Rips Given

This is the text of the message I prepared for email sharing amongst God’s people at Kaniva Shared Ministry for Sunday 2nd August 2020.  Still we were in Covid lockdown..

 Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:13-21

I am speaking the truth in Christ – I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit, (Romans 9:1)  Well that’s a good way to begin an address, kind’a wish I’d thought of it actually.  Of course Paul isn’t beginning anything here, other than a new paragraph, but since we’re taking up where we left off last week it’s a good place for us to start.  This is the truth as confirmed by The Spirit says Paul.  It’s not the truth as Paul sees it, it’s not the truth as Paul would like to think the truth to be, it’s the truth that Godself confirms to be true, the truth of the one who says I am The Truth, (John 14:6b) or perhaps I AM, Truth.  When I AM speaks, or sends a messenger on God’s behalf to tell the truth of I AM it’s a jolly good idea to pay attention to what I AM is saying.  In Romans 9:2 what Paul says, with The Spirit attesting to the truth, is that he (Paul) has great sorrow and unceasing anguish in [his] heart.  This cry of grief from a truthful man, we are told in Romans 9:3-5, is Paul’s weeping before the LORD for the lost nation of the Jewish people, his own people. I wonder, how often do we weep with great sorrow and unceasing anguish in heart for our people?  Are you gutted by the lack of response by your fellow Australians, Victorians, people of West Wimmera?  Does grief stir your bowels at the presence of lost souls in your street, town, district and nation?  Or are you a bit disappointed but not much more.  Maybe you’re not bothered, because after all if you are saved and the unsaved are…well…unsaved, then that’s their problem and not yours.

I have told the story before so I shan’t share it in full again, but for those of you who have been listening to me for a while you might remember that I used to belong to Hillsong Church London, and specifically to the “New Christians Team”.  I’ve told you of the one service where I was “on” and there wasn’t a single hand raised in the congregation during the call to repentance, not one salvation for Christ in a room of 600 people.  I’ve told you of the desperation amongst “Team” as we looked for that lost soul; “even if there’s just one, Father, Oh God let there be even one,” but there was not even one.  I’ve told you of the desolation amongst “Team” after the service, of hot tears and real wailing that no one had “come to Christ” or even “come back to Christ”.  I’ve also told you that that is what, for me, makes Hillsong Church the church that Hillsong is; not for its smoke and mirrors, its loud riffs and even louder drums, its happy-clappy mezzanine and its bouncy-shouty downstairs (no jumping in the balconies!!), but the fact that it gives a rip for the lost of London and is abject in disarray when the gospel is proclaimed to six hundred people and not one responds to grace afresh.

I am speaking the truth in Christ – I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit – I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.  For I could wish that I myself were accursed, and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people. Do you remember praying like that?  “Oh God I’ll give up my own salvation if it means that Australia can be saved.”  Do you remember praying like that?  Nah, me neither actually, (and not just because I’d rather England be saved instead, not true).  But following from last week and last month really this is the groaning of Holy Spirit in us for the world.  If Australia were to be entirely saved by God then I would be saved along with it; even if we follow the Abrahamic method in Genesis 18 and only Victoria were saved, or West Wimmera, or Kaniva, or Commercial Street East, or just the odd numbered houses in the 90s, I’d be swept up amongst those I’m praying for – God does not need my salvation back so as to save my neighbours.  So if their salvation won’t actually cost me mine, then why can’t I just TELL THEM ABOUT JESUS????

Mea culpa as the Roman Catholics say, it’s my guilty fault.  I’ve neglected to “give a rip”: I am no longer being desolated hourly and hourly again that not one, not even one, has been saved by the ministry of Kaniva and Serviceton Churches of Christ and Uniting Church since before 1st October 2018 (the day my contract began).

Phew!  Now before we go too far and start bring self-flagellation into the order of worship, (although that could be something new to try after we get back to church in September, and flails are currently 30% off at Koorong), God does not want us desolating ourselves hourly at the condition of Australia’s soul.  Some groaning in intercession is required, no doubt; more groaning from more of us in the present is warranted, but we’re not to build a Kingdom out of Romans 9:1-3 as if it were the entirety of scripture or even the complete package for discipleship.  We should grieve for the lost, we should seek for the lost, we should comfort the found (who were lost) and we should bring the found home where Jesus waits to meet them (where he wasn’t already with them keeping them company until we arrived).  What we should also do is celebrate our own found-ness, delight that we were each once the one and Jesus joined us to the 99; we should work on being the 99 to whom Jesus adds the ones, and twos, (and thousands if you’re a Hillsong franchise).

In today’s reading from the Jesus Traditions, from Matthew 14:13-21, we read of Jesus feeding 5000 men.  It’s a well told story, the only miracle performed by Jesus that all four gospels record, so I’m sure you’ve heard it before and from Matthew as well as his mates.  So yes, blah-de-blah 5000 men doesn’t include women and children so probably 20,000 mouths in total; blah-de-blah twelve baskets for the twelve tribes of Israel; blah-de-blah fish and loaves because Jesus is lord (LORD) of both sea and land; blah-de-blah leftovers because in Christ there is always more than enough; blah-de-blah a living parable because it actually happened in real life but it carries symbolic and metaphorical meaning as well; blah-de-blah-de blah.  Does this sound like the preaching of someone who gives a rip?  Well it should, because I do, because here’s how the otherwise blah-de-blah story fits with Paul’s anguish.

In Matthew 14:13a, we are told that when Jesus heard of it, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.  Heard of what?  Heard of the murder of John the Baptiser, Jesus’ prequel in prophecy and his cousin in flesh.  So he’s just heard about this, John is dead because Herod thinks with his pelvis and is an idiot of a king anyway, so Jesus withdraws for some alone time.  Maybe Jesus went off to pray so his alone time is also “Quiet Time” where The Son is with The Father, or maybe he went off deliberately so as to be in private when he pulled the wings off some newborn kittens and lined up a few torpedo punts from outside-50 in his grief and anger.  More likely the first option, but Matthew doesn’t tell us.  What Matthew does tell us is that the news of John’s death was the cause for Jesus to step away, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.  Now he’s alone in the boat, the Greek words “by himself” literally mean that no one was with him at all.  (Actually I have no idea about Greek words, but it’s clear enough in English isn’t it?)  What we do know is that a tradie from inland Nazareth goes out on the sea specifically without his fisherman mates from lakeside Capernaum; duh, maybe he wants to be alone (except for the kittens…).  Anyway the crowds heard of this and followed him on foot from their towns, and not only did they do that none of the men (or women for that matter) bought any food with them.  So, Jesus is distraught with grief, he’s held it together just long enough to get the boat moving before he breaks his grieving heart out before The Father, and when he gets to the place of solitude he’s met by eleventy thousand people who have walked all day and between them have two sardine sandwiches and a scone.  So Jesus (after putting down the kittens) entered the vast crowd and with a heart moved with pity for them…he cured their sick.  We haven’t even got to the miraculous picnic yet but we can already see that Jesus gives a rip…about 20,000 actually (give or take an unaccompanied minor).

God’s message to us today is to give a rip, to care for the lost as Jesus himself cared for the lost, (and the hungry, and the wildly inconsiderate).  Are you tired?  God knows this.  Are you grieving? God knows this.  Do you have a bag of kittens nearby?  God knows this (and soon shall the RSPCA also know).  It is Covid season still, and whilst we are (more than) conquerors we are Victorians; where even Bordertown has thumping church-life today we have desolation.  I’m missing church so hard today that I don’t even feeling like going to church even if it was on, I am speaking the truth in Christ – I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit.  God knows this.  We cannot emulate Jesus fully: I could not have ministered to that crowd on that day that Jesus did, not with what Jesus had just been told; but Jesus did sustain that crowd and he’ll sustain our crowd too.

In Christ’s strength I am prepared to step up, in grief for Australia and fed-upness for Victoria’s lockdown, to minister where I am called.  Are you?

Give a rip, groan in prayer a little, and share your lunch.

Amen.

Ewe First

This is the text of my ministry message for the August 2020 pewsheet at KSSM.

I don’t remember when it was, the last time that I flew on a commercial aircraft, but it was certainly more than five years ago. The way things are going it may be another five years before I get the chance to fly again.  Anyway one thing I do remember from the many flights that I have taken in the dimly receding Past is the safety briefing on the larger planes, and especially the part about putting on your own Oxygen mask before assisting other passengers or random offspring with theirs.  There’s no point in you passing-out from hypoxia before you’ve got Junior’s mask on properly, but if yours is on and Junior passes out then the flow from the mask you fit next (Junior’s) will bring revival.

In his time of diminished air travel and excessive anxiety it can be easy for those of us with a compassionate bent to focus our attention on the stragglers and strugglers around us.  This is good, it is both a gift and a ministry of God’s Spirit at work in us and through us; however it can lead to a type of hypoxia if we aren’t careful for ourselves.  In the same way that you must fit your own mask first in an emergency, (and life jacket too I’d suggest), self-care is important for the carers of others in days like these.

As August comes and then goes, and hopefully our last month in lockdown (which I’ve been saying here every month since May, yes I noticed it too), I urge you all to take some time away for yourself.  When you are baking for me and for others (please and thankyou) don’t forget to have a cuppa and a bickie for yourself, first. When you are praying for me and for others  (please and thankyou) don’t forget to spend some time settling in The Father’s embrace as God’s own daughter or son, sister or brother of The Son, and allow God to refresh and revive (and resuscitate) you with the fullness of Shalom.  And please, if you ring the manse or text the pastor this month, and you don’t get an immediate answer, consider that I might just be fitting my own mask and I shall be with you presently and with full capability.

Homeward Bound 2.

This is the text of my ministry message to KSSM for May 2020.  Covid-19 restrictions in Victoria kept us home-bound for another month.

Those of you who are Facebookers will know, depending upon your regularity on Facebook, that much is being done in that community to alleviate our collective boredom during the Covid-19 lockdown. Recently I have been posting each day the cover art of one album (of music) which influenced my taste in music, and as someone born in 1972 my formative experiences range between the 1980s and 2010s decades so there’s a bit to say.  Today I’m reflecting on those choices, and I notice that on many of those and other formative albums there are songs about home and homecoming.  “Going Home” by Don Henderson (© Elektra) reads: I’m going home (I’m going home)/ I’m a long time overdue,/ I’m going back (I’m going back)/ To the place that I once knew./ It’s a long time since I left,/ And things have changed a lot,/ And I don’t really know if I’m/ Going home or not.

There’s a lot that’s covered in those lines, not least for me is my memories of the place I was in my life when I heard that song and sang along to it.  It’s a song from my childhood (it was written in 1978) and I have memories of singing along on family road trips to dad’s cassette, (remember cassettes?), or in various parks and gardens around Melbourne at live concerts.  The house we had in 1978 is no longer in my family’s care, (we left there in 1986 when dad went to UFT in Melbourne to study for ministry), and it looks very different today.  Even though I claim on Facebook that Mulgrave is my hometown, if ever I was “going home” it wouldn’t be to there.

Church will be different, and things will have changed a lot, when we get back inside our buildings in a month or so’s time.  We’re now online through YouTube and Zoom, even email, I’ve spent more time on the phone and especially writing text messages, and my email load has increased in both directions (in and out) in ways that I don’t think will be seeing a reduction.  “Above All” by Paul Nevison (© Integrity’s Hosanna Music, Hillsong Music Publishing Australia) reads: How blessed are those who dwell in Your house,/ Whose lives become roads that you travel,/ They wind through the valleys to the light of the sun./ One day in this beautiful place to worship,/ Your house is our home,/ Where our faces will shine in the light of the son.

Our home is in God’s house, which metaphorically and literally is the local church building, but it is more than that too.  Home is changing, just as much as the Middle Pub did a few months ago, we are not going back to the place we left.  Throughout May let’s think about what we want home to look like when we get back there, back to God’s house, and back to the place where we feel “at home” in The Lord.  There will be some things familiar, unlike the Middle Pub the furniture and the decorations have not changed (don’t worry!); where we find that what is new is not as effective as we thought it might be we can change it back, not unlike the Middle Pub (don’t worry!).

The Christian Church, of which we are a small but integral part, is constantly changing;  but we do not change only for change’s sake.  Just because we now can does not mean we will be livestreaming the Shared Ministry to the world every Sunday.  At the same time, now that we have been forced to think inclusively of those who cannot attend church on a Sunday (which right now is everyone), we will not be forgetting how to do this, or why we do it, when most of us can go to church but some of us still cannot.  The house is already different, as it must be.  But the house will always be home, therefore it must not be too new or strange either.  I look forward to seeing you all soon, in person, but Zoom will do for as long as it must.

Damien.

Oh whatevs!

This is the text of my ministry message for the monthly newsletter for Kaniva and Serviceton Shared Ministry.

You all know that I once worked as a school teacher, and I know that many of you have done so too. In fact several of you still do. One of the questions I was often asked by my pupils was whether they would use this skill or topic as adults; a sometimes tricky question to answer. I suppose it depends upon what sort of adult the child would become and what sort of job he or she would have. I have made use of most subjects I learned at school primarily because I then went on to teach them; that‘s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy I guess. But Algebra in umpiring football: 6g+b=t (when g is number of goals, b is number of behinds, and t is total score), Syntax and Grammar in writing, reading, and preaching, and History and Geography in background to preaching have all come in handy at various times. Right now I‘m learning to read the New Testament in Greek, which I hope will be useful in study and not just as a distraction during this incarceration.

So imagine this situation: You‘re at ministry college in 2009 where you are learning to be a pastor and in your Preaching unit an assignment question reads Your Congregation is unable to meet on Sundays due to a pandemic, how do you continue to provide worship and instruction to a dispersed and homebound congregation? My first response would probably have been the title of this. Oh whatevs! as if that‘s gonna happen in Australia! My written response, much more respectful (and Distinction grade worthy), would probably have been something about home visitation for communion with shut-ins, emails with Bible study links, lots of Facebook posts, and regular updates of the church blog. Or maybe that‘s hindsight: in 2009 there was no thought about churches having their own YouTube channel (unless they were Hillsong), and a pastor could not assume that everyone in his congregation had access to the Interwebs anyway, even email.

Primary School prepares us for the wider world, and the world of the future, by teaching us basic skills which can be implemented and connected in new ways. Some of these connections are made at Secondary School, others in University (or TAFE), and others by experience in the world. I was never specifically taught how to minister in a global pandemic, and my plan above is unworkable because I am expressly forbidden from visiting you in your home with communion. We do not have a church blog, but while we do have a church Facebook page not all of you are online to read it. But college did equip me with skills to manage (and thrive) in this situation and I am honestly excited at the opportunity to see Church done in this new way. You also have been equipped for this, if you‘re ready, by the discipleship that Christ himself has been guiding you through in the past days and decades. Like homeschooling where we do not expect kids to sit at the kitchen table for six hours a day as if they were at school (an hour each of literacy, numeracy, reading, and home-cooking is probably enough) there is no expectation that you take hours today to do church stuff. What matters most to Christ, and to me, is that you are learning to love him and to follow him. Spend time with your Bible, use the notes I have prepared if they help or don‘t; spend time in prayer, again follow the KSSM plan or not; walk in your garden, or around the block, or a lap of the wetlands and enjoy Creation; drink good coffee and eat your favourite biscuits at 10:35 each morning; be a child of God who is also a woman or man of faith.

It seems likely that we will not be gathering as congregations until September, that will be six months of household worship (Acts 16:31). I pray that you can use this time to explore your faith and your hope in God in quietness and solitude with Christ. Not everyone is an introvert like me, so quietness might be uncomfortable for you; but that‘s okay because Christianity is a social religion and we are supposed to do it in groups. So please do get on the phone, or the social media, and share what you‘ve found about God.

It‘s April, and that means it‘s Easter. Today (if you‘re reading this new) is Palm Sunday, next week is Good Friday and then Resurrection Sunday. Then its seven weeks until Pentecost, (so you‘ll need to wear a purple top today, white thereafter, and red on 31st May, white on 7th June, then green), and who knows how long after that until we can gather. I encourage you to make use of the lectionary New Testament readings from Acts; they tell the exciting story of the Christians from the week after Jesus‘ ascension until the raising up of the second and third generations. Maybe we, like them, are pioneering a new way of being the Body of Christ in the dispersion. I look forward to the day when we can gather as one once more.

Damien.

Love in a time of Coronavirus

This is the text of the message I preapred for Serviceton Shared Ministry for Sunday 22nd March 2020.  This was the week when COVID-19 restrictions really hit home in Australia.  Shops were denuded of many basic essentials, and indoor, public gatherings of people had to ensure at least four square metres of floor space per person.  For this reason many church services were cancelled, and ours moved outside to the local football oval.

Psalm 23

 Well, here we are at the footy ground.  I didn’t see this coming and I dare say none of you did either when we gathered to worship last week at the Church of Christ building.  Some of our cohort are in isolation, parents and grandparents to some of you, friends to everyone here.  Others are unable to be here because of the need for us to meet outside, or because of the need to care for family in other parts of South Australia and Victoria.

You may or may not be blessed by the news that the message I had prepared for you, for today, was seven pages long.  Truth!  I think it’s a good word, it’s certainly a solid word, and in view if the quote I have presented previously from Joyce Meyer it is certainly a “now” word even as it also seems to be a “new” word.  The new thing isn’t always relevant, the previous thing and the old paths aren’t always redundant.  Perhaps today those of you who were once Methodist might recall that John Wesley often spoke outdoors to crowds, either when the local parish chapel was too small, or too small-minded, to allow for the now word of God.

The message I have for you, which is the message I had and which you will get when the time is better suited, is that as The Church it is vital that the local Christians get out of their buildings and be the people of God in their communities.  In this past week the Bishops Conference of the Roman Catholic Church in Australia has decreed that there is to be no indoor worship in any Catholic Church until this pestilence is passed.  The Territorial Commander of the Salvation Army (Australia Territory) has sad something similar about Salvo citadels and Sundays, indeed the Kaniva Corps met outside this morning.  Many Anglican diocese have made a similar call, not all of them, and not the one encompassing the West Wimmera; and the Uniting Church Synods of Queensland and NSW/ACT have done so too, but again not the Synods of SA or Vic-Tas.

I do not believe that God sent this Coronavirus on the world to get the Christians to worship at footy grounds: however, the virus does exist and so to do footy grounds, so let’s make the most of it and worship The LORD and proclaim Christ Crucified publicly and openly.  It is Lent after all; Resurrection Day is in 21 days’ time.

So what is to be said on such a day.  Sadly it is just family today, there’s no one to lead to The LORD in a lifegiving way, all of you are saved enough as you are.  Well we can all do with more of Jesus, no matter how much of him you have (or perhaps more importantly how much of you he has), but the point remains, no one here is looking for a saviour because everyone here has found him.  Everyone over there hasn’t, but then they’re over there today.  Our project is to get ourselves over there asap, and to get there with the message of Love in a Time of Coronavirus.  So, don’t get me wrong, I’m pleased to be here with my brothers and sisters in Christ today: but I’d dearly love it if we could have added new siblings this morning.

The news for us, and for the world, whether you have been hoarding toilet-paper, or Glen-20, or Dettol Handwash, or whether you have been generous in your caring and sharing for sibling and neighbour, is that God is with us.  I mean look at us, here, doing church.  Carlton and Richmond played to nobody at all at the MCG on Thursday night, Collingwood and Western Bulldogs had zero spectators at Docklands on Friday.  But come to Leeor Footy ground at twenty-five to midday on a Sunday and wa-hey!

Seriously, I love what today’s lectionary reading has for us in the Psalm.  My original sermon for today focussed on the other three readings so it’s a bit of a delight to be able to hold them over for later and to just sit with our Shepherding lord beside those cool waters and in the sweet grass.

As I was writing this message yesterday I had a new App playing on my phone.  I say “playing” because it’s called “Calming” and is has mindfulness and reflective tracks on it, as well as sleepy and soothing background noise, and other stuff.  So anyway I was a bit stressed, having to redo my sermon and think about how to preach at a footy ground, so the soothing sound of “Mountain Book in Flood” was a wonderful background.  Except that it took me four hours to write these three pages because I had to keep getting up for a wee!!  Twinkle, twinkle, trickle…  But even with that the calm waters did cause stillness in my soul, even as it played havoc with my bladder reflexes.  My shoulders relaxed, my jaw relaxed, my eyes opened a bit wider as the tension soothed away and the aahh! set in.  In Psalm 23:3 we are reminded that this is one of the works of the Shepherd, he restores my soul.  Again I don’t believe God sent Coronavirus to make us all lay down, but the fact that we have had to lay down has meant for example that the skies above Beijing and Paris are clearing, and the waters of Venice lagoon are too.  Stiller waters has equalled cleaner environments.  God did not send this virus to clean out the world, but there is a virus rampant so let’s make the most of our enforced quietness and worship The LORD and proclaim Christ the Redeemer who has saved all of Creation and is shaping a New Creation.  Praise the one who leads me in right paths for his name’s sake as Psalm 23:3 says, celebrate and acknowledge that God has brought good out of this, and that God always will.

In the next sentence, Psalm 23:4a we read the great encouragement for us today.  Even though I walk through the darkest valley I fear no evil says the NRSV, other translations offer the valley of the shadow of death.  Coronavirus is a dark valley, a valley of deathly shadows, there is no doubt.  Thousands have died, hundreds of thousands have been laid low with illness and pain and fever and coughing.  Sadly thousands and hundred of thousands more will go on to experience the same, including people of Australia.  But in all of that, all of that, COVID-19 as a disease is a shadow: God is the light.  We see the shadow because COVID-19 is real and it is blocking the light in some places, throwing its shade like we used to throw toilet-paper at the houses of people we didn’t like.  But it’s the light that matters, God is here, and the light is shining.  The shepherd is here and the grass and the stream and the breeze and the birdsong are inviting.

This is a season of rest for us, I have no doubt.  Our God and our government want us to look inward for a time of self-care, neighbourly care, generous calm, and quietness.  Psalm 23 suggests that none of this is to be seen as a punishment, nor is it a reward, it’s simply a season.  It’s nap time, it’s rest time.

I admit to being frustrated on Friday when I went to Foodland in Boredomtown and it was out of loo rolls.  I don’t need many, I will be okay for a few weeks yet.  But the panic buying, and the hoarding saddened me, saddened me that even the Tatiara ad the Wimmera have it?  The Mighty South Aussies, yeah?  Not this week Foodland.  But it’s got me thinking, what is the church hoarding in this crisis.  Okay so yes there is a secret stash of loo roll in our storage cupboard, our stewards shop ahead and yes we are sharing it (one at a time) with those who have none.  But what of the other stuff of which we have an abundance and others have none.  From a John 10:10 storehouse how are we going proclaiming Psalm 46:10.  The life in abundance for which Jesus came is our promise that it’s safe to be still and know.

Don’t hoard peace this week Church, don’t hoard hope.  There is more than enough for you, be generous in sharing it.

Amen.

Just Visiting

This is the text of my ministry message for the KSSM monthly pewsheet for February 2020.  It was my first Sunday with them since Christmas Day 2019 (which was actually a Wednesday).

While I was away over January, having some annual leave and spending time with my South Australian family, I did a lot of visiting.

I played Junior Monopoly with my six year old nephew, and managed to get myself in gaol a few times. Miss a turn and pay the bank $1 and you get to be Just Visiting. (He won by the way, little capitalist.)

I went for a drive through old haunts along the South-West Fleurieu coast and inland, including the apartment block I used to live in. I stood outside my old door, but didn‘t go in, I was just visiting. I had a coffee at the tourist complex there, overlooking the golf course and sitting where I used to sit and study. This time there was no study, no frantic counting of nickel in my pocket to see if I had enough for a mug or only a cup, (I‘m a proper pastor now, I have brass in my pocket). No longer resident, just visiting.

I went to church (I‘m still a Christian, even on holidays), at four different churches. No preaching, no pastoral care, just visiting, yet how insightful that was. One church was my old church, Delamere Uniting, and I was welcomed with open arms (literally, I got four hugs). I was just visiting but I was welcomed home. One church was One Church, the UC/CC in Keith: again just visiting but the news of my being the pastor from KSSM made me a minor celebrity over coffee. One church was a local fellowship who describe themselves as relaxed and friendly; however I didn‘t find that to be the case, (but then I was just visiting and maybe that was the point). Maybe I needed to belong longer for them to find out who I am and how I prefer to relax and be befriended.

My prayer for KSSM this year is that we care for all who enter our doors, including (but not especially) those who are just visiting. All are welcome here; all are welcome back, all are welcome through, all are welcome home. Aren‘t they?

What shall I render unto the Lord for all His benefits toward me?

This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM for Sunday 2nd February 2020.  It’s not a lectionary reading.

Psalm 116

Recently I had the privilege of not only attending, but actively participating in the ordination of a dear friend. For reasons beyond her control this ordination took place on Australia Day; but that set up a happy coincidence, for me at least. The happy coincidence is that one of the readings which my good friend had chosen to be read on her special day was the entirety of Psalm 116, a special set of verses for her. As her friend I know that a good deal of her testimony is replayed in those words of scripture. Okay, great; so January 26 and Psalm 116 are coincidental: how exactly? Any takers? Well actually the coincidence comes tomorrow, because on Sunday 3rd February 1788 Rev Richard Johnson, inaugural chaplain of the penal settlement at New South Wales preached the first Christian sermon in Sydney and Psalm 116:12-13 was his text. As it reads in the Authorised version which he used, What shall I render unto the Lord for all his benefits towards me? I will take the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the Lord. Johnson’s appointment was largely the work of John Newton and William Wilberforce, have you heard of them? Yes, well as you’d expect they were keen that an evangelical would take on the chaplaincy of New South Wales and so Johnson was appointed as minister and educator, and with his wife Mary he sailed with the First Fleet.

The news which comes later, after the landing at Port Jackson and that first service of worship under a tree at Sydney Cove, is that Johnson was not well attended to by the governors. Governor Phillip had more important things to focus upon than the building of a chapel, what with trying to house a starving population, so church took place out in the open. Later governors and lieutenant-governors were even less helpful, so in 1793 Johnson built a 500 seat chapel himself; at his own expense and with his own hands. With that building in place Richard and Mary were better able to run a school and as many as 200 children were in class. That building was destroyed by fire in 1798, probably arson, and in 1800 the Johnson family (now four of them with two Australia-born children) returned to England on a furlough, from which they did not return.

So you may or may not have heard the story of Richard Johnson before, and of course there is a lot more to tell. Much of their woe occurred during life in the colony and therefore after that first sermon was spoken out. But I’m sure that as Australians, even not as Sydney-siders, you have some understanding of The First Fleet and what went on to get those eleven ships into Botany Bay and then Port Jackson. It was not a fun time by any means; and there were no doubts aboard ship among anyone, marines and freemen included, that life in Sydney would be easy. As far as journeys go the First Fleet wasn’t the worst, the Second and Third Fleets were disease ridden and most unpleasant, but it was bad enough. So I wonder what Johnson was thinking, and more importantly what he was seeing (envisioning) as he prepared and then delivered that first sermon to the prison colony. Just think about it, imagine yourself if you’d like as a convict or a marine, or the surgeon, or the governor himself, or the tag-along wife of someone, imagine you’re Mary Johnson, and Richard gets up and says what shall I render unto the Lord for all his benefits towards me? I’m not entirely certain, and in this instance my background in sociolinguistics lets me down, but I’d say that was the first instance that the derogatory use of the word “mate” was used in Straya. I mean, you’ve been at sea since May 1787 and it’s now February 1788, not to mention (but I probably will) whatever prison-hulk or barracks-and-orders rigmarole went on before sailing. You’re standing under a gum tree in February, and you’re wearing rags (as a convict) or prissy England clothes (as a free person or marine), so you’re probably sweating like mad. You’ve been sleeping in a tent, or on the ground, or maybe you’re still going back to the ships to sleep. You’re here forever, or at least seven years, or at least until you’re re-called for re-deployment by the Admiralty, and even that is at least a year and a half away by the fastest ships. The last year has sucked, this year looks desolate and hungry, and next year might see us starving if we even make it that far. So, ah Rev, Richard-mate, what are these benefits unto me which the Lord has rendered? Maaate? Psh!

How’s your year looking Kaniva/Serviceton? How was 2019? What does 2020 have in store for you? Are you hopeful of even reaching 2021? Hopefully you’re feeling better than that mob who were standing on Eora Country 232 years ago, but just because a town exists here and you slept in sheets last night that doesn’t mean your future is rosy. My friend’s story, the friend who was ordained last Sunday, her story is hers to tell so I won’t even touch it: but it’s a doozy. You all know some of my story and many of the doozy bits (but not all of them) and I tell that in drabs. What’s your story, and how does this Psalm speak to you?

I’m going to ask that again, what’s your story, and how does this Psalm speak to you? In my research this week I discovered something which I think is every interesting, in Tanakh (the actual Jewish Bible rendered into English and used by some Jewish traditions, rather than one of the Old Testament translations of the Christian traditions) there’s a variant reading in Psalm 116:1-2. In the New International Version it reads I love the LORD, for he heard my voice; he heard my cry for mercy. Because he turned his ear to me I will call on him as long as I live. Positive, praiseworthy, comfortable and comforting. In the Good News Bible (which is in your pew) it reads I love the LORD because he hears me, he listens to my prayers. He listens to me every time I call to him. More of a shift to continuing present tense, not only did The LORD hear my voice but God hears my voice: all good so far. In the Tanakh it reads I love the LORD for He hears my voice, my pleas; for He turns His ear to me whenever I call. Pretty similar to the Good News Bible, but without that “because” statement from the NIV. But, here’s the variant, Tanakh footnotes suggest this one I would love that the LORD hear my voice, my pleas; that He turn His ear to me whenever I call. Hmm. Anyone been there? “I’d love it if God would listen and could hear me right now”. Anyone there now: don’t put your hand up but do let me know later if I can pray with you. Maybe some of Sydney’s first congregation were thinking that, maybe Rev Richard was thinking that himself, just quietly. Or maybe you’re with the Orthodox Church where the translation reads I have loved, because the Lord shall hear the voice of my supplication; for He inclined His ear to me. And in my days I shall call upon Him. (Athanasius Academy Septuagint found in The Orthodox Study Bible). I have loved because… that’s something different again, and suggests that we love God because God loves us (true) and that by God’s love for us we become mature through carrying that love even in the dark places, and finding strength in it. That points us toward Psalm 116:12-13 which we looked at earlier, with the understanding that even with the depths of Sheol, and the depths of the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific oceans The LORD has been good thus far and we can be confident. We can be confident because we have trusted The LORD and The LORD has come through for us; therefore whatever lay ahead of New South Wales in 1788, and whatever lies ahead of the Wimmera and Tatiara in 2020, we can celebrate God and be thankful in advance. Interesting to me is that according to its lectionary the Orthodox Church reads this psalm on Palm Sunday, and we read it on Maundy Thursday.

Are you confident for what lies ahead? Maybe today you are in Sheol, or at least in fear of being there soon: feeling grave and overcome with tomb-like concerns. Maybe today you are in Cadi (Sydney Cove), and wondering how this place could ever be what London is, even Newgate Prison. Or maybe you are in the good place, with the harvest harvested and sent away to wherever the trucks and trains take the various outcomes of your work, and you are in the mood for exuberant praise and thanksgiving for the abundance of grace that The LORD has just poured over your head. Most likely you’re somewhere in between those poles, since most of the time we just live with contentment, without fear but also without celebration. The Psalmist says that a worthy response to all of those conditions is thanksgiving and praise. I would say the same, not only as a theologian who has just written a sermon on this but also as a man with a doozy of a story about Sheol and another about the Heavenlies.

And so, what shall I render unto the Lord for all His benefits towards me? How can I repay The LORD for all His bounties to me? Well, as scripture exhorts us let us raise the cup of deliverance and invoke the name of The LORD. Tell people what has been done for you, show it to their own eyes, and tell them that it was The LORD Godself who did it for you. If you are in the mood to celebrate then celebrate: rejoice like the shepherd who recovered one of one hundred sheep, host a party like the widow who recovered one of ten coins, feast and drink like the father who received back one of two sons. And if you are not in the mood to celebrate then remember what The LORD has already brought you through, and trust that The LORD who is the same Lord will do it again and again. In all of those stories told by Jesus, and all of the doozy stories we tell of ourselves, the focus is on a corporate response to an individual crisis. I was in peril, now I will tell the whole congregation how amazing The LORD is to me. This is actually the point of the Psalm, not that the snares of death encompassed me, the pangs of Sheol laid hold on to me, (Psalm 116:3) woe is me I have a truly salty story; not even that gracious is The LORD and righteous, (Psalm 116:5); but I will pay my vows to The LORD in the presence of all his people (Psalm 116:14), and I will pay my vows to The LORD in the presence of all his people, in the courts of the house of The LORD, in your midst O Jerusalem (Psalm 116:18-19).

And so it is. Maybe Richard Jonson did feel like a bit of a dill preaching on The LORD’s providence under that tree at Sydney, barely a week after the tall ships had arrived: perhaps he spoke too soon when you consider all that he went through in the next twelve years, and all that Sydney has seen in the past 232. Or maybe he was on the right track, considering that all who gathered on that day had survived the journey to gather on that day, considering that as an evangelical he knew where and how to look for the goodness of The LORD and to find much for which to be thankful in song and word. May it ever be so with us. We no longer cry God save the King, okay mainly because we actually have a queen, but let us remember that God’s saviour is King, and that we have the responsibility to glorify his saving work and his reign in song and word, confident in him in all circumstances.

Amen.

The Advent of Loss: 2 (Blue Christmas)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the community Blue Christmas service in Kaniva for 2019.  The service was hosted by the Uniting Church on behalf of all of the town churches.

John 1:1-14

Imagine a Christmas without all the pageantry. In a field of loss that might be nice, and December 25th itself might pass in quietness, another Wednesday in the world, with nothing to set it apart. Imagine if Christmas Day was just another birthday, someone else’s birthday, and joy to them and all of that, but good that I wasn’t invited, or even aware, because I’m not in the mood for celebration. In fact, even if it was my birthday, and it isn’t, but even if it was I’m just not into it.

Do any of you know what date of the year my birthday is? It’s okay, I don’t know when yours are either. It’s probably no surprise to you that your birthday this year was just another day for me, unremarkable, I don’t even remember what I was doing: unless it was a Sunday of course, in which case I was probably preaching, but then I preach most Sundays anyway so I’m sorry if I didn’t notice your special day. Or was it a Saturday in winter and I was at the footy, same answer, sorry I didn’t notice.

There are days like that for all of us. Not just birthdays, but other significant days and the anniversaries of significant days. There are people in this room, at the very least in this town, who lost friends and family to death this year: but what was I doing on the day that that happened? Can’t say. Others observed days of anniversary: a year, two, ten, perhaps fifty since a loved one died, again days unremarked by me or the rest of you, for the most part. And generally that’s okay, we often don’t need the whole world party to our personal grief, especially when healing has begun and the years have made the memories more fond for what was had and less sharp for what was lost.

But then, then there’s Christmas. I know two people for whom Christmas Day is the anniversary of a father’s passing. But even without that, Christmas Day is a loud and bright day, especially in Australia where it’s all-but midsummer, so the parties are outside with cricket in the street and barbeques in the back yard and it’s hard to hide from celebration even if you want to. That’s not to say that there aren’t lonely people, grieving people, distressed people even on the Day when we celebrate Santa’s coming to earth in human form, it’s just that those sad-sacks get their noses rubbed in by their boisterous neighbours and their cordial-powered, remote-control wielding children.

In John’s gospel and the opening chapter, which is really a prologue to the story than the opening of the story itself, we have Christmas without the paraphernalia. No wise men, no shepherds, no angels; no star, no animals, no manger; no baby. What we have is light and a word; a word which is a who (and not a what), a word who is glorious and alive, a word who is light whom banishes the darkness. I wonder what a Christmas pageant would look like if we based it on John’s account rather than Matthew’s or Luke’s. Would it actually be less boisterous if there was no bunch of kids dressed as a flock of lambs, and one solitary boy was dressed as everlasting light instead? I never got to be Joseph when I was a child, although I did play him in a monologue when I was about 42. I wonder how I would have felt had I been chosen to play the real light – the light that comes into the world and shines on all mankind as John 1:9 puts it.

The Good News Translation overlooks the phrase, but in the New American Bible (amongst others) we read in John 1:12 that to those who did accept him he gave the power to become children of God, to those who believe in his name. Now is not the time for a full theology of the Name of Jesus, but briefly, at Blue Christmas, let me say this. The name of the Word who came as light, is Jesus, and that name means “God Saves”. It’s the same Hebrew name as Joshua (Yehu’shua), the one who fit de battle of Jericho and the walls come a tumblin’ down. The phrase “in his name” also means to accept Jesus for all he is and all he stands for: the whole being of Jesus and his story. If you acknowledge and receive Jesus, the one who exists and proclaims the salvation of God, then you will become a son or daughter of God. Many did not accept Jesus when he came, during his life between 4BC and 30AD or whenever exactly it was, John 1:11 tells us that and we know it from other parts of the New Testament too. Many since then and right up to today have also not accepted him, either they have heard the story and rejected it for whatever reason, or they haven’t heard the story properly told at all for whatever reason. That’s why John 1:12 specifically says to those who did accept him, because in John 1:11 we’ve just been told that many didn’t.

And that’s where we find ourselves on Blue Christmas, and others find themselves blue at Christmas, because the story is unacceptable. Here’s a story about eternal light entering the world. Here’s a story about the Word of God, so God’s creative power (remember God created by “saying”) and God’s authority, entering the world. Here’s a story about a man who embodies all of the above and his name is literally “God Saves”, if not “God’s Salvation” as if the man is himself the saviour, and not just a living prophecy whose name is a message, he himself with the name is also the means of salvation. And yet here I am, on Thursday night 19th December 2019 (or Wednesday morning 25th December), and here I am mourning because God did very much NOT save. If God saves then why am I a widow, or an orphan, or a divorcee, or a bankrupt, or a quadriplegic, or a neurotic? Why? All this light you’re speaking about just makes my darkness even more obvious, and it’s just as painful as the noise of children on their new bikes and the sound of their dads on their fourth beer.

You say “God saves”, but I say that’s very hard to accept, let alone believe.

As a pastor I hear that, and I will not trample it. Yes I am a pastor, but only because I am a survivor in life,; and I’m a survivor in life only because I am a Christian. I’m not saying that you cannot survive life without Christianity, but I am saying that I would not have made it this far without Jesus. My story is that I have lost a lot. My grandparents have all died, so my parents (whom I dearly love) have lost their parents (whom they dearly loved). I have lost friends to death, and friends to distance. I have also lost friends to hatred, people who once were close who have turned against me and my family. I have lost health, and poor health has stolen decades of my life; in fact I’m going to say that much of my adulthood has been lost to sickness and disability. I was sexually molested as a child and I have lost most, if not all, of what it means to be in a romantic relationship. So, when you say that God’s salvation is very hard to accept, let alone believe, I believe you, and I accept your story as accurate and true.

But so is John’s story, accurate and true, and I know this because it is also my story. That I am here, after all of that, to tell my story and even more to tell John’s story from the Christian Bible, is all down to the fact that God does save, did save, will save, and that Jesus is the means by which that is accomplished. I am a Christian, a recipient of salvation, because God saved me and not because I saved myself. When I stopped trying to save myself and faced the overwhelming tide of death, because I was out of energy and motivation, that is when God has lifted me out and up and away. If you aren’t there yet well I’m not going to gloat, or accuse, or deny your pain. I will be respectful this Christmas of you in the way that I missed in Christmases past when others denied, excluded, and accused me.

Imagine a Christmas without all the pageantry: in a field of loss that might be nice, and December 25th itself might pass in quietness, another Wednesday in the world, with nothing to set it apart. You know, you are allowed to have it that way, you really are. But if you don’t want to, we’ll be here at 9:00am next Wednesday, and we’ll be telling the stories of how Jesus is God’s Salvation. And we’ll be nice about it too.

Amen.

Celebrating The City (Pentecost 18C)

This is the text of the message I prepared for Sunday 13th October 2019, the 18th Sunday in Pentecost in Year C.  This was a combined service with all of the churches in Kaniva in celebration of Kaniva Agricultural Show which had been held the previous day.  We gathered in the Shire Hall in Kaniva for church: I was the preacher and a youth band from The Salvation Army in Geelong lead us in worship and song.  That band had been performing at the Show.

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7; Psalm 66:1-12; 2 Timothy 2:8-15

One of the great themes of the Hebrew scriptures is the story of God’s continued deliverance of Jews from their gentile enemies. There’s the whole story of the Exodus to start with, the many victories of the Judges, then the kings Saul, Solomon, and especially David, and Esther, who whilst a queen was actually a queen-consort in a foreign land. Outside the centuries covered by the Jewish scriptures, but well within Jewish history, is the Maccabean overthrow of the Syrians in 167 BC. Maybe we could add Israel’s wars in 1967 and 1973 to our list. One description I have heard of the Jewish festivals like Passover (Exodus) and Purim (Esther) is the phrase “they tried to kill us, but God delivered us, so let’s eat!” Jewish history inside and outside the Bible is the story of deliverance repeated.

So what happens when God does not deliver? What happens when God’s people are in the minority, in decline, in exile, and specifically not in Canaan? In Jeremiah 29 we can read Jeremiah’s letter which he addressed to the whole community of the first and second exiles, specifically including the priests and prophets amongst the people. Jeremiah is still in Jerusalem at this stage so we’re talking around the year 597 BC, but he’ll be in Babylon within a decade when Nebuchadnezzar’s armies return for another cartload or three of Judahites. Surprisingly in the context of all those stories where God has saved the people from their enemies, what Jeremiah says is that Babylon is the correct place for the People of God right now, and that it was God’s plan all along that they be there. It is always God’s desire that God’s own people are actively completing God’s work in the world, that is what discipleship is all about. God’s instruction to the Judahites of Jeremiah’s day was to settle down and live abundant lives: they were to engage with their Babylonian neighbours and build homes and families of their own, make new and deeper friendships and relationships, and not hide away in ghettos. In other words the Judahites and Israelites were to grow in every way imaginable, and to make sure that Babylonia grew because of them. Jeremiah encourages them to practice domestic life according to Jewish cultural patterns and to remain faithful to God, but they were not be isolated and angry. This is also true of us, the people of God’s nation should keep their faith and their religious and cultural identity, but they should share an abundant life with the people around them, especially those who badger and malign the faithful out of spite and ignorance, so that everyone may come to understand the grace and love of God.

In Jeremiah 29:7 we read in some English translations that God desires the peace and prosperity of the city to which the exiles have been sent, but in Hebrew this is “shalom” in all that that word conveys. Shalom is more than peace, it is restful and complete well-being, not only the absence of war but the absence of anxiety. “You are to work towards and intercede with me for the shalom of Babylon” says The LORD, because in Babylon’s shalom is the exiles’ shalom. More so Jeremiah adds in 29:8b that the exiles and the remnant in Judah are not to listen to anyone who tells them otherwise: this message of shalom is the correct Word of The LORD, as opposed to what the other prophets are saying. The truth is that the apparently bad news of exile is actually God’s news, and the supposedly good news of a near release is false hope and false prophecy. Hananiah says that the exile will be over in two years’ time, but he’s an idiot so don’t listen to him, and don’t go setting up a partisan resistance movement to overthrow the oppressors. Settle petals.

No, the correct response to recognising the place where God has put you is to sing praise and thanksgiving to God because of what God has done: for you and for us all. In Psalm 66 we are encouraged to actively remember and proclaim aloud the glorious history of the salvation of out nation; specifically how God rescued us (including each of us) from oppression and oppressors. This might seem an odd response to exile, but God is the true king and every other king and president is less than God is. God will overrule governments to preserve God’s people. God has kept us from death and destruction in the past and God has used hard times to refine us and to bring us through and make us better people than we would have been had we had an easier life. In Psalm 66:4 we read that all the earth bows down…sings praises, and the chosen nation is asked to pause and reflect (Selah) on this. What God has done for us God has done for all humankind (Psalm 66:5), but so far we are the only ones who know. Since God has caused us to grow, has growed us up, we must be adult about this and we must no longer be selfish: we must share the news, share the joy, invite everyone we know to the concert of adoration and thanksgiving. After a time of walking through the hard places, where God actually opened up a road through the sea, Psalm 66:8 tells us to “drop to your knees in adoration” and “shout out God’s glory” so that everyone knows about it. Like the exiles we were bound up and dragged away, we went through hell and high water (Psalm 66:12a) but we have been brought through, and we have been brought to a place of plenty (Psalm 66:12b). That is worth celebrating with songs of praise, isn’t it?

This is why Paul finds it possible to proclaim the gospel even in chains. The chains of imprisonment will not silence him and they cannot silence the good news of Jesus the liberator, because Paul’s task is to continue to proclaim salvation to those who do not yet know that they are saved. God is faithful to Godself, Paul knows and he says that God will never go back on a promise or fail to deliver those whose trust is in God. God is worthy of praise because God is faithful toward those who persevere for the sake of the good news. In 2 Timothy 2:14-15 we read why it is so important that Timothy teaches the message of perseverance directly to the church he pastors, and why Christians must never get caught up in jargon. Let every person who trusts God for deliverance plainly speak the truth that the world needs to hear, because that is the task set by God for each one of us. It’s not the job of the overseers to silence the people, but to instruct them in the good news (of what the gospel actually is) and to empower them to proclaim it by the word of their own story and testimony. Be zealous for the truth so that the gospel of Jesus Christ (the Son of David) is proclaimed, and nothing else. Paul specifically reminds Timothy about false teachers, and like Jeremiah six hundred years earlier he counsels him to stay away from the self-seeking idiots who have a different agenda. Listen to God, hold fast to the good news of salvation, and trust in God’s timing for the completion of the work which God has been conducting since time began.

Well that’s all great; God is faithful even in the hard times, and even if there seems to be more tunnel than light we are encouraged to stay faithful and not be looking for a sneaky, early exit. But what do we actually do about it? I can honestly say that I do not feel that my life in Kaniva is a form of exile: I hope you don’t either. Okay, so compared with Serviceton and Broughton it’s a bit of a dive, but I like Kaniva and I enjoy living amongst the Kanivan people. As Christians we might say that all life on earth is exile because Heaven is the home for which we long to return: I think that’s a bit simplistic in light of what we’ve heard from scripture this morning, but there is some truth in it. It’s not the whole truth, but it’s not wrong. But even if the Wimmera and the Tatiara, let alone Corio, are not exactly places of exile, they are places where God is not so central as God was in Jerusalem, or shall be in the New Jerusalem. Since we live in a place which is not all that God wants for us so we must pray for the shalom of our cities.

This morning, as many of the Church in Kaniva who have wanted to gather have gathered in this place. There is only one Church in Kaniva even though it meets in six buildings with six different surnames. There is a common purpose and a shared culture amongst us. Yesterday our town was filled with visitors, and today we have the mob from Geelong participating as sisters and brothers in Christ. As Church (singular with a capital-C) and churches (plural with a small-c) we are the God’s light in the world, in Kaniva and its districts. As Victorians whose state motto is “Peace and Prosperity” we pray for the shalom of our home. We pray for the shalom of Melbourne our capital, for Kaniva our town, for Servi and Broughton and Nhill and all the other places we live, for Geelong. We pray that God would bless us and our neighbours, somewhat anxious that God will want to bless our neighbours through us, thereby giving us jobs, yet hopeful that God will indeed look with favour on our homes and industries.

So together in Kaniva this morning we celebrate God’s goodness to us recalling that God’s record for coming through is 100%. The Jewish exiles from the land may have lasted for decades, centuries, and millennia at a time, but God always called the people home and we know from scripture that the call to all the world is still there. One day soon we will be home, but this day we pray for the place where we are today and we sow into this. Today as we pray we build homes, we build lives and families, we build and plant and put down foundations in the place where we are because the place where we are is the place where God is, and God is with us here.

Go, sow, build, grow, pray and praise: they need to see it and hear it so that they will know it, and grow and sow and build and worship too.

Amen.

Wail

Lamentations 1:1-6; Lamentations 3:19-26; Psalm 137

Well! In all of my years as a Christian in church I don’t remember ever hearing a sermon on Lamentations. That’s not to say it’s never happened; more likely the message as it was didn’t connect with me or appeal to me, so I didn’t take much notice. I hope that today is not like that for you. On the other hand I have heard sermons on Psalm 137:1 with its famous disco riff By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and we wept when we remembered Zion, popularised by Boney-M; less so on the notoriously misquoted Psalm 137:9 where God commands all Christians to bash out the brains of infants and rip the wings off newborn puppies. Yeah, that got your attention didn’t it!

And, like I did with Philemon last month, when I began my reading for this sermon I wondered why we need Lamentations in the Bible at all. I mean, isn’t there enough moaning and sighing going on in Psalms and all of the prophets, why Israel needs a specific book just to lament I don’t know. Well, I do know now, but I was wondering then. Like Philemon which in one way is about the specific message of reconciliation wherein it would be safe for Onesimus to return home, the big theme of the Jewish Bible is homecoming. You have messed up and you have been kicked out, but God is ready to welcome you home: be you Adam and Eve kicked out from Eden, or Saul kicked out from the kingship, or the entire nation of Judah kicked out from their land and into exile in Babylon. Exodus is about the journey home and Joshua and Judges is about how home is then made homely. Ezra-Nehemiah is a similar story. The stories of Kings explain why the exile happened, the messing up leading to the kicking out, and many prophets take up that story with the words of warning included. This is where Lamentations comes in, it is the sorrowful tale of the sorrowful people sorrowing: it is the explanation of why the people of Psalm 137 wept, and why God’s chosen nation had to remember Zion as a decimated past home rather than living in its glorious present. Sometimes it’s good to remember what was lost so that we appreciate it if we get it back: and even if we don’t get it back we are able to see with hindsight how faithful God has been to us, and we are prompted to worship.

In Lamentations 1:1 we read how the daughter of Zion mourns like a widow, how the much cherished princess is now a servant-girl. Her husband is not dead, rather he has left her and now he is threatening her with divorce, that’s why she’s a widow. All comfort is gone, everyone has betrayed her and abandoned her; the daughter of Zion is alone in her grief, except for her enemies who are abusing her we read in Lamentations 1:3. What a tale of woe for the one whom God has caused to suffer: by taking away all her strength and every means of rebuilding that strength the daughter of Zion has been utterly destroyed by God. The sobbing goes on for a bit, and we take it up again in Lamentations 3:19 where Zion is now characterised as a man, and he is speaking for himself rather than being described by a narrator as the daughter of Zion was. Zion speaks like Job here, bitterness is in his mouth and he is utterly desolate, but even in that there comes a spark of joy. Here, again, is the thought that even if God will not restore what we have lost that it was God who gave all the good things first, and God is faithful to God’s own character. God is worthy of worship, and beginning at Lamentations 3:22 that is what we hear and see. The song of Zion is returning to the mournfully abandoned man and he no longer feels betrayed.

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases sings the son of Zion, perhaps with clenched fists and gritted teeth. “I will hope, I will hope,” he says, grasping at that small flicker of light, blowing on that one last bit of red in the coals and ashes of his incinerated life. Like Job he says “I am not cut off”: everyone and everything may be gone, every “thing” and every “one”, but not God. God is here because God is faithful, and not only faithful but steadfast, and not only steadfast but steadfast in love. I have hope, says the son of Zion, I have hope because God always brings the dawn and with the dawn God always brings my portion. Maybe the point has come in time where the son of Zion has confronted his exile, he’s taking account of his sins and recognises why he is in Babylon now and not in Zion. Not every disaster that befalls a believer in God is divine punishment, neither is distress always the plain consequences of sinful behaviour; however in this case it is the truth. God is faithful, and I am faithless: and because I am faithless I am here, in exile, and not in Jerusalem; and because God is faithful I am here, in exile, and not in Hell or otherwise dead. Where there is life there is hope; and even here, by the rivers of Babylon, I am living and I am alive, and God is present. Thanks be to God.

As someone who loves God fiercely, and who knows that he is loved by God with even greater ferocity, I like that the language of the Bible is bold. And as a man who has lived with illness and disability for all of his adult life, and much of that psychological and emotional, I like that the language is not only bold but dead-set blunt. Lamentations is honest in its grief, as is much of Job, and many of the psalms including Psalm 137.

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and we wept when we remembered Zion; and it’s no wonder when you consider what we have just heard. They didn’t just weep, they lamented like the darling daughter who is shut out in the cold not only by daddy but by her fiance. They grieved like the king who has lost everything and everyone, and all he has is cold ashes and boiling memories. That’s what’s going on for them, so when the Babylonians say “hey, gissa song then, how about one of those songs where you boast about how awesome your God is and how Zion is impregnable, bahahaha”, they are not laughing. No, they are seething. First they whinge, and rightly so, about how it’s all a taunt and that even if it wasn’t there is no mood for joy and celebration when you’re living in exile. Then they grieve when they think of the songs themselves, songs about the land God gave them and the land they filled with crops and children, a land that is now desolate and abandoned. No-one wants to be reminded of what was once glorious but is now a ruin, yet these are hymns of praise to God and isn’t God worthy of praise even if the people have sinned and the land has been wrecked? Yes, God is worthy, and in signing God’s praises the memory of what has been lost comes to the forefront. Look at Psalm 137:4 and Psalm 137:7 where the poet refuses to forget God but the memory of God is also the memory of defeat. God’s beautiful city was destroyed by bogan pagans, and as a royal priest and a holy citizen that triggers rage in the poet, which is why he wants everyone and everything associated with the Babylonians dead. Again this is raw, honest, blunt language: but because it is these things it is also worship. To pray like this is to trust God completely, to trust God with your emotions and your vulnerability, to have the greatest respect for God, the God who laid you low in Exile but who hears your righteous rage at what has become of Israel.

The commentaries that I read all said about Psalm 137:9 that it’s good to vent. God doesn’t really want you caving in the skulls of toddlers and God is not going to be doing that sort of thing on your behalf: no children were harmed in the making of this story. If you’re that upset then have a good yell and a good spit and get it out there; however there’s more to it than that, and the commentators say more. The point is not only that it’s good to be raw and honest with God, although it is, but that God is not violent like that. Remember that God is steadfast in love; love doesn’t kill children, even the children of enemies, even the children of the Babylonians who had killed Judahite children. Even exile and slavery are not good reasons to kill people, says God.

To kill children is to kill hope. We see this in the church today where we wonder about the next generation; we wonder whether there will even be a next generation. God who is steadfast in love and alongside us in presence is the source of hope, and the promise to Abram back in the day was not only the land of Canaan but also the millions of descendants who would occupy it. What if God engineered the return of Israel and Judah from exile, just as God had caused the exodus from Egypt in the first place, but the nations had no children and so the nations died out in the land. “That’s not who I am,” says God, God is not the sort of personality to cut off hope from anyone, even from Babylon: neither is God the sort who repays an eye for an eye. As Christians we know that God is faithful to all who place their hope and trust in God, you don’t have to have had a Jewish mother for God to love you as one of the chosen: it seems this love and invitation extends even to the Babylonians. Hope must not be killed, babies must be allowed to live, God is to be glorified even in the depressing place of mockery and isolation.

Our hope lives because our God lives: this is the message of Lamentations and of Psalm 137. That we live in a hole of human construction is not God’s fault, but it is God’s concern. God is concerned because God’s people are suffering, and God’s remedy is coming just as sure as it did last time, in Egypt.

Even in a time of lamentation, of anger and bitterness and shame, we can rejoice in the steadfast love of God.

Amen.

Sunday 6th October 2019

Serviceton Church of Christ