Where There’s Smoke

This is the text of my ministry message for the September 2019 edition of The Vision, which is the quarterly newsletter of Kaniva & Serviceton Shared Ministry.

How many of you are purveyors of social media I don’t know, although I am aware that some of you are attached to Facebook and Twitter because you are connected with me on those platforms. You may then be aware via The News According to Twitface that several high profile Christians are declaring a loss of faith, or perhaps the realisation that there never was faith for them in the first place. Among the several is Marty Sampson, one time lead worshipper at Hillsong Church Sydney and lead singer with the band Hillsong United. A decade and a half ago Marty wrote the words: “I want to live, I want to love you more, I want to be used, Father, in all of the world, may your word be heard, and may it stay on my lips, to live what I speak, until your kingdom come”, (“Shine For You” © Hillsong Publishing, 2003). I remember this song fondly, and particularly this bridge as it has been my own prayer for some time, probably since 2004 when I was participating in Hillsong Church London. But for Marty all the shazam of Hillsong has not been enough, and he thinks (and says) that the issues within Christianity have put his faith on shaky ground. Marty has not renounced Christ, but he is expressing the raw honesty of a young man (he’s 40) struggling with a Bible which is self-contradicting, and a church which proclaims miracles as reality yet does not see them evident in worship contexts. His central soundbite is “no-one is talking about it”, suggesting that in his church experience the issues with Christianity are being ignored, or papered over.

Whether this is a legitimate critique of Hillsong Church or of Pentecostalism in general is not for me to say, but I do think it’s a fair point for Christianity in Australia. It is appropriate for us to look into our own church and not just point fingers at the happy-clappies (and jumpy-shouties). Is Kaniva and Serviceton Shared Ministry prepared to engage with going deeper into Christian doctrine: do we acknowledge Marty’s concerns and see what he sees? How are we addressing the struggles of believing and trusting a 2000 year old message, a message that includes talking donkeys and massacred enemies as “facts”? How do we answer Marty’s question about a God of grace and love who sends the majority of humans to a fiery, eternal Hell simply because they haven’t said a certain prayer at some point during their earthly life? Or do we just concentrate our attention on singing “All I need is you Lord”, (“All I Need Is You” ©Capitol Christian Music Group, 2005), louder and louder in an effort to shout down the screaming crescendo of doubt until such time as we find we actually do need more from Jesus than a bunch of unquestionable doctrines?

Inside KSSM right now doubt is welcome. (I wanted to say “under my ministry” but I’m not the “above” type of minister; however if you need your senior pastor to say that then he just did, even in brackets.) I do not want anyone drifting away from Christ because of unanswered questions, unaddressed fears, or squashed doubts. Curly questions are welcome in our family: trite answers are not. I think it sad, and more than sad, that Marty heard no-one addressing these concerns in his Christian home, (especially since I lived in that same home for six years and I did hear such conversation), but it would be for me an absolute tragedy if someone looking back at KSSM in 2019 from years in our future were to say the same.

Doubt is not the opposite of faith: doubt is a necessary part of faith, and doubt addressed is what creates trust. Without doubt there is only certainty, and certainty is the condition where learning stops happening and smugness and self-reliance set in. I have no interest in participating in a congregation which is smug and self-reliant, and I will resist with every part of my being the development of such a congregation where I am in leadership. In view of that the invitation stands: talk to me, ask me, bring The Spanish Inquisition if you must (so long as they bring coffee with them…), but do not be afraid or ashamed of your doubt or your questions. As your pastor I am primarily the one who is responsible for your spiritual care and your spiritual health, I am here to teach you and to love you: I hope you feel safe enough in my care to talk to me first before you walk out the door and leave church and/or faith behind.

My front door is always open so that the church’s back door is kept closed. Please stay.

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By Faith

This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM for Sunday 18th August 2019, the tenth Sunday in Pentecost.

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16, 29-12:2

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen: for it was by faith that our ancestors received approval. So we are told, in the phrasing of the New Revised Standard Version in Hebrews 11:1-2. This verse has been of great comfort and rousing sustenance for many, including me, but a nagging question has arisen for me in recent years, and especially in recent days: what exactly is faith? Specifically, what does this word mean in this case?

I have mentioned more times than I’d like to, and I’m name-dropping it here again, that the first of my four university degrees was in Sociolingustics. I mention this now, and all times previously, to tell you why it is that I am so nerdy about language. I’m a words-nerd, as well as a preaching-nerd, and I love the way that language works. In the way that some people get all sweaty about number patterns, or galaxies, or the intricate dance of sub-atomic particles I cannot get enough of how sounds and scribbles make meaning, and the different messages conveyed by the same words in different situations. So that’s me, and my personality, and my interest. So it’s not that I have a university degree in something the rest of you have never even heard of and that that is a reason for me to boast, no it’s an excuse for why I’m such a nerd about words. It’s an apology really; but probably less than full-hearted because here I am doing it again.

So, “faith”; what is this word and what does it mean in Hebrews 11 and in my-slash-our today?

Well, I have come to the conclusion that oftentimes when Biblical authors and editors write of faith the key outcome is always about trust or hope. Christian Faith (and Jewish Faith for that matter) is not about a list of doctrines or proofs for truth, faith is trust is the one who is inescapably more and who is therefore utterly dependable and trustworthy. This is why I like the way the New Revised Standard Version uses the phrase faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen because assurance and convictions are words about trust: whereas the more common (at least to my ears) phrasing that faith is the evidence of these things is more about proof of truth. So, maybe you are scientifically or mathematically minded and for you God is a puzzle to be solved or an equation to be…equated…whatever, and for you evidence is an important word. That’s fine, I’m not saying it isn’t. But for me, a sociolinguist (someone who looks at language as it is used in society) and a narratologist (someone who look at how stories are put together) God is a story to be read, and Christianity is an autobiography to be lived. I don’t look for evidence to prove a theory and make a law; I look for assurance and conviction to keep going toward the next chapter, it’s how I am.

I hope I haven’t lost you. Have I? No? Good. My point is that Christianity is a personal thing and God works with us, the us who we are not only as sinners in need of grace but women and men with unique personalities and distinct interests, and that because of that the words we use can have different implications depending upon where we have come from in life.

I believe truth. So there’s a statement for you, just in case you were wondering about all my talk of assurance rather than evidence. I have read where Jesus calls himself the Way, Truth, and Life, and I have assurance and conviction that Jesus is the Truth, and that if I follow Jesus and get close to him through discipleship then I will be where Truth is. So let me tell you something true, something I have found to be true by following Jesus for more than forty years.

The deepest truth of Christianity is that we are not saved by faith.

Wow, weren’t expecting that were you? Actually as the congregations where I preach regularly (or as readers of my blog, hello!!) you might well have been. No, here’s the tricky linguistic bit: we are saved by grace through faith.

The deepest truth of Christianity is that we are saved by grace.

This is actually the deepest truth of Judaism too, salvation by grace: Jews are saved simply because God chose Abraham (seemingly at random) and promised him the salvation of his descendants simply because God wanted to do it. Yes there were covenants and so forth, but the fact that Abram was offered a covenant out of nowhere, and no-one else in Sumer was offered such a covenant, is significant. The realisation of that promise came because of Abram’s response, and that story is summarised for us at Hebrews 11:8-12. The significance of that story today is that Abram knowing nothing about God, having no set doctrine or a Romans Road of Salvation set before him, chose to say “yes” and to trust the God who addressed him. Grace saved Abram, and he allowed himself to be saved by trusting the One who held out a hand to him.

So as for Abram and the heroes of Jewish History, so for us that salvation is entirely and solely through the free gift of God who is Father to us. Those of you hearing me this morning (or reading me later) and who are saved were not saved according to how well you acceded to doctrine, I mean how much of Christianity you believe to be true, or how complicit you are in the idea that faith is belief without evidence. No, salvation is by grace: and your part in it, the faith aspect, is that you trust that Jesus did it all on the cross and therefore there is nothing else you can do or say that will add to your salvation.

Salvation by grace means that no matter how else you try to save yourself you will fail: only the blood of Christ can save. Even if you are trying to save yourself through the work of belief and gathering evidence which demands a verdict in favour of The Gospel argument, that work in itself will not save you. God’s grace is not a trial to be won but a gift to be received, a gift which is all-sufficient and needs nothing else. Salvation by Christ’s blood needs no batteries, no patch, no 2.0, and neither does it need help from you or your creeds. As was read to us in Hebrews 11:13-16 there are options to return to safety and to stop trusting God, you may well have been there where it’s a bit “whoa God, slow down eh, this one’s too deep for me” and you are wondering whether God’s sat-nav is out when you’re slipping all over Kane Swamp Road all the while knowing that Yarrock Road is bitumen and would have got you there more safely. I think the point here is that God’s way is trustworthy, even if Subaru’s installation of Tom Tom and/or your own sense of direction and expediency is not. Jesus who is the Truth is also the Way after all. This is why assurance, in my thinking, is better than evidence.

But what about the legitimate place of evidence: I mean, just because I personally am a word-nerd it doesn’t make Science wrong. In other words, what’s the point of faith and creeds? Is there any point to these? Yes, the point of creeds and beliefs is discipleship; in other words how your salvation directs your life of gratitude and thanksgiving, and worship and service.

In Hebrews 11:29-12:2 we read a summary of a summary, how by faith (which is to say with complete trust in God’s goodness and ability) God’s people went from the condition of enslaved, landless Hebrews in Egypt to established Israelites in Israel with David of Judah as king. Look at the record of history and scripture, hear the traditions of the elders and scribes passed down in word and deed, remember how faithful God is and know, always know, that God is to be trusted. God is so good that God saved us by grace, and by God’s grace we live in confidence and trust that by God’s grace we will never be shamed or destroyed. It’s only when trust in God’s grace is misplaced and we try to save ourselves that things go pear-shaped: that is when we end up in a divided kingdom without an heir of David to reign over us, and then the whole twelve tribes end up landless and enslaved again, this time in Babylon, where Jeremiah waits for us with a wagging finger and a plaintive cry of “if only!!”

Trust-derived discipleship looks like many things for me, but here’s one as an example. I believe that I was created in the image of God, and I believe that because that’s what it says in Genesis 1:26. That belief won’t save me, Christ’s activity on the cross saved me, but the belief that I am God’s very own and that I was made by God in God’s own image for God’s own glory and delight directs how I live my life. As imago Dei I try to live as Christ would, if not entirely WWJD then at least following the character of the man revealed in the gospel accounts. And, perhaps more so, if I’m created imago Dei then so are you, and that belief which does not save me might save you because I’ll honour you as a child of God and a divine presence because of that. I’ll treat you as sacred, set apart by God to bear God’s image in the world; and I’ll treat you as precious and important, and I’ll tell you how special you are as imago Dei, the image of God, in case you’ve never been told that, or you once were told but now you’ve forgotten and you life looks more like Babylon than Jerusalem.

In Hebrews 12:1-2, which I remember was a memory verse for the Year Ten class at my Christian school in 1987 (but which I have forgotten enough that I can no longer recite it from memory), we are presented with a great image. The great cloud of witnesses has been compared to the end of the Olympic marathon where the final part of the race is a lap of the stadium. As you enter the stadium, having run forty one and a half kilometres to that point, you have five hundred and ninety five metres to go. That distance is one full lap of the stadium from the point where you entered, plus a home strait to the tape…or clock…whatever. Anyway the stadium is packed, and it is packed not with ticketed-spectators and corporate types in corporate boxes, no it is packed with those who have already finished the race. And they are going absolutely American on your behalf. Man, they are hollerin’, they are shootin’ in the air, they are whoopin’ and singin’ and chantin’ and dancin’, and U-S-A! they chant U-S-A! Now, of course, you’ve been trained by a sociolinguist so you hear what they are supposed to be chanting and not the confused babble that they are chanting…they’re saying U-S-A but what they mean is A-U-S. Regardless, it’s all for you…Oi oi oi!

Why this? Because it’s true. Those who trusted God finished the race, and the race did not finish them. They have run and they have won (because everyone who runs God’s race wins it when they finish) and they are so excited to be home that their joy bubbled out, spills all over the floor we heard last week, and they welcome you home with such abandon. This is our faith: our trust in God who alone is mighty to save, our hope in this God who is willing and capable to save, and our creeds and beliefs written down by those who went before us to cheer us on as they were cheered on so that everyone will finish.

You were saved by grace and you are constantly being saved by grace. You walk as the road goes through the wilderness, through pagan lands, through green fields and beside still waters, maybe you run through the valley of the shadow of death, (or maybe you tip-toe, just keep going forward), and on to the outskirts of the distant homeland (Hebrews 11:14), and through the shires and suburbs until you reach the place of completion where The Glorious One waits to crown you. Do you trust the One who runs with you? Run by grace, with trust.

Amen.

Rise in Power (Pentecost 5C)

This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM for Sunday 14th July 2019, the fifth Sunday in Pentecost in Year C.

Amos 7:7-17; Psalm 82; Colossians 1:1-14

The Word for this week has been a delight to peruse.  That sounds happy doesn’t it?  It’s a bit odd really though, because as you know I tend to write my services about three weeks or so ahead, and so even though I’d standing here in front of you today happy and hearty, if not a little dusty after a week at Family Camp with the Servi Church mob, when I actually wrote this I’d just spent a week feel less happy and hearty, and a lot more dusty fighting off my second bout of Man Flu for 2019.  I had missed an important church meeting in Ararat because I’d been a) too sick to want to get up at stupid o’clock and minus stupid degrees Celsius to drive there, b) too sick to be out in public where I might contagion all over other people and make them sick, and c) too sick to pay much attention to what was being said anyway.  I was even too sick to get a Flu jab.  So when I finally sat down on my first day out of bed before ten o’clock, “delighting in the text” wasn’t on the agenda so much as “get something down because you’re going to be at Camp and you’ll not have time to write then”.  It was also KSSM council that evening so not only did I have to get something written that day, I didn’t have all day to do it.  Praise God for great Bible passages and inspiring messages from the Word in all God’s forms.

In our reading from the Hebrew traditions we come across the prophet Amos.  Now when I say prophet that’s more about hindsight than highlight, because Amos was nobody special in his day, and even in the action of what we read this morning he’s still a bit of a nobody.  Anyway, in the course of his being a nobody Amos sees and hears God in the act of testing Israel: God is doing a prophetic thing wherein Israel is being compared to a well-built wall and God is checking the angles and edges with a plumb-line. Bad news for Israel, and for Amos who oversees the examination, God finds that the wall (and hence the nation) is askew and God declares that it shall all be knocked down.  The nation of Israel shall be utterly destroyed, its king shall be slain, and its people shall be exiled.  Israel is broken beyond repair, it cannot be repaired, it never will be repaired, and so God is going to knock it all over and start again.  Cheers for listening Amos, says God, now go and tell the Israelites.  Bad news for Amos eh?  Well yes it is, especially since the religious elites and the professional clergy don’t like all this defeatist language and they tell Amos to take his words of judgement and go pronounce them against some other nation; Judah for example.  He is to clear out of Bethel because Beit-El, literally the House of God is the royal worship space and the religious elites and the professional clergy don’t want the king to be upset.  Amos’ response is that even as a religious nobody God has called him to speak truth, mainly because the religious elites and the professional clergy don‘t listen for God, they refuse to hear and therefore they cannot speak God’s message, and that because of this the whole nation will fall.  So to put all of that into one dot point, God will speak to God’s own people, but if the professional listeners won’t listen then God will tell someone humble enough to listen yet bold enough to speak.  For me as a leader, even a leader with clogged ears and a blogged doze, I need to notice when I am no longer hearing God speak because it might mean God has stopped trying to get though my facade of priestliness and is speaking to one of you, or even one of them, instead.  Good to remember.

Inspiring eh?  Well it was for me in my week of weakness because it reminded me that God has not stopped speaking to the Church, even if God needs to speak through someone lower down the pyramid.

The Psalm we read this morning is a demand for justice, but it needs to be read carefully.  The first time I read it I missed it, I missed who it was who is actually doing the talking, I didn’t see the 66’s and 99’s where they are and I thought this was another one of those “how long must we wait O Lord” prayers.  You know the ones, c’mon Lord the wicked are getting richer, the faithful are getting poorer, and it’s your job to intervene.  Good stuff, worth praying, is usually relevant.  But not always, and not this time, no this time it’s Godself doing the “how long must I wait O people”, declaring that it’s about time the people of God started to punish sin and wickedness and to vindicate and liberate the innocent and the good of all classes and nations.  This passage is a covenant lawsuit, it’s a contractual claim by God as one party upon the elders and rulers of the Abrahamic tribes as the other party to hold up Israel’s side of the covenant.  “You know better, so why are you allowing this gut-rotting oppression and suppression by the wicked of the faithful to set in?” asks God.  Israel is supposed to be God’s example of a true nation, they’re meant to be just and peaceable and to display the nature and character of God in the world, but God has found them to be corrupt and violent, exploitative and cruel, and certainly no better than the other nations even if they aren’t actually worse.  God has set us apart to set an example for the world, the plumb-line was set against the Church at its inception so as to be a straight and true representation of God in the world and each of us agents of the Kingdom.  What has God seen of Christians in recent times?  Is the Church light and salt?  If not, why not, and what are we going to do about it?  And what would happen if we didn’t?  The connection between Amos 7 and Psalm 82 is the plumbline, not the outcome; I know that many within the wider Uniting Church in particular disagree with me on this, but I don’t think God is about to destroy us and exile us.  However I do think we have got wonky and shifty, and I believe we need God to call us back to order, to attention, to straightness and steadfastness, and we need to listen to those down in the ranks who are declaring the words of God because those at the top echelon are not listening.

Inspiring eh?  Well again yes, God is still speaking to the Church and God is calling us to account for our discipleship.  Our issue is not that we are failing to meet together or that we are not doing enough Bible Study, singing, tithing, or even evangelism, but that we are living in a dark and cold and cruel world and at the very least we are doing little to remedy it and at the very worst we look dark and cruel and cold ourselves.  God’s word to us is simple: love and be more loving in the way you go about it.  That’s a command I’m busting to follow.

Our story from the Christian tradition is the culmination of this push toward faithfulness as evidenced in the brightness of the light we shine.  In the opening thoughts of his letter Paul is thankful to God for the people of Colossae and especially the loving-kindness of the Colossian church (Colossians 1:4).  He speaks to them about their reputation particularly because he has never met them: Paul never went to Colossae, so he’s using his reputation as an apostle to presume to write to them, and he comments in opening on their reputation as a bit of an ice-breaker.  “Okay mob”, he says, “so we’ve never met each other, but we each know about the other and here’s what I know about you, your reputation is a good one and especially so in the areas of hospitality and hope.  I don’t know your actual names and I’ve never been to your town, let alone your church, but I do know this one fact about you, I know that not only have you heard the gospel you are now living it out.  Onya!  The gospel that is flowering all across Asia and Macedonia is flowering also in you: praise be to God and thanks be to Epaphras who told you about Jesus.  You listened, you learned, and now you are living and leading in life.  Onya!  And may the odds be ever in your favour, because trouble will come.”

The key characteristic of the Colossians seems to be their hope, that’s what Paul knuckles down on in his praise of them.  Not only do they love each other and not only are they diligent in the discipleship tasks of prayer and fellowship, they are keenly so as people with everlasting, abundant hope.  The Colossians seem to be to be John 10:10 people, people who are living abundantly because they know that they are loved by God, a God who will never abandon them and who is directing their present toward a glorious future.  This seems especially so, says Paul in Colossians 1:13-14, in the case of sins which might otherwise hold us back in life.  The Colossians alongside all Christians are forgiven people, freed to pursue God and the fullness of life in God because of Christ and their trust in Christ’s word and work.

So what are we to do?  How much of this are we to take to heart here, today, in Kaniva and Serviceton?  I think the answer is all of it, we are to take all of it to heart and we are to overlook none of it.  As I say I don’t think Amos’ prophecy to Israel applies to us directly, God is not about to exile us and slay our kings, but the prophetic symbol of the plumbline and the prophetic declaration of the wall being skewed is noteworthy.  We are not as tall or as square as we should be; the Church is off kilter and it has been for generations.  For all of the vitriol we see in the media, secular and religious, for all that generates vast amounts of heat and chafing but very little light, there are truths in the rumours.  The Church has let down families, let down children, let down Christians, let down the world, let down itself, let down God.  Not every priest in all of Christendom is a paedophile, much as it seems that Twitface seems to suggest it at times, but the gut-ripping truth is that many priests were and some still are.  Sinners are damned without Christ, no matter the nature of their sin, but all are received with grace and such an indescribable bounty of love if all they do is lift their eyes in longing to the one who saves through the cross; but Twitface only reads the first three words (sinners are damned) and the cross is pilloried.  Is this Twitface’s fault?  In the sense of its users, yes, there is a lot of intolerance in the world and the secularists are just as militant as the inquisitors and the crusaders were back in Christian past: but with the stories of the Inquisition and the Crusades, and without the story of the cross and the empty tomb, what do we expect?  Honestly and really, I’m not the black armband type and I don’t believe that the Church has brought upon itself everything it is reaping right now, but when even God holds a plumbline against us and we are found divergent, crooked, bent, and…you get the point…what hope does our light have?

Our only hope is that our light, like the light of Amos and the Colossians, is the light of God.  Shine brightly people of God, do not allow yourself to be extinguished because God demands our luminescence: but God is also our own love and hope, and so long as we shine with Christ then Christ will shine for us.

Amen.

Still Trusting (WWHS)

This is the devotion I prepared for sharing at West Wimmera Health Service (WWHS) at Kaniva.  The event is a Day Centre devotional/chapel time which is hosted once a week: I have the provilege of leading on the first Tuesday of every month.  This was an extra service filling in for someone who was away.

Isaiah 55:1-9

Isaiah speaks on God’s behalf in issuing an invitation to the thirsty, an invitation extended to anyone who thirsts for what God can provide.  There is no need for money; rich and poor alike are welcome so long as they come with openness and expression of their need for God and their needs from God.

I wonder, what do you need from God?  When I said just now that rich and poor alike are welcome at God’s invitation you may have thought that I was just being poetic.  Yes the poor are welcome, there is no need for money so it doesn’t matter if you can’t afford it, just come.  But the rich?  Why would the rich need an invitation?  Surely they would have just come anyway, after all they can afford to purchase whatever is for sale, and if it’s free then all the better and what a lovely surprise once we’re here.  But the rich would not have stayed away in shame or poverty, so why invite the rich when the rich were already coming?

Any ideas?

Well maybe the rich weren’t coming, because the rich thought they didn’t need to come.  Maybe the rich, because they are rich, have money, milk and wine enough.  After all, you don’t need to go to the shops, even for free stuff, when your pantry is full.  If you’re not thirsty then an invitation to the thirsty doesn’t interest you.  Maybe you’ll hold back out of a sense of charity and let the poor go first, or maybe you’ll just ignore the invitation entirely.  Either way, God’s invitation might go unmet by you and you just won’t come, and that’s sad.  Where it says in Isaiah 55:1, without money and without cost perhaps the fact that you have money enough means that if you do come to God there will be a cost, a cost to your pride, and that’s too much cost to bear, especially if you are rich in money, milk and wine.

So I think even though Isaiah is just issuing God’s invitation, and without judgement or interpretation, he’s just an amplifier of the quiet voice in his heart which speaks God’s truth, he knows that the message will go unheard by some.  Why spend money on what does not feed, he asks (or rather God asks through him in Isaiah 55:2), advising to feed on what is good so that your soul will delight.  In other words, I don’t care how well stocked your cellars are, and how awesome is your dairy operation, feed from God’s provision and you will be blessed.

When I lived in England I had a strange encounter with God.  I was shopping in the local Tesco with my housemate, and with our boss-slash-landlord, since it was a ministry organisation I was attached to.  I felt in my chest and heard a voice in my head say that I was not to be shopping: that whatever I needed I was to allow my boss-slash-landlord to pay for.  He found me in one of the aisles, crying, with my basket on the floor.  He asked what the matter was and I said, “I’m not allowed to shop, I mustn’t actually pay for anything.” He said to me, “well okay, give me your basket and I’ll pay; if that’s what God has told you then that is what we need to do.” That situation lasted for five months, indeed the whole time I stayed at that house.  Food was donated to the ministry, and money came in too, “to support Damien”, but I never bought any food or groceries in the time I was there.  Even my housemate would come home from his own shopping and say “this is for you” and give me a packet of frozen fish fingers or something.  That was an incredibly humbling experience for me: not embarrassing as I knew I was obeying God and the men around me knew it too, but it was kinda hard.  Now I know that God has me in mind at all times, and that I am safe and provided for.  Now I am confident to direct my labour only to what satisfies, as Isaiah 55:2 says, which is not to say that I rely on others to pick up the tab, or that I am happy to be a burden to others, but to say that if God wants to pay my way while I minister and serve the Kingdom then that is what God can do.

I am not too rich to have God care for me, and because of that I have never been too poor for God to find me and feed me.  But that does not mean it isn’t hard.

Isaiah, and perhaps God in Isaiah’s mouth, counsels us to seek God while God may be found and to call upon God while God is near.  This is another wonderful invitation, but it is another one with a hidden threat.  Is there really a time and space limit?  Will there be a time when God cannot be found, or God is not near and therefore cannot hear us if we call?  I don’t want to get into the theology of the near-and-farness of God, so let’s just cut to the chase and say that if you hear God’s invitation then it’s best to respond straight away, and with complete trust that you will be welcomed and provided for.  Sometimes what God asks us to do is baffling, God’s ways are not our ways as Isaiah 55:8 reminds us; but hey, if God is the one asking then who am I to say no?  Trust and obey – there is no other way.

 

Amen.

Respice Finem (Epiphany 6C)

This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM for Sunday 17th February 2019.

Psalm 1; 1 Corinthians 15:12-20; Luke 6:17-26

My mother was not born with the surname that she has now: I suggest your mother probably wasn’t either.  Many of you here today who are mothers, the same.  My mother, Mrs Tann, was born Miss Fisher; no, not that Miss Fisher, she’s Judith, not Phryne (or Peregrine) although she does love a good crime drama on Foxtel.  I raise this because mum’s key ring, the one with her actual keys on it, bears the Fisher family coat of arms: it’s much more impressive than the Tann coat of arms let me tell you, and yes there is a Tann coat of arms.  The Fisher coat of arms, (much more impressive), bears the motto Respice Finem.  “Regard the End”, or, to put it another way, “consider the future”.  Hold that thought.

Last week in our reading from the Jesus traditions we heard the story of Jesus calling the first of his named followers, namely Simon, James and John, from their lives of fishing to a new life of discipleship and fishing for souls.  By the time we pick up the story in today’s reading Jesus now has a band of followers, and the twelve have each been chosen and brought to the front.  Having begun his ministry in earnest with some healing and teaching Jesus takes some time away from the road to sit with his mob, so the twelve plus the crowd, and he begins to lay out for them the ways of discipleship.  Luke records Jesus speaking in a short series of dot pointed blessings and woes, and the content is similar to the Sermon on the Mount as recorded by Matthew, who was probably there (whereas Luke was probably not).  You may have recognised some of the beatitudes along with some of the later content on the Sermon on the Mount.  What Matthew takes three chapters to cover in his account; Luke takes twenty-nine verses, but what does Jesus say to his disciples?  Well it can be summed up in two words, Respice Finem, consider the future.

Last week we also heard from Paul and his letter to Corinth.  Today’s reading follows immediately after last week’s, and it begins with a similar theme to that of the Fisher family and Luke’s first words from Jesus’ “sermon on the flat place”.  “Regard the end”, respice finem says Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:13-14: consider the future if Christ has not been raised: our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.  I have wasted my time, preaching only emptiness, says Paul, and you have no hope, if there was no (and therefore is no) resurrection.  What appears to have been going on in Corinth is that some Christians, Christians mind you, not agnostics or Sadducees or cynics, some Christians had evolved an idea that Paul’s regard for the end of the world and the soon to be returning Jesus was more like a metaphor for a spiritual life in the present.  Heaven, and the bodily resurrection of the died-in-Christ was not real, it was more about what life is like before Jesus and after Jesus.  You know, dead to sin, alive to Christ in repentance and rising again to new life, but in this life as a new life: it doesn’t actually mean that corpses will be reanimated in tombs at The Rapture or that we will live eternally in the sky with the angels.  That’s what people were saying and Paul is saying “no”: no there really is eternal life and there really was an empty tomb.  If Christianity is nothing more than a moral code for good citizenship then it’s a bit of a waste of time says Paul, and it’s certainly not the Kingdom or the future that Christ proclaimed.

Good one Paul.

Also, says Paul, hold on to your “good one Paul” for a tick, if Jesus was not raised from the dead, as we have been saying, then we have been lying.  Because we said it happened but it didn’t: (I mean it did, but what if it didn’t).  Look at 1 Corinthians 15:15: we have been proclaiming as gospel that God raised Jesus from the dead, and by implication and explanation have declared God to be all mighty and powerful enough to raise even the crucified, ex-sanguinated (drained of blood), dehydrated, asphyxiated, corpse of a man beaten half to death and then speared through the chest to make sure!  We have not been talking about some random Ambo who did a close to brilliant resuscitation thing with a set of de-fib pads and some well placed CPR; Jesus was dead!  He was dead dead, so dead he was dead, D-E-double-D dedd!  He was dead, he was so dead, but God raised him.  So if God didn’t raise him then we’ve been lying (or fooled), and if we’ve been lying or fooled about that then what else have we been lying or fooled about, and therefore what else have we been saying that isn’t true.  Mate, is any of this true?

Yes.  Yes mate, says Paul, any of this is true because all of this is true, including the resurrection part.  He says that in 1 Corinthians 15:20, and he says more than that.  Paul says respice finem, Jesus was not only raised from the dead but he was the first one raised from the dead.  Not “the one”, not “the only one”, no Jesus was “the first one”, which to me at least suggests that there will at least be “the second one”, and if God can do a second one then a seven billionth one is probably not out of reach and therefore I can (and will) be raised too.  Regard the end sister-brothers in Christ, the end is not death but resurrection and life eternal.  And life eternal we read elsewhere in scripture is not just everlasting life, infinite in time and going on forever, but “a life for the eons”, a life that is long long looong but is broad and tall and fat and thick and rich and full and…and you get the idea.  And as the great yet underrated theologian of the twentieth century Jewel Kilcher wrote “let eternity begin”.  In other words, the fat life has already begun for those alive in Christ, dead to sin, and regarding God’s end which is endless.

In Psalm 1 we read what the compositors of the NRSV have subtitled “the two ways”.  There’s the God way, the way of discipleship, the Yahweh Way, that’s one way.  There’s also the “no so” way, the way of the wicked, we way where respice finem suggests that the end is not good.  Look, whether the way of Psalm 1:4-6 is a way of fire and brimstone for eternity, or whether it is just a way of frustration and tears in this life where there is no flow and everything is hard, the point is not to focus on where the dead and stupid end up.  The point of Jesus, of Paul, of the Psalmist, of Jewel and of Damien is the end for the disciple, which is not an end at all.  Delight in God says the Psalmist in Psalm 1:2, so this isn’t even about begrudgingly following the rules and regulations of organised religion and steering clear of the whirring saw-blades of heresy.  No, delight in life, drink from the cool springs, sit in the shade, laugh and play, make toddlers squeal with pleasure, and eat the cake.  Prosper!  Not in a prosperity gospel way: God is not going to give you a new car if you tithe 95%, (although I might get a new car if you tithe 95% so don’t let me stop you), don’t be afraid of the news that God wants your life to be rich and full so long as your life is about the richness and fullness of God.  We do not seek God for the reward, we seek God for God’s own pleasure, but we know that when God is pleased then blessing flows and we can live with joy and security in the everlasting life of the eons.

Have you connected, maybe you’re still thinking about it so let me make the connection for you, Psalm 1:1-3 only makes sense if 1 Corinthians 15:20 is true.  Respice finem, regard the end if Christ was not raised: if God is not able (or not willing) then scripture’s promises of blessing are empty.  The story is not that only Christians prosper in the Kingdom of God: the story is that there is no Kingdom at all if Jesus was not raised.  But if Jesus was raised, and he was, then there is a Kingdom and the power of God is trustworthy and available and prosperity in God’s manner is given to all to receive if they choose to receive it.

Respice finem: have you chosen to receive what God has for you?  If not yet, then how about now?

Amen.

It’s All A Bit Ordinary (Pentecost 2A and Ordinary Sunday 11A)

This is the text of the message I prepared for Lakes Entrance Uniting Church for Sunday 18th June 2017.

Genesis 18:1-15

Today is the day between days.

Today is the “Easter Saturday” of June.  It’s not the “Holy Saturday”, the day between God’s Friday and Resurrection Day when we sit in vigil awaiting the return of our Lord in triumph from his ravaging of Hell.  No, today is not that day.  Today is “Easter Saturday”, the Saturday at the end of Easter week when the moment of resurrection and chocolate has passed, the bunting is looking frayed, the coloured foil detritus from our body weight in refined sugar is looking on accusingly, and it’s all a bit silly now that we are still naming the days at all.

Of course, it is not Easter Saturday at all.  For starters, today is Sunday.  For seconders, it is the second Sunday after Pentecost, so we’re not even in the Easter season any more.  The liturgical directory suggests that our chapel should be dressed in green, not white, if we even bother with such things, because today is really nothing special.

Last week was Trinity and we celebrated the three-in-one nature of our God.  I spoke of how God is made of different stuff to us, and of how Jesus set aside the stuff of God to be shaped and embodied in the stuff of humanity.  I also spoke of how Jesus’ being shaped of human stuff means that God knows what it is to experience human emotions like grief, pain, risk, death, and restoration.  Stirring stuff.

The week before last was Pentecost and we celebrated the birth of the Church in wind, fire, exultant worship, and inter-racial, intra-faith extravagant declaration of the salvific purposes of God in the world.

Next week we will celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the Uniting Church.  Nor just a date on a calendar but a reminder of the century-long effort of Australasian Protestants to form a new nation and a new church for that nation.  We will remember that while church union occurred seventy-six years after the federation of our six colonies the desire of our forebears had been there all along.  We will remember them.

Wondrous days!  Hallelujah!  Our God reigns!  Our God pours out God’s spirit on women and men, young and old, urban and rural, local and tourist, wealthy and povertous; Euro and Asian and Koori and Anglo and African and American and all combinations of the same.  Our God takes on human form to reveal to us the wonder of God’s self, God’s ways, God’s nature, God’s plans, and our worth and value in God’s eyes.  Our ancestors responded to this great unifying vision of God the perichoretic one and sought in the birth of a new nation, with a continent for a country and a country for a continent, an expression of Church to match this great drive forward into the wonderful twentieth century of Victorian enterprise (by which I mean the age and its dear queen) and Victorian victory (by which I mean the feats of that wondrous colony, the jewel in her majesty’s crown, Marvellous Melbourne and Australia Felix betwixt the Murray’s River and Bass’s Strait).

Heady days to come next week!

And then there’s today!!  “The Second Sunday After Pentecost: Ordinary Sunday 11, Year A”. Doesn’t the very name of this day set your heart aflame?  Think of those great words of encouragement I spoke to you last month, which I first heard in the global head offices of the Church Missionary Society, CMS, in Waterloo in London, in June 2001.  “God, you have ignited a spark within each of us, now dear Lord we pray, water that spark!”

[Snort.]

Hmm.  I dunno about you but if anything is going to “water my spark” it is the thought of “The Second Sunday After Pentecost: Ordinary Sunday 11, Year A.” I mean, it isn’t even the Queen’s Birthday long weekend.  And at least you people only hafta show up; I’m supposed to build an engaging service of worship around this profound and lofty concept and to write a sermon to make it sound interesting.  (How am I doing so far?)  I mean, you know that I came straight to you from University.  I have more degrees than a compass, but I’ll admit it, I am desperately searching for God’s direction for today.  Today is the most boring Sunday in June.

So how are you feeling?  A bit ordinary?  Me too.

[Sigh, big blowing exhale.]

[Pause].

[Slap lectern.]

Righto then, let’s look at the scripture passage selected for this auspicious day in the lectionary.

Bang!  [Clap, thumb up.]

In Genesis 18:1-15 we read one of the most mind-blowingly unordinary stories in the Bible.  It jumps straight in at Genesis 18:1 with: The LORD appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day.  It’s a hot day.  Now this is a Bible story and as such it’s set in Palestine, so it’s always a hot day.  For the Bible to indicate that it was a hot day suggests that it was a very hot day.  Not ordinary hot this day is stupidly hot.  It’s also the hottest part of this sweltering day, and Abraham is sitting in the door of his tent, trying to get respite from the hot sun in that little bit of breeze and shade.   The tent has been raised near the oak trees, so I’m suggesting there’s some shade and some water available.   Abraham is 99 years old, we know this because a year later when Isaac is born he’s 100.  This is not a question of theology, it’s maths.  I don’t have a degree in Maths but I’m pretty sure what a century minus a year looks like in numbers.  So, it’s sweltering, it’s the hottest time of the day, and Abraham is very old.  And as I have just told you, he is sitting in the shade.  And while all this ordinary stuff is happening the LORD appears.

Now, Ordinary Sundays aside: if I be chillin outside me tent on a scorcher of a day, and the LORD appears, that would probably spark my water, let me tell you.  There is nothing ordinary about God showing up in the form of three men looking for a cold one each and a bit of a sit down.  Of all the things on my list of what is ordinary, and then referring to the special category of what might be expected on an afternoon in summer, God showing up looking for a drink is not on that list.  God showing up like that is unexpected.  To say the least.  And since you’ve not employed me as your preacher to say the least I’m going to say some more.  Let’s read on.

Genesis 18:2 tells us that Abraham (99 and hot, but not in the good way) runs(!) from the shade and into the sun(!) to meet the men (who are the actual LORD).  As you do: when the LORD appears.

In Genesis 18:3-5a Abraham invites “my lord” to stay, note that he’s speaking in the singular here, and in Genesis 18:5b they (plural) agree to do so.  Now this is actually not extraordinary, you would expect Abraham and Sarah to show this depth of hospitality to strangers, and for strangers to think nothing of this extravagance, since that was the cultural norm.  Travelling strangers in the desert, no matter who they are, even enemies, are to be given food, water, shelter, and provision for the road if they pass by your camp.  Even so the sexes don’t mix so Sarah has done the baking but she stays away from the secret men’s business going on in the shade.  So, what we read in Genesis 18:6-9 is not remarkable, other than that it is the LORD who is the guest.

In Genesis 18:10 we are told that one of the men suggests that Sarah will become pregnant and give birth to a son within the next year.  Okay so that’s extraordinary, not part of the ritual of being a guest, but there you go.  The man doesn’t mention Sarah’s age, but the Bible does: and it makes no bones about it.  In Genesis 18:11 the point is made three times, just in case you didn’t get it the first time, that Sarah is each of “old”, “advanced in years”, and “that it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women”.  So, she’s old, anciently old, and the menopause was a distant memory.  So that’s pretty ordinary; I mean old women, especially very old women, tend not to be fertile.  Thank you Captain Obvious whomever wrote Genesis 18:11 for making that clear, and in such a poetic manner!   So you can see why Sarah has a chuckle about it, very much derisory in tone as well.  “What are my chances, at my age, of getting lucky with that fossil I am married to?’ she asks in Genesis 18:12.  She may have no ova left, but she’s a feisty one is our Sarah.  Anyway, the LORD asks Abraham in Genesis 18:13-14 why Sarah laughed, again observing the code of dignity by which a male stranger doesn’t speak to a female, (so the LORD doesn’t actually ask Sarah), and declares that the LORD can do as the LORD desires.  In Genesis 18:15 Sarah says I did not laugh and the LORD, in full pantomime fashion and in breaking character for a second says to her oh yes you did! And then the story ends.

What an extraordinary story for an Ordinary Sunday!

And this of course has been my point all along.  There is no such thing as an ordinary Sunday.  Yes, there are days on our calendar which are not unique as anniversaries, although I’m sure that with today being June 18th it’s important for millions of people in millions of ways regardless of today’s being a Sunday or the Sunday between Trinity and the UCA anniversary.  But it doesn’t have to be Pentecost for us to expect the Spirit to fall upon us, or to rise up within us.  The LORD is welcome here, now, today, on Ordinary Sunday 11.  Isn’t he?  And would today still be considered ordinary if God were really present here today?  Or if the Word of God came to one of you with a word of promise for the future?  I’m sure 91 year old NNN in our congregation today would not be the only one baffled if a baby were promised to her nine months from now, but what if God promised her a resurgence of love and energy in her spirit to complete the work she was allocated as a Christian?  What if God spoke directly to 90 year old NN with a message that he was to see a new multi-million-dollar audio-visual suite set up in a new auditorium on this site, and that not only would he see it happen but that NN himself would be the one in the crawlspace in the ceiling connecting it all up?  If God promised it, would you believe it?  Would your response be like Sarah’s and to laugh behind God’s back; or would your response be like Mary’s and to ask for details and then praise God at the wonder of your being chosen for such a momentous task?

But let’s not get carried away with such big dreams.  No seriously, I’m not about to criticise here.  Let’s consider how excitingly small the promises of God can be.   I’m gonna suggest that NNN doesn’t need a baby, but she might have been praying for perseverance and strength.  I’m not going to say she needs perseverance and strength, that’s for her to discern.  But do we have faith that God can do small miracles on a Sunday?  Do we trust for the gift of faith, “that shy hope in the heart”, that God will come through for us in whatever it is we are praying and believing for?  Or do we have the attitude that if NN doesn’t throw away his crutches right now and backflip up the aisle, all the while speaking in tongues, that we’re not interested?

So, today is an ordinary Sunday.  Every Sunday is, even the ones with special names.  Because every Sunday is the Lord’s Day, not just in recognition that it is the weekly anniversary of the resurrection of the saviour (which it is) but that every day belongs to the LORD because as Genesis 1 tells us every day was made by the LORD, each day with its own purpose, even for purposeful rest.

Truly, the only extraordinary thing about any given Sunday, including this one, is that the Christians do not expect God to do the amazing.  If the LORD is amongst us then the miraculous is to be anticipated.

Every.  Single.  Day.

Amen.