were faced with a dilemma, weren’t they?  Can anyone suggest what it was?  Yes, that’s right.  How can we get the original ten of us back into St Osram’s on a Sunday without those twenty-five interlopers coming across too?

In Genesis, we continually read of God’s faithfulness to individual people, even when along the way their story speaks of episodes of disappointment.  Today’s reading from chapter 29 sees our friend Jacob safely arrived in Haran and living with Laban, the brother of his mother Rebekah, his uncle.  The daughters of Laban, Leah and Rachel, are his first cousins and the nieces of Rebekah: exactly the clanswomen the inheritor of the promise to Abraham needs to marry.  We heard this morning how Jacob worked seven years unpaid for Laban in lieu of a monetary bride price.  At the end of that time he was to receive his cousin Rachel, at which point he would be free to take her back to Canaan and inherit the land promised by God.  And so, after seven years and then the traditional tribal wedding, as Genesis 29:25 says [w]hen morning came, it was Leah!  Disappointment is an understatement in this story; the deceiver has been deceived and he has been sold the wrong girl in a transaction where there are no refunds or exchanges for faulty product.  All is good when Rachel arrives in Jacob’s tent a week later; at the end of the traditional (and no doubt rather cold in this instance) week of day-long parties and night-long honeymoon-style consummation.  In exchange for this second wife Jacob commits to another seven years of unpaid work to purchase Rachel from her father.  How this all appeared to Leah we are not told, and it’s not a question I wish to answer today as I have a different point to make.  But for those of you interested in Feminist readings of the scriptures this passage is a corker.

The Hebrew adjective used to describe Leah’s eyes in the original text might mean “delicate” more than “lovely” as the NRSV puts it.  Her eyes might therefore be weak.  So, was she doe-eyed and lovely, or was she short-sighted and squinty?  Whatever she’s selling, Jacob isn’t buying.  At the same time, I wonder how, after seven years of living close by the sisters Jacob doesn’t realise even in the dark which girl he is bedding.  Leah might not be the only squinty-eyed seer in this story.

The words of Psalm 128, somewhat ironically reflect the story of Leah.  It is she who is fruitful in the early days of this family, bearing four strong sons to Jacob while Rachel remains barren.  It is she, the eternally disappointingly squinty one, who bears the fruit of Jacob’s labour, not the best-desired Rachel.  Jacob was no doubt proud of his boys, those olive shoots around his table as 128:3 puts it, the evidence of the blessing bestowed on the one who fears the Lord.  But as Leonard Cohen might have said, “it’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah” from Leah’s perspective.

So, here’s my question: are we blind, as Jacob was, to the blessings that God has given us?

Psalm 128 is a blessing song in that it may well have been pronounced over pilgrims arriving in Jerusalem, in other words it’s another one of those festival songs we know about which make the Psalms in the one-teens and one-twenties.  Those who came to Jerusalem would be blessed by the priests in attendance as part of the ritual, before being sent home beneath the spoken favour of God.  What we read here as blessing is all that has been given in the early life of Jacob, but had he seen it?  Had he seen that the channel of God’s favour to him is Leah, or is he both besotted and blinded by Rachel such that God’s favour goes unseen?

That’s what my family would call a chin-grabbing question.  Here’s how it works, it’s congregation participation time.  Everyone grab your chin with one hand.  Then drop your eyebrows into a frown and say “hmm”.  Perhaps give a little nod as you do to indicate the profundity of the question.  “Hmm.”  Has Jacob overlooked the goodness coming into his life because it has come through a doorway he was not attentive towards, and because it has not come through the doorway he is watching?  Hmm.

So, let me ask you another one.  You don’t need to grab your chin for this one, I’ll do it for you.  So, what about us?  Hmm.  Where is God blessing us and funnelling blessing in to us that we have missed, or ignored, or despised?  Hmm.  Where has God answered our prayers in ways we do not like?  Hmm.  Where might God be wanting to prosper us, but we don’t want to know?  Hmm.

Surely, you’re not saying Damien that we don’t want God to bless us?  Huh?

Well, where might God want to be bountiful to us, with an overabundance, but we are happy with sufficiency or even survival rations?  Hmm?  Huh?

We might be afraid of an abundance of the Holy Spirit, as if the world might think us arrogant if we have too much spiritual authority?  Hmm?  Huh?

Are we afraid that if we have more than enough of God for ourselves it is a sign that God wants us to share God around?  Hmm?  Huh?

As we meet later this morning to discuss the past eighteen months of ministry at our AGM, will we find that God is equipping us for a journey we don’t want to take?  Hmm?  Huh?

Here’s another chin-grabbing question for you: why is there so much gifting in this congregation, but so little action, relatively speaking?  Is it possible that we don’t WANT to be so fully blessed by God?  Are we happy in our perceived insufficiency, confident that we are too old, or too few to make a difference?  Are we happy to be excused from the work of the Global Church for that reason: the demand is too great for us so we shrug with a resigned smile and a sigh while the younger, more numerous, more gifted Baptists, Anglicans, and Roman Catholics transform Lakes Entrance?

Hmm?  Huh?

To return to Jacob and his sister-wives, are we too squinty-eyed?  Do we recognise the God who is wooing us, the empowering One?  Do we fail to perceive the future, looking short-sightedly only as far as we can see in our own strength?

I want to say immediately, that this church, Lakes Entrance Uniting Church, is not doing nothing.  Double negative which makes a positive, we are not doing nothing and we are doing something.  We are actively engaged in our community and in our world.

  • You have all read the reports from Interim Church Council and Elders concerning the pastoral and administrative work of local leaders and outside assistants.
  • You have all read about the work of Toddler Gym, Days for Girls, Friendship Circle, Combined Churches Emergency Food Reelief, and Op Shop in our town.
  • You have all read about the work of the Lord through Mala’bi Foundation in Indonesia which this congregation supports.

We are not lazy, nor are we slack.

But are we doing all we are called to do?  Is each of us doing what God has gifted us each to do?  Are there ministries undone, ministers untapped, or gifts unopened in this place?  If so, is that because we’d rather someone other than ourselves step up?  Is that because we’d rather anyone but the one with her hand in the air, does it?

  • Is your prayer “here I am Lord, send him.”
  • Is your prayer “I see her over there Lord, but can’t you send someone else…not me…just not her.”

I really don’t think anyone here is praying that way, or even thinking that way.  I hope that I am right in that.

In Romans 8:19 we read that creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.  Did you get that, the world is waiting for the revelation of God which only the church can proclaim?  In Romans 8:21 we read the reason that the world is waiting for this revelation, and it is because by the knowledge of this revelation the world will be set free from bondage and will obtain the freedom of glory.

My question is what, if anything, are we withholding from the world?  We are doing much, but are we doing enough?  We cannot do everything, but can we do more?  Now, we can only do more if God calls us to do more, leads and guides us in doing more, and equips and blesses us as the more is being done.  This is obvious and true and I know you know this.  So, my challenge to us all, on this day of our AGM where we look forward into 2018 from what we have learned and done in 2016, is whether God is already calling and equipping us.

We are not a church like St Osram’s.  But are we the church God wants us to be today?

I do not believe that there is anything to be feared from “more of the same” where what we are doing is faithful to God and effective in the world.  Not one of our annual reports makes for desolate reading today, everything we are doing is hope-filled and forward looking.  But the rhetorical question I want you to take into today’s meeting if not into the remains of 2017’s calendar, and by rhetorical, I mean I’m asking it now so that you can think about it and respond to it in your own time, is what additional reports could we be reading at the next AGM?  What could we hear of next year if everyone sought God concerning his or her gift and then responded fully from his or her bounty of the Spirit’s help in our weakness as Romans 8:26 says?  Maybe nothing more, maybe we are at capacity now.  Maybe not.  This is something to think, pray, and do about.

The tribes of Levi and Judah, the ancestry of Jesus, both derive from Leah, not Rachel.   The only descendent of Rachel to be King over Israel was Saul the Benjaminite, and we know how that turned out. In that way, I pray that we will always be a church looking for God’s blessing wherever and through whomever God wishes to bestow it, not only our perceived favourite ways or families.  I pray that we will always be a church attentive to the cries of desperation from a hurting world, hungry for what we have in our bellies and our storehouses.  And I pray that we will always, always, always, be a church which makes space for the interlopers.

Amen.

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Are you?

This is the text of my Minister’s Message for the August 2017 newsletter at Lakes Entrance Uniting Church.

As many of you are aware, I lived in the United Kingdom between 2001-2009, and for much of that time I was actively involved in Hillsong Church London.  One of the key motivating texts which appeared on our promotional material, and was cited in the messages from the platform, came from 2 Samuel 7:5.  In this verse God asks King David, “are you the one to build me a house?”

The intended response from our leaders was that we would say “yes!” and rally to the cause of building God’s kingdom in London by doing the work of Christians.  “Bring your tithes into the storehouse so that there might be food in my house” (Malachi 3:10) we were reminded, and “use what’s in your hand to fulfil what is in your heart” as Brian Houston said.  “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19) we were reminded, something which could be done just by crossing the road in London’s many multi-ethnic suburbs.

The irony is that the answer God expected from David was “no”.  David was not the one to build the temple in Jerusalem – that responsibility was to be given to Solomon.  David had too much blood on his hands: God wanted a temple built from worship and love for God and all people, not from booty and slaves.  God wanted a temple at which all nations would gather in celebration of the God of all.  The worship life of Israel was to continue in David’s day, but the Tent of Meeting would be a sufficient site until the hearts of Israel were ready to build a proper home of stone, gold, cedar, and love.

What has this to do with us?  Well I believe that God is asking the question of us which God asked of the Londoners.  We have a “house” here on the Esplanade, so like David we are not called to construction work.  But if this house is to be a home, a home to which all peoples are welcomed, then we do have a church to build.  This is done through our discipleship, worship, employ of our gifts, and our speaking of the shy hope in our hearts with our friends and neighbours.  Maybe the next generation will replace our building: maybe there is a Solomon today, in nappies, (more likely in his mid-twenties), who will rebuild this house as a home for his peers.  Our task is therefore to nurture him (or her if a Solomena) in the faith of our ancestors and to teach him the promises of our God.  We are not required to build a house, but we are required to build a home and to make it welcoming for all who come.

Sacred Secret Space

This is the text of the message I prepared for Sunday 23rd July 2017.

Genesis 28:10-19a; Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24.

Our brief journey through Genesis has brought us, this morning, to the place where God repeats to Jacob the promise made to Abraham.  God speaks in Jacob’s sleep and Jacob awakes in awe of the place: he names it Bethel or beit-El which means the house of God in recognition that he has stumbled across consecrated ground.  Jacob is wonderfully aware that he is in the place of “Secret God Business”, whose secret is now shared with the descendants of Abraham.  The stone pillar he erects and anoints is the rock he had used for a pillow, connecting the real presence of God with the physical geology of the place on earth.  So, the point is not primarily the promise, real and secure as that promise is, but that God repeats it to another generation.  God continues to speak; the message of God is not a once-only revelation which then belongs to the prophets to repeat.

The story from Bethel tells us that there are places where God speaks to us, and speaks with us, as women and men.  I think it’s important that we find and remember those places.  As Christians of this expression of Uniting Church, noting the vibe of the room in front of me, we believe that God can and does speak with us anywhere. But the story of Bethel, among others in the scriptures (such as the stories of Sinai) says that there are places where God desires to be found and where our movement toward that place prepares us to listen and respond to what we have heard.

And so, I ask you, where do you hear God?  Where has God spoken to you before?  Where is your Bethel?  Do you even have one?  This may be geographical (the prayer chair in the bedroom) or metaphorical (wherever I am at rest).  It might have been a one-off place in time and location (that worship service in Rosny on 10th September 1996), or it might be a repeated location.  In Genesis God often speaks “in dreams”; we see this here but we also see revelation-by-dream in Genesis 20:3, and Genesis 31:10-11, 24.  What is important to know about Bethel is that it is at the frontier of Canaanite territory.  God is speaking to Jacob as he is on the edge of leaving the land given to Abraham, the border of what has been promised as home.  Does God speak with you at the edges?  Perhaps if we want to hear God, or we want God to hear us, we might need to go to the edges.

Jacob is about to depart Canaan in search of a suitable wife, travelling back to Haran as the servant of Abraham had done to find a wife for Isaac.  God meets with Jacob and promises him that he will indeed return to the land promised by God to Abraham.  Since the promise was to Abraham for his descendants God reminds Jacob that the promise is for him too.  As the favoured son of Isaac, the favoured son of Abraham, the promise of a homeland and of nations and generations like the stars in their number for the blessing of the whole world is for Jacob.

What has God promised you?  Do you know?  Do you remember?  Has there ever been a promise just for you?  As Christians, we all have the promises of God in Christ, promises Jesus made to the Church or that God made through the Holy Spirit revealed in scripture.  I do not believe that the Church has been promised what Abraham was promised, which is to say land, many descendants, and the means to be a blessing to the world, although there are modifications of that if you follow the train of thought that the Church is the new Chosen people.  Blessed to be a blessing is certainly true of the Church, whereas an eternal homeland in Palestine, centred on Jerusalem, is not.  Christianity is not a land-based religion in that way: there is no Aliyah for us, the Jewish call for home, and we have no Mecca or Amritsar.  But, to get back on track, what has God promised you, personally?  Would anyone care to name such a promise?

God promised me one time at the edge, when I was homeless and sleeping in a shelter, that I’d never be without a roof; and specifically, that I’d never have to sleep in the two-storey carpark across the road from the shelter.  God reminded me many times, at the edge, that this was God’s promise.  And so far God has proven faithful to God’s word.  I am confident that God will always prove faithful to this promise.

In Psalm 139 we read what is many people’s favourite psalm.  It’s not my favourite, although it used to be, and it’s not my favourite only because another psalm has supplanted 139 in my heart as the deepest promise of God to me.  But if it’s your favourite then good for you, it’s a gem.

Tradition accords this psalm to the pen of David, and the NRSV has my partial approval in subtitling this poem “The Inescapable God”.   God is inescapable, not that God is unable to escape us, but that we are unable to escape God.  We cannot escape the inescapable one.  Why can’t we escape, well because as the very first words of this poem say, God has searched and has known you who has come to worship.  “I cannot outrun you,” says David, “you’ve got me and you always have had.  You know every movement of every sinew in my body, and every firing of every synapse in my brain.”  Such a God cannot be escaped.

“You search out the way for me,” David goes on to say.  God goes ahead like a scout and then comes beside as a trail guide to set the best path for where you or I walk next.   This verse, Psalm 139:3, is why I’m not enamoured of theologies which speak of Jesus occupying the driver’s seat of someone’s life.  Yes, in the “Footprints in the Sand” moments of life we may need a taxi or ambulance, and then it’s all “Jesus Take The Wheel” for me.  But for the most part I suggest that Jesus wants us to do our own driving while he sits in the other front seat as map-reader, course-plotter, navigator and companion.  Jesus is not a sat-nav, a disembodied voice from the dashboard; neither is he a front-seat passenger, passive as you drive.  No, this verse suggests that Jesus is more like the co-driver in a rally car, one who has travelled the road before and who knows where the tricky corners are, which way they curve, and whether there is sloppy mud or oil or ice or cow muck on the racing line.  Jesus is the one yelling out pace-notes above the roar of the engine as you throttle through those brief stages of life where you must travel with your foot to the floor, trusting him to tell you what to do in the next three bends.  Even in a championship rally, let alone a local car trial, not all the road is competitive: there are cruising stages where you and the navigator sit back a bit and drive to the next timed stage.  This is where Jesus sits with you just being and chatting and enjoying the road, and Psalm 139:4 speaks of this moment in the intimacy and trust that you and Jesus have in each other – he knows what you’re about to say, not because he is God omniscient but because he is your partner and he knows you.  To extend the metaphor, Jesus as co-driver has placed his life in your hands, he trusts you to keep him safely on the road and not to lose the car he is hurtling along in (with his head down to read the pace-notes) into the adjacent gullies, hillsides, and crowds of spectators.  It’s no wonder he is intimately acquainted with your thoughts and actions, he has needs to know you enough to trust you with his life.

That’s certainly not the metaphor David was thinking of, that God needs to know you intimately enough to have life-risking faith in you, but it works for me.  It works for me because the idea of Jesus as navigator rather than driver was revealed to me in my Bethel.  It works for me because if God in Christ is prepared to go to that extent to survey me, to ask about me, to check my references and my CV, and to look up my criminal record for selecting me for a relationship then I trust the news that God is interested in me and wants to know me.  If God knows everything about me and still wants to love me, well that’s amazing, but that’s the story of grace.  While I always celebrate the fullness of the gospel message to a hurting, waiting world, including me, I’ve heard that story before.  But that God would go to all that effort to find out about me, not just from God’s omniscience, but from God’s pursuit of me and God’s work to woo me just for the purposes of love, well that’s different.  Remember from Psalm 139:1 that David specifically says that he was searched and loved, not merely known about and acknowledged.  God is active in chasing you just so you can know how much God loves you.

God knows you.  God made you and so God knows how you were made and the bits used to make you.  We could go on to read that in the paragraph of Psalm 139:13-18.  God is eternal and without limit and for that reason it is not possible to be where God is not, and we have read that in the paragraph of Psalm 139:7-12.  But, again, even as wonderful as that message is, hear it with the insight that this loftiness and majesty of God is active, and is actively attending to you for love and to uphold you.

God chose Abraham and no one else, but God still loved the world.  Then God chose Isaac and not Ishmael, even as God loved and protected Ishmael.  Then God chose Jacob and not Esau, even as God loved and protected Esau (and saw him married to Ishmael’s daughter).  And from Jacob, eventually, comes the Jewish people and the story we continue to read of God blessing one group so that they can bring that blessing to the whole world.

God has also chosen you.  Don’t worry, God has chosen me as well, it’s not all up to you as it was all up to the Patriarchs.  But as God promised to be their God in the hope that they would be God’s people the same promise is made to us.  God promises love for you, guidance for you, protection for you, supervision for you, rescue for you, and peace for you.  Do you know that?  Do you know that because I have told you that, or others before me from behind this and other lecterns?  Do you know that because the Bible, or Joyce Meyer, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer told you that in print?

Can I invite you to say yes to those, but can I also invite you to develop and inhabit your own Bethel?  Can I encourage you to find a space, place, and time, to be where God is and to watch and learn as God goes about the work of grace right in front of you?  Find a chair, or a wardrobe.  Find a minute or twenty.  Fall asleep and dream if that works for you, (it often does for me).  Whatever you do, find God where God is and listen and ask about the promise made to you for your life.  Not just for salvation from sin, not just for Heaven when you die, not just for the promises made in Christ to the whole Church (although those too, those too).  But listen and ask for God’s personal, timely promise for you.  And then, in the confidence that the God who knows you in the Psalm 139 way is also with you in the fresh promise of today, go out and change the world.

Amen.

Underneath the lamplight

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Lakes Entrance Uniting Church for Sunday 16th July 2017, the sixth Sunday after Pentecost in Year A.

Genesis 25:19-34; Psalm 119:105-112; Romans 8:1-11.

This week our visit to Genesis jumps forward twenty years from last week’s reading.  Isaac is now sixty years old and he has been married to Rebekah since he was forty.  In all that time she has not been able to have children, and it appears that the promise made to Abraham and then furthered through Isaac is again under threat.  No son for Isaac means no nation for Abraham.  So Isaac prays for his wife in her barrenness just as his father had prayed for his mother.  (We’ll see the same is true in the next generation with Jacob’s best-loved wife Rachel: this is a common theme throughout Hebrew and Jewish history.)  Consequently Rebekah does become pregnant and her babies, twin boys, wrestle with each other in the womb.  Rebekah asks God about all the fighting inside her belly and God confirms that two great nations (Edom and Israel) are forming, struggling for supremacy.  God also confirms that as it was with Isaac and Ishmael, the younger son will be preeminent.  After they are born and mature into young men Esau (whose name means hairy) is his father’s son and Jacob (whose name means heel) is his mummy’s boy.

What we are presented with in these two men is two ways to live.  There brothers, twin brothers, are as different as men can be, let alone men born on the same day and from the same womb.  If you have been following With Love to the World in your personal Bible studies this week you’ll have read this passage on Tuesday and you would have been presented with the idea that what is going on here is very significant.  Not only is God choosing one son of Isaac over another, one grandson of Abraham to be the one who carries on that great promise made to Abraham to make a great nation of his decadents through Isaac, but God is favouring one way of life over another.  In contrast to the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4 God chooses the agrarian farmer rather than the nomadic hunter and tracker.  God has elected a settled way for men, and God has preferred men who are smooth-skinned, soft-handed and who work close to home.  God has de-selected the nomadic and ever wandering Neanderthal man who is rough and hairy, who eats only meat and other “red stuff”, and who doesn’t care what he has to give away to get some.

The question our readings ask of us is similar to the question asked of God.  Given two apparently equal options for moving forward, which option will you choose?  And pertinent to us alone, will your choice be the option that God chose?

The Psalmist finds in the Word of God a lamp for light in a time of severe (mental) affliction.  The section between Psalm 119:105-112 offers a plea that God would hear the praises offered by the afflicted one, and to teach her/him the ordinances of God’s chosen way.  “My life is in danger,” says the Psalmist, “but I will hold to God’s truth.  Others try to trip me up but I stay close to God so that I won’t fall, or I will be grabbed and saved if I do”.  The way of God is the way he/ she wants, and wants always, to be the way in which he/she walks.  The Psalmist finds joy, and we might unpack that as peace, rest, delight, hope, in God’s instructions to her/him.  The Psalmist listens to God and orients her- or himself to God’s ways.  The Word of God, like the creeds, is not a hammer to bash us into submission, but a light to illuminate the better way of life and to support those who walk it.  The Word of God brings freedom because in pointing out the dangers along the way the traveller can be confident that nothing will come as a surprising threat.  Remain listening and reflective as you walk, and you’ll be far less likely to walk astray.

In February I told you that I don’t like to use the headings which Bible translators have inserted into the text.  They can be misleading in that they are suggestive of only one, traditional interpretation of the passage to follow.  In the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible which I use to write my sermons, and you have in the rack in front of you, the heading for today’s passage from Romans 8 reads “Life in the Spirit”.  I’m not unhappy with that heading, because there is room for wriggle within it that perhaps the NRSV translators and the third-wave Charismatics may not have been aware of.  More of that in a sec.

The passage begins with the message that there is no condemnation. This is similar to the message of Psalm 119 but offers this message purely as support for the sake of freedom.  The peace of God towards you is your space to be free, and to move about on the way ahead.  (You are a hiker on a trail, not a tram on a rail.)  And like Psalm 119 there is a qualifier of this confidence, the promise is for those who are in Christ Jesus.  I understand this phrase to refer not to those who have answered an altar call and prayed “The Sinners’ Prayer”, who have walked “The Romans Road of Salvation” and who have learned “The Four Spiritual Laws”, but those who have taken notice of who Jesus said he was at face value, (i.e., that he was who he said he was) and who live and move within the world and its societies in the way that Jesus lived and moved.  Yes this is about your salvation from sin, yours and mine, but it’s not as rigid as a rote recitation of a written prayer of invitation or the memorisation and unwavering devotion to every word of the Nicene Creed might suggest.  The way of Christ is a better way than the way of rigid, legalised faith.  This is what Paul is saying; therefore this is what I am saying.  If you don’t like what I’ve just said, well take it up with Paul.  According to Paul only Jesus can save: the Law can point out error but it cannot do anything save a transgressor.  In response to this revelation, Paul counsels us to live so as to emulate Christ, not so as to avoid sin.  He says this secure in the knowledge that if you live for Christ then sin becomes an unlikely experience for you anyway.  The light of the Word which the Psalmist spoke of in 119:105 is revealed in Jesus, who is the Word made Flesh (John 1:1): not in rigid adherence to the syntax and grammar of the scriptural texts.  This is life in the spirit, as that heading in the NRSV suggests, and we can see it is so in two ways.

  1. It is life in the spirit of the law, “the vibe of the thing” it as the barrister says in “The Castle”. In the spirit of the law we find the way in which the law was supposed to be read and applied.
  2. It is life in the presence and up-taking of the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit our counsellor, advocate, friend, and empowering one. Do not let your obedience of the Law get in the way of your discipleship of God, it says in Romans 8:7.  If your way of being a Christian, obeying the law and practicing the rites and rituals of the faith, leads you to act or think in ways that Jesus did not or would not act or think, then it is your way which is wrong, not the way of Jesus.

If your way is not the way of Jesus, then what does that say about your way?  This is not condemnation from Paul or from me:  Paul desires that the Romans follow Jesus, not him, and I desire the same for you; rather this question is an invitation to reflect upon what your Christian life looks like.  Does your Christian life look like the life of Jesus?  I’ll leave that for you to ponder.

Paul goes on, in the light of this revelation, to remind his readers that they and we are not bound by our ideas of God, but that we have been swept up by God into fellowship with Christ, by the Spirit.  Those who have the Spirit belong to Christ, Paul says in Romans 8:10, and because we have the Spirit we have life and not death.  And if not death then not condemnation either, nor guilt, nor punishment, nor fear.  We have a saviour who can deliver us from the consequences and shame of sin, not just a judge who points out our wrongdoing but is powerless to do anything more than point and frown which is all the Law can do.

So walk in light.  Let the one who is the Word of God, the light and lamp of God, guide your feet along the Way of God.  Choose the way God chose, and be fruitful and useful in that way as you walk within and beside the Spirit who empowers you for service, and cossets you in love.

Amen.

Blink And You’ll Miss It.

This is the message I prepared for the fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday 9th July 2017, for the people of Lakes Entrance Uniting Church

Genesis 24:40; Song 2:8-13; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

I don’t know about you, but I often find when I’m reading my Bible that a verse jumps out from nowhere and has the potential to send me off on a tangent.  I don’t think that this is necessarily a terrible thing, but it can distract me from what the intended purpose of the passage, or indeed the Bible Study, might have been.  In the reading set for today from Genesis 24 we are presented with quite a detailed story of how the servant of Abraham goes back to Abraham’s people in Sumer to find a wife for Isaac.  Abraham does not want his son marrying a Canaanite woman, an indigenous woman of the promised land, rather he seeks a bride from his own people.  During his setting his servant on his way, and assuring the servant that he will be successful in his task, Abraham speaks in Genesis 24:40 of his confidence in the LORD before whom I walk.  That is such a verse for me, and such a lovely phrase, Abraham doesn’t say “God” or “the Lord”, but speaks of a relationship with the One who gives him assurance.  Abraham knows God, daily and holistically.  There is nothing about Abraham that is hidden from God, and nothing about God that Abraham needs to know that is hidden from Abraham.

And then suddenly there we are, or at least there I am.  Rebekah and the whole story of her watering the camels of the servant, her agreeing on the spot to leave her family forever and travel thousands of miles to meet and then marry a stranger, is all forgotten.  The point of the story, indicated by the lectionary’s choice of Psalm, is not a wedding within the genealogy of the Jewish people, for Rebekah will become the mother of Esau and Jacob.  No, the point of the story is that Abraham walks before God, and that that intimacy is the source of all his strength as a patriarch.

A similar thing happened to me when I read the gospel for this week, although this time I saw it coming.  In Matthew 11 Jesus declares the generations of his day to be unaware of the time in which they live, and to be full of contradictions.  Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds says Jesus in Matthew 11:19, some early manuscripts say by her children.  Jesus makes his point, which is to be aware of what is going on around you, and then he prays thanksgiving to the Father that God has made the truth about the world readily seen by children but not by adults.

Blink and you’ll miss it.  One verse can jump out and grab you, regardless of the narrative, and you can learn from what God alone shows you from the written word if you are open and inquisitive.  Be aware, be mindful, of God’s active presence.

What is it about children that Jesus commends them as a model of understanding?  The parents and teachers amongst us know that children are inquisitive, trusting, hope-filled, straightforward, easy to laugh (or cry), sympathetic and compassionate beings.  Children can be vulnerable and so need caring for.  Jesus might be telling us that revelation is given to such as these, the precious and trusting ones who stay close to the Father as little kids stay close to daddy.  Except that children in Jesus’ day were not the cherished little cherubs of the late Victorian era and into our century: they were perceived by adults to be outsiders to the adult world, and therefore an issue.  Children break easily, so there’s always the danger of a parent’s being bereaved or otherwise inconvenienced.  Children are disruptive, noisy, inappropriate, clumsy, disobedient, cheeky, foolish, and simple-minded in a bad way.  Yet, Jesus says that God reveals the truth to these half-sized terrors, and leaves the civilised, mature, hardworking adults without revelation.

D’uh!  That’s not what we want to know!  Jesus isn’t talking about God favouring the little cuddle-monsters with their wide-eyed delight at whatever mummy says or does.  Jesus says that when showing God’s true nature and revealing the deepest knowledge God overlooks people like you and me, leaving us in the dark, and reveals it all to the boof-heads with ADHD.  So, when Jesus says of himself in Matthew 11:27 that no one knows the Son except the Father, and that only God knows the fullest and most intimate stories of the Son, and that no one knows the Father except the Son, (same deal), and those to whom the Son reveals the Father, what he’s saying is that Jesus’ preferred audience for this revelation is the noisy and disruptive.

Why, on earth, would that be the case?

Jesus answers this question, let’s read on.  Those who come to the Son in need of the Father will lay down their burdens.  They will be yoked to Christ, so he will help in carrying the necessary burdens as the two, Christ and the disciple, push together on the yoke.

So, it is not untrue, neither is it unbiblical, that those who come to God in simplicity, innocence and trust will receive favour and wisdom.  Those who come with a childlike faith will be rewarded by grace with love and the intimate secrets of God.  Abraham walked before God and God blessed Abraham mightily; that is still true.

But better yet, the disruptive, breakable, always in your face and under your feet, the making too much noise and mess ones, the ones who need God, are especially included by God in the wisdom of God.  Wisdom is a chaser, as well as the object of the chase.

Song 2:8-13, as with much of the Song of Songs, is a parable about the chase of Wisdom.  Wisdom is the woman in the story, the beloved; the lover is the pursuer of wisdom, the young scholar.  The romance then is not between two people, but between the scholar and the scholarship, the student and the study, the disciple and the discipline, the talmid and the Talmud.  But with that studious focus look at the words of this poem.  The student is playing peek-a-boo with the object of his studies, the personification of wisdom.  This is no dry academic exercise of a bored man surrounded by mouldy and dusty books, it’s a dance in the meadow at spring.  Show even the slightest interest in God and God will hunt you down like a lover desperate for his beloved, and God will hunger for you like that beloved awaiting her lover’s shadow at the door.  Heady stuff.

But this ancient song does not mean that coming to faith is not arduous.  It can be light and life, an easy yoke, and a personal relationship with the One before whom we walk who hungers after us, but it is not necessarily like that.  As a student, I always liked the metaphorical language of “wrestling with the text”, and since my first degree was in Sociolinguistics I enjoy doing this.  Look at Paul’s struggle with discipleship in Romans 7:15-25.

Sin is an ongoing challenge for Paul, much like those noisy children in the marketplace of Jesus.  I try to do good, says Paul, but I keep tripping over my past.  I try to avoid the evil I once practiced, says Paul, but I keep tripping over the way of the world and being snagged by the temptations which abound in everyday life.  Paul was a scholar, a scholar of scholars in face and had been discipled by one of the greatest rabbis of his day, Gamaliel.  Paul was a Pharisee, these days we’d call him a Conservative Evangelical, so he knew his scriptures and he knew the best interpretations of them to inform a God-honouring life.  He had wrestled with the text, and probably enjoyed himself in that, but the message of the text had left him burdened.  And even when he did adopt the yoke of Christ, and stepped out from underneath the crippling demands of the Fundamentalist view of Law, he still found himself falling short of what God had released him in to.  From his divided self, Paul cries out that Jesus should be glorified because that is the truth which surpasses the lies and duplicity of his experience.

In Abraham, we hear a man about whom God knows everything, and who knows all that he needs to know about God to walk with God in friendship.  Paul is not a friend of God in the way that Abraham was, but as a scholar and a faithful practitioner of the rituals he too knows that God knows him, and Paul knows that what he knows of God is enough to keep him walking the path of discipleship.  Both men fell over on that walk, but both me got up every time and kept walking with God.  From Jesus, we hear that this is the way of God, not that we must fall over, but that it is okay when we do because God is patient and loving and will pick us up like a lover or wait for us while we pick ourselves up like a daddy teaching his child to be independent of his carrying arms.  God is revealed to be like Jesus is, and we read that Jesus was a good bloke who people liked spending time with and who did not fly off the handle when mistakes were made.

The story of the tangent, of that one verse that can grab you even in the middle of a love story told over thousands of miles, is that God’s love evident in God’s desire to share all that God is and all that God has is true for the deepest of deep disciples, and for the rattiest of noisy ratbags in the world.  I don’t need to ask which one is you, because it doesn’t matter.

Come, says the Lord, I will tell you marvellous things, and I will give you rest.

Amen.

 

Groaning Trust

This is the text of the message I prepared for Lakes Entrance Uniting Church for Sunday 2nd July 2017

Genesis 22:1-14; Psalm 13

The story of the sacrifice of Isaac has been a troubling one for scholars since the day it was presented as a text.  In oral and written traditions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and social scientific study this story has caused problems for thousands of years.  I mean, what is this story trying to say?  What is the take-home message from such an horrific account?

Some have said that the point is God’s definitive rejection of human sacrifice.  That in a time and place where children were sacrificed to gods in the Ancient Near East, the instruction of Elohim as God is called here, to first bind Isaac on the altar and then to so gloriously redeem him with a last-minute shriek from an angel and the placement of a nearby ram, is clear.  “No more boys, just rams please,” thus saith the Lord.  But if that is the point, that Elohim does not need or want children killed in worship, why make such a big show of it?  Poor Abraham and Isaac to be pawns in such a role-play.  The God of Abraham and Isaac, and later of Jacob, comes out as a new type of deity, but this God is still a monster who thinks nothing of terrifying the most faithful of worshippers to make a point about God’s own generous nature.

So, no, I don’t think it’s that at all.  God could have just said “thou shalt not kill thy children for my sake” and been done with it.  This week-long sermon illustration which culminates at the point of a father’s dagger over his son, his dear son, the son whom he loves who is tied up and terrified is unnecessary and is therefore extremely cruel.

So, it must be something else: so why this story, and why so early in the Hebrew tradition?  Remember that we are in Genesis 22 here, that’s page 15 of the Bible in front of you.

I think that the question is actually for the worshippers of God, and that it is framed by the thought “can we be trusted with God’s future”? Abraham was prepared to trust God even with the death of his dearly loved son.  But more than the death of his boy, Abraham’s sacrifice put into jeopardy the promise of God that Abraham would be the father of many descendants, indeed of many nations.  With Ismael sent off with Hagar years ago, and Isaac soon to be a charred corpse, how was God going to provide this nation?  Now I am sure that Abraham had faith for another son, after all he’d had sons at 75 and 100 years of age, but the promise had been through Isaac and now Isaac was to be slain and cremated.

So, in asking whether we can be trusted with God’s future I wonder whether the real question is whether we trust God with God’s promise.  Not that any of us would dare to sacrifice our child, or to even set off on the journey without first checking back with God in prayer: but what if God asked us to do something which would put in jeopardy the unique and divine promise made to you?  Would you, do it?  Would you ask God for clarification first?  Or would you assume that this voice was a temptation or an instance of spiritual warfare and just ignore the call to a different sort of obedience?

I wonder whether you would think a call to you in the way that God called to Abraham was a step to far.  Is this one of those “do not lead me into temptation” or “save me in the time of trial” situation we pray about in the Lord’s prayer, asking not for an easy life but for a life where God’s testing does not push us over the edge?  In other words, is this a test you would definitely fail?  Is this moment a step beyond Gethsemane where even the Christ who lives in you would hand the cup back to God and say, “no Father, just no, you’ve asked too much this time, even of me.”  I believe that such an act is outside the love of God, and therefore inconsistent with the one who is utterly dependable.  Yet Abraham saw light where there was just blackness and chose to trust God even when God seemed self-contradicting.  This is extraordinary faith.

So, what do we do when God is saying yes and no to the same thing?  I know that if a voice in his prayers had told my father, at any time in the last 45 years, to “take Damien into the hills, slit his throat and burn his corpse”, that my dad would have had a very hard time believing that that voice was God.  And even if he did believe, I’m pretty sure that would have been an instruction too far: again “no Lord, not even you can ask me to do that, I won’t do it.”  That instruction is inconsistent with the God we know, and who has been revealed to us in Jesus, scripture, Creation, and the history of the world and theology.  So, it’s a pretty safe bet that if you hear an instruction to kill somebody it’s not God who is telling you that.  But Abraham didn’t know that, Abraham did not have the Bible, or Jesus, or even Judaism to tell him the way of God.  I don’t know if child sacrifice was part of Abraham’s earlier life in Sumer, and that the revelation that the new god he had followed into Canaan was that sort of a god was a shock to him.  I mean if the gods of Sumer wanted child sacrifice why shouldn’t this new god demand it too?  If you didn’t know any better, and Abraham may not have known any better, why not?

So, here’s two things we can do to be ready when our trust of God takes us beyond the edge or Reason, and then beyond the edge of Faith itself.

  1. Know God.
  2. Burrow deep into God and really listen.

How long must I wait for an answer says David in Psalm 13.  This is the prayer of a desperate man, a man who is in dire straits, a man who feels abandoned and alone.  This is the prayer of a man who needs the assurance and encouragement of the God he knows to exist and love him, but who is strangely and painfully absent in this moment.  I know this feeling.  Oh boy, do I know this feeling.  “Where are you God?  Where the hell are you?  I know you’re not in hell, because I am, and you aren’t here!!  So, where God?!!”  Have any of you been there?  Yep, me too: me two hundred.  My commentaries suggest that Psalm 13 is a textbook prayer of complaint and confident praise.  In other words, if you want to have a justified whinge at God, or even about God in God’s hearing, do it this way.  Four times in Psalm 13:1-2 David asks how long.  How dare God, my God in 13:3, forget and hide from me when God should consider and answer me?  Is this sounding familiar to you?  Have you been there?  I have been there: this is an advantage to you because if you ever find yourself in Hell you can give me a call; I have been there and I know the way back.  But you don’t need to call me (although you are always welcome to), the map for home is found in 13:5-6.  Trust in God’s steadfast love, indeed sing of it because God is worthy of our trust and God will deliver you.  In all my trips to hell God has never failed to bring me back.  David has this testimony, and so have I.  And so, I believe, has Abraham.

This is why it is important to know God.  You cannot trust someone you do not know, and you cannot trust someone deeply if you don’t know him or her intimately.  I do not have the most steadfast faith in God, but I have the most steadfast faith I have ever had in God.  And God’s faith in me has never wavered, even if my faith in God’s faith in me has.  I sometimes wonder how God could trust me with such an awesome task as I have been given, and I begin to doubt myself.  I know God can do it, but I doubt that God can do it through me because I am so fragile.  That is where God must do the trusting on my behalf too.

But here is where the struggle is.  If we know God like David did, and like Abraham did, then it can be very hard to trust God when God goes missing or when God commands something utterly ungodly.  And that is why, when the world turns against us, despite our best efforts in discipleship, we must go deeper.  “I know you are faithful Lord”, we might pray, “but right now I am frightened and confused.  I am going to trust you more, Amen.” Psalm 13 for modern readers.  But what happens when there’s just more tunnel ahead, and when you find yourself a month further along life and you’re praying, “still alone and afraid Lord, but still trusting,” and then another month and another after that?

I have faced circumstances when I was confident that I was going ahead with God’s favour and in the path God had set for me.  This is not a story of me being assured and wrong, arrogant and errant, not at all.  I look back on these particular circumstances and say, “you know what, I was doing God’s bidding there”, but still it went pear-shaped.  Now I have had the arrogant and misinformed times before, and the solution to those is simple.  Get up, apologise to God, shake off the dirt from when you fell over, and walk with God for a while, perhaps hand-in-hand.  But what if you were doing that, walking with God hand-in-hand, on God’s road, talking with God, tracking toward the opened door which was bedecked with welcome signs and flashing arrows, and as you reach it the door is slammed in your face from the inside.  Slammed so hard it breaks your nose, and breaks your grip on God’s hand even though God is standing right there wanting to lead you through that door.

Then what do you do?

Then who do you trust.  Or a more betterer question, then how do you trust?

If you know God, then this is another instance of “burrow deep and listen”.  God’s plans for you can be ruined by other people, that can happen.  God is never defeated by this, and you needn’t be either, if you stay close to God, but I have no doubt that God is frustrated by this.  In the times when this has happened to me God’s answer to my broken-hearted, tear-flooding cry of “what the actual?” has been deep, deep assurance and comfort.  The last time this happened God’s actual words to me were “that is not what I wanted to happen, you were right in pursuing the course you did.  But you and I together are going to honour the decision made, and you are going to fulfil your call and do the work set for you through another channel.”  Never let it be said that God does not have a plan-B.  In a world where women and men have the freedom to make mistakes, especially mistakes which frustrate God’s plans for strangers, there is always another way for God.

If you have stuffed up, God will rescue you and set you on the right path.

If other people have stuffed you up, God will rescue you and set you on another path, which becomes the right path because God walks it with you.

God had no need of a plan-B for Abraham in this situation.  Plan-A was the test of his faith and the fulfilment of the promise through Isaac and that was allowed to happen because of Abraham’s faithfulness.  God also had no need of a plan-B for Isaac in this situation, Abraham did not kill him.  But I have no doubt that there were plan-B moments in these men’s lives, and I am certain that David’s life as soldier and then king had many B-Road detours.

So, if God asks you to do something stupid, go with what you know of God.  You know more about God than either Abraham or David did.  But more importantly, if life puts you in a situation which just so obviously wrong in the company of the God you know and whom you know loves you, stay close.  God is unstoppable, but only because God is also agile enough to get around human stupidity, stubbornness, and selfishness.

There’s still no better way than to trust and obey.

But please, don’t actually kill your sons.  That’s just wrong.

Amen.

Growing Gifts

This is the text of my Pastoral Message to the people of Lakes Entrance Uniting Church in the newsletter for July 2017.

With the arrival of July and the deeper onset of winter has come the Season of Creation in the church.  Our drapes and candles have turned from red to green, (as has my Sunday attire); now we look away from the seasons and festivals of Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost, to a long series of “Ordinary” Sundays.  We know that no Sunday is ever ordinary, but we are mindful that the great festivals of this year’s Christian calendar are behind us.

 But the lowering of the red drapes does not mean that the work of God in our place has stopped.  I asked that the red drapes be left up over June because I wanted to remind you that the Spirit is always active in our gathering.  As I now enter the third trimester of my time with you I am indeed keen to see something birthed in you (and me) in the next thirteen weeks.  I am keen, and very hopeful, that the gifts of the people (which are the Gifts of the Spirit in you) will be made evident.

 Through June many of you spoke with me privately about your desire to be involved in the work of the church.  Some of you want to be involved as welcomers, others are keen to be readers of scripture or written prayers, and others are not sure about what they can do but would like to be encouraged and equipped to be ready when I leave and the work of the church falls squarely on the shoulders of the whole congregation.  I believe that every one of you has gifts, and more than one gift for each person.  I believe that together you have every gift that the Spirit gives to a congregation.  Lakes Entrance Uniting Church I say to you, even without me present in your meetings you have all that you need to do the work of God in this place.

 While I am here I intend to help you to be ready for when I am not here.  I have offered the Elders my time and talents as a pastor and teacher (Ephesians 4:11c) to support and encourage all who wish to be “moving forward with jobs and growth” as they say in Canberra.  I shall employ my gifts to prepare you to deploy yours, and I hope to see as many of you as wish to serve serving from now.  So, if you are ready to be involved today, come and tell me.  If you want to be encouraged now for service later, come and tell me.  Meantime we can all be praying for, smiling at, and tea-and-biscuiting with sisters and brothers in Christ both local and visitor.