A Multitude: A Confession centred on Revelation 7:9-17

 

Lord, John saw thousands upon thousands of the tribes of Israel

gathered before you in Heaven,

and after that he looked and there was

a great multitude than no one could count

from every nation

from all tribes and peoples and languages

standing before you and before your throne.

 

This intercultural hoard declared your praises

and the wonder of your gift of salvation

to all without prejudice.

 

Why can we not do the same?

 

O Lord, we are ready to declare your majesty

and to sing our thanks for the work you have done

in salving and saving us.

 

But on the All Saints Day we confess

that we have not always lived in harmony

with our sister-brothers who do not

look like us

see like us

love like us

speak like us

cook like us

sound like us

worship like us.

 

Today we ask for your mercy upon those who suffer in your name

and particularly upon those whose suffering we have caused.

 

Today we ask for your forgiveness upon us who have neglected our sister-brothers

even those in this room.

O God guide your world, them and us intermingled,

to springs of the water of life

and…wipe away every tear from their eyes.

Amen.

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‘Cos you gotta have faith…fa…fai…fa…faith

This is the text of the message I prepared for Moe-Newborough Uniting Church for Sunday 8th October 2017.  It was a communion Sunday and was also my first time preaching to this congregation.

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Psalm 19:7-13; Philippians 3:4b-11

So, the ten commandments eh?  You’d think that would be a straightforward task for a preacher: it’s all there in black and white.  God quite clearly says what is expected of Christians and Jews, so the sermon for today is read that, live with obedience, and move on.  Case closed, thanks for listening, let’s sing another hymn.

But I really don’t think it’s that simple, and here’s why.  The way I read it the primary purpose of the Ten Commandments, according to the narrative of Exodus, was to introduce the Israelite people to the God who had delivered them from slavery.  So, rather than being a set of rules without a context, (common-sense as those rules are for the most part), the commandments inform Israel of the best way to relate towards and behave in the presence of God, and each other.  Rather than primarily being a legal code framed for punishment of offenders these commandments are boundary markers for healthy communities.  They are words spoken personally by God (Exodus 20:1) and they speak of who God is with respect to the Israelites.  The LORD, whose self-spoken name is YHWH, is their God and the one who delivered them from slavery.  There is no doubt that this God is same one who spoke with Moses and sent Moses to Pharaoh.  This is the same God who sent the plagues, opened the sea, sent the manna and quail, and provided water at Horeb.  “I AM” the One who is with you, says God, the one who has always been with you.  In other words, “it’s me”, and “it’s been me, only me, all along”.  With that introduction make God then sets out the expectations of ongoing relationship.

So, let’s briefly run through those expectations:

  1. Sole allegiance. Exodus 20:3 assumes the existence of other gods, but the Israelites are to belong to YHWH alone.
  2. Related to the sole allegiance thing The LORD God is not to be imagined in physical form. There are to be no religious statues like the ones seen in Egypt or the ones to be seen in Canaan, not even statues of YHWH.  The LORD is the creator and not a creation: the nature of God is that God has no form or shape so to imagine a form or shape for God, even for the express purpose of worship of God is to lessen God’s dignity.  You may not pretend that God is something that God is not; it’s impolite.
  3. Related to the true nature of God, The LORD is not to be spoken of as if God were something different to what God is. In the same way that you must not give God a shape that isn’t God’s, don’t give God a voice that isn’t God’s.
  4. Imagine life in the model of God. As Christians, we might think of discipleship as following the Way of Jesus, living and acting as Jesus did, even pausing to consider “WWJD” if that’s your thing.  Well Israel’s God expects the same.  Follow God by acting like God; and the primary way of this is to rest on every seventh day.  Slaves do not get a day of rest, but Israel are no longer slaves so let them model the life of God.  Sabbath-keeping is therefore about freedom and discipleship.
  5. Five to Nine inclusive are about showing respect and care for other Israelites, the other followers of The LORD. Love and don’t disrespect the value of all parents; love and don’t kill anyone; love and don’t disrespect the humanity of all peers; love and don’t steal from anyone; love and don’t lie in court.  These are great, common-sense rules for society, but to read them in the context of the way of life for a worshipping community dedicated to the God who has saved them from a disrespectful community adds a layer of importance.  Don’t be like the Egyptians, be like The LORD.

And lastly, guard your attitudes as well as your actions.  No only “do not” act thoughtlessly or maliciously, but “do not even think” along those lines.  Jesus echoed this in the Sermon on the Mount, didn’t he?  Jesus was not original in saying that, the intent was there all along.

The Psalmist, writing perhaps five hundred years after the Exodus event describes the way in which the ordinances of God revive the soul and light the fires of learning (Psalm 19:7).  The wisdom of Torah, the profound instructions of God bring joy and light, the advice and intention of God is to be sought and held precious (Psalm 19:10).  The Ten Commandments are in no way “The Ten Suggestions”, God expects them to be adhered to, but the heart of the instruction of God is that this code offers an impenetrable barrier against the thoughts of the unwise.  Think like God, not like the foolish polytheists and their slave-making ways. Torah is a guiding light for the weary disciple and a reminder when you are falling apart of how to act toward other people and toward God.  The commentary I used this week refer to omission regarding Psalm 19:12-13: the law is not a stick to beat you with but a reminder amidst times of human frailty not to forget God’s expectation that you will be nice to people and humble to God.

In the section of Paul’s letter to Philippi set for us this morning we are made to understand that there is no doubt that Paul was very Jewish (Philippians 3:4b-6).  Paul makes his credentials as a Jew and a scholar very clear: even so he considers such knowledge a loss if it does not connect with the wisdom of Jesus Christ.  Paul is not saying that knowledge of the law is loss; he is rightly proud of his knowledge of Torah and I imagine he would agree with all which was said about the Law in Psalm 19.  No, what Paul is saying is that if your scholarship, your knowledge of Torah, does not point you to Jesus then your scholarship is useless.  (But if your scholarship leads you to Jesus then it is priceless.)  To pursue scholarship for the sake of righteousness, i.e. salvation, is pointless: being an academic cannot save you, even if it does help you be a good Jew.  (So long as you are a good Jew of course, and not a scholarly snob.)  In simple terms Paul says that the advantage of a working knowledge and understanding the ten commandments is that it helps you to understand what Jesus did so that you can follow in his Way.  I hope you can see that this is a development on the Jewish understanding already presented; that the law itself is not enough but the law as a pointer toward God for relationship and discipleship of God, and a life of better fit in the community of faith is what it is all about.  If you’re going to be clever, great, but make sure your cleverness leads you to be humble before God and kind to your friends and to strangers.  Faith as Paul describes it in Philippians 3:9 is assent to articles of belief; you might say “I have faith in the resurrection because I believe it actually happened and that it is meaningful for salvation from sin”, but faith as described by Paul is also openness to God’s activity.

So, what do we need to know?  What is the simple message for you to hear and then “case closed, thanks for listening, let’s sing another hymn?”  Well the message is pretty much the same: live with obedience and move on.  And here’s how to do it: study the Bible and other Christian texts and know what God expects of you as a disciple.  Follow the text and follow the Way of the Lord.  More specifically, be like Paul and know the Bible so well that you will have what you need to rebut the arguments of the legalists and the know-it-alls.  Paul really did know it all, he tells us as much and his detractors acknowledge his learning, and Paul says love is all you need.

Love God, love other people.  Get to it.

Amen.

A Wicked Tendency: A Confession cntred on Matthew 21:33-41.

Vintner of Heaven,

Landlord of Earth,

We come into your presence with a description of our desire for justice.

Where the Teacher of old spoke of foxes in the vineyard,

We recognise that it is human effort which has destroyed what you intended.

 

Lord of this place you are worthy of your due.

 

Not only are you landowner and great gardener,

Not only are you master-vinedresser and great winemaker,

You are creator and sustainer.

 

Not only are you the builder of walls and digger of moats,

Not only are you governor of people and selector of choicest fruits,

You are God and Father.

 

Forgive us, you who are All, when we withhold from you

all that is rightfully yours.

 

Forgive us, you who are Love, when we withhold from others

love that is duly theirs.

 

Forgive us, you who are Father, when we mistreat your daughters

and sons who speak to us by your authority.

 

We are sorry that we have not listened,

that we have thrown out,

beaten,

and killed those who have called us to listen,

and that we have, consequently, made a mess of your garden.

Amen.

 

Servants of the vineyard owner, hear the words of the Father’s heir,

“The kingdom of God will be…given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.”

Hope remains for the obedient, and forgiveness for the penitent.

Amen.

Authorised

This is the text of the message I prepared for Narracan Uniting Church for Sunday 1st October 2017.

Matthew 21:23-27

Matthew, Mark and Luke all record this episode where the question of Jesus’ authority to teach was raised with him in the temple.  The Pharisees ask who has authorised the message of Jesus.  After all they are the recognised religious and legal leaders and scholars, so in part it is a question of patronage and in part it is a question of academic integrity.  “Whose model of teaching are you following”, they ask, “we don’t know of any substantial scholarship which supports your interpretation of the scriptures and the religious laws/lore”.  In more straightforward language they ask Jesus “who told you that you could preach, and who told you to preach what you are preaching”.

Jesus answered their question with another question.  Since Jesus seemed to do this a lot you’d think they’d have seen it coming.  “You tell me first,” Jesus says, “who told John the Baptiser that he may preach, and who instructed him to preach the message which he preached?”  It is the same question – but it is a loaded question since John was held in high regard by the crowds.  The Pharisees see the trap and deftly step out of it: “um, dunno” they say.  It probably sounds better in Hebrew, but basically they shrug their shoulders at Jesus.  Jesus shrugs back and says, “well if you ‘dunno’, then I’m not the one to tell you.”

The question of authority is an important one when something new is taking place.  This is in part the case for me as the new Ministry Supply Agent in Yallourn Parish, but the answer to the question of my authority is straightforward.  I have been asked to speak by the Parish in conjunction with the Presbytery, and the content of my sermons is the good news of Jesus Christ as the Uniting Church in Australia understands it.  I have no authority to go it alone, or to make stuff up.

A few years ago, I worked in a prison.  Ordinarily I tell people in a new town that “I spent two years in an English prison”, but I’ll make it quite clear to you from the start, since you are the first people I have told in Morwell-Yallourn Cluster and I don’t want any misheard news going out.  I was in prison, and it was in England, but I was there as an employee of HM Prison Service and I went home every night.  (That was unless I was on night duty, in which case I went home in the morning.)  I carried authority in the prison, even though I was on the bottom rung of the ranks of uniformed women and men, and my authority was indicated by two things.  Can you guess what they were?

  1. I wore the Queen’s uniform, which was plain black and white and it had a “crown” logo on it in various places.
  2. I carried keys.

Most people in England’s prisons are not allowed to carry keys inside the prison.  Some people in prisons in England are not allowed to wear plain black and white clothes.  So, the fact that I was allowed, indeed instructed, to do both was a sign of my authority.

Like my authority in this pulpit, my authority in prison was delegated to me.  Ultimately, I was a representative of HM The Queen, via the Governor of the Prison, the Duty Governor (V-2), the Duty Principal Officer (O-1) and the Duty Officer in the Gatehouse.  If I asked a prisoner, any visitor, or indeed any civilian employee of the prison to do something and they wished to question who I was to say what I said the answer was obvious: I am wearing the Queen’s uniform and I am carrying keys.  You go (or don’t go) where I tell you, and you go (or don’t go) when I tell you.  I remember one episode where a builder brought his truck in to do some maintenance work in the prison and I was his escort.  Once he had parked he gave me the keys from the ignition, which was protocol.  When we went to leave we discovered that his truck had become bogged.  After a short period of failed extraction, he said to me, “I have another appointment so I’ll need you to give me back my keys and let me out of the yard to walk back.”  I told him, politely yet firmly, that he was going nowhere an escort, and that I was going nowhere without that truck.  (You don’t just leave motor vehicles abandoned inside a prison, mate.)  In the end, he had to wait until a tractor was brought in to tow him out of the bog, and then for me to accompany the truck back to the gate.

Jesus spoke the Father’s message with the Father’s authority.  I think Jesus was pointing to John the Baptiser having done the same.  Like the driver of that truck in the prison the Pharisees might have wanted to question Jesus’ right to express authority, and the form of the authority he expressed, but ultimately Jesus was a servant of God even as I was an officer of the Queen.  With that in mind, that Jesus was authorised by God to speak and to speak what he spoke, let us always pay attention to the one whom John (1:1) calls the Word of God.

Amen.

Amongst your eyes

This is the text of the message I prepared for Morwell Uniting Church for Sunday 1st October 2017.  Immediately after this service I drove to and then preached at Narracan Uniting Church in the (neighbouring) Yallourn Parish.

Exodus 17:1-7; Philippians 2:1-13

Sheesh, this is getting to be a habit.  Once again, we find Moses having to deal with the quarrelsome people of Israel; only this time they need water.  God has already got them out of Egypt, leaving dead Egyptian sons behind.  Then God got them across the sea, leaving dead Egyptian soldiers behind.  Then God fed them manna and quail every day, except the Sabbath, leaving no dead anybody behind.  Now Moses is asked to provide water, as if the tears of one and a half million sooky Israelites aren’t provision enough.  I mean, what’s a prophet gotta do to get some respect around here? Mary Pearson wrote in this week’s “With Love To The World” that the problem seems to be that Israel believes that Moses is their saviour, not God.  If Moses is a man like them, even if in several remarkable ways he is not a man like them, but still, then Moses needs reminding of his job as leader.  In today’s story, we read how the Israelites very helpfully point out to Moses that they are in a desert and there isn’t any water where they’ve made camp.  In response Moses names the place “test” (Massah) and “quarrel” (Meribah) because the people asked whether the LORD was among them or not.  In other words, this is the location, to be known for all of time, where the quarrelsome people put God to the test.

When in later times the editors of Exodus named the place “Rephidim”, which means both “refresh” and “support”, they believed that God was indeed among the people, and that the one among the people was The LORD I am encouraged by the thought that there were editors in later times because it means that the story had kept on being told.  In Psalm 78, as has been the case in Psalm 105 which was read last week and on two of the Sundays in August, the story of God’s provision and companionship with Israel in the hard days of the wilderness is reminded to the people.  God The LORD is the true leader of Israel and God always displays goodness in doing that leading.

Paul writes to the church in Philippi from gaol.  There isn’t agreement among scholars where Paul was imprisoned at the time, but all agree that he was in gaol somewhere.  He is concerned by the news of infighting in the congregation around two sources.  One is the potentially divisive message of several visiting leaders who were not proclaiming the gospel as it was understood by Paul but were instead preaching their own opinions and agenda.  Paul is also concerned by disputes within the congregation and the cliques being formed around two vocal women.  So, with that background we read today’s call to unity beneath the leadership of Christ, Christ the humblest man and Christ the LORD Godself, with added insight.  With many different opinions going around and many little groups forming, look at what Paul says about his desire for the church.

  1. Show unity through setting your mind on the same thing.
  2. Act out of humility and obedience.
  3. Hold the needs and interests of others in high regard.

And why does Paul say that’s the best way?  Because according to Philippians 2:5 that’s the Jesus way.

Jesus always had the purpose of God foremost in his mind: Jesus and the Father were united in this way.  Jesus did not have to prove himself, indeed he actually shrugged the Godness from his being so that he could preach more effectively: this is both the nature and the will of God.  There was nothing grandiose about Jesus, nothing about him was inflated because almost everything about him was hidden; he knew that people needed God to be accessible if they were going to be saved and so he made himself as friendly and approachable as possible.  Jesus could have come as the cloud of fire seen over Sinai, or as the Lord of Eternity riding across the clouds on a white stallion, but his work was better suited to the one in dusty sandals in small villages.  That’s how you’re supposed to be, says Paul.

This passage is a well-known one, and as such it has had many interpreters and scholars pay very close attention to it.  I am not interested today as to whether this scripture points to trinitarian ideas about God; I don’t think Paul was trying to make that point anyway.  I certainly don’t think the way to read this is “if you are humble like Christ then you will be exalted like Christ” because that goes against what Paul is saying.  What I read today is that the most effective way for Christians inside a local church to behave is for each person to show the humility of Christ toward one another, and the unity of Christ and the Father in all that they say and do as Christians together.  We are reminded in Philippians 2:13 that God is at work; that work is not only taking place amongst us but within us.

The Lord is amongst us, but the Lord is here quietly and patiently, feeding and guiding us in the every day.  There is no need to complain, God knows what you need and God is already there to provide it for you.  As God waited for Moses and the elders at Horeb so God waits for us to obey the command to come and see: and when we come then we do see.

Amen.