Authorised

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

Matthew 21:23-27

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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Amongst your eyes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

It’s Not Enough

A Confession centred on Matthew 20:1-16

 Typical of your grace you let everyone in, God:

even the lazy and slow.

 

We know we cannot earn salvation,

and that it is a free gift given to all,

but we also know that obedience is better than sacrifice.

 

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

and we have obeyed you the longest

by making disciples

and baptising

and healing the sick

and raising the dead

and casting out demons

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

 

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

and who arrived in the Kingdom late,

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

 

Of course we want them saved Lord,

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

But in that place of many mansions,

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

 

Can’t they just have grace,

while we have Amazing Grace?

 

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

Help us to rejoice with the angels,

And to learn generosity from prodigious you.

Amen.


 

May I not come Now?

An Adoration centred on Philippians 1:21-30

 

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

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

 

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

we miss you.

We want to be where you are, without limitation,

Not that we want to be all powerful,

but that we want to be so close to you that

we could never be drawn away from you again.

 

And so, Lord, while you keep us here,

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

be very near us,

so that we can be very near to you,

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

than they are today.

 

If we may not come now,

(we who long for you desperately),

assure us that we when we do come,

in the fullness of Kairos time,

that we will not come alone.

 

Amen.

Journeying Beyond The See

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Seventy-Seven Times

(A confession from Matthew 18:33)

 

Master of us all,

And caring brother of each of us,

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

 

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

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

To get our siblings to do life our way.

Lord, have mercy.

 

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

Choosing to forget the uncountable debt which inconceivable you have forgiven

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

Christ, have mercy.

 

We confess that we have acted as masters in your place

Choosing to ignore that we alike are servants of you

And of each other in Christ.

Lord, have mercy.

 

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

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

This is the word, and character of our Lord.

Amen.

The Way Out

(An adoration from Exodus 15:1-18)

 

Saviour who saves by destroying our enemies,

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

We would not do things your way,

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

And the reason why we so often mess things up.

 

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

You have rescued us.

Horse and rider you have thrown into the sea:

The purveyors of terror are no more.

 

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

The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

The God of Moses, Caleb and Joshua.

The God of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Daniel.

The God of Ezra, Nehemiah, and the Maccabees.

 

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

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

The God of yesterday at Parson’s Green.

 

God of ex-hodos,

Master of the road out,

We choose to adore you and to trust you.

 

Great cloud of God,

Mighty Host of the Lord’s Armies,

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

Stand and uphold your right arm

Against those who would pursue and overtake,

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

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