It’s Not Enough

A Confession centred on Matthew 20:1-16

 Typical of your grace you let everyone in, God:

even the lazy and slow.

 

We know we cannot earn salvation,

and that it is a free gift given to all,

but we also know that obedience is better than sacrifice.

 

We know you want your people busy at the work of the gospel,

and we have obeyed you the longest

by making disciples

and baptising

and healing the sick

and raising the dead

and casting out demons

and calling the world to repentance because the Kingdom is at hand.

 

So how can you be so generous to those of them who have done none of that,

and who arrived in the Kingdom late,

when so many of us have slaved in the world, against the tide, for years.

 

Of course we want them saved Lord,

it was us who preached to them in your name after all:

But in that place of many mansions,

can’t our mansions be bigger because we were Christians longer?

 

Can’t they just have grace,

while we have Amazing Grace?

 

Forgive us our selfishness Jesus, when you were so selfless in pursuit of us.

Help us to rejoice with the angels,

And to learn generosity from prodigious you.

Amen.


 

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May I not come Now?

An Adoration centred on Philippians 1:21-30

 

To live is Christ, to die is gain, that’s what Paul said.

And he’s right, so why not move to the gain part right now?

 

God whom we love and adore, even as we live in your presence on Earth

we miss you.

We want to be where you are, without limitation,

Not that we want to be all powerful,

but that we want to be so close to you that

we could never be drawn away from you again.

 

And so, Lord, while you keep us here,

(here where you said you’d never leave us),

be very near us,

so that we can be very near to you,

even as we work and live to bring others nearer to you

than they are today.

 

If we may not come now,

(we who long for you desperately),

assure us that we when we do come,

in the fullness of Kairos time,

that we will not come alone.

 

Amen.

Journeying Beyond The See

This is the text of the message I preached at Morwell Uniting Church on Sunday 24th September 2017, the sixteenth Sunday of Pentecost in Year A.

Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45; Philippians 1:21-30

Last week we heard the story of Israel crossing the Red Sea and how God delivered them visibly and audibly from the Egyptians.  The waters rose into great walls as Israel crossed the gulf: the waters fell in and drowned the Egyptian army and all its horses.  We heard how God is so mighty as to be able to part the seas at a word, and of how creation withdraws in awe when the people of God walking in the presence of God pass by.  Today’s story jumps forward several weeks and we are now one calendar/lunar month after the exodus event.  We find Israel tired and hungry, and “are we there yet?” is all they can say.  Four weeks after leaving the dead eldest sons of Egypt behind in Egypt, four weeks after leaving the dead armies of Egypt behind in the sea, all The LORD and Moses hears is a multitude of sulking.  The LORD tells Moses that relief is coming in the form of meat and bread, and that it will come every day for as long as it is needed.  The actual words of God are that this chosen people can trust in the provision the LORD.

That is a strong message.  God hears the sigh of desperation and God responds immediately with grace and provision.  There is no indication in this passage that God is dismayed by the people’s attitude, only a recognition that there is a need which the people require God to meet.  In other places God gets annoyed and angry with their stubbornness, but on this occasion God simply answers the need.  There is a legitimate claim on God’s provision, and God fills that need to the very top.

Moses and Aaron on the other hand are upset by the whinging.  Perhaps they are also tired and hungry and so they are not in the mood to hear it.  “Why don’t you tell God” they say in desperation, “it’s not our job to feed you”.  Of course, this also means “are you prepared to tell God?”  And of course, the Israelites are more than ready to tell The LORD in no uncertain terms what they think about The LORD’s lordship.

Nonetheless The LORD provides; however, with that provision comes a test of obedience.  Will Israel obey God and gather only a day’s supply, or will they hoard the manna in case it is a “once off” event.  Will Israel trust God’s promise to send the quail and the manna tomorrow?  God is revealing something about Godself in this miracle: that God is faithful, generous, and dependable.  God will not allow the exodus people to die of starvation or dehydration; this is a sign that God is with them and that the God who is with them is like this.  God will also not dump a vast supply on the people and then walk away: God rations the provision because God intends to walk with the people each step of the day and each day of the way.

Listening to today’s Psalm we hear a call toward the gathered worshippers that they tell the story of God, and especially the story of what God has done in the presence and history of the Israelites.  God has always and every time been faithful to the covenant made with the ancestors: God has fulfilled the promise to make a nation and set aside a homeland for the people of Abraham via Isaac and Jacob.  The psalmist speaks in Psalm 105:37-42 of the chosen ones being lead out with joy, while the Egyptians were happy to see the back of them.  There doesn’t appear to be a great deal of joy in today’s story from Exodus 16, it’s a real festival of complaint that Moses and Aaron must deal with, but we know that joy came with the provision of food and water and with the sign that this provision came from the glorious God who is shown to be more than guide and protector, God is provider and counsellor.  Psalm 105 is a great song about the glory and goodness of God from Adam to Joshua, there isn’t a negative word in it.  We read the Israelite story in parallel in Psalm 106; and today’s reading from Exodus is spoken of in Psalm 106:13-15 and in Psalm 78:17-20.  In these verses, the psalmist leaves us in no doubt that Israel behaved with rudeness and petulance toward the Lord.

In the light of these passages and the history of experience they talk about we might listen to Exodus 16:9 and ask what it means to draw near to the Lord because God has heard your complaining.

In Biblical language, the phrase “seek the Lord” meant to pray, so to draw near probably has a similar meaning.  But how do we pray, how do we respond when God lets us down?

Perhaps in our day, in our church, we would never entertain such thoughts.  How can God let us down?  Is it sinful to even ask such a question?  If that is your view then you are welcome to it, there is no condemnation from me, but I offer you congratulations that your life as a Christian has never, ever seen trouble.  I have felt let down by God on many occasions, and whilst in hindsight I see that God was there all along, and that much of my trouble was my own doing, and the rest of my trouble was the doing of other, fallible human persons, so that God is in no way to blame, I confess that in the moment I shook my fist at the heavens and let God know exactly what I thought about the distinct lack of quality in the Fathering going on.

Last week I spoke of crossing the sea and of how my journeys by various modes of ship and aircraft had always been successful:  I was never drowned nor had I ever fallen from a great height.  I also said that life across the seas had not always been so fantastically wondrous.

In 2002, following a previous visit for a World Methodist Evangelism Conference at which I was one of the Uniting Church in Australia’s delegates, I emigrated to the United Kingdom.  Through ancestry I have the Right of Abode in the UK, so basically, I have a lifelong visa.  I don’t hold a UK passport, and I can’t claim Social Security, but otherwise I have access to an undisturbed life with all the rights of employment, property, voting, and emergency services.  God was not the one who decided that I should move to Britain to live, even as it was God’s plan and provision which got me to England in 2001 for that conference.  After six months in England I was broke, homeless, hungry, lonely, and stuck.  “How could you let this happen to me?”  I asked God.  “How could you let this happen to him?” asked my parents.  My dad tells me he had some serious words to say to God around that time, “small-f father to big-f Father, dad to God”.

Of course, God was not to blame for my plight.  It was me who had moved to the other side of the world.  God found me a roof, a bed, and a meal every night, and while I was technically homeless I was never out in the Hertfordshire cold.  Whilst I was lonely I was never away from church on a Sunday, and whilst the congregations did not help me in the way that I would have liked, and that my mum would have liked, and maybe even how God would have liked, I was never actually destitute.  Whilst I was hungry I was never starving: I lived in a B+B so there was always cereal, juice and tea in the morning, and there were pub counter meals at night for around the same price as a burger meal at McDonalds.  I didn’t like my life, but I was alive, and God did not let me die or let me want to die.

Even when I told God that I could do a better job of looking after myself than God had done, God never actually let me try it alone.  Even when I told God, “you are God and ‘thy will be done’, but you’re not very good at doing thy will”, God did not send a wrath-load of lightning or flood or a hoard of Amalekite armies to end my life.  Like the roughest of sea crossings, I made it safely to the other end, even though I had sweated, and puked for much of the journey.

Paul wrote to a local church in Philippians 1:21-25 that he felt hard-pressed at times in continuing his life on earth when the promise of the reward of faith was so appealing.  But the work of the gospel itself and the joy he found in serving God compelled him to keep going.  Paul was prepared to remain where God had put him because he was confident that God was with him.  In other letters Paul writes of his troubles, of mistreatment and verbal abuse, imprisonment and beatings, near drownings, and the wearing work of travelling even when the path was good and the sea was calm.  Paul did not have an easy life, but he had a strong faith in God and a rock-solid confidence that he would be provided for in the grace of God.  That confidence extended to the work of faith among the people he was preaching to: “God is faithful to me in how God is blessing you” says Paul.  Paul knew that his work was not in vain; the Church was growing in number and in depth as more people put their trust in Jesus for salvation and then went on increasing and deepening faith.  So, one of the signs of God’s faithfulness to Paul was the resilience of the Philippians themselves.  This is a blessing that Moses and Aaron did not have as leaders.

So, what about me?  I am a Supply Ministry Agent and am not your minister in the fullest sense, and I am certainly not a Paul or a Moses to you.  But you are my family in Christ, brothers and sisters, and for the next four months I have the privilege of leading you.  So, are you, the people God has given me to, a resilient people?  Are you, the people God has given me to, a whinging people?  However long my stay in Morwell and Yallourn is I know that I shall be hard at work with you and for you, but will my work be joyful like Paul’s was, or irritating and draining like Moses’?

What about yourselves?  Are you each a joy to your brothers and sisters in this congregation, or are you a drain?  Is the Morwell congregation a joy, or a burden, to the Yallourn Parish?  Are the people of Moe-Newborough, Yallourn North, and Narracan congregations a joy, or a strain, for you?

How would God describe you?  I am sure that God would describe you in gracious terms, but would there be a need for grace in that God would need to say harsh things in a nice way, or would God smile and relax when your name is mentioned?  “Ah Morwell, yes they’re an easy bunch to be with.”  What do you say of each other, and what do others say of you.

You don’t need the Bible or a minister to tell you that life is hard.   But it’s always good to be reminded that during a hard life, even a hard but obedient life, God is incredibly faithful and you will make it across the sea to the place Paul longed for.

Amen.

Seventy-Seven Times

(A confession from Matthew 18:33)

 

Master of us all,

And caring brother of each of us,

We confess to you that we have not acted in the way that brothers and sisters should.

 

We confess that we have misused your grace to secure our own freedom

Choosing to withhold it from others, like a toy held above a begging puppy,

To get our siblings to do life our way.

Lord, have mercy.

 

We confess that we have not had mercy on each other as you have had mercy on us

Choosing to forget the uncountable debt which inconceivable you have forgiven

While quibbling over the loose change matters between those closest to us.

Christ, have mercy.

 

We confess that we have acted as masters in your place

Choosing to ignore that we alike are servants of you

And of each other in Christ.

Lord, have mercy.

 

Hear now the Word of God incarnate, as his words are recorded in scripture:

“out of pity the lord released him, and forgave him his debt”.

This is the word, and character of our Lord.

Amen.

The Way Out

(An adoration from Exodus 15:1-18)

 

Saviour who saves by destroying our enemies,

We marvel at the way you go about your work of being God.

We would not do things your way,

But so often that is the very thing you point towards,

And the reason why we so often mess things up.

 

Even when we are not at fault, but have been the victims of the terror of others

You have rescued us.

Horse and rider you have thrown into the sea:

The purveyors of terror are no more.

 

We stand to praise our God and the God of our fathers and mothers.

The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

The God of Moses, Caleb and Joshua.

The God of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Daniel.

The God of Ezra, Nehemiah, and the Maccabees.

 

The God of Russell Street, Hoddle Street, and Port Arthur.

The God of 9/11, 7/7, and Bastille Day.

The God of yesterday at Parson’s Green.

 

God of ex-hodos,

Master of the road out,

We choose to adore you and to trust you.

 

Great cloud of God,

Mighty Host of the Lord’s Armies,

Defend and protect us from those who would do us harm.

Stand and uphold your right arm

Against those who would pursue and overtake,

That we would not be the divided spoil and a destroyed people,

But the Lord’s own heritage in this land.  Amen.

Crossing The Sea, Seeing The Cross

This is the text of the message I prepared for the Morwell-Yallourn Cluster service at Morwell Uniting Church on Sunday 17th September 2017.  It was my first service with this people and was also a communion service.

Exodus 14:19-31; Psalm 114; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

I wonder, have you ever crossed a sea?  These days most sea crossings are done by air rather than ship, and unless you are in the company of Moses (or you are Jesus) seas are never crossed on foot.  In our day sea crossings are not uncommon.

ore important to today’s theme; to those of you who have crossed a sea I ask did you cross that sea under God’s protection and with God’s guidance?

I have crossed many seas.  Some of them had the word “sea” in their title, while others were named “ocean”, “strait”, “passage” or “channel”.  Whether by ferry or ocean liner, light or heavy aircraft, every crossing of sea which I have made has been done with my feet entirely dry.  I hope your experience has been similar.

On every occasion God has protected me, and I have survived every crossing unscathed, undrowned, and unconcerned by the water.  Some of the events of my life on the other side of the sea have not been the best, but the crossings themselves have always been successful, with allowances made for airline food poisoning and the occasional rough-sea puke.

When Moses followed God’s direction and lead the Israelites into, across, and out of the Red Sea he was in no doubt that God was at work.  The great pillar of cloud and fire which had gone before the massed migration moved to the back of the group, and the angel leading the Israelite army moved to a rear-guard position as the people of Jacob neared the coast.  At God’s command and by the agency of Moses’ prophetic action the sea formed a wall on the right and left, leaving a great channel of dry land between these two massive walls.  We are told by the writers of Exodus 14 that the good guys walked across the gulf on dry land, but that the chariots of the bad guys got bogged.  We are told that once every Israelite was safely across, and after Moses stretched out his hand, the Egyptians were drowned in the returning sea.  Every Egyptian died, every Israelite was saved.  The moral of the story in perpetuity is that Israel at once saw what the Lord had done and they were awestruck and began to trust God; so therefore, should we who read this story from within the traditions which worship the LORD.

This story can cause concern in the modern day.  Back when it was written the vindication of the victims of slavery and maltreatment by the God faithful to the generational promises made to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph made perfect sense.  God saved lowly “us” from horrible “them”, and that “they” got what was coming in the drowning thing is only what “they” deserved.  Today we might show more compassion, even when we think of the Al-Qaeda or the ISIS or the Boko Haram terrorists in our world.  The books of Moses do not address this issue; the issue at hand for the Israelites between the first day of Adam and the last day of Moses is the story of God’s deliverance of Israel by whatever means are necessary.

As our call to worship this morning I read to you from Psalm 114 and the song of worship directed to the God who secured the release of the house of Jacob from a people of strange language as verse Psalm 114:1 puts it.  God made these people God’s own, so again the focus is on the saving power of The LORD, the faithful covenant partner of the patriarchs rather than the destructive power of the vindicator of God’s people.   Such a God, the God of us, is so awe-inspiring, so awesome, that nature fled before the Israelites because The LORD was with them.  This passage speaks as if the presence of God was enough for the Red Sea to withdraw in terror at the mere presence of the Chosen People, let alone the prophetic action of Moses raising his staff.  No wonder Jesus says in the gospels that those who believe in the Word Incarnate can order mountains to move – the mountains are terrified of us and will not disobey us because of the One with whom we walk.  No wonder Jesus says that the rocks and stones will cry out if the children of God are silenced – the glory of the presence of God is so obvious in the world.  Rock turns to water, strength turns to floods of tears (and maybe even wet undies), at the sight of The LORD and the ones The LORD secures in divine covenant.  Such is the effect upon creation of observing the presence of God among the people of God when the people are present in one locality.

Such power.  Such awesome majesty.  Such response to the presence of the people of God, the people amongst whom God is present.  I don’t know about you, but to me this speaks of the esteem in which I can hold myself as a man of God and a son of God.  I am truly the pinnacle of creation when even seas will shrink and rocks will wet themselves when I come close in the power of God.

But, lest we get too ahead of ourselves as masters and mistresses of this planet where God alone is Master of the Universe, we are met by Paul and his commentary along the theme of great power and great responsibility.

It is not the task of the Christian Church, nor any Christian woman or man within it, to stomp around terrifying Creation.  Rather we are told explicitly in scripture and by the arguably first great human teacher of the Christian tradition that as a local church we are to welcome the weak to encourage them. (In your own time, you might like to compare Romans 14:1 with Psalm 114:3-7 and consider what God might be saying about our authority.)  Welcome everyone to the household of God as if he or she were a member of God’s own family, and do not quarrel over peripheral matters.  We are called to be in the world but not of it, living amidst the world but with our identity in the One who calls us to faith: yet often we live as if we are of the world not in it.  How often it seems that Christians engage very nastily over things which are entirely irrelevant to the interests of the world.  Who are you to pass judgement on the servants of another, [since] it is before their own lord that they stand or fall asks Paul in Romans 14:4-5.  Paul asserts that the ones we might put down will be upheld by their master, the one who pushed back the sea and makes water come from rock.  For all that glorious assurance I have just spoken of, of how God protects God’s own, do you want to be on the side of the Egyptians or the Assyrians? Paul suggests that if you take a sister or brother to task over trifling things you may well find yourself there.  Each woman or man of faith must act according to her or his revelation and conscience, serving God fully and passionately as God is revealed to her or him.   Each must live and die, feast or fast, to the Lord’s desire and the Lord’s glory.  Each of us is accountable to God, for as the Lord has said every knee shall bow before God and every tongue shall confess God notes Paul in Romans 14:11-12, quoting God’s own words from Isaiah (45:23b).  Instead of becoming nasty over trivialities let us set aside all “speaking the truth in love” and instead encourage one another in ever more evident acts and speech of Christlikeness.

But should we really give up “speaking the truth in love”?  If the lord of our weaker siblings is also our lord, shouldn’t their conscience match ours?  Isn’t it the same revelation, and if so then we can be assured that they are in the wrong because we are in the right.  Paul would ask why that is your primary concern.  If they are wrong, but in the church, then leave it to The LORD.  Think of Matthew 18:33 and the mercy shown but not passed on.  What has God not held against you that you are holding against your sister?  What great thing has God redeemed you from, yet you feel entitled to belittle your brother over something inconsequential?

Maybe the journey of faithful Christianity is not so much about crossing the sea as it is about seeing the cross.  Perhaps the glories of the Red Sea and the other miracles we have witnessed in the presence of the LORD have blinded us, as grace had blinded the unmerciful servant, to the LORD who is the director of all things.  Let us not fall into the error of thinking of ourselves as anything more than servants of the one who has called us to Godself, even as we steer clear of the error of forgetting that we are called, chosen and seen as precious by God.

Amen.