Pentecost (Year B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Yallourn Uniting Church gathered on Sunday 20th May 2017 at Yallourn North, Pentecost Day.

Ezekiel 37:1-14; Romans 8:22-27; John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

Many of you will be aware I hope (because we didn’t read it this morning) of the story found in Ezekiel 37 where the prophet speaks at God’s command to a valley of desiccated bones.  In Ezekiel’s first-person account the hand of The LORD comes upon Ezekiel (Ezekiel 37:1) and he is lead to the place of revelation.  This is not a story of resurrection, rather it is the story of the renewal of a whole nation by the Spirit of God.  Can God raise the dead: of course God can, there is no question of it and we saw that in Jesus.  Not only can God raise the Messiah but through Jesus we have seen God raise otherwise ordinary people such as the unnamed daughter of Jairus, the unnamed son of the widow of Nain, and Lazarus the brother of Mary and Martha.  The question asked of Ezekiel is whether God can renew a devastated people, an entire nation cut down such that there is nothing left of it, left of them, but dried and dislocated bones on the one hand and shattered exiled slaves on the other.  The still alive ones have been taken far away, the only occupants of the land are the dead in the form of bones in disarray.  “What can God do here”, asks God, “God alone knows”, answers Ezekiel.  The story of the bones coming together and being re-fleshed is the first stage of the sign, and the lifeless corpses being inspired with breath and spirit and rising to their feet is the second stage.  It’s a great image of renewal because there is both reconnection and resuscitation going on; what has been lost is returned and restored, and the new thing goes on toward the future.  It’s as great an image for the Church as it was for the people of Israel: and that is the point made by all who preach on Ezekiel be they priest, pastor, professor, or rabbi.

But today there’s something more to be had, because today is Pentecost Day.  So, recalling all of the above, and mindful of the restorative and revitalising power of The Spirit of God consider this: God chose to act through a man’s voice.

In our key reading for Pentecost, Acts 2:1-21, we read the story of The Spirit’s intrusion into room full of believers expectant in the message and person of Jesus Christ.  The Spirit comes as and when the Spirit wants to come, and like the Risen One The Spirit has no need of a door. When The Spirit of Holiness comes, when the wind of purification blows through, when Ruach haQodesh fills the room, it is ordinary women and men who are empowered to speak the news of God’s revelation.  Ezekiel prophesied to bones and again to corpses, which is an allegory of God’s word coming to the exiled Judahites in far distant Mesopotamia.  Peter and the ten, and the other one hundred and nine, prophesy to the nations within Judaism; to Judeans for sure but also to Mesopotamians, and to Mediterranean Europeans and to Africans and to Arabians and to Asians with words of reconnection and renewal.  In the scriptural accounts the Spirit moves when men and women of God speak at God’s command.

In John 16:4b-15 we read of the night of Jesus’ betrayal and arrest and of his promise that his going would prompt the coming of the Helper, capital-H.  The word paraclete in Greek also carries the meanings of Comforter, Counsellor, and Advocate; capital-C, capital-C, capital-A.  When such a one comes, one we rightly identify on Pentecost Day as God the Holy Spirit, the work of the Spirit will be to convict the world.  The Spirit comes with power, we saw that in Acts 2, and with miracles, (also Acts 2), but importantly for Jesus it seems, since this is the bit he specifically mentions, the Spirit comes with challenge.  The Spirit confronts the Church with a call to repentance; not just confession of guilt since our last sorrowful prayer, or our rites asking for forgiveness, but of completely reassessing our lives regarding our vocation.  The sin Jesus speaks of here is not random acts of human naughty, but of the unforgiveable sin, the decision to not believe Jesus who is The Word of God.  The righteousness Jesus speaks of here is not our random lack of human good behaviour, but of the broken relationship between each woman or man and the whole of Creation.  The judgement Jesus speaks of here is not an eternity in Hell from the point of human death for everyone other than baptised-by-full-immersion Evangelicals, but of God’s verdict regarding the entirety of Creation and what it has become since Adam.  Our Christian testimony by deed and word is all of the above, guided by the Holy Spirit, who alone speaks truth to us and to the world through us (John 16:13).  Therefore, we are not to be despondent that Jesus has died and ascended out of human sight (John 16:6), rather we rejoice that his Spirit is with us, empowering us in loving acts of worship of God and the service of Creation.

So that’s much more than a one-off event of preaching in Swahili and fire above our heads!  Pentecost, the coming and dwelling of the Spirit within and amongst us is a now and forever event, continuous present-tense.  The Spirit is with us and always will be, and one indication of this is our continual proclamation of the gospel of belief in Jesus and reconciliation with each other, and our continuous immersion in the blood-and-dust world, the world in-the-wrong respecting who Jesus is and who the Church is and what justice is, as ambassadors of loving grace.  More than Swahili in Jerusalem, the Spirit descending gifts us to speak the language of justice in Yallourn and compassion in Moe.

So, Swahili is optional, Strayan is preferable; and God’s character made word and flesh is mandated.

And then, in Romans 8:22-27, we read how we who have the first portion of the Spirit’s pouring out are aboard with the Spirit’s work of interceding for Creation to the Father who loves it.  The Father who loves “it”, it being both the Spirit who intercedes and the Creation who is loved by the Spirit as it cries out in labour pains.  We who are creatures, and therefore part of Creation, and bearers of the first portion of the Spirit and therefore part of what God is doing in love, are intermediaries of sorts.  We are that part of Creation which is in tune with the Spirit’s work, and we are the first portion of the world for God, even as we have the first portion of God in the world.  In Romans 8:25 we read that hope is only hope when the hoped-for thing remains unseen; if you see it it is not hope it is existence.  No, instead we have hope because we have seen and been the first portion of God’s acts of blessing in the world, our hope, our trust-fuelled desire is that more is coming.  And this more is not just more of the same, but a more which is taller and brighter and louder and more pungent than what we have received from God even now.  No wonder we are groaning with Creation, “bring it on LORD” is our desperate and ecstatic cry.

Such a cry of exaltation and exhortation takes us beyond words, beyond Strayan and Swahili words, beyond even the prayer languages of Shalom.  The Spirit is groaning like a woman in labour, like a man trying to shift a stubborn boulder or wheel-nut, like a child trying to convince dad of the need for this lolly or toy because dad is our only hope in a world where mum always and only says no.  Groan!  Desperate groan!  Wrenching groan! Nh-mn-ll-fr-st-rh!  Groan beyond words, where only consonants thrust through gritted teeth and bulging eyes can express it.  This is the desperation of the Spirit for the Kingdom of God to come on Earth as it is in Heaven.  This is the desperation of the Church for the Kingdom of God to come to Earth such that the God of the Kingdom will walk with us in Eden once more, an Eden to which are readmitted by the grace of God.  An Eden which is the restored Creation for which all of Creation is already groaning and moaning in grief and necessity and labour pains.

Pentecost is about the gift of God of the Spirit to the Church.  It is, and we cannot forget that it is.  But there is so much more to today than that our forebears and founders spoke in languages not their own and that 3000 people were won for Christ by a single sermon.  That’s an everyday occurrence in some parts of the world even today.  What should be an everyday occurrence in all parts of the world, especially today, is the gift of God of the Church to the world.  God gives the Church the Spirit, and therein gives the world the Church, a Church empowered and emboldened by the Spirit to make the world aware of who God is and what God desires.  Who God is is Saviour and Lord; what God desires is trust, reconciliation, and passion for renewal.

That is what Pentecost is about.  That is what God can do with a valley of dried bones and a Brown Coal Mine.

Amen.

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Whoosh!

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of God at Lakes Entrance Uniting Church for Sunday 4th June 2017.  It was the Day of Pentecost.

Numbers 11:23-30; Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:27-30; 1 Corinthians 12:4-11.

Last week when I spoke with you about Ascension as a forgotten festival I mentioned that it’s the more Evangelical churches, which are more often low-church in style, who overlook this event.  Today is Pentecost and of course Evangelicals love this one.  But like Ascension, Pentecost is not known to the world, and like Ascension we Christians can go about our business today safe in the knowledge that the Secular Humanists are not insisting upon equal rights for bunnies, bilbies, or fat men in red suits.  (Mind you, this being Pentecost there’s nothing wrong with being a fat man in a red shirt at all!)  Yet today is also a forgotten festival, or so it seems, in some parts of the Church; and those parts of the church, somewhat surprisingly, are the Pentecostal movements.

I used to belong to a church which was Pentecostal in orientation; and even though our senior pastor didn’t like that title for its negative connotations, we were a congregation where the Spirit was welcomed and allowed sovereignty.  But while we certainly celebrated Christmas on its nearest Sunday, and Easter Day on Sunday (but not Friday), I don’t remember us ever celebrating Pentecost despite it always falling on a Sunday.  I guess when you belong to a fellowship where the arrival of the Holy Sprit in the worship time is a weekly occurrence, and the gifts of the Spirit Godself, and as released through the people, are expected and desired, you don’t need to set aside one particular Sunday to celebrate the Spirit.  After all, if you don’t expect the Spirit on the other 51 Sundays in the year, what are you doing?  In other words, if you are always Pentecostal, who cares really what happens on the seventh Sunday after Easter?

It’s actually a good question, but I don’t think it has just one answer.  Of course, we want Holy Spirit to be here each week, and in our town each day of the week, including today.  But that’s not enough of a reason for me to not celebrate the anniversary of this momentous occasion in the history of the world.

When I lived in Darwin the pastor of the local Assemblies of God church drove the sort of car that many men would drool over.  It was a black XR8 ute, so a V8 Falcon with big wheels, narrow tyres, a rorty exhaust, and everything that screamed “boy racer”.  The local Uniting Church minister at the time drove a platinum VRX Limited Edition (brackets Series One end brackets).  So, a Magna V6 with bigger wheels, narrower tyres, and a far rortier note than a standard Magna, or even the standard VRX.  It also had red leather seats.  It wasn’t as cool as the XR8, but the VRX was still pretty cool.  Both ministers had personalised rego plates on these cars, the Uniting Church bloke had his name “REV.ROB”, which was pretty self-explanatory and went with his other job as track chaplain at Hidden Valley Motorsports Park, home of Darwin’s round of the V8 Supercars plus weekly dirt squirts, motorcycles, and even speedboat races in the Wet Season.  The AoG pastor had “WHOOSH”.  I was present when Rev Rob, my dad, asked his colleague in ministry about the rego plate.  “Whoosh?” says Rob, “that the sound of an XR8 flying past you?” “Nah mate,” replied the pastor, “Acts 2:2, mate, whoosh!”  So, there you go, Pentecostal people do know about the sound of the Spirit first descending upon the Church in might and power.

And many of you know, because you’ve met him, that Rev Rob now drives an orange XR6 bearing his “REV.ROB” plates now in SA rather than NT form.  The legendary VRX is sitting out the front of this building today.  Orange paint job in one place, red leather seats in this place, don’t let anyone tell you the Uniting Church doesn’t do power from on high!!

But, as with many stories of God acting powerfully in the life of Jesus or the first three generations of Church as recorded in the scriptures, these are not the first times this happened.  Whoosh! is also a sound familiar to the Hebrews, and rightly so.  In our reading from Numbers 11 this morning Joy told us of how when Ruach ha-Qodesh rested upon the seventy they prophesied loudly.  Even those not in the gathering, but who had been chosen, prophesied while the spirit was present above the tent of meeting.  We are not told of fire or wind, perhaps the evidence of the cloud’s descent was enough, but certainly there was noise as seventy men shouted aloud the news of God’s sovereign glory and God’s desire for the world as it was to be related through the Abrahamic people. Moses’ prayer for the people was that everyone would carry the authority of God in this way, not just the seventy men and not only while the cloud was descended upon the group.  Moses saw that the Spirit had been given without limit, Moses certainly didn’t lose power by God taking from him to share with the seventy.  Moses understood, and we understand now, that when God blesses a people with power and authority for the work of proclamation there is more than enough empowering spirit for everyone to be filled to overflowing.

In the centuries after the arrival of the Hebrews in the land given to them by God as a base from which to tell of God’s glory to the world, the settled people continued to hear from the wind of wisdom and holiness, Ruach ha-Qodesh.  The Psalmist wrote in 104:27-30 that the world is entirely dependent upon God’s sustaining presence.  You shall send forth your spirit and they shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth says 104:30 in the wording of the New King James Version.  God’s creative act by the Wise and Sacred Spirit is an act of renewal, not only of creation.  The Spirit does more than the activity of brooding in Genesis 1:2, the Spirit is active in renewing and refreshing the creation; therefore, the activity must take place more than once.  Like Pentecost, which the Church believes was not a once-and-only event, so Jewish tradition in the Torah and the Ketuvim, the Law and the Writings of scripture, attests that God continues to send the Spirit when the Spirit is required.  We are to expect the Spirit and welcome the Spirit when the Spirit comes, because the Spirit is sent by God to meet our need for God.

The gifts which are given by God through the Spirit are as diverse as the needs of the Church in the world.  Paul instructs the Church at Corinth in this, saying that prophecy and prayer language are not enough: many human needs would be left unmet if God sent prophets and interpreters, but no one else, into the world.  Each need therefore has its corresponding ministry, God’s response to that need, and each ministry has its corresponding gift, God’s empowering for the work of that ministry.  Paul addresses the matter from the other side in saying that every gift has its corresponding ministry, in part because the Corinthians were so fascinated by the extravagant work of God amongst them that they had forgotten to utilise the enabling of God to conduct and complete the work of God.  Each gift has its corresponding minister who brings the gift to remedy the need with the presence of God.  It follows then that different gifts are given to different people for them to use in different situations in the world.  No two Christians are identical in their make-up, nor should they be.  We are each unique and all complimentary, designed to work together, to fit together.  Since no Christian is exempt from the call to ministry, (I told you a few weeks ago that it is baptism which makes you a minister, not ordination), since no Christian is exempt from ministry all Christians are provided with the gifts required.  Women and men have gifts, not just men; girls and boys have gifts, not just boys; and of course, children and adults have gifts, not just adults.  New converts and life-long disciples have gifts, not just the decades old believers; ordained and lay have gifts, not just the ordained; and the same can be said for diversity in race, nationality, material wealth, health, marital status, and so on.  If you are a Christian you have gifts, because if you are a Christian you have ministries.

But of course, we know that not all gifts are prevalent in all people.  I actually believe that all Christians have all gifts, you’ve not been given a portion of the Spirit at your baptism but all of God, but I also believe that God only uses some of the gifts in each person to ensure that all of the gifts are expressed in the local church.  For example, not everyone in this room can preach, but in the very next breath I say that I am not the only person in this room who can.  You each have the fullness of the Spirit that I do, but only a few of us, me included, are called to use the gift of preaching.  And of course, the inverse is true where even as your minister, and whoever comes next to this place, ordained or not, is the same, there are things which God has not called me to do and I therefore cannot do as well as those of you whom God has called.  I have no idea what those things are, because I am incredibly gifted, but I’m sure there something someone here can do better than I could.  😊

Paul provides a list of gifts.  This list is not exhaustive, there are other gifts which Paul does not mention here.  I don’t think the unmentioned gifts are less important, it’s just that Paul is making a point and his point has been made.  It’s not all about the prophets and tongue talkers, he is saying, just look at all the other examples.  There are gifts of Wisdom (application of information) and Knowledge (insight to partner wisdom).  There are gifts of Faith (confident assurance for encouragement), Healings (note that this is plural), and Miracles.  Consider how Faith might work in a team with Healings and Miracles; that’s how it’s supposed to work.  There are gifts of Prophecy: (telling the truth with boldness), and of Discerning of Spirits (naming names for the purposes of directed response, perhaps by the prophet).  There are gifts of Prayer Language (for worship and intercession), and of Interpretation of prayer language (to partner with the pray-ers and the prophets).  And as I say there are many more.  I have been used by God in the ministry of Intercession in the past, which draws from the list just read but also needs further detailing, some of which is found in Ephesians 4:11-13.

The evidence is clear from the history of the people of God, from the time of Moses, the time of David, and the time of Paul that God is pouring out the Spirit on all humankind.  In his Pentecost Day sermon Peter declares the evidence of God’s action, and that it is God who is acting, is seen in the present day amongst those who are prophesying and speaking of visionary dreaming.  In other words, God’s people are speaking the truth clearly and with a deep and trustful hope for the future, even as Joel said they would in his day, Peter’s day, and on every day leading into the last days.  Again, no one shall be made exempt, not by age nor by social status, not by anything other than his or her unwillingness to act for God.  There will be no doubt what is happening, this will all clearly be the work of God, and those who see this and call out to God will be rescued by God from whatever and wherever they are lost in.

When the spirit falls, the truth is told and people are saved, healed, and restored.  Moses saw it in the desert, the 120 saw it in Jerusalem, and Paul writes of it to a church in a pagan city in Europe so they know what to expect and how to operate when it happens.

Are you ready?  Are you willing?

Then let’s have at it.

Amen.

What must WE do?

This is the text of the message I prepared for Lakes Entrance Uniting Church for Sunday 30th April 2017.

 Acts 2:14a, 36-41; Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19; 1 Peter 1:17-23.

Good morning Church.

When I began my time amongst you on January 1st this year I told you in that first service that I’d not be telling you too much about myself from the front.  I said that my focus as a preacher was upon the gospel, and that if you wanted to get to know me then you were welcome to come to the manse and catch up.  Because of that you’re still finding out things about me, even after four months.  This morning I’m going to share another part of my story with you.

During the months between May 2003 and January 2009 I belonged to a Hillsong congregation, particularly the one which meets in central London.  The site of our worship moved about a bit, so I cannot tell you about a specific location, but Hillsong Church London was where I “did church” to use their terminology.  One of my great privileges as a participant in Hillsong Church London was the time I spent associated with the “New Christians Team”.  We were the sneaky ones who were sat strategically around the theatres where we met as church, and when everyone else had their eyes closed for the altar call we had our eyes open.  When someone in my “section” raised his or her hand for salvation I would see that hand, and then I would discreetly identify that person to one of my team members who would then approach that person during the final songs and speak with him or her about salvation as the service ended.  In 2004, there were something like 637 “hands” raised, some for first time salvation and others for a re-connection with God after a time “in the wilderness”.  In 2005, we saw the thousandth person that year raise her or his hand in late September.  We stopped counting after that: we had the delicious difficulty that converts were being made faster than we could count them.  So, we stopped counting them and instead focussed on loving them.

Two things from that experience stand out for me, and I hope you’re already seeing the link to our reading from Acts this morning.

  1. Whilst we never had 3000 people baptised in one day, God really was adding daily to our number those who were being saved.  One of our regular guest speakers was a church planter in India and his intention at the time of one of his visits to us was to plant 365 churches each year; statistically that would be one new church per day.  Let alone God daily adding people, this pastor wanted God daily adding new missional congregations to the holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.
  2. I remember that one service where no one raised a hand. I’m a bit used to this story now, but when I first began telling it in sermons in Australia I used to choke up at the memory.  Now to be clear, I’m not talking about no one in my section raising a hand, that often happened; what I’m saying is that after the hour and a half of song, praise, prayer, message, and all, there was not one hand raised across our theatre.  I remember the visible distress in our team room after the service: not one person had been saved anew!  We had been church and we had done church, and no one had found Christ anew.  No-one, not one!  We had failed God: to say we were devastated is an understatement, we were gutted and hurting.

Can you imagine why Hillsong Church is so successful at what it does?  I’m not here to praise them up, after all I am here and not there.  What they do with media, music and film, is another story, not a bad story, just not my focus this morning.  Can you imagine what it feels like to be in a congregation where the leaders go home crying, some wracked with sobs, because there was a service without a salvation?  I don’t need to imagine it, I was there, and it haunts me occasionally, and here’s why.  At that stage Hillsong Church London met in a small theatre, it had about 650 seats, and because of that there were three services on a Sunday.  There were salvations in the other two services that day, so it’s not like God went home empty-handed.  People were added to the Church that day.  So, imagine that.  Even though God was saving Londoners in the morning and in the evening, that not one person had asked for grace in the afternoon set off grief like I had never before seen in a bunch of Christian leaders anywhere.

In today’s set text from 1 Peter 1:18-19 the writer tells his readers, which includes us, that we were ransomed with the blood of Jesus; a ransom far more valuable than coin and bullion.  And in Acts 2:41 we are told that about 3000 were added to the congregation after they had been cut to the quick by the word of the gospel.

Do we really doubt that salvation is a precious thing?  More precious than anything the world can provide, more devastating when it is missed than any other human catastrophe.  Just think of it in these terms, to miss salvation is to have an “Act of God” which didn’t happen.  As nasty as storms and fires are we understand that they are awe-inspiring in their power: imagine how powerful a positive “Act of God” might be, and how awful to miss out.  Money cannot buy that, and if you miss that window in the skies how can you be sure that it will come again?  We as Christians have faith that there is always a way to God, but if you are not a Christian, and you miss your chance, how do you know there will be another chance?  Or, and this one does cut me to the heart, if we Christians miss our chance to open the skies to those who are not Christian, how will we know that they’ll get another chance?  We trust that God is gracious in seeking the lost to save them, but if this congregation did not extend a hand to welcome the lost how can we rely on the next congregation to do so?

And if we continue to miss our opportunities, if we continue to shirk our responsibilities, perhaps God will not send the lost to us anymore.  Maybe when God is shepherding a lost woman or man into the Kingdom of God God will send that one to one of the other denominations in town.  Now I’m not saying we are in competition with the other churches, not at all.  I am delighted that God is adding daily to the Church those who are being saved, even if they are being saved in Lakes Community Church, the Baptists, the Anglicans, and the Roman Catholics.  But if God is sending lost souls there because God feels God cannot send lost souls here…  I don’t even want to think about that being true.

So, what do we do?  Do we have an “altar call” each week for the next six weeks in the hope of having a mega baptism service on Pentecost Day?  Do you need to start bringing your unsaved friends to church more often so that I can preach salvation to them?  Do you actually trust me to do that, or is this congregation and its worship life embarrassing to you?  I’m not suggesting it is, and I’m not having a go at you at all: in fact, I have belonged to congregations where I would not have invited my unsaved friends along, so I know that such sentiments exist.  On the other hand, and this is new to me as pastoring a church is new to me, as your preacher and chaplain can I trust you to disciple and encourage those friends and neighbours of yours that I lead in salvific prayer?  I know that Hillsong lost converts when having “prayed the prayer” they were then not followed up or encouraged in their new faith by their Christian friends.

The gift we were given in Jesus Christ is beyond compare.  It is beyond value, (we’ve already said that), and it is beyond comprehension.  Salvation from sin, from its effects in our life (through the process of healing and discipline, not magic); security and salving from aloneness and hopelessness, and from feelings of worthlessness and uselessness; these are concepts that we could spend a lifetime of sermons and Bible studies unpacking and still not get to the end of.

I have always been a Christian.  If you want to argue the merits of that statement in view of original sin and the time between my birth and my accepting Christ’s lordship over my heart as a sentient adult, well I don’t care for your tone.  I was born into a family of disciples, raised in discipleship, and I’ve never departed from it.  I am not sinless, I am far from perfect, but I have always had God in the centre of my life.  And because of this, for the life of me, I cannot understand how anyone could possibly live without that.  I mean, how do unbelievers even continue in the world?  They exist because God created them human, but how do they actually live without the knowledge of God and this deep, core, fundamental, central, foundational, defining understanding that they were made in the image and likeness of God with the sole purpose of being loved by the God who made them?

This is why it is so important that we be ready when people from “outside the awareness of the love of God” come to us ready to respond.  Psalm 116 speaks of a man who was ensnared and in deep distress but God leant down so as to hear his cry for deliverance all the clearer, and God saved him.    He goes on in the later verses to say “now I will thank God with an offering and with public declaration of God’s magnificence and my gratitude.  I know that I am precious to God and that God is interested in me and takes care of me, God deals carefully with me.  I am nothing, yet I am precious to God, so I will praise and magnify God’s name.”

We must take care when people come to church.  We must be aware when something extraordinary is happening in someone’s life and any given Sunday is a special day for him or her because of what God has done.  Last week I prayed our confessions by using Bruce Prewer’s poem “During Last Week”.  But what if during last week something extraordinary happened and someone wanted to come and give exultant praise to God?  What if for us it’s ho-hum another Sunday, time to get the urn on and to ask who left the fans going, while a visitor (or more so, a local whose attendance we might take for granted) wants to be flat on her face before the Lord in exaltation or despair?

In the last two weeks, last week and Easter day, there were visitors here at 9:15.  Now I am not addressing these remarks only to those of you who are the early comers, those who arrive closer to 9:30 than 10:00 because you have jobs, we all need to hear this.  I am here earliest and I have my 9:00 jobs, so this is me too. We must never, ever, be too busy or too noisy in this house for those who need it to be a church.  Altar calls and discipleship classes aside this is what we can do right now, be church for those who are coming here on any given Sunday.

Here’s two quick stories to illustrate what I mean:

  1. I didn’t see this happen but I’ve been to the place where it did. At the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the traditional place of the cross and the empty tomb, many different Christian denominations have their own zone.  Like us there are bowls for candles and intercessions: I have been there, I have seen the bowls, and I have lit a candle.  I have been a Christian on his first visit to Jerusalem.  I have knelt at the slab where tradition says Jesus was laid out between cross and grave.  I have knelt in the sepulchre itself, the empty tomb.  Well this story goes that another pilgrim such as I was, this one a woman of the Roman Catholic faith, joyfully placed her candles in one of the bowls of sand in celebration of her being in Jerusalem.  Can you imagine this woman’s joy?  Can you imagine this woman’s heartbroken terror when a bearded man screamed “No!” from across the space, and in a mass of cassocks and flame sent her candles flying?  She had placed Catholic candles in some very specifically other Orthodox bowl.  I mean, you’d think she’d shitted on the actual cross, with all the offence that my use of that word implies as well as the act.  Horrifying!  Not my use of the word “shit”, but the way in which this dear daughter of God was treated in her own Father’s house.
  2. I was almost there for this next story, I know the woman involved and I passed her in the foyer on the day in question. A young woman who had been inconsistent in her attendance at church for a few months was present one particular Sunday.  She was not backsliding at all, she was just struggling in life and her very new husband, who was not a Christian at the time, really only got to see her on Sundays so she’d stay in bed with him rather than go off to church by herself.  Anyway, the woman came to church this week, and feeling a little bit frail for a reason I’ll tell you in a minute, she sat in the very back row.  She sat there quietly, her head bowed, while the bustle of church went on around her.  The 8:30 traditional service (which I had preached at) was emptying out of the hall after coffee and the 10:00 family service crowd was arriving.  But there she sat, this young woman, quiet in the back row.  After church got underway, and the young woman had sung the first song and so forth, she was sitting, again silently and with her head bowed, when one of the regulars came in late.  Being late she sat at the back.  She sat next to the young woman.  And since the young woman had been infrequent in her attendance the older woman whispered to her: how are you?  How is your new husband?  How do you like married life in place of just living together life?  and your new house?  and being called Mrs?  And so on.  On she whispered, being friendly and interested.  On she whispered through the formal prayers.  On she whispered through the time for silent prayer.  On she whispered through the sermon.  The young woman, unbeknownst to anyone that day, unbeknownst to the older woman, unbeknownst to the minister or any of the elders, unbeknownst to me who passed her in the foyer as I left and she arrived at 9:45, that young woman had miscarried her first pregnancy earlier in the week.  She had come “to church”, practically “back to church”, to spend some daughter-time with her Father in Heaven and some crying time with her Comforter.  What she got was an hour of whispered interrogative interruption.

Let’s not do that.

Let’s never be that priest or that older woman.  Let’s all be aware of where we are and what this house means to everyone who comes.  Let’s take care of God’s house, not just in keeping the plastic-ware in its only possible correct drawer, the blinds at a certain angle, or the cars parked facing only east in the front and precisely one metre back from the gravel.   All of that is important, some of it is a legal imperative for OH&S, but if we truly believe this building to be the house of God then we must always be aware that God is at work here, and is welcome to be at work here, in God’s own house.  We can be fun, and we can be social.  You know I have a very evident sense of humour and most weeks I have elicited a chuckle or two from you.  That must not stop.  But we are first and foremost here, here in this place, here in the house of God, to worship and to respond to our glorious Father and magnificent saviour whom we adore so much.

So please Uniting Church, please Damien, please please please all of you and me, don’t get in the way of anyone else seeking God in adoration, desperation, or both.  If we are so care-giving, so careful in this better way, then maybe, just maybe, God will add to our number those who are being saved.

Amen.