Trust and Relax (Pentecost 9C)

This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM for Sunday August 11th 2019, the ninth Sunday in Pentecost.

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20; Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23; Luke 12:32-40

In the opening words of the Psalm we read how God, The Great and Powerful One, summons all of the earth and calls every one and every thing to listen to the word of God. God speaks and God sets out what God wants from the world, and especially from humankind, and especially especially from the chosen people among the nations. God wants thanksgiving: acknowledgement in gratitude of what God has brought to humanity. This call is echoed in the prophetic writing of Isaiah who makes clear to the Kingdom of Judah that the people are destined for destruction because of their unfaithfulness.

Well that’s a fairly hefty first paragraph! I mean, what sort if preacher just jumps in at the very beginning with such a word of judgement right at the get-go? Where’s the anecdote to warm up the crowd, where’s the “a funny thing happened to me on the way to the pulpit this morning”? Well it’s deliberate, of course it is, because this is the way that both of our Hebrew Tradition passages start this morning. Chapter one, verse one, “hello, my name is God and you and your lot are toast.” Wow!

It seems that God has a good reason to be upset, so I think it’s good that God doesn’t actually beat about the bush when it comes to naming the elephant in the room. The voice I hear in this pair of passages is one of frustration rather than anger, God is not raging like fire here, more that God is puffing with exasperation: God is fed up and run down with this people’s behaviour. “I will not honour your worship,” says God, “I won’t even look at it.” Well that’s a bit harsh. “You have the wrong motive,” says God. Okay, well now we’re getting somewhere: “what I want is that you don’t sin at all rather than that you repent later in spectacular festivals. I want you to do what is right, and that means to show mercy.” We read that in Isaiah 1:17. “Come with humility, ready to talk, and I will save you,” says God; “come with arrogance and presumption and I will squash you.” And as we read from Psalm 50:23, the best sacrifice is thanksgiving.

What’s going on here is another one of those contractual arguments, or “a covenantal lawsuit” as I put it a few weeks ago. God and the chosen people, in this case the Kingdom of Judah, have an agreement. God will be their God, and they will be God’s chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a light to the world, a foretaste of the Kingship of The LORD in the whole of creation, blah de blah de blah. And that’s kind of the point, the blah de blah de blah bit, because the Judahites are taking it a bit for granted and in many ways they are not honouring their side of the covenant made with Abraham on their behalf. God remains faithful to the promise made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and in the case of Judah God is also faithful to the promise made to David: but Judah is not acting like God’s distinct people, Judah is acting like every other nation, particularly in the area of social injustice. God is being fair here, more than fair actually because God takes the time to warning the people that they won’t get the benefits of obedience unless they obey, rather than just leaving them to crash and burn. God says to them that they will only get paid for the work that they do, and they will only get the reward when they do the thing which brings it. Don’t do the thing, don’t get rewarded: don’t plant the seed and you won’t reap the crop, not because God is punishing you but because you are delinquent in your duties. It is a sign of God’s faithfulness in God’s work as The God of Israel (and Judah in this case), that God does intervene in the life of the Judahites to speak this warning through the prophet. A good father never stands by silently while his daughter does something dangerous, he steps in and warns her “stop doing that, you’ll get hurt”, not because a slap is coming next but because the daughter’s action is dangerous in itself. God is the same, and God’s faithfulness to the work of God means that God will name the danger and the better path.

In Isaiah 1:10 we can see God’s specific charge against Jerusalem: I saved you from Sennacherib, if not for me you would have been like Sodom and Gomorrah are (that is to say utterly destroyed). I’m doing the God thing and saving you from your enemies, so why aren’t you doing the People thing and showing justice and hospitality in the world? Why justice and hospitality? Well because that was the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah: those cities failed to show hospitality to strangers (Lot’s family) and instead attempted to assault them. Now God is saying to Jerusalem, you are just the same, but instead of sending destruction I sent deliverance because you are Jerusalem, so how about you reciprocate and show me some respect by doing as you’re obligated to do according to our shared ministry agreement. I don’t need your incense and ritual, in fact I’m bored and annoyed by having to attend the times when you do that stuff (Isaiah 1:14), I need you to display my character in the world, that’s what we agreed on. And if you get back to the work of blessing the world then you’ll have such abundance from me that you won’t miss what you share and give away (Isaiah 1:19), but if you don’t then the tap gets turned off entirely and you’ll have to make your own way, a small kingdom with huge and hungry neighbours (Isaiah 1:20).

The double-edged promise in Isaiah 1:19-20 is restated by Jesus in today’s reading from The Gospel Traditions. You can trust God, says Jesus, The Father loves you and wants to show you parental care in providing every good thing in abundance. Give it all away and you’ll not lose a thing, hoard it and it will rust, rot, and get pinched: have a look at Luke 12:32-34. So, looking particularly at the themes of hospitality and sharing with others which we pick up from Isaiah and Jesus, let’s go on to Luke 12:35-40 which in the New Revised Standard Version has the subheading “Watchful Slaves”. It might be easy to see this passage as disconnected from what Jesus was just saying about faithfulness to the work of discipleship and practical love in the world and see Luke 12:40 referring more to the second coming, and especially to the rapture. You know, “be good so that when the Rapture comes Jesus will zap you up from somewhere charitable rather than somewhere selfish or naughty.” That’s possible, but I think it’s somewhat out of context here because that’s not what the verses around it are saying: well at least not the verses we have read this morning. So whether Jesus comes back in the next ten minutes and finds us all in church, or not, let’s look at what we should be doing when he does return.

Hospitality is a big theme in the scriptures, and it is a vital, (so that means it is important and life-giving), a vital part of many Middle Eastern cultures. Care for strangers is considered normal, it’s just what you’re supposed to do when your environment is a desert and your traditions are nomadic. Everyone shares the shade, the water, and the bread; and if you’re the one giving hospitality this time you can be sure you’ll be the one needing it soon enough. But beyond that, the loose community of “we’re all in this harsh place together, even when we’re otherwise enemies” is the model of the Kingdom of God. God’s desire for Israel was that it’s people would be generous and welcoming. If you occupy the land of milk and honey and you got there via the wilderness then you know what hardship is and your common humanity should lead you to two assumptions. The first is that we should thank God for where we are, and for what God has provided; the second is that we should share the bounty of this place because we know that God is for all people and not just us. We have been chosen as agents of God’s love, we are the ones with the task of sharing, and as such we are the ones who occupy the storehouse of blessing. But just because we live with all the stuff doesn’t mean that the stuff is all for us, no it means that we have the obvious job of distribution and welcome. This is why God gets upset with Israel and Judah in history, because they are hoarding the blessings of God which were supposed to have been shared with the whole creation. And more so, as we saw from Amos last month (Amos was a Judahite in Israel) and from Isaiah today, the nations of God had not only kept the blessing to themselves they had kept the blessings to the elite within the nations. Not only were the Assyrians and the Egyptians going without, there were Israelites and Judahites living in hungry destitution: all while there were festivals and celebrations and sacrifices at the temples in Jerusalem and Samaria.

So what is God’s word to us in this? Well there’s probably a few, but here’s two. Well, actually here’s one with parts a, and b.

Okay, first: don’t hoard the blessing of God, share it. As Australians were pretty good at looking after each other, especially in times of crisis. When I look back at the various concerts and telethons and benefits for drought and fire and so forth I am proud to be Australian and that God chose this nation for me. I am aware that there is poverty in many forms in this nation, let alone the other nations of the world, and that more could be done to make sure that everyone has enough. I’m not convinced that everyone has to have equal, but I am certain that if there are two people where one person has three things and the other person has no thing that the one with three giving one to the one with none so that the share is now two and one is good. Work should be rewarded, and if you work more you should get more, but there is also a basic level of support that God requires of disciples for the benefit of the world. While some have none, and others have more than two, there is not only imbalance there is injustice.

Second: remember that this is not only economic. It certainly is economic, and must include economic aspects in the First World space which Australia occupies, but the blessings of God extend far beyond milk and honey. The Church across the planet is incredibly wealthy, stupidly so, but that’s not true of the local congregations I have belonged with. Even when I was participating in Hillsong Church London we weren’t mega wealthy. But think of the riches we do have because of Christ, freedom from sin yes but more than that is what it means in today’s world: freedom from guilt. This has also been abused by the Church across the world, where paedophiles and other scum have been allowed to continue in their jobs “by divine grace”; which is sickening and not God’s plan at all. But think of what you know about God which the world does not know.

It may be a silly picture, but go with me in this: as a Christian who has been Christian for all of my life I have a lot of Jesus. I was raised by Christian parents and have attended a local church for the vast majority of Sundays since I was born. I have not earned salvation but I have been assured of God’s grace so many times in so many ways that I am utterly convinced of it: in fact I have so much of Jesus and his assurance in my life that it bubbles out of me sometimes and I just spill Christ all over the floor. Sometimes I spill him in worship, and I get my praise on in song and movement; sometimes I spill him in prayer and I just love all over God in words and smiles to Heaven. For salvation’s sake at least I have more than enough of Jesus, I possess far in excess of the minimum level of Jesus for eternal security even as I can never get enough of him in other ways. Yet even in Kaniva there are people who don’t know Jesus. Some are saved and don’t know it, others don’t know anything at all. I am not wealthy in money, but I am stupidly wealthy in hope, so why wouldn’t I share that? I have more hope than the Vatican Bank has dollars, so before I start criticising the Pope for the Roman Catholics’ lack of poverty-alleviation in the world (and I’d always leave that up to Jesus anyway, he’s Francis’ boss and not me) I ask myself what am I doing for hopelessness-alleviation in Kaniva. Perhaps I need to start spilling Jesus in public: and much more than the loose change I might throw at the homeless, but great wads and wallets-full of hope and assurance.

The truth is that whatever we have a lot of, we will never feel safe in being generous enough to share it unless we feel secure in what we have; and we will never feel secure in what we have unless we are thankful for it. Generosity requires gratitude: and if Psalm 50:23 is accurate and to be trusted, and the best worship is thanksgiving, then I am going to thank God until God is worn out by my praise; and I am going to give and give hope into the world until everyone has enough, and many people have abundance.

Who’s with me?

Great, because if you’re not with me in this then God says you’re toast.

Amen.

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Back in Green (Epiphany 2C)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Kaniva and Serviceton Shared Ministry for Sunday 20th January 2019, the second Sunday after Epiphany.  It was a communion Sunday at Kaniva Uniting Church

Isaiah 62:1-5; Psalm 36:5-10

In our reading from the Hebrew tradition this morning we hear God speaking up on behalf of God’s people, and what God says is vindication of the faith of the people in God.  Yes Jerusalem had fallen to the Babylonians, but the people who went into exile remained faithful to God, they “copped it sweet” to use an Australianism, and now they are to be set free and allowed home.  When they are freed God will speak up for them, removing their shame and echoing their excitement at what is to come: a newly-directed future with new glory and new reputation.  These are not victim-people; they are victor-people, winners through perseverance and trust in The LORD.  They shall be a crown of beauty according to Isaiah 62:3, neither forsaken nor desolate but delighted in by God and rejoiced over as a bride newly married to her husband who is God.  What an amazing promise for a nation considered by all other nations as weak, defeated, abandoned by its gods, and decidedly unattractive.  The spinster hag of the village is now the most beloved bride of The LORD, a princess amongst her neighbours: she has a new name befitting her new status in relationship with God.  God who was faithful is now envisaged as husband, the ultimate faithful one who will love the bride with unconditional and abounding love: Jerusalem need never fear shame or isolation again.

In some Jewish sources it is actually Isaiah who speaks out like this, not Godself.  I wonder what difference that makes.  The message that Jerusalem is the bride of God is not changed that it become the bride of Isaiah, that much is made clear in Isaiah 62:2, but if we look at the first verse and a half we see something else, something exciting, something which is possibly even more exciting than God speaking out on Jerusalem’s behalf.  We see the tenacity of the prophet who will not keep silent and who will not sit down until God has rescued the city’s reputation and therefore the glory of God’s own name.  This is a leader who loves his people and who is shameless in promoting the fame of God to a scoffing world.  “Jerusalem has not been abandoned,” says the prophet, “and God did not forget the people.  God was not defeated, God is not ambivalent, God is faithful even when the people weren’t and now God is going to restore the nation to greater glory.  I am so confident of this that I am going out on a limb to proclaim this as truth until it occurs.” How confident are we that God is going to come through for us?  Are we confident enough to speak to the scoffers and risk our own shame on the reputation of God’s promise of salvation?  Remember if this is Isaiah speaking the whole time, even as he is speaking about God, then all of these words are coming from his mouth.  There is no fresh promise of God here, Isaiah is remembering his history and saying, in effect, “even though God has not said so today, I remember what God promised in the past and God will be faithful to that word a generation ago.” That’s an even bigger call I think.  If God were to speak prophetically to you and through you with a message today which is for today then that’s one thing.  But to think that God has essentially been silent in the world for seventy plus years, then suddenly the prophet says “yeah but I have never forgotten, so I’m going to shout it out in public so you remember, and I’m going to keep shouting until it actually happens,” well that’s some bravery right there.

Are any of you up for that today?  Have any of you a specific, defiant memory of the promise of God to Australia, or to the Wimmera/Tatiara, that even though God is not speaking through you freshly today you still know the truth from way back and it still fires up your soul today?  Anybody?  If yes then speak it out, don’t be silent, because now, today, is the time when the rest of us need reminding.

I was speaking with friends recently about how God speaks freshly into old words, and particularly with how as preachers, (my friends and I all preach regularly), how as preachers sometimes we don’t have to write a new sermon each week.  Sometimes, and especially with the lectionary, the word you wrote three or six years ago on the same passages speaks truth.  Sometimes it’s the word you preached six years ago, or nine, and not the word from three years ago.  This is not an excuse to spend the first three years of your ministry writing a lectionary-based sermon every week and then just preach them in rotation for the next decades, but it is often an interesting task to read what God said, and to whom, from these scriptures “last time”.  In the course of that conversation I remembered a quote from Joyce Meyer, the famous American preacher, and I heard her say at Hillsong Conference in London in September 2007, “what you need to preach is not a new word, but a now word”.  She is right.  So often we try to be relevant or current, looking for a fresh revelation each week, and sometimes God says, “but you haven’t got it yet, say the last thing again”, or even “the timeless truth is timeless, nothing has changed, the message is the same.”  And as I was writing this sermon in the car on the way to Serviceton this morning I was reminded of a quote from the Senior Pastor of Hillsong Church London at the time of Joyce Meyer’s visit who told us one Sunday “I’m going to keep preaching this until you hear it, because I’ve been saying the same thing for weeks now and I haven’t seen you change.  If you’re sick of this message then put it into action and I’ll start talking about something else.”  Maybe harsh, maybe a “now word”: we all laughed when he said it, good naturedly of course, and got on with giving him space to say the next thing because we put the current thing into action.  The now word for Isaiah was not a new word, it was the old word which was still current.

And so I hope you’ll be happy when this morning I do the obvious.  As your lead preacher and one of your pastors I want to seek God’s “now word” for Kaniva and Serviceton.  The lectionary guides our Christian tradition readings to the wedding at Cana in John 2, and to Paul’s explanation of the gifts of God’s Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12.  Maybe those are God’s directions for us this morning; the story of how Jesus provided for that wedding in many interesting and theological ways, and/or gifts of the Spirit and the ministry we all have within the priesthood of all believers, which would follow neatly on from last week’s message about baptism as our authority to minister, not ordination.  Especially since last week’s sermon was actually written in December 2015 and this week’s at 08:55 this morning, and to be honest I’m still making it up as I go along.

And let’s be honest, why would I even want to pass up the opportunity to speak on such a rich and empowering topic as spiritual gifts for ministry?  Especially since we are in a place called “Shared Ministry”, duh!, and especially especially since I am 0.8FTE which implies that youse mob really should be picking up 1/5 of the ministerial workload as well as your usual volunteering for the congregation if we are to be an effective witness in our towns.

So, instead, let’s look at Psalm 36:5-10.  Huh?  Well, just look at it!  Your steadfast love extends to the heavens, your faithfulness to the clouds.  Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains, your judgements are like the great deep; you save humans and animals alike Oh LORD.  The song of David, the servant of The LORD, is a “now word” for our church as we stand here on the third Sunday of 2019, the first Sunday in green.  How precious is your steadfast love, all people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.  In all that we have been gifted for, in all that the unity of God’s people in the Body of Christ implies for our worked-out love for God’s world and the building of the Kingdom of God on Earth, we cannot start, we cannot move, we cannot even open our eyes to awaken if we are not conscious of who God is and what God thinks of us.  The message of David in song is the message of Isaiah in both oracle (he’s prophesying) and in action (he’s stating his workable agenda for the next however long it takes).  Our message to the world is the same, God is love and extends superabundance in grace, God is righteousness, and God is for us and on our side in the extremes and quietness of each day.  The message is urgent, but the means is not frantic: we do not help the world’s rush and bustle to settle if we are shouting impatiently at them.  Begin from rest is, I believe, God’s “now word” for Kaniva and Serviceton Shared Ministry in 2019.  Maybe (hopefully) this is not all that God has to say to us, maybe it’s just the February word as we begin to enter the working year from our summer holidays.  But maybe, maybe if we aren’t starting in the love and abundance of God, maybe if we’re not remembering the promises made to us in the past, maybe if we’re too focussed on getting our ministry on and hitting February with all guns blazing and a head-up of steam to run the race we will miss God’s direction.  Yes we have to get going, yes there is much to do, and yes we’re already (almost) a month into this new year; but I don’t want to run even one step, or fire one spiritual shot, or make one pastoral phonecall or attend one church committee meeting without quieting myself to check in with God to hear God’s plan for us.  I don’t want us to forget where we came from, and whom.  I don’t want us to forget who we are, and whose.

Twenty nineteen is a year of opportunity for us, but to make the most of each opportunity let’s set in place a framework where we are always listening to God whenever it is “now”, so that we are with God when “now” is the time to minister.  Oh continue your steadfast love to those who know you; and your salvation to the upright of heart.  For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.

Amen.