Journeying Beyond The See

This is the text of the message I preached at Morwell Uniting Church on Sunday 24th September 2017, the sixteenth Sunday of Pentecost in Year A.

Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45; Philippians 1:21-30

Last week we heard the story of Israel crossing the Red Sea and how God delivered them visibly and audibly from the Egyptians.  The waters rose into great walls as Israel crossed the gulf: the waters fell in and drowned the Egyptian army and all its horses.  We heard how God is so mighty as to be able to part the seas at a word, and of how creation withdraws in awe when the people of God walking in the presence of God pass by.  Today’s story jumps forward several weeks and we are now one calendar/lunar month after the exodus event.  We find Israel tired and hungry, and “are we there yet?” is all they can say.  Four weeks after leaving the dead eldest sons of Egypt behind in Egypt, four weeks after leaving the dead armies of Egypt behind in the sea, all The LORD and Moses hears is a multitude of sulking.  The LORD tells Moses that relief is coming in the form of meat and bread, and that it will come every day for as long as it is needed.  The actual words of God are that this chosen people can trust in the provision the LORD.

That is a strong message.  God hears the sigh of desperation and God responds immediately with grace and provision.  There is no indication in this passage that God is dismayed by the people’s attitude, only a recognition that there is a need which the people require God to meet.  In other places God gets annoyed and angry with their stubbornness, but on this occasion God simply answers the need.  There is a legitimate claim on God’s provision, and God fills that need to the very top.

Moses and Aaron on the other hand are upset by the whinging.  Perhaps they are also tired and hungry and so they are not in the mood to hear it.  “Why don’t you tell God” they say in desperation, “it’s not our job to feed you”.  Of course, this also means “are you prepared to tell God?”  And of course, the Israelites are more than ready to tell The LORD in no uncertain terms what they think about The LORD’s lordship.

Nonetheless The LORD provides; however, with that provision comes a test of obedience.  Will Israel obey God and gather only a day’s supply, or will they hoard the manna in case it is a “once off” event.  Will Israel trust God’s promise to send the quail and the manna tomorrow?  God is revealing something about Godself in this miracle: that God is faithful, generous, and dependable.  God will not allow the exodus people to die of starvation or dehydration; this is a sign that God is with them and that the God who is with them is like this.  God will also not dump a vast supply on the people and then walk away: God rations the provision because God intends to walk with the people each step of the day and each day of the way.

Listening to today’s Psalm we hear a call toward the gathered worshippers that they tell the story of God, and especially the story of what God has done in the presence and history of the Israelites.  God has always and every time been faithful to the covenant made with the ancestors: God has fulfilled the promise to make a nation and set aside a homeland for the people of Abraham via Isaac and Jacob.  The psalmist speaks in Psalm 105:37-42 of the chosen ones being lead out with joy, while the Egyptians were happy to see the back of them.  There doesn’t appear to be a great deal of joy in today’s story from Exodus 16, it’s a real festival of complaint that Moses and Aaron must deal with, but we know that joy came with the provision of food and water and with the sign that this provision came from the glorious God who is shown to be more than guide and protector, God is provider and counsellor.  Psalm 105 is a great song about the glory and goodness of God from Adam to Joshua, there isn’t a negative word in it.  We read the Israelite story in parallel in Psalm 106; and today’s reading from Exodus is spoken of in Psalm 106:13-15 and in Psalm 78:17-20.  In these verses, the psalmist leaves us in no doubt that Israel behaved with rudeness and petulance toward the Lord.

In the light of these passages and the history of experience they talk about we might listen to Exodus 16:9 and ask what it means to draw near to the Lord because God has heard your complaining.

In Biblical language, the phrase “seek the Lord” meant to pray, so to draw near probably has a similar meaning.  But how do we pray, how do we respond when God lets us down?

Perhaps in our day, in our church, we would never entertain such thoughts.  How can God let us down?  Is it sinful to even ask such a question?  If that is your view then you are welcome to it, there is no condemnation from me, but I offer you congratulations that your life as a Christian has never, ever seen trouble.  I have felt let down by God on many occasions, and whilst in hindsight I see that God was there all along, and that much of my trouble was my own doing, and the rest of my trouble was the doing of other, fallible human persons, so that God is in no way to blame, I confess that in the moment I shook my fist at the heavens and let God know exactly what I thought about the distinct lack of quality in the Fathering going on.

Last week I spoke of crossing the sea and of how my journeys by various modes of ship and aircraft had always been successful:  I was never drowned nor had I ever fallen from a great height.  I also said that life across the seas had not always been so fantastically wondrous.

In 2002, following a previous visit for a World Methodist Evangelism Conference at which I was one of the Uniting Church in Australia’s delegates, I emigrated to the United Kingdom.  Through ancestry I have the Right of Abode in the UK, so basically, I have a lifelong visa.  I don’t hold a UK passport, and I can’t claim Social Security, but otherwise I have access to an undisturbed life with all the rights of employment, property, voting, and emergency services.  God was not the one who decided that I should move to Britain to live, even as it was God’s plan and provision which got me to England in 2001 for that conference.  After six months in England I was broke, homeless, hungry, lonely, and stuck.  “How could you let this happen to me?”  I asked God.  “How could you let this happen to him?” asked my parents.  My dad tells me he had some serious words to say to God around that time, “small-f father to big-f Father, dad to God”.

Of course, God was not to blame for my plight.  It was me who had moved to the other side of the world.  God found me a roof, a bed, and a meal every night, and while I was technically homeless I was never out in the Hertfordshire cold.  Whilst I was lonely I was never away from church on a Sunday, and whilst the congregations did not help me in the way that I would have liked, and that my mum would have liked, and maybe even how God would have liked, I was never actually destitute.  Whilst I was hungry I was never starving: I lived in a B+B so there was always cereal, juice and tea in the morning, and there were pub counter meals at night for around the same price as a burger meal at McDonalds.  I didn’t like my life, but I was alive, and God did not let me die or let me want to die.

Even when I told God that I could do a better job of looking after myself than God had done, God never actually let me try it alone.  Even when I told God, “you are God and ‘thy will be done’, but you’re not very good at doing thy will”, God did not send a wrath-load of lightning or flood or a hoard of Amalekite armies to end my life.  Like the roughest of sea crossings, I made it safely to the other end, even though I had sweated, and puked for much of the journey.

Paul wrote to a local church in Philippians 1:21-25 that he felt hard-pressed at times in continuing his life on earth when the promise of the reward of faith was so appealing.  But the work of the gospel itself and the joy he found in serving God compelled him to keep going.  Paul was prepared to remain where God had put him because he was confident that God was with him.  In other letters Paul writes of his troubles, of mistreatment and verbal abuse, imprisonment and beatings, near drownings, and the wearing work of travelling even when the path was good and the sea was calm.  Paul did not have an easy life, but he had a strong faith in God and a rock-solid confidence that he would be provided for in the grace of God.  That confidence extended to the work of faith among the people he was preaching to: “God is faithful to me in how God is blessing you” says Paul.  Paul knew that his work was not in vain; the Church was growing in number and in depth as more people put their trust in Jesus for salvation and then went on increasing and deepening faith.  So, one of the signs of God’s faithfulness to Paul was the resilience of the Philippians themselves.  This is a blessing that Moses and Aaron did not have as leaders.

So, what about me?  I am a Supply Ministry Agent and am not your minister in the fullest sense, and I am certainly not a Paul or a Moses to you.  But you are my family in Christ, brothers and sisters, and for the next four months I have the privilege of leading you.  So, are you, the people God has given me to, a resilient people?  Are you, the people God has given me to, a whinging people?  However long my stay in Morwell and Yallourn is I know that I shall be hard at work with you and for you, but will my work be joyful like Paul’s was, or irritating and draining like Moses’?

What about yourselves?  Are you each a joy to your brothers and sisters in this congregation, or are you a drain?  Is the Morwell congregation a joy, or a burden, to the Yallourn Parish?  Are the people of Moe-Newborough, Yallourn North, and Narracan congregations a joy, or a strain, for you?

How would God describe you?  I am sure that God would describe you in gracious terms, but would there be a need for grace in that God would need to say harsh things in a nice way, or would God smile and relax when your name is mentioned?  “Ah Morwell, yes they’re an easy bunch to be with.”  What do you say of each other, and what do others say of you.

You don’t need the Bible or a minister to tell you that life is hard.   But it’s always good to be reminded that during a hard life, even a hard but obedient life, God is incredibly faithful and you will make it across the sea to the place Paul longed for.

Amen.

The Psalm of The Lakes

This is the message I preached at Lakes Entrance on Sunday 13th August 2017, the tenth Sunday of Pentecost.

Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22; Romans 10:5-15

Last week I spoke to you something of the call to preaching, and how it’s more than just making your own sense of the Bible and then speaking about it from the front. Preaching is both a gift and a calling; those who are called are also gifted, but some who are gifted are not called. Some who probably could preach a good sermon, one without vampires for example, might be better suited as small group or classroom teachers or lecturers, or perhaps as theologians, which is to say authors.

In August and September 2000, I was in the final semester of my studies toward a Graduate Diploma in Primary Education. I was on “Practicum 3”, a four-week solid block of teaching in a school supervised by the university (NTU) and the regular classroom teacher. I was teaching a grade five class at Holy Spirit Primary School, a Roman Catholic parish school in Casuarina, a suburb of Darwin. Holy Spirit was one of two schools local to my home, the other was Wanguri Primary School and I had completed “Practicum 1” there twelve months earlier. The schools were diagonally across the road from each other, with that road marking the boundary between the suburbs of Casuarina and Wanguri. Anyway, one lesson where I was teaching Religion, (and remember that this is a Catholic School so Religion was taught twice a week by the classroom teacher and not one a term by local Christian volunteers bringing RE as it was at Wanguri), I found myself running short on time due to a last-minute assembly being called. I had to finish quickly and so instead of reading the Bible around the classroom as we usually did, each child reading one verse in turn, I read the passage from the front. And because I was in a hurry I acted it out too, reading with one hand and waving my other hand around. As we were lining up for assembly at the end of the lesson one of the girls said to me, “Mr Tann you shouldn’t be a teacher, you should be an actor.” I told her the truth, that I had used to be an actor and that now I was becoming a teacher, but that I still liked having fun with my learning. I also told her that I was a Christian from the Uniting Church and that I liked reading the Bible too, so that made it easier for me to have fun with it.

The reason I have told you that story is because the passage I read that day in class is the same passage I have read to you this morning, Psalm 105. Worship was opened this morning with my reading the first six verses directly from the Bible, and from the NRSV which you have in front of you. Our prayer of Adoration, which I called “The Adoration of Joseph” was not of course that Joseph is to be adored, but that Joseph would adore God because of the story of his life. I took Psalm 105:16-22 and rewrote those verses as my own prayer, much as Bruce D. Prewer, James Taylor, and Leslie F. Brandt do in the books I often use for our liturgical prayers.

This got me to wondering: how would Psalm 105 for Lakes Entrance read? The Psalm as we find it in Israel’s scriptures is subtitled “God’s faithfulness to Israel” by the NRSV translators, and “God’s word in Israel’s story” by Professor Toni Craven who is the commentator I read this week. This Psalm tells the story of the Hebrew people from the choosing of Abraham until the settling of the exodus people in the Promised Land under Joshua. It forms a pair with Psalm 106 which speaks of the unfaithfulness of the Hebrew people during the same time: God is faithful as deliverer, but the people act wickedly and are blind to what God had done (Psalm 106:6-7).

The opening verses of the Psalm of The Lakes would be easy to write: I hope so anyway. Give thanks to the LORD in prayer and praise, sing to God, tell of what God has done. Let all who do these things (pray, praise, sing, tell) do so in joy. Ask God with trust for strength and the capability to go forward into the promised future. In recent days remember what God has done for you, and done through you, since your last minister moved on. Tell the people who have joined this congregation, tell the people who will join this congregation next year. Not that we wish to revisit past hurts and pains, open old wounds, pick at old scabs, or point to the scars with every new person you meet. There is no need to get new people “up to speed” on past hurts. But having been where you have been, speak now of where God is and of God’s faithfulness to you seen only in hindsight. As I said to you last week, don’t preach your notes; rather, use what you have learned in the past season of darkness and turmoil to proclaim God’s greatness and the hope for the future.

On Friday coming, the profile for the Lakes Entrance Uniting Church Congregation will go before the Placements Committee at Synod in Melbourne. After so long in preparation and negotiation, drafting and redrafting, and re-redrafting your paperwork is in and the search for a new, permanent-for-at-least-three-years, minister gets underway. You have done it, you have made it. Of course, the search for a new minister takes the time that it does, and you will need to look after each other and take responsibility for the functions of the congregation until your new pastor comes; but considering what you have already done that will be easier. You have much to praise God for, to thank God, to look back in amazement at where God was and what God did for you, in you, through you, because of you, and sometime around you. You have a history which speaks of God’s choosing of you and God’s favour upon you. Today is the day to begin to celebrate that history, to speak of God’s faithfulness, and to consider God’s message for you as you look to appointing the man or woman God is sending you.

And so, as are the people of history at the end of Psalm 105, so you stand on the bank of the Jordan River. The Moses people of your history, those interim ministers and preachers who have brought you safely, (if somewhat shakily), to the brink of home are no longer required. The next woman or man you call will be a Joshua, one who can lead you and cheer you on as you run ahead to fill the promise that God has made to you.

Briefly I want to turn to Romans 10:5-15 at this point, and not just because I read it this morning and I haven’t preached on it. This passage from Paul, which is today’s Lectionary choice for Epistle, speaks not only of Moses and that same Salvation History of Israel which the paired Psalms 105 and 106 do, but also of what Christian Salvation is.

Paul quotes Moses from Deuteronomy 30:11-14 in saying that what is done in salvation can only be done by God: human effort will always fall short. At Lakes Entrance, you know that. Only God could have brought The Lakes Parish through to where you stand today. Paul is of course speaking of human salvation, the movement of an individual into a saving and salving relationship with God in Christ, but the same applies to this congregation made up of Lakes Entrance and Lake Tyers Beach people that God has done the work through grace, and that God’s soothing and rescuing work in your salvation is a sure and completed thing.

This then is what you can say to the world. Of course, should speak of what Christ has done for you, a Christian, in bringing you to himself as Lord of Life and pointing you towards the God of Creation. But in a town where the name of the Uniting Church was not proud, where people thought we had abandoned this building in preparation for selling up and moving out the story of how God saved the Uniting Church in Lakes Entrance is worth telling, and worth telling repeatedly. God loves this congregation, I am sure you have no doubt of that. God loves this town and this district, I am sure you have no doubt of that either. Now all you must do, and you needn’t wait for your next Reverend Gentleman or Lady, is to go and tell them on the Esplanade, and on every other street in this town, that God loves them too.

And feel free to be as extravagant as you like in doing so. Grade five would be proud of you, to say nothing of the Holy Spirit, Godself.

Amen.