Show us yer Talents

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Yallourn North on Sunday 19th November 2017.

Judges 4:1-7; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30

The tradition of sermons around the Parable of the Talents connect it with the messages we heard from Jesus and Paul last week, of how we need to be living out our discipleship to the full since none of us knows when Christ shall return and the opportunity to serve God has passed.  Jesus is represented in today’s gospel story by the character of the Master, and the disciples (including us) are the worthy slaves to whom are entrusted the talents, the property of the master, which for us is the mission of the Kingdom of God.

In our reality Jesus has died and has been resurrected and ascended.  Today we eagerly await his return.  We heard this from 1 Thessalonians 4 last week, which was probably written around the year 49 or 50 and we are still waiting today in 2017.  The popular interpretation of the Parable of the Talents goes that when Christ returns those who are found to have been faithful in the Lord’s absence are rewarded with Heaven, and those who have been found unfaithful (lazy, afraid, defiant) are punished with exile from Heaven.  So where the wise bridesmaids taught us to be vigilant while our Lord is delayed, the wise servants teach us to be diligent.

Last week I suggested that most half-hearted Christians no longer attend church.  In the same way I want to suggest to you that the work that goes undone in the Church is undone because of a lack of youth and person-power rather than a lack of wisdom or desire.  I am sure there is more that can be done by us, you and me, in the Yallourn Cluster, but we need not beat ourselves up about it or fear that Christ will disown us when he comes.  We can only do what we can do, and for the most part that is being done.  We would do more if we had more, but we are being pretty faithful with what we have.  Nonetheless the call of God is individual and we must each do what God has called us to each do.  And we must each do it with all the strength God gives.  The lesson of the talents is that the more you do for God the more God will give you to do: the reward for diligence is greater responsibility.  This may sound like a punishment rather than a reward, but if you think of new responsibilities as the evidence of God’s trust in you, and your work is a display of additional opportunities to give God glory and worship, (which as a Christian is the desire of the heart), then it is reward upon reward.

So, I think Yallourn Cluster is perhaps the second servant, the one with less than the first servant, but the one who still managed to employ what was given and turned a profit for the Master.

The third servant in the parable, the one who is cast out, has buried his talent.  To bury something is to treat it as if it is dead.  But the Lord’s resource is never dead, it is alive and should therefore be exhibited in the world and opened to the elements of light and heat and air to grow.  To bury a borrowed thing is a breach of trust when it has been entrusted by its master for ongoing, practical use.  To bury is to betray.

We are wise to remember that this parable comes toward the end of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew, we are in chapter 25.  Palm Sunday was back in Matthew 21, Jesus will be arrested in Matthew 26, murdered in Matthew 27, and resurrected and ascend in Matthew 28.  Jesus “the master” is about to leave “for a long time”.  My chronology suggests that Jesus here is speaking on the Tuesday before Good Friday; in light of the story he is making sure his servants are up to speed with the need to continue his work while he is away.

We are the people of light.  What a privilege we have to be the people of light and the ones with the responsibility to display that light to the world.  What a loss it is to God then, and to the world, if we do not share that light.

And let’s go deeper still.  The sin of the unfaithful servant goes further than merely not using the resource given to him: he actually blames the master for being a bully.  “I did the right thing by keeping your investment intact,” he says.  “If I had invested in this opportunity and lost the lot then you’d have received nothing back and I’d have been punished.  At least here you’ve not lost anything.”  Do you think that is a fair response?  Some might think so, depending upon the character of their master; but our master is Jesus and he is not like this.   One of my commentators this week suggested that laziness is being portrayed as virtuous, where in fact it is an abuse of privilege.  I like this.

Paul reminded the Thessalonians that the return of Christ will come unexpected and unannounced.  Like labour pains out of nowhere will come immediate and great, debilitating distress.  This is a great metaphor, because two things are going on here.  One, known to those of you who are mothers, or indeed the loving husbands of mothers, is that labour is very painful and that it can come on suddenly.  I am neither a mother nor a husband, but I know this to be true, even in theory.  The other aspect of the metaphor is that labour is somewhat predictable: when 40 weeks have passed you know you’re “due”, and you’d be on guard from 35 weeks.  I know that when my sister was pregnant with my nephew she had her “due date” marked on the calendar months out: and do you know what, she was right.

But the unannounced and sudden return of Christ is of no concern to us since we are alert and not asleep.  We are people of the light, people of the day, and not of the darkness.  Let us live with faith and love as our protection and hope as our assurance.  When the terror comes it will not come for us, we have been chosen to be saved and have been prepared in advance to be armoured and ready.  Once again Paul’s message is not to be afraid of what is to come but to rest assured in God’s sufficiency in protection.  Live out your faith confident that when the Lord returns he will find you doing so, like the slave with two talents.  Do not fear judgement, only live in the light and you have nothing to fear.  Only those who are asleep on duty, live the foolish bridesmaids or the slave with one talent, will be caught off guard and have need to be afraid; but we are not them.

But here’s the rub, if we are people of the light, and other people have never seen the light and so will be caught off guard when Christ returns, whose fault will that be?  As faithful disciples of Christ and investors of his talents you are assured of Heaven’s welcome; but what of your friends who are not?  Is your own salvation enough for you?  Are you shining so that others can see, or have you shaded your light?  Have you kept yourself so pure for God that all of your devotional and worshipping activity is hidden from those who might need to overhear?

Our reading from Judges this morning spoke of Israel in the time of Deborah and Barak and of how the Israelites were doing evil in God’s sight.  The conquest of the land had not been completed under Joshua, the people had just settled when they were ready.  The people had not held to the promise made under Joshua to choose only the Lord as God.  God allowed the people to be overrun by an insurmountable Canaanite king, but then delivered them from that king when they cried out for mercy.  When God was ready to act God spoke through the prophetess Deborah to the military commander, not to Barak directly.    So, if not for Deborah, Barak would not have heard the Lord’s command or been ready to act where and when the Lord’s timing was prime.  My commentary says that this was the first time an Israelite force had overcome a plains people: all previous victories had been against mountain people or city states.  So, because of Deborah’s faithfulness to the message of God, and to her “talents” as judge and prophet the armies of Israel were confident to try something new, and they were successful at it.

Who are we denying the word of encouragement and direction from God?  What new thing is to be done in the Latrobe Valley which we know but they out there do not?  This congregation, including those members of it who live in Newborough and Moe, are faithful in worship, faithful in giving financially, and faithful in care of each other.  For the most part.  I do not believe that this congregation is under threat of judgement from the returning Lord.  But I appeal to your conscience: is there more light, more power, more love that you could expend in the service of God and the people God loves in Gippsland, the people who don’t know how much they are loved?

This is a challenge to each of you, and not an accusation for any of you.  So, be challenged, invest your talents, and see what the Lord will do.

Amen.

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Make your Choice.

This is the text of the message I prepared for Newborough Uniting Church for Sunday 12th November 2017.  It was the twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost in Year A.

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13

Today’s reading from the book of Joshua jumps us straight into an episode in the conquering history of the Hebrew peoples.  Of course, if we had spent the last few weeks reading Joshua on a Sunday we’d be better informed of what is going on, but the lectionary and my choosing to not preach from the lectionary for most of October anyway did not allow for that.  Anyway, the Hebrews have reached the point where they are preparing to seal the conquest of the land.  The armies have been as far as they wish to have gone, and each tribe or half-tribe has a satisfactory allotment of land.

So, in today’s reading Joshua has gathered the leaders of the tribes and of the armies as well at Shechem in Ephraimite territory.  Joshua is an Ephraimite so perhaps he has gathered them on his own land.  Joshua’s address to the leaders reminds them of The LORD’s work among the Hebrews since the call of Abraham, and he cleverly asks them to declare their loyalty for The LORD one way or the other.  As leaders they are to choose now and forever as they settle in the land promised to Abraham what they will do with the benefits of the covenant they have inherited.  Joshua calls the nation to choose between worship of The LORD the God of Abraham, worship of the Egyptian gods from their slave days, and worship of the Canaanite gods whose worshippers have been overcome.  Choose the lesser gods if you will, invites Joshua, but choose one way or the other with deliberate action.  As for Joshua he chooses The LORD as his God.

The leaders respond on behalf of the nation that they too will choose The LORD: but Joshua warns them that The LORD will take them at their word in this and that if they fall away they will face the consequences of disloyalty since that is a breaking of the covenant.  Once you have chosen The LORD he says, you cannot back out, so be very careful before committing your way to The LORD.  Again, the leaders say that The LORD will be their God, and that they reject the Egyptian and Canaanite gods.  Joshua erects a monument in that place as a physical and visible reminder of the promise.

In a place of pluralism, during a time of rapid societal transition Joshua seeks to ground the people on the firm foundation of worship of and trust in Israel’s God.  Today we face a similar situation.  Today as Christians we are called to love our neighbours as ourselves, (and therefore to love ourselves), but we must never fail to worship God foremost.  We are to be compassionate and hospitable, but we are first to be faithful to the God of compassion and hospitality, the God of salvation and grace for all the world.

The Kingdom of Heaven is described by Jesus in a parable of ten bridesmaids waiting for a delayed bridegroom.  The hour is unknown, but will be at hand: do not be unprepared.  The task of the bridesmaids in this story is bearers of light; oil is a metaphor for faithfulness in discipleship which keeps the light aflame.  The wise bridesmaids do not share their oil with the foolish because discipleship cannot be borrowed.  You may have heard it said that “God does not have grandchildren”, we cannot rely on the beliefs of others to earn us salvation.  In the same way each woman or man can only source her or his own light from her or his own faithfulness.  The message of Jesus is that always faithful are always ready, the half-hearted or negligent in faith will be caught off-guard.

This parable has been used in the past to point toward lukewarm faith in the congregation.  Much like the sheep and goats, or the wheat and weeds, this story points to how only some people in the Church are true disciples of Jesus while others who come on Sundays are just going through the motions.  Like the foolish girls some Christians only have enough goodness to keep their lamps lit on a Sunday, going dark or at least growing dull during the week.  Other Christians may not shine as brightly on Sunday, but they do shine all week.  So, don’t be one of the blazing hypocrites, instead burn brightly for every hour of every day since you never know when God is watching or when Jesus might return a second time.

But in 2017, and alongside what Joshua said to the gathered tribes, I’m not so sure.  Perhaps those half-lights are no longer in church at all.  Churches these days are much smaller than they were a generation or two generations ago.  Like many of you I wonder why that is: I have concluded that perhaps some of the decline is due not to society’s recalcitrance or the indifference of “the young people today”, but to the honesty of society.  Many of the people my age, and younger, with whom I have spoken about faith say that they are no-longer prepared to live a lukewarm life, and so they don’t bother coming to church at all.  “I’d come if I actually believed more strongly,” they say, “but I’m not interested in going through the motions any more”.  Maybe the reason that there’s less than twenty of us here this morning is that we are the only ones with sufficient oil to last the week.  The others who have only a day’s or an hour’s supply didn’t bother to come at all.

So, what do we do with that?  Whilst we cannot share our oil, (our own relationship with God in Christ), since it is our own, the news of where to get more oil is in our hands.  Rather than sending the foolish girls away in the dark, our job as bridesmaids and brides-mates is to make sure that everyone has enough oil before we set out.

The challenge extended by Joshua can be thought of as a choice for the best source of oil, and of the best oil too.  All gods provide opportunities for worship, and all gods provide benefits to their worship.  All oil burns, but some oils burn better than others.  In terms of religion I’ve only ever been a Christian, so I have no personal experience of Buddha or Krishna, let alone Ba’al or Horus.  However, I know that when I have allowed myself to put Jesus second for short periods of time, say for the Geelong Football Club, or a particular band and its CD, or a nice bottle of ale or shiraz, that there has been short-term pleasure in that.  Joshua challenges the Hebrews to see that The LORD is the only source of filling, lasting joy.  In our world of many gods we can say the same; but we must proclaim it with one caveat.  To have the fullness of The LORD, to receive the overabundant filling of the Lord, we must give ourselves totally to The LORD.  Someone coming to church at Christmas, or Easter Day, or an especially meaningful funeral, wedding, or baptism might get some temporary joy from church, even as I get temporary joy from the Cats winning a premiership or from my second glass of that amazing red.  But if that person is not encouraged to seek more of God by seeking God more often, then she or he will assume that all there is to God is seasonal or short-lived.

When Paul wrote to the Christians at Thessaloniki he answered a question from some Christians there.  They were concerned about loved ones who had died before the news reached them of the salvation won by Jesus on the cross, and others who had died in faith but would miss out on the immanent second coming of the saviour.  Aren’t Christians who die before Christ returns just like the foolish bridesmaids?  Will they be left rotting in their graves while the rest of us get Raptured away to Heaven?  Paul assures the Thessalonians that all who die are safe in God’s hands.  The grace of God is not limited by time or place: God can and will intervene to save whomever wherever and whenever God chooses to do so, even in the past.  In all things rest assured that your hope is safe in God.  Faith is empty without hope, so hear the words of God through Paul’s pen, you are safe to hope in God because God can and will deliver on the promise of salvation for all.

Paul’s response is good oil.  Where the news of the depth of the gospel had not pervaded the Thessalonian Christians Paul proclaims the fullness of grace, and therefore puts more oil and better oil into their jars.

And so, this is our work too.  We are not to lament that we have less bums on seats here today than we did a generation ago.  We are not to lament that our friends and our children and grandchildren are spending Sunday mornings elsewhere than here, including sleeping of hangovers or a late night’s return from the Speedway or the MCG.  Yes, there are legitimate concerns here, I’m not saying we ignore those situations.  But our work is to speak to those living with less oil than us, and oil of a lesser quality than that provided by The LORD through the saving and salving grace of Jesus Christ.  The way of Christ is a better way: choose now.  Do you want to be full of Jesus?  Then worship him.  Or do you want to be full of Collingwood, or Holden, or VB?  Make no mistake that if you do then you will worship those.  Today I invite you to make your choice, make it stick, once and for all, and then tell others about the best choice.

But as for me, and for my house, we will worship The LORD.

Amen.

Carna Saints! (All Saints’ Day A)

This is the text of the message I prepared for Morwell Uniting Church for Sunday 5th November 2017.

Revelation 7:9-17; Psalm 34:1-10, 22; Matthew 5:1-12

You know, all was once fine with me and the story beginning at Matthew 5:1, but after I attended theology college and studied the Synoptic Gospels (of which Matthew is the second), it almost makes me want to smirk.  Like you, I have heard more than one sermon on “The Sermon on the Mount”, and I have seen more than one film where this episode from Jesus’ life is shown in cinematic form.  You know how it rolls, the crowds gather, and Jesus stands atop a mountain declaring “Blessed art thou when…” and so forth.  Even Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” features a scene where “blessed are the cheesemakers” is proclaimed to the impatient multitudes.  But I ask you, how many people are recorded in Matthew’s gospel as having heard Jesus speak that day? Anyone?  C’mon, I know that Matthew does not give an exact number, but it is inferred from the verses immediately before this passage.  No?  Four.  Simon the brother of Andrew, Andrew, James, and John the brother of James, these are the disciples of Jesus as recorded by Matthew in 4:18-22Matthew 5:1-2 plainly and in NRSV English says that after Jesus saw the crowds he went up the mountain: and after he sat down his disciples came to him.  Then he began to speak and taught them… In other words, having seen the crowds Jesus withdraws and sits with his disciples, and of disciples we know of only four so early in the life and ministry of Jesus.  Now I’m not here to change your theology, well not until I’ve been here a bit longer anyway, but it does make for an interesting idea.  Jesus takes his dearest followers, his disciples, in other words his student-slash-apprentices away from the crowd to begin their lessons where Jesus can speak freely, and he won’t be interrupted.

Is that significant?  Does it matter that there were only four men listening that day, or am I just being a smart-alec with my theology degree?  Well, it’s probably a bit of both but I hope it’s more about the first.  For me it is significant as we speak about the saints today that sometimes saints gather in small groups as well as large.  Sometimes, as in Revelation 7 the saints are the whole crowd; sometimes, as in Psalm 34 one saint is alone and isolated; and sometimes, as in Matthew 5 the saints are a small group called aside from the crowd.

From Revelation we read today of the great multitude gathered in Heaven at the end of days (we spoke of that last week).  They testify that salvation belongs to The LORD God enthroned, and to the Lamb.  Heaven’s company responds by falling face down in worship and crying blessing and honour, according God and the Lamb with everlasting power and might.  The one to whom this story is revealed is told that the multitude are the once living who have endured and come through: in other words, their testimony is the story of individual and corporate human lived experience.  These are the conquerors, the victorious martyrs, the undefiled witnesses (Revelation 7:14b).  Now they are home and safe, never again to be hungry or terrorised, and never again to weep.  The fact that this is a multitude can and should encourage us as a small congregation that we are not alone.  Like we prayed last week as a cluster for the ones and twos and tens of the persecuted church, so we can be encouraged even as a handful in the Latrobe Valley that we are not alone either.  We are the heritage and current expression of two millennia, seven continents, and billions of lives of tradition and praise.  Where, according to the commentator I read this week the church in John’s day represented 1 in 625 people in the Roman world, today we are 1 in 3 people in the whole planet.  And as Revelation 7:9 assures, the diversity of the Church is our strength.

The solitary singer of today’s selected Psalm declares boldly that The LORD is worthy of praise because The LORD is the one who saved the distressed one when he cried out for salvation.  The LORD protects and surrounds, and we can rejoice that it is so and feel safe and held in God’s love and protection.  Live into the experience of God, it is all good under God’s hood. Taste and see is a double invitation and an example of God meeting with us as multiple intelligences. (The LORD can be learned of in various ways).    No one will be permanently lost, and no one will be left totally and permanently harmed.  Psalm 34 speaks about God, but it is addressed to the people hearing it; it is not addressed to God (although we can assume that God is earwigging in on the worship). So, unlike what was read to us from Revelation 7 the section of Psalm 34 set for us today is a testimony of praise and thanksgiving for deliverance, and an invitation to join.  This is the testimony of a man who is living in a dark space yet is trusting that God will deliver him.  This is the testimony of a man speaking to the shadows around him, “I am not afraid” he says, “because The LORD is faithful and mighty to save”.  This Psalm for the alone, the “poor one” (Psalm 34:6) speaks encouragement and understanding to any who are alone and bereft and needing assurance.  Again, that scripture records and the lectionary demands that we read the song of one man on the run should encourage us that we are not alone.  Like the persecuted ones we can be encouraged that we are not unaided or forgotten even when we are isolated because God knows us each.

Blessed, “happy and to be envied” as one commentator put it, is the true disciple who displays all eight of the characteristics listen in Matthew 5:3-12.  This list does not refer to eight different types of people who will be blessed, no, like the fruit of the spirit (which is one fruit with eight characteristics) this short list is to be the biography of every saint.

  • Jesus says that when you recognise your need and turn it towards dependence upon God you will be granted all of this and more. Rely on God for provision and you shall lack no good thing, in other words.  Does this verse refer only to some people in the Church?  No, it is a promise for everyone, even if it is not the primary promise for every time.  All Christians, all disciples, are supposed to rely on God and to bring our needs to God.
  • When a woman or man of faith laments the state of the world she or he will be assured by God that the end is not “the end”. As we heard from Ecclesiastes 3 last month, everything has a season and mourning will give way to rejoicing over the new thing, and the promise that God’s goodness is everlasting.
  • Disciples of today, like Joshua and Caleb of old, who are trustingly humble and submitted to God, but not submissive in the face of hardship, will inhabit the promises of God. All are called to persevere, and all who call on the name of The LORD will be saved.
  • Those whose lives are lived fully conformed to the will of God will receive God’s filling response. Is there any Christian woman or man whose life is not required to be lived fully conformed to the will of God?  Again no, so this is an expectation and a promise for everyone in the Church.
  • Those who are gentle and patient, empathising and quick to render comfort to others will receive the same from God.
  • Those who are single-minded in their loyalty towards God will see God, the subject of their desire.
  • Those who work for friendship in the world will be recognised as having the nature of God and will be beacons of God’s own character.
  • And those who persevere with these characteristics even though the world is against them will be welcomed by the God whom they championed. Jesus said that if the world takes issue with you then you’re probably on the right track as that is what happened to the true prophets of ages past.  Today we might add that that is what happened to the Lord Jesus too, so why should we expect any different.

And to set your minds somewhat at rest, it does say in Matthew 7:28 that when Jesus had finished saying these things the crowds were astonished at his teaching, so yes, Jesus probably did speak to more than four men.  Or, he spoke directly to four men, but he was overheard by the multitude.

And so, as we move toward the prayer life of the church and into communion this morning what have we heard that is relevant to All Saints Day and to all of you, saints of today?  God is with you whether you are one of the majority, one of the minority, or alone and isolated.  God desires that your character and life reflect the character and life of Jesus, and of Godself the compassionate and merciful one who is everlasting and entirely faithful.  Perfection is not expected, only God is perfect, and even the saints of old and the ones whose names appear on special days or coloured glass had their downtimes.  But where God is faithful the saints of God will be upheld, and the story of the welcome of Heaven extended to us and through us will be proclaimed in all the world.

Let the world be on notice: the saints are coming.

Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

So, let’s briefly run through those expectations:

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

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

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

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

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

Love God, love other people.  Get to it.

Amen.

Crossing The Sea, Seeing The Cross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

The Good and Pleasantness

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Lakes Entrance Uniting Church for Sunday 20th August 2017.  It was a communion Sunday.

Genesis 45:1-15; Psalm 133; Matthew 15:21-28

The picture you see up there is a painting named “The Conciliation” and it was painted by Benjamin Duterrau around 1840.  The European man is George Augustus Robinson, Protector of Aborigines for Van Diemen’s Land, and the other mob are Palawa, the indigenous people of Trowenna as that island was known by its First People.  This painting is supposed to indicate the end of “the Black Wars” which ravaged Tasmania until 1831, where Robinson met with the last group of warriors and convinced them to accompany him to Hobart and meet with governor Arthur.  In one way, I like this painting: I like that is that it is entitled “The Conciliation” rather than “Reconciliation”.  This is the first time these two groups, the Palawa and the Riana (or white people), have been in harmony.  This image marks a new relationship of peace, not the restoration of an old one which was broken.  In many other ways, all dependent upon my being a sometime Tasmanian and a student of Van Demonian history, I find this painting shocking.  What you see there never happened, not like that anyway.

Today’s readings all point toward the theme of unity, and are predicated upon the idea of reconciliation.  The Psalmist speaks in Psalm 133 about “the blessedness of unity” as the NRSV translators would have it, and of the desire that all people might “live together in harmony” as my commentator Professor Toni Craven suggests.  Psalm 133:3 describes how God orders and bestows divine blessing where God finds unity expressed.  This blessing is doubly special because not only is it from God, but it is a blessing akin to ordination and consecration.  Furthermore, that blessing is the promise and strength of life for evermore.  God gives great favour on the people who live in harmony, guaranteeing them a long and fulfilling life while they maintain that state; and God derives great joy from such people.  In Hebrew, but sadly not in the English of the NIV or the NRSV this Psalm begins with the word “behold”, indicating that what was to follow would be something worth hearing.  This is one of those points in scripture where as a reader or hearer you want to take note of the message.  In this case the message is the benefits of unity.

Psalm 133 like many of the psalms we have read in the past months is a song of ascent.  Therefore, it is a prelude to collective worship: the sort of song you sing on your way to the temple as you prepare yourself to enter the worship space with a worshipping heart.  It is also a greeting which might be sung and echoed to and from fellow pilgrims you meet on your way up.  “How good it is!” you sing, “when brothers gather in unity!” comes the reply.  Stirring stuff.

The psalm also speaks of oil.  Olive oil was used for anointing, but also for healing.  Appointment to office and healing where it is needed are gifts from God, so is unity.  Where the people’s sin brought separation from God and from one another God desires to bring unity and to restore what was broken.  Continuing this thought there is no place for selfishness in unity.  Where God has called women and men together only those focussed on the task will complete the task, the selfish one looking for his or her own needs above the needs of the whole, or the one looking for fame, will destabilise the task.  The agenda of the people in unity can only be the saving work of the Church; otherwise the congregation becomes a Babel of confused messages and opinions.

Where once there was disunity and disharmony in the family of Jacob, Joseph is delighted to be reunited with his brothers.  Where hatred had led to harm and the intention to destroy God ensured that there would be life because the brothers have a second chance to live together.  Where there might have been death for Joseph as a slave where there might have been death for the brothers as the drought set in, now by the grace of God there will be abundant life.  Joseph chose not to hold on to past hurts but to use the outcome of his poor treatment to benefit his family, even the ones who hated and hurted him.  Joseph sends the brothers to live in the Nile Delta, the best irrigated and most fertile portion of Egypt.

So, let’s be clear: Joseph has chosen not to remember the pain of the past.  He had been humiliated and betrayed by his brothers while still a boy of seventeen.  He had been alone and no doubt frightened as a slave in the convoy of the Ishmaelites, and again as a prisoner of injustice after Potiphar’s wife accused him of attempted rape.  Even after he became Prime Minister of Egypt, and named his sons “God has caused me to forget my troubles” and “God has made me fruitful”, the tears he cries on Benjamin’s neck indicate a wall of emotion which has broken down in him.  It is this moment where he is finally released from the past, not the moment in which he was summoned from the gaol to speak with Pharaoh that first time.  Joseph’s suffering was broken by reconciliation, not by material wealth or unlimited power.  Indeed, the commentator I read for Genesis this week, J.M. Boice, suggests that Joseph remained fresh in his loving-kindness even after twenty-two years of exile from his family because he stayed close to God.  That is a great lesson for us: stay close to God.

Matthew and Mark both tell the story of Jesus speaking with a displaced indigenous woman, a Canaanite: today we might call her a Palestinian.  Matthew tells us in 15:23b that she’s annoying the disciples so much that they ask Jesus to send her away.  “Look,” they say, “just heal the daughter will you and then this woman can go.”   Jesus tells them that that is not going to happen because she is not an Israelite.  In other words, she is not part of the unity; where we are an “us” this woman is a “them” and “they” don’t get what God has given “us”.  So Jesus ignores her and her inappropriate claim upon his time and anointing.  When she speaks to him directly, having had no luck with the disciples, Jesus insults her.  “The Jews are the children of the master,” he says, “you are a dog and not worthy of what God has provided”.

That’s what Jesus said.

But in a quote worthy of Joseph, the one who endured imprisonment and exile by staying close to God the woman agrees with Jesus, but says that that is no reason to deprive her of her miracle.  “Yes, I am a dog,” she says, “but even dogs get leftovers in the master’s house”.  In other words, she is saying that while she does not have a set at the table, she is still within the house and a member of the household.  What a comeback, no wonder Jesus grants her her request.  Most commentators suggest that Jesus was baiting the woman to draw out this revelation.  Some scholars, a minority but a vocal minority, suggest that the human Jesus was challenged by the woman’s retort and that he learned something about the grace of God in that moment.  I can imagine Jesus turning to the disciples and saying, “you know, she’s right,” before sending her on her way with the words of Matthew 15:28.  And as we have discussed earlier in the year, she alongside only the Samaritan at the well and his own mother, is called “Woman” by Jesus.  Something profound occurred here, and even Jesus has had a shift in his understanding.  The Canaanite mother came as an outsider to the covenant of God conscious that only God could help her daughter.  Surely a God who is so generous to Israel, so generous that even the Canaanites can see it, can spare the leftovers for a mother desperate for her daughter.  Surely this is so even if the mother and her little girl are dogs?

As we move toward the high point of our service of worship and the gathering around this table as a place of unity, let us be mindful of the ones we might want to exclude in God’s name.  Ask yourself, as Jesus asked himself, to whom is God denying access to the blessings of God?  This table is open to the indigenous people of Australia, and not just because George Augustus Robinson made them put on shoes and learn to use cutlery.  But to whom is this table closed?  To whom is the promise of unity denied?

There is an answer to that question.  The table is closed to those who don’t have faith.  I’m not saying at all that the table is closed to people of different theology or none because of that theology, as if only Uniting Church members can have this feast.  But this table as a sign of God’s welcome is only accessible if you know God, and you believe yourself to be welcomed.  As we saw from Matthew’s story the Canaanite woman believed herself welcome to at least gather the leftovers, the God of Israel was not God of her because she was not an Israelite; but as Lord Almighty of the universe she had some rights as a creature.

Those who are not welcome at this table are those who exclude themselves.  If you don’t know you are welcome, why would you even come and risk the embarrassment of eviction?  Unity means that all are welcome, brothers and sisters alike, Israelite and Canaanite, Palawa and Riana, Koori and Anglo.

As we gather at this table today, let us agree that when next we gather at this table we will have invited those waiting for an invitation to participate in this act of unity.

Everything has been done.  Come, and bring a friend.

Come.

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.