Rips Given

This is the text of the message I prepared for email sharing amongst God’s people at Kaniva Shared Ministry for Sunday 2nd August 2020.  Still we were in Covid lockdown..

 Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:13-21

I am speaking the truth in Christ – I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit, (Romans 9:1)  Well that’s a good way to begin an address, kind’a wish I’d thought of it actually.  Of course Paul isn’t beginning anything here, other than a new paragraph, but since we’re taking up where we left off last week it’s a good place for us to start.  This is the truth as confirmed by The Spirit says Paul.  It’s not the truth as Paul sees it, it’s not the truth as Paul would like to think the truth to be, it’s the truth that Godself confirms to be true, the truth of the one who says I am The Truth, (John 14:6b) or perhaps I AM, Truth.  When I AM speaks, or sends a messenger on God’s behalf to tell the truth of I AM it’s a jolly good idea to pay attention to what I AM is saying.  In Romans 9:2 what Paul says, with The Spirit attesting to the truth, is that he (Paul) has great sorrow and unceasing anguish in [his] heart.  This cry of grief from a truthful man, we are told in Romans 9:3-5, is Paul’s weeping before the LORD for the lost nation of the Jewish people, his own people. I wonder, how often do we weep with great sorrow and unceasing anguish in heart for our people?  Are you gutted by the lack of response by your fellow Australians, Victorians, people of West Wimmera?  Does grief stir your bowels at the presence of lost souls in your street, town, district and nation?  Or are you a bit disappointed but not much more.  Maybe you’re not bothered, because after all if you are saved and the unsaved are…well…unsaved, then that’s their problem and not yours.

I have told the story before so I shan’t share it in full again, but for those of you who have been listening to me for a while you might remember that I used to belong to Hillsong Church London, and specifically to the “New Christians Team”.  I’ve told you of the one service where I was “on” and there wasn’t a single hand raised in the congregation during the call to repentance, not one salvation for Christ in a room of 600 people.  I’ve told you of the desperation amongst “Team” as we looked for that lost soul; “even if there’s just one, Father, Oh God let there be even one,” but there was not even one.  I’ve told you of the desolation amongst “Team” after the service, of hot tears and real wailing that no one had “come to Christ” or even “come back to Christ”.  I’ve also told you that that is what, for me, makes Hillsong Church the church that Hillsong is; not for its smoke and mirrors, its loud riffs and even louder drums, its happy-clappy mezzanine and its bouncy-shouty downstairs (no jumping in the balconies!!), but the fact that it gives a rip for the lost of London and is abject in disarray when the gospel is proclaimed to six hundred people and not one responds to grace afresh.

I am speaking the truth in Christ – I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit – I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.  For I could wish that I myself were accursed, and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people. Do you remember praying like that?  “Oh God I’ll give up my own salvation if it means that Australia can be saved.”  Do you remember praying like that?  Nah, me neither actually, (and not just because I’d rather England be saved instead, not true).  But following from last week and last month really this is the groaning of Holy Spirit in us for the world.  If Australia were to be entirely saved by God then I would be saved along with it; even if we follow the Abrahamic method in Genesis 18 and only Victoria were saved, or West Wimmera, or Kaniva, or Commercial Street East, or just the odd numbered houses in the 90s, I’d be swept up amongst those I’m praying for – God does not need my salvation back so as to save my neighbours.  So if their salvation won’t actually cost me mine, then why can’t I just TELL THEM ABOUT JESUS????

Mea culpa as the Roman Catholics say, it’s my guilty fault.  I’ve neglected to “give a rip”: I am no longer being desolated hourly and hourly again that not one, not even one, has been saved by the ministry of Kaniva and Serviceton Churches of Christ and Uniting Church since before 1st October 2018 (the day my contract began).

Phew!  Now before we go too far and start bring self-flagellation into the order of worship, (although that could be something new to try after we get back to church in September, and flails are currently 30% off at Koorong), God does not want us desolating ourselves hourly at the condition of Australia’s soul.  Some groaning in intercession is required, no doubt; more groaning from more of us in the present is warranted, but we’re not to build a Kingdom out of Romans 9:1-3 as if it were the entirety of scripture or even the complete package for discipleship.  We should grieve for the lost, we should seek for the lost, we should comfort the found (who were lost) and we should bring the found home where Jesus waits to meet them (where he wasn’t already with them keeping them company until we arrived).  What we should also do is celebrate our own found-ness, delight that we were each once the one and Jesus joined us to the 99; we should work on being the 99 to whom Jesus adds the ones, and twos, (and thousands if you’re a Hillsong franchise).

In today’s reading from the Jesus Traditions, from Matthew 14:13-21, we read of Jesus feeding 5000 men.  It’s a well told story, the only miracle performed by Jesus that all four gospels record, so I’m sure you’ve heard it before and from Matthew as well as his mates.  So yes, blah-de-blah 5000 men doesn’t include women and children so probably 20,000 mouths in total; blah-de-blah twelve baskets for the twelve tribes of Israel; blah-de-blah fish and loaves because Jesus is lord (LORD) of both sea and land; blah-de-blah leftovers because in Christ there is always more than enough; blah-de-blah a living parable because it actually happened in real life but it carries symbolic and metaphorical meaning as well; blah-de-blah-de blah.  Does this sound like the preaching of someone who gives a rip?  Well it should, because I do, because here’s how the otherwise blah-de-blah story fits with Paul’s anguish.

In Matthew 14:13a, we are told that when Jesus heard of it, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.  Heard of what?  Heard of the murder of John the Baptiser, Jesus’ prequel in prophecy and his cousin in flesh.  So he’s just heard about this, John is dead because Herod thinks with his pelvis and is an idiot of a king anyway, so Jesus withdraws for some alone time.  Maybe Jesus went off to pray so his alone time is also “Quiet Time” where The Son is with The Father, or maybe he went off deliberately so as to be in private when he pulled the wings off some newborn kittens and lined up a few torpedo punts from outside-50 in his grief and anger.  More likely the first option, but Matthew doesn’t tell us.  What Matthew does tell us is that the news of John’s death was the cause for Jesus to step away, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.  Now he’s alone in the boat, the Greek words “by himself” literally mean that no one was with him at all.  (Actually I have no idea about Greek words, but it’s clear enough in English isn’t it?)  What we do know is that a tradie from inland Nazareth goes out on the sea specifically without his fisherman mates from lakeside Capernaum; duh, maybe he wants to be alone (except for the kittens…).  Anyway the crowds heard of this and followed him on foot from their towns, and not only did they do that none of the men (or women for that matter) bought any food with them.  So, Jesus is distraught with grief, he’s held it together just long enough to get the boat moving before he breaks his grieving heart out before The Father, and when he gets to the place of solitude he’s met by eleventy thousand people who have walked all day and between them have two sardine sandwiches and a scone.  So Jesus (after putting down the kittens) entered the vast crowd and with a heart moved with pity for them…he cured their sick.  We haven’t even got to the miraculous picnic yet but we can already see that Jesus gives a rip…about 20,000 actually (give or take an unaccompanied minor).

God’s message to us today is to give a rip, to care for the lost as Jesus himself cared for the lost, (and the hungry, and the wildly inconsiderate).  Are you tired?  God knows this.  Are you grieving? God knows this.  Do you have a bag of kittens nearby?  God knows this (and soon shall the RSPCA also know).  It is Covid season still, and whilst we are (more than) conquerors we are Victorians; where even Bordertown has thumping church-life today we have desolation.  I’m missing church so hard today that I don’t even feeling like going to church even if it was on, I am speaking the truth in Christ – I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit.  God knows this.  We cannot emulate Jesus fully: I could not have ministered to that crowd on that day that Jesus did, not with what Jesus had just been told; but Jesus did sustain that crowd and he’ll sustain our crowd too.

In Christ’s strength I am prepared to step up, in grief for Australia and fed-upness for Victoria’s lockdown, to minister where I am called.  Are you?

Give a rip, groan in prayer a little, and share your lunch.

Amen.

Ewe First

This is the text of my ministry message for the August 2020 pewsheet at KSSM.

I don’t remember when it was, the last time that I flew on a commercial aircraft, but it was certainly more than five years ago. The way things are going it may be another five years before I get the chance to fly again.  Anyway one thing I do remember from the many flights that I have taken in the dimly receding Past is the safety briefing on the larger planes, and especially the part about putting on your own Oxygen mask before assisting other passengers or random offspring with theirs.  There’s no point in you passing-out from hypoxia before you’ve got Junior’s mask on properly, but if yours is on and Junior passes out then the flow from the mask you fit next (Junior’s) will bring revival.

In his time of diminished air travel and excessive anxiety it can be easy for those of us with a compassionate bent to focus our attention on the stragglers and strugglers around us.  This is good, it is both a gift and a ministry of God’s Spirit at work in us and through us; however it can lead to a type of hypoxia if we aren’t careful for ourselves.  In the same way that you must fit your own mask first in an emergency, (and life jacket too I’d suggest), self-care is important for the carers of others in days like these.

As August comes and then goes, and hopefully our last month in lockdown (which I’ve been saying here every month since May, yes I noticed it too), I urge you all to take some time away for yourself.  When you are baking for me and for others (please and thankyou) don’t forget to have a cuppa and a bickie for yourself, first. When you are praying for me and for others  (please and thankyou) don’t forget to spend some time settling in The Father’s embrace as God’s own daughter or son, sister or brother of The Son, and allow God to refresh and revive (and resuscitate) you with the fullness of Shalom.  And please, if you ring the manse or text the pastor this month, and you don’t get an immediate answer, consider that I might just be fitting my own mask and I shall be with you presently and with full capability.

Pentecost 8A

This is the text of the message I prepared for Serviceton Shared Ministry for Sunday 26th July 2020.

So, how’d’ya go?  Last Sunday I set you the task of spending some spirit-searching time with God’s Spirit, to diagnose the condition of your faith and to discuss with God some therapeutic options for your growing in strength.  How was that?  For those who haven’t got to it yet there’s still time, (there’s always time with God), but there’s no time like The Present.

The parable of the Mustard Seed speaks to what some of us have done in the past week, and of course what we have heard in the past two weeks.  Once again Jesus speaks a farming parable, and he’s still in that boat just off the beach at Capernaum, the town where he lives and the hometown of Simon (Peter) and Andrew, and James and John.  The Kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed says Jesus, it is the smallest of all the seeds which grows to become the greatest of shrubs in its day.  Perhaps this means that from little things big things grow (undoubtedly true) and that in the context of Christian faith you don’t have to have much of God to start with, but by the end of your life walk you’ll have become something big and fruitful as God has grown you up.  That is true from experience, but it’s not all that Jesus is saying here.

One of my commentators informed me  this week that in Jewish traditions trees often represented the rule of a king, and birds were symbols of the oppressed people of God.  So the story of a shrub that becomes a tree big enough for nests is not just about how big the shrub grows from its tiny seed; the story is saying that Heaven’s Kingdom is a kingdom where the oppressed find shelter.  The Kingdom of God is not just a massive empire, it’s a spacious sanctuary.  Today (Jesus’ day) is not looking good for the Kingdom, says Jesus: present day Jerusalem is full of Romans, and the Roman Empire is enormous and vicious; but that’s not the future.  No, says Jesus, the future is that the tiny presence of God’s new thing in the world, the Kingdom coming through Jesus Godself, will one day outshine Rome and the Romes to come (Byzantium, Russia, Britain, Spain, USA) to be a place of enormous influence and abundant shelter.

So, how do these two ideas relate, and how do they connect with us?  Well it is true that big things do grow from small, no seed is ever bigger than the tree it produces, so the idea that what we see now can and will be bigger in the future, with the right conditions, is clear.  That Jesus is using this as a metaphor for the rolling out of the reign of God, and that the world will be safer with more God presence evident in the world in no way undermines the idea that I can grow in faith from small faith to big and be a more effective disciple and witness.  I suggest that these are related ideas, the more Christians there are in the world and the bigger the faith inside each Christian the more effective and spacious the Kingdom to come will be.  And, going back to last week, the best way to build bigger Christians is that each one spends time with God assessing the growth and condition of his or her heart.

Christians who are conditioned by God’s close attention, especially at that Christian’s invitation, are chosen by God to be effective in the world.  God sends out those whom God trusts to speak the truth and to speak effectively: the whole point of the Kingdom according to today’s gospel is that it is effective in saving the world.  In the parable after the one about the mustard seed Jesus speaks of the Kingdom as being like yeast.  Once again the kingdom is small and secretive, but give it time and it will has great significance in the future thing.  Yeast is another one of those daily items that has metaphorical meaning; in Jesus time yeast was considered to be a contaminant.  When the Kingdom of Heaven comes in power the kingdom’s people (that’s us) will spoil and corrupt the Roman, Flesh world; that’s the story of the Parable of the Yeast.  But in the meantime, as with any parabolic saying of Jesus, shh!

So the Kingdom is small but influential, and when the time is right it will be massive and welcoming.  Jesus also tells his disciples in private that the Kingdom is precious, priceless, and pure.  The Kingdom is worth attaining.  “Sing out your song, but not for me alone; sing out for yourselves for you are blessed! There is not one of you who shall not win the kingdom; the sick the suffering, the quick the dead,” sings Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar, and this is true even if it is not scripture. Buy the field, buy the pearl, sell all that you have and throw everything at this one thing because it is the only thing worth having says Jesus in Matthew 13:44-46.  Even if it costs you all that you had, go and buy it.  In the privacy of the house (Matthew 13:36) Jesus tells the disciples that the Kingdom sweeps up everyone in its net (Matthew 13:47) and that the good fish who represent the righteous people will be separated from the bad fish, and that the bad influences will be removed and destroyed.  And the point is not to worry “oh but what if I’m a bad fish”; the point is to exclaim “thank God that one day I’ll be in a world away from those things that distract from the things of God, I am blessed!”  The disciples, the ones in the house with him, understand the points that Jesus was making (Matthew 13:51) and are able to teach the same stories.  The Empire of God will crush and destroy all other empires, not only Rome but systems of religious legalism and human barbarity and injustice as well.

But that does still sound a bit scary; I mean, what if I am a bad fish?  Or, okay so I am a good fish (I’m a Christian) but I have a lot of “the flesh” in me and I’m easily led astray, what then?  Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness offers Paul in Romans 8:26, in the context of prayer and repentance.  The one who searches the heart knows what is the mind of the Spirit, (Romans 8:27), and God is this one who listens to what the Spirit says about you.  “This one”, says the Spirit, “is a work in progress: not there yet but well along the way, and being cooperative towards change”.  Our job as Christians, as citizens and participants in the Kingdom of God, is not to be perfect but to cooperate with the Spirit who is perfecting us.  Your strength comes from God, your healing comes from God, but God is not yet finished making you strong and safe.  In all things (good and not good) God works for good for those who love God says Romans 8:28, and that means that God is not restricted by your offerings but is free to use the wealth of options provided through grace.  So even if you are a good fish with a lot of worldliness left in you God can still use you, and heal that worldliness while you are ministering to others.  This is grace, that God can do more.  If God is for us who is against us? asks Romans 8:31, you needn’t resist God’s work of restoration any longer when you know that God is kind and is working for your benefit even in the bad times.

God is for us; God is for us; and in all things we are victorious and then some because of the One who loves and guides us.  But, where does this lead us?  To two places I think.

  1. When God searches for us in the world where we live, God is listening out for the noise of Holy Spirit at work in us. It is the Spirit’s groaning within us that draws God’s attention to the work of perfection going on.
  2. We are not separated from the love of God. God does not not love us (a double-negative says that God loves us even if we can’t think it’s true), and God does not keep the work of the Spirit in the world secret from us, rather we are fully informed partners in that work.

Our role in God’s work is to allow Holy Spirit access to our hearts for the work of perfection, and that we join the Spirit in praying (interceding) for the world in its brokenness.  Holy Spirit groans in prayer not because prayer is extraordinarily hard work (although it is) but because it is grievous work, it is groan inducing in its reality that the world is so sick and so sad that God’s essence groans with compassion.  Where God has not separated us from God’s love not only are we loved by God, but we are grieved by what grieves God – we groan too at the condition of the world and we urge God with the fulness of our own guts to make the world good.

When the Kingdom fully comes there will be grace enough for everyone, and shelter and healing for all.  Right now the Kingdom is small and hidden; it is insignificant compared to the globe of turmoil and the universe of pain.  This small but belligerent Kingdom is God’s work and God’s solution; now heed God’s invitation for you to check your spirit with God’s Spirit for healing and perfection and answer God’s call to the purpose of being one of those who activate the Kingdom in the world.  If you didn’t do it last week then I encourage you to check in with God for some spirit-care; in fact even if you did do it last week check in again for some more.  And then, on the way to wholeness by God’s grace, partner with God to bring wholeness to the whole world.  Go and be yeast.  Amen.

Pentecost 7A

This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM for Sunday 19th July 2020.  We were still in lockdown.

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43; Romans 8:12-25

The parables are radical and provocative stories, which is the main reason why they are told at all.  Throughout Matthew 13, and the other chapters made up of parables in the gospels, Jesus is teaching about the Kingdom of Heaven; the way the world will be when God alone reigns and all other kings and empires are overcome by the presence of God fully revealed in the world.  If Jesus was to teach openly about these things, to use a list of facts rather than a story with hidden meaning, then the people who are threatened by the Kingdom’s coming might have an insight into what lays ahead, and arrest and silence Jesus.  Of course this is ultimately what did happen; however, in the short term Jesus was able to get away with teaching subversive stuff by hiding it in his weird little stories.

The villain in the Parable of Weeds is satan, not Caesar nor the Sanhedrin, but this isn’t always the case where Jesus is teaching.  It’s true that satan doesn’t have an army occupying Jerusalem’s posh suburbs, so Jesus might have been able to be a bit more upfront this time, but in the middle of a long teaching time for him he’s kept up the narrative with the parable form.  So, let’s look at what Jesus actually says, openly then in private about what he said in parables and in public.

In Matthew 13:24a Jesus makes it clear that once again (or perhaps “still”) he is talking about the Kingdom of God and specifically what that Kingdom is like.  Then in Matthew 13:24b he tells the unique point of this story, that the Kingdom began as a good and pure idea which in Matthew 13:25 is seen to be destroyed later by the fault of an external force, an enemy who sows destructiveness.  Weeds are destructive, we know this from last week’s parable (which was only five minutes ago in Jesus’ day), where in Matthew 13:22 Jesus describes the weeds as choking influences.  So it is interesting that in this story the master does not instruct his slaves to get rid of the weeds which might choke the wheat; indeed he resists their offer to get out the Roundup because of the potential danger to the good crop.  It is as if Jesus has such faith in the seed of the gospel that he assumes it to be choke-resistant and weeding is not required.  Or maybe his confidence is in the soil, and that his crop will always grow better in his soil than weeds will grow.  “Nah, don’t worry about the weeds in this paddock,” he says, “weeds won’t grow well in that soil anyway so they won’t be a problem.”  Whether it’s a superior class of soil, or of seed, the danger from the weeds is lesser to the good crop than the danger of the weeding.

In last week’s parable the seed was the gospel and the soil was your heart; but today the good seed is you (the children of the kingdom according to Matthew 13:38) and the soil is the world.  There are two kinds of seed in this story and that same verse, (Matthew 13:38), tells that there is bad seed which is the children of the world alongside the good seed which you are.  At the right time Jesus will send the angels to remove the weeds and then to gather the harvest; the crop depending upon its seed ends up in the fire or in the barn, and that’s the point of the story.  Last week one of the points made was that good crop can be crowded out or choked by bad crop; this week Jesus’ people are imperilled by satan’s people, but Jesus’ people don’t need rescuing just yet because they will be known by their steadfastness even in peril.

So, what is your seed quality?  Maybe the better question, far more accusative and personal, asks which seed you are.  And, even more blunt, whose child are you?

In Romans 8:12 we are told that we owe nothing to the world but everything to Jesus.  Is that true of you?  How true is that of you?  Since I am writing for my congregation here, people I know to be Christians and children of the Kingdom (Matthew 13:38), I’m more concerned for degree than identity.  I know you are all Christian, none of you belong to satan at all, but as much as you belong to the kingdom how much do you belong to the kingdom, and how much do you still belong to the world?  How attached, how deep are you within the Christ whose you are?  How dead are you to the world and how alive to Christ: how much has the Spirit [put] to death the deeds of the flesh, your body (Romans 8:13)?

In Romans 8:13 we are told that those who live according to the flesh…will die, which does sound rather dire, however Paul goes on to say that if by the Spirit you abandon and neglect, (or even actively kill), deeds of the body you will live.  I see this not as a “sin leads to Hell”, to eternal death rather than eternal life, kind of teaching; rather it is a “stupid things have stupid results”.  Which is not to say that sin does not lead to spiritual death (it does), but this verse says more than that.

It was a widely publicised phrase a while back that “Christians are not perfect, just forgiven”, and whilst I’m much more likely to preach from scripture than from bumper stickers the phrase holds a lot of truth.  We are not perfect, yet, and we are in the process of being perfected, still, and in the mean-time when we do stupid things we require grace and forgiveness.  That’s what I get out of today’s passages, that it is good to hunger for God and righteousness and to want to be “a better Christian” by being more like Christ and less like the world.  But when you fall short and do something stupid; or you engage in some self-reflection on the quality of your person as a seed or a bed of soil, and you are disappointed at how far you haven’t yet come, the solution is not to sulk but to seek grace.

I was talking with a friend recently, (in fact she and I were workshopping sermons a bit and I wrote the first two pages of today’s effort in her company) and we were discussing the difference between treatment and diagnosis.  Without a diagnosis it is hard to get the right treatment, but with a diagnosis the treatment options are opened up.  I have a Mental Illness for which I take an anti-depressant medication, and I practice a healthy lifestyle where I avoid excess alcohol and stressing situations, and I drink a lot of water and spend a lot of time in solitude and quietness.  There’s no point in my taking insulin injections, or blood thinning medication; a wheelchair is of no use to me, and I won’t benefit from thrice-weekly physiotherapy.  At the same time if all I had was a diagnosis but wasn’t engaging in therapy at all then what would be the point of that diagnosis?  It would just be a name, perhaps a label.

Again I ask you the questions, as a diagnosis.  What is the quality of your seed?  What is the quality of your soil?  Whose child are you?  What deeds of the flesh do you continue to practice?  None of this is a about judgementalism or for me to assert moral superiority; it’s about you being able to identify areas in your life that you need to work on (or maybe work towards) by the Spirit (Romans 8:13), the same Spirit who is bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God; and if children then heirs (Romans 8:16-17a).

Jesus spoke often of the Kingdom of God in his parables, knowing that the news was radical and provocative: it is this same Kingdom of which we are joint heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17b).  The news of grace, and of God’s supportive empowering available to us (treatment) beyond God’s forgiveness of our sinful state (diagnosis), is equally radical, equally provocative.  In this knowledge I encourage you to take some time this week or next to search your spirit with the Spirit of God as company, diagnose and address with God the help you need, and then allow God to meet with your strength to work toward your salvation.

Amen.

A Roman Road

This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM for Sunday 12th July 2020.

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23; Romans 8:1-11.

Something I’d never noticed struck me as I read the gospel this week in preparation for sharing thoughts about it with you: Jesus tells The Parable of the Soils from a boat. Now there’s no reason why Jesus can’t do that of course, after all I’m now retelling it from a desk and a laptop. If you’re attached to Serviceton Church you might be watching me via YouTube, preaching to an otherwise empty room except for that laptop. I dunno why that bothered me; maybe I always thought of the parables as being a bit more local, as if Jesus would just grab something nearby or point to something in the visible distance and say “see this, well the character of God is reflected in this ordinary thing/scene because…” and there would be your parable. So when Jesus climbs into a boat, which is outside his house, and then he starts talking about farming rather than fishing I wonder. I do.

Okay that was a random and maybe pointless diversion, but that story of “The Parable of the Laptop” might have hidden meaning. Don’t forget to be surprised by scripture: even if you’ve read the stories before and you know every doctrine, dogma and memory verse, there might just be something new for you this time. I don’t know why Jesus told a soil story when he was sitting in a boat at Capernaum, but I’m a little bit delighted to have finally noticed that he did.

So, in this very familiar parable which Jesus does tell, more familiar here since many of you listening or reading today are farmers or neighbours of farmers, Jesus speaks about four kinds of soil. This parable is often called “The Parable of the Sower” and fair enough, but for me the point is the soil; the seed is the same and the sower is the same, it’s the soil that matters in this story. Some hear but the message is lost before they actually get it, others hear but the implications of the message don’t take hold, others still hear the message and its implications but other messages crowd out the hearing so the message is garbled or forgotten, others still hear the message and put it into practice and the Word goes forth to God’s own praise and glory. True, you probably can’t tell that story with fish, so it does seem that Jesus knew what he was doing.

True also is that if you’ve heard this story eleventy hundred times before you might tune out when it’s read. Or perhaps you like the story part in Matthew 13:1-9, but you’re not so keen on the evil one or the necessity to name the hundredfold against the thirty in Matthew 13:18-23 where Jesus shuts down all other interpretations. “I already know what’s going on here,” you say, “why do we have to read this one again?” Or “why doesn’t Jesus just let his parable stand for itself, by interpreting his own story he’s just undermining the parabolic genre entirely?” Interesting questions, so which type of soil asks these sorts of questions? Maybe there’s something new in your complaint and boredom, the sign of a movement in your faith. Maybe you are right to question Jesus and there is more than one interpretation of a parable, and maybe the soil degrades between seasons and the point of retelling the story is re-addressing the condition of your heart.

And yet, as Paul writes in Romans 8:1, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. If your once prime soil is lacking nutrients, or has become poisoned by the run-off from next door, the Parable of the Soils suggests that something can be done about that.

In all of his letters Paul is writing to Christians, and the promise of this verse for the Roman churches was for those who are in Christ Jesus. I understand this phrase to refer not to those who have answered an altar call and prayed “The Sinners’ Prayer” to walk “The Romans Road of Salvation” and who have learned “The Four Spiritual Laws”, but those who have heard the message of Jesus and who responded with joy (Matthew 13:20). At some point these people took notice of who Jesus was and trusted that he was who he said he was; they lived and moved and had their being within the world in the way that Jesus did. So, yes those who are in Christ Jesus are the ones who received salvation from sin; but it wasn’t about a rigid as a rote recitation of a written prayer of invitation or the memorisation and unwavering devotion to every word of the Nicene Creed, but a joy-filled response. In the parable these joyous recipients are the ones whose soil is rocky ground; perhaps a bit more rigidity might have kept the wavering Christian on the straight path. Or maybe dedication to rigidity threw the rocks up and hardened the fertile soil into lumps of clay. Moving from soil (our heart condition) to paths (the testimony of following), the Way of Christ is shown to be a better way than the way of rigidly legalised faith, just as much as the Way of Christ is better than a way of wordly compromise and spiritual shallowness. This is what Paul is saying and this is what I am saying. (So if you don’t like what I’ve just said, take it up with Paul.)

According to Paul in Romans 8:3 only Jesus can save: the Law can point out error but it cannot do anything to save a transgressor. In response to this revelation Paul invites us to emulate Christ in our lives: ultimately true discipleship is not about being careful around sin but about being carefree around Christ. Paul says this secure in the wisdom of experience that if you live for Christ then sin becomes an unlikely experience for you. The light of the Word (Psalm 119:105) is revealed in Jesus the Word made Flesh (John 1:1) and not in rigid adherence to the syntax and grammar of the scriptural texts. The New Revised Standard Version calls such a revelation for discipleship “Life in the Spirit” in its subheading for Romans 8; we can see this is true in two ways:

  1. In the spirit of the law we find the way in which the law was supposed to be read and applied.

  2. Life is supposed to be framed by the presence and up-taking of the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit who is counsellor, advocate, friend, and empowering one.

    Do not let your obedience of the Law get in the way of your discipleship of Jesus Christ reads Romans 8:7. If your way of following Christ by obeying the commandments and practising the rites and rituals of the faith leads you to act or think in ways that Jesus did not or would not act or think, then it is your way which is wrong, not Jesus and not his method for discipleship. And if your way is not the way of Jesus what does that say about your way? This is not condemnation from Paul or from me: Paul desires that the Romans follow Jesus, not him, and I desire the same for you. Receive this invitation to reflect upon what your Christian life looks like, and deeply ask yourself whether your Christian life looks like the life of Jesus. I’ll leave that for you to ponder.

Paul continues in Romans 8:9-10 and he reminds the Romans that no-one is bound by their narrow ideas of God but that all can be swept up by God into fellowship with Christ, by the Spirit. Those who have the Spirit belong to Christ, and because we have the Spirit we have life and not death. And if not death then not condemnation either, nor guilt, nor punishment, nor fear. We have a saviour who can deliver us from the consequences and shame of sin, not just a judge who points out our wrongdoing but is powerless to do anything more than point and frown, which is all the Law can do.

So walk with Christ in his Way; and let the one who is the Word of God, the light and lamp of God, guide your feet along the Way of God. To disciple to Christ is to choose the way God chose for him and to be fruitful and useful in that way. Provide a place for the seed to multiply, seek grace when the ground is poor, and live beside the Spirit who empowers you for service, and cossets you in love.

Amen.

Pentecost 5A

This is the text of the message I prepared for Kaniva Uniting Church for Sunday 5th July 2020.

Years ago when I was ministering in a local church one of the women there introduced me to the concept of the “humble brag”. The concept describes a person who runs below the radar most of the time, and is generally happy to be so, who then highlights that that’s been occurring. This is not supposed to be the ironic situation of “look at me, look how humble I am!!” but more the immediate desire to be noticed not being noticed, perhaps when the anonymity is wearing just a little bit thin and a boost in morale is needed to keep things going. A friend once self-described to me her role at work as “the tuxedo”, saying that she was usually left in the closet only to be brought out on special occasions. At the time of our conversation she was feeling a bit “used, in that she had had to work very busily and under extraordinary external pressure, immediately. Once the need for her had been met (by her activities) she was then shuffled back to inconsequentiality. I wonder whether “the tuxedo” is a humble-bragger, or just a braggart, or whether she was justifiably annoyed and simultaneously creative with her self-description?

It can be easy to humble-brag the gospel or to present false-modesty, which in themselves make it difficult for others to receive the gospel. If the God who makes you righteous where others are not then sends you out as a messenger of righteousness, how do you stop turning self-righteous? How do you play down the reputation of a braggart or snob-for-Jesus? Well, in looking at the lectionary offerings from Christian Tradition for July we are potentially opening the most consistently braggart book in the New Testament, Paul’s preacherly and dogmatic letter to the Romans. Ugh!

In Romans 6:14 we are told that as Christians we are servants of grace and not of law; consequently sin has no power over us. Sin cannot compel us to do anything because sin is not our master; sin is not the boss of me. If Christ truly is the boss of me then I live under a regime of grace; the same is true for any Christian disciple and sin has no place in the regime of grace. Sin is from a different kingdom and it has no jurisdiction and no power in the Kingdom of God. If a Christian sins then it is because he or she has freely chosen to do so, and not because of sin’s governance because sin is no longer governor if you are a Christian. That seems logical and it’s a heavy word; but does it mean that the sins of a Christian are more heinous because the Christian chooses to sin while the Heathen is forced into it as a slave to the world? It’s a great question, and I’m going to ask it again to leave it with you: are the sins of a Christian are more heinous because the Christian chooses to sin while the Heathen is forced to sin? (Yes it’s preacherly and dogmatic, but it’s gospel so suck it up Christian.)

I do not understand my own actions cries Paul in Romans 7:15. I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Perhaps it is not so simple to say that Christians are truly free and Heathens are completely chained to sin. For I do not do the good I want, he goes on to say in Romans 7:19, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Who’s been there in life, trying to do good and willing to do good but ultimately crashing at the delivery end? “How did that happen,” you ask yourself, “why did that happen, I mean, what the actual actually happened”? I’ve been there, and it appears that Paul has been too. So whatever is going on in Romans you know it’s not Judgey McJudgeface being all superior and…well…judgey. People often tell me after one of my Beyond Blue talks, or even a sermon where I touch on my history of chronic Mental Illness or Child Sexual Abuse, that I have been “brave” or “generous”: well here is Paul being the same. Paul preaches the hard-won victory of the righteousness of God in his life as a disciple, a righteousness which is his own by the grace of Jesus and the work of the cross, but it is never self-righteousness. If Paul is righteous it is because he has been saved by grace and not because he has saved himself by lawfulness. And Paul is righteous, by grace through faith; he knows this and so he has no case for self-righteousness. He also knows that, the not self-righteous part; it’s a lesson many of us might need to learn and put into practice.

So, in the next few weeks as we read on and also read back in Romans let’s read specifically with that lens. Let’s not be preacherly and dogmatic but let’s continue to remember that Paul is desperate for the grace of Jesus Christ to be at the front of all he says, and that his redeemed example is a sign of what the work of Christ has done for him, (and can do for you), rather than a moralising sulk against the condition of the hedonistic world he inhabits. His world does suck, ours does too, but it is Jesus who is the answer and not the five-minutes-redeemed Christians. This is why I read Romans as a kindly book and a letter of desperate love; because Paul knows his place (as a redeemed slave) and gurgles his joyous redemption, even as he acknowledges that he is still a slave to someone. Paul is now a slave of Jesus, he is no longer enslaved by or to his former hyper-religious or hedonistic selves. Romans is not about humble-brag.

So I do think, absolutely, that the sins of a Christian are more heinous; because I am that Christian and I recall making those deliberate choices to ignore God’s Law (which is holy, just, and good). But I also recall the grace of Jesus Christ and I am supremely confident in him that this grace is sufficient even for me. Where Paul self-identifies in 1 Timothy 1:15 as the foremost amongst sinners, I’m not convinced because that title actually belongs to me (humble-brag); however I am also one of the most excitedly redeemed men and I cannot glorify God enough. So, if you think you can out-worship me before the face of God for God’s generosity to me then I say bring it on Sunshine, and go your hardest. When it comes to giving it all to God the Saviour no-one can out-praise me: thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord who must continually rescue me from this body of death (Romans 7:25a, 24).

In the stories told by Jesus we find the same generosity to those who are being saved. Similar to Paul, but I think with much greater justification in doing so, we find Jesus in Matthew 11:16-19 having an actual moralising sulk against the condition of the hedonistic world. (After all he’s unique in not being part of the problem, it’s practically Hebrew prophecy.) Yet, I hear Jesus’ words not a judgementalism but as judgement, he’s accurate in what he’s saying, and he’s saying it with exasperation. “Oh man, you deaf and ignorant people, this world is such a poor place so why won’t you listen to God?” The point Jesus is making is that the people refuse wisdom in any shape: John was too ascetic (because demons) and Jesus is too sociable (because other demons). Yet wisdom is vindicated by her children (or by her deeds) says Jesus in Matthew 11:19; in other words look where the different paths are leading. John and Jesus point to the same thing from different angles, but the result is the same in that people have a new awareness of the Kingdom of Heaven and are coming into the saving, soothing, and salving reality of God’s presence. Meanwhile the scoffers of all angles become more loathsome and distressed: the Judgy McJudgefaces exist and they are very much outside the Kingdom of Heaven, and they are there by their own decision.

So, full of humble and devoid of brag Jesus turns his face (and attention) toward Heaven and he prays thanksgiving for the gift that wisdom in prophecy is to the world. The message of the Father-Son in this day’s revelation is twofold. We hear:

  1. There is a Father-Son relationship. God lives for community because God lives as community.
  2. The work of discipleship (the cost of entering community) is light. God is generous and gracious.

God is into friendship and God is not intro burden. Yes the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23) but God never wanted you dead so you aren’t accountable to that liability, unless you choose to be. God’s yoke, the constraint to partnership with God, is easy. If your yoke is difficult and uncomfortable, and your burden is heavy and tiring, the it’s not God you’re yoked to. It was your choice with whom to yoke, but if you once chose God and now find harshness in the task there’s an error somewhere. Have you been re-yoked to sin? Or are you yoked to Christ yet trying to pull more than your share of the load or walking out of step with him?

The Bible in all its traditions, Hebrew (OT), Christian (NT Epistles), and Jesus (Gospels) is judgemental: it has the mindset of judge. But it’s not to be read as “judgementalist” (which is the adjectival form of an -ism, a movement, and not the adjective of a verb), or “judgey” (the same idea but more Millennial). God has chosen right for you and if you chose God then you choose right: that choosing is a judgement. To be overly harsh in the Bible’s name is just as much a sin as to be overly lax in the Flesh’s name: in fact I’d suggest it’s worse, because it discredits God and it maligns grace. To push people away from Christ through churchified churlishness and judgementalism is sinful, heinous, and utterly ungodly.

Amen.

There’s no place like Home.

This is the text of my ministers’ message for the KSSM July 2020 news letter.

Last week I watched a film on DVD (remember DVDs?) and it was the most recent bio-pic of Judy Garland as presented by Renee Zellwegger. In the film “Judy” we get two versions of Miss Garland; the 46 year old in London as her star crashes and burns, and the 16 year old in Hollywood hanging out with a young Mickey Rooney and causing shenanigans on the set of “The Wizard of Oz”. In both cases the real Judy is far from home, much more so than Dorothy ever was; in fact I don’t think Judy had a home at all during those stages of her life.

Home for me is also a difficult concept. I know where I’m “from” in that I was born in Mitcham and grew up in Mulgrave and Wheelers Hill in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne. But that’s not really home, it’s just the place where I was a child. As a Christian I know where I’m “going” and I have a forever home with Jesus in his presence. Right now I live in Kaniva, and it is home for me because it’s where my life is; my cafes, my workplaces, my football club, my church, my bed, and my books. On 21st June I preached live to camera (and a small IT and music team) at Horsham Uniting Church: I stayed the weekend in the vacant manse next door and on Sunday afternoon I came “home” to Kaniva. Over the course of that weekend the Victoria and then South Australia Premiers reported that I wasn’t going to be able to go “home” to my family for a while longer: to my parents in Encounter Bay or to my sister, brother-in-law, and little nephews nearby.

The lock-down across Victoria (across the world) has had a sad effect on home. Some people cannot get home, isolated in hotels or at school and unable to travel to family and familiarity. Many people cannot get away from home, isolated in their familiar place and unable to travel to adventure, friendship, novelty, or the IGA. For some home is a trap and isolation has escalated their chances of being hurt by frustrated co-tenants or life partners: for others it has been a prison and has escalated their chances of being neglected and forgotten.

Church is our home: I believe this is true even more than to say Heaven is our home. Heaven is our destination; but the Kingdom of God on earth, in our hearts and in our midst, is where we live now. My prayer, for more than July 2020, is that Church-home will be a safe place.

A Communion

This is the text of a communion rite I wrote for Servi Church in the Churches of Christ tradition.

Recently I had a birthday which brought up a significant number of years. No, it’s not one of those that ends in a zero (although I’m getting close), more the multiplication of a significant age. In 2020 I celebrated turning sixteen for the third time, (so I’m 48 for those of you who struggle with the maths). There’s not much “sweet” about me and there wasn’t 32 years ago either; however my sixteenth birthday brought one specific present, a cassette of Steve Grace’s album “Children of The Western World”. This album was one of the first in Australia to be simultaneously released on vinyl, cassette, and CD, and it was Australia’s first Christian music CD release. More significant for me is that it still provides me with regular, gravelly-voiced ear-worms. I haven’t had that cassette for years, it disappeared long ago, but the music remains with me.

More recently another ear-worm has appeared, and again it’s Steve Grace who provided it. The almost constant soundtrack of life in Kaniva for me goes like:

Oh we need God in this town,/ We need Jesus/ Oh Holy Spirit come down! (“God in this Town” from the album Follow, c. Southern Land Records, 2001)

I met Steve in person once, and he’s now a mate of my dad’s. I’ve never heard Steve sing live, but then he’s constantly going on in my head anyway. Some of the time Steve Grace’s is the Voice of God, or at least what God’s voice sounds like some of the time.

In another week of Coronavirus deaths and restrictions, and #BLM deaths and curfews, it’s not just Serviceton who needs Jesus. Lock-down has made a mess of trips to Bordertown for some of us, but there’s not been rioting here and there’s been no Covid-19 deaths in the Wimmera. But we do need Jesus, and my prayer is that Holy Spirit will come down.

Let’s pray:

Yehu’shua, God’s Salvation, we need saving.

Our world is sick with illness and violence

and whilst our planet has been healing

our societies have been fracturing.

Holy Spirit come down.

As you eat and drink together in your households, alone (with Jesus), or as family, or even as a congregation of neighbours, know that the table wherever you are is The LORD’s table and that all are welcome to sit with him at it. Children of the Western World, and of the Southern and Eastern worlds too, all are family where the Father is acknowledged. Amen.

Qu’est-ce que tu veux de moi

This is the text of my ministry message to KSSM in June 2020. We were still in COVID lockdown.

I shall not travel overseas this year. “So what”, you might think, “nobody else shall either”. Okay yes, that is kind of my point; but you see I was supposed to be travelling overseas this year, and I’ve just this week transferred my deposit as deposit on a trip in 2022. This has put me in mind of one of my favourite travel writers who, while overseas, approached one of those public kiosks with a big “I” on top of it. “Oh wadda YOU want?” sneered the woman below the big “I”, not really what you’d expect. It’s a fair question I suppose, but the tone was a bit argumentative.

In Mark 10:51 we find Jesus asking a similar question. In front of Jesus is bar-Timaeus and everyone knows he’s blind. He only has a surname (literally “Son of Timaeus”) but you’d think his need is fairly obvious (he’s blind). Even bar-Timaeus’ desperation is no secret since he’d been calling for Jesus as the crowd passed; we know he’s not passive, he wants something. Jesus asks him what he wants. Now, can’t you just hear the whole crowd going “oh derr! he’s BLIND mate, what sort of prophet are YOU?” (It probably sounds less aggressive in Aramaic.) Bar-Timaeus doesn’t fuss, he says, “I want to see” and Jesus sends him off to wash his face, by which time the man is able to see.

Sometimes the question seems obvious, but the answer is not: like both of the stories above we need to ask and reply in the right spirit. Maybe that travel writer slunk away embarrassed and without an answer, maybe Jesus might have just thrown his hands up annoyed at the attitude of the crowd, and each issue would have been unresolved. With that in mind I ask what do you want me to do for you. We’re still in lockdown as you read this: so, what does my flock need from your shepherd? Shall I pray for you? Send more SMS or email messages? Visit you at home in groups of four (plus me plus host/ess)? Actual phone calls? Bible Study groups by Zoom? Obvious we might think, but is it what you want?

Twenty years ago when I belonged to a church in Darwin, one night we were having our regular Sunday night healing service, (…hmm, is that what you want from me? anyway…) and I went forward for healing. At that stage, my mental illnesses were thought to be physical and I had a diagnosis of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome; like “Anxiety Damien” now, everyone knew “Fatigue Damien” back then. But on this occasion I had a cold (yes, in Darwin!!) and a killer headache. I wanted prayer for my pounding head and dripping nose, but the prayer person who jumped on me started praying for release of the Chronic Fatigue demon(!!). Honestly, I was waiting for him to lay hands on my head just so that I could sneeze at him. This was an occasion when even the obvious (snot dribbling down my chin) was not obvious enough, and this pray-er neglected to ask me what I actually wanted prayer for. He knew my problem (demons) and the solution (spiritual warfare) and he went at it, leaving me feeling like china in a bull-shop. I have never forgotten that, and while I have forgiven my friend I have kept the memory as a reminder never to presume upon the obvious, (snot), or the established, (demons), when asking somehow how I can best pastor them. So, friends from Kaniva and Serviceton, I ask you for Winter 2020, what do you want me to do for you? (Answers on a cake-tin.)

Homeward Bound 2.

This is the text of my ministry message to KSSM for May 2020.  Covid-19 restrictions in Victoria kept us home-bound for another month.

Those of you who are Facebookers will know, depending upon your regularity on Facebook, that much is being done in that community to alleviate our collective boredom during the Covid-19 lockdown. Recently I have been posting each day the cover art of one album (of music) which influenced my taste in music, and as someone born in 1972 my formative experiences range between the 1980s and 2010s decades so there’s a bit to say.  Today I’m reflecting on those choices, and I notice that on many of those and other formative albums there are songs about home and homecoming.  “Going Home” by Don Henderson (© Elektra) reads: I’m going home (I’m going home)/ I’m a long time overdue,/ I’m going back (I’m going back)/ To the place that I once knew./ It’s a long time since I left,/ And things have changed a lot,/ And I don’t really know if I’m/ Going home or not.

There’s a lot that’s covered in those lines, not least for me is my memories of the place I was in my life when I heard that song and sang along to it.  It’s a song from my childhood (it was written in 1978) and I have memories of singing along on family road trips to dad’s cassette, (remember cassettes?), or in various parks and gardens around Melbourne at live concerts.  The house we had in 1978 is no longer in my family’s care, (we left there in 1986 when dad went to UFT in Melbourne to study for ministry), and it looks very different today.  Even though I claim on Facebook that Mulgrave is my hometown, if ever I was “going home” it wouldn’t be to there.

Church will be different, and things will have changed a lot, when we get back inside our buildings in a month or so’s time.  We’re now online through YouTube and Zoom, even email, I’ve spent more time on the phone and especially writing text messages, and my email load has increased in both directions (in and out) in ways that I don’t think will be seeing a reduction.  “Above All” by Paul Nevison (© Integrity’s Hosanna Music, Hillsong Music Publishing Australia) reads: How blessed are those who dwell in Your house,/ Whose lives become roads that you travel,/ They wind through the valleys to the light of the sun./ One day in this beautiful place to worship,/ Your house is our home,/ Where our faces will shine in the light of the son.

Our home is in God’s house, which metaphorically and literally is the local church building, but it is more than that too.  Home is changing, just as much as the Middle Pub did a few months ago, we are not going back to the place we left.  Throughout May let’s think about what we want home to look like when we get back there, back to God’s house, and back to the place where we feel “at home” in The Lord.  There will be some things familiar, unlike the Middle Pub the furniture and the decorations have not changed (don’t worry!); where we find that what is new is not as effective as we thought it might be we can change it back, not unlike the Middle Pub (don’t worry!).

The Christian Church, of which we are a small but integral part, is constantly changing;  but we do not change only for change’s sake.  Just because we now can does not mean we will be livestreaming the Shared Ministry to the world every Sunday.  At the same time, now that we have been forced to think inclusively of those who cannot attend church on a Sunday (which right now is everyone), we will not be forgetting how to do this, or why we do it, when most of us can go to church but some of us still cannot.  The house is already different, as it must be.  But the house will always be home, therefore it must not be too new or strange either.  I look forward to seeing you all soon, in person, but Zoom will do for as long as it must.

Damien.