My Opia

This is the text of the message I preached at Lakes Entrance Uniting Church on Sunday 30th July 2017.  Immediately following this service was the congregation’s Annual General Meeting

Genesis 29:15-28; Psalm 128; Romans 8:26-31.

In 2007 while I was still living in England I attended a rather well-known church.  This was not the rather well-known church I have spoken of previously, the famously musical one where I belonged between 2003-2009, no this is another church.  This church, the other church, was famous not for its music but for its mission-minded community groups.  Anyway, one evening at this church, following a particularly pointed message from the vicar, I ordered and then received by post a book written by him, and in that book, was a story.  Here’s my take on the gist of that story:

The parish church of St Osram’s in the rural village of Great St Osram had a weekly attendance of ten people, the youngest of whom was 72.  They were faithful people and they enjoyed each other’s company over tea after the service, and the rituals and rites of the Order of Common Worship during the service.  Anyway, there came a time when old St Osram’s, with its twelfth century bluestone nave and sixteenth century oak-board porch, needed some major repair.  Money was requested and then forthcoming from the diocese and from the pockets of the parish.  When all the tithes, gifts and offerings added to the cake-stall takings, grants and loans had attained a sufficient sum, St Osram’s was closed temporarily and the congregation moved across the road to the WI hall for worship.  (Now Women’s Institute is the UK version of CWA.)  Now, because the WI hall was a 1950s edifice and was brighter, warmer, and larger than old St Osram’s, the congregation decided to run a midweek playgroup and coffee morning for the village in addition to its Sunday worship.  This became very popular, and soon enough the mums and bubs who had been popping in on a Tuesday started coming to church on Sundays as well.  Then some dads came, and a few school aged-kids with their parents too.  And other people, younger adults without kids started coming.  The church grew marvellously, a Sunday school was set up, a Wednesday Bible Study was started by one of the young couples, and at the end of the six months that it took for St Osram’s to be renovated, the church had grown from ten people to thirty-five.

Are you with me so far?

So, when after the six months the church council met specifically to facilitate the move out of the WI hall and across to the renovated St Osram’s they were faced with a dilemma, weren’t they?  Can anyone suggest what it was?  Yes, that’s right.  How can we get the original ten of us back into St Osram’s on a Sunday without those twenty-five interlopers coming across too?

In Genesis, we continually read of God’s faithfulness to individual people, even when along the way their story speaks of episodes of disappointment.  Today’s reading from chapter 29 sees our friend Jacob safely arrived in Haran and living with Laban, the brother of his mother Rebekah, his uncle.  The daughters of Laban, Leah and Rachel, are his first cousins and the nieces of Rebekah: exactly the clanswomen the inheritor of the promise to Abraham needs to marry.  We heard this morning how Jacob worked seven years unpaid for Laban in lieu of a monetary bride price.  At the end of that time he was to receive his cousin Rachel, at which point he would be free to take her back to Canaan and inherit the land promised by God.  And so, after seven years and then the traditional tribal wedding, as Genesis 29:25 says [w]hen morning came, it was Leah!  Disappointment is an understatement in this story; the deceiver has been deceived and he has been sold the wrong girl in a transaction where there are no refunds or exchanges for faulty product.  All is good when Rachel arrives in Jacob’s tent a week later; at the end of the traditional (and no doubt rather cold in this instance) week of day-long parties and night-long honeymoon-style consummation.  In exchange for this second wife Jacob commits to another seven years of unpaid work to purchase Rachel from her father.  How this all appeared to Leah we are not told, and it’s not a question I wish to answer today as I have a different point to make.  But for those of you interested in Feminist readings of the scriptures this passage is a corker.

The Hebrew adjective used to describe Leah’s eyes in the original text might mean “delicate” more than “lovely” as the NRSV puts it.  Her eyes might therefore be weak.  So, was she doe-eyed and lovely, or was she short-sighted and squinty?  Whatever she’s selling, Jacob isn’t buying.  At the same time, I wonder how, after seven years of living close by the sisters Jacob doesn’t realise even in the dark which girl he is bedding.  Leah might not be the only squinty-eyed seer in this story.

The words of Psalm 128, somewhat ironically reflect the story of Leah.  It is she who is fruitful in the early days of this family, bearing four strong sons to Jacob while Rachel remains barren.  It is she, the eternally disappointingly squinty one, who bears the fruit of Jacob’s labour, not the best-desired Rachel.  Jacob was no doubt proud of his boys, those olive shoots around his table as 128:3 puts it, the evidence of the blessing bestowed on the one who fears the Lord.  But as Leonard Cohen might have said, “it’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah” from Leah’s perspective.

So, here’s my question: are we blind, as Jacob was, to the blessings that God has given us?

Psalm 128 is a blessing song in that it may well have been pronounced over pilgrims arriving in Jerusalem, in other words it’s another one of those festival songs we know about which make the Psalms in the one-teens and one-twenties.  Those who came to Jerusalem would be blessed by the priests in attendance as part of the ritual, before being sent home beneath the spoken favour of God.  What we read here as blessing is all that has been given in the early life of Jacob, but had he seen it?  Had he seen that the channel of God’s favour to him is Leah, or is he both besotted and blinded by Rachel such that God’s favour goes unseen?

That’s what my family would call a chin-grabbing question.  Here’s how it works, it’s congregation participation time.  Everyone grab your chin with one hand.  Then drop your eyebrows into a frown and say “hmm”.  Perhaps give a little nod as you do to indicate the profundity of the question.  “Hmm.”  Has Jacob overlooked the goodness coming into his life because it has come through a doorway he was not attentive towards, and because it has not come through the doorway he is watching?  Hmm.

So, let me ask you another one.  You don’t need to grab your chin for this one, I’ll do it for you.  So, what about us?  Hmm.  Where is God blessing us and funnelling blessing in to us that we have missed, or ignored, or despised?  Hmm.  Where has God answered our prayers in ways we do not like?  Hmm.  Where might God be wanting to prosper us, but we don’t want to know?  Hmm.

Surely, you’re not saying Damien that we don’t want God to bless us?  Huh?

Well, where might God want to be bountiful to us, with an overabundance, but we are happy with sufficiency or even survival rations?  Hmm?  Huh?

We might be afraid of an abundance of the Holy Spirit, as if the world might think us arrogant if we have too much spiritual authority?  Hmm?  Huh?

Are we afraid that if we have more than enough of God for ourselves it is a sign that God wants us to share God around?  Hmm?  Huh?

As we meet later this morning to discuss the past eighteen months of ministry at our AGM, will we find that God is equipping us for a journey we don’t want to take?  Hmm?  Huh?

Here’s another chin-grabbing question for you: why is there so much gifting in this congregation, but so little action, relatively speaking?  Is it possible that we don’t WANT to be so fully blessed by God?  Are we happy in our perceived insufficiency, confident that we are too old, or too few to make a difference?  Are we happy to be excused from the work of the Global Church for that reason: the demand is too great for us so we shrug with a resigned smile and a sigh while the younger, more numerous, more gifted Baptists, Anglicans, and Roman Catholics transform Lakes Entrance?

Hmm?  Huh?

To return to Jacob and his sister-wives, are we too squinty-eyed?  Do we recognise the God who is wooing us, the empowering One?  Do we fail to perceive the future, looking short-sightedly only as far as we can see in our own strength?

I want to say immediately, that this church, Lakes Entrance Uniting Church, is not doing nothing.  Double negative which makes a positive, we are not doing nothing and we are doing something.  We are actively engaged in our community and in our world.

  • You have all read the reports from Interim Church Council and Elders concerning the pastoral and administrative work of local leaders and outside assistants.
  • You have all read about the work of Toddler Gym, Days for Girls, Friendship Circle, Combined Churches Emergency Food Reelief, and Op Shop in our town.
  • You have all read about the work of the Lord through Mala’bi Foundation in Indonesia which this congregation supports.

We are not lazy, nor are we slack.

But are we doing all we are called to do?  Is each of us doing what God has gifted us each to do?  Are there ministries undone, ministers untapped, or gifts unopened in this place?  If so, is that because we’d rather someone other than ourselves step up?  Is that because we’d rather anyone but the one with her hand in the air, does it?

  • Is your prayer “here I am Lord, send him.”
  • Is your prayer “I see her over there Lord, but can’t you send someone else…not me…just not her.”

I really don’t think anyone here is praying that way, or even thinking that way.  I hope that I am right in that.

In Romans 8:19 we read that creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.  Did you get that, the world is waiting for the revelation of God which only the church can proclaim?  In Romans 8:21 we read the reason that the world is waiting for this revelation, and it is because by the knowledge of this revelation the world will be set free from bondage and will obtain the freedom of glory.

My question is what, if anything, are we withholding from the world?  We are doing much, but are we doing enough?  We cannot do everything, but can we do more?  Now, we can only do more if God calls us to do more, leads and guides us in doing more, and equips and blesses us as the more is being done.  This is obvious and true and I know you know this.  So, my challenge to us all, on this day of our AGM where we look forward into 2018 from what we have learned and done in 2016, is whether God is already calling and equipping us.

We are not a church like St Osram’s.  But are we the church God wants us to be today?

I do not believe that there is anything to be feared from “more of the same” where what we are doing is faithful to God and effective in the world.  Not one of our annual reports makes for desolate reading today, everything we are doing is hope-filled and forward looking.  But the rhetorical question I want you to take into today’s meeting if not into the remains of 2017’s calendar, and by rhetorical, I mean I’m asking it now so that you can think about it and respond to it in your own time, is what additional reports could we be reading at the next AGM?  What could we hear of next year if everyone sought God concerning his or her gift and then responded fully from his or her bounty of the Spirit’s help in our weakness as Romans 8:26 says?  Maybe nothing more, maybe we are at capacity now.  Maybe not.  This is something to think, pray, and do about.

The tribes of Levi and Judah, the ancestry of Jesus, both derive from Leah, not Rachel.   The only descendent of Rachel to be King over Israel was Saul the Benjaminite, and we know how that turned out. In that way, I pray that we will always be a church looking for God’s blessing wherever and through whomever God wishes to bestow it, not only our perceived favourite ways or families.  I pray that we will always be a church attentive to the cries of desperation from a hurting world, hungry for what we have in our bellies and our storehouses.  And I pray that we will always, always, always, be a church which makes space for the interlopers.

Amen.

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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.