How it is to be (Epiphany 7C)

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

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

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

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

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  This message has not been superseded or countermanded, and even though some of us are now at the chalkface of ministry, the reminder to come back to God between-times just to sit and be with God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

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

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

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

Am I moving too fast?  No?  Excellent.

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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The Good and Pleasantness

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Lakes Entrance Uniting Church for Sunday 20th August 2017.  It was a communion Sunday.

Genesis 45:1-15; Psalm 133; Matthew 15:21-28

The picture you see up there is a painting named “The Conciliation” and it was painted by Benjamin Duterrau around 1840.  The European man is George Augustus Robinson, Protector of Aborigines for Van Diemen’s Land, and the other mob are Palawa, the indigenous people of Trowenna as that island was known by its First People.  This painting is supposed to indicate the end of “the Black Wars” which ravaged Tasmania until 1831, where Robinson met with the last group of warriors and convinced them to accompany him to Hobart and meet with governor Arthur.  In one way, I like this painting: I like that is that it is entitled “The Conciliation” rather than “Reconciliation”.  This is the first time these two groups, the Palawa and the Riana (or white people), have been in harmony.  This image marks a new relationship of peace, not the restoration of an old one which was broken.  In many other ways, all dependent upon my being a sometime Tasmanian and a student of Van Demonian history, I find this painting shocking.  What you see there never happened, not like that anyway.

Today’s readings all point toward the theme of unity, and are predicated upon the idea of reconciliation.  The Psalmist speaks in Psalm 133 about “the blessedness of unity” as the NRSV translators would have it, and of the desire that all people might “live together in harmony” as my commentator Professor Toni Craven suggests.  Psalm 133:3 describes how God orders and bestows divine blessing where God finds unity expressed.  This blessing is doubly special because not only is it from God, but it is a blessing akin to ordination and consecration.  Furthermore, that blessing is the promise and strength of life for evermore.  God gives great favour on the people who live in harmony, guaranteeing them a long and fulfilling life while they maintain that state; and God derives great joy from such people.  In Hebrew, but sadly not in the English of the NIV or the NRSV this Psalm begins with the word “behold”, indicating that what was to follow would be something worth hearing.  This is one of those points in scripture where as a reader or hearer you want to take note of the message.  In this case the message is the benefits of unity.

Psalm 133 like many of the psalms we have read in the past months is a song of ascent.  Therefore, it is a prelude to collective worship: the sort of song you sing on your way to the temple as you prepare yourself to enter the worship space with a worshipping heart.  It is also a greeting which might be sung and echoed to and from fellow pilgrims you meet on your way up.  “How good it is!” you sing, “when brothers gather in unity!” comes the reply.  Stirring stuff.

The psalm also speaks of oil.  Olive oil was used for anointing, but also for healing.  Appointment to office and healing where it is needed are gifts from God, so is unity.  Where the people’s sin brought separation from God and from one another God desires to bring unity and to restore what was broken.  Continuing this thought there is no place for selfishness in unity.  Where God has called women and men together only those focussed on the task will complete the task, the selfish one looking for his or her own needs above the needs of the whole, or the one looking for fame, will destabilise the task.  The agenda of the people in unity can only be the saving work of the Church; otherwise the congregation becomes a Babel of confused messages and opinions.

Where once there was disunity and disharmony in the family of Jacob, Joseph is delighted to be reunited with his brothers.  Where hatred had led to harm and the intention to destroy God ensured that there would be life because the brothers have a second chance to live together.  Where there might have been death for Joseph as a slave where there might have been death for the brothers as the drought set in, now by the grace of God there will be abundant life.  Joseph chose not to hold on to past hurts but to use the outcome of his poor treatment to benefit his family, even the ones who hated and hurted him.  Joseph sends the brothers to live in the Nile Delta, the best irrigated and most fertile portion of Egypt.

So, let’s be clear: Joseph has chosen not to remember the pain of the past.  He had been humiliated and betrayed by his brothers while still a boy of seventeen.  He had been alone and no doubt frightened as a slave in the convoy of the Ishmaelites, and again as a prisoner of injustice after Potiphar’s wife accused him of attempted rape.  Even after he became Prime Minister of Egypt, and named his sons “God has caused me to forget my troubles” and “God has made me fruitful”, the tears he cries on Benjamin’s neck indicate a wall of emotion which has broken down in him.  It is this moment where he is finally released from the past, not the moment in which he was summoned from the gaol to speak with Pharaoh that first time.  Joseph’s suffering was broken by reconciliation, not by material wealth or unlimited power.  Indeed, the commentator I read for Genesis this week, J.M. Boice, suggests that Joseph remained fresh in his loving-kindness even after twenty-two years of exile from his family because he stayed close to God.  That is a great lesson for us: stay close to God.

Matthew and Mark both tell the story of Jesus speaking with a displaced indigenous woman, a Canaanite: today we might call her a Palestinian.  Matthew tells us in 15:23b that she’s annoying the disciples so much that they ask Jesus to send her away.  “Look,” they say, “just heal the daughter will you and then this woman can go.”   Jesus tells them that that is not going to happen because she is not an Israelite.  In other words, she is not part of the unity; where we are an “us” this woman is a “them” and “they” don’t get what God has given “us”.  So Jesus ignores her and her inappropriate claim upon his time and anointing.  When she speaks to him directly, having had no luck with the disciples, Jesus insults her.  “The Jews are the children of the master,” he says, “you are a dog and not worthy of what God has provided”.

That’s what Jesus said.

But in a quote worthy of Joseph, the one who endured imprisonment and exile by staying close to God the woman agrees with Jesus, but says that that is no reason to deprive her of her miracle.  “Yes, I am a dog,” she says, “but even dogs get leftovers in the master’s house”.  In other words, she is saying that while she does not have a set at the table, she is still within the house and a member of the household.  What a comeback, no wonder Jesus grants her her request.  Most commentators suggest that Jesus was baiting the woman to draw out this revelation.  Some scholars, a minority but a vocal minority, suggest that the human Jesus was challenged by the woman’s retort and that he learned something about the grace of God in that moment.  I can imagine Jesus turning to the disciples and saying, “you know, she’s right,” before sending her on her way with the words of Matthew 15:28.  And as we have discussed earlier in the year, she alongside only the Samaritan at the well and his own mother, is called “Woman” by Jesus.  Something profound occurred here, and even Jesus has had a shift in his understanding.  The Canaanite mother came as an outsider to the covenant of God conscious that only God could help her daughter.  Surely a God who is so generous to Israel, so generous that even the Canaanites can see it, can spare the leftovers for a mother desperate for her daughter.  Surely this is so even if the mother and her little girl are dogs?

As we move toward the high point of our service of worship and the gathering around this table as a place of unity, let us be mindful of the ones we might want to exclude in God’s name.  Ask yourself, as Jesus asked himself, to whom is God denying access to the blessings of God?  This table is open to the indigenous people of Australia, and not just because George Augustus Robinson made them put on shoes and learn to use cutlery.  But to whom is this table closed?  To whom is the promise of unity denied?

There is an answer to that question.  The table is closed to those who don’t have faith.  I’m not saying at all that the table is closed to people of different theology or none because of that theology, as if only Uniting Church members can have this feast.  But this table as a sign of God’s welcome is only accessible if you know God, and you believe yourself to be welcomed.  As we saw from Matthew’s story the Canaanite woman believed herself welcome to at least gather the leftovers, the God of Israel was not God of her because she was not an Israelite; but as Lord Almighty of the universe she had some rights as a creature.

Those who are not welcome at this table are those who exclude themselves.  If you don’t know you are welcome, why would you even come and risk the embarrassment of eviction?  Unity means that all are welcome, brothers and sisters alike, Israelite and Canaanite, Palawa and Riana, Koori and Anglo.

As we gather at this table today, let us agree that when next we gather at this table we will have invited those waiting for an invitation to participate in this act of unity.

Everything has been done.  Come, and bring a friend.

Come.

Amen.