A Sign on the Highway. (Anniversary of the Uniting Church in Year B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of God gathered as Morwell Uniting Church on Sunday 24th June 2018.  It was a communion Sunday and the closest Sunday to the anniversary of the Uniting Church in Australia

Psalm 127:1-2; Ephesians 2:17-22; John 17:1-11

Without wanting to get overtly political, even if a gathering such as this where the congregation is very much minded of justice and equity in the world, I have something profound to tell you: US President Donald Trump is not the Antichrist. However, in light of reading I have undertaken over the past few weeks leading into today’s service I have come to the conclusion, shared by many others of my spiritual persuasion, that Christ Jesus is the anti-Trump. This is especially true today, in June 2018.

Where the leaders of many nations, including our own, wish to erect fences or walls or enforce strict controls to separate families and isolate the much loved but very unwell, Jesus offers citizenship of the greatest realm of all – the Kingdom of Heaven. Where many flee poverty and corruption, and others flee persecution and genocide, we are brought to thought by today’s readings that each of us in this house have fled sin and tribulation. Make of those words what you will, be they literal fire and brimstone to you or simple metaphors of a life lived outside the love of God; II don’t know your past, but I so know mine and both of those apply, the literal and the metaphorical. Paul says that we are all refugees from the world and that God in Christ offers us not only asylum but citizenship wherever God is king.

With respect to the Kingdom of Heaven as it was proclaimed by Christ “Operation Sovereign Borders” is a series of rescue, recovery, and reuniting manoeuvres; it is about expanding the reach of God to include all, rather than erecting barriers to exclude most. In the homeland of the People of God the resources of compassion are never overwhelmed, the earlier arrivals and previously settled are never envious or afraid of the newest arrivals, and the welcome at the door is as effusive for the last one in as it was for the first.

In the Kingdom of Heaven, we are no longer strangers to God in danger of deportation, but citizens with all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities, of belonging to the realm. In realm of God those rights and responsibilities include shalom (Ephesians 2:17). Shalom; that deep, soulful, healing, energising, forgiving, cleansing, restoring, satisfying, joy-bringing peace that only perfect love can bring. That’s our experience, and that’s our mission as ambassadors of the Kingdom, not cross-armed bouncers but hospitable welcomers and stewards of the message of peace to the world. In Christ’s love, in the Father’s realm, in the Spirit’s fellowship there is no division because God is equally present everywhere and with everyone (Colossians 3:11). Paul told the Ephesians and by our reading this morning he tells us that the realm of shalom is the kingdom of God, built upon the foundations of those who went before. Paul wrote of the apostles and prophets, women and men who are gifts of God to us and charisms, gifts of the Spirit, women and men who were sent by God and therefore are sources of authority and wisdom with Christ as cornerstone. Jesus is the connection holding all together, this temple who we are is a dwelling place for God. It is the congregation which is the temple, not the individual because as Paul wrote we are built together in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:22) to form the place which God inhabits in the world. Where God “lives” on Earth is where we gather when we are gathered. An empty chapel or a single Christian is not “the place”, but the congregation gathered where it is gathered.

I have spoken often in the past nine months about shalom, and about the Kingdom of Heaven and the Reign of God in various combinations of those words. So today, today when we celebrate the anniversary of the Uniting Church in Australia and its now 41 years of service to the nation under that name, and close to two hundred in the various forms of Methbytgationalism, I want to touch briefly on the topic of apostles and prophets.

The Uniting Church of itself is not a church of hagiography, the stories of saints. Today’s house at St Luke’s Morwell is named after a first century evangelist, not a twentieth century administrator. We are St Luke’s, not St J. Davis McCaughey. But we do have our cultural heroes in Misters Knox, Wesley, and Brown of the Presbyterian, Methodist, and Congregational movements; and we do remember with thanks to God the work of Davis McCaughey and Ronald Wilson. We celebrate the ongoing teaching of Andrew Dutney, Vicky Balabanksi, Chris Budden, Katherine Massam, Geoff Thompson, Deidre Palmer, and foremost, Damien Tann. We are a pilgrim people on the path to salvation on the Way of Christ, and we have been blessed with faithful guides along the way. Today we thank God for the women and men of faith and courage who walk a step or two ahead of us, or who walked a generation ahead of us, and leave us markers.

Turning to today’s set gospel reading in John 17:1 we read Glorify your Son that your Son may glorify you. These are the words of Jesus, and since it’s John 17 you already know that these are among the last words of Jesus. “Glorify your Son” said by Jesus on Maundy Thursday seems obvious, but what do those words mean for us? How can we pray this? Well, in many ways this is a prayer only Jesus can say since he is Son in the way that no other man is – and there are no daughters like him either. Jesus alone is worthy of the glory of God, I’m sure I’ll get no argument from you at this point, however I wonder if “glorify” might also mean “shine the light of world attention” on us so that we might “shine the light of world attention” on God through our glorifying. The Church can certainly pray that, we can and indeed should have the courage to pray that God would make us notable such that we can point to God when people are looking at us. Let the Uniting Church in 2018 be another Statement to the Nation as Assembly issued in 1977 and 1988. Again in the steps of those who walk ahead of us let us give thanks for those times when the Australian society has established justice, equality, and mutual respect among people; has placed care for the people who have least above sectional interests; has welcomed new migrants and refugees; has exercised solidarity and friendship in times of crisis in Australia across divisions of race and culture; and has engaged constructively with the peoples of Asia, the Pacific and the rest of the world as peacemaker. This is what we told Australia in 1988: let us in Morwell be a sign on the highway, a sign of the compassion, grace, justice, and shalom of God. In words addressed by the newly birthed Uniting Church, to Australia, in 1977 let us continue to challenge values which emphasise acquisitiveness and greed in disregard of the needs of others and which encourage a higher standard of living for the privileged in the face of the daily widening gap between the rich and poor. I know this is a passion, a flavour, of St Luke’s Morwell and as you gather over lunch to discuss your way ahead I pray that you would continue to hold the wounded world in your eyes even as you keep Christ central in your heart and mind.

Eternal life, the life of the Kingdom of God is the knowledge of God and Christ whom God sent (John 17:3), so it’s about fullness rather than endlessness. Eternal life is not just chronologically infinite, it is broad and expansive. Eternal life is seeing Jesus for who he always was (John 17:5), the one from before time, the glorious God the Son. In Jesus we see God, God is compassionate and self-giving, generous to death, not wrathful. Eternal life is also responding to the complete revelation of Jesus by making Jesus known in the world (John 17:6), especially in the part of the world to which we have been given and has been given to us. As Gippslanders gathered as a Uniting Church on this 24th June we ask who are our people, where is our country, to whom shall we share the glory of God revealed to us in Jesus Christ. When we proclaim Christ what we proclaim is what Christ proclaimed to us, they are his words and we have heard them before because they are the words to which we responded in the first place (John 17:8). Jesus prays for us that God will be with us as God has been with him – since Jesus is no longer in the world in himself but only through us (John 17:11).

The believing community has been formed by Christ’s call to each to follow him, and to whom he has displayed God, and by the receivers of revelation and the responders to call becoming brother-sisters with each other in that coming together.

In the context of Psalm 127:1-2 we are the house built by God, and therefore not built in vain. This reminds us to build only for God and in partnership with God, our being a Church and a Christian organisation does not protect us from foolishness and failure if what we do is not directly informed and partnered with God. (We partner with God first, not asking God to partner with us in projects of our choosing – although we are encouraged to be creative in our response to God’s call to meet the world’s need.) Without God all work is a waste of time, even the work of being church and doing faith stuff. Not only must we rely on God we must make known that God is our source – we don’t take God’s help and then take all the credit, neither do we do the work of the gospel yet hide our light. We do what we do with God, and we do what we do to glorify God. Even if it “works”, if we haven’t made God’s fame public in the doing of it then the whole point is not made. It is good to be compassionate, it is better (fullest) to be compassionate and let God be glorified (the illuminated focus of the world’s attention). We don’t serve the world for credit and our own fame, but we do serve the world for God’s credit and God’s fame: our humility (and especially our fear of embarrassment) must not get in the way of God’s glory. We are God’s advertisement, not our own, but not no one’s either.

What we advertise is that God is dependable, and that we attest to this because we are dependent upon God and God sustains us. The same power that conquered the grave lives in us and can live in others who want what we have – because of God. Because of God we do not strive, we have no need to. We operate in the world out of shalom, out of eternal (fat) life.

So, whether you trekked alongside the followers of Wesley, Knox, or Brown before 1977, and whether you march amidst the followers of Donald Trump, Pauline Hanson, Justin Trudeau, Richard DiNatale, Angela Merkel, Benedict XVI or Francis or Lyle Sheldon today, the call to you is the same. Walk with Christ, walk his Way, share his love, and invite others to join you on the road to God which already traverses the outlands of the realm of God.

Amen.

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Who is a King? (Pentecost 3B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Yallourn Parish, gathered at Newborough, on Sunday 10th June 2018.

1 Samuel 8:4-20; Psalm 138

I am not a parent.  This news is not a surprise to you since those of you who know me know that I have never been married and I have never had any children of my own.  It is impossible that I would have had flesh of my flesh until this point, and whilst as a man of middle age my clock is not ticking as fast as those of my female friends of middle age, the idea that I might be a father to one of my own is receding in possibility with each passing year.  Nonetheless it cannot be said that I don’t have children: I am an uncle, I was a “big cousin”, and I was once a school teacher.  So, I know more than a little bit about children and their reasoning.  And I know that there is one fail-proof argument that a child can fall back whenever he or she is not getting his or her way.  There are modifications on this argument, it can be adapted for the circumstances, but basically it goes like this: “ohnh! everyone else is allowed to!!” or “ohnh! (insert name of another adult) lets us!!”

Who’s heard that before?  Who’s said that before?  Hopefully you said it when you were a child and not in the last few days, but still.  “Ohnh Damien!  Our last minister used to let us put our feet up on the pews during the sermon, and drink beer for morning tea!!”  I doubt that Newborough, I doubt it.

Well in today’s Old Testament reading we find the people of Israel doing the whingeing thing, and sadly they are all adults as they do it.  The leaders of Israel have come to Samuel, who is both prophet and judge, and they demand that a king be appointed to reign over them so that they can be like all the other nations.  In other words, “ohnh, but Philistia and Egypt have kings”, and “ohnh, but Baal and Osiris let their countries have kings”.

It is true that Israel was not like other nations at this point; other nations did have kings and Israel did not, but that was because God was Israel’s king and God reigned through the agency of judges as and when required. Israel was the holy nation, set apart from all other nations by God to serve as an exemplary nation and the demonstrate the Kingdom of God, literally the kingship of God, on earth.  So, when Israel asks for a human king they are not only asking to give up their unique status as first nation of the earth, they are specifically rejecting God’s kingship, seceding from the Kingdom of Heaven, and rejecting God’s lordship as their God.  Samuel only addresses the executive part of this rejection and he warns the people that human kings are oppressive.  God has set these people free, saved them from Pharaoh, and now they are choosing to enter servitude under their own military autocrat. Samuel doesn’t address their blasphemy, only their mutiny, and the people reject his advice and repeat their demand to be treated like all the pagan nations, the not-Chosen nation, and to have a narcissistic, bureaucratic, corruptible, nepotistic war-lord like the nations they have conquered.  The king they got was Saul.

Samuel was the last judge over Israel.  We can read of the exploits of the judges in the book named after them and what we read is that they were not a constant presence.  In times of peace there was no need for a national leader holding together an alliance or coalition of armies, the people of Israel just got on with cropping and parenting and going about life as they knew it.  When a threat arose then God would intervene in history and call forth a judge – names like Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah and Samson.  A man or woman born for such a time as that, who lead Israel to military victory and restored the worship of God in place or Baal or Astarte or whomever it was.  Then when the need was met, and the peace was restored, everyone went home again, and they lived happily ever after, for a short time anyway.

A king on the other hand, warns Samuel, will always be present.  Even when there is no need for national defence the monarchy will continue taxing the people and holding a standing army thereby being an unnecessary burden in times of peace and prosperity.  (And no, a king does not preserve peace and prosperity, that’s the Lord’s work.)  Dynastic kings are takers, there are six “takes” in 1 Samuel 8:11-17, whereas God’s appointed judges are givers and saviours.  “Don’t go there”, says Samuel, “God has given Israel a better way”.  But, sigh, Israel does go there, and they get Saul, and Saul gets them into fights.

This story raises questions for us about the phrase “what God intends”, especially when it comes to who our rulers are.  Sometimes things happen that are not the will of God, and God does not intervene when human systems driven by selfish men drive against what is best for humanity.  God does not desire a kingship in Israel, but God chose not to intervene other than to send a prophet to speak the truth.  In 2018 some of the nations have rulers whom God has raised up, other nations have rulers in place because they were elected by people who ignored God’s wisdom and the voice of the prophets.  The trouble is we often don’t know which leader has which story, who is God’s woman or man and who is not, and some proclaim a leader to be God’s appointed while others see that same leader as a threat to God’s people and mission.  This is as true for Joel and Abijah the corrupt sons of Samuel who Samuel tried to set up as hereditary judges, as it is for Saul who became king.

In Psalm 138 we read a song traditionally thought to have been composed by David who was king after Saul and who took on the rule of God’s people around forty years or so after the story told in 1 Samuel 8.  In King David’s song of personal thanksgiving and praise to God who is his Lord we hear how God is good, generous and glorious, and how God will be worshipped and adored by every one of the Earth’s kings because God is gracious and wise in majesty.  God is the protector and God’s presence is the assurance of safety in a dangerous world.  The promises of God are certain, and the plans of God are good.  True kingship is found in God: the best human kingship follows God’s methods of rule and all human kings, queens, presidents and governors attest to that.  We read in Psalm 138:5 that God is the exemplary king, and that this is personally attested to by the greatest ever of human kings, David of Israel.  In Psalm 138:7 we read David’s remembrance of his personal history and the history of Israel, including the circumstances of Saul’s coronation and the military threat posed by Israel’s coastal neighbours from Philistia.  God is the safeguard of Israel’s security, not David himself nor the thousands of men and bows and chariots at his command.  All the security, all the governance Israel needs is found in God, so says the king.  I don’t think David sees himself redundant at this point, what I see is that God as king is ruling through David, and David acknowledges and welcomes this development.  Where the LORD had to work around Saul, and around most of the later kings of the divided kingdoms, the LORD can work with and through David, the good and godly king, just as God had worked through Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah, Samson, and Samuel.

Well that’s great for all of those kings, but what does it mean for us?

As I listen to God and for what God is saying to Yallourn and Moe-Newborough I hear the message for us as stay close to God.  The Kingdom of God was Jesus’ great topic, it’s the first thing he says as an adult in his first sermon and it remain his great theme.  Jesus was not specifically talking about the Kingdom as a literal Heaven for Christians who die in faith: although there is a literal Heaven for Christians who die in faith.  No, the point of the Kingdom of Heaven or the Reign of God is as I have often told you before: live today as if God was the king of Australia and the sovereign of you.  That doesn’t mean you show disrespect for Elizabeth Windsor, Peter Cosgrove, or Linda Dessau who you did not elect but who reign over you in various degrees of authority.  Neither should you be unduly disparaging for Malcolm Turnbull or Daniel Andrews, whom you also did not elect but for whom others voted.  The regard God as king is to show respect for those who serve us as rulers, no one is called to mutiny or rebellion in ordinary circumstances, but we are called to honour God above all else.  God above the queen, as she herself does.  God above the parliaments and councils, as they claim to do.  But most importantly, God above our own ideas of what we would like and how we think the world should be done.

The reign of God says that you don’t get to decide anything, except to follow God. God is king and not only a judge, God is always in charge and does not pop up for danger and pop away for peace, and to treat God like an emergency service is not honouring.  But neither is God a king like Saul who taxes your produce and takes your children as slaves.  God’s rule is good and of benefit.  Why would you want a king other than God?  Today’s message therefore is not about avoiding making Saul king of your life, but about allowing anyone else to take God’s place.

And that includes you.  You are not the best boss of you: God is.

Well may we say “God save the King”: because God alone is the saviour king.

Amen.

Palm Sunday B (Annunciation)

This is the text of the message I prepared for Morwell Uniting Church for Sunday 25th March 2018, which was Palm Sunday and also the Feast of the Annunciation.

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29; Philippians 2:5-11; Mark 11:1-11

Today is Palm Sunday, I’m sure you already knew that without my having to tell you.  I wonder however, did you know today is also the day of the Feast of the Annunciation, the day upon which we celebrate the messenger Gabriel and his news to Mary that she has become pregnant by God?  Think about it, it’s nine months today until Christmas day.  Have you heard of that idea before?  March 25th, yeah?  That would be why we’ve just read from Isaiah 7 and sung “O come, O come Emmanuel”, yeah?  Clever.

 Well if you did know all of that, well done, but did you also know the tradition that the actual Good Friday upon which Jesus died was March 25th?  The theory goes that Jesus died on the anniversary of his conception; thereby completing the cycle of God the Son’s incarnation all rather neatly.  I must admit that I am radically unconvinced by this theory, for many reasons, but it is a rather nice puzzle even if it is all conjecture.  And hey, “Christ was born for thi-is, Christ was born for this” as we good Christians all rejoiced back in December.

Mark tells us that Jesus and his followers entered Jerusalem on the Sunday before the Passover festival; they have come to participate in one of the three great pilgrimage festivals in Judaism.  In John’s gospel Jesus comes and goes from Jerusalem quite a bit over his three years of ministry, but Mark (and Matthew and Luke who base their gospels on Mark’s) has Jesus coming to Jerusalem only one time, this time, and have Jesus ministering for less than a year.  So, this event is a big deal for Mark, and this passage describes the day that the Messiah enters the city for the first time.  Now, since it was expected of Jews from around the world that they would make their way to Jerusalem for the festival Jesus had probably been to Jerusalem before.  Luke tells us that Jesus’ parents brought him several times when he was a boy, to have him dedicated to God as a newborn firstborn, and again when he was a twelve-year-old.  So, Jesus has been before, but today he is coming as Messiah, not as a pilgrim.

 Passover was a time of celebrating the special identity of the Jewish religion and the Israelite people; of the three big festivals Passover was the biggest and it was a time of heightened awareness of nationalism and the pride that there was in being Jewish.  As Australians we might imagine Anzac Day with an added tradition that everyone gathers in Canberra for the dawn service at the War Memorial, and then moves across to the lawns of Parliament House for a massive barbeque breakfast.  Okay, that’s big, and it’s sacred.  However, unlike Canberra today Jerusalem in the first century took a bit of getting to.  Without aircraft, buses or cars pilgrims in Jesus’ time would have walked for days or even weeks to reach the city.  They would have travelled in groups with friends, neighbours and families walking and working together to entertain and protect each other.  Along the way the pilgrims would have stayed in designated campsites or hostels where they would have met up with other groups of pilgrims to eat and sleep together but also pray, sing and tell stories as well.  By the time they approached Jerusalem there would have been a mounting excitement and a buzz of expectation.  Songs like Psalm 118 which was read this morning, and other “songs of ascent”, would have been sung along the road and then would have formed part of the worship during the festival itself.  Happy and to be envied is the one who comes in the name of the LORD they sing to one another, reminding each other that this psalm had been composed as a victory hymn in celebration of a great triumph.  It’s “all hail the great, returning, and all conquering king” and all that. This is a song of deliverance and thanksgiving: think VE Day or a parade of gold medallists.  The roads to Jerusalem in the days before Passover were an exciting place to be and Jesus on his donkey is arriving right in the middle of it all.

 And that is part of the problem:  Jesus is coming on a mission of peace and reconciliation, riding a colt and not a stallion, but the crowds are shouting for Jewish victory.  The first part of Psalm 118:24, which was read to us as this is the day The LORD has made can also be translated this is the day on which The LORD takes action:  the pilgrims have reached Jerusalem and are ready to kick some Roman heads.  In a similar vein Hosanna means “save us” and was a general cry of praise, but in the heightened tension of the festival it also came to mean “get on with saving us (and kick the Romans back into Italy)”.

 So, I wonder whether in throwing down their cloaks and taking up the palm fronds the crowds acted spontaneously; already hyped up by being so near to Jerusalem did they see Jesus and go mental?  Did the Jerusalemites, swept up in the arrival of so many excited tourists to their city allow themselves to be swept along in the mob?  There may have been mixed emotions in the crowd, everyone using the same words but with very different agendas.  Some were crying out in ecstatic praise at reaching their destination at Jerusalem and the temple courts themselves.  Others were no doubt happy to see that nice healing-working prophet from Galilee.  Others still were crying out to the long-awaited Messiah with a demand for action, hopeful that Jesus might just be that Messiah.  Regardless of the intricacies, everyone was saying “God, continue saving us and make us victorious!”  But just like the crowds around Jesus we must take care to enter the celebration yet remain focussed on the meaning of the festival.  The message of Palm Sunday and the lead in to Holy Week may well be don’t get swept along in all the hype or you’ll miss Jesus’ point!

 In Psalm 118:22 we read that the stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.  This wording was also used by Jesus (Matthew 21:42) to describe himself, and by Paul (Ephesians 2:20) to describe Jesus.  At this point in the story it is not Jesus who has been rejected by the Jewish leaders so much as what he represents.  Jesus is the cornerstone and foundation of Christianity, but more than the man or his teaching it is Jesus’ act of submission and trust to the point of deep humiliation and suffering that our hope is based on.  Yes, celebrate the man who is king but look closer at what is right in front of you: see what everyone else has missed.  The saviour king is riding a foal amongst the rabble, rather than a charger at the head of a parade, or a cloud at the head of the host of angels.  God is not who you think God is and the messiah was never intended to come as a new David conquering the Jebusites, or another Judas Maccabaeus recovering Jerusalem from the Seleucids.   It was never ever God’s intention that Jesus would overthrow the Roman colonial governors.

 Mark helps us out because he is more interested in presenting the humility and the lowliness of Jesus than the triumphalism of the crowd.  This is where we too must look.  For Mark this is not a triumphal entry at all, see how he tells the story.  After arriving in the city amongst the pilgrims Jesus takes a quick look at the temple, then turns right around and leaves Jerusalem for the night.  He doesn’t do anything.  He doesn’t address the crowd, he doesn’t speak to anyone, and he doesn’t even stay in the city.  Is this a deliberate anticlimax?  Mark’s story of the Sunday before Easter is a story of meekness and majesty, humiliation and vindication.  All four words describe Jesus at various points across the day.

The instruction to us, as we look to this coming week towards Thursday, Friday and Sunday, is that grace, mercy, and hope are Jesus’ meaning.  Jesus is Lord and King; and that is why he alone can offer grace, mercy and hope.  This week our focus needs to be on Jesus as “the least of these”, the meek one who allowed himself to be arrested and murdered by people and ideas far weaker than himself so that his glory, and his revelation of God as the God of all, could be displayed in the strongest way possible.  Christians alone of all religious people have a God who is prepared to die for them at their own hands.  On this Palm Sunday and Annunciation day I suggest that we dishonour God when we get all triumphal and energetic when God’s own nature is to be humble and anonymous.  Or, as Paul said, let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.…so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in Heaven and on Earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.

That’s what we want isn’t it, that Jesus would be worshipped and adored?  So, let’s have the mind of Christ and see him glorified.

Amen.

Life Begins…

This is the message I prepared for the people of Lakes Entrance on the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of the Uniting Church in Australia

Logo - UCA

Ezekiel 37:15-28; Psalm 122; Hebrews 13:1-8; John 17:20-26

Today we celebrate the fortieth anniversary of The Uniting Church in Australia.  The UCA, as the cool kids call it, was formed on 22nd June 1977 when many congregations of the Methodist Church of Australasia, the Presbyterian Church of Australia, and the Congregational Union of Australia came together under an agreement formalised in a document called the Basis of Union.  As a denomination of Christianity in Australia we number around a quarter of a million enrolled members, and we gather in approximately two and a half thousand congregations.  A recent Australian Census noted that over one million people identified some sort of association with the Uniting Church, and that on any given Sunday, (including Ordinary Sunday 12) around ten percent of them will be in church.   So, congratulations for being here today, you and over one hundred thousand other Aussies are part of something big.

 I introduced this topic to you last week, saying that today, (or last Thursday at least, the actual 22nd of June) is not just a date on a calendar, rather today is a reminder of the century-long effort of Australasian Protestants to form a new nation and a new expression of Christianity for that nation.   The movement toward a union of Protestant Australians began alongside, and indeed amidst, the movement toward federation of the Australasian colonies in the 1880s and 1890s.  That Australia was declared a Commonwealth of States in 1901, and the Uniting Church was not declared until 1977, in no way undermines the work of the women and men who saw this vision and worked hard to make it so.  As with the work toward federation of the colonies, conversation partners came and went from the church and the final union was not the one first sought.  The Anglican Church was part of our early conversations but they ultimately stepped back (on orders from London), just as New Zealand ultimately stepped away from talks of national federation.

The Uniting Church was one of the first Australian churches to grant self-determination to its Aboriginal members, and if you hang around at Synod you’ll hear this over and over.  The Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC) has responsibility for oversight of the ministry of the Church with the Indigenous people of Australia and there are between 10,000 and 15,000 people involved.  It’s no surprise then that the Uniting Church has taken stances on issues of Native Title and the Environment, as well as the status of refugees in Australia and, more recently, in detention offshore.

Uniting, which used to be called UnitingCare is the largest operator of general social care activities in Australia, including being the largest operator of aged care facilities. It continues to serve in the ways he did in generations past with ‘central missions’; shelters and emergency housing for men, women, and children; family relationships support; disability services; and food kitchens for underprivileged people.

The Uniting Church is committed to ecumenism and to the fullest expression of God’s desire for unity among all people.  The Uniting Church has a formal, covenantal relationship with the UAICC, and we also promote multiculturalism and intercultural activities and relationships between and across our congregations.  We want to be present and fully engaged when God pours out God’s spirit on women and men, young and old, urban and rural, local and tourist, rich and poor; Koori and Islander and Pasifika and European and Asian and African and American and all combinations of the same.  We have congregations which are now into their second generation of operation in various East and South East Asian languages, Pacific Islander languages, and of course in Australian Indigenous languages.  I have worshipped with several communities where the spoken parts of the service (including the prayers) was in Yolngumata; where the only English spoken was my bit and some (but not all) of the songs.  In the twenty-first century, the Uniting Church has begun to host congregations speaking African languages, such as Dinka which is spoken in Sudan.

We are an expression of church with an open purpose, a uniting church desiring a united church, and we understand that the work of bringing out unity is our work which we undertake with God’s guidance and God’s strength.

In Ezekiel 37:21-23 God says that God will reverse the dispersion of God’s chosen people, gathering them to one place and I shall make them one people with one government.  They shall never again be divided from each other.  I shall be their God, their only God, and they shall be my people I have already spoken of the vision of one (Protestant) Church for one modern nation which burned strong in the hearts of many of the Fathers of Federation.  (Sadly, we’re not often told what the Mothers thought, but I’m confident that what we see now in Australia and the Uniting Church would not be seen if it weren’t for wives, sisters, daughters, suffragists and voters agitating where they did.)  That which had caused tension and fracture between the Judahites and the Israelites in Ezekiel’s day would be offered to God for healing and restoration, and God would be praised with a unified voice as a witness to the reunited nation.  Ezekiel would have us know that God is in the business of restoration of broken ties: God desires to see unity, brother-sisterhood going forward, and jobs and growth.  The secularists among the federalists were left in no doubt that God was not opposed to them: Australia was never intended by its founders to be a tower of Babel, and God has never seen us like that.  God approves of unity.

In today’s lectionary Psalm, 122, all the people of God, from all the tribes, go up together to Jerusalem to worship God.  While there they pray for the nation, the capital, the rulers and the government, and for the prosperity of the nation.  This is indeed a prosperity gospel, “O Lord make our nation great so that we might serve you more effectively,” they pray.  “If we live in the place where you are blessing us Lord, then we know that you are being served in the way you desire and that you will be happy.”  Our human desire for peace and prosperity, (which is the motto of the State of Victoria), is ultimately for God’s glory because such things, peace and prosperity, are only possible when God’s will for the nation and the church is fully implemented by the worshipping people.  God approves of prosperity.

In Hebrews 13:1-8 we hear God’s desire for the continuation of mutual love and hospitality to strangers.  Last week in that epic sermon about ordinariness I spoke of the hospitality of Abraham and Sarah to the men at Mamre: well the passage following that story in Genesis 18 is about God’s judgement upon the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, two cities which were destroyed because they were decidedly inhospitable to the nomadic family of Lot.  So, we already know from Jewish tradition that God is very much in favour of hospitality, and that God gets all fire and brimstone-ish when guests and strangers are treated poorly.  And then we are commended to remember those who are in prison or are undergoing torture, in Hebrews 13:3, prompting our prayers for our fellow Australians in gaol, and for our fellow Christians undergoing ill-treatment across the world because of their faith and witness to the God of Unity.  That desire for common concern leads the writer to the Hebrews to write of regard for marriage, that those who are married would stay married in that special relationship of unity which God has ordained; and regard for money where greed can destroy relationships.  We readers are reminded pray for our leaders, those women and men who are responsible for holding unity in place through their governance.  Today in East Gippsland, in Victoria, in Australia we remember the queen, the various governors, premiers, ministers, mayors and councillors. Today we remember Elizabeth, Peter Cosgrove, Linda Dessau, Malcolm Turnbull, Daniel Andrews, and Joe Rettino.  We remember our church leaders, Stuart McMillan, Sharon Hollis, Jim Murray and each member of the councils and standing committees of the Uniting Church they chair.  We pray for Collen Geyer, and Mark Lawrence who serve as General Secretary to each of Assembly and Synod; for those serving as Presbytery Ministers in Gippsland; and for those who serve our local congregation as Elders, office bearers, and members of Church Council.  Whatever we think of these women and men as individuals, and whatever we think of the Westminster System of government or the modified Presbyterian system of church governance, each of these people has as his or her primary purpose the preservation of unity in our nation, state, district, and church.

And in John 17:20-25 we read, once more, Jesus’ great prayer for the unity of those who believe in him as the Word of God Made Flesh.  As the Son is united with the Father in that perichoretic dance of Trinity so may the Church be one global mosh-pit of laughter, limbs and love.  Our greatest witness to the world on the periphery of our great dance, indeed our great challenge and our great invitation, is that we enjoy being with each other.  I’m not saying that church should always be fun, sometimes we must be solemn and there are times for mourning and lament; but I am saying that church should always be welcoming.  Church if it is to reflect Christ should never exclude, but should always include.  Church if it is to reflect Christ should never divide but always invite and call into unity.  I don’t care what you think, but that’s what Jesus thinks, and that’s good enough for me. 😊

So where too from here?  Well I think the answer is obvious, we keep working for unity.  As Australians, we know we live in a comparably safe, comparably settled, comparably unified nation.  There has never been a civil war here, nor an uncivil one.  We know New Zealand is never going to join our Federation, (although it is seriously about time the Baptists and Churches of Christ get their act together and join the Uniting Church),😊 but as a Church which does not tolerate difference but embraces it and celebrates the God colours and flavours brought into our gathering by old neighbours and new friends we are always looking for more.  Through the abovementioned UAICC and Uniting, through Frontier Services, through our Uniting Church schools, congregations, and fellowship groups, our desire continues to be met in those who are being added daily to our number, those who are being saved and those who are being welcomed out of the cold and into the dance.

If the old saying is true, and that life begins at forty, then I wonder what it is that will end in the Uniting Church this week.  Perhaps we need resurrection, renewal, revival, re-invigoration, or even resuscitation: but the Uniting Church in Australia, and especially the Lakes Entrance Uniting Church, is not in need of removal or recycling.

“Jobs and growth”, “moving forward”, we are a people on the march and a pilgrim people at that.  Saints of God wave high those banners of red, black, and white, you’ll want to be in our number!

Amen.Logo - UCA

Humbility

This is the text of my “Minister’s Message” which I wrote for inclusion in the May newsletter of The Lakes Parish

I have been thinking about the topic of humility recently and what it means to say that Jesus humbled himself to come to Earth and be our saviour.  If Jesus chose to be humble then it must be a good thing and something we should be doing as followers of him.  Yet as a disciple of Jesus and a participant in the Great Commission I wonder how humility is compatible with evangelism.

 Paul says variously in his letters that Jesus chose humble obedience as the way of ministry (Philippians 2:7-8), and that God has not called Christians to a life of timidity but rather to a life of power (2 Timothy 1:7).  While these may seem contradictory, or at least counter-productive, they are of course complimentary texts.  God has called us to be assertive in life and ministry.  We are to remember that we were each created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27) as the pinnacle of created beings (Psalm 8:5) subject only to God.  We were not made to be timid or anxious, that is not in our design nor is it within God’s plan for humankind.  At the same time, we are not to be arrogant or lordly but are to serve our world as stewards (Genesis 2:15), in the way that Christ served the world as redeemer and defender (Ephesians 5:25).  We who know who we are, each a beloved daughter-son of God called to a specific task in declaring the news of God’s approaching reign.  We live with confidence as examples of what the Kingdom of God looks like in practice.  We are not arrogant or superior, since Christ who truly is king never acted like that, but we do not act like doormats or peasants in the world because that is not who we are.

 To be humble is to live according to who you know yourself to be.  We are neither haughty nor timid, rather we are confident and assured.  As royal priests and holy princes (or -esses) we have both a mission and an identity of belonging.  My prayer throughout May is that you will live out your calling in poise and wonder, knowing that God has called even you, while acting with assurance that this is indeed the truth.

That Shy Hope (Easter 2A)

This is the text of the message I prepared for Lakes Entrance Uniting Church for Sunday 23rd April 2017.  This was the first Sunday after Easter.

Acts 2:14a, 22-32; Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31

Last week in course of my bringing you God’s word for Holy Friday I used a phrase which has garnered a great deal of feedback.  In speaking of what the day of our Lord’s death might mean for us I quoted C. Manning Clark and his description of the spirituality of Australians as “a shy hope in the heart”.  As Australians, we are not known to blow our trumpet in the world too much; unless it involves the Ashes or the Bledisloe Cup, but since neither of those trophies belong to us at present there’s little to say on the world stage.  Mostly we are a people who like to go unnoticed in the world; we don’t like tall poppies and we don’t like being told what to do.  Australia is not a shy nation, we never have been, but as a nation in the world we are far less brash than our nasal accents and the boisterous singing of our countrymen in European pubs might suggest.  We live in a lucky country, (a phrase which was originally an insult, as if such people of us don’t deserve what we have been given), and we like to think of ourselves as a nation of battlers, pioneers, diggers, and vanquishers only so far as we have made a go of it.  We are hard-fought survivors not empire builders; we are not flashy and we dislike those who are.  It is in view of this that Clark addressed the spirituality of Australia.  We are not a nation of flashy preachers, we are not Americans.  We are not a nation of lofty cathedrals and bells and smells, we are not Europeans.  Even as we have both of those things, Australia’s largest single congregation is Hillsong Church and we do of course have our cathedrals of the Roman, Anglican, and Orthodox varieties, for the most part the churchgoing of Aussies is local and hidden.  We are quietly confident that we are on the side of right: like Crocodile Dundee we believe in a Jesus who has fishermen mates and we reckon he’d like us because of that.  How much of this view of Australia is true, how much of it is stereotype, and how much of it was once true but is no longer so in an Australia which now resembles the culture northern hemisphere than it does the culture of the Northern Territory is not mine to say.  I’ll leave that to the sociologists, I’m a theologian and a narratologist.  But I think it’s an image worth looking at, and after the feedback I have had in this past week it seems like more than a few of you agree with me.

So, what is this shy hope in our hearts?  Is it permissible that Christianity be “a shy hope” at all?  After all isn’t Christianity all about witnessing and boldness?  Isn’t our call to extroversion, extravagance, and exaltation?  Aren’t Christians supposed to be the Strayan tourists in the world, loud, brash, bold, and publicly celebrating in season and out of season?

Maybe not.

I believe the story of the Christian scriptures is that the people of Jesus are to be confident but not showy.  The writer of Psalm 16, whom Peter quotes in his sermon on the day of Pentecost and names as David, has penned a song of trust and security in God.  Those who trust in the Lord in reliant assurance will live lives of delight, confidence and joy.  This is how we are to be: this confident reliance upon God is the Australia of the shy hope.

In John 20, following from last Sunday’s reading and speaking initially of the evening of Easter Day, Jesus appears to the ten, greets them with shalom and breathes the Holy Spirit onto them, imparting to the Church the power to forgive.  The purpose of the gospel is later summarised as being that those who hear it (without seeing) will believe that Jesus is Messiah, and that having heard and believed the message the life of trust in Christ brings an abundance of life.  In view of this Thomas, who meets Jesus a week after Easter, (which is to say today), does not deserve his title of “doubter”.  Thomas is no different to the others; recall that the men had not believed the testimony of Mary, indeed they had locked themselves away in terror until they saw Jesus personally (and somewhat miraculously) enter their locked room.  Jesus demonstrated grace in showing himself 1:1 to Thomas, as he had done on Easter day to the other ten.  In the same way that the revelation was given to eyewitnesses who then went and spoke of what they had seen to others who were never given the opportunity to see so now we have the gospel according to John to tell us that even though Jesus has ascended (which John does not record at all) all who hear can still believe in the written and spoken words of the evangelists.

Seven weeks after that first appearance of Jesus to the ten Peter stands up on the day of Pentecost, the Jewish festival celebrating the giving of the ten commandments at Sinai, and addresses the people he calls Israelites.  In Peter’s day, and indeed in our own day, the Israelites were native Jews who were not priests or Levites.  So, Peter is literally addressing the crowd, the common people when he tells them the story of Jesus and how his ministry amongst them had carried the evidence of God’s favour in deeds of power (dynameis).  God was obviously blessing and in favour of the work of Jesus, says Peter, but you Israelites, you mob of common man, you handed him over to Rome and Rome killed him.  Peter is pulling no punches here.  Perhaps he is bold in the Holy Spirit’s anointing, perhaps he’s an unschooled fisherman and doesn’t know how to be polite in public address so he’s calling a “manually operated, blunt-edged, single user excavating apparatus” a “bloody spade”.  It’s probably a bit of both, but at least he’s speaking plainly.  He goes on to say in his straightforward manner that the same power that worked through Jesus in his life, God’s power, the power which then raised him from death, (and thereby continued to attest to his identity), that same power now courses through Peter and the 120.  By that power, God’s direct empowering, the Jesus group proclaims Jesus as Messiah even as David in his day proclaimed the messiah as the message of the Lord God.  The power of God in Jesus the Christ, makes his disciples bold, confident, joyous in the face of continued life on earth.  We have seen Jesus raised, says Peter, therefore, we are confident (and no longer hiding in locked rooms afraid of what the Priests, Levites, and you Israelites might do to us).

This is supposed to be true of us today.  As an Australian (Strayan) Christian living in Gippsland in 2017 I live without the terror of Jewish authorities.  I live without terror of any authorities.  In part that is because of how Australia operates as a nation in my generation, but it is also because I am filled with the spirit of God and I am living a life of freedom and confidence because of “Christ who liveth in me”. As I said a few weeks ago about the Tanakh, the scriptures used by Jews, having the overarching message of the fulfilment of a promise for home so God has showed to Peter’s Israelite audience (who knew that tradition) an instance of this in God’s faithfulness to Jesus.  Jesus has been redeemed from the exile of death, into everlasting life in the land of promise.

In the letter attributed to him Peter extends the promise of God revealed in the resurrection (rebirth) of Jesus to all who trust in Jesus.  We, like Christ risen, are reborn into a living hope, and into the promise of abundance in Heaven and protection on Earth.  Life will be hard in days to come, there is no hiding from that fact, but God has your back and you can trust with full confidence in the promise given to you.  Let the fires of the world burn away the rubbish, let that happen because you know that there is something precious within you just waiting to get out.  Although you have not seen him you love him says the writer in 1 Peter 1:8, fulfilling what Jesus said in John 20:29.  As early therefore as the middle of the first century the discipleship thing is seen to be working: there really are second generation believers who have heard about Jesus from the eyewitnesses and believed in their testimony.  Peter and the eleven, plus the other members of that first 120 on the day of Pentecost, plus Paul and others who saw the risen Christ, went on to tell the story to others who never saw Jesus and those others believed what they were told.  And they told others, and they, and they, until in our day we have none who saw the risen Jesus, or even met the apostles in person, but have believed the message of Jesus in our billions.

This is the shy hope in our hearts.  We have been told that God loves the world, our world, our 2017 world, and that the evidence of that love was seen in a Bethlehem barn, a Roman cross, a garden tomb, and the eyes of the woman or man who told you that story and you believed it.  It is a shy hope, almost unbelievable, but it is a sure hope too.

Amen.

Acts of Easter

This is the text of my ministry message for the April 2017 newssheet at Lakes Parish UCA.

Several weeks ago, I read to you a prayer which I wrote in 2011, a prayer entitled “An Act of God”.  As I write today Cyclone Debbie is pounding its way across the Queensland coast, and whole tribes of television Karlites and Kochies are battling the rainstorm and wind to provide up-to-the-minute reports.

 In today’s Queensland storm, and yesterday’s 38 degrees in Lakes Entrance, I am reminded that while climate and weather can play havoc with our human plans, God’s plans are not thwarted.  Whether your theology suggests that God sends storms, or allows storms, or that God has simply set the world in motion and lets the elements look after themselves, I am convinced that God remains in overall care and charge of the world.  For me, as I prayed first in 2011 and then last month in the face of immanent fire and flood disaster in New South Wales and Western Australia, the assurance that God has all things in hand in the work of the Church is ever present.  Remember, the Acts of God are not the storms themselves but the work of the local Christians in responding to the needs of neighbour and stranger in the aftermath.

As we move toward Easter in the next two weeks, through it in the middle of April, and beyond it as we head toward May, let us remember that we have a role in what God is doing in the world.  The greatest Act of God was seen in the death of Jesus on the cross, but God is still at work amongst, amidst, and because of those who remain faithful to the call to call forward the Reign of God in the world.  Our gospel is one of salvation, which implies that the world needs to be saved/salved, so we are conscious that we live amongst danger.  The gospel requires a response, not just a “sinner’s prayer” that gets us a grace-based, forgiveness assured ticket to Heaven when the time comes, but that we resist evil where we see it and that we bring healing to those who have been laid low by it.  That time has come.