Eternal Happiness 2

This is the text of the message I prepared for Serviceton Shared Ministry for Sunday 9th February 2020.  It is modified from the message I prepared for Kaniva in that Serviceton was having its Sunday School picnic, an outside event with lots of children present.  This message was in no way dumbed-down, but it has been childed-up.

Psalm 112:1-9; 1 Corinthians 2:1:-12; Matthew 5:13-20

A lot of the Bible is made up of what people who speak Hebrew call “Midrashim” (eww, that sounds like a red and sore tummy!) and in English we call commentary or interpretation. Usually this is a bit like a sermon where a teacher (rabbi) takes a Bible reading and then explains what it means and gives an example about its usefulness for his or her disciples. So maybe Psalm 112 which we looked at today is a midrash of Psalm 111:10 where it says [t]he fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice them have a good understanding, because we read in Psalm 112:1, [h]appy is [the one] who fears the LORD, the one who delights in his commandments. We can ask what is so happy about these people and what blessings come on them, and then we hear the answer that their children will be winners, happy and shiny for starters. In other words the children of God’s people have good reputations. But even in their own lives the people who respect God will have God’s grace and compassion, because even in darkness light dawns says Psalm 112:4. Things are good if you behave like God behaves and you stick with God even in the hard times. People who do this will be generous and other people will think and say good things about them.

Well that sounds good, but what exactly are these nice people doing? How is their religion helping them to be good people? I don’t think it’s actually about trying to obey the Ten Commandments like rules, but about realising that they are good advice: so it’s not about trying very hard to obey God because you’ll get a smack if you don’t, but about being grown up about it and thinking that these rules are actually good anyway. If you are polite and friendly then people will treat you well and you’ll have lots of friends; if you’re a bully or a sneaky person then people won’t like you and you’ll be left out, whether you are religious or not. Try to act like Jesus, behave kindly, and you will be popular with the people who like kindness, and hopefully people will think nice things about you. That doesn’t mean that you can just be nice and ignore God’s word, but it means if you focus on being nice and acting like Jesus acted then you’ll be following God anyway. So it’s not about trying not to be naughty, because you should try, but it’s more about always trying to be good, because if you focus on being good all the time then you won’t be naughty anyway.

In the next few weeks we’re going to be reading about Paul and how he tried to gently teach the Christians in Corinth to act more like Jesus, less like snobby religious people or puffed up smarty-pantses. If you look at 1 Corinthians 2:1-3 you can see that Paul says, “you all know that I am actually quite clever, but I tried not to act like a smarty-pants when I visited you. My whole message was about Christ who lives the same way God lives, even though Jesus was a real man, and so the best way for Christians to live is to try to live like Jesus, and that’s it.” I really hope you’ve heard me say that too. I know I’ve told you that I went to four university degrees, but I told you that not because I’m a snob about being clever but because when I lived my life I spent a lot of time at school, so that’s part of my story and who I am. But my sermons aren’t supposed to be about how clever Damien is, no what I want you to learn is that Jesus is nice, God is like Jesus, and God wants us to act like Jesus in the world. Be nice: that’s the midrash for you about the whole Bible. It’s true that the Bible says other things, my midrash doesn’t include the message about salvation, but I have just told you everything you need to know about being a disciple. Act like Jesus, because when you look at Jesus you is actually see what God is like.

So, let’s see what Paul actually says here. We jump in at 1 Corinthians 2:6 where Paul begins to use the wisdom he has to speak to clever people on their level. The message of the gospel is very simple, God loves you and you should love each other. It sounds easy, but those words are wiser than anything Professor Wisey McWiseface ever wrote or said. “Clever as they are,” says Paul in 1 Corinthians 2:8, “they don’t get it.” Jesus, who was God as a person, taught that people who want to be most like God should be loving and generous, and the world’s leaders killed him because he said it. There is a word for that sort of behaviour and “wise” is its opposite, says Paul.

When we look at 1 Corinthians 2:9-10 we can see that God has such brilliance in store for the people who are like Jesus that it makes the Wisey McWisefaces upset. But Paul keeps going and he says in 1 Corinthians 2:11 that they are the foolish ones, because God says in 1 Corinthians 2:11b-12 “let me tell you who you really are and what you are really like.”

In the words of Jesus which are in Matthew 5:1-12 Jesus describes eight groups of people that he calls “blessed”. In one church, I used to belong to our pastor used to define “blessed” as “happy and to be envied”; I think that fits very well. People who follow Jesus and act like him are happy, and they are to be envied. We can read in Matthew 5:13-16 where Jesus said his disciples are like salt and light on the earth, in a looking and tasting example of God. Our job as disciples, like it was for Jesus personal friends 2000 years ago, is to live a life that reminds people what God is really like. When we think about the people Jesus was talking about we can see that God responded to them by recognising how they were:

Matthew 5:3 declaring their need for spiritual insight;

Matthew 5:4 declaring their need for spiritual comfort;

Matthew 5:5 declaring their need for spiritual strength;

Matthew 5:6 declaring their desire to see the way of God become universal in the world;

Matthew 5:7-11 declaring their love for God and the ways of God even when they are actively and viciously opposed.

Jesus promised that Heaven would come to you (and you would go to Heaven) because if you are being treated like the prophets of old then you’re probably showing people God’s life like they did, and also making the world think about its lack of goodness. Keep bringing up God-colour and God-flavour wherever your life is: talk about how the Ten Commandments are promises that God ill lift you up and keep you safe. We can say that Jesus is teaching a midrash about religion here: “everything is valid” he says, “as long as you think about it in the right way.” And what is the right way? Well behave like God does, with kindness and love. In Genesis 1 it says that all people were created in the image and likeness of God, so just go back to being normal like God made you with your behaviour and your attitude. Be generous, be wise about God, act with righteousness because if you’re being attacked it’s only because your example is making the wicked upset about their own wickedness. The way the world does things is not normal says the Bible: it’s not normal to the stingy, conceited, or self-interested, it’s normal to be like Jesus. So, be yourself, the person God made you to be.

Amen.

Just Visiting

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Advent of Loss: 2 (Blue Christmas)

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

John 1:1-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Were we even given a choice? (WWHS)

This is the text of the message I prepared for Kaniva Day Centre (WWHS) for the chapel service on Tuesday 10th December 2019.  This was the final service for 2019.

Luke 1:26-38

Today’s story is often told on 25th March, or at least the Sunday closest to it, and it is the story that some Christian traditions call “The Annunciation” and other Christian traditions seem to ignore. It is the story of Gabriel coming to a twelve year old peasant, Mary, with the news of Emmanuel and her role in the LORD’s own coming.

Well, there’s a lot that can be said about this episode, and a lot has been said, on various 25th of March in years past. So this morning, 10th December of all days, I want to focus on one thing. Or rather not a thing but a person: a man. Joseph.

Every year it annoys me that I can’t remember what it was called, because I’d love to find it and be able to have a copy. Anyway, about 15 years ago while I was living in England, the BBC put on a story of the Passion, a mini-series which they had made, and it was shown on BBC One at Easter. In a particular episode the adult Jesus is talking with Mary, and he’s explaining what God is calling him towards in the coming week, so the crucifixion and all that. However distressing it is for Mary, she must understand that he must follow the will of The Father. You can imagine it, “yeah sorry Mum, but God says there’s a cross for me Friday week, and you’ll just have to accept it because I’m the Christ, yeah”. It’s not quite that direct, or Cockney, but anyway the important thing is what Mary responds with, and this I remember pretty much verbatim. She says “don’t you presume to tell me what the will of The Father entails, I know the call of The Father. Don’t you think, can you even imagine, what if Joseph had said no.”

What if Joseph had said no.

Not everyone who is called by God, not even everyone who is specifically and uniquely set aside by God, follows God. Think of Jonah who was called east and so he went west. Think of all the kings of Israel and Judah who inherited the throne promised to David’s line (and in Judah they were David’s grandsons) but who did evil in the LORD’s sight. We are blessed that Mary said yes, and her song Magnificat expresses the depth of her yes. In Luke’s gospel account Joseph doesn’t get a say, Mary meets Gabriel and the next thing she’s at Elizabeth’s house for six months. It’s only in Matthew 1:18-25 that we are told that Joseph has the opportunity to do the honourable thing and divorce Mary, (so that she can then marry the unborn child’s real father before it’s too late), and God’s messenger tells him the real story. We are blessed that Joseph said yes, and that Joseph did not say no.

What then happens within Mary’s body we are not expressly told. Did God fertilise one of Mary’s ova, or was Emmanuel a fully established zygote implanted in Mary as a surrogate? We know Joseph had no part in this, but I wonder whether Jesus actually looked like his dad growing up. I look like my father, and I have a baby nephew who looks like me because he looks like his mum, my sister. Jesus could have looked like anyone really, if he wasn’t genetically the son of his parents. That’s a bit deeper than we need to go now, the nature of the incarnation and the form that God The Son took as The Son of Man has been argued for as long as Jesus has been proclaimed LORD. But I’d like to think that Jesus bore a family resemblance to his dad and mum, and to his younger brothers and sisters; not because it matters to theology or salvation doctrine but just because in a world where Joseph might have said no, God said yes and gave the Carpenters of Nazareth a boy who fitted in.

But it is a little bit important, I think. Not significant for salvation, Jesus could have been angelically blonde and blue eyed and his death as messiah still would have cured our sins. But significant in that we can trust God to do right by us when we place our lives in God’s hands to do God’s will. God chose Mary, and by choosing Mary God also chose Joseph, and in choosing Joseph God did not set him up for embarrassment by allowing Mary to give birth to a boy so remarkable that he was obviously not the son of Joseph, setting off a scandal.

The story of the annunciation is the story of a trustworthy, faithful God. It is safe to follow The LORD’s leading, God will not abandon you to shame and God is considerate of what you will face in God’s name. This is not to say that discipleship is easy, Jesus died and Mary watched it happen, but God was kind as far as God could be, and the story of God with us, Emmanuel, remains so. God gets what it is to live amongst men and women, Jesus lived amongst men and women, and God has got your back if you have got God’s mission.

Amen.

Celebrating The City (Pentecost 18C)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

A Rite of Welcome

Good morning Church: know that you are welcome.
 
Know that you are welcome if this is your first time among us,
or your first time in a long time
or your first time since last week.
Know that you are welcome if you have been here since 8:59
or 9:29
or you’re not here yet but are on your way.
Know that you are welcome if you have arrived with peace,
or you have arrived with rush,
or you have not arrived at all.
Know that you are welcome if you have come alone,
or with friends,
or with family, including an untidy child.
Good morning Church: know that you are welcome.

Useful

This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM for Sunday 8th September 2019, the thirteenth Sunday in Pentecost.  I used only one of the four lectionary readings, so this is a sermon on the entire letter to Philemon.

Philemon 1-21

Paul’s letter to Philemon may seem like an odd text upon which to preach, I mean, what does it actually say about anything? It’s more like the sort of message you’d leave on voicemail than an epistle of scripture, don’t you think? “Yeah hi Phil, it’s me, Paul here. Yeah mate your brother’s actually here and says he’s been a bit of a ratbag. Has he? Yeah, well anyway he’s on his way back to P-town now so if you could just be kind to him that’d be great, ‘cos it sounds like he’s had a bit of a rough trot. And look, if he has caused some actual damage then, yeah, just fix it up and send us the bill. Or you could just knock it off the tab you owe me, yeah, ha. Anyway, cheers mate. Oh, and Ephaphras and the mob they say g’day too, yeah. Uhm, yeah, so righto, seeya-mate-bye.” Hmm, hardly words to build you life on are they? I mean, you won’t find anything from Philemon on a coffee mug at Koorong.

So why do we have it? Why’s it in the Lectionary for today, and why’s it even in the Bible? If you’ve done any sort of study in New Testament at a Bible College you will know that there are other letters and gospels that didn’t make it into the New Testament. Things like Didache which means “The Teaching” and is a basic summary of Christian doctrine of salvation against the life of sin, like a two column breakdown, followed by instructions around how to run a worship service, I mean, that’d be helpful. Or The Acts of Peter since what we actually have as The Acts of The Apostles is really just the activities of Paul after Acts 9; again you’d think that’d be a useful read. So, how come something like The Letter of Polycarp to the Philippians didn’t make it in, but this letter to Philemon of Colossae did? The reasons why Philemon is in the Bible and Polycarp isn’t might become clear, but really it’s the reasons why Philemon is in church today rather than more from Hebrews is what I want to talk about.

One of the key things we know about Philemon as a letter is that Paul wrote it. Unlike many of the letters with Paul’s name attached to them, some which are probably not his actual work and three which are definitely not his at all, Philemon is agreed to be genuinely from Paul’s own hand, or at least his dictation to a scribe. So that counts for something, indeed that’s the key reason why Philemon is in the Bible, because Paul actually did write it. (We don’t know who wrote Didache, but we know it wasn’t an apostle. Actually we don’t know who wrote Hebrews either, but it probably was an apostle.)

Paul very likely wrote this letter from gaol in Ephesus, so that puts it around 56 AD and it puts Paul in his mid forties, so around my age. This is very early in the history of Christianity, it’s foundational stuff in that it is some of the first stuff written down and it is being written down personally by the actual founders of Christianity. (I say “founders” plural because Timothy has a hand in this, see it in Philemon 1a.) It’s also personal correspondence, we get the idea that Paul and Philemon are friends if not colleagues, and Apphia and Archippus are Philemon’s wife and adult son. The letter is actually addressed to a house church of which Philemon is the leader and the host; so even though it’s personal correspondence it’s not actually private. Paul writes to the group, via the dad, to teach them all something about Christian fellowship and the central place of reconciliation in the gospel story.

There are varying opinions about who Onesimus was with regard to Philemon. Most scholarship suggests that Onesimus was a slave of Philemon, but not all scholars agree. One key set of scholars present that Onesimus is actually Philemon’s younger brother, maybe like the prodigal from the gospels. Regardless of the foundation of the relationship the facts are that the relationship has been strained or even broken: when Paul sends Onesimus back he does so with the hope that he and Philemon will be reconciled. Maybe they were brothers, but even if they were not they are now Brothers-in-Christ, and that is what Paul wants to say to that little fellowship in Colossae.

So what is Paul saying? Well, we can start by saying that whatever Paul is saying he is not saying it with arrogance. “I could demand this of you as an apostle and a prophet, Philemon”, says Paul in Philemon 8, “but I’d rather appeal to your good conscience and the outworking of your discipleship as my Brother-in-Christ”. Remember that this is way way early in Christianity and Paul has never been to Colossae; he seems to know Philemon, so maybe they met elsewhere, maybe even in Ephesus before Paul was gaoled. So this is making-it-up-as-we-go-along stuff, where the theory of brothers- and sisters-in-Christ and the story of Jesus in Luke 8:21 where him saying these are my brothers and sisters, the ones who do my Father’s will, and even the prodigal’s parable of Luke 15:11-32, have been told around the fellowship but not yet written down. This might be the first time any of them has actually had to do the hard work of reconciling a broken human relationship, in the name of a new kind of Christian relationship, where everyone is family. What does it mean, how does it actually work when all men are brothers even (and not sixth cousins), and returned slaves and prodigals are to be welcomed. What, exactly, is Philemon supposed to do when Onesimus arrives, and stays, and participates in fellowship around the table? Well, here’s some tips from Paul, glory be to God.

So, again, (get to the point Damien), what is Paul saying? Well here’s a list, to stop me getting side-tracked.

1. According to Philemon 6-7 Paul is saying that Christian life is fundamentally and foundationally a life lived together: Christian fellowship is partnership. As local Christians we are to do more than associate together, we are to move beyond casual (and even regular) socialising and into businesslike association for the Gospel but also for our strength. Unity is not optional, we are to do it in groups, and we are to hold each other up. This is love from the guts stuff, which is why it hurts so much when we are betrayed by another Christian. But it’s supposed to hurt, (so don’t betray, stay.)

2. According to Philemon 10-16 Paul is saying that Christian life is fundamentally and foundationally set upon the bedrock of reconciliation. The work of the Church very much includes mediation within itself, the unity of believers is not just about everyone sucking-it-up and walking around on broken toes. We live together as siblings, and our close quarters often means that others will be hurt. When hurt occurs don’t ignore it and don’t shake it off, don’t hand around teaspoons full of cement and tell each princess to harden herself up; actively seek restoration and healing, including (but not limited to) forgiveness.

3. According to Philemon 12-22 Paul is saying that Christian life is fundamentally and foundationally about mutual obligation. Living in unity, actively welcoming and rehabilitating trespassers and those who have been trespassed upon, requires everyone working and them working together. It is within the rights and responsibilities of leaders to tell followers what to do, we have leaders so that the work is co-ordinated according to the shared goal and the talents and input of each person: but it’s so much better if everyone just gets on with his or her work for Christ out of love and obedience to him. Again, get your guts in the game and give God your best; don’t wait to be told what to do when you already know what to do, and you’re confident enough to go with God in trust and faith. I believe my job as a leader here is to help you when you get stuck, and to train you for what comes next: I’m not here to micro-manage what God has given you to do because of God’s trust in you. Don’t wait for me to tell you, just go for it!

You are now Christians, says Paul, and Onesimus has joined us as a brother-in-Christ. As Christians please do the hard work of welcoming the young man home with a prodigious welcome: and live together, heal together, and pull together. That’s how churches work, and how churches grow. I reckon that’s a pretty good message and I’m stoked that Philemon is in the Bible. I’d have liked Didache in there too, and to be honest some of Clement’s stuff (Clement was the fourth pope), and Polycarp’s story (he was bishop in Smyrna, the same Smyrna we read about in Revelation 2, and he was possibly appointed bishop by John himself), are excellent reading too, but then you can buy those in Penguin Classics if you’re really interested.

So, the message is the same for us as local Christians. As two parts of the six-part Church in Kaniva and Serviceton, and the local branches/franchises of the Uniting Church in Australia and the Churches of Christ in Victoria and Tasmania, we have committed ourselves to building the Church in our towns. We’re not here solely for friendship or to be seen with the in-crowd, the days of people attending church for just that are long gone. No, we’re here to work, and if we are serious as I believe we are then the message is clear: do the hard work of welcoming the lost and wayward, welcome them each home with abundant welcome. For those who come in and for those who are here now, the message of God through Paul is that we live together, heal together, and pull together in unity. That’s how our churches will grow.

And with God’s help, we will.

Amen.