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.

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The Good and Pleasantness

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Lakes Entrance Uniting Church for Sunday 20th August 2017.  It was a communion Sunday.

Genesis 45:1-15; Psalm 133; Matthew 15:21-28

The picture you see up there is a painting named “The Conciliation” and it was painted by Benjamin Duterrau around 1840.  The European man is George Augustus Robinson, Protector of Aborigines for Van Diemen’s Land, and the other mob are Palawa, the indigenous people of Trowenna as that island was known by its First People.  This painting is supposed to indicate the end of “the Black Wars” which ravaged Tasmania until 1831, where Robinson met with the last group of warriors and convinced them to accompany him to Hobart and meet with governor Arthur.  In one way, I like this painting: I like that is that it is entitled “The Conciliation” rather than “Reconciliation”.  This is the first time these two groups, the Palawa and the Riana (or white people), have been in harmony.  This image marks a new relationship of peace, not the restoration of an old one which was broken.  In many other ways, all dependent upon my being a sometime Tasmanian and a student of Van Demonian history, I find this painting shocking.  What you see there never happened, not like that anyway.

Today’s readings all point toward the theme of unity, and are predicated upon the idea of reconciliation.  The Psalmist speaks in Psalm 133 about “the blessedness of unity” as the NRSV translators would have it, and of the desire that all people might “live together in harmony” as my commentator Professor Toni Craven suggests.  Psalm 133:3 describes how God orders and bestows divine blessing where God finds unity expressed.  This blessing is doubly special because not only is it from God, but it is a blessing akin to ordination and consecration.  Furthermore, that blessing is the promise and strength of life for evermore.  God gives great favour on the people who live in harmony, guaranteeing them a long and fulfilling life while they maintain that state; and God derives great joy from such people.  In Hebrew, but sadly not in the English of the NIV or the NRSV this Psalm begins with the word “behold”, indicating that what was to follow would be something worth hearing.  This is one of those points in scripture where as a reader or hearer you want to take note of the message.  In this case the message is the benefits of unity.

Psalm 133 like many of the psalms we have read in the past months is a song of ascent.  Therefore, it is a prelude to collective worship: the sort of song you sing on your way to the temple as you prepare yourself to enter the worship space with a worshipping heart.  It is also a greeting which might be sung and echoed to and from fellow pilgrims you meet on your way up.  “How good it is!” you sing, “when brothers gather in unity!” comes the reply.  Stirring stuff.

The psalm also speaks of oil.  Olive oil was used for anointing, but also for healing.  Appointment to office and healing where it is needed are gifts from God, so is unity.  Where the people’s sin brought separation from God and from one another God desires to bring unity and to restore what was broken.  Continuing this thought there is no place for selfishness in unity.  Where God has called women and men together only those focussed on the task will complete the task, the selfish one looking for his or her own needs above the needs of the whole, or the one looking for fame, will destabilise the task.  The agenda of the people in unity can only be the saving work of the Church; otherwise the congregation becomes a Babel of confused messages and opinions.

Where once there was disunity and disharmony in the family of Jacob, Joseph is delighted to be reunited with his brothers.  Where hatred had led to harm and the intention to destroy God ensured that there would be life because the brothers have a second chance to live together.  Where there might have been death for Joseph as a slave where there might have been death for the brothers as the drought set in, now by the grace of God there will be abundant life.  Joseph chose not to hold on to past hurts but to use the outcome of his poor treatment to benefit his family, even the ones who hated and hurted him.  Joseph sends the brothers to live in the Nile Delta, the best irrigated and most fertile portion of Egypt.

So, let’s be clear: Joseph has chosen not to remember the pain of the past.  He had been humiliated and betrayed by his brothers while still a boy of seventeen.  He had been alone and no doubt frightened as a slave in the convoy of the Ishmaelites, and again as a prisoner of injustice after Potiphar’s wife accused him of attempted rape.  Even after he became Prime Minister of Egypt, and named his sons “God has caused me to forget my troubles” and “God has made me fruitful”, the tears he cries on Benjamin’s neck indicate a wall of emotion which has broken down in him.  It is this moment where he is finally released from the past, not the moment in which he was summoned from the gaol to speak with Pharaoh that first time.  Joseph’s suffering was broken by reconciliation, not by material wealth or unlimited power.  Indeed, the commentator I read for Genesis this week, J.M. Boice, suggests that Joseph remained fresh in his loving-kindness even after twenty-two years of exile from his family because he stayed close to God.  That is a great lesson for us: stay close to God.

Matthew and Mark both tell the story of Jesus speaking with a displaced indigenous woman, a Canaanite: today we might call her a Palestinian.  Matthew tells us in 15:23b that she’s annoying the disciples so much that they ask Jesus to send her away.  “Look,” they say, “just heal the daughter will you and then this woman can go.”   Jesus tells them that that is not going to happen because she is not an Israelite.  In other words, she is not part of the unity; where we are an “us” this woman is a “them” and “they” don’t get what God has given “us”.  So Jesus ignores her and her inappropriate claim upon his time and anointing.  When she speaks to him directly, having had no luck with the disciples, Jesus insults her.  “The Jews are the children of the master,” he says, “you are a dog and not worthy of what God has provided”.

That’s what Jesus said.

But in a quote worthy of Joseph, the one who endured imprisonment and exile by staying close to God the woman agrees with Jesus, but says that that is no reason to deprive her of her miracle.  “Yes, I am a dog,” she says, “but even dogs get leftovers in the master’s house”.  In other words, she is saying that while she does not have a set at the table, she is still within the house and a member of the household.  What a comeback, no wonder Jesus grants her her request.  Most commentators suggest that Jesus was baiting the woman to draw out this revelation.  Some scholars, a minority but a vocal minority, suggest that the human Jesus was challenged by the woman’s retort and that he learned something about the grace of God in that moment.  I can imagine Jesus turning to the disciples and saying, “you know, she’s right,” before sending her on her way with the words of Matthew 15:28.  And as we have discussed earlier in the year, she alongside only the Samaritan at the well and his own mother, is called “Woman” by Jesus.  Something profound occurred here, and even Jesus has had a shift in his understanding.  The Canaanite mother came as an outsider to the covenant of God conscious that only God could help her daughter.  Surely a God who is so generous to Israel, so generous that even the Canaanites can see it, can spare the leftovers for a mother desperate for her daughter.  Surely this is so even if the mother and her little girl are dogs?

As we move toward the high point of our service of worship and the gathering around this table as a place of unity, let us be mindful of the ones we might want to exclude in God’s name.  Ask yourself, as Jesus asked himself, to whom is God denying access to the blessings of God?  This table is open to the indigenous people of Australia, and not just because George Augustus Robinson made them put on shoes and learn to use cutlery.  But to whom is this table closed?  To whom is the promise of unity denied?

There is an answer to that question.  The table is closed to those who don’t have faith.  I’m not saying at all that the table is closed to people of different theology or none because of that theology, as if only Uniting Church members can have this feast.  But this table as a sign of God’s welcome is only accessible if you know God, and you believe yourself to be welcomed.  As we saw from Matthew’s story the Canaanite woman believed herself welcome to at least gather the leftovers, the God of Israel was not God of her because she was not an Israelite; but as Lord Almighty of the universe she had some rights as a creature.

Those who are not welcome at this table are those who exclude themselves.  If you don’t know you are welcome, why would you even come and risk the embarrassment of eviction?  Unity means that all are welcome, brothers and sisters alike, Israelite and Canaanite, Palawa and Riana, Koori and Anglo.

As we gather at this table today, let us agree that when next we gather at this table we will have invited those waiting for an invitation to participate in this act of unity.

Everything has been done.  Come, and bring a friend.

Come.

Amen.

The Psalm of The Lakes

This is the message I preached at Lakes Entrance on Sunday 13th August 2017, the tenth Sunday of Pentecost.

Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22; Romans 10:5-15

Last week I spoke to you something of the call to preaching, and how it’s more than just making your own sense of the Bible and then speaking about it from the front. Preaching is both a gift and a calling; those who are called are also gifted, but some who are gifted are not called. Some who probably could preach a good sermon, one without vampires for example, might be better suited as small group or classroom teachers or lecturers, or perhaps as theologians, which is to say authors.

In August and September 2000, I was in the final semester of my studies toward a Graduate Diploma in Primary Education. I was on “Practicum 3”, a four-week solid block of teaching in a school supervised by the university (NTU) and the regular classroom teacher. I was teaching a grade five class at Holy Spirit Primary School, a Roman Catholic parish school in Casuarina, a suburb of Darwin. Holy Spirit was one of two schools local to my home, the other was Wanguri Primary School and I had completed “Practicum 1” there twelve months earlier. The schools were diagonally across the road from each other, with that road marking the boundary between the suburbs of Casuarina and Wanguri. Anyway, one lesson where I was teaching Religion, (and remember that this is a Catholic School so Religion was taught twice a week by the classroom teacher and not one a term by local Christian volunteers bringing RE as it was at Wanguri), I found myself running short on time due to a last-minute assembly being called. I had to finish quickly and so instead of reading the Bible around the classroom as we usually did, each child reading one verse in turn, I read the passage from the front. And because I was in a hurry I acted it out too, reading with one hand and waving my other hand around. As we were lining up for assembly at the end of the lesson one of the girls said to me, “Mr Tann you shouldn’t be a teacher, you should be an actor.” I told her the truth, that I had used to be an actor and that now I was becoming a teacher, but that I still liked having fun with my learning. I also told her that I was a Christian from the Uniting Church and that I liked reading the Bible too, so that made it easier for me to have fun with it.

The reason I have told you that story is because the passage I read that day in class is the same passage I have read to you this morning, Psalm 105. Worship was opened this morning with my reading the first six verses directly from the Bible, and from the NRSV which you have in front of you. Our prayer of Adoration, which I called “The Adoration of Joseph” was not of course that Joseph is to be adored, but that Joseph would adore God because of the story of his life. I took Psalm 105:16-22 and rewrote those verses as my own prayer, much as Bruce D. Prewer, James Taylor, and Leslie F. Brandt do in the books I often use for our liturgical prayers.

This got me to wondering: how would Psalm 105 for Lakes Entrance read? The Psalm as we find it in Israel’s scriptures is subtitled “God’s faithfulness to Israel” by the NRSV translators, and “God’s word in Israel’s story” by Professor Toni Craven who is the commentator I read this week. This Psalm tells the story of the Hebrew people from the choosing of Abraham until the settling of the exodus people in the Promised Land under Joshua. It forms a pair with Psalm 106 which speaks of the unfaithfulness of the Hebrew people during the same time: God is faithful as deliverer, but the people act wickedly and are blind to what God had done (Psalm 106:6-7).

The opening verses of the Psalm of The Lakes would be easy to write: I hope so anyway. Give thanks to the LORD in prayer and praise, sing to God, tell of what God has done. Let all who do these things (pray, praise, sing, tell) do so in joy. Ask God with trust for strength and the capability to go forward into the promised future. In recent days remember what God has done for you, and done through you, since your last minister moved on. Tell the people who have joined this congregation, tell the people who will join this congregation next year. Not that we wish to revisit past hurts and pains, open old wounds, pick at old scabs, or point to the scars with every new person you meet. There is no need to get new people “up to speed” on past hurts. But having been where you have been, speak now of where God is and of God’s faithfulness to you seen only in hindsight. As I said to you last week, don’t preach your notes; rather, use what you have learned in the past season of darkness and turmoil to proclaim God’s greatness and the hope for the future.

On Friday coming, the profile for the Lakes Entrance Uniting Church Congregation will go before the Placements Committee at Synod in Melbourne. After so long in preparation and negotiation, drafting and redrafting, and re-redrafting your paperwork is in and the search for a new, permanent-for-at-least-three-years, minister gets underway. You have done it, you have made it. Of course, the search for a new minister takes the time that it does, and you will need to look after each other and take responsibility for the functions of the congregation until your new pastor comes; but considering what you have already done that will be easier. You have much to praise God for, to thank God, to look back in amazement at where God was and what God did for you, in you, through you, because of you, and sometime around you. You have a history which speaks of God’s choosing of you and God’s favour upon you. Today is the day to begin to celebrate that history, to speak of God’s faithfulness, and to consider God’s message for you as you look to appointing the man or woman God is sending you.

And so, as are the people of history at the end of Psalm 105, so you stand on the bank of the Jordan River. The Moses people of your history, those interim ministers and preachers who have brought you safely, (if somewhat shakily), to the brink of home are no longer required. The next woman or man you call will be a Joshua, one who can lead you and cheer you on as you run ahead to fill the promise that God has made to you.

Briefly I want to turn to Romans 10:5-15 at this point, and not just because I read it this morning and I haven’t preached on it. This passage from Paul, which is today’s Lectionary choice for Epistle, speaks not only of Moses and that same Salvation History of Israel which the paired Psalms 105 and 106 do, but also of what Christian Salvation is.

Paul quotes Moses from Deuteronomy 30:11-14 in saying that what is done in salvation can only be done by God: human effort will always fall short. At Lakes Entrance, you know that. Only God could have brought The Lakes Parish through to where you stand today. Paul is of course speaking of human salvation, the movement of an individual into a saving and salving relationship with God in Christ, but the same applies to this congregation made up of Lakes Entrance and Lake Tyers Beach people that God has done the work through grace, and that God’s soothing and rescuing work in your salvation is a sure and completed thing.

This then is what you can say to the world. Of course, should speak of what Christ has done for you, a Christian, in bringing you to himself as Lord of Life and pointing you towards the God of Creation. But in a town where the name of the Uniting Church was not proud, where people thought we had abandoned this building in preparation for selling up and moving out the story of how God saved the Uniting Church in Lakes Entrance is worth telling, and worth telling repeatedly. God loves this congregation, I am sure you have no doubt of that. God loves this town and this district, I am sure you have no doubt of that either. Now all you must do, and you needn’t wait for your next Reverend Gentleman or Lady, is to go and tell them on the Esplanade, and on every other street in this town, that God loves them too.

And feel free to be as extravagant as you like in doing so. Grade five would be proud of you, to say nothing of the Holy Spirit, Godself.

Amen.

A Matthean Confession

A Prayer of Confession based on Matthew 14:22-33

Jesus, in your days on earth there came a day when you sent your men ahead of you, as your Father God had sent Joseph ahead, to prepare the ground for the next thing.   And after you had sent them ahead, and after you had completed the work you were doing that day, you went high to pray.  When evening came, you were alone.

But even in your solitude you were not as alone as your men in the boat: battered by the waves, far from the land, the wind was against them.

 And so, early in the morning you came walking towards them on the lake; but when they saw you, miraculous you, you who is lord of bread and fish and high place and water, they were terrified and they cried out in fear.

But immediately you spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’

Lord, like the men in the boat, sometimes we forget that we have been sent.  Even in the work of the sending, the sailing of the boat and the stocking of the stores, the elements overtake us and we lose heart such that even the very sight of you is frightening to us.

Lord, forgive us.  Strengthen our faith in you and in your provision in our sending.

Christ, forgive us.  Bring us to the place where we see you as our Lord and the true Son of our God.

Lord forgive us.  Speak the words over us that we are safe, the storm is outside the boat but we are within, and that our sins are forgiven.

Amen.

Adoration of Joseph

A prayer of Adoration based on Psalm 105:16-22

Master of the Universe!

God of my ancestors!

Provider of all that is Good:

and sustainer of all who do good and do evil in this world.

For the purposes of your plan you summoned famine against the land, every land, and you broke all supply of bread.

For the purposes of your plan before you did that, you sent a man ahead of the agents of destruction, and you sent him in secret as a sold slave.  His highborn feet were offended by fetters, his lordly neck was confined within a collar of iron and until what the incarcerated agent of restoration said had come to pass.

Upon the great house’s summons the cast down man was sent for, cast up and released; the ruler of the peoples set him free. The king made the slave lord of his kingdom, ruler of all his possessions, guardian of his belongings, and instructor of his officials to teach his elders wisdom.

I am that man: it was me who you chose.  You chose my father, Abram and you chose my father, Israel.  In every choosing you are to be praised by those to whom you are present, and wondered at in awe by those who see your work among the lives of the chosen.

God of the Chosen and Lord of the World.

We see your glory, we accept your invitation, and we glorify your name.

Amen.

The Good Preacher

This is the message I prepared for Sunday 8th August 2017 at Lakes Entrance Uniting Church.  This one is a little different, and is a modified version of a message I presented in August 2014 at Kingscote Uniting Church

Genesis 32:22-31; Psalm 17:1-7, 15; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:13-21

Last week at our AGM there was some discussion, and a bit of chin-grabbing (hmm), concerning the ways in which this congregation will need to step up into leadership when I move on at the end of September.  In view of that I thought I’d pare back the homily a bit this morning and “preach my notes”.

Now we were taught at college never to preach our notes, but to simply preach the message.  Don’t start a sermon with words like “well when I sat down on Thursday to write this sermon I wondered what the Lord was wanting to say, so I looked at With Love to the World and something on my shelf by Brian McLaren and then…”  No.  Don’t do that, don’t tell us what you did.  Just do it.  Well today I am going to give you both, a message from God and a little bit of a workshop in how I went about writing this week’s message.

So, this week there were four lectionary readings to choose from, as there always are.  And so, I started by finding a common theme.

In todays’ Psalm, Psalm 17 we read the cry for justice of a righteous man, a man who honours and worships God and a man who tries to act obediently to the LORD’s precepts.   In the same way as your preacher I seek to do justice to Jesus, the Word of God, by honouring his call to instruct you in the Way, and to live a life worthy of emulation.

In the Epistle, Romans 9 we read the cry of grief from a truthful man as Paul weeps before the LORD for the lost nation of the Jewish people, Paul’s own people.  In the same way as your preacher I intercede for Jesus, the Word of God, by honouring his call to speak prophetically to you, the people entrusted to my care.  As a resident lay preacher on Long-term Supply here I understand that my ministry is necessarily local, therefore I am speaking to my friends and neighbours.   Lay preachers speak to the people dearest to them, and for some of you who will follow me into this pulpit next month you will no doubt be speaking to your family.

In the Gospel, from Matthew 14, we read of Jesus feeding 5000 men. In the same way as your preacher I act on behalf of Jesus, the Word of God, by honouring his call to feed you.  Where Jesus gave bread and fish, I proclaim the message of Christ the bread of life.  Here and now is where you must receive the promise that you will never hunger.  Here and now is where you must hear the message of the Church that all are to be fishers of men.  Here and now is where you who participate in God’s own mission of salvation must receive the promise that you will see a rich bounty and a ripe harvest.

In summary of the above, the preacher is the man or woman, who stands before God in submission to God’s glory, and before the people in humility to God’s purpose, to lead God’s people in hearing the spoken word, meeting the living Word, and giving glory and worship in the songs, prayers, and rituals of the local congregation.

In view of that let’s unpack the fourth reading this morning, our lectionary Old Testament reading which is found in Genesis 32:22-31.  Here’s the model sermon for you.

First a summary: Jacob was left alone and a stranger came and wrestled with him until daybreak.  Jacob refused to release the stranger until the stranger would bless Jacob.  The stranger renames Jacob “Israel”, a name that indicates the double meaning of one who strives with God and one with whom God strives.

Now a little insight, connected to our theme of the good preacher.  Just as Jacob wrestled with the stranger so as your preacher I wrestle with the Word, both the word as the text and the Word as the LORD Godself.  I sit in prayer and discussion with God about what God wants to say to you, the people of this congregation today, out of what God spoke to different people in an ancient time.  The event described this morning actually took place around 1750 BCE and in the area we now call Israel.  To write and preach is to wrestle, if not to struggle.

And now, the unpacking of the story through some actual Biblical teaching.  As your preacher, I know you expect me to dig into the text a bit, pull out some worthwhile lessons or concepts, and draw some reasonable conclusions about those points that are both Biblical and relevant to life in the twenty-first century.  Well the way in which I was taught to do that is to ask questions, and then answer them.  So let’s do that.

Question One:  Where is the missing girl?   In Genesis 32:22 we read of Jacob’s two wives, his two maidservants, and his eleven sons.  So what has happened to Dinah, the daughter of Jacob and Leah?  Aren’t you worried about Dinah?  Did you even notice she was missing?  Should I spend the next ten minutes discussing her?  This is the sort of question a good preacher will ask about the text.  Like last week’s question about Leah on her honeymoon it’s a valid question.  Like last week’s response from me if I were writing an essay on a feminist critique of the scriptures I’d go into it, but church on Sunday is not the place for essays.  So, I’ll not bother with that question since the absence of Dinah is not the key to how I want you to understand this passage.  A good preacher sticks to what is relevant.

Question Two: So what is the key to understanding this passage?  Actually I’d like to call that “question zero” because it should come before question one.  Read the passage, find the key, and then ask questions about it.  So we have question zero.  And the answer to that question poses another question.  Question Two: Who is the vampire?

Have a look at Genesis 32:26.  What’s with the stranger needing to leave at daybreak?  Simple, logical, Biblical answer is that he a vampire.  We all know that vampires hate daylight, so it’s obvious what’s going on here.

Okay, so the vampire is Biblical, but is he relevant to the life of a local church in twenty-first century Australia?  Remember, a good preacher sticks to what is relevant.  So are vampires relevant?  Of course, vampires are relevant, have you not seen all the fuss about the Twilight books and movies in recent years?  Australians, especially teenaged Australians love vampires.  So we can go with that.

So back to our question: “who is the vampire?”  And the obvious answer is…anyone?…c’mon it’s obvious no?  The vampire is Rumpelstiltskin.

Have a look at Genesis 32:29.  What’s with the vampire being so protective over his name? Huh?  Rumpelstiltskin!  It’s Rumpelstiltskin who would not release the queen from her promise to hand over her firstborn child until the true and secret name of the imp could be recited.  And so, amazingly, we have an answer to question one now.  We know where Dinah went; the mad vampire imp stole her!

Question Three:  Why did the vampire steal the little girl?  Are you keeping up?  This is culturally relevant, solidly Biblical stuff here, you might want to take notes.  Answer: because the vampire is Palestinian.  Scholars say, (which by the way is a great phrase to use because it suggests you’ve read the commentaries), scholars say that the stranger who wrestled with Jacob was not a real man but was some sort of spiritual being.  Well duh, he’s a vampire, but anyway that’s what they say.  But the scholars are divided on what sort of spiritual being he was.  An angel?  A demon?  The pre-incarnate Christ, the one who sat with Abraham beneath the trees of Mamre in Genesis 18 and stood in the fire with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in Daniel 3?  I believe that this being was indeed pre-incarnate, but not Christ.  He was a pre-incarnate Hamas leader appearing in the demonic form of an ancient Canaanite demi-god.  Why do I believe this?  Well to me it is obvious, he is trying to keep “Israel” (Jacob) out of “Palestine” (the Promised Land).

Finally, we come to the end of the sermon.  During this sermon questions have been asked and answered and we come to the logical, Biblical, relevant conclusion which is a word from God for this congregation this morning.

Here it is:  impish vampires, masquerading as Arab settlers, living on the occupied West Bank territories managed by the Palestinian Authority are preparing to launch a supernatural attack by blood-sucking child-stealers at the secular Jewish state of Israel.  Ignore the bombs, it’s the bats and the spinning wheels with golden thread you need to be looking out for.

For the Word of the Lord, thanks be to God.

Amen.

Really.  I mean, really?

gel se-ar as it is in Hebrew, because all great preachers need to quote words in Bible languages.  Cattle dung.  You can translate that into Australian-English if you wish, you have been doing that over the past five minutes.  At least I hope you were!!

So, I hope what you’ve learned is that preaching is far more than just reading and interpreting the Bible, and then speaking in front of a crowd.  In theory my exegesis of Genesis 32:22-31 was logical and appropriate to the task, but of course it leads to a message of utter bullsnot, no matter how eloquent my enunciation.

So, here is the real message of the sermon this morning.  All joking aside, this is the bit you need to write down.  As your preacher, my first allegiance is not actually to the Bible: my allegiance is to you.  If I didn’t go into the scriptures thinking of you then who knows what I might have found in there.  Maybe vampires.

So, what about you?  Now I’m speaking to those of you who are being equipped by God to preach here next month.  We would all acknowledge I hope that being a congregation with lay leadership does not mean that “everyone gets a turn”.  Paul is quite clear where he writes in Ephesians 4:10-12 and mainly verse 11 that while some are called to the ministry of preaching and teaching, many are called to other ministries.  If you are not called by God then you can’t expect to be chosen by the local church.  If you are called by God then what are you doing to work out your call?

I ask you who are preachers, what Bible study are you doing?  I’m not asking where you spend your Wednesday night rather I’m asking what you are doing with the scriptures to build your own faith and life of witness.

I ask you who are preachers, what is your theology and what is your understanding of the Uniting Church?  Are you prepared to honour the heritage of our form of Christianity or do you just want a platform to grind your own axe?  If this is something the Holy Spirit has gifted you in, what conversations have you had with the elders around your sense of call?  How did Trevor, Sue, or Ian help you back in the day?  Have you spoken with other preachers you know about your call and gift?  Have you sought out CTM about some training?

My job has been to point you toward God so that you are looking in God’s direction when God draws you close.  I do this through private study that leads to public preaching, and personal devotion that leads to leading corporate worship.  It is a privilege I have worked towards because I place great value on it, but I acknowledge that this pulpit is not mine; it is God’s.  I charge those of you who will stand here soon to do the same.

Wrestle, cry, and feed.  This is the preaching work of the LORD.

Amen.

My Opia

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

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

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

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

Are you with me so far?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hmm?  Huh?

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

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

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

We are not lazy, nor are we slack.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.