A Better Day (Pentecost 16C)

This is the text of the message I prepared for Nhill Uniting Church for Sunday 29th September 2019, the sixteenth Sunday in Pentecost

Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15; Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16; Luke 16:19-31

I’m sure that like me you have heard many of the apocryphal stories of Christianity and that the one I am about to tell you’ve already heard. But since these stories often take the place of what is actually Biblical in our understanding of what Christianity is all about I’m going to tell it anyway. Don’t stop me if you’ve heard it before, because I don’t care and I’m the one preaching. And don’t come up to me later to tell me you have a different version, because I have the correct version.

So anyway: a teenage girl who has been diagnosed with some inoperable and untreatable disease knows that she has less than a handful of months to live. So, being a headstrong girl (as all teenage girls are), she makes her parents take her to the funeral director to arrange her funeral in advance of her death. She tells the funeral director, it may well have been Rodney Kennedy, (it probably wasn’t), that she wants an open coffin and she wants yellow flowers, and she wants to be wearing her debutante dress and her footy boots. And, here’s the bit you’ve heard before, she wants to be holding a dinner fork. “What’s with the dinner fork?” asks the funeral director, (because apparently he’s fine with the deb dress and footy boot combo), and she says “well”. “Well,” she says, “when I was little and we used to go to church with Nana they would have potluck lunch after church. First would come the savoury stuff, party pies, sandwiches, mini quiches, salads, the cold roast chicken (because it’s not church potluck unless there’s cold roast chicken) and a few casseroles, and you’d grab a fork and a plate and you’d help yourself. And when that was all cleared up and cleaned off my nana would remind me to keep my fork because the sweet stuff was on its way. That’s why I want the fork, and the open coffin, because when people see me in the coffin and ask ‘what’s with the fork’ then you can say ‘she knows the sweet stuff is coming, the best is on its way’.”

And so it is with us and faith: Christians know that earthy life is utterly meaningless, but we also know that we’re all going to die some day (yippee!!) and go to Heaven and that will be better. In fact I’m pretty sure it was actually Jesus who told this story originally, and it was about Jairus’ daughter. Pity he raised her from the dead then isn’t it, and the fork was wasted. Oh well, I guess she got some more wear out of those footy boots at least.

It’s a fun story, and it can make a good point. I’m not convinced that it’s the best story in all of Christianity, but the story of the fork in the open coffin is one of those stories that carries truth, truth about the future in God.

A better story is the one we find in Jeremiah 32. Jeremiah is in dire straits at this point: he’s imprisoned, in the dungeon, of the royal palace, of the capital city; which city is being besieged, by an army which has already overrun the rest of the country. This isn’t the girl in the coffin; this is Hitler in his bunker in the last week of April 1945. Except that it isn’t even Hitler, it’s some random Wehrmacht intelligence officer under court marshall in a back room two floors below Hitler. And he’s doing the paperwork and handing over actual coinage to buy his oldest cousin’s farmhouse in the countryside so as to keep it in the family; a house already overrun and currently occupied by drunkenly carousing Red Army soldiers. Why, I mean, why? (What the fork?) “Well,” he says, “well God has told me that houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land (Jeremiah 32:15). There will come a time when these invaders will be defeated, and our land will not be occupied by strangers, and grandpa’s farm will be mine and ours again. Our displaced family, maybe two generations of refugees, will need a home to return to. That’s why.Now we know that Jeremiah’s hope was on good ground: he was released from his dungeon even as the whole nation of Judah went into exile. In my story our Wehrmacht officer might have been taken as a PoW to Russia, and maybe he never saw the farm again, and maybe the farm was confiscated and collectivised by the East German government. But in 1990 after the Berlin Wall came down and Germany was reunited, maybe this man’s grandchildren were handed back the deed of title in East Berlin, and now thirty years later they’re living life on their own land once more.

What is your hope for the future, Nhill? It’s certainly true that the Babylonians and the Red Army are not here, in fact they’re not anywhere these days; but are you feeling besieged? Are you hard-pressed by doubts and concerns about the future, do you wonder whether there is a future at all? Maybe it’s not soldiers at your walls, but maybe its banks, or the shire or state legislators, or our evermore increasingly secularist and immoral society. Maybe its the Church itself; the Uniting Church in this part of Victoria, or just the permissiveness of Christians across the globe? I’m certainly not here to speak against the Uniting Church, and I won’t do so, but that doesn’t mean that you mightn’t have doubts or wondering. Maybe you’ve had enough and you’re aching for that coffin and a fork; but the Word of The LORD is not found there. The Word of The LORD as it is revealed in scripture is that we are not to lose heart.

In Psalm 91:1 we are reminded that those who live sheltered by God Most High will rightly praise The LORD as my refuge, my fortress, my God in whom I trust. This is not a hope for the future, neither is it a plea for deliverance from the pit: this is a statement of fact and is as true as if there were straightforward and present evidence of its truth. If God is your deliverance; in other words if you have been saved and believed that you have been saved and this is evident in that you have stopped trying to save yourself; then God is, already is, has/is/shall, God is your fortress. And this is true no matter where you are. If God is your fortress then there is no gaol, no dungeon, no Fuhrerbunker that can hold you down; neither is there any overdraft, any drought, or any diagnosis. If you trust in God, and do not trust in yourself other than to trust that your trust in God is sufficient, then you are figuratively (and maybe literally) help beneath God’s wings. You are within hugging distance, and drawing close distance: you are within reach of God’s embrace and God’s snatch and clutch. And if that is where you are, then it doesn’t matter what the walls and floors look like, the skies are open and God is looking right at you. But how can it be true, how do we know it’s really so? Well, because Jeremiah was released from his dungeon for one thing – that happened, (even if Wehrmacht guy and fork girl are actually fiction).

The promise of God’s overriding protection is repeated at the end of the Psalm where in Psalm 91:14 we are told that God’s deliverance and protection are assured for those who love God. Well who loves God and is afforded this promise: Psalm 91:15 tell us that it’s those who call to God expecting an answer.

Do you love God? I’m not asking whether you’re a Christian because you’ve made some sort of conversion prayer or activity, that’s actually quite a different question. Do you love God is a question answered not by, “yes, since 3:10 pm at the Billy Graham event on 15th March 1959”, but by “yes, because whenever I call, God answers”. You may see that as a statement of God’s love for you, that God answers your prayers: but if you didn’t love God you wouldn’t call expecting an answer. You can be Christian and not love God, not trust God, and never rely on God if you think that being a Christian is about having been saved a long time ago, so that you will go to Heaven in a long time from now. You may even have a fork in you hand, or perhaps you’ve had a tiny fork made into a lapel pin or charm for your jewellery. I’m sure God honours your prayer and your intent to do the right thing, I’m not going to tell you that you’re not saved or unsaved or whatever. But again, I ask you, do you love God? Do you trust God?

Imagine this scene, and pay attention because there will be a quiz.

It’s the night of Passover, the first one, the real and actual one in Egypt, okay? Okay. Two Hebrew couples, each with a son, live as neighbours, and following Moses’ instruction the families agree to share one goat between the two small households. Each husband paints his own doorpost with blood while both wives join in roasting the meat and making flat bread and stuff, and when the cooking and the painting are done each family goes into its own house. Are you with me? Right. In one house the family huddles under the covers, cuddling close, and they barely eat. They make little roast goat sandwiches and eat them quickly, hushed together in fear. In the other house the three sit around on their mats and share the meal, dipping their flatbread into the sauce, and eating their goat as they sing their songs of praise to God.

Question time: which boy does the Angel of Death kill?

Correct answer: neither. The blood on the door is enough to save them each.

But which house honoured God? Which house trusted God more? Which house loves God more?

Which house do you live in?

As great as the story of the girl with her fork is, there’s a big point missing from that story. You aren’t supposed to simply keep your fork in preparation for the dessert course, you’re supposed to be eating the main meal with it now. Now, the parable of Lazarus and the wealthy man reminds us that we must never party at another man’s expense: to be prodigious in celebration while your neighbours starve or scrimp is no more the gospel either. Jesus in Luke 16:24 reminds us that all Jews are sons of Abraham, and today we remember that all men and women are sons and daughters of The Father and brothers and sisters of The Son. Their welfare is our concern; you may keep your own fork but if you are a follower of Jesus then you must be certain that everyone else in the room also has a fork, and that there is no one outside the room because everyone is in.

Do you love God? Then love those whom God loves, especially yourself.

Do you trust God? Then live as if God’s promises are true: celebrate the festivals, buy back the family farm, call out to God for salvation at the first sign of turmoil.

Amen.

Where There’s Smoke

This is the text of my ministry message for the September 2019 edition of The Vision, which is the quarterly newsletter of Kaniva & Serviceton Shared Ministry.

How many of you are purveyors of social media I don’t know, although I am aware that some of you are attached to Facebook and Twitter because you are connected with me on those platforms. You may then be aware via The News According to Twitface that several high profile Christians are declaring a loss of faith, or perhaps the realisation that there never was faith for them in the first place. Among the several is Marty Sampson, one time lead worshipper at Hillsong Church Sydney and lead singer with the band Hillsong United. A decade and a half ago Marty wrote the words: “I want to live, I want to love you more, I want to be used, Father, in all of the world, may your word be heard, and may it stay on my lips, to live what I speak, until your kingdom come”, (“Shine For You” © Hillsong Publishing, 2003). I remember this song fondly, and particularly this bridge as it has been my own prayer for some time, probably since 2004 when I was participating in Hillsong Church London. But for Marty all the shazam of Hillsong has not been enough, and he thinks (and says) that the issues within Christianity have put his faith on shaky ground. Marty has not renounced Christ, but he is expressing the raw honesty of a young man (he’s 40) struggling with a Bible which is self-contradicting, and a church which proclaims miracles as reality yet does not see them evident in worship contexts. His central soundbite is “no-one is talking about it”, suggesting that in his church experience the issues with Christianity are being ignored, or papered over.

Whether this is a legitimate critique of Hillsong Church or of Pentecostalism in general is not for me to say, but I do think it’s a fair point for Christianity in Australia. It is appropriate for us to look into our own church and not just point fingers at the happy-clappies (and jumpy-shouties). Is Kaniva and Serviceton Shared Ministry prepared to engage with going deeper into Christian doctrine: do we acknowledge Marty’s concerns and see what he sees? How are we addressing the struggles of believing and trusting a 2000 year old message, a message that includes talking donkeys and massacred enemies as “facts”? How do we answer Marty’s question about a God of grace and love who sends the majority of humans to a fiery, eternal Hell simply because they haven’t said a certain prayer at some point during their earthly life? Or do we just concentrate our attention on singing “All I need is you Lord”, (“All I Need Is You” ©Capitol Christian Music Group, 2005), louder and louder in an effort to shout down the screaming crescendo of doubt until such time as we find we actually do need more from Jesus than a bunch of unquestionable doctrines?

Inside KSSM right now doubt is welcome. (I wanted to say “under my ministry” but I’m not the “above” type of minister; however if you need your senior pastor to say that then he just did, even in brackets.) I do not want anyone drifting away from Christ because of unanswered questions, unaddressed fears, or squashed doubts. Curly questions are welcome in our family: trite answers are not. I think it sad, and more than sad, that Marty heard no-one addressing these concerns in his Christian home, (especially since I lived in that same home for six years and I did hear such conversation), but it would be for me an absolute tragedy if someone looking back at KSSM in 2019 from years in our future were to say the same.

Doubt is not the opposite of faith: doubt is a necessary part of faith, and doubt addressed is what creates trust. Without doubt there is only certainty, and certainty is the condition where learning stops happening and smugness and self-reliance set in. I have no interest in participating in a congregation which is smug and self-reliant, and I will resist with every part of my being the development of such a congregation where I am in leadership. In view of that the invitation stands: talk to me, ask me, bring The Spanish Inquisition if you must (so long as they bring coffee with them…), but do not be afraid or ashamed of your doubt or your questions. As your pastor I am primarily the one who is responsible for your spiritual care and your spiritual health, I am here to teach you and to love you: I hope you feel safe enough in my care to talk to me first before you walk out the door and leave church and/or faith behind.

My front door is always open so that the church’s back door is kept closed. Please stay.

The best is yet to come (WWHS)

This is the text I prepared for WWHS Day Centre for Tuesday 2nd April 2019.  I had also worshipped with them the previous week.

Joshua 5:9-12

 Last week when I was here I spoke to you about trusting and obeying God even when you think you don’t need to.  That sounds a bit strange, I know, but the point is that we must never think ourselves too capable for God to care for us, as if we’re content to pray, “you know what God, we’re fine as we are, how about you go over there and help those poor people and leave us be because we’re fine on our own.” Never, ever do I want to be in a place where I don’t need God, and more than that I never want to be in a place where I can tell God to leave me be because I’m fine as I am.

The reading I brought to you today, which is the lectionary reading from the Hebrew Bible for last Sunday, says something like this too.  The Hebrews under Joshua have entered Canaan, their promised land, and they have rededicated themselves to God as God’s own people by circumcising all the men who were born in the Wilderness.  You might remember that God made the Hebrews wait forty years after the Exodus before they were allowed to enter Canaan because they had been rebellious in their early wanderings: no man who was of military age when the people left Egypt (except Joshua and Caleb) was allowed to enter the land and so the whole nation waited until the last of those men died.  Hence the need for circumcision, none of the boys born in the desert had been through that ritual and some of those boys were now forty years old.  So anyway, here they are, in Canaan, with lots of men feeling rather sore and God says to Joshua words to the effect of “okay, now that Egypt is out of your system, and you are Abrahamites once again, let’s get you settled in his country”.  The first thing they do is celebrate Passover, which of course is a reminder of their exit from Egypt a generation past.  The word “exodus” which we use in English to describe the activity, and the book of the Bible which tells the story, literally translates out of Greek as “the road out”, ex-hodos.  In effect the Hebrews have reached the end of that road out, now they are ready to embark upon the road in.  God calls them to remember where they have come from, (Egypt), and with their men still sore the whole nation celebrates their deliverance.

In Joshua 5:11 we are told that the next day, the day after the Passover, that very day, they ate some of the produce of the land, and in Joshua 5:12 we are told that the manna stopped the day they ate this food from the land.  In one sense God’s deliverance was complete, the people who had followed the cloud and the pillar of fire, (or had at least followed Moses who followed the cloud and the pillar of fire) and who had been fed with manna and quail and water from the rocks of the desert were now establishing themselves in Canaan, Abraham’s land of milk and honey.  They didn’t need hand-outs any more, they were freed and were free.

As Christians reading this story we are allowed to be excited, and we should think about what this story means for us.  I don’t know about you, but I’ve never eaten actual manna.  I have had God provide food for me, I told you a bit about that last week, but I don’t quite have the same story as Joshua.  When we consider the link to Passover, which is when Easter is for Christians, and for what Jesus went through and what he accomplished on the day of Passover or the day before Passover (depending which gospel story you read), it’s interesting I think to remember this event of another Passover meal.  The meal described by Joshua was eaten as a celebration of what God had already done in leading the Hebrews along that long road out (the ex-hodos) and it was also as a sign of faith in God for what God was about to do in guiding the Hebrews as they walked the many roads in to Canaan to take up the land of promise.  In Jesus, in communion, we celebrate what God has done for us through the cross and the resurrection, but we also get to look ahead with faith and confidence, with expectation and trust, at what God is about to do now and how God will still be active as many as three thousand years and more into our future as we are in the future from Joshua’s day.

Are you still excited for what God is going to do?  I have said before that there is a lot of living memory in this room, being what it is, but I have also said and you have agreed that the stories of the people in this room are not yet at an end.  The best is yet to come, not just because that’s a great phrase of faith and hope, but because when we think about Jesus on Thursday as he ate, and Friday as he died, the best really was yet to come.

Amen.

Still Trusting (WWHS)

This is the devotion I prepared for sharing at West Wimmera Health Service (WWHS) at Kaniva.  The event is a Day Centre devotional/chapel time which is hosted once a week: I have the provilege of leading on the first Tuesday of every month.  This was an extra service filling in for someone who was away.

Isaiah 55:1-9

Isaiah speaks on God’s behalf in issuing an invitation to the thirsty, an invitation extended to anyone who thirsts for what God can provide.  There is no need for money; rich and poor alike are welcome so long as they come with openness and expression of their need for God and their needs from God.

I wonder, what do you need from God?  When I said just now that rich and poor alike are welcome at God’s invitation you may have thought that I was just being poetic.  Yes the poor are welcome, there is no need for money so it doesn’t matter if you can’t afford it, just come.  But the rich?  Why would the rich need an invitation?  Surely they would have just come anyway, after all they can afford to purchase whatever is for sale, and if it’s free then all the better and what a lovely surprise once we’re here.  But the rich would not have stayed away in shame or poverty, so why invite the rich when the rich were already coming?

Any ideas?

Well maybe the rich weren’t coming, because the rich thought they didn’t need to come.  Maybe the rich, because they are rich, have money, milk and wine enough.  After all, you don’t need to go to the shops, even for free stuff, when your pantry is full.  If you’re not thirsty then an invitation to the thirsty doesn’t interest you.  Maybe you’ll hold back out of a sense of charity and let the poor go first, or maybe you’ll just ignore the invitation entirely.  Either way, God’s invitation might go unmet by you and you just won’t come, and that’s sad.  Where it says in Isaiah 55:1, without money and without cost perhaps the fact that you have money enough means that if you do come to God there will be a cost, a cost to your pride, and that’s too much cost to bear, especially if you are rich in money, milk and wine.

So I think even though Isaiah is just issuing God’s invitation, and without judgement or interpretation, he’s just an amplifier of the quiet voice in his heart which speaks God’s truth, he knows that the message will go unheard by some.  Why spend money on what does not feed, he asks (or rather God asks through him in Isaiah 55:2), advising to feed on what is good so that your soul will delight.  In other words, I don’t care how well stocked your cellars are, and how awesome is your dairy operation, feed from God’s provision and you will be blessed.

When I lived in England I had a strange encounter with God.  I was shopping in the local Tesco with my housemate, and with our boss-slash-landlord, since it was a ministry organisation I was attached to.  I felt in my chest and heard a voice in my head say that I was not to be shopping: that whatever I needed I was to allow my boss-slash-landlord to pay for.  He found me in one of the aisles, crying, with my basket on the floor.  He asked what the matter was and I said, “I’m not allowed to shop, I mustn’t actually pay for anything.” He said to me, “well okay, give me your basket and I’ll pay; if that’s what God has told you then that is what we need to do.” That situation lasted for five months, indeed the whole time I stayed at that house.  Food was donated to the ministry, and money came in too, “to support Damien”, but I never bought any food or groceries in the time I was there.  Even my housemate would come home from his own shopping and say “this is for you” and give me a packet of frozen fish fingers or something.  That was an incredibly humbling experience for me: not embarrassing as I knew I was obeying God and the men around me knew it too, but it was kinda hard.  Now I know that God has me in mind at all times, and that I am safe and provided for.  Now I am confident to direct my labour only to what satisfies, as Isaiah 55:2 says, which is not to say that I rely on others to pick up the tab, or that I am happy to be a burden to others, but to say that if God wants to pay my way while I minister and serve the Kingdom then that is what God can do.

I am not too rich to have God care for me, and because of that I have never been too poor for God to find me and feed me.  But that does not mean it isn’t hard.

Isaiah, and perhaps God in Isaiah’s mouth, counsels us to seek God while God may be found and to call upon God while God is near.  This is another wonderful invitation, but it is another one with a hidden threat.  Is there really a time and space limit?  Will there be a time when God cannot be found, or God is not near and therefore cannot hear us if we call?  I don’t want to get into the theology of the near-and-farness of God, so let’s just cut to the chase and say that if you hear God’s invitation then it’s best to respond straight away, and with complete trust that you will be welcomed and provided for.  Sometimes what God asks us to do is baffling, God’s ways are not our ways as Isaiah 55:8 reminds us; but hey, if God is the one asking then who am I to say no?  Trust and obey – there is no other way.

 

Amen.

Recall The Story (Lent 1C)

This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM to be proclaimed on Sunday 10th March 2019.

Deuteronomy 26:5b-10a; Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13

In this morning’s set reading from the Hebrew traditions Moses addresses the Hebrew People on the edge of the Promised Land, and he tells them about the future.  This People who had been slaves for 400 years and asylum seekers for 40 years would find rest.  When, in generations to come, the people who have become farmers will, in the context of the annual festival of harvest thanksgiving, bring in the tithes and the offerings of first fruits, the Jews were to recite this liturgy.  The liturgy is a poem, the story in verse of “a wandering Areamean”, and how God was faithful to him and to all descendent generations according to the promise.  Remember, none of this has happened yet, Moses is preaching in the Jordanian wilderness and no one has set foot in Israel for a generation.  This song was to become a reminder of who God is in the daily life of the individual and the national life of the settled Hebrews.

I wonder how that went.  Did the Hebrews, who then became Israelites and Judahites, and then Jews in exile, and then Samarians and Judeans in an occupied land under various empires, and then Jews in exile once again, and in our day are known as Israelis who live amongst Palestinians (who used to be called Philistines) actually do this?  Were there actual harvest festivals like God had decreed and Moses explained, and did the tithes and first fruits ever come into the temple?  The Biblical and historical records suggest yes; it seems that as late as the time of Jesus there was a living memory, recited at least, of who Israel was and who Israel’s God was.  History also tells us that the temple was destroyed in 70, and that it has never been rebuilt.  There has never been a tithes and offerings festival at the temple Jerusalem since then, yet Judaism remains and the calendar remains, and the right time for the festival rolls around every year when the harvest of whatever land the Jews live in is gathered.  There seems to be something in this story, a story that has been told for almost three and a half millennia, (since 1500 BCE) and which was written down two and a half millennia ago, which has continued to enrich the culture whose story it is.  God is faithful, God provides in season, and God is worthy to be praised; so the Jews have learned.  But this is not some rote piece of creed or a memory verse, it is the moral of the story, and the story is (the man) Israel as a metaphor for all who are destitute and placeless until God intervenes.  The Jews have always known that God is faithful because they have never failed to continue to tell their children the nationally personal story, even in foreign lands and foreign languages.

Recently I was invited to speak into the life of a young writer.  When I say young she is younger than me, but she is also of my cohort, so she’s no teenager.  Anyway this young woman has been journaling and worshipping and she sought my advice, amongst the advice of other trusted friends, about publishing her work and going on with God into a writing and teaching career: seminars and the like.  I’m not going to tell you her story, that’s for her to tell; and I’m not going to tell you how her story and my story run parallel and why the advice I gave her was especially pertinent.  I am going to tell you what my advice was, because I think it fits the story told by Moses and the Jews as well.  The advice is this: tell the story of God in your life, don’t tell the story of your life where God occurred.  The actual wording I used for her was tell the story of Jesus and quote yourself as a source, don’t tell the story of you.  In every faith story Jesus is the hero, you are the narrator and the researcher.  Looking at Deuteronomy 26:5c-9 the story is really about God’s faithfulness that we know about because it was us and our ancestors that God was faithful.  The story is not about us the downtrodden slave-mob for whom God intervened.  We are in the story, we are telling the story, but it is God’s story because it is about God.

When we look at a story about Jesus, and we did that earlier in Luke 4:1-13, things get interesting.  Who is the hero of Jesus’ story, is it Jesus or is it God the Father?  If the hero of my story is actually Jesus, and every story I tell is testament to his glory, who is supposed to be the hero of Jesus’ story?  What we read in Luke 4, and this is as much the case in Matthew 4 where he tells a similar but not identical story, is that Jesus lived a life of thanksgiving and humble adoration of Father, even from the outset.  In knocking down the accuser’s attacks on his character and calling Jesus made it quite clear that he didn’t need to test God to prove God to himself, and he had no interest in spectacular activities to show off God or his own faith to prove God to others.  Jesus already knew he was saved by grace through the covenant between God and Abraham, and Jesus knew as Paul would later write in Romans 10:10-11 that his salvation was evident through his trust in God.  Throughout his ministry Jesus encouraged other Jews (participants in the covenant) to trust God and know God as Father.  So even for Jesus, at least as far as he was a man from Nazareth, the hero of the story is God the faithful one, not Jesus the brave and hungry one.

Today’s Psalm, 91, speaks with the same theme.  At first glance it appears to be directed to people rather than God, as if it’s advice for believers or perhaps even a priestly blessing or benediction rather than a hymn of praise.  It’s something that I might say to you as a reminder of who you are to God, rather than a prayer which I recite to God on your behalf as your worship leader.  Well it’s actually that at second glance too, advice to people, and a longer reading demonstrates that this is a story about God told by the psalmist and the leader of worship as a lesson of personal experience.  Again it’s not “I was faithful and God rewarded me by blah-de-blah-blah”, it’s “God is faithful in this way, and in brackets I should know”.  And the message itself is consistent with what Moses has already told the Hebrews; and Jesus and Paul would tell the later generation of Jews; that you will find shelter and trust in The LORD, the great refuge who keeps you from harm.  God holds me above danger (and perhaps Jesus might interject “even in the midst of the greatest temptation”), and gifts me the fullness of life.

So by the time we get to Paul, and to his letter to the Roman Christians, we have the beginning of faith in Jesus as The LORD.  Paul speaks of Jesus as Jesus spoke of the Father, but remember that he is speaking of the exalted and resurrected one who reigns at the right hand of the throne of Heaven. This Jesus can be the hero of your story, even as the itinerant rabbi of Nazareth wasn’t the hero of his own story, because the one we follow is God-made-Human, Word-made-Blood.  We follow The Son; we don’t merely adhere to the teachings of a wise guru who demonstrated incredible perseverance in the Outback.  Jesus will tell you that what sustained him in the wilderness was his faith in God, not his faith in himself.  Now that Jesus has returned to God, to be God once more in company with The Father and The Spirit, and to take up all that which was laid down (according to Philippians 2:5-11), we can have confidence in him.  Our salvation is “made effective” to use a liturgical phrase, that is to say it is evident (you can see it for yourself) and it is efficacious (it actually does the thing) when we declare the truth, which comes out of the heart.  It’s Romans 10:10 which says that, and Romans 10:13 can be paraphrased into the language of Psalm 91 to add that all who declare their shelter to be God will be saved.  If you can name God as shelter then you also know in your heart (i.e. by instinct and to the extent of muscle-memory) where your shelter is when you need one.  I don’t even have to think, when there is trouble I run to God, and then I am safe (and therefore I am saved).  What is unique in Paul, something he alone says and that the Psalmist and Moses did not say, is that you don’t have to be a blood descendent of Jacob to have this: if you trust God and you call upon God you will be saved by God, (or you are safe in God).  The sentences that make up Romans 10:12-13 are a direct pull from Joel 2:32, Paul is quoting Hebrew scripture, in this instance “The Prophets” part of “The Law and The Prophets” to make a point, that in Christ all are welcome in God’s safe house.

So, where does this put us?

Well, it puts us in the place of witness.  With all that God has said to us about proclamation and the need to speak the hard truth into the present day, this message is somewhat easier to follow, I hope.  Speak about God, tell of God’s glory, and tell of how God has rescued and blessed you.  In a church with a strong theology of the priesthood of all believers you should all be bringing your offerings to God.  I am your pastor, not your priest: you don’t need me to burn a sheep on your behalf.  I am the lead preacher in this place, the only one paid to preach and with a certain responsibility to go deeper than those of you who volunteer to speak once in a while, but that doesn’t mean that my testimony is more effective than yours, merely that I am better trained in public speaking and theology than you.  You and I preach the same Jesus, and we can all share the story of how God has saved us individually.  If we want God’s Church to grow in the Wimmera, and if we want there to be a Christian Church in Kaniva and Serviceton in the generations to come, it is the responsibility of each one of us to tell the story of God to our children and to our neighbours.  If you’re not sure how to do that, well let me teach you.  If you don’t need teaching that’s great, but what are you waiting for?

Have at it, go and tell.

Amen.

How it is to be (Epiphany 7C)

This is the text of the message I prepared for Kaniva & Serviceton Shared Ministry gathered at Kaniva Church of Christ and Serviceton Uniting Church on Sunday 24th February 2019.

Genesis 45:3-11, 15; Psalm 37:1-11, 39-40; Luke 6:27-38

So, the last couple of weeks have been pretty exciting for me as a preacher because I have been excited by what God is saying to us.  Often when I open my Bibles (plural) up to begin writing a sermon I have no idea what’s coming.  The readings don’t always follow the previous week’s, and since I tend to be about a month ahead in my preparations I’m never actually writing on my Monday afternoon “the thing after what I said yesterday”.  So when the last three sermons came out as they did, writing a month ago, I was really pleased that that is what God wanted to tell us.

So, what did God tell us during January and February?  Well, a few things:

  1. You’se mob are all ministers, with ministries. This includes me, but it is not exclusive to me.  If you’ve been baptised then the Holy Spirit is upon you and you have a job to do.
  2. You’se mob are all able to listen to God’s instruction for yourself. Also, God’s instruction for KSSM in February was to focus on rest so that we would enter the year of 2019 with peace and energy from God, not with frazzle and rush.  This message has not been superseded or countermanded, and even though some of us are now at the chalkface of ministry, the reminder to come back to God between-times just to sit and be with God remains.  For others of you the sitting and being is what you are doing all the time.
  3. Some of you are being called to ministries of proclamation, and to proclamation of somewhat unwelcome messages. If God has given you a message for the church and the world we want you to speak it out.
  4. Some of that proclamation takes the form of looking ahead. You will tell people to think about what is coming next, and think about what is life-giving and foundational to what we trust now.  Our message at KSSM is that we are confident because we have heard and experienced how God gives life to us, and energy to finish the work we have been assigned.

Today is something different.  It’s still exciting, and I’m looking forward to what I have to say now.  It’s about a new way of looking at proclamation and preaching, and it is useful for anyone who listens to preaching.  Okay, so it’s not pointers for the couple of lay preachers and the rest of you can tune out, it’s God’s wisdom for everyone who hears what God and the Church are saying, and pulling from that story whatever is wisdom for where you are.  But first, some Bible stories.  Yay!

In our Bible story from the Hebrew tradition we read how Joseph showed himself to his brothers.  We haven’t got the whole story here, but the gist is that Joseph’s brothers sold him to some Arabs to be used as a slave, which was not very nice of them.  Then yada-yada-yada, false accusation, time in gaol, Pharaoh overdoes the pizza one night and has crazy dream, drought everywhere, Hebrew asylum seekers (aka boat people on donkeys), Joseph’s brothers rock up in Egypt and don’t recognise Joseph who is the Prime Minister.  (Breathe!)  So, today’s story, Joseph does not exact revenge on his not very nice brothers, instead he shows stupidly generous kindness and hospitality to them.  True?  Is that what happened?  Yes.  Biblical truth?  Two things, God’s plans always work out well for those who remain faithful to their calling; and it’s always better to be generous and kind, even to people who are not very nice.  Done?  Yes?  Done!

Psalm.  So today it’s 37 and bits thereof. This is a song of patient trust in God, patience grounded in the assurance that salvation is coming.  We can’t say that Joseph was familiar with this song of David because it’s something like eight hundred years after his day, but Joseph certainly kept the faith and did not keep it to himself.  Joseph understood that God is faithful and he told whomever would listen, even his brothers, who were not very nice, especially to him.  Message?  One thing, God’s plans always work out well for those who remain patiently faithful to their hope in God.  Application?  Well since the lectionary has already pointed us to Genesis 45:3-11 and the story of Joseph’s graciousness we might conclude that since we know that God is our security and not ourselves we can afford to be generous and kind, even to people who are not very nice.  Done?  Yes?  Done!

Am I moving too fast?  No?  Excellent.

Right: Jesus story.  Excellent, I love Jesus stories.  We read from Luke 6:27-38 where Jesus himself is speaking, and more than speaking he is teaching.  Jesus says love your enemies, (and in brackets love your brothers even when they are not very nice) and listen to your teacher.  Jesus is quite a challenging teacher if you think about it, and (slowing down) here is where we find the point of today’s message.  Jesus was faithful to God, faithful to his trust in God (the things he knew and believed), obedient and always seeking the Father’s direction.  As an Evangelical I’d like to say that Jesus was entirely and absolutely perfectly faithful to scripture, and I have heard that said before by other Evangelicals, some of whom (but not all) were preachers.  But was he?  Was he?  I am entirely convinced that Jesus never contradicted God, nor the written word of The Law and The Prophets, but see even here where he uses the phrase “but I say to you…”   He often said that, or perhaps often did that, changed the meaning of Jewish religious tradition and the interpretation of the scriptures in Hebrew or their Greek translation of his day.  “You’re reading that wrong”, might be another way of saying it.

Let me give you an example, perhaps in a different way.  I was recently allowed to overhear a conversation between a farmer and his pastor where the farmer was concerned, convicted of his sin really, about his farming methods.  He had been reading Genesis 3:19 where it says quite clearly by the sweat of your face you shall eat bread.  Right?  Got that?  Okay, so he was concerned that even though he was actually a grain farmer, so the bread thing really did apply, that in his closed-cabin, air-conditioned header his face didn’t get all that sweaty any more.  As a Christian farmer, saved by the cross but still living as a sinner in a fallen world, hadn’t he become too worldly, wasn’t he compromising his faith and the word of scripture by not using a horse-drawn plough or a scythe in the sun?  Doesn’t the road of the air-conditioned lead to Hell?  Now in Kaniva and Serviceton we know the answer to that, of course it’s true and almost all of you are going to Hell.  You know that and that’s fine.  Or maybe Jesus would say “well you have heard it said, (or perhaps seen it written) by the sweat of your face, but I say to you…” and then what would Jesus say?  Maybe he’d say something like that anyone who works for a living to provide for his family is blessed, regardless of the physical toil involved, because each man is accountable to God for his gifts and responsibilities.  And then in the twentieth century scholars would have added “and women” to their commentaries and twenty-first century pastors would have drawn out applications for women and men who work at white-collar jobs.  Would such a thing be entirely faithful to scripture?  Depends who you’re asking I suppose; there’s always a hardliner somewhere.  My question, which I have been leading up to all day, is such a thing faithful to our concept of God.  In other words, is the God of Joseph and his brothers, the God of David the Psalmist, the God of Jesus the rabbi who taught love even for enemies, the God of Jesus the crucified messiah who prayed “father forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing”, is that God burning with unquenchable wrath because Christians work on tractor or in classrooms where there is air-con.  What say you?

So yes I did bolt through the set readings from Genesis, Psalms, and Luke this morning, and yes I deliberately overlooked other great nuggets of applicable truth for your and my lives as disciples, but I hope I have made my point.  And if I haven’t, here it is: read the Bible with the characteristics of Jesus of Nazareth in mind.  As you begin to reflect on any text, any text at all, ask yourself how Jesus would explain it to the woman beside the well in John 4:10, or the woman caught in adultery in John 8:11, or Simon son of Jonah beside the lake in John 21:15.  Remember how Jesus never twisted scripture but he often redefined and refuted a harsh interpretation of it to show the compassion and loving-kindness of God whenever the scribes and Pharisees try to set a trap.  Look at today’s passage and Jesus’ own words in Luke 6:36 where he says be merciful just as your Father is merciful.

There is no doubt that God dislikes sin.  Jesus wasn’t too keen on it and he still isn’t, it cost him six bloody, painful hours on a Roman cross beneath a black sky.  The message to read with mercy is not about taking a permissive stance on sin or injustice or idolatry or anything else that the scriptures condemn: no way, never.  The message is to think of the people involved; the people trapped by sin of course, but for me even more so the people trapped by false interpretations of the scriptures which make God seem petty or petulant and not very nice at all.  Don’t laugh at the farmer, help him with gentleness to understand that he is allowed to not sweat and still be a beloved son of the Father in righteousness with his Lord.  But more than that, don’t ever, ever, be the one who agrees with such a farmer and insists because of the word of God that agricultural machinery is contrary to received revelation and an act of witchcraft in the eyes of a wrathful deity.  But more than that that, that, whatever: do not ever ever be the one who snatches a farmer out of his header and demands he use a scythe or else it’s Hell for him and his family for four generations because that’s what the Bible says.

So, proclaimers of God’s truth that you are; as we go further into 2019 let us all make sure whether we are preachers, prophets, or just mates of people who don’t come to church that it is God’s truth that we are proclaiming.  If what you’re saying contradicts the written gospel, or the letters, law, prophets or poets then it’s probably not God.  But if your word contradicts the nature and character of Jesus then it certainly is not God, no matter how many Bible verses you can quote.

Amen.

It’s All A Bit Ordinary (Pentecost 2A and Ordinary Sunday 11A)

This is the text of the message I prepared for Lakes Entrance Uniting Church for Sunday 18th June 2017.

Genesis 18:1-15

Today is the day between days.

Today is the “Easter Saturday” of June.  It’s not the “Holy Saturday”, the day between God’s Friday and Resurrection Day when we sit in vigil awaiting the return of our Lord in triumph from his ravaging of Hell.  No, today is not that day.  Today is “Easter Saturday”, the Saturday at the end of Easter week when the moment of resurrection and chocolate has passed, the bunting is looking frayed, the coloured foil detritus from our body weight in refined sugar is looking on accusingly, and it’s all a bit silly now that we are still naming the days at all.

Of course, it is not Easter Saturday at all.  For starters, today is Sunday.  For seconders, it is the second Sunday after Pentecost, so we’re not even in the Easter season any more.  The liturgical directory suggests that our chapel should be dressed in green, not white, if we even bother with such things, because today is really nothing special.

Last week was Trinity and we celebrated the three-in-one nature of our God.  I spoke of how God is made of different stuff to us, and of how Jesus set aside the stuff of God to be shaped and embodied in the stuff of humanity.  I also spoke of how Jesus’ being shaped of human stuff means that God knows what it is to experience human emotions like grief, pain, risk, death, and restoration.  Stirring stuff.

The week before last was Pentecost and we celebrated the birth of the Church in wind, fire, exultant worship, and inter-racial, intra-faith extravagant declaration of the salvific purposes of God in the world.

Next week we will celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the Uniting Church.  Nor just a date on a calendar but a reminder of the century-long effort of Australasian Protestants to form a new nation and a new church for that nation.  We will remember that while church union occurred seventy-six years after the federation of our six colonies the desire of our forebears had been there all along.  We will remember them.

Wondrous days!  Hallelujah!  Our God reigns!  Our God pours out God’s spirit on women and men, young and old, urban and rural, local and tourist, wealthy and povertous; Euro and Asian and Koori and Anglo and African and American and all combinations of the same.  Our God takes on human form to reveal to us the wonder of God’s self, God’s ways, God’s nature, God’s plans, and our worth and value in God’s eyes.  Our ancestors responded to this great unifying vision of God the perichoretic one and sought in the birth of a new nation, with a continent for a country and a country for a continent, an expression of Church to match this great drive forward into the wonderful twentieth century of Victorian enterprise (by which I mean the age and its dear queen) and Victorian victory (by which I mean the feats of that wondrous colony, the jewel in her majesty’s crown, Marvellous Melbourne and Australia Felix betwixt the Murray’s River and Bass’s Strait).

Heady days to come next week!

And then there’s today!!  “The Second Sunday After Pentecost: Ordinary Sunday 11, Year A”. Doesn’t the very name of this day set your heart aflame?  Think of those great words of encouragement I spoke to you last month, which I first heard in the global head offices of the Church Missionary Society, CMS, in Waterloo in London, in June 2001.  “God, you have ignited a spark within each of us, now dear Lord we pray, water that spark!”

[Snort.]

Hmm.  I dunno about you but if anything is going to “water my spark” it is the thought of “The Second Sunday After Pentecost: Ordinary Sunday 11, Year A.” I mean, it isn’t even the Queen’s Birthday long weekend.  And at least you people only hafta show up; I’m supposed to build an engaging service of worship around this profound and lofty concept and to write a sermon to make it sound interesting.  (How am I doing so far?)  I mean, you know that I came straight to you from University.  I have more degrees than a compass, but I’ll admit it, I am desperately searching for God’s direction for today.  Today is the most boring Sunday in June.

So how are you feeling?  A bit ordinary?  Me too.

[Sigh, big blowing exhale.]

[Pause].

[Slap lectern.]

Righto then, let’s look at the scripture passage selected for this auspicious day in the lectionary.

Bang!  [Clap, thumb up.]

In Genesis 18:1-15 we read one of the most mind-blowingly unordinary stories in the Bible.  It jumps straight in at Genesis 18:1 with: The LORD appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day.  It’s a hot day.  Now this is a Bible story and as such it’s set in Palestine, so it’s always a hot day.  For the Bible to indicate that it was a hot day suggests that it was a very hot day.  Not ordinary hot this day is stupidly hot.  It’s also the hottest part of this sweltering day, and Abraham is sitting in the door of his tent, trying to get respite from the hot sun in that little bit of breeze and shade.   The tent has been raised near the oak trees, so I’m suggesting there’s some shade and some water available.   Abraham is 99 years old, we know this because a year later when Isaac is born he’s 100.  This is not a question of theology, it’s maths.  I don’t have a degree in Maths but I’m pretty sure what a century minus a year looks like in numbers.  So, it’s sweltering, it’s the hottest time of the day, and Abraham is very old.  And as I have just told you, he is sitting in the shade.  And while all this ordinary stuff is happening the LORD appears.

Now, Ordinary Sundays aside: if I be chillin outside me tent on a scorcher of a day, and the LORD appears, that would probably spark my water, let me tell you.  There is nothing ordinary about God showing up in the form of three men looking for a cold one each and a bit of a sit down.  Of all the things on my list of what is ordinary, and then referring to the special category of what might be expected on an afternoon in summer, God showing up looking for a drink is not on that list.  God showing up like that is unexpected.  To say the least.  And since you’ve not employed me as your preacher to say the least I’m going to say some more.  Let’s read on.

Genesis 18:2 tells us that Abraham (99 and hot, but not in the good way) runs(!) from the shade and into the sun(!) to meet the men (who are the actual LORD).  As you do: when the LORD appears.

In Genesis 18:3-5a Abraham invites “my lord” to stay, note that he’s speaking in the singular here, and in Genesis 18:5b they (plural) agree to do so.  Now this is actually not extraordinary, you would expect Abraham and Sarah to show this depth of hospitality to strangers, and for strangers to think nothing of this extravagance, since that was the cultural norm.  Travelling strangers in the desert, no matter who they are, even enemies, are to be given food, water, shelter, and provision for the road if they pass by your camp.  Even so the sexes don’t mix so Sarah has done the baking but she stays away from the secret men’s business going on in the shade.  So, what we read in Genesis 18:6-9 is not remarkable, other than that it is the LORD who is the guest.

In Genesis 18:10 we are told that one of the men suggests that Sarah will become pregnant and give birth to a son within the next year.  Okay so that’s extraordinary, not part of the ritual of being a guest, but there you go.  The man doesn’t mention Sarah’s age, but the Bible does: and it makes no bones about it.  In Genesis 18:11 the point is made three times, just in case you didn’t get it the first time, that Sarah is each of “old”, “advanced in years”, and “that it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women”.  So, she’s old, anciently old, and the menopause was a distant memory.  So that’s pretty ordinary; I mean old women, especially very old women, tend not to be fertile.  Thank you Captain Obvious whomever wrote Genesis 18:11 for making that clear, and in such a poetic manner!   So you can see why Sarah has a chuckle about it, very much derisory in tone as well.  “What are my chances, at my age, of getting lucky with that fossil I am married to?’ she asks in Genesis 18:12.  She may have no ova left, but she’s a feisty one is our Sarah.  Anyway, the LORD asks Abraham in Genesis 18:13-14 why Sarah laughed, again observing the code of dignity by which a male stranger doesn’t speak to a female, (so the LORD doesn’t actually ask Sarah), and declares that the LORD can do as the LORD desires.  In Genesis 18:15 Sarah says I did not laugh and the LORD, in full pantomime fashion and in breaking character for a second says to her oh yes you did! And then the story ends.

What an extraordinary story for an Ordinary Sunday!

And this of course has been my point all along.  There is no such thing as an ordinary Sunday.  Yes, there are days on our calendar which are not unique as anniversaries, although I’m sure that with today being June 18th it’s important for millions of people in millions of ways regardless of today’s being a Sunday or the Sunday between Trinity and the UCA anniversary.  But it doesn’t have to be Pentecost for us to expect the Spirit to fall upon us, or to rise up within us.  The LORD is welcome here, now, today, on Ordinary Sunday 11.  Isn’t he?  And would today still be considered ordinary if God were really present here today?  Or if the Word of God came to one of you with a word of promise for the future?  I’m sure 91 year old NNN in our congregation today would not be the only one baffled if a baby were promised to her nine months from now, but what if God promised her a resurgence of love and energy in her spirit to complete the work she was allocated as a Christian?  What if God spoke directly to 90 year old NN with a message that he was to see a new multi-million-dollar audio-visual suite set up in a new auditorium on this site, and that not only would he see it happen but that NN himself would be the one in the crawlspace in the ceiling connecting it all up?  If God promised it, would you believe it?  Would your response be like Sarah’s and to laugh behind God’s back; or would your response be like Mary’s and to ask for details and then praise God at the wonder of your being chosen for such a momentous task?

But let’s not get carried away with such big dreams.  No seriously, I’m not about to criticise here.  Let’s consider how excitingly small the promises of God can be.   I’m gonna suggest that NNN doesn’t need a baby, but she might have been praying for perseverance and strength.  I’m not going to say she needs perseverance and strength, that’s for her to discern.  But do we have faith that God can do small miracles on a Sunday?  Do we trust for the gift of faith, “that shy hope in the heart”, that God will come through for us in whatever it is we are praying and believing for?  Or do we have the attitude that if NN doesn’t throw away his crutches right now and backflip up the aisle, all the while speaking in tongues, that we’re not interested?

So, today is an ordinary Sunday.  Every Sunday is, even the ones with special names.  Because every Sunday is the Lord’s Day, not just in recognition that it is the weekly anniversary of the resurrection of the saviour (which it is) but that every day belongs to the LORD because as Genesis 1 tells us every day was made by the LORD, each day with its own purpose, even for purposeful rest.

Truly, the only extraordinary thing about any given Sunday, including this one, is that the Christians do not expect God to do the amazing.  If the LORD is amongst us then the miraculous is to be anticipated.

Every.  Single.  Day.

Amen.