Blink And You’ll Miss It.

This is the message I prepared for the fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday 9th July 2017, for the people of Lakes Entrance Uniting Church

Genesis 24:40; Song 2:8-13; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

I don’t know about you, but I often find when I’m reading my Bible that a verse jumps out from nowhere and has the potential to send me off on a tangent.  I don’t think that this is necessarily a terrible thing, but it can distract me from what the intended purpose of the passage, or indeed the Bible Study, might have been.  In the reading set for today from Genesis 24 we are presented with quite a detailed story of how the servant of Abraham goes back to Abraham’s people in Sumer to find a wife for Isaac.  Abraham does not want his son marrying a Canaanite woman, an indigenous woman of the promised land, rather he seeks a bride from his own people.  During his setting his servant on his way, and assuring the servant that he will be successful in his task, Abraham speaks in Genesis 24:40 of his confidence in the LORD before whom I walk.  That is such a verse for me, and such a lovely phrase, Abraham doesn’t say “God” or “the Lord”, but speaks of a relationship with the One who gives him assurance.  Abraham knows God, daily and holistically.  There is nothing about Abraham that is hidden from God, and nothing about God that Abraham needs to know that is hidden from Abraham.

And then suddenly there we are, or at least there I am.  Rebekah and the whole story of her watering the camels of the servant, her agreeing on the spot to leave her family forever and travel thousands of miles to meet and then marry a stranger, is all forgotten.  The point of the story, indicated by the lectionary’s choice of Psalm, is not a wedding within the genealogy of the Jewish people, for Rebekah will become the mother of Esau and Jacob.  No, the point of the story is that Abraham walks before God, and that that intimacy is the source of all his strength as a patriarch.

A similar thing happened to me when I read the gospel for this week, although this time I saw it coming.  In Matthew 11 Jesus declares the generations of his day to be unaware of the time in which they live, and to be full of contradictions.  Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds says Jesus in Matthew 11:19, some early manuscripts say by her children.  Jesus makes his point, which is to be aware of what is going on around you, and then he prays thanksgiving to the Father that God has made the truth about the world readily seen by children but not by adults.

Blink and you’ll miss it.  One verse can jump out and grab you, regardless of the narrative, and you can learn from what God alone shows you from the written word if you are open and inquisitive.  Be aware, be mindful, of God’s active presence.

What is it about children that Jesus commends them as a model of understanding?  The parents and teachers amongst us know that children are inquisitive, trusting, hope-filled, straightforward, easy to laugh (or cry), sympathetic and compassionate beings.  Children can be vulnerable and so need caring for.  Jesus might be telling us that revelation is given to such as these, the precious and trusting ones who stay close to the Father as little kids stay close to daddy.  Except that children in Jesus’ day were not the cherished little cherubs of the late Victorian era and into our century: they were perceived by adults to be outsiders to the adult world, and therefore an issue.  Children break easily, so there’s always the danger of a parent’s being bereaved or otherwise inconvenienced.  Children are disruptive, noisy, inappropriate, clumsy, disobedient, cheeky, foolish, and simple-minded in a bad way.  Yet, Jesus says that God reveals the truth to these half-sized terrors, and leaves the civilised, mature, hardworking adults without revelation.

D’uh!  That’s not what we want to know!  Jesus isn’t talking about God favouring the little cuddle-monsters with their wide-eyed delight at whatever mummy says or does.  Jesus says that when showing God’s true nature and revealing the deepest knowledge God overlooks people like you and me, leaving us in the dark, and reveals it all to the boof-heads with ADHD.  So, when Jesus says of himself in Matthew 11:27 that no one knows the Son except the Father, and that only God knows the fullest and most intimate stories of the Son, and that no one knows the Father except the Son, (same deal), and those to whom the Son reveals the Father, what he’s saying is that Jesus’ preferred audience for this revelation is the noisy and disruptive.

Why, on earth, would that be the case?

Jesus answers this question, let’s read on.  Those who come to the Son in need of the Father will lay down their burdens.  They will be yoked to Christ, so he will help in carrying the necessary burdens as the two, Christ and the disciple, push together on the yoke.

So, it is not untrue, neither is it unbiblical, that those who come to God in simplicity, innocence and trust will receive favour and wisdom.  Those who come with a childlike faith will be rewarded by grace with love and the intimate secrets of God.  Abraham walked before God and God blessed Abraham mightily; that is still true.

But better yet, the disruptive, breakable, always in your face and under your feet, the making too much noise and mess ones, the ones who need God, are especially included by God in the wisdom of God.  Wisdom is a chaser, as well as the object of the chase.

Song 2:8-13, as with much of the Song of Songs, is a parable about the chase of Wisdom.  Wisdom is the woman in the story, the beloved; the lover is the pursuer of wisdom, the young scholar.  The romance then is not between two people, but between the scholar and the scholarship, the student and the study, the disciple and the discipline, the talmid and the Talmud.  But with that studious focus look at the words of this poem.  The student is playing peek-a-boo with the object of his studies, the personification of wisdom.  This is no dry academic exercise of a bored man surrounded by mouldy and dusty books, it’s a dance in the meadow at spring.  Show even the slightest interest in God and God will hunt you down like a lover desperate for his beloved, and God will hunger for you like that beloved awaiting her lover’s shadow at the door.  Heady stuff.

But this ancient song does not mean that coming to faith is not arduous.  It can be light and life, an easy yoke, and a personal relationship with the One before whom we walk who hungers after us, but it is not necessarily like that.  As a student, I always liked the metaphorical language of “wrestling with the text”, and since my first degree was in Sociolinguistics I enjoy doing this.  Look at Paul’s struggle with discipleship in Romans 7:15-25.

Sin is an ongoing challenge for Paul, much like those noisy children in the marketplace of Jesus.  I try to do good, says Paul, but I keep tripping over my past.  I try to avoid the evil I once practiced, says Paul, but I keep tripping over the way of the world and being snagged by the temptations which abound in everyday life.  Paul was a scholar, a scholar of scholars in face and had been discipled by one of the greatest rabbis of his day, Gamaliel.  Paul was a Pharisee, these days we’d call him a Conservative Evangelical, so he knew his scriptures and he knew the best interpretations of them to inform a God-honouring life.  He had wrestled with the text, and probably enjoyed himself in that, but the message of the text had left him burdened.  And even when he did adopt the yoke of Christ, and stepped out from underneath the crippling demands of the Fundamentalist view of Law, he still found himself falling short of what God had released him in to.  From his divided self, Paul cries out that Jesus should be glorified because that is the truth which surpasses the lies and duplicity of his experience.

In Abraham, we hear a man about whom God knows everything, and who knows all that he needs to know about God to walk with God in friendship.  Paul is not a friend of God in the way that Abraham was, but as a scholar and a faithful practitioner of the rituals he too knows that God knows him, and Paul knows that what he knows of God is enough to keep him walking the path of discipleship.  Both men fell over on that walk, but both me got up every time and kept walking with God.  From Jesus, we hear that this is the way of God, not that we must fall over, but that it is okay when we do because God is patient and loving and will pick us up like a lover or wait for us while we pick ourselves up like a daddy teaching his child to be independent of his carrying arms.  God is revealed to be like Jesus is, and we read that Jesus was a good bloke who people liked spending time with and who did not fly off the handle when mistakes were made.

The story of the tangent, of that one verse that can grab you even in the middle of a love story told over thousands of miles, is that God’s love evident in God’s desire to share all that God is and all that God has is true for the deepest of deep disciples, and for the rattiest of noisy ratbags in the world.  I don’t need to ask which one is you, because it doesn’t matter.

Come, says the Lord, I will tell you marvellous things, and I will give you rest.

Amen.

 

It’s All A Bit Ordinary (Pentecost 2A and Ordinary Sunday 11A)

This is the text of the message I prepared for Lakes Entrance Uniting Church for Sunday 18th June 2017.

Genesis 18:1-15

Today is the day between days.

Today is the “Easter Saturday” of June.  It’s not the “Holy Saturday”, the day between God’s Friday and Resurrection Day when we sit in vigil awaiting the return of our Lord in triumph from his ravaging of Hell.  No, today is not that day.  Today is “Easter Saturday”, the Saturday at the end of Easter week when the moment of resurrection and chocolate has passed, the bunting is looking frayed, the coloured foil detritus from our body weight in refined sugar is looking on accusingly, and it’s all a bit silly now that we are still naming the days at all.

Of course, it is not Easter Saturday at all.  For starters, today is Sunday.  For seconders, it is the second Sunday after Pentecost, so we’re not even in the Easter season any more.  The liturgical directory suggests that our chapel should be dressed in green, not white, if we even bother with such things, because today is really nothing special.

Last week was Trinity and we celebrated the three-in-one nature of our God.  I spoke of how God is made of different stuff to us, and of how Jesus set aside the stuff of God to be shaped and embodied in the stuff of humanity.  I also spoke of how Jesus’ being shaped of human stuff means that God knows what it is to experience human emotions like grief, pain, risk, death, and restoration.  Stirring stuff.

The week before last was Pentecost and we celebrated the birth of the Church in wind, fire, exultant worship, and inter-racial, intra-faith extravagant declaration of the salvific purposes of God in the world.

Next week we will celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the Uniting Church.  Nor just a date on a calendar but a reminder of the century-long effort of Australasian Protestants to form a new nation and a new church for that nation.  We will remember that while church union occurred seventy-six years after the federation of our six colonies the desire of our forebears had been there all along.  We will remember them.

Wondrous days!  Hallelujah!  Our God reigns!  Our God pours out God’s spirit on women and men, young and old, urban and rural, local and tourist, wealthy and povertous; Euro and Asian and Koori and Anglo and African and American and all combinations of the same.  Our God takes on human form to reveal to us the wonder of God’s self, God’s ways, God’s nature, God’s plans, and our worth and value in God’s eyes.  Our ancestors responded to this great unifying vision of God the perichoretic one and sought in the birth of a new nation, with a continent for a country and a country for a continent, an expression of Church to match this great drive forward into the wonderful twentieth century of Victorian enterprise (by which I mean the age and its dear queen) and Victorian victory (by which I mean the feats of that wondrous colony, the jewel in her majesty’s crown, Marvellous Melbourne and Australia Felix betwixt the Murray’s River and Bass’s Strait).

Heady days to come next week!

And then there’s today!!  “The Second Sunday After Pentecost: Ordinary Sunday 11, Year A”. Doesn’t the very name of this day set your heart aflame?  Think of those great words of encouragement I spoke to you last month, which I first heard in the global head offices of the Church Missionary Society, CMS, in Waterloo in London, in June 2001.  “God, you have ignited a spark within each of us, now dear Lord we pray, water that spark!”

[Snort.]

Hmm.  I dunno about you but if anything is going to “water my spark” it is the thought of “The Second Sunday After Pentecost: Ordinary Sunday 11, Year A.” I mean, it isn’t even the Queen’s Birthday long weekend.  And at least you people only hafta show up; I’m supposed to build an engaging service of worship around this profound and lofty concept and to write a sermon to make it sound interesting.  (How am I doing so far?)  I mean, you know that I came straight to you from University.  I have more degrees than a compass, but I’ll admit it, I am desperately searching for God’s direction for today.  Today is the most boring Sunday in June.

So how are you feeling?  A bit ordinary?  Me too.

[Sigh, big blowing exhale.]

[Pause].

[Slap lectern.]

Righto then, let’s look at the scripture passage selected for this auspicious day in the lectionary.

Bang!  [Clap, thumb up.]

In Genesis 18:1-15 we read one of the most mind-blowingly unordinary stories in the Bible.  It jumps straight in at Genesis 18:1 with: The LORD appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day.  It’s a hot day.  Now this is a Bible story and as such it’s set in Palestine, so it’s always a hot day.  For the Bible to indicate that it was a hot day suggests that it was a very hot day.  Not ordinary hot this day is stupidly hot.  It’s also the hottest part of this sweltering day, and Abraham is sitting in the door of his tent, trying to get respite from the hot sun in that little bit of breeze and shade.   The tent has been raised near the oak trees, so I’m suggesting there’s some shade and some water available.   Abraham is 99 years old, we know this because a year later when Isaac is born he’s 100.  This is not a question of theology, it’s maths.  I don’t have a degree in Maths but I’m pretty sure what a century minus a year looks like in numbers.  So, it’s sweltering, it’s the hottest time of the day, and Abraham is very old.  And as I have just told you, he is sitting in the shade.  And while all this ordinary stuff is happening the LORD appears.

Now, Ordinary Sundays aside: if I be chillin outside me tent on a scorcher of a day, and the LORD appears, that would probably spark my water, let me tell you.  There is nothing ordinary about God showing up in the form of three men looking for a cold one each and a bit of a sit down.  Of all the things on my list of what is ordinary, and then referring to the special category of what might be expected on an afternoon in summer, God showing up looking for a drink is not on that list.  God showing up like that is unexpected.  To say the least.  And since you’ve not employed me as your preacher to say the least I’m going to say some more.  Let’s read on.

Genesis 18:2 tells us that Abraham (99 and hot, but not in the good way) runs(!) from the shade and into the sun(!) to meet the men (who are the actual LORD).  As you do: when the LORD appears.

In Genesis 18:3-5a Abraham invites “my lord” to stay, note that he’s speaking in the singular here, and in Genesis 18:5b they (plural) agree to do so.  Now this is actually not extraordinary, you would expect Abraham and Sarah to show this depth of hospitality to strangers, and for strangers to think nothing of this extravagance, since that was the cultural norm.  Travelling strangers in the desert, no matter who they are, even enemies, are to be given food, water, shelter, and provision for the road if they pass by your camp.  Even so the sexes don’t mix so Sarah has done the baking but she stays away from the secret men’s business going on in the shade.  So, what we read in Genesis 18:6-9 is not remarkable, other than that it is the LORD who is the guest.

In Genesis 18:10 we are told that one of the men suggests that Sarah will become pregnant and give birth to a son within the next year.  Okay so that’s extraordinary, not part of the ritual of being a guest, but there you go.  The man doesn’t mention Sarah’s age, but the Bible does: and it makes no bones about it.  In Genesis 18:11 the point is made three times, just in case you didn’t get it the first time, that Sarah is each of “old”, “advanced in years”, and “that it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women”.  So, she’s old, anciently old, and the menopause was a distant memory.  So that’s pretty ordinary; I mean old women, especially very old women, tend not to be fertile.  Thank you Captain Obvious whomever wrote Genesis 18:11 for making that clear, and in such a poetic manner!   So you can see why Sarah has a chuckle about it, very much derisory in tone as well.  “What are my chances, at my age, of getting lucky with that fossil I am married to?’ she asks in Genesis 18:12.  She may have no ova left, but she’s a feisty one is our Sarah.  Anyway, the LORD asks Abraham in Genesis 18:13-14 why Sarah laughed, again observing the code of dignity by which a male stranger doesn’t speak to a female, (so the LORD doesn’t actually ask Sarah), and declares that the LORD can do as the LORD desires.  In Genesis 18:15 Sarah says I did not laugh and the LORD, in full pantomime fashion and in breaking character for a second says to her oh yes you did! And then the story ends.

What an extraordinary story for an Ordinary Sunday!

And this of course has been my point all along.  There is no such thing as an ordinary Sunday.  Yes, there are days on our calendar which are not unique as anniversaries, although I’m sure that with today being June 18th it’s important for millions of people in millions of ways regardless of today’s being a Sunday or the Sunday between Trinity and the UCA anniversary.  But it doesn’t have to be Pentecost for us to expect the Spirit to fall upon us, or to rise up within us.  The LORD is welcome here, now, today, on Ordinary Sunday 11.  Isn’t he?  And would today still be considered ordinary if God were really present here today?  Or if the Word of God came to one of you with a word of promise for the future?  I’m sure 91 year old NNN in our congregation today would not be the only one baffled if a baby were promised to her nine months from now, but what if God promised her a resurgence of love and energy in her spirit to complete the work she was allocated as a Christian?  What if God spoke directly to 90 year old NN with a message that he was to see a new multi-million-dollar audio-visual suite set up in a new auditorium on this site, and that not only would he see it happen but that NN himself would be the one in the crawlspace in the ceiling connecting it all up?  If God promised it, would you believe it?  Would your response be like Sarah’s and to laugh behind God’s back; or would your response be like Mary’s and to ask for details and then praise God at the wonder of your being chosen for such a momentous task?

But let’s not get carried away with such big dreams.  No seriously, I’m not about to criticise here.  Let’s consider how excitingly small the promises of God can be.   I’m gonna suggest that NNN doesn’t need a baby, but she might have been praying for perseverance and strength.  I’m not going to say she needs perseverance and strength, that’s for her to discern.  But do we have faith that God can do small miracles on a Sunday?  Do we trust for the gift of faith, “that shy hope in the heart”, that God will come through for us in whatever it is we are praying and believing for?  Or do we have the attitude that if NN doesn’t throw away his crutches right now and backflip up the aisle, all the while speaking in tongues, that we’re not interested?

So, today is an ordinary Sunday.  Every Sunday is, even the ones with special names.  Because every Sunday is the Lord’s Day, not just in recognition that it is the weekly anniversary of the resurrection of the saviour (which it is) but that every day belongs to the LORD because as Genesis 1 tells us every day was made by the LORD, each day with its own purpose, even for purposeful rest.

Truly, the only extraordinary thing about any given Sunday, including this one, is that the Christians do not expect God to do the amazing.  If the LORD is amongst us then the miraculous is to be anticipated.

Every.  Single.  Day.

Amen.