Carna Saints! (All Saints’ Day A)

This is the text of the message I prepared for Morwell Uniting Church for Sunday 5th November 2017.

Revelation 7:9-17; Psalm 34:1-10, 22; Matthew 5:1-12

You know, all was once fine with me and the story beginning at Matthew 5:1, but after I attended theology college and studied the Synoptic Gospels (of which Matthew is the second), it almost makes me want to smirk.  Like you, I have heard more than one sermon on “The Sermon on the Mount”, and I have seen more than one film where this episode from Jesus’ life is shown in cinematic form.  You know how it rolls, the crowds gather, and Jesus stands atop a mountain declaring “Blessed art thou when…” and so forth.  Even Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” features a scene where “blessed are the cheesemakers” is proclaimed to the impatient multitudes.  But I ask you, how many people are recorded in Matthew’s gospel as having heard Jesus speak that day? Anyone?  C’mon, I know that Matthew does not give an exact number, but it is inferred from the verses immediately before this passage.  No?  Four.  Simon the brother of Andrew, Andrew, James, and John the brother of James, these are the disciples of Jesus as recorded by Matthew in 4:18-22Matthew 5:1-2 plainly and in NRSV English says that after Jesus saw the crowds he went up the mountain: and after he sat down his disciples came to him.  Then he began to speak and taught them… In other words, having seen the crowds Jesus withdraws and sits with his disciples, and of disciples we know of only four so early in the life and ministry of Jesus.  Now I’m not here to change your theology, well not until I’ve been here a bit longer anyway, but it does make for an interesting idea.  Jesus takes his dearest followers, his disciples, in other words his student-slash-apprentices away from the crowd to begin their lessons where Jesus can speak freely, and he won’t be interrupted.

Is that significant?  Does it matter that there were only four men listening that day, or am I just being a smart-alec with my theology degree?  Well, it’s probably a bit of both but I hope it’s more about the first.  For me it is significant as we speak about the saints today that sometimes saints gather in small groups as well as large.  Sometimes, as in Revelation 7 the saints are the whole crowd; sometimes, as in Psalm 34 one saint is alone and isolated; and sometimes, as in Matthew 5 the saints are a small group called aside from the crowd.

From Revelation we read today of the great multitude gathered in Heaven at the end of days (we spoke of that last week).  They testify that salvation belongs to The LORD God enthroned, and to the Lamb.  Heaven’s company responds by falling face down in worship and crying blessing and honour, according God and the Lamb with everlasting power and might.  The one to whom this story is revealed is told that the multitude are the once living who have endured and come through: in other words, their testimony is the story of individual and corporate human lived experience.  These are the conquerors, the victorious martyrs, the undefiled witnesses (Revelation 7:14b).  Now they are home and safe, never again to be hungry or terrorised, and never again to weep.  The fact that this is a multitude can and should encourage us as a small congregation that we are not alone.  Like we prayed last week as a cluster for the ones and twos and tens of the persecuted church, so we can be encouraged even as a handful in the Latrobe Valley that we are not alone either.  We are the heritage and current expression of two millennia, seven continents, and billions of lives of tradition and praise.  Where, according to the commentator I read this week the church in John’s day represented 1 in 625 people in the Roman world, today we are 1 in 3 people in the whole planet.  And as Revelation 7:9 assures, the diversity of the Church is our strength.

The solitary singer of today’s selected Psalm declares boldly that The LORD is worthy of praise because The LORD is the one who saved the distressed one when he cried out for salvation.  The LORD protects and surrounds, and we can rejoice that it is so and feel safe and held in God’s love and protection.  Live into the experience of God, it is all good under God’s hood. Taste and see is a double invitation and an example of God meeting with us as multiple intelligences. (The LORD can be learned of in various ways).    No one will be permanently lost, and no one will be left totally and permanently harmed.  Psalm 34 speaks about God, but it is addressed to the people hearing it; it is not addressed to God (although we can assume that God is earwigging in on the worship). So, unlike what was read to us from Revelation 7 the section of Psalm 34 set for us today is a testimony of praise and thanksgiving for deliverance, and an invitation to join.  This is the testimony of a man who is living in a dark space yet is trusting that God will deliver him.  This is the testimony of a man speaking to the shadows around him, “I am not afraid” he says, “because The LORD is faithful and mighty to save”.  This Psalm for the alone, the “poor one” (Psalm 34:6) speaks encouragement and understanding to any who are alone and bereft and needing assurance.  Again, that scripture records and the lectionary demands that we read the song of one man on the run should encourage us that we are not alone.  Like the persecuted ones we can be encouraged that we are not unaided or forgotten even when we are isolated because God knows us each.

Blessed, “happy and to be envied” as one commentator put it, is the true disciple who displays all eight of the characteristics listen in Matthew 5:3-12.  This list does not refer to eight different types of people who will be blessed, no, like the fruit of the spirit (which is one fruit with eight characteristics) this short list is to be the biography of every saint.

  • Jesus says that when you recognise your need and turn it towards dependence upon God you will be granted all of this and more. Rely on God for provision and you shall lack no good thing, in other words.  Does this verse refer only to some people in the Church?  No, it is a promise for everyone, even if it is not the primary promise for every time.  All Christians, all disciples, are supposed to rely on God and to bring our needs to God.
  • When a woman or man of faith laments the state of the world she or he will be assured by God that the end is not “the end”. As we heard from Ecclesiastes 3 last month, everything has a season and mourning will give way to rejoicing over the new thing, and the promise that God’s goodness is everlasting.
  • Disciples of today, like Joshua and Caleb of old, who are trustingly humble and submitted to God, but not submissive in the face of hardship, will inhabit the promises of God. All are called to persevere, and all who call on the name of The LORD will be saved.
  • Those whose lives are lived fully conformed to the will of God will receive God’s filling response. Is there any Christian woman or man whose life is not required to be lived fully conformed to the will of God?  Again no, so this is an expectation and a promise for everyone in the Church.
  • Those who are gentle and patient, empathising and quick to render comfort to others will receive the same from God.
  • Those who are single-minded in their loyalty towards God will see God, the subject of their desire.
  • Those who work for friendship in the world will be recognised as having the nature of God and will be beacons of God’s own character.
  • And those who persevere with these characteristics even though the world is against them will be welcomed by the God whom they championed. Jesus said that if the world takes issue with you then you’re probably on the right track as that is what happened to the true prophets of ages past.  Today we might add that that is what happened to the Lord Jesus too, so why should we expect any different.

And to set your minds somewhat at rest, it does say in Matthew 7:28 that when Jesus had finished saying these things the crowds were astonished at his teaching, so yes, Jesus probably did speak to more than four men.  Or, he spoke directly to four men, but he was overheard by the multitude.

And so, as we move toward the prayer life of the church and into communion this morning what have we heard that is relevant to All Saints Day and to all of you, saints of today?  God is with you whether you are one of the majority, one of the minority, or alone and isolated.  God desires that your character and life reflect the character and life of Jesus, and of Godself the compassionate and merciful one who is everlasting and entirely faithful.  Perfection is not expected, only God is perfect, and even the saints of old and the ones whose names appear on special days or coloured glass had their downtimes.  But where God is faithful the saints of God will be upheld, and the story of the welcome of Heaven extended to us and through us will be proclaimed in all the world.

Let the world be on notice: the saints are coming.

Amen.

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Authorised

This is the text of the message I prepared for Narracan Uniting Church for Sunday 1st October 2017.

Matthew 21:23-27

Matthew, Mark and Luke all record this episode where the question of Jesus’ authority to teach was raised with him in the temple.  The Pharisees ask who has authorised the message of Jesus.  After all they are the recognised religious and legal leaders and scholars, so in part it is a question of patronage and in part it is a question of academic integrity.  “Whose model of teaching are you following”, they ask, “we don’t know of any substantial scholarship which supports your interpretation of the scriptures and the religious laws/lore”.  In more straightforward language they ask Jesus “who told you that you could preach, and who told you to preach what you are preaching”.

Jesus answered their question with another question.  Since Jesus seemed to do this a lot you’d think they’d have seen it coming.  “You tell me first,” Jesus says, “who told John the Baptiser that he may preach, and who instructed him to preach the message which he preached?”  It is the same question – but it is a loaded question since John was held in high regard by the crowds.  The Pharisees see the trap and deftly step out of it: “um, dunno” they say.  It probably sounds better in Hebrew, but basically they shrug their shoulders at Jesus.  Jesus shrugs back and says, “well if you ‘dunno’, then I’m not the one to tell you.”

The question of authority is an important one when something new is taking place.  This is in part the case for me as the new Ministry Supply Agent in Yallourn Parish, but the answer to the question of my authority is straightforward.  I have been asked to speak by the Parish in conjunction with the Presbytery, and the content of my sermons is the good news of Jesus Christ as the Uniting Church in Australia understands it.  I have no authority to go it alone, or to make stuff up.

A few years ago, I worked in a prison.  Ordinarily I tell people in a new town that “I spent two years in an English prison”, but I’ll make it quite clear to you from the start, since you are the first people I have told in Morwell-Yallourn Cluster and I don’t want any misheard news going out.  I was in prison, and it was in England, but I was there as an employee of HM Prison Service and I went home every night.  (That was unless I was on night duty, in which case I went home in the morning.)  I carried authority in the prison, even though I was on the bottom rung of the ranks of uniformed women and men, and my authority was indicated by two things.  Can you guess what they were?

  1. I wore the Queen’s uniform, which was plain black and white and it had a “crown” logo on it in various places.
  2. I carried keys.

Most people in England’s prisons are not allowed to carry keys inside the prison.  Some people in prisons in England are not allowed to wear plain black and white clothes.  So, the fact that I was allowed, indeed instructed, to do both was a sign of my authority.

Like my authority in this pulpit, my authority in prison was delegated to me.  Ultimately, I was a representative of HM The Queen, via the Governor of the Prison, the Duty Governor (V-2), the Duty Principal Officer (O-1) and the Duty Officer in the Gatehouse.  If I asked a prisoner, any visitor, or indeed any civilian employee of the prison to do something and they wished to question who I was to say what I said the answer was obvious: I am wearing the Queen’s uniform and I am carrying keys.  You go (or don’t go) where I tell you, and you go (or don’t go) when I tell you.  I remember one episode where a builder brought his truck in to do some maintenance work in the prison and I was his escort.  Once he had parked he gave me the keys from the ignition, which was protocol.  When we went to leave we discovered that his truck had become bogged.  After a short period of failed extraction, he said to me, “I have another appointment so I’ll need you to give me back my keys and let me out of the yard to walk back.”  I told him, politely yet firmly, that he was going nowhere an escort, and that I was going nowhere without that truck.  (You don’t just leave motor vehicles abandoned inside a prison, mate.)  In the end, he had to wait until a tractor was brought in to tow him out of the bog, and then for me to accompany the truck back to the gate.

Jesus spoke the Father’s message with the Father’s authority.  I think Jesus was pointing to John the Baptiser having done the same.  Like the driver of that truck in the prison the Pharisees might have wanted to question Jesus’ right to express authority, and the form of the authority he expressed, but ultimately Jesus was a servant of God even as I was an officer of the Queen.  With that in mind, that Jesus was authorised by God to speak and to speak what he spoke, let us always pay attention to the one whom John (1:1) calls the Word of God.

Amen.

Amongst your eyes

This is the text of the message I prepared for Morwell Uniting Church for Sunday 1st October 2017.  Immediately after this service I drove to and then preached at Narracan Uniting Church in the (neighbouring) Yallourn Parish.

Exodus 17:1-7; Philippians 2:1-13

Sheesh, this is getting to be a habit.  Once again, we find Moses having to deal with the quarrelsome people of Israel; only this time they need water.  God has already got them out of Egypt, leaving dead Egyptian sons behind.  Then God got them across the sea, leaving dead Egyptian soldiers behind.  Then God fed them manna and quail every day, except the Sabbath, leaving no dead anybody behind.  Now Moses is asked to provide water, as if the tears of one and a half million sooky Israelites aren’t provision enough.  I mean, what’s a prophet gotta do to get some respect around here? Mary Pearson wrote in this week’s “With Love To The World” that the problem seems to be that Israel believes that Moses is their saviour, not God.  If Moses is a man like them, even if in several remarkable ways he is not a man like them, but still, then Moses needs reminding of his job as leader.  In today’s story, we read how the Israelites very helpfully point out to Moses that they are in a desert and there isn’t any water where they’ve made camp.  In response Moses names the place “test” (Massah) and “quarrel” (Meribah) because the people asked whether the LORD was among them or not.  In other words, this is the location, to be known for all of time, where the quarrelsome people put God to the test.

When in later times the editors of Exodus named the place “Rephidim”, which means both “refresh” and “support”, they believed that God was indeed among the people, and that the one among the people was The LORD I am encouraged by the thought that there were editors in later times because it means that the story had kept on being told.  In Psalm 78, as has been the case in Psalm 105 which was read last week and on two of the Sundays in August, the story of God’s provision and companionship with Israel in the hard days of the wilderness is reminded to the people.  God The LORD is the true leader of Israel and God always displays goodness in doing that leading.

Paul writes to the church in Philippi from gaol.  There isn’t agreement among scholars where Paul was imprisoned at the time, but all agree that he was in gaol somewhere.  He is concerned by the news of infighting in the congregation around two sources.  One is the potentially divisive message of several visiting leaders who were not proclaiming the gospel as it was understood by Paul but were instead preaching their own opinions and agenda.  Paul is also concerned by disputes within the congregation and the cliques being formed around two vocal women.  So, with that background we read today’s call to unity beneath the leadership of Christ, Christ the humblest man and Christ the LORD Godself, with added insight.  With many different opinions going around and many little groups forming, look at what Paul says about his desire for the church.

  1. Show unity through setting your mind on the same thing.
  2. Act out of humility and obedience.
  3. Hold the needs and interests of others in high regard.

And why does Paul say that’s the best way?  Because according to Philippians 2:5 that’s the Jesus way.

Jesus always had the purpose of God foremost in his mind: Jesus and the Father were united in this way.  Jesus did not have to prove himself, indeed he actually shrugged the Godness from his being so that he could preach more effectively: this is both the nature and the will of God.  There was nothing grandiose about Jesus, nothing about him was inflated because almost everything about him was hidden; he knew that people needed God to be accessible if they were going to be saved and so he made himself as friendly and approachable as possible.  Jesus could have come as the cloud of fire seen over Sinai, or as the Lord of Eternity riding across the clouds on a white stallion, but his work was better suited to the one in dusty sandals in small villages.  That’s how you’re supposed to be, says Paul.

This passage is a well-known one, and as such it has had many interpreters and scholars pay very close attention to it.  I am not interested today as to whether this scripture points to trinitarian ideas about God; I don’t think Paul was trying to make that point anyway.  I certainly don’t think the way to read this is “if you are humble like Christ then you will be exalted like Christ” because that goes against what Paul is saying.  What I read today is that the most effective way for Christians inside a local church to behave is for each person to show the humility of Christ toward one another, and the unity of Christ and the Father in all that they say and do as Christians together.  We are reminded in Philippians 2:13 that God is at work; that work is not only taking place amongst us but within us.

The Lord is amongst us, but the Lord is here quietly and patiently, feeding and guiding us in the every day.  There is no need to complain, God knows what you need and God is already there to provide it for you.  As God waited for Moses and the elders at Horeb so God waits for us to obey the command to come and see: and when we come then we do see.

Amen.

Crossing The Sea, Seeing The Cross

This is the text of the message I prepared for the Morwell-Yallourn Cluster service at Morwell Uniting Church on Sunday 17th September 2017.  It was my first service with this people and was also a communion service.

Exodus 14:19-31; Psalm 114; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

I wonder, have you ever crossed a sea?  These days most sea crossings are done by air rather than ship, and unless you are in the company of Moses (or you are Jesus) seas are never crossed on foot.  In our day sea crossings are not uncommon.

ore important to today’s theme; to those of you who have crossed a sea I ask did you cross that sea under God’s protection and with God’s guidance?

I have crossed many seas.  Some of them had the word “sea” in their title, while others were named “ocean”, “strait”, “passage” or “channel”.  Whether by ferry or ocean liner, light or heavy aircraft, every crossing of sea which I have made has been done with my feet entirely dry.  I hope your experience has been similar.

On every occasion God has protected me, and I have survived every crossing unscathed, undrowned, and unconcerned by the water.  Some of the events of my life on the other side of the sea have not been the best, but the crossings themselves have always been successful, with allowances made for airline food poisoning and the occasional rough-sea puke.

When Moses followed God’s direction and lead the Israelites into, across, and out of the Red Sea he was in no doubt that God was at work.  The great pillar of cloud and fire which had gone before the massed migration moved to the back of the group, and the angel leading the Israelite army moved to a rear-guard position as the people of Jacob neared the coast.  At God’s command and by the agency of Moses’ prophetic action the sea formed a wall on the right and left, leaving a great channel of dry land between these two massive walls.  We are told by the writers of Exodus 14 that the good guys walked across the gulf on dry land, but that the chariots of the bad guys got bogged.  We are told that once every Israelite was safely across, and after Moses stretched out his hand, the Egyptians were drowned in the returning sea.  Every Egyptian died, every Israelite was saved.  The moral of the story in perpetuity is that Israel at once saw what the Lord had done and they were awestruck and began to trust God; so therefore, should we who read this story from within the traditions which worship the LORD.

This story can cause concern in the modern day.  Back when it was written the vindication of the victims of slavery and maltreatment by the God faithful to the generational promises made to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph made perfect sense.  God saved lowly “us” from horrible “them”, and that “they” got what was coming in the drowning thing is only what “they” deserved.  Today we might show more compassion, even when we think of the Al-Qaeda or the ISIS or the Boko Haram terrorists in our world.  The books of Moses do not address this issue; the issue at hand for the Israelites between the first day of Adam and the last day of Moses is the story of God’s deliverance of Israel by whatever means are necessary.

As our call to worship this morning I read to you from Psalm 114 and the song of worship directed to the God who secured the release of the house of Jacob from a people of strange language as verse Psalm 114:1 puts it.  God made these people God’s own, so again the focus is on the saving power of The LORD, the faithful covenant partner of the patriarchs rather than the destructive power of the vindicator of God’s people.   Such a God, the God of us, is so awe-inspiring, so awesome, that nature fled before the Israelites because The LORD was with them.  This passage speaks as if the presence of God was enough for the Red Sea to withdraw in terror at the mere presence of the Chosen People, let alone the prophetic action of Moses raising his staff.  No wonder Jesus says in the gospels that those who believe in the Word Incarnate can order mountains to move – the mountains are terrified of us and will not disobey us because of the One with whom we walk.  No wonder Jesus says that the rocks and stones will cry out if the children of God are silenced – the glory of the presence of God is so obvious in the world.  Rock turns to water, strength turns to floods of tears (and maybe even wet undies), at the sight of The LORD and the ones The LORD secures in divine covenant.  Such is the effect upon creation of observing the presence of God among the people of God when the people are present in one locality.

Such power.  Such awesome majesty.  Such response to the presence of the people of God, the people amongst whom God is present.  I don’t know about you, but to me this speaks of the esteem in which I can hold myself as a man of God and a son of God.  I am truly the pinnacle of creation when even seas will shrink and rocks will wet themselves when I come close in the power of God.

But, lest we get too ahead of ourselves as masters and mistresses of this planet where God alone is Master of the Universe, we are met by Paul and his commentary along the theme of great power and great responsibility.

It is not the task of the Christian Church, nor any Christian woman or man within it, to stomp around terrifying Creation.  Rather we are told explicitly in scripture and by the arguably first great human teacher of the Christian tradition that as a local church we are to welcome the weak to encourage them. (In your own time, you might like to compare Romans 14:1 with Psalm 114:3-7 and consider what God might be saying about our authority.)  Welcome everyone to the household of God as if he or she were a member of God’s own family, and do not quarrel over peripheral matters.  We are called to be in the world but not of it, living amidst the world but with our identity in the One who calls us to faith: yet often we live as if we are of the world not in it.  How often it seems that Christians engage very nastily over things which are entirely irrelevant to the interests of the world.  Who are you to pass judgement on the servants of another, [since] it is before their own lord that they stand or fall asks Paul in Romans 14:4-5.  Paul asserts that the ones we might put down will be upheld by their master, the one who pushed back the sea and makes water come from rock.  For all that glorious assurance I have just spoken of, of how God protects God’s own, do you want to be on the side of the Egyptians or the Assyrians? Paul suggests that if you take a sister or brother to task over trifling things you may well find yourself there.  Each woman or man of faith must act according to her or his revelation and conscience, serving God fully and passionately as God is revealed to her or him.   Each must live and die, feast or fast, to the Lord’s desire and the Lord’s glory.  Each of us is accountable to God, for as the Lord has said every knee shall bow before God and every tongue shall confess God notes Paul in Romans 14:11-12, quoting God’s own words from Isaiah (45:23b).  Instead of becoming nasty over trivialities let us set aside all “speaking the truth in love” and instead encourage one another in ever more evident acts and speech of Christlikeness.

But should we really give up “speaking the truth in love”?  If the lord of our weaker siblings is also our lord, shouldn’t their conscience match ours?  Isn’t it the same revelation, and if so then we can be assured that they are in the wrong because we are in the right.  Paul would ask why that is your primary concern.  If they are wrong, but in the church, then leave it to The LORD.  Think of Matthew 18:33 and the mercy shown but not passed on.  What has God not held against you that you are holding against your sister?  What great thing has God redeemed you from, yet you feel entitled to belittle your brother over something inconsequential?

Maybe the journey of faithful Christianity is not so much about crossing the sea as it is about seeing the cross.  Perhaps the glories of the Red Sea and the other miracles we have witnessed in the presence of the LORD have blinded us, as grace had blinded the unmerciful servant, to the LORD who is the director of all things.  Let us not fall into the error of thinking of ourselves as anything more than servants of the one who has called us to Godself, even as we steer clear of the error of forgetting that we are called, chosen and seen as precious by God.

Amen.

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.

Sacred Secret Space

This is the text of the message I prepared for Sunday 23rd July 2017.

Genesis 28:10-19a; Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24.

Our brief journey through Genesis has brought us, this morning, to the place where God repeats to Jacob the promise made to Abraham.  God speaks in Jacob’s sleep and Jacob awakes in awe of the place: he names it Bethel or beit-El which means the house of God in recognition that he has stumbled across consecrated ground.  Jacob is wonderfully aware that he is in the place of “Secret God Business”, whose secret is now shared with the descendants of Abraham.  The stone pillar he erects and anoints is the rock he had used for a pillow, connecting the real presence of God with the physical geology of the place on earth.  So, the point is not primarily the promise, real and secure as that promise is, but that God repeats it to another generation.  God continues to speak; the message of God is not a once-only revelation which then belongs to the prophets to repeat.

The story from Bethel tells us that there are places where God speaks to us, and speaks with us, as women and men.  I think it’s important that we find and remember those places.  As Christians of this expression of Uniting Church, noting the vibe of the room in front of me, we believe that God can and does speak with us anywhere. But the story of Bethel, among others in the scriptures (such as the stories of Sinai) says that there are places where God desires to be found and where our movement toward that place prepares us to listen and respond to what we have heard.

And so, I ask you, where do you hear God?  Where has God spoken to you before?  Where is your Bethel?  Do you even have one?  This may be geographical (the prayer chair in the bedroom) or metaphorical (wherever I am at rest).  It might have been a one-off place in time and location (that worship service in Rosny on 10th September 1996), or it might be a repeated location.  In Genesis God often speaks “in dreams”; we see this here but we also see revelation-by-dream in Genesis 20:3, and Genesis 31:10-11, 24.  What is important to know about Bethel is that it is at the frontier of Canaanite territory.  God is speaking to Jacob as he is on the edge of leaving the land given to Abraham, the border of what has been promised as home.  Does God speak with you at the edges?  Perhaps if we want to hear God, or we want God to hear us, we might need to go to the edges.

Jacob is about to depart Canaan in search of a suitable wife, travelling back to Haran as the servant of Abraham had done to find a wife for Isaac.  God meets with Jacob and promises him that he will indeed return to the land promised by God to Abraham.  Since the promise was to Abraham for his descendants God reminds Jacob that the promise is for him too.  As the favoured son of Isaac, the favoured son of Abraham, the promise of a homeland and of nations and generations like the stars in their number for the blessing of the whole world is for Jacob.

What has God promised you?  Do you know?  Do you remember?  Has there ever been a promise just for you?  As Christians, we all have the promises of God in Christ, promises Jesus made to the Church or that God made through the Holy Spirit revealed in scripture.  I do not believe that the Church has been promised what Abraham was promised, which is to say land, many descendants, and the means to be a blessing to the world, although there are modifications of that if you follow the train of thought that the Church is the new Chosen people.  Blessed to be a blessing is certainly true of the Church, whereas an eternal homeland in Palestine, centred on Jerusalem, is not.  Christianity is not a land-based religion in that way: there is no Aliyah for us, the Jewish call for home, and we have no Mecca or Amritsar.  But, to get back on track, what has God promised you, personally?  Would anyone care to name such a promise?

God promised me one time at the edge, when I was homeless and sleeping in a shelter, that I’d never be without a roof; and specifically, that I’d never have to sleep in the two-storey carpark across the road from the shelter.  God reminded me many times, at the edge, that this was God’s promise.  And so far God has proven faithful to God’s word.  I am confident that God will always prove faithful to this promise.

In Psalm 139 we read what is many people’s favourite psalm.  It’s not my favourite, although it used to be, and it’s not my favourite only because another psalm has supplanted 139 in my heart as the deepest promise of God to me.  But if it’s your favourite then good for you, it’s a gem.

Tradition accords this psalm to the pen of David, and the NRSV has my partial approval in subtitling this poem “The Inescapable God”.   God is inescapable, not that God is unable to escape us, but that we are unable to escape God.  We cannot escape the inescapable one.  Why can’t we escape, well because as the very first words of this poem say, God has searched and has known you who has come to worship.  “I cannot outrun you,” says David, “you’ve got me and you always have had.  You know every movement of every sinew in my body, and every firing of every synapse in my brain.”  Such a God cannot be escaped.

“You search out the way for me,” David goes on to say.  God goes ahead like a scout and then comes beside as a trail guide to set the best path for where you or I walk next.   This verse, Psalm 139:3, is why I’m not enamoured of theologies which speak of Jesus occupying the driver’s seat of someone’s life.  Yes, in the “Footprints in the Sand” moments of life we may need a taxi or ambulance, and then it’s all “Jesus Take The Wheel” for me.  But for the most part I suggest that Jesus wants us to do our own driving while he sits in the other front seat as map-reader, course-plotter, navigator and companion.  Jesus is not a sat-nav, a disembodied voice from the dashboard; neither is he a front-seat passenger, passive as you drive.  No, this verse suggests that Jesus is more like the co-driver in a rally car, one who has travelled the road before and who knows where the tricky corners are, which way they curve, and whether there is sloppy mud or oil or ice or cow muck on the racing line.  Jesus is the one yelling out pace-notes above the roar of the engine as you throttle through those brief stages of life where you must travel with your foot to the floor, trusting him to tell you what to do in the next three bends.  Even in a championship rally, let alone a local car trial, not all the road is competitive: there are cruising stages where you and the navigator sit back a bit and drive to the next timed stage.  This is where Jesus sits with you just being and chatting and enjoying the road, and Psalm 139:4 speaks of this moment in the intimacy and trust that you and Jesus have in each other – he knows what you’re about to say, not because he is God omniscient but because he is your partner and he knows you.  To extend the metaphor, Jesus as co-driver has placed his life in your hands, he trusts you to keep him safely on the road and not to lose the car he is hurtling along in (with his head down to read the pace-notes) into the adjacent gullies, hillsides, and crowds of spectators.  It’s no wonder he is intimately acquainted with your thoughts and actions, he has needs to know you enough to trust you with his life.

That’s certainly not the metaphor David was thinking of, that God needs to know you intimately enough to have life-risking faith in you, but it works for me.  It works for me because the idea of Jesus as navigator rather than driver was revealed to me in my Bethel.  It works for me because if God in Christ is prepared to go to that extent to survey me, to ask about me, to check my references and my CV, and to look up my criminal record for selecting me for a relationship then I trust the news that God is interested in me and wants to know me.  If God knows everything about me and still wants to love me, well that’s amazing, but that’s the story of grace.  While I always celebrate the fullness of the gospel message to a hurting, waiting world, including me, I’ve heard that story before.  But that God would go to all that effort to find out about me, not just from God’s omniscience, but from God’s pursuit of me and God’s work to woo me just for the purposes of love, well that’s different.  Remember from Psalm 139:1 that David specifically says that he was searched and loved, not merely known about and acknowledged.  God is active in chasing you just so you can know how much God loves you.

God knows you.  God made you and so God knows how you were made and the bits used to make you.  We could go on to read that in the paragraph of Psalm 139:13-18.  God is eternal and without limit and for that reason it is not possible to be where God is not, and we have read that in the paragraph of Psalm 139:7-12.  But, again, even as wonderful as that message is, hear it with the insight that this loftiness and majesty of God is active, and is actively attending to you for love and to uphold you.

God chose Abraham and no one else, but God still loved the world.  Then God chose Isaac and not Ishmael, even as God loved and protected Ishmael.  Then God chose Jacob and not Esau, even as God loved and protected Esau (and saw him married to Ishmael’s daughter).  And from Jacob, eventually, comes the Jewish people and the story we continue to read of God blessing one group so that they can bring that blessing to the whole world.

God has also chosen you.  Don’t worry, God has chosen me as well, it’s not all up to you as it was all up to the Patriarchs.  But as God promised to be their God in the hope that they would be God’s people the same promise is made to us.  God promises love for you, guidance for you, protection for you, supervision for you, rescue for you, and peace for you.  Do you know that?  Do you know that because I have told you that, or others before me from behind this and other lecterns?  Do you know that because the Bible, or Joyce Meyer, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer told you that in print?

Can I invite you to say yes to those, but can I also invite you to develop and inhabit your own Bethel?  Can I encourage you to find a space, place, and time, to be where God is and to watch and learn as God goes about the work of grace right in front of you?  Find a chair, or a wardrobe.  Find a minute or twenty.  Fall asleep and dream if that works for you, (it often does for me).  Whatever you do, find God where God is and listen and ask about the promise made to you for your life.  Not just for salvation from sin, not just for Heaven when you die, not just for the promises made in Christ to the whole Church (although those too, those too).  But listen and ask for God’s personal, timely promise for you.  And then, in the confidence that the God who knows you in the Psalm 139 way is also with you in the fresh promise of today, go out and change the world.

Amen.

Blink And You’ll Miss It.

This is the message I prepared for the fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday 9th July 2017, for the people of Lakes Entrance Uniting Church

Genesis 24:40; Song 2:8-13; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

I don’t know about you, but I often find when I’m reading my Bible that a verse jumps out from nowhere and has the potential to send me off on a tangent.  I don’t think that this is necessarily a terrible thing, but it can distract me from what the intended purpose of the passage, or indeed the Bible Study, might have been.  In the reading set for today from Genesis 24 we are presented with quite a detailed story of how the servant of Abraham goes back to Abraham’s people in Sumer to find a wife for Isaac.  Abraham does not want his son marrying a Canaanite woman, an indigenous woman of the promised land, rather he seeks a bride from his own people.  During his setting his servant on his way, and assuring the servant that he will be successful in his task, Abraham speaks in Genesis 24:40 of his confidence in the LORD before whom I walk.  That is such a verse for me, and such a lovely phrase, Abraham doesn’t say “God” or “the Lord”, but speaks of a relationship with the One who gives him assurance.  Abraham knows God, daily and holistically.  There is nothing about Abraham that is hidden from God, and nothing about God that Abraham needs to know that is hidden from Abraham.

And then suddenly there we are, or at least there I am.  Rebekah and the whole story of her watering the camels of the servant, her agreeing on the spot to leave her family forever and travel thousands of miles to meet and then marry a stranger, is all forgotten.  The point of the story, indicated by the lectionary’s choice of Psalm, is not a wedding within the genealogy of the Jewish people, for Rebekah will become the mother of Esau and Jacob.  No, the point of the story is that Abraham walks before God, and that that intimacy is the source of all his strength as a patriarch.

A similar thing happened to me when I read the gospel for this week, although this time I saw it coming.  In Matthew 11 Jesus declares the generations of his day to be unaware of the time in which they live, and to be full of contradictions.  Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds says Jesus in Matthew 11:19, some early manuscripts say by her children.  Jesus makes his point, which is to be aware of what is going on around you, and then he prays thanksgiving to the Father that God has made the truth about the world readily seen by children but not by adults.

Blink and you’ll miss it.  One verse can jump out and grab you, regardless of the narrative, and you can learn from what God alone shows you from the written word if you are open and inquisitive.  Be aware, be mindful, of God’s active presence.

What is it about children that Jesus commends them as a model of understanding?  The parents and teachers amongst us know that children are inquisitive, trusting, hope-filled, straightforward, easy to laugh (or cry), sympathetic and compassionate beings.  Children can be vulnerable and so need caring for.  Jesus might be telling us that revelation is given to such as these, the precious and trusting ones who stay close to the Father as little kids stay close to daddy.  Except that children in Jesus’ day were not the cherished little cherubs of the late Victorian era and into our century: they were perceived by adults to be outsiders to the adult world, and therefore an issue.  Children break easily, so there’s always the danger of a parent’s being bereaved or otherwise inconvenienced.  Children are disruptive, noisy, inappropriate, clumsy, disobedient, cheeky, foolish, and simple-minded in a bad way.  Yet, Jesus says that God reveals the truth to these half-sized terrors, and leaves the civilised, mature, hardworking adults without revelation.

D’uh!  That’s not what we want to know!  Jesus isn’t talking about God favouring the little cuddle-monsters with their wide-eyed delight at whatever mummy says or does.  Jesus says that when showing God’s true nature and revealing the deepest knowledge God overlooks people like you and me, leaving us in the dark, and reveals it all to the boof-heads with ADHD.  So, when Jesus says of himself in Matthew 11:27 that no one knows the Son except the Father, and that only God knows the fullest and most intimate stories of the Son, and that no one knows the Father except the Son, (same deal), and those to whom the Son reveals the Father, what he’s saying is that Jesus’ preferred audience for this revelation is the noisy and disruptive.

Why, on earth, would that be the case?

Jesus answers this question, let’s read on.  Those who come to the Son in need of the Father will lay down their burdens.  They will be yoked to Christ, so he will help in carrying the necessary burdens as the two, Christ and the disciple, push together on the yoke.

So, it is not untrue, neither is it unbiblical, that those who come to God in simplicity, innocence and trust will receive favour and wisdom.  Those who come with a childlike faith will be rewarded by grace with love and the intimate secrets of God.  Abraham walked before God and God blessed Abraham mightily; that is still true.

But better yet, the disruptive, breakable, always in your face and under your feet, the making too much noise and mess ones, the ones who need God, are especially included by God in the wisdom of God.  Wisdom is a chaser, as well as the object of the chase.

Song 2:8-13, as with much of the Song of Songs, is a parable about the chase of Wisdom.  Wisdom is the woman in the story, the beloved; the lover is the pursuer of wisdom, the young scholar.  The romance then is not between two people, but between the scholar and the scholarship, the student and the study, the disciple and the discipline, the talmid and the Talmud.  But with that studious focus look at the words of this poem.  The student is playing peek-a-boo with the object of his studies, the personification of wisdom.  This is no dry academic exercise of a bored man surrounded by mouldy and dusty books, it’s a dance in the meadow at spring.  Show even the slightest interest in God and God will hunt you down like a lover desperate for his beloved, and God will hunger for you like that beloved awaiting her lover’s shadow at the door.  Heady stuff.

But this ancient song does not mean that coming to faith is not arduous.  It can be light and life, an easy yoke, and a personal relationship with the One before whom we walk who hungers after us, but it is not necessarily like that.  As a student, I always liked the metaphorical language of “wrestling with the text”, and since my first degree was in Sociolinguistics I enjoy doing this.  Look at Paul’s struggle with discipleship in Romans 7:15-25.

Sin is an ongoing challenge for Paul, much like those noisy children in the marketplace of Jesus.  I try to do good, says Paul, but I keep tripping over my past.  I try to avoid the evil I once practiced, says Paul, but I keep tripping over the way of the world and being snagged by the temptations which abound in everyday life.  Paul was a scholar, a scholar of scholars in face and had been discipled by one of the greatest rabbis of his day, Gamaliel.  Paul was a Pharisee, these days we’d call him a Conservative Evangelical, so he knew his scriptures and he knew the best interpretations of them to inform a God-honouring life.  He had wrestled with the text, and probably enjoyed himself in that, but the message of the text had left him burdened.  And even when he did adopt the yoke of Christ, and stepped out from underneath the crippling demands of the Fundamentalist view of Law, he still found himself falling short of what God had released him in to.  From his divided self, Paul cries out that Jesus should be glorified because that is the truth which surpasses the lies and duplicity of his experience.

In Abraham, we hear a man about whom God knows everything, and who knows all that he needs to know about God to walk with God in friendship.  Paul is not a friend of God in the way that Abraham was, but as a scholar and a faithful practitioner of the rituals he too knows that God knows him, and Paul knows that what he knows of God is enough to keep him walking the path of discipleship.  Both men fell over on that walk, but both me got up every time and kept walking with God.  From Jesus, we hear that this is the way of God, not that we must fall over, but that it is okay when we do because God is patient and loving and will pick us up like a lover or wait for us while we pick ourselves up like a daddy teaching his child to be independent of his carrying arms.  God is revealed to be like Jesus is, and we read that Jesus was a good bloke who people liked spending time with and who did not fly off the handle when mistakes were made.

The story of the tangent, of that one verse that can grab you even in the middle of a love story told over thousands of miles, is that God’s love evident in God’s desire to share all that God is and all that God has is true for the deepest of deep disciples, and for the rattiest of noisy ratbags in the world.  I don’t need to ask which one is you, because it doesn’t matter.

Come, says the Lord, I will tell you marvellous things, and I will give you rest.

Amen.