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.

How it is to be (Epiphany 7C)

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

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

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

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

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  This message has not been superseded or countermanded, and even though some of us are now at the chalkface of ministry, the reminder to come back to God between-times just to sit and be with God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

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

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

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

Am I moving too fast?  No?  Excellent.

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Advantage Us (Advent 3C)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of God gathered as Serviceton Shared Ministry at the Church of Christ on Sunday 16th December 2018.

Isaiah 12:2-6; Luke 3:7-10

So, I’m wearing pink; what of it?  For those churches who follow the tradition of an Advent wreath, and do it with candles of specific colour, today as the third Sunday in Advent is when the pink candle would be lit.  So yes, pink socks and a pink tie.

Since God is our strength and salvation we can trust and not be afraid.  The words of Isaiah 12:2 are similar to those of Moses recorded in Exodus 15:2, and the psalmist in Psalm 118:14, most likely with the same intent.  In this prayer of thanksgiving Isaiah speaks of the joy bubbling over in the life of the woman or man who knows that God’s grace and forgiveness has been poured out; we can also think of Mary’s song when we read Isaiah 12:4-6.  Such superabundant joy leads to proclamation, to shouting out the wonders of God and the work God has done, so that all nations will hear about God and will know that God is worthy of praise and exaltation.  God is with us we proclaim, God is in our midst, so why would we not sing loud praise for God?  More than that, some of the earliest church scholars saw Isaiah 12:3 and its reference to the spring of the saviour (rather than wells of salvation as the NRSV puts it) as a specific reference not only to Jesus but to baptism.  If you know that God is good, and that God has saved you, and you are minded to shout and sing and dance and pray, then wash in the river and be made whole. On this day of joy and the pink candle, and in this house where the tank sits behind me waiting, let us each remember our baptism and where God has brought us from that day of water until this day of worship.

It can be a bit of a shock then to move from this great song of celebration and the invitation to baptism to read how John the Baptiser declared the water ready.  Let’s look at Luke 3:7-9 again; I have to tell you that even though there were no classes in how to give an altar call at my university I am sure that John would not have been on the syllabus.  “What do youse want?” he says, “who told youse to come?”  Hardly Christ-like language is it?  Well actually it is a lot like the language of Jesus, calling out the pride of the prideful and the arrogance of the arrogant.  “Youse mob think you’re saved already, don’t you, and that being an Abraham-descendent is enough, that you don’t need to act with justice and mercy because you were born into the right religious family.  Well you’re wrong because that’s not what God is looking for, but who told youse that, eh?  What are youse doing out here?”  Is John trying to keep people away from those wells of salvation, the spring of the saviour?  Seems like.  Well maybe it does seem like, but not really, because what John is saying is what all the prophets have said, and what Isaiah said, and what Jesus of Nazareth who is the Christ of God will say.  The life-path of the baptised, the way of the wet, is not to rely on ancestry but to depend upon God alone and to commit to discipleship.

Those of us who belong to God and Kaniva & Serviceton Shared Ministry by way of the Uniting Church might be aware that our denomination refers to ourselves as “a pilgrim people”.  Have you heard that before UCA mob?  Yeah.  As a people on pilgrimage we know we haven’t arrived yet, but we are on the way, and along the way we fellowship with each other as fellow travellers.  As John says in Luke 3:11 we look out for each other, sharing our coats where we have two and our mate has none, sharing our sandwiches and water-bottles likewise.  Mostly it’s a metaphor, a very powerful metaphor, but sometimes it is seen in practical help like the help you gave me as a church last month when my car died and they who had two cars gave to me who had none.  And Church of Christ the same; the earliest traditions of Stone and Campbell speak of you as “Christians only, but not the only Christians”, and as “the Disciples”.  No big and fancy denominational name, no massive creed, just a commitment to read the Bible and to follow its instruction. So whether you are walking in unity with the Pilgrim People on the Way, or you are part of the Church of the Disciples of Christ, or you have a different history which has brought you to Serviceton and this fellowship for this time you know that it is God who is your saviour, not your ten-greats-grandfather’s surname.  And that because God is your saviour, and because you are a disciple and a pilgrim, (I say “and”, this is not an “either/or” thing in KSSM), you live with joyful fellowship with the rest of us, and excited follow-ship of the saviour in whose likeness God made you.  That is what each of us was baptised into, whether it was as an adult plunged in a tank or as an infant with water poured over our scalps above a font, or something else, that is what each of us has committed to as a path for life.

The set reading for today actually goes on a bit.  Today I asked that Luke 3:7-10 be read, but the lectionary would have had us read on until Luke 3:18.  If we’d read as far as Luke 3:14 we would have heard John counselling people from many professions as they asked for special advice on how to do their jobs within the context of discipleship.  It is as simple as being honest says John, show justice and mercy; basically act like God acts towards you as the Chosen people.

And so the source of our joy, the reason for the pink candle and clothing, is the gospel of God.  The good news, the news which we celebrate, the news which cause Isaiah and Moses and Mary to bubble over with joy, is that God is on our side for no other reason than that we are loved.  It’s nice to have had disciples for parents and grandparents: I did, and many of you did too.  For some of you your parents and grandparents are in this house this morning, for others you can remember a time when they were.  This is where the Jews of John’s day were; they were not all arrogant and self-important at all.  After all, John was in the wilderness and speaking to people who were there, people who had bothered to journey out to the river and away from the cities and villages to hear him.  But as John said to them so I say to you, as good as it is to have had Christian ancestors, and especially ones in the previous generation who told you about God, that is not what God is looking for.  Your Christian ancestors were saved by God not because they had Christian ancestors but because they were disciples in their own generation.  This is what is required of you.  If you want the joy of the Lord, and if you want that joy as your strength, then choose discipleship as your way of life.  It need not be denominational, and it need not be vocational in the narrowest sense where you must become a priest.  In fact, according to the articulated positions of the Uniting Church and the Churches of Christ it need not even begin with a wet head; although both traditions and many others beside strongly endorse the idea of baptism as soon as is possible and appropriate, (unofficially in that order if the scripture at Acts 8:36 is to be believed, and it is).  One of my favourite theologians has said about tradition in the church that true faithfulness is not about wearing your grandmother’s hat, but about having grandchildren of your own.  In other words the strength that you have as a Christian today derived from your faith filled ancestors should be utilised to the outcome that you have faith filled descendents, who have you as their faith filled ancestor.  And of course if you are not a child of Abraham well there is good news for you in John’s message and Isaiah’s message too.  The whole world is to know the glory of God and the wonders due to God’s action on earth: the good news proclaimed to Gentiles as well as Jews is also for the children of non-Christians.  I mean, if actual Roman soldiers can get discipleship advice from John the Baptist (Luke 3:14) then those of you who are the first Christian in your family for one or more generations can certainly get it too.

Unlike Philip on the road with the Ethiopian eunuch there is no water here, well not right now.  But if you want more of the joy of God that Isaiah spoke about, and the rest of us have sung about, and that Christmas is all about then know this.  Know that access to baptism and discipleship, or discipleship and baptism and more discipleship, is always available in this house.  Don’t go home without it, and don’t let me or the leaders or deacons go home and leave you without it.

The joy of the Lord is our strength, and it is the Lord’s gift at Advent.

Amen.