Kettle Day (Thanksgiving for a child)

This is the text of the message I prepared for a combined service of Kaniva & Serviceton Shared Ministry on the occasion of a service of thanksgiving for a child.  It was not a baptism (no water) and not an infant dedication (the child went home with her parents, no doves were destroyed).  For privacy reasons beyond the congregation I have made the child and her family anonymous in this post.

Revelation 3:14-22

Laodicea is probably not the first place you were expecting me to start the message from today; I dare suggest it probably wasn’t in your top five.  And seriously, it’s a day of infant dedication: who preaches from the book of Revelation on a day when we’re all about thanks and praise for children and families?  I mean, I mean where was Laodicea anyway? (Well actually it still is, in ruins at least, in Phrygia in Turkey, ten miles west of the ruins of Colossae.)  And why isn’t it pronounced Laodikeia?  (Well actually it is in modern Turkish.)  But you probably weren’t even asking those questions; meh, anyway, well done you’ve got those answers for free.

But I think the reading I have chosen today better suits this special celebration than any of the passages offered by the Revised Common Lectionary for the Fifth Sunday in Lent in Year C.  Today’s reading talks about how hot you are in the outworking of your faith, how passionate for the cause of Christ.

One of the go-to stories for any preacher looking at Revelation 3:14-22 is the background story of Laodicea and its plumbed running water.  Just north of Laodicea is the hot mineral spring at Hierapolis, and just east was Colossae where there was cold water springs, very refreshing.  The Laodiceans had neither of these, and their town water came from five miles away via an aqueduct in to their city.  Unfortunately with it being five miles, the water cooled down in the aqueduct, and what was hot in Hierapolis and cold in Colossae was lukewarm in Laodicea.  The water was still warm, but not warm enough to have any healing benefit, and it was nauseating to drink. Bleuch!

Another go-to story for background to Laodicea is my story.  I have actually been to the ruins of Laodicea; I was there with a Christian tour party in late September 1999.  We were heading for a major worship event in the ancient amphitheatre at Ephesus, which is about one hundred and fifty kilometres from Laodicea, and as prequel to that event we toured Asia Minor and visited the “seven churches of Revelation”.  On the day we went to Laodicea we’d also been to Hierapolis to see the hot springs, and we had stayed the night in the city of Izmir which is built on the ruins of what used to be Smyrna.  Anyway it was hot, not “Kaniva in January hot”, but hot enough, and it was dusty.  So by the time I’d had a bit of a walk around, and a scamper up and across the tops of the ruins (I was 27 years old then and much more able to climb than now), and we’d held our worship service (we worshipped in each of the seven ruined cities), I was ready for a drink.  Nice cold water, waiting on the bus for me, ahhh!  Except that the bus was hot, and my cold water got hot, heated to hot-tap-water-at-home hot.  That bottled water was distasteful and useless for purpose, I was not refreshed by drinking it, and in fact I almost upchucked.  Upchucking may have been a Biblical response in the light of Revelation 3:16, but it wasn’t one of the spiritual feels I was going for on a dusty and hot day.

So, not hot enough, or not cold enough: it seems that Christ was displeased with the Laodiceans for their tepid nature in life and faith, and I was certainly less than impressed by the local bottled refreshment.

How hot is your water right now?  Would the Christ who walks amongst the lamp stands call you lukewarm?

The building we are gathered in today is ninety years old, and the Shared Ministry is twenty years old this year.  My question is this, is that how much experience we have?  As a church, particularly Kaniva Church of Christ congregation, do you have ninety years of experience, or do you have one year of experience which you have repeated ninety times?  And you can say that our denominational presence actually dates back a good few years before that in Kaniva, but so does the question.  So, has it been 1889 for one hundred and thirty consecutive years here?  Have you grown?  Have you begun to cool down the further you’ve run along the channel and away from the source?  And what about each of us as individuals?  How long have you been active in your faith, is it 20, 30, maybe 70 years of service?  Or have you just the one year repeated endlessly (so far) for decades as a Christian?  Are you any bigger, or are you just older, and therefore less patient and more tired?

You are a Christian and you still hold water, but maybe you need to return to the kettle, or the fridge, and be set for purpose.  The water in my bottle on the day I went to Laodicea was too hot to be refreshing, but it wouldn’t have made a cup of tea either as it was not hot enough.  The water was still water, it was clean and theoretically drinkable, but it needed either a kettle or a fridge to make it useful.

Today is a kettle day for this child: her faith is boiling hot as she’s welcomed into this family as a gift from God, and God is gloried for her presence because God is glorified by her presence.  Your baptism was the same, and perhaps like this child’s father and mother today the baptism or celebration of your children was a spur to go again in God’s strength.

Again I ask you, the local people, as we add another member to our rolls has this church grown?  Is this church bigger now than it has ever been, regardless of its numbers?  Perhaps we have a solid core of 20 in Kaniva and another 20 in Serviceton, and only those 20 come, where once we had a solid core of 15 but with 50 hangers on?  Again, are we actually bigger now than we were then?  Are you bigger now?  Serviceton used to be almost as big as Kaniva is now, (at which time Kaniva was twice the size it is now, at least by population).  Now Serviceton is tiny, barely anyone left, and even some of those who live there now are actually new.  The town’s core families who are there now are the same families who have been the core for generations.  When the rail left the farmers remained, and these days it’s only farmers.  But there are still farmers there, and they are there because they are invested in that land.  Kaniva is the same, even if not quite so dramatic as there is still other stuff going on in Kaniva, but Kaniva has its families who have been here for generations as councillors and teachers and shopkeepers and mechanics.  And there are farmers here too of course.

The Church is the same.  It is true that people move between churches as they move between towns: I mean I have been here about six months now, and at best I’ll be here for another five years.  This is not because I’m wavering in my faith, but because my job, unlike farming, is transient.  If the metaphor for Kaniva and Serviceton is that you are farmers then I’m more like a season, here to help you grow for a bit, and then move over the horizon to help others grow for a bit while the next season follows me here.  But I am always in The Church, just not this one: and I am always in a church because I am invested in Christ just as much as generational farmers are invested in their land.

So Christian how invested are you in Church?  Are you hot on God’s behalf, constantly active, constantly nurturing, constantly maintaining and supporting growth?  Are you cold on God’s behalf, like an ice-pack constantly seeking to refresh, and shade, and restore the burnt and broken?  Or are you lukewarm in your ministry, “meh it can wait”, “meh I’ll just get another one”, “meh it’s just one sheep and I’ve got ninety-nine more”.

As Christians which of those conditions do we wish for this child?  What do you desire for your Sister-in-Christ as she grows from girl to adolescent to woman, perhaps wife and mother some day, perhaps even farmer in her own right on dad and grandpa’s land and therefore, hopefully, a member of this congregation?  And if we hope the best for this child, and her infant sisters, and her parents; and if we hope that this child’s father’s farming remains successful and that he and his family never needs to leave the district; and if we hope that we’ll see this child grow up her whole life in Kaniva and in Kaniva & Serviceton Shared Ministry, what sort of example and what sort of support do you hope to provide?  If you are barely lukewarm, then this child can never be boiling hot: but then if you are barely lukewarm you probably don’t care.  But then if you don’t care and are barely lukewarm why did you bother coming today?  Well, probably because you are lukewarm and there is enough heat left in you to care a little bit, and, well this child’s parents seem nice, and someone said there might be cake afterwards and…well you know…who doesn’t like cake?

Christ is the water which flows into you and through you to the world.  Are you a paper cup?  Are you a travel mug with insulated sides and a lid?  Are you an urn, with a thermostat?

Thinking back to my water bottle, my drinking water was not at all refreshing; in fact it was dangerous.  Hot water is only good when it’s supposed to be hot: drinking water at 50 C is not refreshing, actually its mouth burning.  Do people who know you’re a Christian come to you for soothing, and instead cop a face-full of hot water?

Today is kettle day for those who need to be hotter.  Today is refrigerator day for those who need to be refreshed.  Come to the source, this child needs you to.

Amen.

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The best is yet to come (WWHS)

This is the text I prepared for WWHS Day Centre for Tuesday 2nd April 2019.  I had also worshipped with them the previous week.

Joshua 5:9-12

 Last week when I was here I spoke to you about trusting and obeying God even when you think you don’t need to.  That sounds a bit strange, I know, but the point is that we must never think ourselves too capable for God to care for us, as if we’re content to pray, “you know what God, we’re fine as we are, how about you go over there and help those poor people and leave us be because we’re fine on our own.” Never, ever do I want to be in a place where I don’t need God, and more than that I never want to be in a place where I can tell God to leave me be because I’m fine as I am.

The reading I brought to you today, which is the lectionary reading from the Hebrew Bible for last Sunday, says something like this too.  The Hebrews under Joshua have entered Canaan, their promised land, and they have rededicated themselves to God as God’s own people by circumcising all the men who were born in the Wilderness.  You might remember that God made the Hebrews wait forty years after the Exodus before they were allowed to enter Canaan because they had been rebellious in their early wanderings: no man who was of military age when the people left Egypt (except Joshua and Caleb) was allowed to enter the land and so the whole nation waited until the last of those men died.  Hence the need for circumcision, none of the boys born in the desert had been through that ritual and some of those boys were now forty years old.  So anyway, here they are, in Canaan, with lots of men feeling rather sore and God says to Joshua words to the effect of “okay, now that Egypt is out of your system, and you are Abrahamites once again, let’s get you settled in his country”.  The first thing they do is celebrate Passover, which of course is a reminder of their exit from Egypt a generation past.  The word “exodus” which we use in English to describe the activity, and the book of the Bible which tells the story, literally translates out of Greek as “the road out”, ex-hodos.  In effect the Hebrews have reached the end of that road out, now they are ready to embark upon the road in.  God calls them to remember where they have come from, (Egypt), and with their men still sore the whole nation celebrates their deliverance.

In Joshua 5:11 we are told that the next day, the day after the Passover, that very day, they ate some of the produce of the land, and in Joshua 5:12 we are told that the manna stopped the day they ate this food from the land.  In one sense God’s deliverance was complete, the people who had followed the cloud and the pillar of fire, (or had at least followed Moses who followed the cloud and the pillar of fire) and who had been fed with manna and quail and water from the rocks of the desert were now establishing themselves in Canaan, Abraham’s land of milk and honey.  They didn’t need hand-outs any more, they were freed and were free.

As Christians reading this story we are allowed to be excited, and we should think about what this story means for us.  I don’t know about you, but I’ve never eaten actual manna.  I have had God provide food for me, I told you a bit about that last week, but I don’t quite have the same story as Joshua.  When we consider the link to Passover, which is when Easter is for Christians, and for what Jesus went through and what he accomplished on the day of Passover or the day before Passover (depending which gospel story you read), it’s interesting I think to remember this event of another Passover meal.  The meal described by Joshua was eaten as a celebration of what God had already done in leading the Hebrews along that long road out (the ex-hodos) and it was also as a sign of faith in God for what God was about to do in guiding the Hebrews as they walked the many roads in to Canaan to take up the land of promise.  In Jesus, in communion, we celebrate what God has done for us through the cross and the resurrection, but we also get to look ahead with faith and confidence, with expectation and trust, at what God is about to do now and how God will still be active as many as three thousand years and more into our future as we are in the future from Joshua’s day.

Are you still excited for what God is going to do?  I have said before that there is a lot of living memory in this room, being what it is, but I have also said and you have agreed that the stories of the people in this room are not yet at an end.  The best is yet to come, not just because that’s a great phrase of faith and hope, but because when we think about Jesus on Thursday as he ate, and Friday as he died, the best really was yet to come.

Amen.

Yeah-yeah! (Yeah-nah)

This is the text of the message I prepared for proclamation at Kaniva Church of Christ on Sunday 24th March 2019, the Sunday of Annunciation.  It was a combined, ecumenical service with the Anglican, Church of Christ, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Salvation Army, and Uniting Churches of Kaniva gathered.

Isaiah 7:10-14; Psalm 40:5-10; Luke 1:26-38; Hebrews 10:4-10

I am blessed to be able to address you all today.  By “all” I mean a gathering of Christians beyond my regular congregation; and by “today” I really mean tomorrow.  (Except that none of you would have come tomorrow, so today will have to do.)  What’s so special about tomorrow you might ask?  Well if you don’t know, find an Anglican or a Roman Catholic and let that person tell you.  (And if that person doesn’t know, tell me and then I’ll dob them in to Fr Nagi.)  Tomorrow, in those flavours of Christianity who pay attention to such things, is 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.  So, for those of you from Protestant traditions, for whom this is not a central event, have a think about it; it’s nine months tomorrow until Christmas day.  Have you heard of that idea before?  March 25th as the date of Jesus’ conception, yeah?  Yeah.

Well if you did know that, well done, but do 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 rejoice” back in December.

So tomorrow is potentially the two thousand and twenty third anniversary of the annunciation, and possibly the one thousand nine hundred and eighty-ninth anniversary of the real “Good Friday”.  It probably isn’t, but that doesn’t matter: it’s a good opportunity to be reminded that Jesus really was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, was crucified, died, and was buried.  We may not all say the creed, but we all acknowledge the truth of Christ Jesus who is The Word Incarnate.

But what’s the point?  Well other than showing that “I is well ecumenical” and that even as a Uniting Church minister in a Church of Christ house I am on the ball with the varied flavours of Protestants, Anglicans, and Catholics in my town at large and congregation this morning, (and in my personal history as a worshipping Christian in this country and the United Kingdom), I believe that annunciation is actually worth celebrating just for what it commemorates.

So what does it commemorate?  Well it commemorates God choosing someone ordinary and anonymous for the most amazing act in all of global history.  Jesus is God the Son: on earth he lived as the Son of God and the Son of Man; exalted today in Heaven he reigns with the Father and the Spirit as Christ the Lord, King and Messiah.  But Mary?  Nah, Mary was just Miriam the teenager from Nazareth.  God did not choose Mary because she was special; Mary was special because God chose her.

And if God chose Mary, God can choose you.

But that’s not the whole story, is it?  Is it?  Well I’ve just told you it isn’t, so “no” is the answer I’m looking for here.

Take a look at Ahaz, whom God also chose.  We find part of his story in today’s set text from the Hebrew tradition, specifically Isaiah 7:10-14.  So as far as choosing proof-texts for annunciation goes this is a good one because we read where God previews the name and character of Jesus’ birth in the days of pre-exilic Judah: a young woman will give birth to a son who shall be named Immanuel, a name which means God with us.  But remember that Isaiah who spoke this word didn’t think he was addressing a peasant family in Galilee seven hundred and thirty years later; he is speaking to the king of his day in the culture of his day.  That Matthew 1:23 quotes this verse as proof to Joseph that the baby in Mary’s womb is God’s own is appropriate, I’m not saying it isn’t, but the point that Isaiah was making is very important and must not be overlooked in our rush toward Christmas.

The story around Ahaz, king of Judah, direct descendant of David and ancestor of Jesus (Matthew 1:9), is that Jerusalem is in peril from military attack and siege.  As king Ahaz has a few options, one is to form an alliance with Assyria which is the local superpower, and thereby come under its protection (in brackets “protraction racket”).  Another option is to seek to maintain Judah’s national independence and integrity by trusting in Jehovah and the promises made to Abraham and David of an eternal home from the Judahites and an eternal throne for the Davidic family.  Jehovah personally intervenes in the decision making process, speaking through the court prophet Isaiah, to say “I am God and here’s a tangible event to show that I’m with you, or even I AM (YHWH) is with you”, and then the baby thing.  That girl, yes that one, will have a child, which will be a boy, who shall be named “God is with us” because…well…I AM God and I am with you.  Isn’t that great?  A personal message from God to a leader in distress, with real evidence.  And just look at how this son of David, a son of Abraham, responds to this declaration of God’s faithfulness.  “Ahm, yeah-nah.” It probably sounds more epic in Hebrew, but essentially Isaiah 7:12 reads “yeah-nah”.

Yeah-nah.  Yeah-nah?  I mean, what the actual is “yeah-nah”?  God says “ask me for anything you wish as evidence that I am with you” and Ahaz says…well you know what Ahaz says.  The point is not the piety of Ahaz, “do not put the Lord to the test” is in Deuteronomy and is also one of the things Jesus says to the accuser during his temptations, so it sounds good.  But it’s not good.  No, it’s not good because Ahaz isn’t really saying what Jesus said.  Jesus said “I don’t need miracles to trust God, I trust God because God is trustworthy”: Jesus is no Gideon, no fleece required.  What Ahaz is actually saying is, “no, I’ve already made up  my mind to choose the Assyrian option, the alliance where the Holy Nation of God becomes a vassal to the evil empire, and I don’t want God to interfere.”  I’ve made up my mind, I’m going to do it my way, shut up and go away Jehovah.

Is that a statement of faith?  Is that a statement of submission and piety?  Yeah-nah.

And so we get back to Miriam the Galilean teen.  She was nobody special, but God chose her.  Ahaz was somebody special, and God chose him.  But Miriam did not become special because God chose her, just as Ahaz did not become special when God chose him.  Ahaz was already special, Miriam was still a peasant.  Miriam became special, became “The Blessed Virgin” and all that we read her say about herself in the Magnificat, and all that Elizabeth says about her, and all that the jumping Baptist in-utero pronounced, and all that the angel said to her and Joseph about her, when she said “yes” as we read in Luke 1:38.  (And effectively Ahaz lost his specialness when he said “yeah-nah” and walked away from God’s anointing.)

Today’s psalm, which is echoed in today’s reading from the Christian tradition, is about obedience to the call of God.  In Psalm 40:6-10, and quoted by the apostle on behalf of Jesus in Hebrews 10:5-7, we read how God is more impressed, indeed most impressed by attention to the Word which leads to obedience.  Ritual and the trappings of religion are not in themselves bad things, God does desire them and God ordained them as the means of grace for Jews.  Do not misread the scripture here, the call to worship is good.  But when God speaks to you and singles you out for a ministry, then your calling and your responsibility are to that beyond the duty to go to church.  The other girls of Nazareth were not damned for not being the mother of Jesus: by continuing to do what obedient Jewish daughters do, and by continuing to worship God within their households their obedience and worship were accounted to them as righteousness.  But Mary had a unique call, and her faith-filled response to God above worship and her relationship with her husband and family was accounted to her righteousness.  And look at what she did, having heard from the angel and accepting God’s invitation, the first thing she does is praise God and the second thing she does is nick off to Judea to be midwife for her cousin.  Mary the beloved of God, highly favoured and blessed amongst women is no less a good Jewish girl for her calling, she is all of that and more.

So, liturgically minded or not, user of ocker phrases or not, how do you respond to God’s call to you today?  Whether your response is “yeah-righto Jesus, I’ll give it a burl” or “be thou to me as thou wouldst desirest it sovereign Lord”, I pray that you would respond with delight, joy, excitement, obedience, humility, and love.

Today is the day to say yes.  Say yes today, so that when the Annunciation is made tomorrow you can tell the messenger of the Lord “I said yes yesterday, and it’s yes today as well”.

Amen.

How it is to be (Epiphany 7C)

This is the text of the message I prepared for Kaniva & Serviceton Shared Ministry gathered at Kaniva Church of Christ and Serviceton Uniting Church on Sunday 24th February 2019.

Genesis 45:3-11, 15; Psalm 37:1-11, 39-40; Luke 6:27-38

So, the last couple of weeks have been pretty exciting for me as a preacher because I have been excited by what God is saying to us.  Often when I open my Bibles (plural) up to begin writing a sermon I have no idea what’s coming.  The readings don’t always follow the previous week’s, and since I tend to be about a month ahead in my preparations I’m never actually writing on my Monday afternoon “the thing after what I said yesterday”.  So when the last three sermons came out as they did, writing a month ago, I was really pleased that that is what God wanted to tell us.

So, what did God tell us during January and February?  Well, a few things:

  1. You’se mob are all ministers, with ministries. This includes me, but it is not exclusive to me.  If you’ve been baptised then the Holy Spirit is upon you and you have a job to do.
  2. You’se mob are all able to listen to God’s instruction for yourself. Also, God’s instruction for KSSM in February was to focus on rest so that we would enter the year of 2019 with peace and energy from God, not with frazzle and rush.  This message has not been superseded or countermanded, and even though some of us are now at the chalkface of ministry, the reminder to come back to God between-times just to sit and be with God remains.  For others of you the sitting and being is what you are doing all the time.
  3. Some of you are being called to ministries of proclamation, and to proclamation of somewhat unwelcome messages. If God has given you a message for the church and the world we want you to speak it out.
  4. Some of that proclamation takes the form of looking ahead. You will tell people to think about what is coming next, and think about what is life-giving and foundational to what we trust now.  Our message at KSSM is that we are confident because we have heard and experienced how God gives life to us, and energy to finish the work we have been assigned.

Today is something different.  It’s still exciting, and I’m looking forward to what I have to say now.  It’s about a new way of looking at proclamation and preaching, and it is useful for anyone who listens to preaching.  Okay, so it’s not pointers for the couple of lay preachers and the rest of you can tune out, it’s God’s wisdom for everyone who hears what God and the Church are saying, and pulling from that story whatever is wisdom for where you are.  But first, some Bible stories.  Yay!

In our Bible story from the Hebrew tradition we read how Joseph showed himself to his brothers.  We haven’t got the whole story here, but the gist is that Joseph’s brothers sold him to some Arabs to be used as a slave, which was not very nice of them.  Then yada-yada-yada, false accusation, time in gaol, Pharaoh overdoes the pizza one night and has crazy dream, drought everywhere, Hebrew asylum seekers (aka boat people on donkeys), Joseph’s brothers rock up in Egypt and don’t recognise Joseph who is the Prime Minister.  (Breathe!)  So, today’s story, Joseph does not exact revenge on his not very nice brothers, instead he shows stupidly generous kindness and hospitality to them.  True?  Is that what happened?  Yes.  Biblical truth?  Two things, God’s plans always work out well for those who remain faithful to their calling; and it’s always better to be generous and kind, even to people who are not very nice.  Done?  Yes?  Done!

Psalm.  So today it’s 37 and bits thereof. This is a song of patient trust in God, patience grounded in the assurance that salvation is coming.  We can’t say that Joseph was familiar with this song of David because it’s something like eight hundred years after his day, but Joseph certainly kept the faith and did not keep it to himself.  Joseph understood that God is faithful and he told whomever would listen, even his brothers, who were not very nice, especially to him.  Message?  One thing, God’s plans always work out well for those who remain patiently faithful to their hope in God.  Application?  Well since the lectionary has already pointed us to Genesis 45:3-11 and the story of Joseph’s graciousness we might conclude that since we know that God is our security and not ourselves we can afford to be generous and kind, even to people who are not very nice.  Done?  Yes?  Done!

Am I moving too fast?  No?  Excellent.

Right: Jesus story.  Excellent, I love Jesus stories.  We read from Luke 6:27-38 where Jesus himself is speaking, and more than speaking he is teaching.  Jesus says love your enemies, (and in brackets love your brothers even when they are not very nice) and listen to your teacher.  Jesus is quite a challenging teacher if you think about it, and (slowing down) here is where we find the point of today’s message.  Jesus was faithful to God, faithful to his trust in God (the things he knew and believed), obedient and always seeking the Father’s direction.  As an Evangelical I’d like to say that Jesus was entirely and absolutely perfectly faithful to scripture, and I have heard that said before by other Evangelicals, some of whom (but not all) were preachers.  But was he?  Was he?  I am entirely convinced that Jesus never contradicted God, nor the written word of The Law and The Prophets, but see even here where he uses the phrase “but I say to you…”   He often said that, or perhaps often did that, changed the meaning of Jewish religious tradition and the interpretation of the scriptures in Hebrew or their Greek translation of his day.  “You’re reading that wrong”, might be another way of saying it.

Let me give you an example, perhaps in a different way.  I was recently allowed to overhear a conversation between a farmer and his pastor where the farmer was concerned, convicted of his sin really, about his farming methods.  He had been reading Genesis 3:19 where it says quite clearly by the sweat of your face you shall eat bread.  Right?  Got that?  Okay, so he was concerned that even though he was actually a grain farmer, so the bread thing really did apply, that in his closed-cabin, air-conditioned header his face didn’t get all that sweaty any more.  As a Christian farmer, saved by the cross but still living as a sinner in a fallen world, hadn’t he become too worldly, wasn’t he compromising his faith and the word of scripture by not using a horse-drawn plough or a scythe in the sun?  Doesn’t the road of the air-conditioned lead to Hell?  Now in Kaniva and Serviceton we know the answer to that, of course it’s true and almost all of you are going to Hell.  You know that and that’s fine.  Or maybe Jesus would say “well you have heard it said, (or perhaps seen it written) by the sweat of your face, but I say to you…” and then what would Jesus say?  Maybe he’d say something like that anyone who works for a living to provide for his family is blessed, regardless of the physical toil involved, because each man is accountable to God for his gifts and responsibilities.  And then in the twentieth century scholars would have added “and women” to their commentaries and twenty-first century pastors would have drawn out applications for women and men who work at white-collar jobs.  Would such a thing be entirely faithful to scripture?  Depends who you’re asking I suppose; there’s always a hardliner somewhere.  My question, which I have been leading up to all day, is such a thing faithful to our concept of God.  In other words, is the God of Joseph and his brothers, the God of David the Psalmist, the God of Jesus the rabbi who taught love even for enemies, the God of Jesus the crucified messiah who prayed “father forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing”, is that God burning with unquenchable wrath because Christians work on tractor or in classrooms where there is air-con.  What say you?

So yes I did bolt through the set readings from Genesis, Psalms, and Luke this morning, and yes I deliberately overlooked other great nuggets of applicable truth for your and my lives as disciples, but I hope I have made my point.  And if I haven’t, here it is: read the Bible with the characteristics of Jesus of Nazareth in mind.  As you begin to reflect on any text, any text at all, ask yourself how Jesus would explain it to the woman beside the well in John 4:10, or the woman caught in adultery in John 8:11, or Simon son of Jonah beside the lake in John 21:15.  Remember how Jesus never twisted scripture but he often redefined and refuted a harsh interpretation of it to show the compassion and loving-kindness of God whenever the scribes and Pharisees try to set a trap.  Look at today’s passage and Jesus’ own words in Luke 6:36 where he says be merciful just as your Father is merciful.

There is no doubt that God dislikes sin.  Jesus wasn’t too keen on it and he still isn’t, it cost him six bloody, painful hours on a Roman cross beneath a black sky.  The message to read with mercy is not about taking a permissive stance on sin or injustice or idolatry or anything else that the scriptures condemn: no way, never.  The message is to think of the people involved; the people trapped by sin of course, but for me even more so the people trapped by false interpretations of the scriptures which make God seem petty or petulant and not very nice at all.  Don’t laugh at the farmer, help him with gentleness to understand that he is allowed to not sweat and still be a beloved son of the Father in righteousness with his Lord.  But more than that, don’t ever, ever, be the one who agrees with such a farmer and insists because of the word of God that agricultural machinery is contrary to received revelation and an act of witchcraft in the eyes of a wrathful deity.  But more than that that, that, whatever: do not ever ever be the one who snatches a farmer out of his header and demands he use a scythe or else it’s Hell for him and his family for four generations because that’s what the Bible says.

So, proclaimers of God’s truth that you are; as we go further into 2019 let us all make sure whether we are preachers, prophets, or just mates of people who don’t come to church that it is God’s truth that we are proclaiming.  If what you’re saying contradicts the written gospel, or the letters, law, prophets or poets then it’s probably not God.  But if your word contradicts the nature and character of Jesus then it certainly is not God, no matter how many Bible verses you can quote.

Amen.

A Call To Prophesy (Epiphany 5C)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of God gathered as Kaniva & Serviceton Shared Ministry on Sunday 10th February 2019.  We met at Serviceton Uniting Church for holy communion and at Kaniva Church of Christ also for holy communion.

Isaiah 6:1-8, 9-13; Psalm 138; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Luke 5:1-11

Today is one of those good days for a preacher, because the message contained in each of the four lectionary readings is well structured and exciting to preach.  It’s all about God’s call and the story of how each of three men first heard God saying to him, “go and tell”.  It’s a great message for a church of eager disciples such as this one, so the sermon shouldn’t take very long at all.

Let’s start with the passage read to us this morning.  In the opening words of today’s reading from the Hebrew traditions we read how Isaiah dates his call to ministry to a specific time and place; he knows his origin as a prophet and teacher.  In the activity of the story Isaiah overhears The LORD calling for volunteers to take the message of God to humankind, and Isaiah steps up for the job (Isaiah 6:8).  Oftentimes when this story is read in church this is where we end our reading; we hear how great and holy God is, we sing “Holy, Holy, Holy” before the sermon and “I, the Lord of Sea and Sky” after it, and we all go home.  Even today Isaiah 6:1-8 is listed to be read, with Isaiah 6:9-13 in brackets, as if you don’t have to read on if you don’t want to.  See what I’m saying, easy message, familiar concept, fast sermon is a good sermon, let’s go home.

Meh-yeah-nah.  Sadly for you if you were hoping for an early minute, this is a red rag to a brown bull for me; I mean what are those lectionary writers trying to hide?  Why don’t they want us to read on?  Well maybe it’s because in these optional verses what we get is God’s actual word to the world, the text of what is to become Isaiah’s message, and it’s not very nice; in fact it’s very not nice.  In essence Isaiah’s job is to make the people stubborn and hard-headed because God has decided in advance of Isaiah’s mission to punish the people.  This is not like Jonah where God sent the prophet to seek repentance so that God could relent; this is where God is baiting the people to further resistance to the gospel so that when divine wrath falls it is more fully deserved.  That’s harsh.

A strong comparison with Isaiah 6:2-3 is offered in Psalm 138:1 where the spiritual beings gathered around God’s throne hear a man, let’s call him David, singing his praise and thanksgiving to God.  Instead of God the holy, holy, holy One asking in the hearing of the cherubim and seraphim for a volunteer to carry a message of wrath and devastation, here we see a man in the same company thanking God for God’s steadfast love and faithfulness.  (That’s in Psalm 138:2.)  God tells Isaiah to make the people resistant to God’s voice; but David tells the seraphim that the moment he began praying with distress God came close and answered him (Psalm 138:3).  It’s as if we’re speaking about two different gods here, or at least about the one God dealing with the Chosen People on one hand and the pagan and heathen nations on the other.  But no, and you know it’s no, this is Adonai on both occasions, and Israel on both occasions.  What is going on?

At this point let me interrupt myself and say that this is my favourite type of Bible study.  So often our evenings of fellowship and study revolve around opening a letter of Paul or a gospel and reading around the circle from a familiar story, looking for the obvious answers to the reading comprehension questions posed by IVP or Scripture Union.  This sort of Bible study, the one we’re doing today, looks at unfamiliar texts and searches out the hard questions.  Awesome fun, I hope you’re enjoying this as much as me.  Let’s get back to it.

In today’s set reading from the Jesus traditions we read Luke’s account of Jesus calling his first disciples.  And it is one of those intensely familiar stories: Jesus teaches a pressing-in crowd from a boat, then he asks the boat-owner (who is a stranger at this point) to put out and go fishing.  Twenty-seven trillion fish are caught in just under four minutes, causing that fisherman to recognise that a miracle worker has turned up in his boat and that he utterly unworthy to be in such a lord’s presence; kinda like Isaiah in Isaiah 6:5 and his “woe is me, man of uncleanness” lamenting.  And our familiar story continues, Jesus says to Simon “get up,” and he says “don’t be afraid,” and he says “you will no longer fish for men, but for people,” and without a second thought Simon, and James, and John from the next boat walk away with Jesus and into the sunset.  So there’s nothing heard-headed or confusing about that; okay the “fishers of men” reference is a little opaque, but we trust Jesus, he seems nice, and so we leave everything behind and just walk away and follow him.  As Christians we get that; no biggie, Jesus is worth dropping everything else for, there’s no stubbornness amongst us to the voice of God calling us to discipleship.

In today’s set reading from the Christian traditions we find ourselves at the other end of Jesus’ mission to earth, and Paul’s explanation to the churches of Corinth how the resurrection works as a theological and soteriological truth.  In other, less-greeky words, how the facts and understandings we have around the resurrection make us think about God, and how they make us think about what it means to be “saved”.  Very recently, on Vision Radio in fact (which is broadcast on 88.0 FM into Kaniva from a small box and a big aerial in my back yard), I heard someone describe 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 as a perfect distillation of the whole gospel.  It was a passing comment, with no further discussion, but I remembered it as I wrote this sermon down at 03:38 am this morning.  We have just heard the passage read, do we agree?  Is this all you need to know about Christian doctrine in one handy-to-open box, no easy payments, no postage and handling?  Indeed could we sum the whole Christian story up in one line, 1 Corinthians 15:3b-5a which plainly says that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures, and that he appeared to... well a lot of people actually.  That’s all you need to know isn’t it?  I’d argue no, that there is more to the whole gospel than that, but I acknowledge that any telling of the whole gospel must include that.  The thing is that in some ways this passage, what I’ve just read, is not actually the point of the paragraph you find it in.  The real point of 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 is found in 1 Corinthians 5:8-11, where Paul uses the brief nub of the gospel to explain how he too is an apostle, just like Cephas in 1 Corinthians 5:5, and the twelve also in 1 Corinthians 5:5, and the many living witnesses in 1 Corinthians 5:6, and James and all the “apostles” in 1 Corinthians 5:7.  So “yeah-yeah, yada-yada, died, buried, rose again, Jesus awesome” is there, but the point is that Paul is allowed to say that because he’s just as much a follower of God, and a bearer of divine ordination as Simon (aka Cephas), and by extension David and Isaiah.  Paul has been called; Paul is an apostle, an individually dispatched messenger of God’s light about Godself to a world in darkness.

So, that might have been a good place to move to a paragraph on how we apply Paul’s and Peter’s stewardship of the apostolate to our own lives, and how we too are called to carry light into the world.  I could say that even though God has not spoken to any of us like God spoke to Isaiah (in a vision in a temple), or Simon-Peter (literally as a flesh and blood man asking us for a favour after a long night at work), or Saul-Paul (blinded and yelled at in the middle of a highway on a multi-day road-trip), God still calls some of us to be witnesses and prophets today.  Paul may have been the last on his list to see Jesus in person and to be commissioned by a lordly figure in a vision, but he is not the last in all history: you need to watch and be ready for Jesus to appear in your dreams-slash-windscreen.  And all of that would be true, and neat, and good, and we could move on to the benediction and beverage service.  But we can’t do that: there’s a loose end.

So, yay! let’s get back to the awesome fun of finding hard questions.  Well, we’ve already found the hard question, and now we’ve put some shape around it to make the question even harder.  With all that Isaiah, David, Jesus, and Paul have said about God and the call of God to tell the good news of salvation, (case in point the cross and empty tomb), why did God send Isaiah to make the ninth century BC Israelites and Judahites resistant to that story?  If Christ died for all, and if Christ died for sin, why would God a) deliberately exclude Jews, and b) deliberately make them sin more badly so they would deserve the punishment already lined up?  God effectively says to Isaiah, “ look, I really want to smack them, but they don’t deserve it yet, so stir them up to rebellion and I’ll wait until I can really smack them so they stay smacked”.  I mean, where’s the grace?  Where’s the honour for the covenants with Abraham and with David?  And if the situation really is that dire for the people of God why does God make them wait another 800 years for the Messiah?  Don’t send Isaiah to harden their hearts LORD, send Jesus to redeem them!  I mean, you’d think God had never even opened a Bible the way this is going.

So, what’s the answer?  Anyone?  Do you need the question again?  The question is, with all that we know of God in Christ, and all that we know of David, Jesus, Peter and the twelve, and Paul, why did God send Isaiah to make the Israelites more naughty rather than more repentant, just so that God could snap them with a backhand as well?  So, what’s the answer?  Anyone?

Well what I’m going to do right now is keep you in suspense, but let you off the hook.  And I am also going to wrap up, so here’s the final paragraph.  As great and profound a question as that is, and would be on a Tuesday night, it’s not a question for Sunday morning.  A good teacher, a good pastor, a good preacher knows that.  And you don’t only have a good teacher, pastor and preacher, you have a great one.  You’re blessed.  No the question for a Sunday is, given all that, given David and Jesus and Paul and yada-yada-yada, how do you respond in Isaiah’s place when God calls you to prophetic witness and sends you to the Church with such a message of desolation.  Again, anyone?  You proclaim it.  For me the question is not why God wants to do this to my people, but how do I go about telling the leaders who need to know what God intends for us.

As your pastor let me say this: I know God is calling some of you to ministries of proclamation, and God is calling all of us to witness and fishing-for-men.  So, whatever God tells you to tell me, and to tell us, please just tell us.  Be brave, for The LORD your God is with you.

Amen.

How do we care?

This is the text of my ministry message for the newsheet at KSSM for February 2019.

That’s an interesting question I think, “How do we care?” because there are many answers.  I have been thinking about it in preparation for some appointments I have in February.

In my previous churches in Gippsland pastoral care was one of the things the people wanted me to teach them about.  I was in a supply role, preaching every Sunday and doing some visiting one day a week, and I was asked whether I could run a Q&A for the congregation on what I do and how I do it.  Sadly time never allowed for that even; my diary was too full with visits to the aged care facility and to people’s homes for me to set aside time to explain my work, but “how do we care” as a request for training in care is a great question to ask.

In my previous job in South Australia pastoral care was the key aspect of the work: I was a “Christian Pastoral Care Worker” in a school and on-the-spot care rather than evangelism was what I was supposed to do.  That occurred often in by sitting outside classrooms with a kid who needed to “take 5” because of something happening in his life right then, or “just being there” unobtrusively in the classroom for the same kid.  That role led me to work as a speaker with Beyond Blue, a job I still do and will be doing at Lameroo on 7th February.

How do you care?

Damien.

Relay

Recently I was reading an article about church leadership, the gist of which was that any pastor at any given time does not have the task to lead the local church from A to Z, rather from A to B.  The preferred outcome of that gist seems obvious; it is not the work of one man or woman to do the whole journey in the space of one pastoral placement, and this needs to be understood by the pastor and the people.  For me, where and when I am (here and now) I should be encouraged by the thought that I have at least three years in my current placement to get from A to B; there is nothing to panic about, and anyway the goal is only B and not Z.

But I don’t like that, not one bit, and here’s why.  The churches that I pastor each have a century or more of history behind them.  Kaniva and Serviceton are nineteenth century settlements, and the Methodists and the Churches of Christ were present as believers gathering in homes well before the church buildings we meet in today were erected.  So why am I getting the people to move from A to B?  Seriously, after 130 years of continuous presence and ministry I would hope that at the very least I’m responsible for moving the churches from J to K, or maybe even R to S, or even T.  A to B?  No, no, no, that should have been done a hundred years ago.

The point is more than semantics about the metaphor of alphabet, the point is that the church in this generation, (so all the Christians active today regardless of when they were born), is part way through a relay toward establishing the Reign of God in The Wimmera/Tatiara.  We are not called to reinvent the wheel but to change the tyres (or bearings) if they’re worn.  The race has already started and we gain nothing by going back to the start every time there’s a new minister arrived.  Let us continue the race with the baton handed to us by those who have died, and let us run forward until with our final breath we pass the baton to those not yet alive.  Let us today prepare to launch tomorrow the church of M and N, or U and V, or maybe even Z.  But not C, the church of C is surely in our past.