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.

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It’s time to stand (Pentecost 15B)

This is the text I prepared for the people of God gathered as Morwell Uniting Church on Sunday 2nd September 2018.  It is the first in a series of five messages I wrote for the parish over September.

James 1:17-27

In the five Sundays in September I want to walk us through The Letter of James, portions of which have been set as the lectionary Epistle reading for each week in this month.  So first, an introduction.

James has had  a troubled time in Church history, and the letter was in danger on more than one occasion of not being included within the New Testament when the Church’s scholars decided what the Christian scriptures would be.  Despite the fact that this text was attributed to Jacob the brother of Jesus, which is really what got it across the line and into the top twenty-seven, there are a number of big issues with it even for Christians today.  James does not speak about Christ’s cross or resurrection, at all, and it doesn’t mention the Holy Spirit.  And, other than identifying himself as a belonger to Jesus Christ in two places, James 1:1 and James 2:1, Jacob doesn’t actually mention Jesus at all in the text.  This is a letter about God, the Adonai of the Israelites.

James is a general letter, addressed to everyone at large and nobody in particular, unlike Paul’s letters which were addressed to newly born churches in specific cities or regions.  As a general letter James is not as personal as Paul’s writings, it offers a few bits of generalist advice rather than answering the questions of one specific location.  James was written within a contemporary Greek and Hebrew literary style called paranesis which means it offered admonitions and exhortations; it’s all about “everyone should…” and “no one should…” and the like.  And James jumps around a bit, there’s no clear flow from one point to another, there’s no development, there’s just a bunch of ethical points, almost like dot points, and then having made all his points Jacob stops writing.  There’s no “farewell to the brethren and tell Sophie I said hi”, there’s just stop.  In this way Jacob’s writing is more like Jesus’ preaching than it is Paul’s writing.

So, James is in the Bible primarily because Jacob ben Joseph, the second son of Mary the former Virgin, wrote it, apparently, and somewhat in spite of it not talking about Jesus much and not talking about Calvary at all.  But the main reason that James nearly didn’t get into the Bible is because it seems to contradict Paul.  Paul is all about salvation by grace, and James is all about faith revealed by works, right?  Well one of my commentators describes the solution this way: that Paul’s key message is indeed that our salvation comes about from the sheer generosity in grace expressed by God who welcomes us home.  There is nothing to be earned or achieved, Christ has opened the way through his death and resurrection and we are invited simply to open our arms and receive the gift.  But Jacob in James did not dispute or refute this, which many have thought he did, (including Martin Luther who thought James was a very dodgy piece of work), what Jacob emphasises is that God-faith is not true faith unless it mirrors God in producing a radically generous and grace-filled life.  James does not say we must earn our salvation, James says that our salvation should prompt us to action in a world desperate for truth and love.  In other words, Paul writes about how salvation comes about, and Jacob writes about not becoming fat and lazy in the salvation you were gifted, but rather live out your faith for the good of the world, just like Moses and the prophets said.  After all, what is the point of being saved if you’re just going to be gossipy and ignore the dire plight of your widowed neighbour, or be rude to the shabby man who comes to church looking for salvation?  Jacob says that we can live generous lives safe in the knowledge that God who has already saved us (and the prophets) and is eternally faithful to Israel continues to have our back.  Jacob is actually saying that if you’re saved, drop the nervous religious pretence and live freely and openly as an ambassador of the rolling-out Reign of God.

So, with the background in place let’s look at what James actually says in today’s readings.  We’re starting at James 1:17 so very briefly let me tell you that in the first sixteen verses Jacob writes about God’s understanding that humans are basically good creatures who do dumb things.  There’s no total moral depravity for Jacob in the fallen world, Jacob takes the mainstream Jewish view that Adam was a perfect creation of God, but Adam made a mess of things and that mess continues today.  But God is still God, humanity is still the image of God, and God desires a reconciliation between Godself and humanity.  Furthermore, God understands Godself needs to get about this because humanity can’t.  Basic, simple, Jewish and now Christian stuff.

The first thing that humanity needs in a messy world is wisdom and Jacob says in the mode of the Jewish scriptural wisdom writers that we should just ask God for it.  There’s no shame in asking God for wisdom, just be confident when you do.

The second thing humanity needs in a messy world is guts.  It takes bravery and perseverance to live well in a messy world, and since Jacob tells us to be bold in living out our faith then we need to be brave against the condition of the world, and brave against those who prefer the world in its current state and will resist our desire for godly transformation.  God does not send temptation, (this is very clear in James 1:12),  but God does send hope to stand when temptation comes from desire for something other than God’s provision.  Temptation leads to death because temptation leads away from God, who is life. James 1:14 in The Complete Jewish Bible reads each person is being tempted whenever he is dragged off and enticed by the bait of his own desire.  In Jewish rabbinical wisdom, only repentance can halt the vicious sequence of hezer hara (the evil inclination).

Now we come to today’s lectionary portion, with all of the above in mind, and we read in James 1:17-18 that God’s response to our lack of wisdom and lack of perseverance is generosity.  The first gift God gave us was life, and then with life came the gifts of an abundant life.  There is nothing dark or hidden about God, God is holy and good and the more you get to know God the more beautiful God is for you (the more you see God’s beauty, the less you can doubt God is duplicitous).  Jacob counsels us that the best response to God’s gift of life is that we live fruitful lives which display God’s dependability and eternal goodness.  As I said in the introduction, this is Jacob’s main point, and it’s the reason why I for one am happy that James is actually in the Bible.  Jacob continues in James 1:19-21 where he writes about lovingkindness and patience with regard to anger.  Listen before you speak, he says, 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 given through an abundant life.  We have already read that God does not send temptation, now we read that when the world does send temptation we have the opportunity of God to respond with abundance.  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.  Furthermore, we must actively purge our lives of sordidness, immorality and growing wickedness.  James 1:21 in The New Jerusalem Bible reads do away with all impurities and remnants of evil; we must pursue the Way of God with meekness because the Way of God revealed in scripture is powerful to save.  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.

Finally, for this morning, in James 1:22-25 we read about activity in faith and we are encouraged to practise religion as well as talk 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.  In James 1:26-27 this is taken further to specify good use of speech.  Speak with self-discipline and put into practice what you hear of grace, especially to your marginalised neighbours who are helpless, homeless, loveless and comfortless, and non-belonging ones in your community.  Show grace towards yourself and encourage yourself to live with resilience and perseverance in the face of temptation.  Jacob suggests that good speech is an outward sign of a good heart, so if you hear yourself speaking badly see that as an indication that you need to examine your motives and attitudes.  The best way to avoid pollution from the world is through practising wise hearing and action.

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.

Made Strong (Pentecost 7B)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

‘Cos you gotta have faith…fa…fai…fa…faith

This is the text of the message I prepared for Moe-Newborough Uniting Church for Sunday 8th October 2017.  It was a communion Sunday and was also my first time preaching to this congregation.

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Psalm 19:7-13; Philippians 3:4b-11

So, the ten commandments eh?  You’d think that would be a straightforward task for a preacher: it’s all there in black and white.  God quite clearly says what is expected of Christians and Jews, so the sermon for today is read that, live with obedience, and move on.  Case closed, thanks for listening, let’s sing another hymn.

But I really don’t think it’s that simple, and here’s why.  The way I read it the primary purpose of the Ten Commandments, according to the narrative of Exodus, was to introduce the Israelite people to the God who had delivered them from slavery.  So, rather than being a set of rules without a context, (common-sense as those rules are for the most part), the commandments inform Israel of the best way to relate towards and behave in the presence of God, and each other.  Rather than primarily being a legal code framed for punishment of offenders these commandments are boundary markers for healthy communities.  They are words spoken personally by God (Exodus 20:1) and they speak of who God is with respect to the Israelites.  The LORD, whose self-spoken name is YHWH, is their God and the one who delivered them from slavery.  There is no doubt that this God is same one who spoke with Moses and sent Moses to Pharaoh.  This is the same God who sent the plagues, opened the sea, sent the manna and quail, and provided water at Horeb.  “I AM” the One who is with you, says God, the one who has always been with you.  In other words, “it’s me”, and “it’s been me, only me, all along”.  With that introduction make God then sets out the expectations of ongoing relationship.

So, let’s briefly run through those expectations:

  1. Sole allegiance. Exodus 20:3 assumes the existence of other gods, but the Israelites are to belong to YHWH alone.
  2. Related to the sole allegiance thing The LORD God is not to be imagined in physical form. There are to be no religious statues like the ones seen in Egypt or the ones to be seen in Canaan, not even statues of YHWH.  The LORD is the creator and not a creation: the nature of God is that God has no form or shape so to imagine a form or shape for God, even for the express purpose of worship of God is to lessen God’s dignity.  You may not pretend that God is something that God is not; it’s impolite.
  3. Related to the true nature of God, The LORD is not to be spoken of as if God were something different to what God is. In the same way that you must not give God a shape that isn’t God’s, don’t give God a voice that isn’t God’s.
  4. Imagine life in the model of God. As Christians, we might think of discipleship as following the Way of Jesus, living and acting as Jesus did, even pausing to consider “WWJD” if that’s your thing.  Well Israel’s God expects the same.  Follow God by acting like God; and the primary way of this is to rest on every seventh day.  Slaves do not get a day of rest, but Israel are no longer slaves so let them model the life of God.  Sabbath-keeping is therefore about freedom and discipleship.
  5. Five to Nine inclusive are about showing respect and care for other Israelites, the other followers of The LORD. Love and don’t disrespect the value of all parents; love and don’t kill anyone; love and don’t disrespect the humanity of all peers; love and don’t steal from anyone; love and don’t lie in court.  These are great, common-sense rules for society, but to read them in the context of the way of life for a worshipping community dedicated to the God who has saved them from a disrespectful community adds a layer of importance.  Don’t be like the Egyptians, be like The LORD.

And lastly, guard your attitudes as well as your actions.  No only “do not” act thoughtlessly or maliciously, but “do not even think” along those lines.  Jesus echoed this in the Sermon on the Mount, didn’t he?  Jesus was not original in saying that, the intent was there all along.

The Psalmist, writing perhaps five hundred years after the Exodus event describes the way in which the ordinances of God revive the soul and light the fires of learning (Psalm 19:7).  The wisdom of Torah, the profound instructions of God bring joy and light, the advice and intention of God is to be sought and held precious (Psalm 19:10).  The Ten Commandments are in no way “The Ten Suggestions”, God expects them to be adhered to, but the heart of the instruction of God is that this code offers an impenetrable barrier against the thoughts of the unwise.  Think like God, not like the foolish polytheists and their slave-making ways. Torah is a guiding light for the weary disciple and a reminder when you are falling apart of how to act toward other people and toward God.  The commentary I used this week refer to omission regarding Psalm 19:12-13: the law is not a stick to beat you with but a reminder amidst times of human frailty not to forget God’s expectation that you will be nice to people and humble to God.

In the section of Paul’s letter to Philippi set for us this morning we are made to understand that there is no doubt that Paul was very Jewish (Philippians 3:4b-6).  Paul makes his credentials as a Jew and a scholar very clear: even so he considers such knowledge a loss if it does not connect with the wisdom of Jesus Christ.  Paul is not saying that knowledge of the law is loss; he is rightly proud of his knowledge of Torah and I imagine he would agree with all which was said about the Law in Psalm 19.  No, what Paul is saying is that if your scholarship, your knowledge of Torah, does not point you to Jesus then your scholarship is useless.  (But if your scholarship leads you to Jesus then it is priceless.)  To pursue scholarship for the sake of righteousness, i.e. salvation, is pointless: being an academic cannot save you, even if it does help you be a good Jew.  (So long as you are a good Jew of course, and not a scholarly snob.)  In simple terms Paul says that the advantage of a working knowledge and understanding the ten commandments is that it helps you to understand what Jesus did so that you can follow in his Way.  I hope you can see that this is a development on the Jewish understanding already presented; that the law itself is not enough but the law as a pointer toward God for relationship and discipleship of God, and a life of better fit in the community of faith is what it is all about.  If you’re going to be clever, great, but make sure your cleverness leads you to be humble before God and kind to your friends and to strangers.  Faith as Paul describes it in Philippians 3:9 is assent to articles of belief; you might say “I have faith in the resurrection because I believe it actually happened and that it is meaningful for salvation from sin”, but faith as described by Paul is also openness to God’s activity.

So, what do we need to know?  What is the simple message for you to hear and then “case closed, thanks for listening, let’s sing another hymn?”  Well the message is pretty much the same: live with obedience and move on.  And here’s how to do it: study the Bible and other Christian texts and know what God expects of you as a disciple.  Follow the text and follow the Way of the Lord.  More specifically, be like Paul and know the Bible so well that you will have what you need to rebut the arguments of the legalists and the know-it-alls.  Paul really did know it all, he tells us as much and his detractors acknowledge his learning, and Paul says love is all you need.

Love God, love other people.  Get to it.

Amen.

Crossing The Sea, Seeing The Cross

This is the text of the message I prepared for the Morwell-Yallourn Cluster service at Morwell Uniting Church on Sunday 17th September 2017.  It was my first service with this people and was also a communion service.

Exodus 14:19-31; Psalm 114; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

I wonder, have you ever crossed a sea?  These days most sea crossings are done by air rather than ship, and unless you are in the company of Moses (or you are Jesus) seas are never crossed on foot.  In our day sea crossings are not uncommon.

ore important to today’s theme; to those of you who have crossed a sea I ask did you cross that sea under God’s protection and with God’s guidance?

I have crossed many seas.  Some of them had the word “sea” in their title, while others were named “ocean”, “strait”, “passage” or “channel”.  Whether by ferry or ocean liner, light or heavy aircraft, every crossing of sea which I have made has been done with my feet entirely dry.  I hope your experience has been similar.

On every occasion God has protected me, and I have survived every crossing unscathed, undrowned, and unconcerned by the water.  Some of the events of my life on the other side of the sea have not been the best, but the crossings themselves have always been successful, with allowances made for airline food poisoning and the occasional rough-sea puke.

When Moses followed God’s direction and lead the Israelites into, across, and out of the Red Sea he was in no doubt that God was at work.  The great pillar of cloud and fire which had gone before the massed migration moved to the back of the group, and the angel leading the Israelite army moved to a rear-guard position as the people of Jacob neared the coast.  At God’s command and by the agency of Moses’ prophetic action the sea formed a wall on the right and left, leaving a great channel of dry land between these two massive walls.  We are told by the writers of Exodus 14 that the good guys walked across the gulf on dry land, but that the chariots of the bad guys got bogged.  We are told that once every Israelite was safely across, and after Moses stretched out his hand, the Egyptians were drowned in the returning sea.  Every Egyptian died, every Israelite was saved.  The moral of the story in perpetuity is that Israel at once saw what the Lord had done and they were awestruck and began to trust God; so therefore, should we who read this story from within the traditions which worship the LORD.

This story can cause concern in the modern day.  Back when it was written the vindication of the victims of slavery and maltreatment by the God faithful to the generational promises made to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph made perfect sense.  God saved lowly “us” from horrible “them”, and that “they” got what was coming in the drowning thing is only what “they” deserved.  Today we might show more compassion, even when we think of the Al-Qaeda or the ISIS or the Boko Haram terrorists in our world.  The books of Moses do not address this issue; the issue at hand for the Israelites between the first day of Adam and the last day of Moses is the story of God’s deliverance of Israel by whatever means are necessary.

As our call to worship this morning I read to you from Psalm 114 and the song of worship directed to the God who secured the release of the house of Jacob from a people of strange language as verse Psalm 114:1 puts it.  God made these people God’s own, so again the focus is on the saving power of The LORD, the faithful covenant partner of the patriarchs rather than the destructive power of the vindicator of God’s people.   Such a God, the God of us, is so awe-inspiring, so awesome, that nature fled before the Israelites because The LORD was with them.  This passage speaks as if the presence of God was enough for the Red Sea to withdraw in terror at the mere presence of the Chosen People, let alone the prophetic action of Moses raising his staff.  No wonder Jesus says in the gospels that those who believe in the Word Incarnate can order mountains to move – the mountains are terrified of us and will not disobey us because of the One with whom we walk.  No wonder Jesus says that the rocks and stones will cry out if the children of God are silenced – the glory of the presence of God is so obvious in the world.  Rock turns to water, strength turns to floods of tears (and maybe even wet undies), at the sight of The LORD and the ones The LORD secures in divine covenant.  Such is the effect upon creation of observing the presence of God among the people of God when the people are present in one locality.

Such power.  Such awesome majesty.  Such response to the presence of the people of God, the people amongst whom God is present.  I don’t know about you, but to me this speaks of the esteem in which I can hold myself as a man of God and a son of God.  I am truly the pinnacle of creation when even seas will shrink and rocks will wet themselves when I come close in the power of God.

But, lest we get too ahead of ourselves as masters and mistresses of this planet where God alone is Master of the Universe, we are met by Paul and his commentary along the theme of great power and great responsibility.

It is not the task of the Christian Church, nor any Christian woman or man within it, to stomp around terrifying Creation.  Rather we are told explicitly in scripture and by the arguably first great human teacher of the Christian tradition that as a local church we are to welcome the weak to encourage them. (In your own time, you might like to compare Romans 14:1 with Psalm 114:3-7 and consider what God might be saying about our authority.)  Welcome everyone to the household of God as if he or she were a member of God’s own family, and do not quarrel over peripheral matters.  We are called to be in the world but not of it, living amidst the world but with our identity in the One who calls us to faith: yet often we live as if we are of the world not in it.  How often it seems that Christians engage very nastily over things which are entirely irrelevant to the interests of the world.  Who are you to pass judgement on the servants of another, [since] it is before their own lord that they stand or fall asks Paul in Romans 14:4-5.  Paul asserts that the ones we might put down will be upheld by their master, the one who pushed back the sea and makes water come from rock.  For all that glorious assurance I have just spoken of, of how God protects God’s own, do you want to be on the side of the Egyptians or the Assyrians? Paul suggests that if you take a sister or brother to task over trifling things you may well find yourself there.  Each woman or man of faith must act according to her or his revelation and conscience, serving God fully and passionately as God is revealed to her or him.   Each must live and die, feast or fast, to the Lord’s desire and the Lord’s glory.  Each of us is accountable to God, for as the Lord has said every knee shall bow before God and every tongue shall confess God notes Paul in Romans 14:11-12, quoting God’s own words from Isaiah (45:23b).  Instead of becoming nasty over trivialities let us set aside all “speaking the truth in love” and instead encourage one another in ever more evident acts and speech of Christlikeness.

But should we really give up “speaking the truth in love”?  If the lord of our weaker siblings is also our lord, shouldn’t their conscience match ours?  Isn’t it the same revelation, and if so then we can be assured that they are in the wrong because we are in the right.  Paul would ask why that is your primary concern.  If they are wrong, but in the church, then leave it to The LORD.  Think of Matthew 18:33 and the mercy shown but not passed on.  What has God not held against you that you are holding against your sister?  What great thing has God redeemed you from, yet you feel entitled to belittle your brother over something inconsequential?

Maybe the journey of faithful Christianity is not so much about crossing the sea as it is about seeing the cross.  Perhaps the glories of the Red Sea and the other miracles we have witnessed in the presence of the LORD have blinded us, as grace had blinded the unmerciful servant, to the LORD who is the director of all things.  Let us not fall into the error of thinking of ourselves as anything more than servants of the one who has called us to Godself, even as we steer clear of the error of forgetting that we are called, chosen and seen as precious by God.

Amen.

Underneath the lamplight

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Lakes Entrance Uniting Church for Sunday 16th July 2017, the sixth Sunday after Pentecost in Year A.

Genesis 25:19-34; Psalm 119:105-112; Romans 8:1-11.

This week our visit to Genesis jumps forward twenty years from last week’s reading.  Isaac is now sixty years old and he has been married to Rebekah since he was forty.  In all that time she has not been able to have children, and it appears that the promise made to Abraham and then furthered through Isaac is again under threat.  No son for Isaac means no nation for Abraham.  So Isaac prays for his wife in her barrenness just as his father had prayed for his mother.  (We’ll see the same is true in the next generation with Jacob’s best-loved wife Rachel: this is a common theme throughout Hebrew and Jewish history.)  Consequently Rebekah does become pregnant and her babies, twin boys, wrestle with each other in the womb.  Rebekah asks God about all the fighting inside her belly and God confirms that two great nations (Edom and Israel) are forming, struggling for supremacy.  God also confirms that as it was with Isaac and Ishmael, the younger son will be preeminent.  After they are born and mature into young men Esau (whose name means hairy) is his father’s son and Jacob (whose name means heel) is his mummy’s boy.

What we are presented with in these two men is two ways to live.  There brothers, twin brothers, are as different as men can be, let alone men born on the same day and from the same womb.  If you have been following With Love to the World in your personal Bible studies this week you’ll have read this passage on Tuesday and you would have been presented with the idea that what is going on here is very significant.  Not only is God choosing one son of Isaac over another, one grandson of Abraham to be the one who carries on that great promise made to Abraham to make a great nation of his decadents through Isaac, but God is favouring one way of life over another.  In contrast to the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4 God chooses the agrarian farmer rather than the nomadic hunter and tracker.  God has elected a settled way for men, and God has preferred men who are smooth-skinned, soft-handed and who work close to home.  God has de-selected the nomadic and ever wandering Neanderthal man who is rough and hairy, who eats only meat and other “red stuff”, and who doesn’t care what he has to give away to get some.

The question our readings ask of us is similar to the question asked of God.  Given two apparently equal options for moving forward, which option will you choose?  And pertinent to us alone, will your choice be the option that God chose?

The Psalmist finds in the Word of God a lamp for light in a time of severe (mental) affliction.  The section between Psalm 119:105-112 offers a plea that God would hear the praises offered by the afflicted one, and to teach her/him the ordinances of God’s chosen way.  “My life is in danger,” says the Psalmist, “but I will hold to God’s truth.  Others try to trip me up but I stay close to God so that I won’t fall, or I will be grabbed and saved if I do”.  The way of God is the way he/ she wants, and wants always, to be the way in which he/she walks.  The Psalmist finds joy, and we might unpack that as peace, rest, delight, hope, in God’s instructions to her/him.  The Psalmist listens to God and orients her- or himself to God’s ways.  The Word of God, like the creeds, is not a hammer to bash us into submission, but a light to illuminate the better way of life and to support those who walk it.  The Word of God brings freedom because in pointing out the dangers along the way the traveller can be confident that nothing will come as a surprising threat.  Remain listening and reflective as you walk, and you’ll be far less likely to walk astray.

In February I told you that I don’t like to use the headings which Bible translators have inserted into the text.  They can be misleading in that they are suggestive of only one, traditional interpretation of the passage to follow.  In the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible which I use to write my sermons, and you have in the rack in front of you, the heading for today’s passage from Romans 8 reads “Life in the Spirit”.  I’m not unhappy with that heading, because there is room for wriggle within it that perhaps the NRSV translators and the third-wave Charismatics may not have been aware of.  More of that in a sec.

The passage begins with the message that there is no condemnation. This is similar to the message of Psalm 119 but offers this message purely as support for the sake of freedom.  The peace of God towards you is your space to be free, and to move about on the way ahead.  (You are a hiker on a trail, not a tram on a rail.)  And like Psalm 119 there is a qualifier of this confidence, the promise is for those who are in Christ Jesus.  I understand this phrase to refer not to those who have answered an altar call and prayed “The Sinners’ Prayer”, who have walked “The Romans Road of Salvation” and who have learned “The Four Spiritual Laws”, but those who have taken notice of who Jesus said he was at face value, (i.e., that he was who he said he was) and who live and move within the world and its societies in the way that Jesus lived and moved.  Yes this is about your salvation from sin, yours and mine, but it’s not as rigid as a rote recitation of a written prayer of invitation or the memorisation and unwavering devotion to every word of the Nicene Creed might suggest.  The way of Christ is a better way than the way of rigid, legalised faith.  This is what Paul is saying; therefore this is what I am saying.  If you don’t like what I’ve just said, well take it up with Paul.  According to Paul only Jesus can save: the Law can point out error but it cannot do anything save a transgressor.  In response to this revelation, Paul counsels us to live so as to emulate Christ, not so as to avoid sin.  He says this secure in the knowledge that if you live for Christ then sin becomes an unlikely experience for you anyway.  The light of the Word which the Psalmist spoke of in 119:105 is revealed in Jesus, who is the Word made Flesh (John 1:1): not in rigid adherence to the syntax and grammar of the scriptural texts.  This is life in the spirit, as that heading in the NRSV suggests, and we can see it is so in two ways.

  1. It is life in the spirit of the law, “the vibe of the thing” it as the barrister says in “The Castle”. In the spirit of the law we find the way in which the law was supposed to be read and applied.
  2. It is life in the presence and up-taking of the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit our counsellor, advocate, friend, and empowering one. Do not let your obedience of the Law get in the way of your discipleship of God, it says in Romans 8:7.  If your way of being a Christian, obeying the law and practicing the rites and rituals of the faith, leads you to act or think in ways that Jesus did not or would not act or think, then it is your way which is wrong, not the way of Jesus.

If your way is not the way of Jesus, then what does that say about your way?  This is not condemnation from Paul or from me:  Paul desires that the Romans follow Jesus, not him, and I desire the same for you; rather this question is an invitation to reflect upon what your Christian life looks like.  Does your Christian life look like the life of Jesus?  I’ll leave that for you to ponder.

Paul goes on, in the light of this revelation, to remind his readers that they and we are not bound by our ideas of God, but that we have been swept up by God into fellowship with Christ, by the Spirit.  Those who have the Spirit belong to Christ, Paul says in Romans 8:10, and because we have the Spirit we have life and not death.  And if not death then not condemnation either, nor guilt, nor punishment, nor fear.  We have a saviour who can deliver us from the consequences and shame of sin, not just a judge who points out our wrongdoing but is powerless to do anything more than point and frown which is all the Law can do.

So walk in light.  Let the one who is the Word of God, the light and lamp of God, guide your feet along the Way of God.  Choose the way God chose, and be fruitful and useful in that way as you walk within and beside the Spirit who empowers you for service, and cossets you in love.

Amen.