Oh whatevs!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Damien.

Love in a time of Coronavirus

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

Psalm 23

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Good Things Happen in The Good Country

This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM for Sunday 8th March 2020.  It was a combined service for Kaniva and Serviceton congregations at Serviceton for the celebration of our Harvest Sunday.  Kaniva and Serviceton are farming communities and there are primary producers in our congregations.

Deuteronomy 24:19-22; Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Ruth 1:22

The harvest stories told in the Bible are stories of God’s salvation. There are multiple harvests named in the Bible, which is probably no surprise to the farmers amongst us. Wheat was harvested first and according to Exodus 34:22 this was to be celebrated in Spring, when it happened. Seven weeks later is the harvest of barley and we are told in Ruth 1:22 that it was during this harvest festival that Naomi arrived in Bethlehem from Moab. In late summer, (September) came the fruit harvest which is also a cause for celebration according to Exodus 34:22, and it is this event which we read about in Deuteronomy 26:1-11. The loud message is that God is going to provide such an abundance in the Promised Land, from the Land itself, that God’s people had better get ready to say thank you a lot. To be an Israelite in the future (the future from Moses) is to be a recipient of God’s promise of care and the complete benefit of that providence. Never forget whose you are: you are The LORD’s own family.

More than masses of crop the harvest story told by Moses in Deuteronomy 26:1-11 is a story of salvation. It is true that God promises provision through the sweat of the brow and the tilling of the land by Hebrew farmers, but in the history of the people from Jacob to Moses and into the future we learn that this bounty will be for all, including aliens (outsiders) and Levites (while collar workers). The history of the Hebrew people is dated from the “wandering Aramean”, literally the vulnerable climate-refugee who was made destitute by famine: so when Israel’s people return to the land of Jacob they must remember the destitute they find there or who later come there as refugees from other places. As a nation saved by grace, actually fed and watered by The LORD’s own provision in Egypt, it will never be appropriate for Israel to withhold the same from anyone who comes into their land looking for help. Never forget whose you are: you are The LORD’s own ministers.

The commentary I used this week suggests that this passage was edited together late in Israel’s history, possibly around the time of the exile to Babylon or at the very least a time when invasion and occupation by a militarily stronger foe seemed immanent. In this case the return to the covenant and its specific stipulation on charity and compassion would have reminded Israel that they were indeed The LORD’s own people: that The LORD Godself had their back if they remained in covenant with The LORD and the mission of being God’s light to the nations. “Are you being faithful to the covenant?” The LORD asks in the background, “so, if I were to come down and take a look around I would not find poverty and destitution in your streets, yeah?” The land was given by The LORD as a demonstration of grace, and as a visible example for all the nations of what God desires (mercy) and how God blesses (shalom) when God’s ways are honoured. If Israel fails in generosity then God will withhold the abundance, thereby making the same point in a negative way. This is what Israel and Judah were facing as this history was written, what would they do to keep on the side of God? Would they close ranks and resist the Babylonians, or would they open their arms and welcome the asylum seekers and war-torn refugees with grace and food? And what about internally: would they ensure that no Israelite ever went hungry or sick or naked or alone, would they ensure that the women and men set aside by God as priests and worship leaders were fed and housed as well as the farmers and labourers who grew the food and built the houses? The tithe was not just a token payment, without the tithe there was no welfare for the destitute and no support for the priests and worship leaders: without the tithe there was increased poverty and decreased praise for The LORD. What sort of Holy Nation lets its priests starve because they are focused on national worship and can’t farm for themselves? Why would The LORD continue to bless that nation, why wouldn’t The LORD leave them to fall over as an example of the consequences of breaking covenant, while choosing a new nation to serve God’s purposes of demonstrating compassion in the world?

This is why in Ruth’s story and in Deuteronomy 24:19-22 we read that reaping right to the edge was forbidden. The LORD’s provision is for all who need to eat, so even if you grew it that doesn’t mean it’s all yours to eat or to sell. At the same time, if you didn’t grow it you still need to go and gather it yourself if you want to eat it: welfare for the whole community must discourage laziness as much as it condemns selfishness. The priests are fed because they work elsewhere at priesting; the poor are fed so that they can return to health and to work. This is why harvest festivals were to be big and loud community events, because they were community celebrations where everyone gets to eat because every kinsperson played a role in bringing it in. In celebrating the covenant between God and people every time the food was brought in to the storehouse the nation was reminded that in this covenant there is sufficiency for all, even for those whose work never sees them get dirt under their fingernails.

The harvest story told about Ruth is another story of God’s salvation. It is a story of the resilience of women (of faith) working in solidarity, and how God blesses the faithful and upright. In Tanakh Ruth follows Proverbs, she is perhaps the living example of eshet chayil, the Proverbs 31 woman of noble character, virtuous and industrious. Once more God is shown as concerned about the day-to-day lives of ordinary people, even widows who are not Israelite. God is actively involved in directing the play and the accidents of right place at the right time. God drives the women’s movement from emptiness to fullness: God is both guide and provider.

In practical terms the stories of redemption in Ruth are stories of restoration. By keeping Naomi close to her Ruth is able to restore to her mother-in-law all that is legally hers which was lost in Moab with the death of her husband and sons, and the ensuing famine. Boaz is the man of the moment, the man who has the covenant responsibility through family to care for Naomi, and like God with Israel he is faithful and complete in his care for the destitute and depressed widow. What Boaz does is contractual and familial, it’s the moral and legal thing to do and there’s nothing specifically religious in it beyond the underlying culture of Israel. However in using this as an example of the right and holy way to live as Israelites the point is made that God also acts as family to us and as a covenant partner. What God does is moral and legal because God is Father, God has chosen to obligate Godself here: how we shall respond as the redeemed sons and daughters is one question posed by the story. At this harvest we are like Naomi, our redemption is brought about by someone else’s grace and not by our own deserving: again, how shall we respond?

In modern Jewish tradition, by modern I mean since about the year 150AD, Ruth is read at Shavuot which is the Festival of Weeks held at the traditional time of Israel’s barley harvest. (That’s Pentecost in the Christian calendar.) The book is interpreted with two key themes; loyalty, and the movement from emptiness to fullness. Ruth begins with a famine in Judah, then the desolation of Naomi’s family in Moab and her vulnerability as she returns to Bethlehem…which is now in full harvest mode and topped off by the provision of Boaz the magnificent young man. Naomi is loyal, Ruth is loyal, Boaz is loyal, The God of Israel is loyal; and the tale which begins in famine and widowing at Ruth 1:5 culminates in a post-wedding pregnancy in Ruth 4:17. A story which begins with death ends with birth, passing through the desperate times where Naomi says in Ruth 1:21 that she went away full, but The LORD has brought me back empty. God’s promise to us in this harvest season is that our story will never end at 1:21, because just like Naomi even when we return empty we return to a land bursting with grain. Indeed, the name Bethlehem means “House of Bread”.

In the Jesus traditions and Christian traditions harvest is used as a metaphor for divine action. Jesus speaks in Matthew 9:37-38 of a great harvest where the fields are ripe but the labourers are absent. In Revelation 14:15-16 weeding is going on, but there is reaping in James 3:18. God is still at work in the world, still honouring the covenant made to Abraham and repeated to Moses, still displaying all grace within God’s glory and the fullness of welcome to any who will answer the invitation to participate. I’m not going to touch on those metaphorical stories at all, partly because I’ve just hit the top of page five in this sermon, but also because I want to focus today on the reality of harvest and the actual events of bringing the crop into storage and then to distribution as food. The metaphors are good, packed with extra meaning in a place like the Tatiara, The Good Country, but they’re for another time.

The real story of the real harvest, more than the gleaning along the fence-line but the full heads from the middle of the fields, is that God provides because God has promised to provide. What we have is God’s own because whose we are is God’s own. Children are a harvest, and actual harvest, (just ask Job) and we are the reaping of what God planted in creation as well as metaphor. You are the abundance of God, and in delivering God’s promises to the Holy Nation you, God’s royal priesthood, are also the recipients of the bounty. This is fact, this is true, this is the theology of harvest. Now comes the application: the doing stuff, the questions for challenge.

1. How will you celebrate the harvest that is you and that has been delivered to you? What will your harvest festival look like, in your life, beyond today’s act of worship and the extortionate rates charged at auction in half an hour’s time?

2. How will you spend the harvest that is yours and that has been delivered to you? What effect will the abundance have in your life, beyond today’s act of worship and the extravagance of our festival today. You have an armful of blessing from God today, will you build a bigger barn, or will you set a longer table?

Amen.

Hit the road Abe! (WWHS)

Genesis 12:1-4

Today’s passage strikes me as quite a challenge. In the back half of Genesis 11 we are told some of the family tree of Abram, and how he is a descendant of Shem, the son of Noah. This why the people who are descended from Abram are called Semites or Semitic people, and to be anti-Jewish is to be Anti-Semitic. Anyway, Abram is Sumerian, from Sumer, and he was born and grew up in Ur. His father was 70 years old when Abram was born, and he lived to be 205. Now that’s a remarkable age, so maybe when we get to Abram later in the story only beginning his journey at 75 we mustn’t be overly surprised at such an “old” man, but even so I’m impressed by Abram.

I’m impressed by Abram because he finishes the job. We are told that Terah, Abram’s father and Lot’s grandfather, had set out from Ur to go to live in Canaan, but that he’d stopped short at the city of Haran. We don’t know why he stopped, maybe it’s because even for someone who will live to 205 he felt old. Abram was 75 when he set out from Haran, at which point Terah would have been 145, and we don’t know how long the family had stayed in Haran, but I think we can allow Terah some sit down time in this instance. Anyway, so Terah doesn’t make it to Canaan, and he dies in Haran,

And so in Genesis 12:1 we find God speaking to Abram, and God commands Abram to finish the trek. Abram doesn’t know at this point that he’s going on to Canaan, but he would have known that that is where Terah was going before the family stopped. Remember that Terah is still alive at this point, he’s 145 years old and has 60 more years in him. Abram also has a brother, Nahor, who he leaves behind in Haran, but he takes his nephew Lot, the son of his dead brother who, confusingly, is named Haran. Maybe Terah he’d stopped at Haran because it bore the name of his dead son? Maybe he saw that as a sign from the gods, or maybe he was just grief-stricken. Anyway where Terah had stopped Abram and Lot continued on…at some point.

So here’s the challenging bit. Having said that it wasn’t out of character for reasonably old me to be quite active in this family, Terah is 70 when he has Abram, and then sets out on his own journey at a point when Lot is old enough to be present (Terah’s grandson) it’s perhaps not as big a deal that Abram at 75 decides to listen to God and walk out of home and follow God to a new place. The challenging bit is the voice itself: who is The LORD who commands Abram to walk? Remember that Abram is not Jewish, he’s the ancestor of Isaac and Jacob, he’s about 600 years ahead of Moses, all of that Chosen People stuff is in the future. How does Abram know who he is talking with?

I think this is why Abram is such a hero of the faith, Jewish and Christian. He hears a voice pretty much out of nowhere, religiously speaking, and he takes those promises of patronage and benefit at face value. This is obviously some sort of god speaking with him, and so Abram goes. Did he talk it over with Terah? Maybe. The fact that Lot goes with him means that there was probably some family discussion, maybe there is some vicarious pleasure in Terah that Abram will fill his destiny in going to Canaan, if that is where this god will lead his son. And for Abram, who takes his nephew with him because he has no sons of his own to take, maybe the promise of descendants to occupy the land as a nation is not too far a stretch for him, even with Sarai childless to this point.

No wonder he is a model of our faith. Amen

Who May Abide? (WWHS)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the Active Retired group at Kaniva Hospital Day Centre (West Wimmera Health Service) for Tuesday 4th February 2020.

Psalm 15

Today’s psalm is a bit of a gift for me because it is one of my favourite passages of scripture. As a pastor I have lots of favourite passages; I know other ministers and preachers who have the same thing. Indeed most Christians have a favourite passage or two, so for those of us who read scripture for a living it seems straightforward that this would happen. But among the many that I like, Psalm 15 comes near the top and I am always happy when it appears in the lectionary.

Psalm 15:1 begins with a question, and depending upon which English translation you use the words say something like who shall dwell in your tabernacle, who shall live in your holy mountain, or words to that effect. I love the one which reads Lord who can rest in your tent, it sounds so welcoming and inviting; so much more than Lord, who dares to dwell with you, who presumes the privilege of being close to you, living next to you in your shining place of glory. You really know where you stand with each of those, yet both are translations into English from the Greek text used in the time of Jesus, how can they be so different?

I think the answer to that question, how can they be so different, comes back to how we think about God in the first place. One of the commentators I read suggested that Psalm 15 is David’s (earlier) version of the Beatitudes, and the lectionary seems to agree because this Psalm was matched with Matthew 5:1-12 last Sunday. How do you think of the Beatitudes, how do you think of the instructions here? Do you believe that God has set a minimum standard of perfection and that the only way to live in fellowship with God is to live a perfect life? Does this mean for you that imperfect people are kicked out of God’s tent and thrown down the mountain? Is it enough to try your best and rely on God to honour your effort? Or does salvation by grace through faith mean that you don’t have to try at all, and that God will save you and invite you in regardless? All of those options, and others besides them, have been offered by Christian scholars since the time of Jesus; and since it’s Christian scholars who translate the Bible into common languages they will let their bias-slash-theology-slash-interpretation show.

For example, the scholar who wrote who dares and who presumes has a very high view of God’s glory, and he (the scholar) is trying to encourage Christians to be passionate about their faith. The grace of God is not something to be taken for granted, something to be nonchalant about as if it’s your right or entitlement as an Israelite or Judahite. Or a Gentile sinner saved by grace we might add today. God is holy and you can’t just wander in to the Presence of The LORD like that, so this Psalm is full of majesty and challenge. If you want to enter God’s house then you need to be righteous and awestruck.

Yet there is a welcome in God’s grace, and a patience, and a reaching-down to meet the broken and the lost who is dead inside (and maybe outside) and completely unable to do anything. Here is where we can rest in God’s tent and then live in God’s house as people who have been rescued. What follows then is about how God transforms us as we learn the rules of the house, and take on the character of the host. Righteousness and awe are requirements, but they are attributes of those who already live in the house, they are not the tickets for access.

And this is why I like Psalm 15. I like it because it is the double story of how holy and righteous God is, The LORD Almighty, but in the same passage we find God The Father, fatherly in God’s meeting us in the gutter and taking us limp and bleeding into the tent for triage and then into the palace as adopted sons and daughters who become what God is, awe-inspiring and righteous, through the ministry of Christ and his grace.

Those who dwell in the place where God is, who are welcome in God’s presence are those who have been welcomed into God’s presence and who are attentive to God’s attributes so much that they are learning to emulate God’s character. By grace we are saved, and by love we are instructed to follow the Way of The LORD which is the best way to live. God’s desire for the Church is lives which the world recognises as good citizenship; blamelessness, truth-telling, incorruptible, generous, just, and steadfast in faith and obedience.

In my way of thinking, Psalm 15 is not primarily a challenge (although there is that), it is first and foremost a promise of who we are becoming so long as we stay close to Jesus. Amen.

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

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

Psalm 116

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Born is the King

This is the text of my message for Christmas Day 2019.  KSSM (Kaniva Uniting Church) hosted the eccumenical Christmas Day service in Kaniva.

Luke 2:1-14; Titus 3:4-7

Jesus is a truly puzzling figure in history, there really is nothing straightforward about him. The stories we tell about Jesus can be pretty simple, how he was born in a manger and died on a cross, how he fed 5000 men plus their wives and kids from a single lunch-pack, how he taught the rich to look after the poor and how he taught the poor to trust God. Not everyone is convinced that the stories are true, but the way the stories are told is pretty straightforward, it’s plain storytelling. But the puzzle comes in how believable the stories are, and what their deeper meaning is. I mean, how can a baby born in a food-trough be God? How can any baby born anywhere be God? Simple tales told simply, but baffling meanings.

The story of Jesus’ birth is pretty well know, even if you aren’t religious. In fact you can be religious in another religion, but if you live in Australia you’ve probably heard about the manger and the three kings and the shepherds and the little drummer boy and the angels from the realms of glory. The story as it is actually told by the Bible is a little bit different, mainly because there are three versions of Christmas in the Bible but Australia like the rest of the world tells only one, which is a sort of mish-mash of the three to form a complete story. In our story this morning, which is only the one from Luke 2, we are told that Joseph and Mary, who we met in Luke 1, have to travel from Nazareth where they live to Bethlehem which is Joseph’s family’s home town. It’s possible that Joseph has never been to Bethlehem and that his grandfather’s grandfather emigrated to Galilee a hundred years ago; it’s also possible he grew up there and moved to Nazareth to find work, either way it doesn’t matter because he has to go there now. So, Joseph and his pregnant wife walk down to Bethlehem over the course of a few days, (the Bible says nothing about a donkey), and Luke 2:6 tells us that while they were there the time came, and Mary was delivered of her firstborn, a son. It’s highly unlikely from this wording that our common idea of Christmas is correct: Joseph and Mary certainly did not arrive in Bethlehem just in time for the birth, but too late for a motel room, and that Mary was left to deliver her baby alone and in the car-park barely hours after arriving. More likely is that the couple arrived in plenty of time and were camping outside the village, probably with Joseph’s cousins and brothers and so forth who would also have had to go back to Bethlehem. When Mary began to feel the pangs of labour Joseph might have gone in to town to find a guesthouse for the night, just to be a bit more comfortable, and unable to offer them some space in the crowded upstairs part where the people slept the landlord offered Joseph a quiet corner in the downstairs room where the animals were kept. It strikes us as a bit primitive, but we’re talking 4BC here so it’s probably nothing really out of the ordinary for Joseph and his family.

So, Jesus’ actual birth was pretty normal in and of itself. The fact that his mother was a virgin and his conception was by The Holy Spirit is unique, but the boy in the manger isn’t terribly remarkable. Having said that, the remarkable kicks in a few hours later.

Back outside the village, most likely in a camp not dissimilar to that shared by Joseph’s extended family, is a mob of shepherds. So these guys are locals, and they’re doing their job. In Luke 2:8 we read that they are lying in the fields, as you do when you’re a shepherd and there’s no barn, but then as Luke 2:9 tells us the glory of The LORD shone around them, and they were terrified. The baby in the manger is the one they’re looking for, and when they find him they will know that good news has come. That’s all well and good, but the question I want to ask this morning is “why shepherds?” Well, why anyone really? I mean, why can’t the paparazzi just let Jesus grow up anonymously and then announce himself as an adult, when he’s ready? After all, that’s pretty much what happens in Mark and John where their stories begin with John the Baptist saying “hey, look over there”.

I think it is significant that we hear about Jesus’ birth, and that Heaven drew attention to it at the time with angels and stars and visiting Magi and shepherds. There’s a message in the baby, and that message is that when God chose to enter the world’s reality as a baby God was saying that there is no rush. Sometimes we’d love it if God would just zap! or kapow! stuff into being, especially if that means the destruction of evil or the triumph of good, but God does not work that way. Christmas shows us that God is careful and slow; not ponderous and creaky slow, but not slap-dash and hasty: God’s way is the way of growth and as those of you who are farmers know growth takes time, conditions, and care if it is to occur in the best way. In Luke 2:13-14 we read about the angels singing and so we have no doubt that this event, the one with the baby in the manger, is a God-directed event and that this child really is something special, someone special, indeed the most special someone there ever will be. And this someone is a baby, only hours old, so there will be years involved in the revealing of this plan, the unwrapping of God’s story which has begun its telling but has a long way to go until its conclusion.

The story which Christians tell about Jesus does not begin at Christmas and end at Easter. It doesn’t even begin at Annunciation and end at Ascension for those of you who know those events in our calendar. The story of Jesus begins before Creation and Genesis 1, and it’s still being told today: it hasn’t finished yet because Jesus is still going. And that story is not just the biography of a carpenter who grew up in the north of Israel but who was born and died in the south: the story of Christmas and the story of Christianity is the story of the angels in Luke 2:14, God is glorified in the exchanges of peace amongst and between humankind.

In Titus 3:4-7 we read Paul’s take on Jesus’ birth. This is not actually a Christmas story, but it does say that Jesus the man, who once was that baby, came as a representation of God’s goodness and mercy. Jesus was not a representative of God, Jesus was God in all that God is; however Paul especially draws attention to the characteristics of Jesus to tell us what God is like. God is good, loving, kind and merciful, and not that Paul says it but its obvious from these other characteristics, God is patient.

This Christmas morning as we rush home to presents, food, family, and the fun of the day (and don’t worry, I’m nearly finished preaching), it’s good to be reminded that God is patient and never rushed. God takes the time to love us, to protect us as we grow, and to be patient as we stumble along towards maturity. Jesus was active in ministry for between one and three years, depending how you read the Bible’s seasons, and these were the last years of his life. Jesus didn’t start preaching and healing until her turned 30, so he was 31 or 33 when he died, and then he was back to Heaven seven weeks later. God didn’t rush Jesus into action; God let Jesus grow up and learn a trade and get some life skills, and then Jesus did what he had to do as a teacher and a healer, an example to the world, and then he died as a sign of God’s love and then he rose again as a sign of God’s authority. Then Jesus went home. No rush, just a well placed, well-paced life.

Let’s remember Jesus the saviour, and God the patient one, this Christmas. Let’s take the time away from the tinsel, even if only a few minutes, and slow down and be present and notice where God has grown us up to and where God is pointing us toward. There’s no rush, there’s only breath and inertia, but let’s not miss the quiet and gentle movement forward by frantically sitting with the flashy and the noisy.

Celebrate with joy, the Lord is come: do you have space to receive him?

Amen.