Hear The Word Speak (Epiphany 4B)

This is the text I prepared for a cluster service for the Yallourn and Morwell Uniting Churches for Sunday 28th January 2018.  It was the final cluster service for the summer and was held at Morwell.  Holy Communion followed the sermon.

Deuteronomy 18:15-22; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Hear The Word speak.  In days ago when the Hebrews were still across the Jordan and not yet near the land of the Canaanites Moses assured them that God was going to raise up a new prophet, one like Moses from amidst the Israelites.  This prophet would speak in the Name of the God of Israel and with all the authority of the LORD.  But, this prophet will have come from amidst the people of Israel, so he would not be terrifying like The LORD is in his presence.  This prophet would not arise, (or descend), from a Mountain Which May Not Be Touched, he would come from amongst the people, he would be one of them but with a special task.  This prophet would be identifiable by his speaking the same message that Moses spoke, which is to say the words of YHWH Godself in a form understandable by women and men who want to know God’s way.  The words and actions of this prophet will give glory to YHWH and will conform to the pattern of YHWH’s previous prophets, especially Moses.

So says Moses himself; so reads the Old Testament lectionary story for today.

The Psalm set for today is a wholehearted, public, declaration of praise for God’s work and the God who works.  God is faithful, and the faithful One’s works are majestic in that they are works of mercy, redemption and salvation.  The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding says Psalm 111:10. Henry Handel Richardson said something similar in her story of that “Wondrous Fair” Laura Tweedle-Rambotham of Melbourne’s PLC, so as Australians, nay as Victorians and somewhat-Presbyterians we know it to be true. This whole psalm is the context of Moses’ message to the listening Hebrews: praise for the wonderful acts of the covenant God must be the content of any declaration or oracle of “the prophet”, or anyone claiming to speak for God.

Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up according to Paul in 1 Corinthians 8:1, and sadly many of us Victorians and somewhat-Presbyterians know this also to be true.  The cure for being a clever-bottom according to Paul, (but not so much according to the somewhat self-important “Tweedle-Dum-Ram’s-Bum” as her nemesis calls her), is to be known by God.  Those who are known by God, who know God and who follow in God’s ways, do their things the way God does things.  Jesus knew a lot of things and he said a lot of things, but he always taught those desiring his wisdom with love and patience.  Jesus was never a clever-bottom and he never came across as a know-it-all.  In Mark 1:22 we read how Jesus spoke with authority, but more than that he told the truth.  Jesus did not only speak with love, but also with depth and profound patience.  To say that he taught “but not as the scribes” doesn’t mean that he was a liberal theologian, (or that they were), but that he wasn’t arrogant about his ability to exegete and hermeneut with academic insight.

In the first part of 1 Corinthians 8 Paul begins to address an issue in the Christian community at Corinth, but that issue is not the issue food offered to idols.  Paul is aware of the need to guard one’s shopping choices in the market, and the reasons why one might refuse a dish when out for dinner; but what he is addressing is the attitude behind the behaviour of Christians toward other Christians, Christians who are conscientiously working through their theology regarding these sorts of meals.  “I know and some of you know”, he says, “that the only god is God, and so food offered to idols is nothing.  Eat it, nothing has defiled this food and there are no Greek-germs upon it since the Greek gods are non-existent.”  Of course, you and I might say.  However, Paul goes on, “but if people new to faith are struggling over this and they see a problem with Greek-germs in their food because they haven’t yet heard the full message of liberty, don’t you be mocking them for it.”  Supposedly leading Christians engaging in idolatry, sin, and defiantly public disloyalty to the God of Israel by engaging in the worship of the Olympians or the Roman deities, can be a real moral distraction to new converts.  So don’t do it, says Paul: don’t flaunt your freedom in such a way as to distract a new Christian from his or her growth.  And if you are asked by a young believer the reason for your behaviour, don’t be a clever-bottom about it.  In view of the sermon of Moses and the model of the Psalm, what do you think Jesus would do?  Jesus knows that idols have no power over meat, but Jesus also knows that a bad example has power over new believers.  So, says Paul in 1 Corinthians 8:13: in this instance be a good brother-sister and go vegetarian in company because this is a good example of love.

For another example of clever-bottom discussion we can go back to the gospel reading for this one and see how Jesus himself handled it.  In Mark 1:23-26 we read about Jesus’ first healing miracle as recorded by Mark, and it’s an exorcism.  In Mark 1:24 the unclean spirit calls Jesus by name, correctly identifies his home town, and calls out Jesus on his hidden identity.  In other words he shows off what a smarty he is in the company of the none-the-wiser natives of Capernaum.  Jesus answers the spirit directly in Mark 1:25 saying “shut up windbag, nick off”.  (It probably sounds better in Aramaic.)  In Mark 1:26 the unclean spirit spits the dummy, and then goes, embarrassed and sooking back to wherever it is unclean spirits come from.

The unclean spirit had tried to outmanoeuvre Jesus, trying to trick him into showing his hand and acting Messianically before he was ready.  The spirit called Jesus by name, trying to show its power by demonstrating something supernatural.  “Ooh look at me, I have insight because I am a spirit, I know you’re really the messiah and these dopey peasants do not.  La-li-la-lala-pthth!”  Notice how Jesus doesn’t get into the game: Jesus doesn’t name the spirit, and Jesus doesn’t try to out-power it with a declaration of divine will such as “you’re just an unclean spirit, whereas I, I AM!”  No, Jesus just says “shut up and nick off”, and up the chastened spirit shuts, and off the humiliated spirit nicks.

One of the more recent manifestations of the Kingdom of God in Australia has come about through a group called Common Grace.  One of its leaders, a pastor named Jarrod McKenna, says that the intent of the group is to be “more like Jesus, less like jerks.”  This is the intent of a group striving for humility, if that isn’t an oxymoron, (and it isn’t).  Common Grace are a public group in that they appear on television news, often in custody, occasionally in their underwear, (and occasionally in their underwear in custody, but not actually in custody because they are in their underwear if you follow).  They are not hidden, they do not intend to be.  But then, Jesus wasn’t hidden either; he was a public figure, but he never big-noted himself like the unclean spirit wanted to do and wanted Jesus to do.  Like Jesus, Common Grace stands up publicly for grace foremost and for God’s preference for salvation and homecoming rather than piety and prejudice and elitism disguised under religious activity.  God will be glorified, and the captives will be freed, if Common Grace gets their way.

This then is the message of reconciliation to which we are called as Christians.  This is what the table of grace is about.  Make no mistake, you are welcome at this table whether you are or are not a clever-bottom.  However, we do hope you won’t be one as you leave.

Amen.

 

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It’s Not About You (Epiphany 3B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for a cluster service of the Yallourn and Morwell Uniting Churches, for Sunday 21st January 2018.  The congregations were gathered at Yallourn North.

Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62:5-12; Mark 1:14-20

In Mark 1:14-20 we read Mark’s account of where and how Jesus began his ministry.  This is an important text because alongside the story of Jesus calling the first four to the ministry of discipleship and men-fishing we hear the first declaration of the gospel message according to The Son of Man.  Jesus says that the time of the revelation of God’s Way has come, so turn to God and hear the good news.

In Jesus’ day to call someone to believe carried the meaning of that person committing him/herself toward a special relationship marked by loyalty: it did not carry the meaning that the person should accept a special set of statements to be true.  Belief in the coming Kingdom of God in Jesus’ mind was about an insatiable commitment to God and a passion to bring about the realisation of the kingship of God on the Earth in the same way that God is king in Heaven.  So, Jesus’ call to the fishermen in Mark 1:16-20 is a call to attention, repentance and belief in the way of the Kingdom in the perfect tense (continuous present, once and future).  Jesus goes on in the gospel stories to exhibit the arrival of the Kingdom by teaching, healing and exorcism, and private prayer.  We’ll see Jesus in action next week, so I’ll leave Mark 1:21-45 until then, but that’s what it’s about, the activity of the Kingdom once revealed.

What is going on in today’s reading carries the message that the proclamation of the Reign of God precedes the ministry of Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.  The first thing Jesus does is declare God’s arrival; Jesus does not begin by healing or saving, he begins by proclaiming.  In other words, the key to the gospel is that you get aboard the Kingdom before the stuff of ministry happens, so that the stuff is put in context.  Healing and saving are activities of the Kingdom, a display of what life is like under God’s reign, or better said within God’s realm.

When Jesus invites the two sets of brothers to join him there is a deliberate echo of God’s invitation to Abram – leave your father and the family business and follow God to a new place and a very different future to the one predicted by the generations.  As Abrahamitic men these Galileans would have had confidence in their place in God because of their ancestry, their obedience to the Law of Moses, their attendance at the local synagogue, and their respect for their parents and family ties.  But Jesus calls them to the Kingdom of Heaven, and they are required to leave all that social and religious confidence behind.  What Jesus is saying is that they have nothing to rely on, nothing to take confidence in except the hope that God is on their side.  If you are not hitched to God’s wagon it doesn’t matter who your grandparents were or which religious centre you attend on which day, even if it is a synagogue on Shabbat.  This is the eternal invitation of Jesus, even today, even to Christians.  The only thing you can rely on is grace, and by grace alone can you act and serve in the world as if it is “on Earth as it is in Heaven”.

In our Hebrew story this morning we hear how Jonah prophesied to Nineveh and the Ninevites turned to God.  Unlike Jesus, and hopefully unlike you, Jonah does not want the hearers of his gospel, the Ninevites, to repent.  Jonah doesn’t like the Ninevites, and he doesn’t like what they represent; so, his message is as brief as he can possibly make it.  He obeys God just enough to stay out of trouble, and remember his recalcitrance has already cost him three days lost at sea, but he does the barest of bare minima so that he is seen to be obedient yet be unsuccessful in God’s mission.  In fact, Jonah’s whole message is five Hebrew words in length.  Five.  And there’s no hope in it, no call to repentance, no instruction about what to do; Jonah is practically boasting to these people, whom he intensely dislikes, that they are going to get splattered.

If one of you had come to me with this message for the Latrobe Valley I’d probably have rejected it as not having come from God.  I believe that God’s prophetic messages always have hope in them, so I’d have asked you to go away with your epic judginess and come back when you had the complete message, the “…but if you turn back and repent then…” part.  And I’d probably be right in doing that, since for much of Western Christian history the story has changed, and the rumour of God is widespread.  But in Jonah 3 something different is going on, and as a filter of God’s prophetic message I’d need to be very careful.  The prophecies of disaster tinged with hope as are always addressed to God’s own people.  “Repent,” says God, “and if you do then I will restore you and bless you.”  The consequence of not hearing God is that the disobedient go further into their own dilemma.  It’s not that God causes evil against them, it’s that God does not intervene to prevent the evil they have brought upon themselves.

But the Ninevites know none of this.  They don’t know God and they are not participants in the covenants of Abraham and Moses.  They are not lapsed Christians who have heard the message but have fallen away from salvation by grace through faith in Christ’s atoning work on the cross.  No, the Ninevites have no relationship with The LORD upon which to call.  They’ve had no previous warning of divine wrath precipitating disaster, or which behaviours that wrath is directed towards.  They are unaware, and therefore in shock when Jonah speaks his five words.  And so, the people do the best they can with what they know about gods, they act with penitence in the only way they know, by sackcloth and ashes (mourning) and by fasting.  By completely embracing self-humiliation the once proud city hopes to be saved from external calamity.  And the humbled city is saved.  Nineveh knows it cannot “return to The LORD” since it was never “with The LORD” in the first place: however, it can turn from its wickedness and embrace wholesomeness, and it does that with such fervour that The LORD relents and the city is saved.

The word declared is enough.  God acts through prophecy and a call to repentance, and then through signs.  In the case of Nineveh, the sign would have been destruction, and it is averted by the people’s response to grace.  In the case of Galilee, the sign is healing, exorcism, and resurrection, and it is manifested by the people’s response to grace.

In Psalm 62:9-10 we read how confidence in anything other than The LORD comes to nothing.  We are not self-sufficient. And we cannot make ourselves self-sufficient by wickedness, as if God keeps us subordinate by the law but we could be powerful if we ignored God and tried for ourselves.  We have tried, it doesn’t work.  What does work is found in Psalm 62:5-8; trust and rest in God.  God alone has power, and God alone can be trusted to wield power since God does so with love and justice foremost (Psalm 62:11-12).  Jonah didn’t have love, so he couldn’t be trusted to judge Nineveh.  God loved the Ninevites, even as God detested their behaviour, and because God loves God is mighty to save.

God’s intent is always to save and not destroy.  God warned Nineveh, even though Jonah didn’t like it, and Jesus warned Judea even though they didn’t like it.  Often when Christians speak of Hell as the deserved end for the enemies of God we miss the point that the message of Jesus is better read as repeated warnings against the self-destructive practices of violent society and personal sin.  Hell, for sinners and the destruction of Nineveh are not predestined, the message is not “this is where you’ll end up if you are naughty”, but “this is where your self-destructive behaviours are leading you”.  The message of the Kingdom, to change your life and your mind and live as if God is king and LORD, and Nebuchadnezzar, or Trump, or Turnbull, or Molech, or Baal, or Nathan Buckley are not.  As proclaimers of the Way of Jesus and the gospel of Immanuel we must always make sure that grace has the final word.

When Jesus spoke of hell and judgement he did so with the backdrop of his message of God’s grace and the world’s terror.  Judgement for Jesus was not so much about sinners going to damnation as it is being about rabble-rousers and plotters bringing down the wrath of the Romans.  Jerusalem was Hell in 70 CE, there was fire and brimstone, death and horror, and the temple was destroyed: Jesus saw it coming in the escalating violence of the Zealots and the inevitability of the religious resistance movements.  This is what God saw in Nineveh, and even though Jonah saw something different God’s message was put across and the self-destructive behaviours of the Ninevites were stopped and decline into hell was averted.

The Way of God is non-violent resistance to the evil in the world, and following the destruction of the temple Judaism and Christianity caught that.  That had been the message of Jesus from that first day beside the lake, and that was in the message of Jesus as he approached those two boat crews and called for disciples.  Unlike Jonah there is no delight for God or Jesus in seeing people go through Hell, so how can there even be the slightest shade of that in the Church?

Our job is to let the world know that the King is coming, not so much as to warn them against divine wrath in the tribulation following our Rapture, but to prepare them for the better way of life on Earth when the King of Glory, the grace-abounding healer, saviour, redeemer and reconciling Lord takes the crown.

There is no greater thing than knowing Jesus, just because he’s Jesus.

Amen.

Hidden Figures

The 2017 film Hidden Figures gives rise to questions of what minority members of the professionals in other fields might have to offer.  If an African-American woman can use her mathematics to facilitate safe space travel in the dawning decade of such endeavours, I wonder where the leading edges are now, and who is being cut-off from riding those edges because of hubris and prejudice.

My field is the Reign of God.  I want to understand the nature and implementation of the Kingdom of Heaven, and I want to repeat and reinterpret for today the central message of Jesus concerning what life is like within God’s intent for the world.  What does it mean that there is a dawning reality where son-daughters of God live in a world which has been recreated to promote life without evil or distress?  How do we go about welcoming and facilitation such a realm’s arrival?

So, first I ask who is being excluded and who is the “nigress” of today’s theology.  Is she even in the Church, I’d say yes, is she in some form of ministry, again yes.    The “Colored Computers” worked for NASA, just not in the location of their most effectiveness.  So, then I ask, who do we have in the Church but in the back room, who do we insist drink from a segregated coffee pot and relieve herself in a segregated, isolated toilet?

Who is doing the work while today’s theological Anglo Alpha-males get the credit?

Who is heralding the change, bringing “the math” that would help us all to reach the moon?

Perhaps I’d better find out.

The Call (Second Sunday after Epiphany: Year B)

1 Samuel 3:1-10; Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18

When I was living in England the last job that I had, before I returned to Australia, was in a prison where I worked as an Operational Support Grade officer or OSG.  One day I was outside the prison, doing some work near the gatehouse, when a voice yelled across from the visitors’ carpark.  “Oi screw!” came the voice.  I ignored it.  “Oi!  Oi screw!” came the voice again.  I looked up, and could see a man looking in my direction, but standing thirty metres away and near the door to the visitors’ centre, the place where visiting family and friends wait before being allowed into the prison on visiting days.  I looked down again.  “Screw!” came the demand, “oi screw I’m talking to you!”  Still nothing from me.  “Screw!  Feckin screw, screw!”  Nothing.  Eventually the man gave up.  I didn’t see where he went, whether he entered the prison or went back to his car; I didn’t look.

Why did I not answer, you might ask.  Well it’s simple really, he wasn’t talking to me; and I believe that if you’re not talking to me then it is rude of me to answer you.  I know he wasn’t talking to me because my name is not, nor has it ever been, “Screw”.  My name certainly isn’t “Oi Screw”.  The fact that I was the only other person in the area, and that I was wearing the Queen’s uniform of HM Prisons Service, is beside the point.  Had he wished to speak to me I’m sure he would have come over to me and politely said “excuse me OSG”.  But since he didn’t, he can’t have been speaking to me.

Oddly enough this isn’t the first time I’ve heard someone not speaking to me.  Often students at the school I told you about two weeks ago would yell “Oi Squeak”, or “Oi Aussie”, or occasionally “Oi Tanny” on campus.  I don’t know who those people are, if they are people at all, but since my name is “Mr Tann” or “Sir” the students can’t have been speaking with me, so I didn’t get involved.  Similarly, here in Australia, I’m not sure who “Oi blind maggot” is, but since my name is “goalie” or “umpie” again I am polite enough to stay out of other people’s conversations, especially when they already sound rather cross.

As was read to us this morning from 1 Samuel 3:3 the lamp of God, the light which symbolised the presence of God in the sanctuary, was still alight when Samuel laid down to rest in preparation for sleep when God spoke.  Since The Voice of The LORD was rarely heard in those days Samuel, who was in the actual sanctuary and lit by the lamp of presence, responded to his name believing it had come from the priest.  Maybe Samuel thought that even if The LORD did speak that God would only address the priest, so the voice he heard could not have been The Voice of The LORD since it was directly addressed to him, Samuel, by name.  Three times the voice came, three times Samuel responded promptly by running in to Eli’s presence.  Kind of like me waiting for a polite summons to listen to someone, any my ignoring any impolite tone or name as indicating that the voice could not have been directed toward me, Samuel knew the inverse; that he couldn’t have been hearing The Voice of The LORD because The LORD doesn’t speak to small boys.   Unlike me, Samuel was called by name, and at last he recognised The LORD’s summons, or at least he followed Eli’s instruction, and God spoke to him.

Did you notice, right at the beginning of this reading, that Samuel was already engaged in ministry when he was called to?  In the second part of 1 Samuel 3:1 it says that he was singled out for a rare honour because visons were not widespread and in 1 Samuel 3:2 we are told that the sparsity of visions did not matter much since Eli was going blind anyway.  When The LORD spoke to the boy, and bypassed the priest in doing so, Samuel’s work of priestly ministry was expanded to encompass the work of prophecy.  The Voice of The LORD spoke, out of the blue, to a boy, and thereafter The LORD spoke through Samuel because Samuel was willing to be used as an amplifier.  Samuel showed his willingness to be used by God, even in his ignorance of The Voice of The LORD, by engaging in priestly ministry.  The one who had amplified God’s ministry in ministering would be used to amplify God’s message in prophesying.

What are you doing now, in God’s work, that God can ask you to do something else for the Kingdom?

I know that I have been called by God.  I do not say that to boast, or to make myself superior to you.  As all are called to ministry within the Kingdom of God, those who belong to that Kingdom at least, I am called.  I am a Christian, I am a Christ worshipper and Christ follower, and part of that is lived out in what I do for Christ in the world.  I hope you can say the same, even though none of you do what I do.  One of the things that gives me confidence to follow God in the footsteps of Jesus, and also in the footsteps of those who walked in the footsteps of Jesus, is that I know that God knows what I am capable of.  God will often take me beyond what I think I can do, but God has never taken me beyond what God can do through me nor beyond where God can save me if I stumble.

Early in my time in England things were not going well and my life was equal parts adventure and adversity, sometimes unequal parts in fact with adversity in the majority.  One time when I was crying into the phone to Australia my mum, in her regular attempts to get me to come home, said to me, “I don’t know what to do Damie, God has taken you out of my depth.”  I remember that being a turning point, one of many and not the final one, but a turning point nonetheless when I realised that God might have taken me out of my mother’s depth, and she was struggling as a loving mother with the distress her darling boy was undergoing, but God had not actually taken me put of my depth.  I was on tiptoe for sure, and in fact I had to swim after that, but I can swim, and I did swim and God swam me into deeper water where I learned to swim harder.  What we read from Psalm 139 this morning is the same message.  God knows me.  God knows me “in the Biblical sense”, for all of the intensity band passion that phrase suggests.  Before I was knit together in my mother’s womb, 32 years before the anguished phone calls between the mouth attached to the heart attached to that same womb and my adult ears, God knew what God was doing.  Because I have swum hard, very hard, but never have I drowned, I am confident, utterly confident in God.

Sort of like Samuel, but sort of not, when God took me from the ministry of pastoral care as a school chaplain on the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia and reset me through five years and two more degrees at university to minister as a preacher and pastor, currently in the Latrobe Valley in Victoria, I followed God without question.  The one who knows me in the Psalm 139 sense has my permission to call me in the 1 Samuel 3 sense because I am so well known, so thoroughly understood.  I don’t say that to boast in my prestige as a minister, a lay preacher with a long-term contract, not at all.  I boast in the Lord Jesus Christ and the empowering grace of The Holy Spirit with the word of my testimony.  My life’s story is that God is dependable.  I was ministering, and God called me to minister bigger, and I trusted God to go with that because God had proved Godself faithful way, way ago.

So as your brother in Christ, a simple yet dedicated Christian, and in no way your senior pastor (which I’m not) or the ordained priest (which I am so, so not), again I ask you: what are you doing now, in God’s work, that God can ask you to do something else for the Kingdom?

Perhaps your answer is that you aren’t doing anything.  Now that is not true because I know you; not in the Biblical sense but I’ve been here four months now and I am familiar enough with each of you to know that there are no passengers on our mission bus in Yallourn and Morwell.  So, you are each doing something.  So, we’ve sorted that one.

Perhaps your answer now, because I didn’t let you get away with the first one, is that you aren’t interested in doing more.  “Yes, okay Damien I am doing, but I’m happy with what I’m doing, and God is more than welcome to ask someone else to step up.  Don’t let me stand in God’s way of asking someone who is not me.  No, no really, you first mate.”  And you know what, that’s fine with me.  It’s not fine in the sense that I am defeatist, or that I don’t have confidence in you, that’s not what I’m saying.  It’s fine because I am confident to the extent of my ministry to leave your ministry up to God.

I don’t know you in the Psalm 139 way, but I know that God knows you like that.  So,

  • If God is calling you onward today then my job is to open opportunities for you to serve in this place, a job I share with the elders at Yallourn and Morwell.
  • If God is calling you to sit and rest, as in “well done good and faithful servant”; and you see out your days as an active worshipper and a retired missionary then praise God.
  • If God is calling you to sit and rest, as in “take a breather, I’ll be back for you in the fullness of time and it’s going to be epic”; and you spend a season here as an active worshipper, active in private prayer and discernment, and a recuperating missionary then praise God.

Just let me know eh, but please be polite and call me Damien won’t you.

Amen.