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.


Blink And You’ll Miss It.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why, on earth, would that be the case?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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