Watch your step (Pentecost 8B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of God gathered as Yallourn  Parish Uniting Church at Yallourn North on Sunday 15th July 2018.

Mark 6:14-29; Ephesians 3:1-14

The passage from the gospel that was read to us this morning is unique in that the hero of this story is not Jesus.  In every other story told by Mark Jesus is the hero by his helping the main character, or Jesus is the main character.  But in Mark 6:17-29 Jesus doesn’t appear, and we read an episode from the past where John the Baptiser is both the major character and the hero.  I wonder why that is, why does Mark make an exception to his rule?

Of course, our set reading does actually begin with Jesus, and in Mark 6:14-16 we read that his fame was so widespread and impressive that even the king had heard of him.  Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Perea and Galilee was both astonished and afraid by the news of Jesus’ ministry: the news of the Kingdom of God was upsetting to the kings of the earth, especially the king with jurisdiction in Galilee.  John had been proclaiming the coming of the king, and now the message of the Kingdom of God was going ahead even though John was dead.  So, if Herod Antipas is afraid that being murdered has only made John Baptiser stronger imagine what he’ll think about Jesus!

Antipas was a bit of a Herod-wannabe, not the man his father was, and since old man Herod The Great had been a Solomon-wannabe and a Messiah-wannabe with his temple building and his sucking up to the Romans, the moral and intellectual challenge set for Antipas by John Baptiser was warranted.  So, since Antipas thinks John was dealt with and silenced, but now he’s back, and in version 2.0 to boot, Antipas is on guard.  This is where it is helpful to consider for whom Mark wrote, and see his story as encouragement intended for the small communities of persecuted believers and potential martyrs in the generation after Jesus.  Mark reminds them that God is stronger than every king, and that Jesus will always win when the Caesars (or Herods) gets knotted up and narky (Mark 6:26).

According to Jewish history the kingship of God is not something to be taken lightly.   In 2 Samuel 6 (1-5, 12b-19) the stories are told of how David went out from Jerusalem to gather and bring the Ark to the place set aside for worship.  The journey began as a military parade with David marching in pageantry; the royal retinue was full of nationalistic pride and treated the Ark as the spoils of war.  You all know that this attitude ended in the death of one of the attendants of the Ark, even as he thought he was being helpful.  Make no mistake in reading this story, we are to rejoice in God’s presence with us, God’s choosing of us, and God’s victorious vindication of our confidence in God.  But God is never a trophy for us to toss around like winning grand finalists on a lap of honour, and neither are the things of God ever “booty”.  The Ark of the Covenant, which I have seen one children’s Bible call “the box of the promise” (grr!) belongs to God.  More than a box, or even an ark, it is a sign of God’s faithfulness to Israel.  The Ark itself is the visible remainder of God’s covenant with Abraham, repeated to Isaac and Jacob, and reminded to all further generations by the prophets.  That the Ark is coming to Jerusalem, and that it is being brought there by David, is a magnificent thing.  But it is a God thing, not a David thing: as great a king as David is and as great a conqueror he was in capturing the city from the Jebusites, God is the hero of this story, not David.   God is stronger than any Caesar and every Herod, and God is more wonderful than David, indeed more wonderful than David can even imagine.

When the journey of the Ark toward the city resumes it is as a celebration of praise and thanksgiving to God.  There are songs of worship and blood sacrifices along the road.  David is stripped back in humility and abandonment before The LORD, even as king, and he is more effusive in praise than all the people.  All of the people are blessed with gifts of food as signs of the abundance and generosity of the God of the covenant and a reminder of what was agreed to in the first place.  The Kingdom of God is at hand, the realm where God is king through the agency of a human intermediary of Abrahamic descent, and those to whom the kingdom has been revealed are receiving the abundance of the king.  Likewise, in Psalm 24 we read earlier that The LORD is the great king, ruler and creator of all the universe.  There is no doubt who is God, and who God is to us.  There is also no doubt of the message of God which is welcome and blessing for those who are blameless in action and thought, who are faithful to God and to their word.  When the pageant celebrating the God of the covenant cries out “lift up the gates and the King of Glory shall come in” God invites us to join the march and enter the city of God with God, and to make our home in the place where the Ark is.

And so that is where we are: in the Spirit at least.  We who belong to God by God’s choosing are citizens of the Kingdom of God and we live in the heavenly realm.  We do not live in Heaven, but we live in the realm of which Heaven is the capital and the place from which we take our identity and receive our government.  Even if we are kings in life, as Antipas and David were, we are subject to the rule of God; and even if we are at the bottom of the chain as John was in gaol or the random peasants who grabbed a flying loaf or two from David’s cake-chucking teams, we are beneficiaries of God’s justice.

Today’s set reading from Early Christian history came to us from Ephesians 1:3-14 where we read the larger story of Christian life in faith.  In other words, this is what life in God’s realm looks like, even for us in the borderlands.  Our instructions as citizens begin with an exhortation to bless God for all that God has blessed us with, especially in God’s sending Jesus as king.  The passage fits well with the gospel and Jewish history accounts because it is a declaration of adoration and praise for God’s choosing each and all of us by grace to be God’s agents for missional action for the transformation of Creation.  John the Baptiser served out his days as a prophet of God, and whilst it cost him his head it cost him no more than that.  Jesus praised John as a faithful witness to the coming kingdom and a herald of the almost present king.  David eventually got it right and today he has the honour in history of being the man responsible for seeing the Ark of God placed in the City of God in the very centre of the place occupied by the People of God, a venue where it remained for almost five hundred years. The visible reminder of God’s covenant was there to see (if you were allowed in to see it).  In all of this glory for the heroes of our faith we can be assured that God glorifies us in our celebration of God and our participation in the work of God: the inheritance passed on to us by grace is the transformed Creation.

God’s promise to us, to Christians and to others who follow the Way of Jesus, is the new creation.  We are confident that this will come about because as Paul reminds us we have received the Spirit as deposit.  This is cause for celebration.  Now I’m not expecting you all to start leaping about David-style, stripped to your underwear and throwing cakes of dates at each other, but this is not a message to just sigh at and say “oh yeah, okay” either.  The promises made by God were trusted implicitly by those who went before us.  David was prepared to look like a complete idiot in front of his subjects and his grumpy queen, and John was prepared to go to the block, because of what they each understood about God.  God has promised that God is coming, and coming as king, and coming as saviour with restorative justice and bounteous provision.  God has promised to overthrow all injustice and iniquity, all the Caesars and Herods of the world.  This is good news.

This is the good news we proclaim.  This is the good news the twelve in pairs proclaimed as they went about Galilee proclaiming the kingdom of God and restoring to wellness the sick, the possessed, and the dead.  This is an exciting message because it will transform the world, and it is a true message as well.  God has already begun to do this, God is doing it today, and God will do it wherever we go and introduce the story of God to people who are waiting for liberation.

No matter who the story is about, or who it is told by, the hero is always Jesus.

Amen.

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Made Strong (Pentecost 7B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for Yallourn Parish Uniting Church gathered at Newborough on Sunday 8th July 2018.  It was a day upon which we shared Eucharist.

2 Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13

Power in weakness is one of the great themes in Christian preaching, especially in Evangelical circles.  The idea that we are nothing without God, but we are enough and have more than enough with God is a great concept to return to when your key theme in preaching is salvation and the need for God in all things.  That God’s power can be overcome by human weakness is less popular an idea, but the idea that your prayers depend on your faith is well known, even if it has been exaggerated at times.  That God is enough, but your faith is not, so you must continue to live in distress is not a happy message, but it is also not uncommon.

So, God’s power triumphs over human weakness, but human weakness can inhibit God’s power from completing the work of restoration.  There, that’s not too hard to understand is it?  Who said the Bible was self-contradictory?  Hmm.

Often when I have heard the passage from 2 Corinthians 12 spoken on, or perhaps written about in books, mainly biographies or autobiographies, the context of the passage is human sickness.  Where God’s power is needed most is in human weakness, and that’s good because that it what the passage suggests, but the story goes on to suggest that the deepest need, the greatest human weakness, is human illness.  And of course, the deeper the illness the greater the story of heroism.  The great phrase “when I am weak, then I am strong” taken from 2 Corinthians 12:10 is a ready-made title for the story of a Christian undertaking Chemotherapy, or learning to walk after a double amputation, or maybe life after an acquired brain injury.  However, as someone who has lived with profound disability in the past, and who continues to live with an obvious weakness where God’s strength is a daily (hourly) necessity, I yet remain unconvinced.

In 2 Corinthians 12:2-10 we read what many scholars believe to be a first-person account of an episode in Paul’s life, and of the revelation given to him.  Paul says that he sees no sense in boasting, particularly in this instance when the truth is so amazing, even if he does share this first-person experience as a third-person story.  Paul is directly opposing the boasters, other preachers of Jesus who have come to Corinth and waved their credentials around.  Paul has credentials of his own, his testimony of what God has brought him through, but he withholds the complete truth in his correspondence and preaching lest anyone think him arrogant.  What Paul will boast in (without embellishment of the facts, just gushing praise) is his particular weakness through which God has upheld him.  This is where those Christian autobiographies come in, the story of brave women and men of God, usually girls or boys if truth be told, who have battled the ravages of cancer or pain or both.  In one translation of the Bible into English, a translation called “The Passion” the pertinent verses are rendered as when I am weak I sense more deeply the mighty power of Christ living in me or as an alternative The Power of Christ rests upon me like a tabernacle providing me with shelter, and because of my love for Christ I am made yet stronger.  For my weakness becomes a portal to God’s power. In these words, we read that Paul’s delight is not in his own strengths and achievements, but that God is at work through him, and in his discovery that the less there is of Paul in the ministry space the more there can be of God.

Jesus’ action in sending out the twelve in pairs as recorded by Mark 6:1-13 tells a similar story.  Yes, similar.  The messages of Paul and Jesus are not contradictory, even where God works wonderfully through Paul’s weakness, but the miracles of Jesus are inhibited by the weakness of the Nazarenes.  The common link is not human weakness, but human surrender.  Paul surrendered to God, got out of the way of God and let God work, whereas the unbelieving Nazarenes did not surrender to God but remained defiant in their religious zeal and sibling rivalry.  God did not work though Jesus in Nazareth because the Nazarenes refused to see anything that Jesus might have done as God’s action.  God was not inhibited by their lack of faith, God chose not to act because God is not a show-off.

As Jesus sent out the twelve he commanded them to cast out demons; not as a sign of God’s power over demons, (which is undoubtably true, but is not the main point), but as a sign of the Kingdom at hand.  The message is repentance, human surrender to the power of God.  Not that God wants to overpower humanity, as if the human race is to be defeated by a stronger force in God, but that God wants to power-up humanity with God’s fullness. But God cannot fill you with Godness unless you are empty of yourself.  If you are full of yourself then you can’t be filled with God.  Paul was empty, and God filled him.  Jesus was empty, and God filled him.  The boasting evangelists of Corinth and the know-it-all villagers of Nazareth were full of themselves, so God walked past them and went where the twelve went.  Sometime God filled the hearers of the message, sometimes there were no hearers and God walked past and the pair shook the dust off.

Jesus instructed the pairs not to dally in debate, even as he did not stick around Nazareth to argue.  The work of the gospel was to get in and preach then get out and preach elsewhere.  Don’t let the dust slow you down, shake it off and keep moving – time is short and there are no second chances for those who are petulant when the gospel arrives at their house.  The same is true for us.

It would appears from scripture, and other sources of history, that Jesus never again set foot in Nazareth after this episode.  He moved his home to Capernaum and returned there when in Galilee.  Maybe we need to do the same.  Now I am not saying that you need to walk out of Moe or Newborough or Yallourn North, but I am saying that if God is calling you to share the news of the Kingdom that you can’t get sentimental.  Tell who needs to know, tell them what they need to know, and then move on and tell someone else.  Let the message of the Kingdom speak for itself, don’t get into debates on the finer points – because if you do then you’ll be delayed in your mission and someone else will never get the chance to hear you preach because you never got there because you got stuck.  Do you think Jesus ever wept over Nazareth?  Did he cry for the frustration of his siblings, for Joseph and Mary’s friends, for the boys and girls he had grown up with who were now adults and hardhearted at his message?  Of course he did.  But he never returned, because he had other towns and villages to take the message to.

And this is where I get to my key point.  It is a good and Christian message to offer your weakness to God and ask God to make you strong.  I have lived experience of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Depression and Anxiety, I have been debilitated and made frail by illness, and I have prayed again and again for God to make me well.  I have prayed that God would fill my weakness with God’s strength, my sickness with God’s health,  my brokenness with God’s wholeness.  I have done this, and I shall continue to do this.  I commend you to the same activity.  But the real answer, the real prayer which has put me here in Newborough’s pulpit and not in a Tasmanian hospital bed or a South Australian cemetery is this.

Lord, take my strength and replace it with your strength.

It is easy and obvious to give our weakness to God.  A friend of mine who lived with Multiple Sclerosis once invited me to share my story of Chronic Fatigue with her because in her own words “I have been sick for a long time and I know a lot about being sick.”  Sadly, for her and for me, she did not know a lot about being healthy, and our friendship petered out.  She had made her illness her strength: she was wise in the ways of bedrest and massage and an expert in being unwell, and as I got well she lost interest in me.  And me in her to be fair.  I wasn’t a minister then and I didn’t need a friend shaming me for being well.

The Nazarenes and the Corinthians were strong.  So strong were they that they didn’t actually need God.  They did not believe that God helps those who help themselves, they believed that God gets out of the way of the strong and lets them get on with it.  Paul and Jesus held a different view.  Paul and Jesus held the view that God helps those who get out of God’s way and rely on God to be their source, even in areas in which they have skill, especially in areas where their skill is the result of a life lived in the gifts and fruit of the Spirit.

I think it might be possible for me to write a sermon without God.  I’m not sure, I haven’t tried for a while.  But I do have identifiable gifts in public speaking, in writing and composition, and in scholarship.  I know you know this because you have often remarked on it.  I speak well, and I make you think: that’s what you’ve told me anyway.  Preaching is possibly my greatest strength as a minister – but do you think I would ever try to do this without God?  No way.  Would I ever say “you know what Lord, I’ve got this preaching thing covered.  I have four university degrees, two in theology and ministry, one in teaching, and one in language.  I have preaching and teaching experience in church and in the classroom.  I’ve got this.  So, Lord, if you don’t mind I’ve got a sermon to preach now so maybe you could just wait over there until I need you for the things I’m not very good at – like listening to someone else preach or sitting in a meeting where there is tension and conflict.”  I would never say that, and I have never thought it.

My prayer, like Paul’s, is that God would fill me where I am empty.  Where I am weak may God be by strength.  Where I am full may God guide me in humility to receive God’s refreshing of whatever I am full of, and guide me in surrender to give God my fullness to partner with God’s energy for the proclamation of the Kingdom.  Where I am weak, then I am strong.  Where I am strong, then I am humble.  And may the memory of the times when I have been arrogant and missed God’s activity remain as a thorn in my flesh.

Amen.

Profundity

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Morwell and Narracan for Sunday 1st July 2018.

2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27; Psalm 130

In today’s reading from Jewish history we heard some of the earliest words spoken by David when he became king of Judah.  Saul and the sons of Saul, so Saul’s dynastic line and David’s best beloved friend Jonathan, are dead, killed in battle against the Philistines with whom David is allied at this point.  Even with himself now king over part of Saul’s realm, and freed at last from the murderous intentions of the now dead ex-king, David composes a song of mourning and not of celebration.  This is not a time for praise for David: the king is dead.  We read several weeks ago how David had been anointed king by Samuel back in David’s boyhood, but we must remember that Saul remained king over Israel until the day of his death, and that day has only now been reported to David where we take up the story this morning.  David had not been present at the battle where Saul and his sons died: unlike David we are able to read in 1 Samuel 31 that Saul dies by suicide.  In 2 Samuel 1 we read how David is told that Saul was slain by the very messenger who brings him the news of Saul’s death, a man who was essentially a refugee in Israel at the time.  David believes Saul has been murdered, even if it was euthanasia, by an insider.  The one who David himself refused to lay a finger on has been assassinated by some gloating random foreigner: David may never have found out the true means of Saul’s death, and in this moment, he is visibly distressed by what has befallen God’s anointed.

David’s way of dealing with his emotions, anger, confusion, grief, horror, is to write a song.  In the death of Saul and his heir Jonathan Israel has been humiliated, and David is conscious of the mockery that this news will elicit in the cities and towns of Philistia, today’s Palestinians of the Gaza Strip.  Not only prestige but prowess has been lost; Saul may have been a poor king, but he was an excellent swordsman and a decent general, and Jonathan a champion archer.   Israel’s potential for greater things has been cut off and Israel should mourn.  Even the poor king had brought good things to Israel and now that king is dead.

In Psalm 130 we read a plea for divine redemption, and is widely known by its first line in Latin De Profundis.  It is an individual lament and is a prayer of penitence – its theme is “O God I have messed up, I’m in the depths, hear me and come and save me”.  God alone can save, and without God’s approval no one can be saved even if God is not the agent of salvation.  No one can be saved in spite of God, Psalm 130:3 makes that plain.  So, God either allows saving to take place or God actively steps in and does the saving Godself; and this prayer is a plea for the second one.  As we heard about last week when we read John 17 together, so this week there is evidence that God’s reputation is at stake: God is glorified or “revered” in today’s wording, when forgiveness is evident.  In penitence I will glorify God when I am restored, and others who see me revived by grace will also give God praise for what God is doing for me and in me.

The saving grace of God inspires confidence.  Having called to God from the depths, the profoundly dark and deep, I am confident to wait.  Psalm 130:5-6 suggest that having cried out to God the work of the sufferer is done, it’s now up to God to do the saving.  I like this for many reasons, but mostly because it resonates with me; I have experienced the profound depths and this Psalm speaks directly to my story.

Today my story is that God has restored me this far, to where I am now, and I am confident that will go even higher with God.  If I stay close to God-my-Saviour I will be taken even higher in joy, fulfilment, confidence and competency as the work of deliverance continues.  I am being restored not to where I was at the point of tripping up, but to the place I should have been at now and would have been had I not gone backward when God called me forward.  God continues to restore me, and God has brought me from depths so dark and so deep that I’m sure that I’m not sure that I understand just how low I was, so confused was I at that time.  I was in so much trouble that in hindsight I see now that I lost the ability to see then just how messed up I was then, how much in danger I was.  God’s deliverance of me began with God’s shielding me from understanding the extent of my peril.  So, to read a prayer where the text implies that my job is to cry out and God’s job is to respond comforts me.  I am reminded that I do not have the responsibility to improve my situation; not because I am irresponsible but because I have become incapacitated, unwittingly disabled by the situation and I actually cannot to anything, even if I don’t know that and think that I can.  It’s like being hurt in a fall and saying to the paramedics “no it’s alright, it’s only my neck that’s broken, not my legs, where would you like me to walk?”  Lay down idiot, and let us carry you!!

The most important aspect of this message, I think, is that it relates specifically to sin.  This is not the song of a man (or woman) who has been beset by external enemies.  This is not the prayer of an innocent victim of robbery or violence, or a stock market collapse or malicious slander.  This psalm makes quite clear that the cause of the profound isolation is iniquity.  This is not a victim of anything, this is a perpetrator of sin, and sin that has lead to something beyond despair.  This is not the prayer of someone in Auschwitz or Nauru: this is the prayer of Judas Iscariot on Good Friday, or Saul on Mt Gilboa, or the other Saul in Damascus, or even David lying next to Bathsheba (although it isn’t literally that last one, David did not write Psalm 130, his actual prayer after Bathsheba is Psalm 51).  This is the prayer of “I have massively screwed up and I need major help”: it is the prayer of the penitent perpetrator.  And, as I say, that is the most important thing for me about this Psalm – that all of that “I hope for rescue”, and all of that “I can sit here and wait for God to swoop and scoop”, and all of that worship in Psalm 130:7-8 for God’s steadfast love and might to redeem, all of that is said by someone who up Shipwreck Creek because of his/her own poor navigation.

Psalm 130 says that there is grace and salvation for you who is living a life worse than death, even if that situation has come about because you did stupid or evil things.  This psalm is not only a prayer for the depressed and deprived, it’s a prayer for the depraved: and with that understanding look at how it is a prayer of hope.  Amazing stuff.

Several weeks ago, as you are aware, I lead a funeral for a young man who died by suicide.  This man was not a Christian by his own or his family’s understanding; indeed, I was asked to facilitate the service only because the family wanted to make use of the chapel where that man had been married, and that chapel was Narracan Uniting.  This man had never been baptised and had not had his son baptised; as far as I know he’d only ever been inside a church building to attend weddings or funerals.  And this man had killed himself.  So, when a social worker who is assigned to one of the dead man’s brothers asked me how they, the social worker and the brother, could get the dead man out of purgatory, I was faced with an interesting pastoral conundrum.  Much as it would be a great anecdote for this morning I can’t actually tell you that I recited Psalm 130 back to the social worker, or that I preached on it at the funeral, because I didn’t. If you’re actually interested to know I will tell you that I recited Psalm 23:4 to the social worker, and I preached on Luke 24:36 at the funeral: you can look those up for yourselves later.  But thinking about it today I think that that was a Psalm 130 moment.  Not that the deceased man was the greatest of all sinners, because according to 1 Timothy 1:15 he wasn’t; or because he died by suicide and that is the greatest of all sins, because according to Mark 3:29 it isn’t.  No, the pastoral response to a grieving and eternally-concerned non-Christian about his non-Christian and dead by suicide friend is that God is eternally gracious even to the stupidly evil, and to the wickedly stupid, so why not to some randomly ordinary human.  I’m not here to tell you that everyone goes to Heaven regardless of their life choices, not excluding the means of their death; but I am here to tell you that everyone who dies goes to meet God, and that God is gracious and generous.  I did not promise Heaven to the family of that man, but in the name of Christ I did assure them of grace, and in the name of the Church I did assure them of welcome and the embrace of shalom while they were in the pointy-roof, pointy-window building.  I assure you today, here, of the same: because that is what Psalm 130 says to me.

I can’t say what God said to Saul on the day of his battlefield suicide, and I can’t say what God said to that young man who died last month and whose life was celebrated here a fortnight ago, but I can tell you what God said to me de profundis, when God swooped to meet me in the depths: You called me, and I answered you. I am here with you to take you out of here, to take you home. You are loved, and forgiven, and loved.

Amen.