Standing, by God

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of God gathered as Yallourn Uniting Church and Morwell Uniting Church in a cluster at Newborough on Sunday 30th September 2018.  It was my last service in that district before I moved to a new placement in Western Wimmera.

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22; Psalm 124; James 5:13-20

Over the past month we have been examining the letter attributed to Jacob, the brother of Jesus, and the message that James offers in the way of keys to discipleship.  Today’s reading from the fifth of five chapters is not so much the pinnacle of what Jacob wrote, simply the last things he got to before he stopped.  There is no summary of all that has gone before, no conclusion, no wrapping up of loss ends.  Jacob has laid out his dot points, and today we come to the end of his list.

And so today, with no particular order in mind, Jacob  writes in James 5:1-6 of the intransigence of wealth, and of the honesty required from the rich to say that all that others aspire to is not good in the end.  Money cannot buy you salvation, this is a central Christian understanding and Jesus and Paul are as clear on this as Jacob, but we are also told today that money cannot buy you happiness.  This is also an ancient lesson, known to wise Jews at least since the days of Ecclesiastes and the teacher Qoheleth who taught the same, if not before.  Jacob instructs the wealthy members of society who are also participants in the local church to confess that having shedloads of money, (remembering that Jesus spoke of bigger barns) is not all that it is cracked up to be.  Jacob also counsels them directly to look at where that wealth has come from.  Remember in James 2:7 where Jacob tells the church to be wary of the wealthy rather than fawning?  Well, here he addresses the wealthy directly asking whether their wealth was ill-gotten through corruption, injustice, and exploitation of the poor.  Do you have anything to confess to your sisters and brothers in faith?  God looks for justice and God has heard the complaints of the downtrodden against the unjust, the unmerciful and the exploitative.

The section of Hebrew scripture suggested to us this morning comes from the climax of the story of Esther.  In assorted verses from Esther 7 and Esther 9 we hear about Haman, the arrogant and corrupt official to offered bribes against an honest man, and who is discovered and executed.  Haman’s wealth and position could not protect him from his comeuppance, but they could have allowed him to do great things.  Haman chose poorly, Jacob encourages those of his hearers who have wealth and influence in the world, including some of us in this room, to use what we have for the good of the Church and the world and not for our own selfish and ultimately fruitless pursuits.  Back to Esther we hear about the ever-reliable Mordecai and how he recorded all that took place in Susa so that the celebration of deliverance wouldn’t be forgotten: here is a man using position and opportunity to do a good thing.

Today’s Psalm, 124 which I read to you in paraphrase, is another reminder that God alone saves, and that God’s salvation is complete.  In a reading suitable for Purim and the remembrance of Esther and Mordecai the story of God’s people is that the inevitability of annihilation became victorious, total rescue with not one soul lost.  Similarly, Jacob wrote in James 5:7-12 of how followers of the Way of  Christ can wait for God in patient confidence that God is faithful and true.  More than that, a future left in God’s hands and with an ear to God’s word of instruction in the Present, is a secure future.  Even if you have been exploited and were the receiver of unjust action, says Jacob, anxiety and irritability are not necessary; enjoy each other’s company in the Church without envy.  Allow the wealthy to apologise, if they offer, and live with patient hope and even endurance like Job. God knows what you have been though, and God also knows what you have put and are putting others through and God hears everything you say – so don’t you become unmerciful either.  God’s call for the exploiters and thieves to repent is not a licence for the survivors to enact revenge and extract punitive reparations.  Be faithful in conversation and honest at all times.  Be so dependable at your word that oaths and public curses would not be required of you; let it be such that everyone trusts you to speak the truth at all times because it’s all you ever do.

And finally, in James 5:13-20 we read Jacob’s exhortation towards faith in action.  Here we get some nitty gritty teaching and some practical tips on the ways in which the local congregation goes about the work of being “The Church”.  Remembering the tradition that this was written by the first bishop of Jerusalem, whatever that means for you in terms of Church History, I’d say we can take Jacob as a man who knows what he’s talking about.  Maybe you’ll take this also as an encouragement from me as I move on and you are left without an incumbent in the manse; an encouragement that God trusts you and has entrusted to you and equipped you for the ministries in and out of this place.  “Ask the elders” says Jacob, there’s a good idea.  Two weeks ago, at Narracan, and it was a cluster service, so Morwell and Yallourn heard me say this, I encouraged you to look for and identify your leaders, and to pray for them.  Yallourn currently has people named as Elders and who form a church council; Morwell congregation is its own council and you do not have a nominated eldership.  Regardless of who does or does not have a title right now, look for leaders and encourage them to lead.  Let those who know how to, pray for the sick and expect God to heal.  Any and all of you can pray, even yourself, however Jacob writes, and I remind you to invite others into your praying, pray in pairs and teams and friendship circles as a sign of faith and belonging.  I commend to you the activities of loving, laughing and lamenting in public.  Continue to share life with the brother-sisters of your church so that all are built up in family and confidence in the God who is visibly active in your midst.  And above all, look for those who are straggling and struggling, and go in grace to them to help them and to seek to restore them to God and to fellowship. Continue to pray (with prayer) for the worn out, the worn down, and those Jacob refers to as the spiritually weak in James 5:15.

When I was invited to come here I was given three main tasks, to be completed on a 0.5FTE or 2.5 days per week contract.  Foremost, it was presented as foremost, I was to preach a good sermon every Sunday.  None of this once a fortnight stuff for 0.5FTE, every Sunday and Christian holy day, every week.  I have preached every Sunday, as well as Christmas and Easter – whether they were good sermons I shall leave to your discernment, but since I’ve not heard any complaints, or had second-hand reports of complaints, I think I’m safe.  Second task was to take time to prepare and write the good sermon.  Don’t preach from your archive as a lay preacher, write us something new and pertinent every week, and don’t write one sermon and preach it at Morwell and again and Narracan and again at Newborough.  We want God’s fresh word, not some random devotional to fit the ten minutes between the third and fourth hymn.  And third, visit those who cannot attend Sunday, the ill, the old, the hospitalised, and the residents of Narracan Gardens, Mitchell House, Heritage Manor, and Latrobe Valley Village.   In other words, you asked me to bring God and God’s word to you, wherever you were, and to prioritise that over the other things that ministers do.

I commend these tasks to you.

Your task as Church, as churches, is to bring to each other and to the people of the Latrobe Valley the means of spiritual healing. This is the work of prayer and visitation that Jacob wrote about, because as The Message translation renders James 5:20, to do so may prevent an epidemic of wandering away from God.

God and the Church have called me elsewhere, but God and the Church call you here.  Stay, and minister.  I know I’ll be missed in Moe-Newborough, Yallourn North, and Morwell, and thank you for saying that.  But please, don’t you be missed in this places – because that is where your ministries lie.

Amen.

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Standing in Wisdom’s Way

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of God gathered as Morwell Uniting Church on Sunday 23rd September 2018.  It was a service at which Holy Communion was shared and my last service as minister of that congregation.

Proverbs 31:10-31; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a

Today is a day of mixed emotion for me because it is my last Sunday in Morwell.  While I hope as many of you as can come to Newborough will do so next week, today is my final service in this building and the last time I will preside at Holy Communion in Gippsland.  I shall leave any profound words of parting until next week’s service, but I am pleased to say that today’s readings offer me some excellent words of wise departure.  So, yes there is mixed emotion: I am looking forward to the future (mine and yours), and I do get to teach from one of my favourite preaching passages Proverbs 31:10-31; but it is also time to say goodbye.

But before goodbye, and before Proverbs 31, let’s have a look at James as we have been doing all month.  Last week we read how Jacob commends the work of a teacher to only the bravest and surest of Christians, and how everybody who walks the Way of God must guard his or her speech, and in today’s reading from James 3:13-4:5 we read more about what the wise actually do with their wisdom.  When a wise person is found and is set aside as a teacher let that person model gentle wisdom; let him or her avoid and denounce arrogance and corrupted ambition, and let the congregation follow that example.  Jacob reminds us of what was written in James 1:6 that any one of us can and should ask God for whatever we need, confident in God’s grace to provide and confident because of God’s wisdom previously given that whatever we are asking after is good.  The evidence that a supposed answer to prayer really has come from the grace of God is that it displays the character of God – pure, peaceable, gentle and considerate, submitted and willing to yield, full of mercy, impartial, sincere and not hypocritical. Does that sound like the answers to your prayers?  Sometimes yes, sometimes no, more yes than no I hope.  But if not I urge you to keep pressing in because God is faithful and it’s okay that we are still learning that.

One of the signs of the Kingdom of God, a sign that it has come and a sign that it is on its way, it peace.  God is not a deity of war, God is peace and God is love.  That is not to say that God cannot or does not fight, or that God did not strengthen the Hebrew, Israelite and Judahite armies back in the day, but the end of God’s engagement in battle is not empire or territory but peace and rest.  So, when Jacob writes in James 4:1-3 that war is caused by human ambition, the temptations of power and the accrual of stuff, then we know he is speaking with God’s wisdom.  When peace is brought about righteousness shall flourish amongst all people and especially amongst the peacemakers: where conflicts arise or remain these come from competitiveness and from self-seeking desires for something other than God.  Choose God or choose the world as your source of identity, says Jacob, because you cannot have both.  Jacob makes it very plain that to try to have the best of the world (stuff, power, honour) and the fullness of God is to engage in idolatry and adultery.  Indeed, the New American Standard Bible specifies adulteresses in James 4:4 and the Complete Jewish Bible says unfaithful wives in reference to Hebrew traditions that God is husband to Israel.

So, follow God.  Seek God, learn the wisdom of God, walk in the way of God, and live in a world where righteousness is rising, and peace is flooding.  To live otherwise is not only disobedient it is disrespectful, in fact it’s kind of slutty – male or female.

Speaking of male and female, but not of slutty, have a look at Proverbs 31:10-31.  The first thing I want to tell you about this passage is that it is directed at married women.  That should be obvious.  Why should it be obvious?  Well it’s obvious in a more than obvious way, and also in a less than obvious way.  This passage is directed at married women because…it speaks about a wife, and a great wife at that.  But, that’s the less than obvious way.  The more than obvious way that this passage is directed at married women is because it’s scripture and all scripture is useful for teaching and exhortation through the inspiration of the Spirit of Holiness.  It’s Bible, it’s directed at everyone, wives included.  So yes, it’s a passage for wives but it’s a passage not just for wives.  It’s a passage for women who have never married, and it’s for all men, married or otherwise.  In James 4:4 we read Jacob calling to church away from love of the world, hatred of God, to the faithfulness God as husband deserves.  In Proverbs 31:10-31 we read perhaps the words of the mother of Lemuel to her son the king, perhaps the words of Abraham to his beloved wife Sarah, perhaps someone else writing as God’s instrument, what faithfulness to God as husband looks like.

The address in Proverbs 31:10 is often rendered in English as “capable wife” or “such a wife”, but that really waters down the Hebrew sense.  The New King James Version says it best with a courageous wife, but even that falls short.  The best translation is “woman of valour”.  She is heroic, mighty and strong – she’s a Deborah, maybe she’s even a Boudicca.  And in that phrase at least she’s a “woman”, not necessarily someone’s spouse.

Much as I’d love to unpack this reading for you we don’t have time for two sermons, or perhaps three.  I really like Proverbs 31:10-31, so I have needed to contain myself and keep the focus on James 4 and how the proverbs of Hebrew Wisdom connect with the Hebrew wisdom Jacob wrote almost 1000 years later.  So, I’m going to focus on one of many different interpretations of this passage, because that’s the one that best matches with what Jacob wrote.  That’s not to say other readings of “The Proverbs 31 Woman” are not correct, or less correct, or less good, it’s just that today’s version matches today’s context.

So, today let me say that the woman in Proverbs 31:10-31 is not an actual woman.  This is not, as far as today’s message is concerned, a book of instructions for Christian wives nor is it a checklist for Christian bachelors in search of a wife.  If you are a “Proverbs 31 Woman” then I commend you, and let me express my sincere hope that your husband is one as well: here’s why, because this is a poem about wisdom.  The woman in Proverbs 31 is a metaphor for wisdom: Sophia in Greek, Hochma in Hebrew, Sapienta in Latin and regardless of your gender or your marital status this is how you are supposed to act as a member of the people of God, (and a disciple of Christ).  Be resilient, be trustworthy, be industrious, be wise, be righteous, be generous, be prudent, be loving, be compassionate, be brave, be virtuous, be humble, be bold, be kind, be vigilant, be honest, be honourable, be an example.  These are the attributes of wisdom personified, these are the attributes of Jesus, these are the attributes we should aspire to and the characteristics we should display.

And so, when we read in James 4:6-10 that God not only desires our loyalty, but our submission, we read with the eyes of a wise woman or man.  We understand that God does not need minions or sycophants, that we are to be submissive, but that we are to live submitted to God, honouring God as LORD and pursuing God’s desires for us to have wisdom aware that wisdom is best found in God.  Loyalty to God brings loyalty from God.  Imagine that the wife of noble character, “The Proverbs 31 Woman” is a real-life wife and mother and think of how her husband, the father of her children would treat her.  Can you imagine God looking at you like that?  Wisdom says it’s true, that God does look at you like that when you pursue wisdom.  We are told, if we choose to believe it, in Proverbs 3:34 that God comes close in all faithfulness and love.  Jacob further encourages us in James 4:8a that the healing grace of God will transform for the better the one who comes to God in desperate hope and openness.  Come with confidence, come without doubt or double-mindedness, come to the one who welcomes you as the best beloved of all beloved ones.

Come and receive all that the faithful One has prepared for you.

Amen.

We stand together

This is the text I prepared for the people of God gathered as Yallourn Uniting Church at Newborough on Sunday 9th September 2018.  It is the second in a series of five sermons on James and as such much of the text is repeated from the first week since this is a different congregation.  I have added below only what was new, so if you want the first part then look at last week’s text.

James 2:1-10, 14-17

The third thing humanity needs in a messy world is love.  God’s first gift to each of us was life and with life came the gifts of an abundant life.  Live abundantly, which is to say generously, with love.  Listen before you speak says Jacob, and don’t be fast about anger.  (Fast anger is the response to being offended, so work on not being so easily offended – really listen to what is being said and then respond from the love of God.  If you are in any doubt about the place of “righteous anger” in the godly life then hear how The New Jerusalem Bible reads James 1:20 that God’s saving justice is never served by human anger, and The Passion Translation renders the same verse as human anger is never a legitimate tool to promote God’s righteous purpose.  There is a place for righteous anger, and injustice is that place, but shouting at other fallen, human people to make God’s point is not the way to do it.  Hear Jacob, human anger does not bring about the righteousness which God desires all to have; humble submission to God and humility in conversation with others does.  Love is active, and Jacob encourages those of us who are religious to practise faith as well as talking about it.  By all means do talk about your faith, talk theology, talk ministry, talk devotion and worship, but remember that activity breeds memory and creates a habit of goodness.  Those who actively carry out what God has instructed will be blessed in the doing.

Today we read where Jacob in James 2:1-9 wrote about justice in interpersonal relationships, writing that God does not favour anyone by human standards of wealth or health so neither should the Church.  We should not exclude anyone from full participation when we meet as Church, and as Christians in our individual dealings with people in the world we should show respect.  Human justice is not trustworthy: many among the rich are exploitative and are therefore unfit to be favoured over the poor anyway, and in Jacob’s experience it is the self-satisfied who speak against the glorious name into which we were baptised.  Think about the wealthy people mocking equitable healthcare on those TV ads, the Church is not to act like that with regard to social justice.  Rather the  Church is to display the love of neighbour as for self as the scriptures used by Jacob clearly state in Leviticus 19:18.  If it’s good enough for Moses it’s good enough for me, and that Jesus said exactly the same thing leaves me in no doubt.

What we read in James 2:10-13 connects these ideas with the greater truth of keeping God’s law.  To act unjustly is to go against everything God says and is about; to follow the world in this is just as sinful as to murder or fornicate.  You can’t pick and choose which parts of the Way of God to focus on and be righteous in, it’s all-or-none, and because of this Jacob wrote in James 2:14-26 that the way Christians live is as important as the way Christians think.  A follower of Jesus cannot have one without the other.

Be in no doubt that practical help is a necessity when injustice is seen, not just well-wishes.  Your theology is important, but it must not get in the way of your work for the Kingdom in the world and the mission of extending the influence of God’s will in the world.  Jewish heroes, male and female, showed their belief in God by obeying God in action and not only in #thoughtandprayers.  A faith without action is no faith at all, and religious action without understanding is no faith at all.  As plainly as Jacob can make it he goes right to the heart of Judaism and says that even the core creedal activity, the one thing above all things that makes you a Jew, to recite Shema, is not enough.  Read the words of James 2:14 in The Passion Translation, faith without works is useless for saving anyone.

So, get on with it.  Amen.

If Today Was Your First Day (Pentecost 10B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Yallourn and Morwell gathered at Yallourn North on Sunday 29th July 2018.

2 Samuel  11:1-15; Ephesians 3:14-21

Last Monday was an anniversary for me.  Actually, it was two on the same day.  On Sunday 23rd July 1972 I was baptised, and Monday 23rd July 2007 was my first day in prison.  I’m still baptised, and my last day in prison was Friday 30th January 2009, but I’d never really connected those two “first days” in my mind before.  I knew they were the anniversaries, but I tend to have remembered only one or the other, not both, but this past week I did.

Something that drew that connection even closer for me this year was the titles of two of the commentaries I chose for this week.  One book was called “Letters from Heaven” and the other was called “The Prison Letters”.  Of course, these books each in their own special way refer to the same letters; specifically, for me the pastoral Letter to the Church in Ephesus, attributed to Paul.  That Paul could write words of such heavenly encouragement from a prison cell is not a surprise to me, but we must not breeze past that fact either.  Even in the twenty-first century a gaol is not the sort of place you want to make a life, despite what you may have heard of its creature comforts boasting three square meals a day, a warm bed at night, and a 14’ TV in every cell.  The gaols where Paul spent time were a far cry from that, but even if they were of today’s standard they’re still not the sort of place you want to stay in if you have any other option.  And yet, the hope of Christ is found there, perhaps strength in weakness as I alluded to a few weeks ago.  When all you have left is Christ then, and perhaps only then, can you discover just who Christ is.  That revelation is truly a communique from Heaven, the message of salvation, friendship to sinners.

This news seems particularly relevant to me in the light of what I have just told you.  I have spent time in gaol, and I was baptised as an infant. For some people that news is scandalous, either piece of news an issue in need of remediation.  Of course, you all know that there is more to the story of my being in prison, a far less scandalous explanation, and I dare say many of you were ritually sprinkled or poured upon as babies and have never been submerged as adults, so you will see no problem in the story of my Presbyterian infancy.  Nonetheless, the finer details of my life are not the issue; the subject of Christ as saviour is a great theme.

In our reading for Jewish history this morning we find David not doing what a king should do and what every other king does.  David has gone home part way through the campaign of battle and is in Jerusalem and enjoying the comforts of his cedar-lined palace while his armies are in the field under the command of generals.  David’s conduct is contrary to that of the faithful Uriah who refuses on several occasions to spend even one night with Bathsheba, even when drunk.  Look at David in 2 Samuel 11:1 and compare him with Uriah in 2 Samuel 11:11, 13.  So, while the army is under canvas and in the midst of military manoeuvres David is at home, first having a nap and then having a perve.

Now, we need to understand that just because David can see her bathing that doesn’t mean that Bathsheba is showing off.  Remember that David is on his palace’s roof, potentially the highest point in this city which does not have a permanent temple.  Bathsheba might be innocently going about her bathing in the privacy of an inside courtyard, not anticipating at all that anyone would be looking down from the roof, or if they happened to do so that they would stay there leering at her.  David is in the wrong here.

What I most liked about the story as I read it this week, and like you I have read this story many times before, but what struck me as fresh information is that the Bible gives Bathsheba a full identity.  So, a Feminist reading might object to her being the daughter of some man and the wife of another rather than a woman in her own right, and fair enough actually, but at least she is identified.  This woman does have a name, a named father, and a named husband.  Bathsheba even has a calendar and we are told that it is the end of that week of the month for her.  The Bible identifies this woman by name, by relationship, and by care for her welfare.  King Leer on the other hand, David the just-awoke-from-his-nap-time sees her only as an assortment of curvaceous lumps of sexy meat.  The Bible tells us that she has just had her period, that’s why she’s in her ritual and hygienic bath, which means that in the coming week she will ovulate and be fertile.  David, obviously, could not care less.

In Ephesians 3:1 Paul calls himself a prisoner of Jesus.  He was also a prisoner of conscience at the time, probably in Rome.  Paul credits his imprisonment for the sake of the Gentiles; he understands that he’s been locked up for preaching and specifically for preaching what it is he has actually preached: but as far as he is concerned what choice does he have?  The gospel itself compels him, the news is too great not to share and the call of Jesus to apostleship is not something that Paul would ever refuse (Ephesians 3:3,7).  “Keep the faith, but don’t keep it to yourself” is his motto.  God has order in all things because all things are in God’s keeping, even if they are not all in God’s plan (Ephesians 3:8-13).  So, where the reading this morning began with for this reason the reason is all of the above; that the gospel is compelling, and that Christ’s own ordination is upon one so undeserving.  In Christ, from the Father, we are given a name and an inheritance which is being delivered now through divine blessing and resource for the work of the Kingdom (Ephesians 3:14-16).  All of this is delivered by love, and by the Spirit of Christ dwelling within each of us (Ephesians 3:17-18).  Paul is so assured that he has made a telling point that Ephesians 3:20 reads as a benediction; Paul might just as well have ended the letter there.

The writers of 2 Samuel 11 tell us that David denies Bathsheba’s and Uriah’s humanity: the woman is sexy meat and the husband is a barrier between David and the sexy meat.  Paul in Ephesians 3 on the other hand tell us that The Father, in Jesus declares and provides identity, lifting up nameless nobodies to kinship with God and ultimately to perfection.  Uriah was a great bloke cut down, Bathsheba was a victim of rape, and Paul was a bully transformed.  David is a bully right now, his transformation will come later, and Bathsheba will one day become Queen Mother.

Today’s message from scripture is that identity is personal.  Personal not that it is private, and not just that it is “you-specific”, but personal in that that it is meaningful to each individual.  When I was baptised and then as a more mature believer made confirmation of that baptism I was entering into a specific, recognisable covenant with God.  When I was three months old my parents made a loving choice on my behalf, and twelve years and three months further on I chose to confirm their intention, that I would follow God and God alone for all of my life.  God, who had already chosen me before I was knot together in my mother’s womb, indeed before my mother was knit together in her mother’s womb and so forth back in time, the God who chose me became my God by my choosing.  Even though God had no vows in the Presbyterian liturgy of baptism as was current in 1972, nor in the Anglican liturgy of confirmation as was current in 1984, I’m pretty sure God actively engaged with those processes and continued to choose me as a son and disciple.

I can also tell you that identity is important in gaol; you might expect this, maybe you didn’t.  You all know that my time in gaol between 23rd July 2007 and 30th January 2009 involved me wearing mostly black clothes and a pair of epaulettes with a blue band on them.  I also carried a numbered a set of keys and a radio with a unique callsign.  I was an OSG, an “Operational Support Grade” member of staff: not a prisoner in my prison, but a gaoler in my gaol.  I had a unique name and specific grade “OSG Tann”, a unique number (MT264), and set roles each day.  This made me distinct in the system; no other person in Her Majesty’s Prisons Service was me.  And, importantly, I was not a prisoner.  Prisoners also had specific colours to wear, maroon if they were especially difficult and green if they were especially amenable.  Prisoners also had their own name, usually their own surname prefaced by “Mr”, and a number.  Each prisoner is unique in the system and any prisoner “on the estate”, which is to say anyone incarcerated in England and Wales, could be located and identified to his or her specific cell.

My identity as a Christian, and as an OSG, were given to me.  I chose to be a Christian, and I chose to be an OSG, but how I was identified after those decisions was given to me.  Your identity today is both your choice and decision of the places into which you have been included.  In this cluster as a whole and in each of two parish congregations, you are called “sister” or “brother”, you are one of us not only in Christianity and the family of God but in our gathering as Yallourn and Morwell.

God sees you as unique and as part of the whole body.  You are you and you are part of us: this is an important distinction missed by David who saw only a whole mob of which he was shepherd.  David did not understand how one sheep here or there would be missed in the grand scheme, big picture of the flock.  A cute girl here, a random soldier there, who was to tell Israel’s king otherwise?  Well, God was to say otherwise, and so was Nathan (on God’s behalf) in his story of one ewe lamb amongst the mobs.

If you are a Bathsheba or a Uriah to God, then so may you be to me.  One, unique, irreplaceable one.

Amen.

A Sign on the Highway. (Anniversary of the Uniting Church in Year B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of God gathered as Morwell Uniting Church on Sunday 24th June 2018.  It was a communion Sunday and the closest Sunday to the anniversary of the Uniting Church in Australia

Psalm 127:1-2; Ephesians 2:17-22; John 17:1-11

Without wanting to get overtly political, even if a gathering such as this where the congregation is very much minded of justice and equity in the world, I have something profound to tell you: US President Donald Trump is not the Antichrist. However, in light of reading I have undertaken over the past few weeks leading into today’s service I have come to the conclusion, shared by many others of my spiritual persuasion, that Christ Jesus is the anti-Trump. This is especially true today, in June 2018.

Where the leaders of many nations, including our own, wish to erect fences or walls or enforce strict controls to separate families and isolate the much loved but very unwell, Jesus offers citizenship of the greatest realm of all – the Kingdom of Heaven. Where many flee poverty and corruption, and others flee persecution and genocide, we are brought to thought by today’s readings that each of us in this house have fled sin and tribulation. Make of those words what you will, be they literal fire and brimstone to you or simple metaphors of a life lived outside the love of God; II don’t know your past, but I so know mine and both of those apply, the literal and the metaphorical. Paul says that we are all refugees from the world and that God in Christ offers us not only asylum but citizenship wherever God is king.

With respect to the Kingdom of Heaven as it was proclaimed by Christ “Operation Sovereign Borders” is a series of rescue, recovery, and reuniting manoeuvres; it is about expanding the reach of God to include all, rather than erecting barriers to exclude most. In the homeland of the People of God the resources of compassion are never overwhelmed, the earlier arrivals and previously settled are never envious or afraid of the newest arrivals, and the welcome at the door is as effusive for the last one in as it was for the first.

In the Kingdom of Heaven, we are no longer strangers to God in danger of deportation, but citizens with all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities, of belonging to the realm. In realm of God those rights and responsibilities include shalom (Ephesians 2:17). Shalom; that deep, soulful, healing, energising, forgiving, cleansing, restoring, satisfying, joy-bringing peace that only perfect love can bring. That’s our experience, and that’s our mission as ambassadors of the Kingdom, not cross-armed bouncers but hospitable welcomers and stewards of the message of peace to the world. In Christ’s love, in the Father’s realm, in the Spirit’s fellowship there is no division because God is equally present everywhere and with everyone (Colossians 3:11). Paul told the Ephesians and by our reading this morning he tells us that the realm of shalom is the kingdom of God, built upon the foundations of those who went before. Paul wrote of the apostles and prophets, women and men who are gifts of God to us and charisms, gifts of the Spirit, women and men who were sent by God and therefore are sources of authority and wisdom with Christ as cornerstone. Jesus is the connection holding all together, this temple who we are is a dwelling place for God. It is the congregation which is the temple, not the individual because as Paul wrote we are built together in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:22) to form the place which God inhabits in the world. Where God “lives” on Earth is where we gather when we are gathered. An empty chapel or a single Christian is not “the place”, but the congregation gathered where it is gathered.

I have spoken often in the past nine months about shalom, and about the Kingdom of Heaven and the Reign of God in various combinations of those words. So today, today when we celebrate the anniversary of the Uniting Church in Australia and its now 41 years of service to the nation under that name, and close to two hundred in the various forms of Methbytgationalism, I want to touch briefly on the topic of apostles and prophets.

The Uniting Church of itself is not a church of hagiography, the stories of saints. Today’s house at St Luke’s Morwell is named after a first century evangelist, not a twentieth century administrator. We are St Luke’s, not St J. Davis McCaughey. But we do have our cultural heroes in Misters Knox, Wesley, and Brown of the Presbyterian, Methodist, and Congregational movements; and we do remember with thanks to God the work of Davis McCaughey and Ronald Wilson. We celebrate the ongoing teaching of Andrew Dutney, Vicky Balabanksi, Chris Budden, Katherine Massam, Geoff Thompson, Deidre Palmer, and foremost, Damien Tann. We are a pilgrim people on the path to salvation on the Way of Christ, and we have been blessed with faithful guides along the way. Today we thank God for the women and men of faith and courage who walk a step or two ahead of us, or who walked a generation ahead of us, and leave us markers.

Turning to today’s set gospel reading in John 17:1 we read Glorify your Son that your Son may glorify you. These are the words of Jesus, and since it’s John 17 you already know that these are among the last words of Jesus. “Glorify your Son” said by Jesus on Maundy Thursday seems obvious, but what do those words mean for us? How can we pray this? Well, in many ways this is a prayer only Jesus can say since he is Son in the way that no other man is – and there are no daughters like him either. Jesus alone is worthy of the glory of God, I’m sure I’ll get no argument from you at this point, however I wonder if “glorify” might also mean “shine the light of world attention” on us so that we might “shine the light of world attention” on God through our glorifying. The Church can certainly pray that, we can and indeed should have the courage to pray that God would make us notable such that we can point to God when people are looking at us. Let the Uniting Church in 2018 be another Statement to the Nation as Assembly issued in 1977 and 1988. Again in the steps of those who walk ahead of us let us give thanks for those times when the Australian society has established justice, equality, and mutual respect among people; has placed care for the people who have least above sectional interests; has welcomed new migrants and refugees; has exercised solidarity and friendship in times of crisis in Australia across divisions of race and culture; and has engaged constructively with the peoples of Asia, the Pacific and the rest of the world as peacemaker. This is what we told Australia in 1988: let us in Morwell be a sign on the highway, a sign of the compassion, grace, justice, and shalom of God. In words addressed by the newly birthed Uniting Church, to Australia, in 1977 let us continue to challenge values which emphasise acquisitiveness and greed in disregard of the needs of others and which encourage a higher standard of living for the privileged in the face of the daily widening gap between the rich and poor. I know this is a passion, a flavour, of St Luke’s Morwell and as you gather over lunch to discuss your way ahead I pray that you would continue to hold the wounded world in your eyes even as you keep Christ central in your heart and mind.

Eternal life, the life of the Kingdom of God is the knowledge of God and Christ whom God sent (John 17:3), so it’s about fullness rather than endlessness. Eternal life is not just chronologically infinite, it is broad and expansive. Eternal life is seeing Jesus for who he always was (John 17:5), the one from before time, the glorious God the Son. In Jesus we see God, God is compassionate and self-giving, generous to death, not wrathful. Eternal life is also responding to the complete revelation of Jesus by making Jesus known in the world (John 17:6), especially in the part of the world to which we have been given and has been given to us. As Gippslanders gathered as a Uniting Church on this 24th June we ask who are our people, where is our country, to whom shall we share the glory of God revealed to us in Jesus Christ. When we proclaim Christ what we proclaim is what Christ proclaimed to us, they are his words and we have heard them before because they are the words to which we responded in the first place (John 17:8). Jesus prays for us that God will be with us as God has been with him – since Jesus is no longer in the world in himself but only through us (John 17:11).

The believing community has been formed by Christ’s call to each to follow him, and to whom he has displayed God, and by the receivers of revelation and the responders to call becoming brother-sisters with each other in that coming together.

In the context of Psalm 127:1-2 we are the house built by God, and therefore not built in vain. This reminds us to build only for God and in partnership with God, our being a Church and a Christian organisation does not protect us from foolishness and failure if what we do is not directly informed and partnered with God. (We partner with God first, not asking God to partner with us in projects of our choosing – although we are encouraged to be creative in our response to God’s call to meet the world’s need.) Without God all work is a waste of time, even the work of being church and doing faith stuff. Not only must we rely on God we must make known that God is our source – we don’t take God’s help and then take all the credit, neither do we do the work of the gospel yet hide our light. We do what we do with God, and we do what we do to glorify God. Even if it “works”, if we haven’t made God’s fame public in the doing of it then the whole point is not made. It is good to be compassionate, it is better (fullest) to be compassionate and let God be glorified (the illuminated focus of the world’s attention). We don’t serve the world for credit and our own fame, but we do serve the world for God’s credit and God’s fame: our humility (and especially our fear of embarrassment) must not get in the way of God’s glory. We are God’s advertisement, not our own, but not no one’s either.

What we advertise is that God is dependable, and that we attest to this because we are dependent upon God and God sustains us. The same power that conquered the grave lives in us and can live in others who want what we have – because of God. Because of God we do not strive, we have no need to. We operate in the world out of shalom, out of eternal (fat) life.

So, whether you trekked alongside the followers of Wesley, Knox, or Brown before 1977, and whether you march amidst the followers of Donald Trump, Pauline Hanson, Justin Trudeau, Richard DiNatale, Angela Merkel, Benedict XVI or Francis or Lyle Sheldon today, the call to you is the same. Walk with Christ, walk his Way, share his love, and invite others to join you on the road to God which already traverses the outlands of the realm of God.

Amen.

What Happens On The Sabbath (Pentecost 2B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of God gathered at Morwell and then at Narracan on Sunday 2nd June 2018.

1 Samuel 3:1-10; Mark 2:23-3:6

I must admit I groaned in pain when this week’s lectionary gospel reading appeared.  I won’t say I hate this story, because I don’t.  I won’t even say that it’s very difficult to preach on, because it isn’t, and in the next hour or so you’ll see I’ve done a great job of exegesis and hermeneutics on it.  Sigh, no, this passage annoys me because I have written on it so many times.  So. Many. (Many!) Times.  It is the favoured passage of a certain Professor Emeritus of the theological college I attended, and I have written at least three essays, and a complex synoptic comparison on it. Oh begone “Jesus walks through a field of grain on the Sabbath”, begone.

Having said that, I have made no reference to those essays or synopses in preparing this sermon, so we’re good.  It also means that I’ve been able to take a fresh look at Mark’s version which we read today, and I found something new.  But let’s get to that in a minute because we need to ask why the disciples of Jesus were engaging in behaviour which violates the Jewish laws around keeping Sabbath in the first place.  Sadly, for you, I don’t want to answer that question; and if you look at the text, Jesus doesn’t actually give a very good answer himself.  The situation Jesus uses as a counter-argument wherein David as a refugee fleeing for his life, and hungry for anything food, pauses before eating to discuss theology with the high priest, is quite different to the random picking and chewing of the disciples on their Saturday afternoon stroll.  The twelve are not starving, and they are not being chased; but maybe the reason Jesus didn’t give much of an answer is that he didn’t think it much of a question: aren’t the Pharisees just being pedantic here?  I mean, come on, the disciples are taking a casual stroll and grabbing a few heads as they pass through the field, even if they aren’t the army of David, it’s not as if they’re actually harvesting.  Work is forbidden on the Sabbath, but mindlessly grabbing at the corn while you meander through the paddock: that’s not really work is it?

Still, in defence of the Pharisees we must remember that Sabbath keeping is one of the Ten Commandments.  It’s not one of those pesky religious rulings made up by scholars with nothing better to do: it is an actual decree of God given to Moses in God’s own handwriting on tablets of stone.  So, it pays to look at what Jesus is doing here.  He is not questioning pettiness, although he does that in plenty of other places and that certainly is part of what he’s doing here: no, Jesus’ primary critique is for the traditions of interpretation.  The way Jesus is speaking about Sabbath is akin to a prophet today claiming a divine mandate to redefine murder, or theft, or adultery and marriage.  And what does Jesus say?  How does The Word of God –  The Word made Flesh reinterpret a central teaching of Jewish scripture?  He says that people are always more important than doctrine.  In other words, if your interpretation of The-Word-of-God-revealed-in-scripture inhibits any person’s wellbeing, (including your own), then you need to rethink your interpretation.  God is never in error, and scripture is never in error, but the way you’re reading and thinking just might be.  According to Jesus sabbath is foremost a blessing, a gift of God, an entire day set aside each week for the fullness of shalom.  It’s not just an R.D.O., or a public holiday, and it certainly isn’t a day of mandated boredom in the name of some malevolent, laser-eyed god looking to obliterate anything that blinks or breathes before the precise instant of sundown on Saturday.  Jesus says that to be legalistic about the Sabbath is to be wrong about the Sabbath.  In other words, to be legalistic about this teaching of scripture is to be in profound theological error since Sabbath is not a legalistic matter.  Legal yes since it does pertain to the Law: but its application is never punitive.  If you want to know what is lawful on the Sabbath read on to Mark 3:4 where Jesus asks a group of lawyers gathered at worship that question.  What has been legislated, and how is it interpreted, Jesus asks.  What did Parliament decree and how have the majority of local magistrates understood and applied this?  What is the legal precedent here as established by the full bench of the High Court?  Is it lawful to do good or to do evil on the Sabbath: to save life or to kill? asks Jesus.  Now as a one-time English teacher I can tell you that this is an open question: Jesus is asking a question that requires a sentence answer because he gives a number of options.  Which is it, kill or save?  Which is it, good or evil?  And what do the scholars answer?  What?  Well they don’t answer do they: but if they had been brave enough I wonder what they would have said.  Probably “save and do good” right?  Wrong.  Think of what they believe about God: I think they would have answered with a closed answer, one word, “no”.  Just “no”.  Is it lawful to do good or evil?  No.  Is it lawful to save or kill?  No.  “Jesus,” they say, “you need to understand that it’s not lawful to do anything on the Sabbath.  Even if you do good then you are guilty of doing something simply by doing: to do good is just as horrific as to do evil because to do is to sin!”

So, who here today would like to belong to that religion?  Not me!

I should say very quickly, in case you are confused, that that religion is not Judaism.  Jesus is the ultimate Jew and is speaking to other Jews about the God of Abraham: so, don’t get all cocky in your Christianity.  The Pharisees were acting poorly as Jews in this example, Jesus was acting perfectly as a Jew.  That broad kindness always trumps the finest point of legislation is a Jewish concept, and Jesus didn’t invent it.

Anyway, Jesus is justifiably angered by the lawyers’ response, and by the lack of it, and the man is healed regardless.  Notice that the man is healed by his own action.  Jesus doesn’t actually do anything, Jesus doesn’t actually break the commandment even according to the Pharisaic definitions because it’s the man who sticks out his hand to petition and receive God’s healing.  That is when Jesus turned to the Pharisees and Herodians and said “you wanna argue about the Sabbath some more then talk to the hand.”  Of course, Jesus didn’t actually say that, but I reckon I probably would have.

But what is Jesus actually angry about?  What’s the actual trigger that moves him from despair to disappointment and rage?  Well in Mark 3:5 we read that Jesus is angered by the leaders’ hardness of heart.  “Why does the man have to bring up his troubles on the Sabbath,” they seem to be asking.  “And in the synagogue too.  Why can’t he just stay home with gloves on and come tomorrow if he wants to be healed?”  And let’s be honest, they do have a point, don’t they?  I mean, when presbytery made the effort to build a manse next to the church what is wrong with Monday?  And why do these people who need God have to interrupt church?  I’m glad you laughed there, this would have been my last Sunday here if you hadn’t.  But I wonder how far our patience really would extend if someone we didn’t know came looking for God’s miracle during our regular Sunday event.  Or worse still, someone we do know; someone who should know better than to be noisily troubled one Sunday when, after all, we all know where Damien lives and we’re sure he won’t mind giving up his Monday off if it means we can all get out of here unruffled and before 11:00 this morning.

Oh Lord we want our church to grow, please send us an interruption!!

Rituals must be subordinated to the needs of living people: but so must work be subordinated to the needs of living people.

As we listened to 1 Samuel 3 being read this morning I was reminded that Samuel was in bed and almost asleep when God spoke to him, even if he was in the sanctuary.  Had Samuel been living a 24/7 existence I think he would not have had time or energy for the voice of God to penetrate his exhausted haste.  It is for this reason, among others, that early nineteenth century Methodists were the leading voices in advocating for sabbath keeping.  This was not because they were as pious as Pharisees but because they agitated for the sacred right of every workingman to have time for sleep, eating, relaxation, and worship.  In view of this I wonder about those Christians who do not have a healthy attitude toward the Sabbath; some believing that taking one whole day in seven is an instance of old covenant, Old Testament Law to be set aside in the name of new covenant, New Testament Grace.  Really?  God’s ordained and directed regular pause to experience the peace that passes all understanding is a demand of legalism and not a fruit of grace?  Really?  So, where does Paul tell us that we are no longer obligated to have a day off?  Imagine a religion free of the compulsion to rest, and to let your slaves have a day off.  How awesome is Christianity that we are free to work 24/7 and to expect the same of our employees, especially the Christian ones. How remarkable is this good news that we are no longer enslaved by a blood covenant that commands a day off as if not working on Sundays was as important as not committing murder, rape, or fraud.

So, who here today would like to belong to that religion?  Not me!

The call of Samuel is one story of how a person, in this case a quite young boy, can best hear God when he or she is at rest in the world.  God speaks peace, shalom to the frazzled and anxious mind.  But once the mind is settled into shalom then God is able to reveal the wonders of grace and the message of God’s will.  Samuel had not sought the Lord’s voice, but because he was at peace in his life he was in the best place when God sought him.  Those among us today who are currently seeking God for some specific answer, or just for the sense of being closer to the One you worship and adore, would do well to take a sabbath.  Let God rest you, calm you, still you, and guide you.  Don’t let the legalists tell you what is or is not appropriate for a Christian or a Sunday – seek God and allow God to seek you.

And if Sunday is the only day that you have time and space in your week to do that, then do that.  If not this afternoon, then next Sunday.  You have my permission to not come to church next week if you need to go up to the mountains or down to the river to pray: just make sure that you do.  Maybe you’ll just have a pleasant time like the disciples, maybe you’ll be healed by God like the man with the once-withered hand, or maybe God will tell you fearful and wonderful news about the world and your place in it.

Let me know how you go.

Amen.

Together

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Yallourn Congregation gathered at Newborough on Sunday 8th April 2018, the Sunday after Easter in Year B.

Acts 4:32-35; John 20:19-31

On previous Sundays at this point in the service I have spoken of my time as a teacher, and this morning I want to briefly touch on that experience again.  Some of you may remember from my earlier stories that in several schools in the past was a teacher of students who wore the label “EBD”, which stood for “Emotional Behavioural Disorder”.  These were kids, and kids they were, whose disability was not physiological in that they had brain damage or a missing limb, but emotional in that they experienced mental illnesses or simply displayed anti-social or asocial behaviour.  I taught kids who had been expelled from other schools because they had taken a gun or a bong to school, or been involved in repeated fights, or were chronic non-attenders.  In other words, “EBD” quite often stood for “every bloody day” because that is how often they were naughty in class (or not in class as the case may be).  These weren’t the special children in wheelchairs you might feel sorry for, no, these were the special children who would spit at you because you wished them good morning and for whom no one ever felt sorry.

In other words, these were children with a reputation, and specifically a reputation that they were each and every one of them irredeemable.

In today’s reading from the gospels we came across a man of irredeemably poor reputation, the disciple Thomas.  Now when I name Thomas I am sure you don’t immediately think of the ambassador in chains, that apostle to the east who was the first man to live and die for the sake of the gospel in the lands of India.  I am sure you aren’t immediately put in mind of the Thomas Christians who to this day worship Christ in India because of Thomas, and who have a tradition of faith that is as old as the Petrine and Pauline Christianities of the Roman and European churches.  No, when I say Thomas you say, “ah, Doubting Thomas”.  Poor Thomas.

Well, let’s have a look at that story.  The lectionary jumps us in to John’s story of the twelve on the evening of Easter day, and the time when ten of the twelve, plus some of the women no doubt, were gathered together in shell-shock. Jesus appears in their midst and these gathered disciples were given divine authority as apostles, given the right and power to reveal Jesus and make him known to those who did not believe.  Jesus delegated this holy power personally through his breathing on them and conferring the infilling of the Holy Spirit in John 20:22-23.  There is no seven weeks wait for Pentecost according to John, this is the time, on Easter Sunday evening, when the Spirit is conferred and the ten are blessed with power from on high.  The power they are given, alongside the task of preaching for which they are empowered, but the authority as power, their right and duty of command and superiority relates to sin which they are authorised to forgive or not forgive.  “Now that you have seen me again,” says Jesus, “and you know me as the risen one and have received the Holy Spirit, go and meet unbelief in the world with grace and enthusiasm.”  That’s what they’ve been told to do: tell people that Jesus is Lord, proven by his resurrection, and help them to believe him and follow him as disciples.  If the apostles spoke of faith, then the rumour of God would be in the world and people would be able to respond; but if the apostles did not speak of faith then the word would remain hidden and the people living in darkness would not have the opportunity to respond.  The future of the Christian story, as we heard last Sunday in the story of the frightened women, was up to the witnesses of Christ.  Jesus wasn’t going to preach any more, the duty and authority to speak and to keep silent was up to them, the apostles.

Jesus made it quite clear: whether people live in the sin of unbelief or in the sun of understanding is up to us because we have the job of telling them the story which leads to hope and belief.

Now, Thomas wasn’t there John 20:24 tells us, so he missed out on the empowering sight of the risen Christ and the impartation of the Holy Spirit so it’s no wonder that he’s doubt filled.  Thomas was where the other ten had been seven days earlier, they’d not believed the women so how can they judge him for not believing them?  They’d seen Jesus, so how can they begrudge him the same evidentiary experience?  And, most importantly, how ineffective must their preaching have been that Thomas was not convinced?  Here are the apostles charged with all of the authority and resource of Heaven to declare new life to the world, and they can’t even sell it to one of their own?

Psh, “doubting Thomas”, more like “dubious apostolic preaching”.

When the resurrected one appears a week later and speaks to Thomas, Jesus does NOT breathe on him; rather in John 20:27 Jesus addresses the area of Thomas’ unbelief, which was Thomas’ desire to have touchable proof in John 20:25.  Thomas, having been offered the chance to put a finger in Jesus’ wounds, but without actually doing so, worships Jesus in John 20:28.  Jesus words in John 20:29 are probably not what he actually said to Thomas, after all Thomas has done more than the ten with the evidence he was given; more likely John later put these words in Jesus’ mouth as encouragement to those who read the gospel.  Thomas is no more doubting than the ten, and a week later he worships Jesus as Lord which indicates to me that he was far more convinced, and therefore far less doubting of Jesus than the other ten.

No wonder it was Thomas who Jesus and the Holy Spirit sent to India, and less effective Peter and James who Jesus left in Judea.  As with my EBD-labelled kids in England, reputations can be undeserved, but they stick once stuck, and they mislead.

In both of our Old Testament portions for today, one of which comes from Acts 4 in that strange way the lectionary provides for our history lesson in the time between our celebrations of Christ’s resurrection and ascension, the theme is unity.  Better said the theme is the opportunities that congregations of believers provide God with to bless the world through our single-minded devotion to each other in God’s name.  Unity is not enough, even ten-against-one the apostles could not convince Thomas of the resurrection, it is unity with devotion that God requires.  How good it is when brothers and sisters dwell together in unity we heard as our call to worship from Psalm 133:1Now, the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul we read in Acts 4:32, such that with great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus and great grace was upon them we read in Acts 4:33.  The spoken out witness of the apostles as individuals was supported by the lived out witness of the loving fellowship in which all lived, including the support of all from the common wealth of resources.  Everyone had a bed under a roof, everyone had food and clothes enough, everyone had love and comfort as part of the family, everyone had encouragement and good cheer from the testimony of the others.  No wonder they saw three thousand added to their number in one day, and others added daily because of the apostles’ testimony: who wouldn’t want to be part of such a loving community with a profound and delighted sense of hope in the world.

Thomas was part of that Acts 4 action, and then he went alone to India where he spoke of Christ and established a community of faith that lives to this day.

So, what does this mean for us?

  1. We must hear the message and take it to heart. Like Thomas we must believe and know that Jesus once dead has been raised by God in vindication of his message of the Kingdom of God, the forgiveness of sins, and the assurance of salvation.
  2. We must proclaim the message and take God’s appointment to heart. Like Thomas we must go where God draws us and filled with the Spirit and the authority of God to do so we must proclaim the Kingdom of God, the forgiveness of sins, and the assurance of salvation.

Our evidence that the gospel is truth is that we have met the risen Christ.  Like those who came after Thomas we have not seen Jesus in the flesh, but like Thomas we don’t have to touch the resurrected one to believe, we believe without seeing yet we believe by having known Christ. The world’s evidence that the gospel is truth is that we who have met the risen Christ live in harmony, unity, peace, and mutual enjoyment.

Where our reputation is one of love and peace the world will believe that we have the life-giving words of faith.

Every.  Blesséd.  Day.

Amen.