Advantage Us (Advent 3C)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of God gathered as Serviceton Shared Ministry at the Church of Christ on Sunday 16th December 2018.

Isaiah 12:2-6; Luke 3:7-10

So, I’m wearing pink; what of it?  For those churches who follow the tradition of an Advent wreath, and do it with candles of specific colour, today as the third Sunday in Advent is when the pink candle would be lit.  So yes, pink socks and a pink tie.

Since God is our strength and salvation we can trust and not be afraid.  The words of Isaiah 12:2 are similar to those of Moses recorded in Exodus 15:2, and the psalmist in Psalm 118:14, most likely with the same intent.  In this prayer of thanksgiving Isaiah speaks of the joy bubbling over in the life of the woman or man who knows that God’s grace and forgiveness has been poured out; we can also think of Mary’s song when we read Isaiah 12:4-6.  Such superabundant joy leads to proclamation, to shouting out the wonders of God and the work God has done, so that all nations will hear about God and will know that God is worthy of praise and exaltation.  God is with us we proclaim, God is in our midst, so why would we not sing loud praise for God?  More than that, some of the earliest church scholars saw Isaiah 12:3 and its reference to the spring of the saviour (rather than wells of salvation as the NRSV puts it) as a specific reference not only to Jesus but to baptism.  If you know that God is good, and that God has saved you, and you are minded to shout and sing and dance and pray, then wash in the river and be made whole. On this day of joy and the pink candle, and in this house where the tank sits behind me waiting, let us each remember our baptism and where God has brought us from that day of water until this day of worship.

It can be a bit of a shock then to move from this great song of celebration and the invitation to baptism to read how John the Baptiser declared the water ready.  Let’s look at Luke 3:7-9 again; I have to tell you that even though there were no classes in how to give an altar call at my university I am sure that John would not have been on the syllabus.  “What do youse want?” he says, “who told youse to come?”  Hardly Christ-like language is it?  Well actually it is a lot like the language of Jesus, calling out the pride of the prideful and the arrogance of the arrogant.  “Youse mob think you’re saved already, don’t you, and that being an Abraham-descendent is enough, that you don’t need to act with justice and mercy because you were born into the right religious family.  Well you’re wrong because that’s not what God is looking for, but who told youse that, eh?  What are youse doing out here?”  Is John trying to keep people away from those wells of salvation, the spring of the saviour?  Seems like.  Well maybe it does seem like, but not really, because what John is saying is what all the prophets have said, and what Isaiah said, and what Jesus of Nazareth who is the Christ of God will say.  The life-path of the baptised, the way of the wet, is not to rely on ancestry but to depend upon God alone and to commit to discipleship.

Those of us who belong to God and Kaniva & Serviceton Shared Ministry by way of the Uniting Church might be aware that our denomination refers to ourselves as “a pilgrim people”.  Have you heard that before UCA mob?  Yeah.  As a people on pilgrimage we know we haven’t arrived yet, but we are on the way, and along the way we fellowship with each other as fellow travellers.  As John says in Luke 3:11 we look out for each other, sharing our coats where we have two and our mate has none, sharing our sandwiches and water-bottles likewise.  Mostly it’s a metaphor, a very powerful metaphor, but sometimes it is seen in practical help like the help you gave me as a church last month when my car died and they who had two cars gave to me who had none.  And Church of Christ the same; the earliest traditions of Stone and Campbell speak of you as “Christians only, but not the only Christians”, and as “the Disciples”.  No big and fancy denominational name, no massive creed, just a commitment to read the Bible and to follow its instruction. So whether you are walking in unity with the Pilgrim People on the Way, or you are part of the Church of the Disciples of Christ, or you have a different history which has brought you to Serviceton and this fellowship for this time you know that it is God who is your saviour, not your ten-greats-grandfather’s surname.  And that because God is your saviour, and because you are a disciple and a pilgrim, (I say “and”, this is not an “either/or” thing in KSSM), you live with joyful fellowship with the rest of us, and excited follow-ship of the saviour in whose likeness God made you.  That is what each of us was baptised into, whether it was as an adult plunged in a tank or as an infant with water poured over our scalps above a font, or something else, that is what each of us has committed to as a path for life.

The set reading for today actually goes on a bit.  Today I asked that Luke 3:7-10 be read, but the lectionary would have had us read on until Luke 3:18.  If we’d read as far as Luke 3:14 we would have heard John counselling people from many professions as they asked for special advice on how to do their jobs within the context of discipleship.  It is as simple as being honest says John, show justice and mercy; basically act like God acts towards you as the Chosen people.

And so the source of our joy, the reason for the pink candle and clothing, is the gospel of God.  The good news, the news which we celebrate, the news which cause Isaiah and Moses and Mary to bubble over with joy, is that God is on our side for no other reason than that we are loved.  It’s nice to have had disciples for parents and grandparents: I did, and many of you did too.  For some of you your parents and grandparents are in this house this morning, for others you can remember a time when they were.  This is where the Jews of John’s day were; they were not all arrogant and self-important at all.  After all, John was in the wilderness and speaking to people who were there, people who had bothered to journey out to the river and away from the cities and villages to hear him.  But as John said to them so I say to you, as good as it is to have had Christian ancestors, and especially ones in the previous generation who told you about God, that is not what God is looking for.  Your Christian ancestors were saved by God not because they had Christian ancestors but because they were disciples in their own generation.  This is what is required of you.  If you want the joy of the Lord, and if you want that joy as your strength, then choose discipleship as your way of life.  It need not be denominational, and it need not be vocational in the narrowest sense where you must become a priest.  In fact, according to the articulated positions of the Uniting Church and the Churches of Christ it need not even begin with a wet head; although both traditions and many others beside strongly endorse the idea of baptism as soon as is possible and appropriate, (unofficially in that order if the scripture at Acts 8:36 is to be believed, and it is).  One of my favourite theologians has said about tradition in the church that true faithfulness is not about wearing your grandmother’s hat, but about having grandchildren of your own.  In other words the strength that you have as a Christian today derived from your faith filled ancestors should be utilised to the outcome that you have faith filled descendents, who have you as their faith filled ancestor.  And of course if you are not a child of Abraham well there is good news for you in John’s message and Isaiah’s message too.  The whole world is to know the glory of God and the wonders due to God’s action on earth: the good news proclaimed to Gentiles as well as Jews is also for the children of non-Christians.  I mean, if actual Roman soldiers can get discipleship advice from John the Baptist (Luke 3:14) then those of you who are the first Christian in your family for one or more generations can certainly get it too.

Unlike Philip on the road with the Ethiopian eunuch there is no water here, well not right now.  But if you want more of the joy of God that Isaiah spoke about, and the rest of us have sung about, and that Christmas is all about then know this.  Know that access to baptism and discipleship, or discipleship and baptism and more discipleship, is always available in this house.  Don’t go home without it, and don’t let me or the leaders or deacons go home and leave you without it.

The joy of the Lord is our strength, and it is the Lord’s gift at Advent.

Amen.

Advertisements

Advantageous How? (Advent 2C)

This is the text I prepared for the people of Serviceton Shared Ministry for Sunday 9th December 2018, the second Sunday in Advent in year C.  It was also a communion Sunday.

Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 1:68-79; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6

Last week in my introduction to the Church’s season of Advent I spoke about it as a time when the Church remembers the arrival of the Messiah on earth as the baby of Beit Lechem, and our preparations for when he returns at the end of this age and the coming of the Kingdom of God to earth.   Today our reading from the Hebrew traditions come in the words of the prophet Malachi who lived during the Persian Empire days of Jerusalem’s history, so somewhere between 500 and 350 BC.  Malachi told the Judahites that a messenger was coming who would herald the Lord’s return to the city; in fact Malachi’s own name means “my messenger” and he certainly did act as a prophet and a messenger of God, but it is clear that he was not writing about himself.

Malachi wrote that when the Lord comes he will bring refining fire for purification and righteousness so that the people will be pleasing to God as they once were.  Under colonisation the Judeans had become cynical, complaining that God had left them under foreign rule to live in a ruined version of the Promised Land.  God’s response was that the people were disobedient, expecting God to make things good while they sat around whinging and disregarding God’s will and word of correction.  God’s word to them was that when God will come in response to their complaint not only will the temple and the city be physically and gloriously restored, but God’s lordship over the people will be too, and that will require them changing their attitudes and behaviours and being made pure.  Hebrew tradition connects the soon-to-be-coming messenger with Elijah who would return (since Elijah was already dead at this point) to herald the return of the Lord of Glory to Jerusalem.  Christian tradition connects this messenger with John the Baptiser, who spoke into a similar cultural and economic situation for Judea four centuries later than Malachi.  Malachi and each John hear the people’s complaints and say to them in God’s inspiration “you want God to come and save you, but you aren’t yet ready for what God brings”.  Malachi warns the people in an oracle and John goes a step further as he begins to denounce the self-satisfied and baptise the repentant.

In the days following the birth of God’s new messenger, the first Jewish prophet in four centuries (who broke that long period of darkness and silence), John’s father Zechariah prophesies over his newborn son.  Zechariah says that the child will be the witness to the coming of the Davidic king, the one who will restore Israel to its former glory as the nation of God.  In Luke 1:76-79 we hear how John will prepare the people for the Messiah, telling them what the messianic mission will be so that when the Lord comes they will be ready to respond, and the dawn will come to end the long night of God’s silence.  When the saviour comes he will fulfil the promise made to Abraham (Luke 1:73) and liberate the people from their enemies and show mercy to Judea so that they could worship God without restriction (Luke 1:71-72).  This is what the audience around Malachi might have wanted to hear if worship was as high on their list of desired freedoms as self-governance was.  The news is exciting for Zechariah because he knows that God’s deliverance is at hand; it will come in his son’s lifetime because John himself is the herald.  Zechariah quotes Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3 in his praise, and Isaiah 9:1 in his identification of whom it is that God will send: it is the Wise Counsellor and Mighty God whom is the Everlasting One.  John’s proclamation of who is coming in Luke 3:4-6 is also a quotation from Isaiah 40:3-5.  Adonai, the Lord Godself is the one who is coming, and is coming for all humanity, in the lifespan of baby John.  How exciting!

I like how Luke’s narrative, his telling the story of Elisabeth’s pregnancy and then of Mary’s is interrupted by this song of fatherly worship.  This can be a reminder to us not to get carried away with the events of the day, even God’s marvels, but to stop and adore and worship and praise: we are reminded to “Selah” as the psalmists say, to pause and consider.  Zechariah in his song is pointing to repentance; but not only to the forgiveness of sins through the coming of the Lord but also the need for the world to stop, rethink, and change direction in the light of this latest news.  The Lord who is coming has come to restore justice to Israel and to bring light to the whole world, not just the Jews.  The Lord who is coming is coming for everyone, that’s a new idea for many people.

In Luke 3:1-6 we read how the Spirit fell on John when John was already in the wilderness.  The message of God was the one prophesied by Zechariah, that John must proclaim that the Lord is coming and the whole world needs to prepare.  I like the detail that Luke includes in Luke 3:1-2, setting the ministry of John in a specific time and place, and with a specific theme: John is in outback Judea in 29AD and proclaiming repentance for purification through baptism.  This is just as Malachi 3:4 suggested, but it also makes a stark contrast between what is occurring around the emperor, procurator, and client kings in their various capital cities, and where God is at work which is actually in the wilderness.  The God of the Jewish people is the God of the Exodus: this God works in the wild places which are the places between other places.  God chooses to be active in the places others rush through (or past) on the highway to other places, so the places where God’s people live are often places where other people stop only for a toilet break and a photo of the brick line across the road demarcating a barrier which God’s people in God’s wisdom don’t consider significant.  John in preparation to declare his message, which is the preparation of the way of the Lord, is already in the place where the Lord will be.  What is also significant is the number of authority figures listed: Judea is under the authority of empire, province, and local warlord forms of control, this is not a free country and the Judeans are not a free people.  Who John is speaking to in the wilderness, who John is calling to repentance are people who are living directly under heavy burdens of governance and colonisation but who are also marginalised and ignored.  These people are of no consequence to the big-hats in Rome or Jerusalem or Caesarea, except when it comes to taxation and conscription, at which time they are very much in the crosshairs.

The wilderness is outside polite and formal society, so it is a place of disorder and chaos.  The wilderness is a place you only pass through if you have to, and you do so as quickly as possible.  To make an unnecessary journey through the wilderness is weird: to go there deliberately, and to stay there, is madness and maybe even demonic.  Yet look at what God does in Luke 3:5-6, the chaotic and demonic will be ordered and rescued by God: no place, and the residents of no place, will be left behind by God because all will be made whole and all will be saved.  This is great news for the poor, but confusing news for the merchants and the ruling classes who don’t believe they need saving and believe they don’t need saving.  The elites are told that God is coming, which is great news.  The prophecies of John and Zechariah point to God doing what has been promised, the salvation promised by God through Malachi and all the Hebrew prophets is at hand, God is about to deliver the good news into a world where there is so much bad news. However, God is arriving way outside and God’s ministry is beginning with the weird mobs that live out the back of beyond.

There is so much more going on in John’s proclamation than God delivering the Jews from the Romans, Zechariah and John each acknowledge this; but I wonder if even John thought that a coup would indeed be part of the messianic mission.  Later in the story of John we find him sending his disciples to Jesus to question him about whether he really is the messiah, and whether he is the only messiah.  Perhaps we want to ask the same question sometimes.

We do not live beneath an obvious empire as did Malachi and John, there are no Persians or Romans here, and if the British remain well we actually are them.  But I think we do still live with a misguided idea of what the Lord’s coming will mean for The Wimmera and The Tatiara: after all with no empire and no slavery, with relatively fair taxation and no degrading or onerous religious demands what do we need liberating from?  Why do we need a saviour when we have already been saved through the cross?  Perhaps, with pun intended, we need to ask why in Advent it would be advantageous for us that the Lord come back at all.

Selah, pause and consider.  Amen.

Advent 1C

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Kaniva and Serviceton for Advent Sunday, 2nd December 2018.

Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-10; Luke 21:25-36

Today is Advent Sunday, therefore the wreath.  Today we enter a new Christian year as far as the three-year cycle of the Lectionary goes, so, Happy New Year, it is now “The Year of Luke” in case you’re interested.  With the change of season I am wearing purple rather than my usual green, (have you noticed), and today we focus our thinking on the coming of Jesus.  Advent is not only four weeks for preparation for Christmas and our remembrance of the Word becoming Flesh, of God coming to Earth and dwelling amongst us, (the literal phrase is “tabernacled” which basically means that God comes and pitches God’s own tent in our camp); Advent is also when we think about the return of Christ and the fulfilment of all promises made by God.

In our reading from the Hebrew tradition this morning God says that the days are coming when righteousness shall come to the earth as a fulfilment of God’s promise to David.  This righteousness shall bring national and domestic security we read in Jeremiah 33:14-16.  To the original hearers of this message, so Jeremiah himself and the people we spoke to, this meant that God was promising to restore the Davidic monarchy with a king so just and righteous that his personal name would be surpassed by his reputation.  For people who were living in exile this was an amazing promise, because not only would they return from Babylon and Persia to Judea and Jerusalem, but the kingship would be restored through the previous royal family, and the king in the fulfilment would be beyond magnificent in his reign.  This is like the king we heard about last week, a new David for whom the whole nation will shout abundant thanks and praise to God in gratitude.  For Christians reading this passage we get echoes of Christ, of Jesus who will be king beyond all other kings in righteousness and justice.  This is an Advent promise.

And like the king of last week, what we read in Psalm 25 might be the personal prayer of a (new) leader asking God for guidance and wisdom in his reign; and as all great prayers for wisdom in leadership begin this prayer begins in worship.  In my experience as a leader in this community, alongside experience gained in other communities where I have watched leaders and been a leader, I know that I cannot lead anyone unless I am willing to lead myself and to be lead by God.  I cannot lead you as a congregation if I am not under God’s authority and listening for God’s wise counsel.  How can I lead you where I have never been?  I cannot.  And how can I lead you where I am unwilling to go?  Of course I don’t mean the future, I have never been to the future so I can’t lead you there from personal experience; I mean discipleship.  I am no great disciple; I do not think of myself like the scribes of three weeks ago, I am no saint in any but the most grace-filled definition of the word.  But I am a devoted, prayerful, Bible-literate, Christ-centred disciple of God and that is what I want to lead you in.  Where God takes this congregation as a body of devoted disciples is God’s business, and that of the leaders listening to and responding to God’s word.  My job as your pastor, (and specifically in this role right now as the preaching-elder), is to build you into that body of devoted believers and listeners to God’s word.  I cannot do that unless I am first a disciple and a listener.  So it is with the great and future king of Jeremiah 33, if I am to lead these people says the candidate for leadership in Psalm 25:1, then I must start with my own character.  This is a good man, I like this man, he has his priorities straight.  Of course nothing in this Psalm says that it’s a king who is praying only that it is a person seeking guidance and deliverance.  We are told David wrote it, so he’s a man rather than a woman, and he is king at some point in his life; but this is an anybody prayer in that anybody can pray it with confidence that God will answer it.  Listen to me LORD, whoever I am, and keep me close to you.  Teach me about you, teach me your path, teach me your truth, and lead me in those two things.  Forgive me and be gracious when I fall, and remembering your mercy lift me up when I need it.  How great you are God, how wonderful you are in generosity to wait for us and slow down to teach us along the way.  How worthy of praise you are God, you are loving and faithful and good.  There are some more Advent promises, perhaps a little bit hidden, but still there.  This is how one man three thousand years ago found God to be like; if David is to be believed and God is everlastingly loving and faithful then these things are true of God today.  This is what God is like, and you are welcomed into God’s family if you want to take hold of this friend and saviour as Lord.

Our reading from the gospels this morning points us at Luke 21:25-36 where Jesus is teaching the disciples on the Wednesday of his last week.  This event takes place just after Jesus has commented upon the poor widow and her two pennies which we heard about a few weeks back, and some comments from the crowd about how awesome the temple complex is.  Jesus’ response is this passage which speaks about the coming of The Son of Man and the need to watch and be fruitful in the meantime.  And just listen to what he is saying in Luke 21:25-33, the event of the Coming of the Son does not sound pleasant, but you need to get ready because it’s about to happen.  As Christians reading the Bible in 2018 we know that these events did not take place around Nazareth and Beit Lehem when Jesus was born; yes there was a star but there were no great portents and we are not told that the sea went berserk, so we assume that it didn’t.  What seems to be happening is that Jesus is speaking of a time in Jerusalem’s future and Kaniva & Serviceton’s, when the Son of Man comes a second time, coming in all his Godly power and great glory as Luke 21:27 reads.  Perhaps of greater concern to us as Christians reading the Bible in 2018 is that these events did not take place around Jerusalem when Jesus died or in the forty years or so after; indeed they haven’t happened like that at all.  In Luke 21:32 Jesus indicates that these events were about to happen, and that a forty-year deadline was probably generous: so what happened such that what was supposed to happen did not happen?  Well, nothing happened, but that’s not the point.

So, what is the point?  Well the point is what comes next in Jesus’ words, be on your guard as we read in Luke 21:34, and be alert we read in Luke 21:36.  Don’t worry about when it didn’t happen, be ready for when it does.  And how do we be ready?  [Congregation interaction time, how do we be ready?]  Discipleship.  [Weren’t you listening before?]  Yes, discipleship; we get on with acting with righteousness and justice and love with the guidance, grace and equipping of the one who promises to be steadfast and faithful, and who more than three thousand years of Jewish history has proven to be true.  That Jesus may not have been speaking about “this generation” as the actual people alive on that day but referring to an attitude of complacency among religious people which has continued through to this day, is not the point.  That the fully-human Jesus speaking in 30AD may have got God’s timing wrong in his mind is not the point.  That the writers of the gospels working in the 60s-80s AD may have got the God’s timing wrong and wrote into Jesus’ mouth words that Jesus never said, words that would have rung true in Jeremiah’s day and connect better with the then five-centuries-old encouraging story of God’s deliverance of the Jewish exiles and the situation of Jerusalem in the 70s than the situation in the 30s, words that would be an encouragement for Christians in the present situation in Rome or Asia living with Nero and Diocletian and an amphitheatre full of gladiators and lions, is not the point.

Phew!  No, the point is that God is faithful, the promise is sure, the Son of Man shall return, and Christians and Jews need to get busy in the meantime proclaiming the Kingdom of God through lives of faith-filled compassion, love-filled justice, and hope-filled confidence.  That is the point because that is what Advent is all about.

Amen.

Tongue Tired

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of God gathered at Narracan as the Yallourn Parish and Morwell Parish Uniting Churches, clustered for the purposes of ministry on Sunday 16th September 2018.

Proverbs 1:20-33; James 3:1-12

Hopefully you aren’t sick of the stories from my time living in England just yet.  If you are that’s fine, I don’t care and I’m going to tell you another story this morning anyway, but as far as you are concerned there’s only today and two weeks to go before I leave Gippsland, so you just hang in there.  Today’s story takes place at the Education Support Centre where I worked as a specialist teacher, and an episode where something seemed to change.

For those of you new to my stories, or who have heard about my time in gaol but not my time in school, let me give you some background.  Between December 2003 and October 2004, and again between February 2005 and February 2006 I taught at an Education Support Centre north of London.  In very much an oversimplification this a school for high school kids who had been expelled from their “normal school”, or who were in danger of being so.  Onsite I taught one class of year seven to nine students and another class of year ten and eleven.   I taught a broadly defined subject called Humanities, which was made up of bits of the Geography, History, Civics, and Religion curricula as stipulated in the National Curriculum for England.  Offsite or on “outreach” I went into local high schools and worked 1:1 with boys (because I’m a boy) from those same age groups who were on their “last chance”.  At outreach I was liked, and the boys looked forward to my sessions.  Onsite I was disliked, and I was regularly sworn at, spat at, threatened with violence and arson, and I was assaulted in class on four occasions.  The onsite cohort called me “Squeak” because my large front teeth and my then goatee beard made me look like a mouse, apparently.  There was a loose confederation of students charged with the responsibility of “getting Squeak out”, trying to bully me into resigning.  Eventually they gave up, I wasn’t going anywhere, and they had run out of ideas.  They still didn’t like me, they found my resilience unnerving, but the conspiracy and the all-out attacks died out.  So, there’s your background.

And here’s the story.  One Friday afternoon, when classes for the week had ended and the students were about to go home, as was our regular practice, the whole school gathered in the big classroom to count up the week’s merits.  Merits earned you points, and points bought you food.  So anyway, we’ve added up the merits and points, and determined who has earned and who will be rewarded.  And then there’s a race for the kitchen were the food it kept and one of the girls is in there and into the cupboard and into the potato chips and grabbing her allocation of packets.  I was the first teacher into the room, and seeing her there I called out, “Sarah (not her real name), please don’t take all those chips, we need to share the flavours.”  Sarah (not her real name) rolled her eyes, gave a big huff in the way that only a sixteen-year-old girl can do, and said “Oh my god Sir, this is England not Australia, they’re called crisps!!”

I was shocked: are you shocked?  Did you catch it?  Sarah (not her real name) had called me…sir.  Not “Squeak”, not “effin’ Stuart Little”, (which I once copped in class, with “effin’” given its less polite pronunciation).  Sarah had called me “sir”.

“Umm, Sarah, did you just call me ‘sir’?”

“Umm, ummm…”

By this time the kitchen’s other inhabitants were laughing at the joke.  “Oh, my effin’ word Sarah, you showed respect to Mister Tann innit?  You has brought shame upon your entire family now.”

I can’t say that the ice entirely thawed that day, or that Sarah (not her real name, she was actually called Melissa) and I became best mates after that, but it did mark a positive change.  Even so, when I read James 3:1 where Jacob writes not many of you should aspire to become teachers I do not think only of the added responsibility that God places upon the shoulders of pastors and preachers.  Teaching is a rewarding job in church as well as school; but it is also, almost, insurmountably treacherous at times, in church as well as school.

In the first twelve verses of James 3 set for us today we read where Jacob turned his attention to leadership in the community of faith.  Now, remember that Jacob is the brother of Jesus, the second son of Joseph and Mary and possibly Jesus’ first ever best friend.  We read in the gospels how Jacob along with his younger siblings thought that Jesus had lost the plot: now we find him with a fresh revelation of the Messiah and undertaking pastoral responsibility for the nascent Church in Jerusalem.  Jacob is probably a solid man to write about leadership and teaching, so let’s take a look and what he wrote.

So, Jacob unpacks what it means to be a leader by returning to the themes we have encountered in the last two weeks, especially around the ways in Christians should speak.  True wisdom, true discipleship is shown by speaking well – not just as a discipline in itself but also as an indication that what else is going on in the Christian’s life is under the blessing of God.  One of the things that really messed with Sarah and her cohort at the ESC was that I was generally kindly spoken.  Anyone can say nice things, many people can be nice even in the face of meanness, but something about the way that I seemed genuinely unfazed by the ways in which the students plotted my downfall, and over about six months of their best efforts, unnerved them.  These teens knew that I was a Christian, in fact of the five classroom teachers onsite three of us were strong in our faith, but there was something else about me, something they couldn’t break, something they needed to destroy because it was a threat to them.  That they didn’t destroy me or the thing inside me has everything to do with the grace of God, which of course was the thing inside me.  I am not claiming anything other than a vast supply of grace from my Lord in this one; but when unbreakable kindness, even in sadness, confronted them even violent, vicious bullying was left undone.  As a teacher, as a leader, as an adult, I was a grace-bearer; carrying grace inside me and sharing it with my students.

The scriptures teach that a fool cannot speak wisdom and a sinner cannot teach righteousness.  Again, almost anyone can fake pretty much anything for a short time; but longevity and perseverance cannot be built upon weakness and falsehood.  The wise and good can make mistakes, but that is seen as an aberration: the stupid and evil cannot speak true wisdom by accident.  As a pastor-teacher living alongside temporarily you I invite you to look for the signs of grace in yourself and in your leaders: and if you want to be a leader then be ready for examination.  Maybe the examination will come (as it did for me) with violence and hatred, maybe it will come in seduction and flattery, maybe it will come as damned hard work and lots of it.  If you’re not ready for the test amongst the people then you’re not ready to be their teacher or a leader.  If no one is ready for the test then the whole community will be leaderless, teacherless, and heading for calamity.  Pray for your leaders and teachers, and if you don’t know who they are then pray that God will send you some.

In the last portion of  James 3:6 Jacob sets out a frame for understanding how the ways in which members of a local church (body) speak about each other can destroy the church for generations.  Maybe this is a mixing of theologies; Paul writes more about the body as a metaphor for the Church, it’s perhaps not Jacob’s first thought, but it rings true for the big-C Church, the whole collection of Christians from Jacob to now, and it rings especially true for the local church.  I have been in congregations where there is implicit and explicit enmity – these congregations do not grow, they die.  Gossip, whispers, half-truths, complete lies, all are destructive to friendship communities, how much more so the people of God?  If Paul’s metaphor is good, and we are the body where Jesus is the head, and some of us are hands and some of us are feet, if you are a tongue then Jacob warns you to be very careful.

One of my commentators suggested, and I agree, that Jacob’s key learning outcome in this short passage is consistency.  Consistency in purity for sure, no one wants a consistent evil, although at least that would be easier to manage – there’s no deception there.  No, speak with the voice coming up from your depths, from your heart and guts, be consistent with yourself.  If you like what you hear, then honour God and stay on course, and consider offering yourself to the church as a teacher or leader.  If you don’t like what you hear, then honour God and seek healing.  “I don’t like the way I speak,” or, “I don’t like how I get so angry so quickly”, or “I don’t like that I use so many swear words without thinking.”  All are good, if they are honest.  So, seek God and look for the teachers and leaders who can help you – that’s why God has raised them up amongst you.  As was read to us this morning from Proverbs 1:20-33 heed wisdom’s warning, in other words let yourself be taught by the best teachers.

Lest you think me worthy of a double portion of Frequent Martyr Points following my story about Sarah and her classmates, let me tell you about one of the times I stuffed up.  Sarah was in the room on this, an earlier occasion, back when the scheme was still underway.  So, there were five students, all in that older group so 15 or 16 years old, and two of them were heaping the insults on me.  “Oh, my days Squeak why is you even here?  No one likes you, no one respects you, no one is listening to you, your whole life is a mess man.”  Maybe it was late in the day, or late in the week.  You know, Thursday afternoon when it’s not yet Friday and it’s been one of those days for the last nineteen days in a row.  Anyway, I snapped.  Not angry and shouty snapped, just let my guard down.  “You have got to be joking,” I said, in my normal classroom voice, “I am the most sorted person here.”  That was all I said, and I said it and didn’t yell it, and I said it and I didn’t sneer it.  In hindsight I probably said it more for my own benefit that theirs, a reminder to myself that whilst the first three points were undoubtedly true amongst the kids themselves, and some of the staff – that I was not liked, respected, or listened to – my whole life was not, in fact, a mess at all.  All I did in fact was annoy the other, silently hateful, students.  Suddenly all five of them were shouting, “Oh my days man, I was just sittin’ here and now you says I’m a mess?  You’re an effin’ mess you effin’ rat look-alike.  An’ why can’t you even speak English and why don’t you jus’ go back to effin’ Australia,” and so forth.  I didn’t lose any friends, I didn’t have any; not in that room anyway, but I lost my teacherly and leaderly for a moment.  One slip in my internal dialogue and I was set back a few weeks’ worth of slow progress toward shalom.

So, I urge you, heed Wisdom’s advice and the wisdom of Jacob.  Look for leaders amongst you and pray earnestly for them, especially if your search for a leader points to you.  Do not lose heart, stay close to God and follow God’s way as Jesus did and as Jacob and Paul and the Proverbalist taught.

And above all else remember this: in England they are called crisps.

Amen.

We stand together

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

James 2:1-10, 14-17

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

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

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

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

So, get on with it.  Amen.

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.

Watch your step (Pentecost 8B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of God gathered as Yallourn  Parish Uniting Church at Yallourn North on Sunday 15th July 2018.

Mark 6:14-29; Ephesians 3:1-14

The passage from the gospel that was read to us this morning is unique in that the hero of this story is not Jesus.  In every other story told by Mark Jesus is the hero by his helping the main character, or Jesus is the main character.  But in Mark 6:17-29 Jesus doesn’t appear, and we read an episode from the past where John the Baptiser is both the major character and the hero.  I wonder why that is, why does Mark make an exception to his rule?

Of course, our set reading does actually begin with Jesus, and in Mark 6:14-16 we read that his fame was so widespread and impressive that even the king had heard of him.  Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Perea and Galilee was both astonished and afraid by the news of Jesus’ ministry: the news of the Kingdom of God was upsetting to the kings of the earth, especially the king with jurisdiction in Galilee.  John had been proclaiming the coming of the king, and now the message of the Kingdom of God was going ahead even though John was dead.  So, if Herod Antipas is afraid that being murdered has only made John Baptiser stronger imagine what he’ll think about Jesus!

Antipas was a bit of a Herod-wannabe, not the man his father was, and since old man Herod The Great had been a Solomon-wannabe and a Messiah-wannabe with his temple building and his sucking up to the Romans, the moral and intellectual challenge set for Antipas by John Baptiser was warranted.  So, since Antipas thinks John was dealt with and silenced, but now he’s back, and in version 2.0 to boot, Antipas is on guard.  This is where it is helpful to consider for whom Mark wrote, and see his story as encouragement intended for the small communities of persecuted believers and potential martyrs in the generation after Jesus.  Mark reminds them that God is stronger than every king, and that Jesus will always win when the Caesars (or Herods) gets knotted up and narky (Mark 6:26).

According to Jewish history the kingship of God is not something to be taken lightly.   In 2 Samuel 6 (1-5, 12b-19) the stories are told of how David went out from Jerusalem to gather and bring the Ark to the place set aside for worship.  The journey began as a military parade with David marching in pageantry; the royal retinue was full of nationalistic pride and treated the Ark as the spoils of war.  You all know that this attitude ended in the death of one of the attendants of the Ark, even as he thought he was being helpful.  Make no mistake in reading this story, we are to rejoice in God’s presence with us, God’s choosing of us, and God’s victorious vindication of our confidence in God.  But God is never a trophy for us to toss around like winning grand finalists on a lap of honour, and neither are the things of God ever “booty”.  The Ark of the Covenant, which I have seen one children’s Bible call “the box of the promise” (grr!) belongs to God.  More than a box, or even an ark, it is a sign of God’s faithfulness to Israel.  The Ark itself is the visible remainder of God’s covenant with Abraham, repeated to Isaac and Jacob, and reminded to all further generations by the prophets.  That the Ark is coming to Jerusalem, and that it is being brought there by David, is a magnificent thing.  But it is a God thing, not a David thing: as great a king as David is and as great a conqueror he was in capturing the city from the Jebusites, God is the hero of this story, not David.   God is stronger than any Caesar and every Herod, and God is more wonderful than David, indeed more wonderful than David can even imagine.

When the journey of the Ark toward the city resumes it is as a celebration of praise and thanksgiving to God.  There are songs of worship and blood sacrifices along the road.  David is stripped back in humility and abandonment before The LORD, even as king, and he is more effusive in praise than all the people.  All of the people are blessed with gifts of food as signs of the abundance and generosity of the God of the covenant and a reminder of what was agreed to in the first place.  The Kingdom of God is at hand, the realm where God is king through the agency of a human intermediary of Abrahamic descent, and those to whom the kingdom has been revealed are receiving the abundance of the king.  Likewise, in Psalm 24 we read earlier that The LORD is the great king, ruler and creator of all the universe.  There is no doubt who is God, and who God is to us.  There is also no doubt of the message of God which is welcome and blessing for those who are blameless in action and thought, who are faithful to God and to their word.  When the pageant celebrating the God of the covenant cries out “lift up the gates and the King of Glory shall come in” God invites us to join the march and enter the city of God with God, and to make our home in the place where the Ark is.

And so that is where we are: in the Spirit at least.  We who belong to God by God’s choosing are citizens of the Kingdom of God and we live in the heavenly realm.  We do not live in Heaven, but we live in the realm of which Heaven is the capital and the place from which we take our identity and receive our government.  Even if we are kings in life, as Antipas and David were, we are subject to the rule of God; and even if we are at the bottom of the chain as John was in gaol or the random peasants who grabbed a flying loaf or two from David’s cake-chucking teams, we are beneficiaries of God’s justice.

Today’s set reading from Early Christian history came to us from Ephesians 1:3-14 where we read the larger story of Christian life in faith.  In other words, this is what life in God’s realm looks like, even for us in the borderlands.  Our instructions as citizens begin with an exhortation to bless God for all that God has blessed us with, especially in God’s sending Jesus as king.  The passage fits well with the gospel and Jewish history accounts because it is a declaration of adoration and praise for God’s choosing each and all of us by grace to be God’s agents for missional action for the transformation of Creation.  John the Baptiser served out his days as a prophet of God, and whilst it cost him his head it cost him no more than that.  Jesus praised John as a faithful witness to the coming kingdom and a herald of the almost present king.  David eventually got it right and today he has the honour in history of being the man responsible for seeing the Ark of God placed in the City of God in the very centre of the place occupied by the People of God, a venue where it remained for almost five hundred years. The visible reminder of God’s covenant was there to see (if you were allowed in to see it).  In all of this glory for the heroes of our faith we can be assured that God glorifies us in our celebration of God and our participation in the work of God: the inheritance passed on to us by grace is the transformed Creation.

God’s promise to us, to Christians and to others who follow the Way of Jesus, is the new creation.  We are confident that this will come about because as Paul reminds us we have received the Spirit as deposit.  This is cause for celebration.  Now I’m not expecting you all to start leaping about David-style, stripped to your underwear and throwing cakes of dates at each other, but this is not a message to just sigh at and say “oh yeah, okay” either.  The promises made by God were trusted implicitly by those who went before us.  David was prepared to look like a complete idiot in front of his subjects and his grumpy queen, and John was prepared to go to the block, because of what they each understood about God.  God has promised that God is coming, and coming as king, and coming as saviour with restorative justice and bounteous provision.  God has promised to overthrow all injustice and iniquity, all the Caesars and Herods of the world.  This is good news.

This is the good news we proclaim.  This is the good news the twelve in pairs proclaimed as they went about Galilee proclaiming the kingdom of God and restoring to wellness the sick, the possessed, and the dead.  This is an exciting message because it will transform the world, and it is a true message as well.  God has already begun to do this, God is doing it today, and God will do it wherever we go and introduce the story of God to people who are waiting for liberation.

No matter who the story is about, or who it is told by, the hero is always Jesus.

Amen.