Watch Your Step 2 (Pentecost 9B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of the Morwell congregation gathered for worship on Sunday 22nd July 2018.

2 Samuel 7:1-14; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

In Mark 6:30-34 we return to the place where two weeks ago we watched the twelve go out in pairs to proclaim the Kingdom of God around Galilee.  This week they have returned, and Jesus whisks them away for a bit of a rest and a debrief; just the thirteen of them, the twelve and him.  But, as ever seems to be the case with ministries, the mobs in need of God’s care trail the team and when Jesus arrives at the place of retreat he finds the crowds ready to ask him for more of God and himself.  Jesus’ practical response, which we did not read today, is provided in the miracle of superabundance of food and the feeding of five thousand families.  Since the disciples had not even had time to eat, (hence Jesus’ attempt to take them away from the crowds in the first place), perhaps those twelve baskets of leftovers mean that they did get a basket each.  I’ve told you before that it says in Second Leviticus 8:1 that the minister’s family gets the leftovers from all church meals; here is Jesus showing that to be true.  Following this event, the disciples turn the boat around and head home, no doubt giving up on the idea of a rest, and Jesus later meets them on the lake by walking across the waves and out to the storm-tossed boat.

What strikes me about the readings we have today, more so there than in what we have skipped, is that Jesus was moved by the people’s desperation for ministry, and especially their need for leadership.  Jesus is tired and the twelve are tired; they should have been recipients of ministry at this point, not providers, yet Jesus steps up because as Mark describes the people in 6:34 Jesus sees “a flock without a shepherd”.  Maybe in Australian terms they are “a mob without a dog, let alone a roustabout”; and even though the twelve are exhausted they do at least have a leader.  So, without apparent regard for his or the twelve’s tired and emotional state Jesus prepares to once again extend himself and them in ministry to the lost sheep of Israel.  He brings food to the mob, and he brings shalom to his mates.

The story this morning is taken up again in Mark 6:53 as the thirteen men in the boat bump up to the dock at Gennesaret.  We know it’s the dock because Mark tells us that they tied the boat up, they didn’t drop anchor and wade ashore.  And, once again, Jesus isn’t even off the jetty before he is besieged by the sick and their intercessors.  When he does finally get as far as the grass and then the open road he’s beset by caring friends and bouncing stretchers.  Caring friends of those on the stretchers I mean, I’m not sure how many people were showing care toward Jesus at that point.  (I hope his solo walk across the water was rejuvenating for him because that’s the only alone-time he’s had since the twelve returned.)

So, what do we say at this point, same old same old?  Jesus awesome in majesty, disciples struggling to keep up, world pathetic and needy: c’mon it is the gospel every week.  Well maybe not.

I’m thinking that, maybe, the twelve didn’t want a break at all.  Maybe, as one of my commentators this week suggested, the “apostles” (in quoteys) were all hyped up from being out in pairs and they wanted to keep going with the flow.  They were sent out by the Messiah himself as emissaries of the Kingdom of God, and they saw lives changed and miracles performed by their own selves, not by Jesus.  Can you just imagine them all returned to Jesus and trying to top each other’s story?  “Yeah, well, but where John and I went …” Indeed, this is the only place in Mark’s gospel that we can be sure that he used the word “apostle”; the only other place you’ll find it is Mark 3:14 and some scholars suggest that that might be a later addition to Mark’s completed book.  Perhaps Mark is making a point, that twelve discipuli (students) went out whereas twelve apostoli (missionaries, emissaries) returned; at least in their own eyes.  Maybe Jesus didn’t want them to rest up so much as to calm down.  And, I wonder if this is where we also find David in today’s reading from Jewish history.

David’s story as we read it today in 2 Samuel 7 is taken up just as David is sitting down.  Like the twelve he has found himself ready to rest after a time of heavy activity:  David has conquered Jerusalem and he has seen the Ark of the Covenant brought to the place of meeting in the City of David, the site where the temple will be built.  David looks out of his cedar-lined palace to the Tent of Meeting and wonders whether it is appropriate that God lives under canvas.  This story is also where we first meet Nathan, a prophet who will have much to say to David in coming years and chapters.  Nathan has discerned (or maybe he has just opined) that God is with David in all that David does, therefore whatever David does will have the blessing of God and a divine stamp of approval.  Go, do all that you have in mind for the LORD is with you we read in 2 Samuel 7:3, so that’s pretty clear; however, God has other ideas when it comes to building a temple.

For the bulk of the first decade of this century I lived in the south of England.  One of the churches with whom I belonged to God during that time made quite a point out of 2 Samuel 7:5b in its call to mission.  “Are you the one to build me a house?” asked the paraphernalia, calling attendees to connect and connected people to sow into the work of that local church with this rousing question from God.  I could ask the same of you today, are you the one to build a house for God in your local context. Well, are you?  Interesting to me, and I knew this all along which is why the church publicity puzzled me somewhat, the answer to the original question is “no”.  David was not the one to build a house for God, and maybe you aren’t either.  God’s plan was for Solomon to build the permanent temple; a fresh man with a fresh start, and God would honour the moment of the new thing in the fullness of time.

If David the conqueror had built the temple maybe it would have looked like a monument to victory, the shining house of worship as the ultimate prize of the warrior.  Less of a House of God, more of a Colosseum, built by slaves and paid for with war booty.  Perhaps God chose the unnamed-at-that-point Solomon because Solomon could not have been seen to earn the prize: the glory for the temple would be God’s alone, not the triumphant king.

The church in London that I speak of has been grown, and I am sure that God has found women and men to build a house.  I am not sure that all of the glory belongs to God, but God is glorified in that place.  I’m sure David’s temple would have been a blessing to Israel, but God’s temple built by Solomon was undoubtedly a greater thing for the People of God.

So, what am I saying.  Should we do nothing for God?  Of course, I’m not saying that at all.  What I am saying is that we do for God must be done for God, and not for ourselves.  God must have all the credit, and all the glory.  We can work in expectation of God’s reward, God’s “well done good and faithful servant” when we finish, but we must listen for God and move only where God is moving.  In other words, we must not get ahead of ourselves lest we get ahead of God.

When the twelve returned from their preaching tour of Galilee they were  justifiably excited.  God had moved amongst the people and God had been demonstrably at work through their ministering hands.  Maybe Mark is genuine in his ascription and these men had moved from disciples to apostles, from apprentices of the master to artisans in their own right, even if they were not masters.  But Jesus was wise as a leader, and a teacher, wise as a master to say, “well done fellas, brilliant first effort but let’s not get ahead of ourselves here, let’s take some time after the reporting for quiet reflection and solid debrief”.  God, through Nathan, said the same thing to David who was genuine in heart but was about to get ahead of himself in his inertia.  The kingdom is united once again, there is a capital at Jerusalem, and God’s chosen man sits on the throne.  That’s enough for now, that’s enough.

Maybe that’s why the people on the other side of the lake, and at Gennesaret, were frantic at Jesus’ departure and then at his appearance elsewhere.  Unlike David and the twelve they did not have a leader, someone ahead of them, to direct them to the still waters for a time of what the Psalms call “Selah”: pause and consider.  The sheep without a shepherd were overexcited and there was no one to lead them to the still and quiet waters of Spiritual Retreat, or Sabbath, or Selah.  The mob had no one to remind them that they were cared for by someone capable of healing, restoring, and safeguarding them.  The team had no coach to remind them to “warm down” and to know when to take five for water and an orange quarter.

David was wise, and God was able to use David for more than David ever imagined because David heard God say, “that’s not for you, leave that with me”.  The twelve discipuli were wise in the same way, they saw their continued need for Jesus when the lake rose, and the boat fell, and he walked across the waves to them.  Eleven of these men became apostoli, and ten died as martyrs for the truth about God that they heard from Jesus over the years between Gennesaret and Golgotha.

Listen for God.  If God directs you to build the house then build it with all your might, except on Sabbath days when even God took a  break from creative, constructive work.  If God directs you to leave house-building for the next generation wait for what God has set aside for you to do, and then do that, with the same Sabbath proviso.  As church we are the flock of Jesus, but we are never to be an unruly mob, listen for the shepherd’s invitation to green fields and still waters.  And if God chooses to live in a tent in the midst of our homes of brick and tiles, so as to be free to commune with us as we grow, rather than imprisoned behind three layers of massive stone edifice where we are celebrated by the world for erecting such a fine piece of architecture, well that’s God’s call to make.

Listen for God.  Look for the shepherd who walks among the people.  Lay down when the time for selah and shalom is given to you.

Amen.

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Watch your step (Pentecost 8B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of God gathered as Yallourn  Parish Uniting Church at Yallourn North on Sunday 15th July 2018.

Mark 6:14-29; Ephesians 3:1-14

The passage from the gospel that was read to us this morning is unique in that the hero of this story is not Jesus.  In every other story told by Mark Jesus is the hero by his helping the main character, or Jesus is the main character.  But in Mark 6:17-29 Jesus doesn’t appear, and we read an episode from the past where John the Baptiser is both the major character and the hero.  I wonder why that is, why does Mark make an exception to his rule?

Of course, our set reading does actually begin with Jesus, and in Mark 6:14-16 we read that his fame was so widespread and impressive that even the king had heard of him.  Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Perea and Galilee was both astonished and afraid by the news of Jesus’ ministry: the news of the Kingdom of God was upsetting to the kings of the earth, especially the king with jurisdiction in Galilee.  John had been proclaiming the coming of the king, and now the message of the Kingdom of God was going ahead even though John was dead.  So, if Herod Antipas is afraid that being murdered has only made John Baptiser stronger imagine what he’ll think about Jesus!

Antipas was a bit of a Herod-wannabe, not the man his father was, and since old man Herod The Great had been a Solomon-wannabe and a Messiah-wannabe with his temple building and his sucking up to the Romans, the moral and intellectual challenge set for Antipas by John Baptiser was warranted.  So, since Antipas thinks John was dealt with and silenced, but now he’s back, and in version 2.0 to boot, Antipas is on guard.  This is where it is helpful to consider for whom Mark wrote, and see his story as encouragement intended for the small communities of persecuted believers and potential martyrs in the generation after Jesus.  Mark reminds them that God is stronger than every king, and that Jesus will always win when the Caesars (or Herods) gets knotted up and narky (Mark 6:26).

According to Jewish history the kingship of God is not something to be taken lightly.   In 2 Samuel 6 (1-5, 12b-19) the stories are told of how David went out from Jerusalem to gather and bring the Ark to the place set aside for worship.  The journey began as a military parade with David marching in pageantry; the royal retinue was full of nationalistic pride and treated the Ark as the spoils of war.  You all know that this attitude ended in the death of one of the attendants of the Ark, even as he thought he was being helpful.  Make no mistake in reading this story, we are to rejoice in God’s presence with us, God’s choosing of us, and God’s victorious vindication of our confidence in God.  But God is never a trophy for us to toss around like winning grand finalists on a lap of honour, and neither are the things of God ever “booty”.  The Ark of the Covenant, which I have seen one children’s Bible call “the box of the promise” (grr!) belongs to God.  More than a box, or even an ark, it is a sign of God’s faithfulness to Israel.  The Ark itself is the visible remainder of God’s covenant with Abraham, repeated to Isaac and Jacob, and reminded to all further generations by the prophets.  That the Ark is coming to Jerusalem, and that it is being brought there by David, is a magnificent thing.  But it is a God thing, not a David thing: as great a king as David is and as great a conqueror he was in capturing the city from the Jebusites, God is the hero of this story, not David.   God is stronger than any Caesar and every Herod, and God is more wonderful than David, indeed more wonderful than David can even imagine.

When the journey of the Ark toward the city resumes it is as a celebration of praise and thanksgiving to God.  There are songs of worship and blood sacrifices along the road.  David is stripped back in humility and abandonment before The LORD, even as king, and he is more effusive in praise than all the people.  All of the people are blessed with gifts of food as signs of the abundance and generosity of the God of the covenant and a reminder of what was agreed to in the first place.  The Kingdom of God is at hand, the realm where God is king through the agency of a human intermediary of Abrahamic descent, and those to whom the kingdom has been revealed are receiving the abundance of the king.  Likewise, in Psalm 24 we read earlier that The LORD is the great king, ruler and creator of all the universe.  There is no doubt who is God, and who God is to us.  There is also no doubt of the message of God which is welcome and blessing for those who are blameless in action and thought, who are faithful to God and to their word.  When the pageant celebrating the God of the covenant cries out “lift up the gates and the King of Glory shall come in” God invites us to join the march and enter the city of God with God, and to make our home in the place where the Ark is.

And so that is where we are: in the Spirit at least.  We who belong to God by God’s choosing are citizens of the Kingdom of God and we live in the heavenly realm.  We do not live in Heaven, but we live in the realm of which Heaven is the capital and the place from which we take our identity and receive our government.  Even if we are kings in life, as Antipas and David were, we are subject to the rule of God; and even if we are at the bottom of the chain as John was in gaol or the random peasants who grabbed a flying loaf or two from David’s cake-chucking teams, we are beneficiaries of God’s justice.

Today’s set reading from Early Christian history came to us from Ephesians 1:3-14 where we read the larger story of Christian life in faith.  In other words, this is what life in God’s realm looks like, even for us in the borderlands.  Our instructions as citizens begin with an exhortation to bless God for all that God has blessed us with, especially in God’s sending Jesus as king.  The passage fits well with the gospel and Jewish history accounts because it is a declaration of adoration and praise for God’s choosing each and all of us by grace to be God’s agents for missional action for the transformation of Creation.  John the Baptiser served out his days as a prophet of God, and whilst it cost him his head it cost him no more than that.  Jesus praised John as a faithful witness to the coming kingdom and a herald of the almost present king.  David eventually got it right and today he has the honour in history of being the man responsible for seeing the Ark of God placed in the City of God in the very centre of the place occupied by the People of God, a venue where it remained for almost five hundred years. The visible reminder of God’s covenant was there to see (if you were allowed in to see it).  In all of this glory for the heroes of our faith we can be assured that God glorifies us in our celebration of God and our participation in the work of God: the inheritance passed on to us by grace is the transformed Creation.

God’s promise to us, to Christians and to others who follow the Way of Jesus, is the new creation.  We are confident that this will come about because as Paul reminds us we have received the Spirit as deposit.  This is cause for celebration.  Now I’m not expecting you all to start leaping about David-style, stripped to your underwear and throwing cakes of dates at each other, but this is not a message to just sigh at and say “oh yeah, okay” either.  The promises made by God were trusted implicitly by those who went before us.  David was prepared to look like a complete idiot in front of his subjects and his grumpy queen, and John was prepared to go to the block, because of what they each understood about God.  God has promised that God is coming, and coming as king, and coming as saviour with restorative justice and bounteous provision.  God has promised to overthrow all injustice and iniquity, all the Caesars and Herods of the world.  This is good news.

This is the good news we proclaim.  This is the good news the twelve in pairs proclaimed as they went about Galilee proclaiming the kingdom of God and restoring to wellness the sick, the possessed, and the dead.  This is an exciting message because it will transform the world, and it is a true message as well.  God has already begun to do this, God is doing it today, and God will do it wherever we go and introduce the story of God to people who are waiting for liberation.

No matter who the story is about, or who it is told by, the hero is always Jesus.

Amen.

Made Strong (Pentecost 7B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for Yallourn Parish Uniting Church gathered at Newborough on Sunday 8th July 2018.  It was a day upon which we shared Eucharist.

2 Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13

Power in weakness is one of the great themes in Christian preaching, especially in Evangelical circles.  The idea that we are nothing without God, but we are enough and have more than enough with God is a great concept to return to when your key theme in preaching is salvation and the need for God in all things.  That God’s power can be overcome by human weakness is less popular an idea, but the idea that your prayers depend on your faith is well known, even if it has been exaggerated at times.  That God is enough, but your faith is not, so you must continue to live in distress is not a happy message, but it is also not uncommon.

So, God’s power triumphs over human weakness, but human weakness can inhibit God’s power from completing the work of restoration.  There, that’s not too hard to understand is it?  Who said the Bible was self-contradictory?  Hmm.

Often when I have heard the passage from 2 Corinthians 12 spoken on, or perhaps written about in books, mainly biographies or autobiographies, the context of the passage is human sickness.  Where God’s power is needed most is in human weakness, and that’s good because that it what the passage suggests, but the story goes on to suggest that the deepest need, the greatest human weakness, is human illness.  And of course, the deeper the illness the greater the story of heroism.  The great phrase “when I am weak, then I am strong” taken from 2 Corinthians 12:10 is a ready-made title for the story of a Christian undertaking Chemotherapy, or learning to walk after a double amputation, or maybe life after an acquired brain injury.  However, as someone who has lived with profound disability in the past, and who continues to live with an obvious weakness where God’s strength is a daily (hourly) necessity, I yet remain unconvinced.

In 2 Corinthians 12:2-10 we read what many scholars believe to be a first-person account of an episode in Paul’s life, and of the revelation given to him.  Paul says that he sees no sense in boasting, particularly in this instance when the truth is so amazing, even if he does share this first-person experience as a third-person story.  Paul is directly opposing the boasters, other preachers of Jesus who have come to Corinth and waved their credentials around.  Paul has credentials of his own, his testimony of what God has brought him through, but he withholds the complete truth in his correspondence and preaching lest anyone think him arrogant.  What Paul will boast in (without embellishment of the facts, just gushing praise) is his particular weakness through which God has upheld him.  This is where those Christian autobiographies come in, the story of brave women and men of God, usually girls or boys if truth be told, who have battled the ravages of cancer or pain or both.  In one translation of the Bible into English, a translation called “The Passion” the pertinent verses are rendered as when I am weak I sense more deeply the mighty power of Christ living in me or as an alternative The Power of Christ rests upon me like a tabernacle providing me with shelter, and because of my love for Christ I am made yet stronger.  For my weakness becomes a portal to God’s power. In these words, we read that Paul’s delight is not in his own strengths and achievements, but that God is at work through him, and in his discovery that the less there is of Paul in the ministry space the more there can be of God.

Jesus’ action in sending out the twelve in pairs as recorded by Mark 6:1-13 tells a similar story.  Yes, similar.  The messages of Paul and Jesus are not contradictory, even where God works wonderfully through Paul’s weakness, but the miracles of Jesus are inhibited by the weakness of the Nazarenes.  The common link is not human weakness, but human surrender.  Paul surrendered to God, got out of the way of God and let God work, whereas the unbelieving Nazarenes did not surrender to God but remained defiant in their religious zeal and sibling rivalry.  God did not work though Jesus in Nazareth because the Nazarenes refused to see anything that Jesus might have done as God’s action.  God was not inhibited by their lack of faith, God chose not to act because God is not a show-off.

As Jesus sent out the twelve he commanded them to cast out demons; not as a sign of God’s power over demons, (which is undoubtably true, but is not the main point), but as a sign of the Kingdom at hand.  The message is repentance, human surrender to the power of God.  Not that God wants to overpower humanity, as if the human race is to be defeated by a stronger force in God, but that God wants to power-up humanity with God’s fullness. But God cannot fill you with Godness unless you are empty of yourself.  If you are full of yourself then you can’t be filled with God.  Paul was empty, and God filled him.  Jesus was empty, and God filled him.  The boasting evangelists of Corinth and the know-it-all villagers of Nazareth were full of themselves, so God walked past them and went where the twelve went.  Sometime God filled the hearers of the message, sometimes there were no hearers and God walked past and the pair shook the dust off.

Jesus instructed the pairs not to dally in debate, even as he did not stick around Nazareth to argue.  The work of the gospel was to get in and preach then get out and preach elsewhere.  Don’t let the dust slow you down, shake it off and keep moving – time is short and there are no second chances for those who are petulant when the gospel arrives at their house.  The same is true for us.

It would appears from scripture, and other sources of history, that Jesus never again set foot in Nazareth after this episode.  He moved his home to Capernaum and returned there when in Galilee.  Maybe we need to do the same.  Now I am not saying that you need to walk out of Moe or Newborough or Yallourn North, but I am saying that if God is calling you to share the news of the Kingdom that you can’t get sentimental.  Tell who needs to know, tell them what they need to know, and then move on and tell someone else.  Let the message of the Kingdom speak for itself, don’t get into debates on the finer points – because if you do then you’ll be delayed in your mission and someone else will never get the chance to hear you preach because you never got there because you got stuck.  Do you think Jesus ever wept over Nazareth?  Did he cry for the frustration of his siblings, for Joseph and Mary’s friends, for the boys and girls he had grown up with who were now adults and hardhearted at his message?  Of course he did.  But he never returned, because he had other towns and villages to take the message to.

And this is where I get to my key point.  It is a good and Christian message to offer your weakness to God and ask God to make you strong.  I have lived experience of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Depression and Anxiety, I have been debilitated and made frail by illness, and I have prayed again and again for God to make me well.  I have prayed that God would fill my weakness with God’s strength, my sickness with God’s health,  my brokenness with God’s wholeness.  I have done this, and I shall continue to do this.  I commend you to the same activity.  But the real answer, the real prayer which has put me here in Newborough’s pulpit and not in a Tasmanian hospital bed or a South Australian cemetery is this.

Lord, take my strength and replace it with your strength.

It is easy and obvious to give our weakness to God.  A friend of mine who lived with Multiple Sclerosis once invited me to share my story of Chronic Fatigue with her because in her own words “I have been sick for a long time and I know a lot about being sick.”  Sadly, for her and for me, she did not know a lot about being healthy, and our friendship petered out.  She had made her illness her strength: she was wise in the ways of bedrest and massage and an expert in being unwell, and as I got well she lost interest in me.  And me in her to be fair.  I wasn’t a minister then and I didn’t need a friend shaming me for being well.

The Nazarenes and the Corinthians were strong.  So strong were they that they didn’t actually need God.  They did not believe that God helps those who help themselves, they believed that God gets out of the way of the strong and lets them get on with it.  Paul and Jesus held a different view.  Paul and Jesus held the view that God helps those who get out of God’s way and rely on God to be their source, even in areas in which they have skill, especially in areas where their skill is the result of a life lived in the gifts and fruit of the Spirit.

I think it might be possible for me to write a sermon without God.  I’m not sure, I haven’t tried for a while.  But I do have identifiable gifts in public speaking, in writing and composition, and in scholarship.  I know you know this because you have often remarked on it.  I speak well, and I make you think: that’s what you’ve told me anyway.  Preaching is possibly my greatest strength as a minister – but do you think I would ever try to do this without God?  No way.  Would I ever say “you know what Lord, I’ve got this preaching thing covered.  I have four university degrees, two in theology and ministry, one in teaching, and one in language.  I have preaching and teaching experience in church and in the classroom.  I’ve got this.  So, Lord, if you don’t mind I’ve got a sermon to preach now so maybe you could just wait over there until I need you for the things I’m not very good at – like listening to someone else preach or sitting in a meeting where there is tension and conflict.”  I would never say that, and I have never thought it.

My prayer, like Paul’s, is that God would fill me where I am empty.  Where I am weak may God be by strength.  Where I am full may God guide me in humility to receive God’s refreshing of whatever I am full of, and guide me in surrender to give God my fullness to partner with God’s energy for the proclamation of the Kingdom.  Where I am weak, then I am strong.  Where I am strong, then I am humble.  And may the memory of the times when I have been arrogant and missed God’s activity remain as a thorn in my flesh.

Amen.