Mighty to Save 2 (Easter 4C)

This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM for proclamation on Sunday 12th May 2019.

Acts 9:36-43; Psalm 23; John 10:22-30

In today’s story from the Jesus traditions the writer makes the point that these events take place in winter.  But it’s not about it being cold, it’s about the setting of the event during the Festival of Dedication.  Hanukkah goes for eight days, usually in December (depending how the Jewish and Roman calendars line up), and it recalls the rededication of the temple by the Maccabeans after their revolt against Syria in 167-160 BCE.  The centre of the celebration, other than the routing of the invaders and the rededication of God’s temple to God, is that it was followed by a century of Jewish independence which flowered between 160 BCE and 63 BCE.  In 63 BCE the Romans had arrived, and by the time we take up the story of Jesus in Solomon’s Portico they had been present in Judea for nearly one hundred years. That’s why it’s important to know that it is winter.  “Winter is coming” we might say; there is a “game of thrones” afoot.  So, is Jesus about to do a Judas Maccabeus and throw off the foreign oppressors; is he the Messiah or not?  That’s the actual question the Judeans are asking him in John 10:24; “Jesus if you are ‘Messiah’ then where is the army coming from and when is the uprising?”  And what does Jesus respond?  He says (and you can read it for yourself in John 10:25) I have told you and you do not believe.  So what does that mean in the context of this story?  Well it means two things actually: a) yes I am ‘Messiah’, and b) I keep saying that the Messianic plan is not about an army but you’re not listening.  Let’s keep reading from John 10:25, the works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me, but you do not believe because you do not belong to my sheep.  Jesus ends his response with the claim that he and The Father are “one”.  If we were to read on we would find that the Judeans are ready to stone Jesus, right there in the temple according to John 10:31, because of this claim.

This story is the only place in John’s gospel where Jesus is directly asked to name himself as “Messiah”, in other places he’s asked if he’s “one whom we might expect” or words to that effect.  And Jesus does not say “I am the Messiah” in language as plain as that, but rather than what Jesus does not say let’s look again at what he does say.  He says I have told you, so the question has already been answered, and he says the works I do in my Father’s name testify to me…The Father and I are one, which he offers as interpretation and evidence of that answer.  Jesus is not saying that he is God, but as I’ve said just now that is what the Judeans hear him say and they are ready to kill him: no, what Jesus is saying is that his work, the things he has been doing, are indistinguishable from the work of The Father.  Jesus is not The Father, they are not the same person, but these two individual identities have one agenda and one mindset; they are completely united.  For me, when Jesus speaks like this at Hanukkah and a Hanukkah when there are centurions in Jerusalem, he’s probably baiting the Judeans even more with what he really is saying.  Claiming to be God is blasphemy, fair point: but claiming to be the 100% embodiment of the agenda of God in the world, and then living that out by non-violent anonymous activities of prayerfully casting out illness, death, and demonic spirits, and specifically not casting out the Romans…well that needs shutting right down right now!

I wonder, what has Jesus told us about God’s agenda?  How has Jesus demonstrated God’s agenda, God’s heart to us in West Wimmera and Tatiara?  What do we want to shut Jesus up about before the message gets too far: what is he telling us to do instead of engaging in the fight we’ve been brewing for a hundred years?  Who, or what are we not supposed to overthrow?  Who are we supposed to not kill and kick out but deliberately welcome and serve because we are Church?

When Peter is invited to Joppa, and to the death-bed of Tabitha, we are given an insight into Jesus’ preferred options of discipleship.  In Acts 9:36 Tabitha is specifically called a disciple, (the Greek word specifies that she is a disciple and that she’s female), and her discipleship is proven by her reputation for good works and acts of charity.  Later, in Acts 9:39 personal testimony is added to reputation as all the widows wept and showed clothes that Tabitha had made.  Tabitha had served the poor and the marginalised, with practical help, and not one had been overlooked: all the widows had been made tunics.  It is likely that Tabitha was herself a widow, perhaps living in a communal house of widows, so she’s not just some charitable socialite giving her Cup Day hats to the Op Shop, Tabitha is herself poor and marginalised but that doesn’t stop her from showing love for others.  This is a woman in Christ’s image, truly a disciple as much as Peter himself.

But let’s not overlook Peter himself, look at his discipleship here.  He goes with the two men, who come to him at Lydda and bring him to Joppa, and he enters the house of weeping women.  That the widows are showing him their tunics and other stuff suggests to me that Peter took the time to be with them in their grief, he didn’t rush through the sook-fest of sobbing biddies and he didn’t think to see the room as that at all.  No, Peter deliberately stopped, and he comforted these distraught sisters, and he understood their loss.  Then he sends them all out of the room, and he goes across to Tabitha, and he greets her by her name. This is important because she’s been referred to as “Dorcas” in the story, which is not her name but a Greek language nickname.  So, calling her by her name he says “Tabitha, get up”, so a bit like when Jesus said talitha arise in Mark 5:41, and then he helps her up and he showed her to be alive to the widows whom he has invited back into the room.  See how much he has the heart of Jesus: not only the agenda of The Father outworked in healing the sick and raising the dead, but Peter basically follows Jesus’ dot points from Jairus’ house.  And having done as Jesus did Peter then stays in Joppa, he doesn’t return to Lydda, and more that that he stays at the house of Simon the Tanner we are told in Acts 9:43.  Simon works with leather and with chemicals to turn flesh into leather: so he’s handling dead animals, and he’s using ammonia drawn from urine to tan the leathers.  I wonder, how fragrant was Simon’s house?  How popular was it as a social hub do you think, a place of flesh, piss and vinegar?  Not only was Simon considered unclean by his profession, his house would have stunk: so why did Peter stay there?  We aren’t told, but I can guess.  Why, why do you think Peter stayed with Simon Tanner? Because he was invited?  Maybe having done the Jesus-and-Jairus episode Peter goes on to the Jesus-and-Zacchaeus thing.  No Pharisaic or Puritanic piety for old mate Pete, (who grew up stinking of fish anyway, let’s be fair), no Peter takes Jesus at his word and example to stay where he is invited and to leave only when the work is done.  Peter had more to do in Joppa, have a look at Acts 10 and see what God did next.  This is a man in Christ’s image, truly a disciple as much as Tabitha herself.

And so we get to my favourite thing about writing and preaching a sermon; no, not the end (bad luck, sucks to be you, I’ve still got a page and a half to go), no, we are at the bit where we look at a very familiar reading in a new way because of the other readings attached to it by the Lectionary.  So, with Jesus at Hanukkah in mind; and Tabitha and Peter and Simon Tanner in mind; what is God saying to us from “The Twenty Third Psalm”.

Discipleship of Jesus living out the agenda of God in quietly miraculous ways of healing, blessing, kindness, restorative action, justice, and with an example lived out through Peter and Tabitha; discipleship that is not about overthrowing the Romans, looks like Psalm 23.  How?  How?  How about confidence that there is no need to struggle for liberty when God meets all your wants with rest and lush pasture, still water, right guidance and restorative rest as we read in Psalm 23:1-3.  There’s nothing militaristic about that; but it’s not weak.  Psalm 23:4-5 speaks of confidence in the dark places, maybe even battle where into the valley of death rode the six hundred; confidence that there will be an “after battle” when there will be a meal and a good soak and a glass of red.  Good things will pursue you, God will come at you with mercy and healing and the offer of hospitality and a place to live forever in God’s house, we are encouraged to believe in Psalm 23:6, if only we live with trust.  This is not about Heaven for disciples, although there is that, it is about a life of calm trust that God is your provision and that if you are a disciple, a student, a follower, a pilgrim in the master’s mob, then you’ll be right.

Look, it won’t always be nice.  Just today we have been told how Jesus was very close to getting himself pelted to death with rocks, Peter slept in a house that smelled like the public toilet at an abattoir, Tabitha died from illness, and the widows were bereft and bereaved by her loss.  These are not nice adventures, and they were not one-off events either.  Jesus was threatened with death more than once, and he was brutally murdered in a way where stoning would have been a mercy.  Peter grew up stinking of fish, he too died by crucifixion, and he was left bereft and bereaved by Jesus’ death.  Tabitha was raised to life, but the fact that she was a widow suggests that she was married to a man who died at some point and then stayed dead.  And the would-be Maccabeans did kick up in 70CE, and Joppa would not have been any more fun a place to live as a houseful of widows than Jerusalem when the Romans out of Caesarea fought back.  For anyone living in such times, stuck and feeling abandoned in the valley of the shadow of death, the table set before enemies would have seemed like an impossible dream.  But the hope of the gospel says that it is not so, and that there is a resurrection, and there is a pursuing Christ with healing and happiness in his hands.

There is no need to fight.  Trust, acknowledge, rest.

Amen.

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Seen by Women (The Day of Resurrection)

This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM for Easter Day 2019.

Luke 24:1-12; Acts 10:34-43

Hmm, “they”.  I am always dubious about they.  “They”.  You know “they”, don’t you; they of “they have been saying”, or they of “they wear their shirts untucked these days”, or they of “they think that it’s dangerous to eat those foods now”. They, phsh!  So when Luke 24:1 tells us that “they” came to the tomb I immediately want to close my ears: who cares about they?  Not me, because if “they” truly mattered then “they” would have had names and faces, and “they” would have come to tell me to my face rather than sending you to tell me what “they” think.

Sadly you don’t have to be a pastor or a leader to be suspicious of “they”.  Indeed the “they” that Luke wrote about have been ignored and shunned since the day that Luke wrote about, even before Luke wrote about the day, which is probably why they are “they”, and not…well not who they actually were with their real names and faces.  So who are they, this “they”?  In the Greek text we don’t find out until Luke 24:10 who they were, although in some English translations we at least get a pronoun in Luke 24:5.  So they are “the women”, specifically Mary Magdalene, Joanna the wife of Herod’s chief of staff, and Mary the mother of James.  Also with them were “the other women”, you know, “they”.  And what happens when “they” begin to tell the story of the empty tomb?  Well it’s pretty clear in Luke 24:11 what happens, they are accused of idle talk and the apostles do not believe them.  Fair enough because “they” are women and you know, women eh, idle talk: they are not apostles, they are not men; they are not to be trusted or believed without corroborating evidence from a man, a man who is not one of “they” but one of “us”.  And for two thousand years they have been written out of the story, except as minor characters who prompted Peter to go to the tomb where he was amazed.  And then Peter went home.

I don’t know about you, I hope you agree with me, but it really doesn’t matter if you don’t because I am going to say it anyway: praise God for they!  If it wasn’t for “they”, the women who went to the tomb then Peter (who did not go to the tomb initially) would not have known that Jesus was raised.  And if it wasn’t for “they”, the women, continuing to tell the obtuse ten after Peter went to the tomb that Jesus was raised then no one would have known because Peter, (who went to the tomb and found it abandoned), went home without telling anyone.  So it’s a blessing for us that “they” did tell!

It was “they” to whom the angels spoke, it was “they” who remembered what Jesus had told them while he was still alive, and it was “they” who first carried the news of the resurrection of Jesus to the weeping world.  So when that other “they”, they with their untucked shirts and their ingredients-free diets, and “they” in their constant state of “have been saying”; when they tell you that women have no place in Christian leadership or proclamation, you tell them that without women there would have been no Christian leadership or proclamation to begin with.

Without these women there would have been no Peter, beyond Good Friday at least.  And with no Peter beyond Good Friday there would have been no sermon in the house of Cornelius, and therefore no assurance that God does not show partiality based on race, no assurance that God accepts with gladness all that come to God with humility and openness, and no assurance of peace and rest.  It is not just the resurrection that brought shalom to the world, not just the resurrection that brought forgiveness through grace by faith, not just the resurrection that jumped the rollout of the kingdom of God into a higher gear; it was the news of the resurrection, the news proclaimed first by women, then by Galilean peasants and fishermen, which did that.  The news proclaimed to “us” by “they” is the news that in God through Christ there is no us and they, that all are “we”, and we are God’s own.

Without women, and without Peter and the apostles, there would have been no Paul.  With no Paul there would be no Church in Corinth, no Christians in Europe, and no Christians among the European people of the planet.  (So, no Christian whitefellas in Australia.)  There would have been no letters to the Church in Corinth, and no assurance that since Christ has been raised from the dead, and that his gospel was vindicated by God, that ha-satan is on the way out and that the ultimate victory of the Kingdom of God, and the God of the Kingdom, is assured.  No resurrection: no hope says Paul.  Resurrection but no news of the resurrection: also no hope says Paul.  Our job as Church is to proclaim the resurrection, and hope, to those who haven’t yet heard, and those haven’t heard properly.  But who told us the news?  And who told them, and them before them?  With no women there is no proclamation and no hope.  With no hope, there is no life.

So, who have you chosen not to listen to?  Through whom is God not allowed to speak to you?  “Yeah, I’ll listen to Joyce Meyer, but not the local bloke, because she’s anointed and he’s just appointed.”  Or “I’ll listen to Rick Warren, but not to Joyce Meyer, because women shouldn’t preach.”  Or “I’ll listen to anyone on a podcast but I’ll never read a book, because it’s 2019.”  Or “I’ll listen to Damien, but not to anyone from the Baptists, because Damien’s humour and scholarship are awesome.”  Who are you shutting out?  Well, you’re shutting out God, d’uh, but you know what I’m asking.

More important to me is, whom are you shutting off from God?  From whom are you withholding the gospel, whom are you not talking to?  I’m pretty sure that Joanna and the mob of Marys knew that the male apostles wouldn’t have a bar of what they were saying, but did it stop them saying it?  No, it did not!  Would it stop you saying it, has it stopped you saying it?  I’ll leave that with you to ponder.

We are each and all called to proclaim because first we were each and all chosen to receive: chosen by God (as all are, without partiality); and chosen by whomever told us (having first gathered herself around her bravery against our possible rejection of her as gospeller).  The message of the risen Jesus, the vindicated forth-teller of the Reign of Heaven, is that hope lives and that God is gracious and welcoming through God’s own invitation to come and be welcomed and to learn to trust.  Like the women who first told it, the gospel itself is resilient, resolute, and relentless; strong against resistant voices yet soothing for those who need to be enveloped by its embrace.  The women were not silenced by the disbelief of the eleven, but they continued to sing and dance the message of the abandoned sepulchre and the abundant celebration until at last the men were stirred to look, and were amazed.  Isn’t this the hope that stirs your heart, your guts, your grin this morning?  Is it not so that Jesus is Risen, and so can you be, and so can “they” out there be, because the One who can raise the dead can certainly restore the broken?  Is it not so?  Is our God, our King, our brother not dependable and true?  Is this not a faith worth keeping?

Keep the faith, but in the model of the Marys and Joanna do not keep it to yourself.  “They” out there need to hear it, so don’t stop telling out your soul until they do.

Amen.

How do we care?

This is the text of my ministry message for the newsheet at KSSM for February 2019.

That’s an interesting question I think, “How do we care?” because there are many answers.  I have been thinking about it in preparation for some appointments I have in February.

In my previous churches in Gippsland pastoral care was one of the things the people wanted me to teach them about.  I was in a supply role, preaching every Sunday and doing some visiting one day a week, and I was asked whether I could run a Q&A for the congregation on what I do and how I do it.  Sadly time never allowed for that even; my diary was too full with visits to the aged care facility and to people’s homes for me to set aside time to explain my work, but “how do we care” as a request for training in care is a great question to ask.

In my previous job in South Australia pastoral care was the key aspect of the work: I was a “Christian Pastoral Care Worker” in a school and on-the-spot care rather than evangelism was what I was supposed to do.  That occurred often in by sitting outside classrooms with a kid who needed to “take 5” because of something happening in his life right then, or “just being there” unobtrusively in the classroom for the same kid.  That role led me to work as a speaker with Beyond Blue, a job I still do and will be doing at Lameroo on 7th February.

How do you care?

Damien.

Advent 1C

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Kaniva and Serviceton for Advent Sunday, 2nd December 2018.

Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-10; Luke 21:25-36

Today is Advent Sunday, therefore the wreath.  Today we enter a new Christian year as far as the three-year cycle of the Lectionary goes, so, Happy New Year, it is now “The Year of Luke” in case you’re interested.  With the change of season I am wearing purple rather than my usual green, (have you noticed), and today we focus our thinking on the coming of Jesus.  Advent is not only four weeks for preparation for Christmas and our remembrance of the Word becoming Flesh, of God coming to Earth and dwelling amongst us, (the literal phrase is “tabernacled” which basically means that God comes and pitches God’s own tent in our camp); Advent is also when we think about the return of Christ and the fulfilment of all promises made by God.

In our reading from the Hebrew tradition this morning God says that the days are coming when righteousness shall come to the earth as a fulfilment of God’s promise to David.  This righteousness shall bring national and domestic security we read in Jeremiah 33:14-16.  To the original hearers of this message, so Jeremiah himself and the people we spoke to, this meant that God was promising to restore the Davidic monarchy with a king so just and righteous that his personal name would be surpassed by his reputation.  For people who were living in exile this was an amazing promise, because not only would they return from Babylon and Persia to Judea and Jerusalem, but the kingship would be restored through the previous royal family, and the king in the fulfilment would be beyond magnificent in his reign.  This is like the king we heard about last week, a new David for whom the whole nation will shout abundant thanks and praise to God in gratitude.  For Christians reading this passage we get echoes of Christ, of Jesus who will be king beyond all other kings in righteousness and justice.  This is an Advent promise.

And like the king of last week, what we read in Psalm 25 might be the personal prayer of a (new) leader asking God for guidance and wisdom in his reign; and as all great prayers for wisdom in leadership begin this prayer begins in worship.  In my experience as a leader in this community, alongside experience gained in other communities where I have watched leaders and been a leader, I know that I cannot lead anyone unless I am willing to lead myself and to be lead by God.  I cannot lead you as a congregation if I am not under God’s authority and listening for God’s wise counsel.  How can I lead you where I have never been?  I cannot.  And how can I lead you where I am unwilling to go?  Of course I don’t mean the future, I have never been to the future so I can’t lead you there from personal experience; I mean discipleship.  I am no great disciple; I do not think of myself like the scribes of three weeks ago, I am no saint in any but the most grace-filled definition of the word.  But I am a devoted, prayerful, Bible-literate, Christ-centred disciple of God and that is what I want to lead you in.  Where God takes this congregation as a body of devoted disciples is God’s business, and that of the leaders listening to and responding to God’s word.  My job as your pastor, (and specifically in this role right now as the preaching-elder), is to build you into that body of devoted believers and listeners to God’s word.  I cannot do that unless I am first a disciple and a listener.  So it is with the great and future king of Jeremiah 33, if I am to lead these people says the candidate for leadership in Psalm 25:1, then I must start with my own character.  This is a good man, I like this man, he has his priorities straight.  Of course nothing in this Psalm says that it’s a king who is praying only that it is a person seeking guidance and deliverance.  We are told David wrote it, so he’s a man rather than a woman, and he is king at some point in his life; but this is an anybody prayer in that anybody can pray it with confidence that God will answer it.  Listen to me LORD, whoever I am, and keep me close to you.  Teach me about you, teach me your path, teach me your truth, and lead me in those two things.  Forgive me and be gracious when I fall, and remembering your mercy lift me up when I need it.  How great you are God, how wonderful you are in generosity to wait for us and slow down to teach us along the way.  How worthy of praise you are God, you are loving and faithful and good.  There are some more Advent promises, perhaps a little bit hidden, but still there.  This is how one man three thousand years ago found God to be like; if David is to be believed and God is everlastingly loving and faithful then these things are true of God today.  This is what God is like, and you are welcomed into God’s family if you want to take hold of this friend and saviour as Lord.

Our reading from the gospels this morning points us at Luke 21:25-36 where Jesus is teaching the disciples on the Wednesday of his last week.  This event takes place just after Jesus has commented upon the poor widow and her two pennies which we heard about a few weeks back, and some comments from the crowd about how awesome the temple complex is.  Jesus’ response is this passage which speaks about the coming of The Son of Man and the need to watch and be fruitful in the meantime.  And just listen to what he is saying in Luke 21:25-33, the event of the Coming of the Son does not sound pleasant, but you need to get ready because it’s about to happen.  As Christians reading the Bible in 2018 we know that these events did not take place around Nazareth and Beit Lehem when Jesus was born; yes there was a star but there were no great portents and we are not told that the sea went berserk, so we assume that it didn’t.  What seems to be happening is that Jesus is speaking of a time in Jerusalem’s future and Kaniva & Serviceton’s, when the Son of Man comes a second time, coming in all his Godly power and great glory as Luke 21:27 reads.  Perhaps of greater concern to us as Christians reading the Bible in 2018 is that these events did not take place around Jerusalem when Jesus died or in the forty years or so after; indeed they haven’t happened like that at all.  In Luke 21:32 Jesus indicates that these events were about to happen, and that a forty-year deadline was probably generous: so what happened such that what was supposed to happen did not happen?  Well, nothing happened, but that’s not the point.

So, what is the point?  Well the point is what comes next in Jesus’ words, be on your guard as we read in Luke 21:34, and be alert we read in Luke 21:36.  Don’t worry about when it didn’t happen, be ready for when it does.  And how do we be ready?  [Congregation interaction time, how do we be ready?]  Discipleship.  [Weren’t you listening before?]  Yes, discipleship; we get on with acting with righteousness and justice and love with the guidance, grace and equipping of the one who promises to be steadfast and faithful, and who more than three thousand years of Jewish history has proven to be true.  That Jesus may not have been speaking about “this generation” as the actual people alive on that day but referring to an attitude of complacency among religious people which has continued through to this day, is not the point.  That the fully-human Jesus speaking in 30AD may have got God’s timing wrong in his mind is not the point.  That the writers of the gospels working in the 60s-80s AD may have got the God’s timing wrong and wrote into Jesus’ mouth words that Jesus never said, words that would have rung true in Jeremiah’s day and connect better with the then five-centuries-old encouraging story of God’s deliverance of the Jewish exiles and the situation of Jerusalem in the 70s than the situation in the 30s, words that would be an encouragement for Christians in the present situation in Rome or Asia living with Nero and Diocletian and an amphitheatre full of gladiators and lions, is not the point.

Phew!  No, the point is that God is faithful, the promise is sure, the Son of Man shall return, and Christians and Jews need to get busy in the meantime proclaiming the Kingdom of God through lives of faith-filled compassion, love-filled justice, and hope-filled confidence.  That is the point because that is what Advent is all about.

Amen.

The Remembrance of God

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people gathered at Kaniva and Serviceton on Sunday 11th November 2018.  It was the centenary of the Armistice and the 25th Sunday of Pentecost in Year B.

Mark 12:38-44

Good morning Church.

Today is a significant date in the history of the planet, and specifically in the history of Australia.  One hundred years ago today, at 11:00am Paris time, the guns of the Great War fell silent.  Today, in the remembrance of God, we actively recall the ultimate sacrifice of the 1st AIF on land, sea, air, and ward.

Today’s stories from Mark 12 locate Jesus in the temple in the days before his death.  Maybe that’s a good point of connection between the scriptures and the calendar.  We get to earwig on Jesus on Wednesday knowing that by Friday he’ll be dead – perhaps like an entrenched Anzac preparing to go over the top an hour before sunrise.  I think there’s more to it than that, more to Jesus’ teaching and more to who and what the Anzacs are and were, but we’ll get to that in good time.

First, the Bible stories.  So we find Jesus teaching the crowds who have gathered for the festival of Pesach and who have then wandered across the temple courts to hear him.  Since Palm Sunday, which was three days ago in Jesus’ time he has been busy and has actively cleansed the temple of its corrupting traders and enacted a parable about fruitlessness by cursing a fig tree.  Jesus has spoken at length about integrity in religious observance, teaching from the parable of the wicked tenants and by more direct explanation about taxation, about Heaven, and about obeying God in the way that God desires.  And Jesus has spoken about who he is with respect to the ideas of the day around what the messiah would be like.  Today’s readings continue the teachings on integrity, making clear that what God desires in worship and discipleship is action done for God and for no one else.  It is good to be an example to others, but it is not good to seek fame simply for doing what God expects of those who follow the Way of Jesus.  The example of the scribes is actually an example to be avoided, the example of the widow a little more complex.

The two stories give alternative views of widows.  In the scribes’ way of thinking widows were destitute and therefore to be cared for; that’s what the scriptures taught and as scribes the interpretation and implementation of the scriptures was their area of expertise.  Jesus has seen through their false piety; he saw the long robes and the desire for titles, he saw the desire for prestige the scribes held for being seen to do the godly thing rather than humbly serving the widows out of obedience to God.  Jesus also saw that the false piety is a reflection of the false charity going on as well, and that with the widows’ welfare in their hands some of the scribes were exploiting their position, making money out of the care of the poor and leaving the widows worse off than they would have been had they been left alone.  Shift the widow out of her big house into a little house, or a shared house, then sell the big house and keep back some of the money as commission, that’s their plan.  After all, who is going to argue with a scribe, who is going to contradict a pillar of society?  No one, that’s who, especially not a widow with no adult male relatives.

That’s the scribes’ view of widows, but what is Jesus’ view?  Jesus’ view is that widows are capable of more than being the passive recipients of welfare or the absurd victims of corrupt officials.  The scribes devour widows’ houses in Mark 12:40 as they hold back the profits for themselves, but one particular widow contributes all she has to live on in Mark 12:44, holding nothing back for herself and giving all she has to God.  That’s how I choose to read this anyway.  Maybe Jesus is continuing to criticise the system, arguing that this widow feels obliged to give her last two pennies and that even this woman is being exploited right before their eyes.  If you read the story that way then the widow is still a victim of exploitation, and I think you can read it like that, the words on the Biblical page allow you to understand the story that way.  Maybe both are true; the widow is being ripped off by the religious leaders but she still trusts God to look after her anyway.  This is a woman who won’t be defeated by the system, because her confidence is not in ritual obedience and begrudging handouts from the welfare division of the local religious authority, but in the God she trusts and knows she is loved by.

The scribes are what used to be called “yuppies”, they are literate in a society where most people were not but beyond literacy these men were academics and lawyers.  Many may have come to Jerusalem from regional or rural areas and have made a go of it in the city; they are both proud of and uncertain about their position as social climbers.  They are not the dumb peasants that their parents and brothers are, but they aren’t completely secure in town either since they live amongst peers whose families are city people or merchants or priests. If you’re a bushie trying to show how civilised you are then your appearance and your reputation are everything.  On the other hand the widow is secure in her identity, somewhat because she doesn’t have one.  There is no pretence to be had in being the left-over woman in a family where all the men have died, and so the widow relies only on God for her sense of self, and God thinks she’s amazing.

Perhaps that’s why when it comes to brining the tithes and gifts into the temple the widow is confident to hold nothing back.  With no reputation to uphold, no image to maintain, no bribes to pay and no need for a fancy wardrobe and enough wine for unexpected honoured guests the widow can give all she has to worship her lord and saviour.  She has given her whole life to God, everything she is worth in the eyes of the world has been laid on that tray in the temple; she made the ultimate sacrifice and she had no hesitation in doing so.

Sacrifice is a word we hear a lot of today, and this day especially since it marks the centenary of the ceasefire which brought the fighting part of the Great War to a close.  Technically the war did not end until the surrender documents were signed in Paris on 28th June 1919, and peace was ratified on 10th January 1920; but as every Australian child at school in the past hundred years has been taught, at precisely 11:00 Paris time on the morning of Monday 11th November 1918 the guns fell silent.  We know that many women were left widowed by the events of the Great War, millions of women across Europe lost husbands to enemy fire where they were soldiers, sailors, airmen, or civilians caught up in the battle.  Millions more women in Australia and New Zealand never saw their husbands return.  Add to that the women who lost sons, the girls and boys who lost fathers, and the families of mothers, sisters, and daughters killed in service or in crossfire, and the word “sacrifice” is utilised a lot.

Maybe some of the dead, the maimed, and the survivors in 1918 had once been like the scribes in our story.  Proudly strutting about in their clean and polished uniforms in 1914, declaring that they’d be home by Christmas just as soon as they’d given Tommy and Billy (or perhaps Fritz and Abdul) a jolly good seeing to.  Maybe there were second sons of the wealthy who became officers, loving being called “sir” and proudly flashing the red bits on their khaki jackets and trousers.  Maybe the Anzacs made a big deal of not being English, especially when a Sergeant from Sydney met a Private from Portsmouth.  Maybe who could blame them?

Or maybe those who left these shores between 1914 and 1918 were like the widow in our story.  Maybe all they had in the world was themselves, and so the “Cooee from The Dardanelles” that gifted a stir of brotherhood and patriotism in their being was enough for them.  Maybe the uniform was about belonging to a family at last.  Maybe it was the outworking of their faith such that in obedience to Christ they “rendered unto Caesar”, and the uniform with its straps and epaulettes was just work-wear for their mission to resist evil and cause it to flee.

Regardless of the reasons why so many men and women, chose to go into uniform and catch the next boat to Egypt or France, and whether God was an active part in that decision-making or not, we continue to use the language of sacrifice to describe their attitude.

In religious terms the word sacrifice means “to make sacred”.  It is not necessarily about death, or glory, but it does involve giving something away and giving it with complete devotion.  Isaac was a sacrifice of Abraham even though he did not die, because Abraham dedicated him to God.  Samuel was a sacrifice, a gift of Hannah to God, and he lived for decades as a priest and judge.  The widow’s two pennies were a sacrifice not just because they were the last two things in her earthly possession, but because they were given to God, they were set apart and made holy by her action.  Jesus was a sacrifice because God set him apart as a gift for us, Jesus was made sacred and was both given by God and gave himself up to God for a special purpose.  This idea makes me wonder about the phrase “the ultimate sacrifice”.  If sacrifice is making sacred, of dedicating a thing to God for God’s own purposes and without restraint, then isn’t every sacrifice ultimate?  Unless a sacrifice is ultimate, unless the thing given over to be made sacred is given with no hope of return, then is it a sacrifice at all?  If this is true then everyone who went to war made sacrifice, even those who came home, even those who came home unscathed.  If this is true then the monetary offerings given by the scribes were not a sacrifice at all, regardless of their size, regardless of the pain they might have caused.  A sacrifice, if it is to be a sacrifice, is all or none.

It is almost the middle of November now, and our church year is drawing to a close.  In just three weeks from today it is Advent Sunday and from then it is four Sundays to Christmas.  I say this not as a spur to begin your shopping, but to point to the sacrifice of God that we are soon to remember – that God sent the Son to us.  Christmas is about sacrifice, again not the sacrifice of living on beans and dry bread throughout January so as to be able to afford the new X-station or Play-box, but about God choosing to present Godself in the world in the shape of a baby.  God came, God saw, and God died (briefly), and God made the world sacred to Godself by doing that.  God is not an Anzac, and as treasonous as it is to say such things in today’s Australia the Anzacs are not gods, but maybe the ultimate sacrifice if there is one is the sacrifice made by the Ultimate one.  When the Lord Godself, who came to bring peace to a confused, arrogant, incompletely lead and warring world showed greater love than any woman or man had seen or expressed, or would see or express, we were made sacred.  God’s sacrifice for you and me is more than the cross, (although it is no less than the cross), because God chose you and me to be the inheritors of personal love.  We were made sacred when God set us apart, our sacrifice is the sacrifice that we are rather than the one that we give, when it comes to the grace of God.

The question asked by the widow, and maybe by the Anzacs, is how will you respond to the news that you are God’s sacrifice?

Amen.

 

Three (Trinity B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Morwell for Sunday 27th May 2018, Trinity Sunday in Year B.

Isaiah 6:1-8; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17

I don’t know about you, but for me the Doctrine of the Trinity seems like a mixed blessing.  It’s one of the big-ticket items that really sets Christianity apart from Judaism and Islam, let alone the religions that don’t worship the God of Abraham and Moses.  That’s not really a bother for me, that Christianity is unique in this way, it’s good to be unique.  It doesn’t bother me that the Doctrine is somewhat baffling; I want God to be a little bit mysterious because God is apparently all that is and was and ever shall be, and it’s kind of disappointing if I can grasp all of that, even at 46 years old and holding a Masters degree.  So, a God who is beyond my imagining and rationalising is a solid point for me: a God who is beyond is a God who is what a God is supposed to be.  No, the mixed part in the blessing is the question of the point of it all.  So, God is infinite, and God is Three-fold in Unity: but why does that matter?  Why do we actually need a Doctrine of the Trinity, can’t we just let God be God, awesome and eternal?  Why can’t the Church just get on with saving the lost, raising the dead, and healing the sick, and leave what is above the clouds above the clouds?

In this morning’s reading from the scriptures of Israel the vision of God given to the Judahite prophet Isaiah is of God is The LORD high and lofty, the subject of seraph worship and adoration.  Isaiah doesn’t have a vision of God in Heaven; no God is enthroned on earth inside the room which is the Holy of Holies of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem.  The seraphim are also present on the earth and they cry out in awe of God, the majestic one.  The whole temple shakes to its foundations with the sound of seraph worship as the seraphim heed the injunction of Psalm 29:1-2.  Now, let’s remember that the foundation of Solomon’s Temple is actually the summit of Mount Zion; so, it seems that the whole mountain and with it the whole city of Jerusalem is rocking at the experience of divine anthems of adoration.  It is not that the seraphim are singing loudly, no, what is occurring is that the response of God to worship is so resounding, and the response of all creation to the display of God’s glory as it fills the whole earth is so violent.  This is God in all of God’s God-ness, this is undeniably God the earthquake and not God the gentle whisper: indeed, we read in Isaiah 6:3-5 that God’s glory is volcanic in its sound, sight and stench, and that it is utterly terrifying for the self-consciously human Isaiah who stands before it.  In the first five chapters of his book Isaiah has been denouncing the sins of Judah, especially of the city, and now here he stands in the first verses of chapter six at centre of Jerusalem in the holiest place on Earth with the memory of his prophecies; he knows that not only is he unworthy to be in the presence of The LORD enthroned he is in a dire predicament as a sinner in the presence of so imposing a display of holiness.  However, he is not in imperilled at all, and with a seraph’s touch Isaiah’s sin departs and is blotted out: Isaiah is justified just as if he’d never sinned, and he is considered worthy not only to stand in the presence of The LORD but to step closer to the throne and volunteer for a mission of proclamation.

Now on Trinity Sunday we can see some obvious links.  The cry of the seraphim in Isaiah 6:3 is “holy, holy, holy”, so that’s three holies.  Three, eh?  Eh!  And look at Isaiah 6:8a where The LORD asks Whom shall I send, who will go for us?  “Us”, eh?  Eh!

But have you missed what has just happened with Isaiah?  Six hundred years before the birth of Jesus, God The LORD is personally present in Jerusalem.  And God The LORD forgives and forgets a man’s sin, and God The LORD commissions this renewed man to proclaim the Word of God to Judah.  I mean, wow, that’s a lot more pervasive an idea than a three-fold refrain in the liturgy.  God does what Jesus is supposed to do, but God does this before Jesus gets a chance to do it.  Maybe The LORD God and the messiah are not only on the same team, maybe they are following the same game-plan because today we have seen God act like Jesus.

In today’s prescribed part of the letter to Rome, Romans 8:12-17 Paul is admonishing the Church to be active in the outworking of their faith.  Grace introduces not just a new mood (forgiven), but a new way of being in the world.  Now life is by the Spirit of God and those who heed the Spirit’s wisdom are saved from the desires of the flesh.  It is this Spirit, capital-S, who empowers those who take up godliness to act in this way.  In other words, God is active in the life of the believer, and because of God’s action through the Spirit so the believer is supposed to be active in the work of God, calling upon God as Abba and living as children who serve, worship, and obey.  “God’s spirit in you is God’s voice testifying that you belong to God” is what Paul is saying.  And when the Spirit, big-S, is acting in you and on you when you suffer for Christ then God is in effect suffering with you.

So, another of today’s readings offers obvious connections to the idea that God exists in the plural as a unity rather than in solitude.  The Spirit in you points to God who is your Father, the two are working as one to guarantee your identity as son or daughter of the one you call Abba.  When you, son or daughter of Abba suffer for the sake of Christ who is the true Son, the Spirit who is in you also suffers alongside you.  So, the Spirit within you as you live for Jesus who is called Emmanuel (God-Brings-Salvation and God-With-Us), draws you close enough to God The Father that you can speak of God as Abba, or my own dearest daddy.

In John 3:1-17 the gospel author tells us that Nicodemus, who is a Pharisee, recognises in Jesus’ activities the action of God.  Jesus confirms this, and says that all who trust God in the way that he trusts God will do the work of God as they empowered by the Spirit, capital-S.  However, as he makes clear in John 3:13 Jesus is not ordinary disciple, he is The Son of Man who alone has descended from The Father, and he is the vehicle of trust.  To trust in the work and word of Jesus is to trust in the work and word of God, because as John 1:1 reads Jesus himself is The Word of God.  Those who exalt the LORD when Jesus the man is crucified are those whom God is saving through the blessing of a full life: Jesus is making a wordplay in John 3:14-15.  See Jesus lifted up and lift high the name of The LORD as you look at Jesus.  Those who lift high the name of The LORD will live a life of eternity: not just a life that goes to infinity but a life that is literally a “life of the eons”, the biggest, brightest, boldest, most abundant life possible, a life full of God because it is filled with and by the Spirit.

So, what is the point of all of this?  And even if we have somehow proved by this skip across the top of the Bible that God’s essence is expressed as a unity of three co-eternal persons, existing of the same substance distinct from all created things, why does that even matter?  In some ways that’s a deeper question than we can address in the forty minutes remaining in my sermon: some of the greatest minds in Christianity spent their lives examining this question and never got to the end.  The triune nature of God is literally an eternal question: infinite and beyond all proportion of space and time to tell.  So, I won’t even begin, except to say that if you’re keen to follow the theological pathways start in the Bible and go next to the Cappadocian Fathers.

In the meantime, let’s remind ourselves of what we have heard this morning.  In Isaiah 6 we heard God act like Jesus, forgiving sin and commissioning a missionary with the gospel.  In John 3 we heard Jesus speak with patient correction to an expert in scripture, a community leader whose love for law and ritual had misdirected his heart away from those for whom Jesus’ compassion was greatest, the spiritually orphaned.  In Romans 8 we heard Paul instruct a local church to be more like Jesus, especially to live in the world with the fullness of the presence of God, and to love like a brother-sister everyone in the Church and every woman or man who entered the local congregation’s space.

So, in a grossly unfair oversimplification, (but on the other hand why complicate things), the Doctrines of The Trinity tell us that whatever God is made of God is internally and eternally consistent.  God is always the same.  Three points, because of course there must be three.

  1. God is love and God loves. The Father in all God’s glory has the same character of Jesus in all Jesus’ simplicity; Jesus lived and proclaimed love for neighbour, love for friend, and that greater love has no one than Calvary.  That’s God, not just Jesus, that’s all of God who loves with greater love.
  2. Christians who claim to trust Christ for salvation, and who proclaim Jesus as the Way, not only as “the way to Heaven” where the Nicene Creed is the password to unlock the gate that St Peter holds shut, but the Way as in a way of life, should live like Jesus lived. God is abundant and sacrificial love: we should do the same.  We cannot be the love that God is, but we can express the love that God expressed in Jesus.
  3. Christian love, the love that God is and the love that the Church expresses as people who walk in the footsteps of Jesus, is hard. Love cost Jesus his life, and it may well cost us our lives too: or it may cost us something even worse than death, it may cost us embarrassment.  Martyrs sometimes have it easy, they only have to be brave for a few minutes and then they die gloriously even if somewhat messily: we have to stand fast for decades in faithfulness.  It can be a lot lot harder to live for Jesus than to die for him, I am in no doubt of this, but that is where the Spirit comes in.  The paraclete of Pentecost, the helper, counsellor, and advocate, is also God Godself and the Spirit is the one who helps us to call The Father “Abba”, to call Jesus “lord”, and to call others “brother-sister”.  The same one who is God lives in you; equipping, encouraging, and comforting you in the life-long ministries of worship and hospitality.

And that’s why all this Trinity business matters: because not only does God want you to act like Jesus, remembering that God acts like Jesus, but the Spirit who is God is given to you to make it happen.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow: praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

Amen.

The Way of Sozo

This is the text of the message I prepared for Morwell Uniting Church for Sunday 22nd April 2018, the fourth Sunday in Easter in Year B.

Acts 4:5-12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3:16-24

Our history story begins today, as it does every Sunday between Easter and Pentecost, in The Acts of The Apostles, or as J.B. Phillips calls this book The Young Church in Action.  Outside Easter we hear the history of our faith from the Jewish tradition, but in these seven weeks we hear how the Jewish tradition continued after the departure of the messiah and how The Way, the practices of those who have faith in the name by which all men and women might be saved, was enacted.

Today we are in Acts 4, and Peter and John the disciples of Jesus, two of the inner three, have been called to appear before Annas, Caiaphas, Jonathan (who would be High Priest after Caiaphas) and the Sadducean elite families.  Hopefully you heard last week how, when a crowd flocked to them following their healing of the man born lame Peter began to speak of Jesus the Risen One who brings salvation through healing and grace.  Now the two have been detained by the temple guards, locked up overnight, and are now speaking with the Sanhedrin who ask Peter and John where their authority comes from to minister.  Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit we read in Acts 4:8 responds that the man who was healed was healed by Jesus, whose power was released through the apostles by their proclamation of the resurrection.  (At this point it’s good to remember that Sadducees don’t believe in resurrection, so Peter knows very well he’s stirring their pot.  Add to that that Jesus had been crucified by the Sanhedrin, the same council before whom Peter is now speaking.)  You yourselves murdered Jesus, but God has raised Jesus from the dead.  The rejected, despised one, the one you had taken out to the garbage tip and crucified, is the one chosen by God, and sozo (saving and salving) is found only through him, Jesus.  The challenge is clear, the Sanhedrin killed Jesus; they didn’t “have Jesus killed” but they killed him as if they were the crucifiers, but God is bringing salvation (sozo) through him and through those who he has authorised.  And not through the Sanhedrin.

Peter is either very brave or very foolish.  Meh, maybe six-of-one-and-a-half-dozen-of-the-other, but he’s full of the Holy Spirit and he’s speaking God’s wisdom.

The world’s history tells us that within forty years of the time of this episode takes place Jerusalem in its entirety would be destroyed, including the temple and the Sadducees would cease to exist.  The temple will never be rebuilt, and the Sadducees will never return; but the Christians, free of links to the temple in their dedication to Jesus the saviour, would go on.  The authority behind the disciples who stood before the Sanhedrin, and the authority of Christians from the night of resurrection and the Day of Pentecost right through today in Morwell and into the future, is the living temple built with living stones on the cornerstone which the builders had rejected.  Hereditary High Priest or third generation illiterate fisherman, without the Spirit you are nothing, with the Spirit you lack nothing.

Today the Psalm set for us is the greatly familiar one: perhaps I can paraphrase the first line and say, “The LORD is my saviour”.  The LORD is my protector and provider; when I listen to The LORD I am lead to places of restoration; to rest, and water and food, and safety.  My soul is restored, and my body strengthened.  My conscience is clear because I am lead by the Voice of God, the Holy Spirit, and regardless of the terrain outside my eyes my heart is at rest within me because I am with God.  Khesed shall pursue me says Psalm 23:6, the fullness of divine blessing shall chase me with the intention of grabbing and holding me when I am caught. This is the experience of Peter and John in the temple courtyard, in the cells, in front of the Sanhedrin, and on into life.  This is the sozo of Jesus: safety and healing, protection and restoration.  The LORD is my saviour, what have I to be afraid of?  Certainly not of the puppets of religion and empire.

God as Love is extreme: perhaps we might say that love is best defined by completion in that it goes right to the extremes and beyond them.  John said in 1 John 3:16, in another of those great three-sixteen verses in the Bible, that Jesus’ love for us was proven in his death, and our love for others is proven in our willingness to lay down our lives for them.  Who do you love enough to die for them: Jesus loves you that much.  This passage is not a guilt trip, as if if you don’t love Jesus enough to die for him then you are unworthy of salvation.  That has never been the Christian message, although you may have heard that said in error by the Church.  In error, by the Church.  Martyrdom is a gift, not a prerequisite: what God needs from you is not your death but your trust.  So, the point is not to guilt you in to martyrdom, the point is to explain the dimensions of Jesus’ love for you and the limits of his ministry of salvation. In fact, Jesus’ love is immeasurable, and it is limitless.  That is the point, the encouragement, the endorsement of the message of the Kingdom of God, the realm of love.  This is the context for 1 John 3:17: how can you say you have love, love which has just been defined for you by Jesus, and yet you do nothing to alleviate the need for salvation of the person next to you.  John speaks in the language of the NRSV of a brother or sister in need: not “an alien in your land,” not “a man or woman” not even “a neighbour”, a brother or sister.  A brother or sister is a member of the family, a son or daughter of your father, The Father.  If not a blood sibling, then certainly a fellow believer in Jesus.  Love in action, John goes on to say, don’t just talk about it but do it.  Make your ministry matter, make the truth obvious by the change it has made in your life, and the change it brings to the lives of those whom you meet as you go about your day putting love into action.

If your life, like Peter’s, or John’s, is about serving your world with generous love, then God will answer your prayers.  1 John 3:21 assures us of this.  Again, this is not some magic spell to get what we want, as if you can get those new shoes you had your eye on by asking God for a lotto win balanced by three days a week volunteering with the Red Cross and tithing fifteen percent to the Morwell-Yallourn Cluster.  By all means do tithe over and above but do it as an act of delight and gratitude for God, and your brothers and sisters.  Do volunteer with Red Cross, but from the same motivation to see the world transformed for the better for the glory of God.  (By the way, Red Cross will do that, you don’t have to focus your attention on organisations with “church” in the name and “Jesus” in the constitution for God to use you for Heaven’s glory.)

When Peter and John entered the temple, they were going to pray.  They had no other plans, no hidden agenda, they were a pair of Jews in Jerusalem and they were heading for the regular afternoon service of public worship.  On the way they met a man with a need, a need deeper than the one he knew about, and because they were attentive to the Spirit and were filled with the overflowing love of the Risen One they were ready and willing to act.  The man they met was released from physical disability and mental anguish, and he ran, and he worshipped.  Love, not obligation, not charity, not pity, love was on display.  In the mode of 1 John 3, (which of course was written much later than this episode), two disciples of Jesus met a brother in need, not a fellow Christian (yet) but a fellow Jew and a fellow Israelite, and their love would not let them walk past.  When they were called upon by the Jewish and Israelite authorities, religious and national leaders, and it was demanded of them that they explain themselves, they did.

  • What authority do we have to heal? The authority of love, with power to heal twisted bones and wasted tissue coming from God who is love.
  • What authority do we have to proclaim truth? The authority of love, with power to heal anxious minds and broken hearts coming from God who is love.
  • Who is God? God is love, and that love was seen in the preparedness to allow himself to be murdered by you rather than retaliate with the forces of Heaven and destroy you.

In Peter and John, in their actions on that day and in Luke’s writing afterwards, we see the story of God.  The love of God is always sozo love: God’s love only ever acts to restore.  God saves, God salves, God soothes; God forgives, God restores, God welcomes home.

This is how you are loved.  This is how you are to love.  This is the power and authority by which you love the world, beginning with your brothers and sisters.

Amen.