In the Shadows

This is the text of my minister’s message for the June 2017 newssheet at Lakes Parish Uniting Church.

Several weeks ago, I became part of a conversation on the topic of “getting over” trauma.  The man with whom I was speaking has had a rough life, rougher at some points in his life than others, and he has a few memories that he is struggling to move past.  My life’s story is similar, not that I have experienced what this man has experienced, but that I have memories which needed healing, and troubling relationships with organisations and people in my past which proved difficult to move beyond.

In Psalm 23:4 David writes of the truest source of security in his life, a steadfast knowledge which gives him the confidence to walk through the darkest valley without fear of evil: the confidence that the LORD is with him and that the LORD carries all that is needed to keep David safe.  In Psalm 27:13-14 David declares his steadfast belief that he will see the LORD’s goodness while he lives, if only he takes heart in the wisdom that the LORD will come through for him.  David is not expecting vindication of his faith after his death, as if Heaven is the answer and reward to all of life’s problems.  That might be true, but for David the sure promise of God is that David will not die until David has seen God act for David’s benefit and God’s own Glory.

Experience has taught me, and then my studies in theology have supported this understanding, that God does not expect or require us to “get over” anything.  If the life and songs of David tells us anything it is that God takes the faithful woman or man “through”, not “over”.  We are to walk through the valleys of shadows, we are to continue through life with patient confidence, and we are to do so in the company of the shepherd who walks beside us or sometimes a step ahead of us with his crook and staff.

I have a book mark which reads “Patience is not to sit with folded hands but to learn to do as we are told.” There was a time in my life when what I was told was to sit and wait for God, and I obeyed and sat.  But much of the time the call to trust and obey requires that we continue moving forward, even when it is dark and even when the shadows creep towards us.  His presence, assured to us in scripture, is Christ’s blessing upon all Christians in the world.

Women at Wells

This is the text of the message I preached at Lake Tyers Beach on Sunday 19th March 2017, the third Sunday of Lent in Year A.

John 4:5-42

Sometimes I am truly fascinated by the lectionary.  Now there’s a preaching nerd statement if ever there was one!  But it’s true.  Each week and for some midweek holy days as well, on a three-year cycle, many Christian churches read through the greater portion of the Bible by following a series of set readings.  Each day’s feast includes a passage from the Old Testament, a Psalm or portion thereof, a passage from one of the gospels (and in 2017 we’ll mainly be reading Matthew), and a passage from one of the New Testament’s letters.  Oftentimes these readings are collected around a common theme.  Remember last week, case in point, when the Old Testament reading was about Abram’s call to follow God to Canaan in Genesis 12 and Paul’s commentary upon Abraham’s life of faith in Romans 4.  One of the gospel alternatives was Matthew 17 and Jesus’s transfiguration, and the Psalm was 121 where I lift my eyes to the hills which might connect with either the transfiguration or with Abram the trusting nomad.  Since we’d heard about the transfiguration separately a few weeks ago, I went with the other three passages. As a preacher, I can see each week that a theme has been recommended to me in the choice of which readings go together, and generally I have been able to follow that theme.

So, this week the gospel reading is John 4:5-42 and the story of the woman at the well.  It is paired with Exodus 17:1-7 and the Hebrews whinging for water, Psalm 95 where the Jews are reminded not to whinge like they did back in the day, back on that day, and Romans 5:1-11 which follows last week’s message on justification by faith and not by ancestry or obedience.  Maybe we can link Paul’s words to the Psalmist and the writer of Exodus: in stark contrast to the sooky behaviour of the Chosen People God is looking for trust-filled Christians.

So, what’s the theme?  Well, maybe it is that pro-trust and anti-tantrum story.  That would make a great sermon.  But why, then, the woman at the well?  As I said at the outset, sometimes I am truly fascinated by the lectionary.

So, today, I’m going to both break with tradition, by ignoring the other lectionary readings and their suggested theme for reading John, and embrace tradition by suggesting another set of readings and a new theme.

First, a different “other New Testament reading”, this one from the previous chapter of John and the alternative gospel reading.  The idea was that if I’d preached on the transfiguration a few weeks back, on Transfiguration Sunday, the lectionary offered me this passage to preach on last week alongside Abraham and Paul.  I won’t bother connecting this story to last week’s message, although it does fit, but I do want to flag it for this week.  So, next to the Woman of Samaria we have Nicodemus the Pharisee in John 3:1-11.  Hold that thought.

Second, a different Old Testament reading. Genesis 24:12-20, and we could add Genesis 29:6b, 10-13.  Abraham’s most-trusted servant goes to a well in a foreign country and Rebekah brings him water.  Abraham’s servant takes Rebekah home and Isaac marries her.  A generation later Jacob goes to a well and Rachel brings him water.  Jacob goes home with Rachel and marries her.  So, next to the Samaritan Woman at the Well (in Sychar) we have two foreign women at wells in foreign countries meeting Jewish men.  Hold that thought.

John tells us in chapter 3 that Nicodemus is one of the leading Jews of the day and comes to visit Jesus at night.  He is taught that what is born of the spirit is spirit.  I heard it said recently in defence of the Bible that scripture remains the key source of our knowledge about what Jesus is like.  I want to say that as much as I value the Bible I’m not sure that that is entirely true.  It is true to say that we begin with the Bible, but as we wish to learn more about Jesus and come to know him as a present reality and not an historical figure, albeit the greatest man of all time, the Spirit takes over and we are born anew of the spirit in our understanding of God.  Someone who follows the Spirit would always be living in accordance with the Jesus portrayed in the Bible.  But you can, in a sense, “obey the Bible” but not live like Jesus if you are legalistic and literalist about it.  The Pharisees were great Bible scholars and obeyers of the Law, arguably they were more obedient of the Law than was Jesus, but were they as obedient of God?  Were they born of the Spirit in the way that Jesus was?  Nicodemus certainly wasn’t.  He was a scholar and a leader, but he was blinded by the page to the glorious freedom of “Life in the Spirit” that was waiting to be drawn out.  Yet in John 3:2 Nicodemus recognises that the presence of God is upon Jesus, that Jesus is more than a teacher is obvious to the Pharisee.  Those who follow God closest follow God as wind and spirit, not (primarily) as scholarship and interpretation.  Go beyond the book says Jesus.

John tells us in chapter 4 that there’s a new Rebekah and Rachel story going on at Jacob’s well.  This woman is not necessarily the town slut; she may have been legitimately partnered in levirate marriages (to a dying line of brothers) like the woman in the story of the Sadducees in Matthew 22:23-28.  John is mucking around with the romance stories of his culture to make a point about the new way of Jesus: one part sociolinguistics, one part Mills and Boon. Jesus calls the woman “Woman”, a way he also addresses his mother in John 2:4 and Mary in the garden in John 20:15.  In John Jesus uses this form to address any female conversation partner when he is about to reveal something of importance her.   Like with foreign Rachel and Abraham’s grandson the conversation between the Samaritan Woman and the Judean messiah is loaded with meaning.

Now, I’m sure you’ve heard that the Samaritans were considered by the Judeans to be an unclean race living on an unclean land.  Alongside the regular division of adult male from adult female to whom the man is not related, Jesus in speaking with the Woman at Sychar must also overcome the barrier of Judean and Samaritan, and rabbi and outcast.  There is the tradition that she is an adulteress, which may not be true as I said before, but may be true too.  (The point is that they are talking at a well in the middle of the day, not the scandal of why she was at the well in the middle of the day.)   When the woman leaves the well she does not go home to her husband, which is what Jesus asked her to do, rather she goes into the town and rallies the men (invariably) in the town square to come and meet Jesus.

Much of this story hinges on the ideas of private (appropriate to female) and public (appropriate to male) spaces, and the introduction of the idea that the people of Jesus are like brothers and sisters, which allows for all social barriers to be crossed.  Everything that is wrong about Jesus drinking with this woman is made right if she is his sister.  Jesus meets the woman in what should be a private space (the well is secret women’s business) but which is made public space because of the time of day at which the meeting takes place (secret women’s business takes place at dawn).  But Jesus speaks to the Woman as if it is private space (between siblings) thereby drawing her into a form of relationship with him, and she responds.  The woman then leaves the now-private place to go to the most public space imaginable, the town square at midday, from where she brings others back to the place where Jesus is.  When they come, in broad daylight, in public, he invites them to hear the private wisdom he has already shared with her.   Pause and consider, take a Selah just for a moment: think how this picture contrasts with Nicodemus sneaking about after dark to meet with Jesus in secret.  A senior Jewish man meets with another respected Jewish man, Jesus, at night and inside, (so in secret), while the whole town of Samaritans comes to Jesus in broad daylight and outside. The result is that the men of Sychar invite Jesus (and presumably the Twelve) to stay on in their town, thereby including him in their private space, and Jesus is hailed as Saviour of the World (John 4:42), an ascription ordinarily reserved for the Caesars and never used by the Jews to refer to Jesus anywhere else in John.

So, in the long history of “boy-meets-girl”, where if he’s an Israelite then she’s a foreigner and they’re meeting at a well, this is an amazing story.  John’s story looks back at John 1 where Jesus is the living word of God, John 2 where in the wedding at Cana Jesus is the symbolic bridegroom, and John 3 where Pharisees visit alone and at night.  When in John 4 the entire village of Sychar flocks to see Jesus in daylight, in public, in Samaria, in the box of a traditional boy-meets-girl story, Jesus’ identity as saviour of the whole world is thrust down our throats even without the Samaritans saying anything.  But they do say it, for good measure.

So, there you go.  And yes, this story does of course fit with the whinging, thirty Hebrews and Paul’s argument that salvation comes by trust.  As a Samaritan, female, outcast, the woman of Sychar had no right to approach Jesus, so he went to her.  He didn’t owe her anything, she wasn’t relying on him like the Hebrews were relying upon the Pillar of Cloud, she wasn’t trying to prove her worth by her obedience, she was just there and Jesus spoke the grace-filled message of living water to her.  But I think that knowing what we do about Nicodemus, about Rachel and Rebecca, and about the way in which John wrote and organised the rest of his gospel, the whole story makes an even deeper point.

You are loved, you are included, you are wanted, you are provided for, and if you want it you are saved.

Amen.

An Adult Nativity (What happens when the Sunday School grow up.)

This is a script I wrote for a Christmas event at American River, Kangaroo Island, held on Sunday 13th December 2015.

One Sunday in Advent in the year twenty umpteen.

Joseph:

To be honest I don’t remember what year it was, or how old I was, but I do know that it happened only the once.  Yes there I stood, complete with dressing gown, socks with sandals, a tea-towel for a hat and a beard made from half a paper plate and a bit of brown scribble: Joseph in the school nativity tableau.  Or was it church?  It wasn’t Kinder, I know that much, I was a bloody ugly toddler: they made me a sheep that year, covered my face with cotton balls.

At least the beard’s real now even if this boof of a head now needs a beach towel.

But after decades in the church, and now probably around the age that he  actually was at the time, I wonder how Joseph experienced the real Christmas eve.

I wonder what Advent means for the father of the Son of God.  What would Christmas mean?  Would hearing Away in a Manger or O Holy Night bring back good memories for Joseph?  How would his Galilean brain cope with In The Bleak Midwinter?  And don’t get me started on The Little Drummer Boy.

What would he think of the fat bloke in the red hat?

When I was Joseph I was chilled out.  I gave a polite knock on the cardboard door and I received a polite refusal.   “Hey have you got a room, my wife is having a baby?”  “No sorry, we are all full up, but you can sleep in the stable.”  “Okay thanks.”

Hmm.  During my big moment the cattle weren’t lowing, but my baby sister was sooking on mum’s lap in the front row, I remember that much, I really had to speak up to be heard.

But how would I handle it now?  I mean if it was real.  My wife up the duff and ready to drop, the child not mine and yet in another way very much mine.  And remember that this is Bethlehem, Joseph’s ancestral town.  Even if the inns were full why wouldn’t he have stayed with a cousin or a sibling?  Where were Joseph’s parents, weren’t they rounded up by the same census?  Where were his brothers or his male cousins?  My mum was there at my nativity play, quietly cheering me on with her beaming grin and watery eyes, ready with a big hug when I was finished even as she juggled my wriggly sister during most of the show.  Did Joseph’s mum not think the same way?

How would I feel, my wife in labour in a motel carpark, my newborn son laid in a food trough, and all of my relatives across the road and tucked up tight at uncle Benjamin’s house?

I wonder whether Joseph went off alone and prayed, perhaps in the way that Jesus did later.  You know, capital-F Father to small-f father: Father to father,  Adonai to Abba.  “I did my best LORD, but all I could do was a stable.”

“If this child is ‘Emmanuel: God with us’, then why are Mary and I so alone right now?”

I wonder if Joseph tried to apologise like that.  I wonder if he expected God’s apology…

I wonder if even then Joseph had an inkling that, as wondrous a gift as Jesus was to the world, that it would not end well.

I wonder, do you also hear foreboding in The First Noel?  What is to become of the one born to be King of Israel..?

Remembrance Day 2015.

This is the text of my chaplain’s address to the Remembrance Day service in Kingscote at 11:00 am on 11th November 2015.

On this day of remembrance for all who served on behalf of Australia and the forces of its allied nations we must continue to remember those who returned alongside those who did not.

The value of the man or woman who serves is the highest priority of our armed services, and that must always be remembered. On Anzac Day at Penneshaw this year I spoke of my paternal grandfather, one of the Rats of Tobruk, and of how he served with the 2/5 Field Ambulance in North Africa and South East Asia. When other men carried guns my grandfather carried a stretcher. When other men served Australia by taking the lives of our enemies and attackers my grandfather served Australia by preserving the lives of our soldiers and allies. On several occasions, as I reported on Anzac Day, my grandfather also preserved the lives of our enemies because his job was to care for the man in the bed regardless of who that man was.

Today I want to tell you briefly about my maternal grandfather, another World War Two veteran and a man who served his native United Kingdom as an aircraft fitter with the RAF as a base mechanic with bomber command. Early in the war, so my mum tells me, one of the returned bombers was parked on the airfield waiting to be unloaded. A fire broke out on the aircraft and my grandfather, who was standing by, rushed aboard the aircraft and proceeded to tackle the fire with a handy fire extinguisher. I’m not sure whether he put the fire out himself or whether a fire crew arrived and finished the job, regardless of how the story ends the story begins with my grandfather being first man aboard with that fire extinguisher. News of what had happened was reported to base command and my grandfather was summoned to appear in the CO’s office. My grandfather was sure he was to receive a medal or a commendation for his act of bravery in averting what could have been the destruction of a valuable bomber and additional damage had there been an explosion. Instead what he got was sixteen shades of air-force blue screamed out of him. “You could have been killed,” roared the CO, “we can always replace a burned out aircraft but we can never replace a dead man.” Perhaps tragedy was averted that day on that base in south eastern England by the quick thinking of my grandfather in extinguishing that blaze, the swift work of a simple mechanic who saw a problem and brought a solution by instinct, but in the mind of the CO the value of that man far outweighed the value of the aircraft he had tried to save.

As an Australian Christian I want to believe that that idea still pervades our armed services, indeed all of our disciplined services. Not just in defence but also in policing and corrections, a field in which I have past experience, in fire and in ambulance services, indeed in society at large. Whilst today is a day to remember the fallen, and especially those Australian men and women who never returned or who returned only in a flag-draped casket, let us also remember the returned. Remember the broken, remember the fragile, and remember the traumatised and stressed. Remember the battles our returned heroes continue to fight alone and at home. Remember, always remember the value of the man or woman above all else.

ANZAC

This is the message I spoke at the Anzac Day service at Penneshaw on Anzac Day (25th April) 2015.  This was the first time I spoke at an Anzac Day service.

One of the best known verses of the Bible to be associated with Anzac Day and the remembrance of the fallen comes from John 15:13 where less than an hour before he is arrested and taken off to be executed Jesus himself says greater love has no man than this, that he should lay down his life for his friends. The central story of Christianity is that the purest form of love was personified in Jesus Christ who, in turn, represents God whose fullest nature is to give love. Above claims made by us religious types about God’s saving grace, forgiveness, strength and power, the Bible says that love is the most central meaning of the Christian story.

I have heard it said that “forced love is rape, no matter who is doing the loving” and I think that that is a key message for Anzac Day, and for Christianity. For love to be love it has to be voluntary, you can never be forced to love someone. Forced love is not love; it might be toleration, it might even be accompaniment, but it is not love.

Our Anzacs are typified by many aspects which make them different to the soldiers, sailors, airmen and medical corps of other nations, but I want to highlight one unique aspect. In the First World War they were all volunteers. Britain conscripted soldiers to the front, so did New Zealand, but each and every Aussie digger and nurse was a volunteer. He or she chose to go: that is love. Perhaps very few of them actually chose to die, although some doubtless did sacrifice their life in the heat of the moment, but we know that every Australian went willingly, knowingly risking his or her life on behalf of the values held close by God and by Australia. God’s opinion is less valued by our nation a century later, and far fewer of our servicemen and women are practicing Christians now than were a century ago, but the same selflessness on behalf of the nation, in the name of sacrificial love, typifies all who serve Australia today.

I have four grandfathers who served their nations in the world wars; two Australian and two British, two in WWI and two in WWII. My great-grandfathers were both in France, and the Australian one was present at Beersheba as an engineer with the Australian Lighthorse. Both made it home alive; the Aussie to become a shopkeeper and the Englishman to become an Ambulance driver. My English grandfather was an aircraft fitter with the RAF and served with Bomber Command in England during the Battle of Britain and later in South Africa. My Australian grandfather was a Rat of Tobruk and he was also in New Guinea and Borneo.   Again both made it home, the Englishman to emigrate to Australia in 1965 to work for GMH at Fisherman’s Bend, the Aussie to company clerk work in Melbourne. But it is my Rat grandfather, in whose honour I wear my Junior Rat badge today, who I wish to highlight. He was in the 2/5 Field Ambulance. When everyone else was carrying a gun my grandpa carried a stretcher. When a Stuka from the Luftwaffe strafed and bombed the Red Cross huts at Tobruk a falling bomb landed behind my grandpa as he sprinted for cover. The bomb did not explode, but it showered my grandpa with gravel as it buried itself in the courtyard. When the same aircraft was shot down by Australian artillery and its pilot captured by the gun-crew, it was my grandpa who nursed the arrogant German prisoner in the very hut he had tried to destroy. Greater love has no man; and greater patience too.

So today when the slouch hat is still to be found in foreign lands, and when people here in Australia want to shoot and stab our police just for being police, we remember that the message of Anzac Day is the message of Easter Day. It’s not death, it’s not glory, it’s not victory, and it’s not even patriotism. The message of Anzac is love and the remembrance of sacrificial love, a love so strong that it would lead a man give his life in the supreme act of love rather than see his mates live to be enslaved by injustice, oppression, and fear.

Amen.

Glass Box Man.

Glass-box Man lives inside a big glass box.  No-one can see it, and no-one can touch it, but everyone knows it is there.

Inside his glass box, Glass-box Man is terribly lonely.  Wherever he goes people can see Glass-box Man inside his glass box, and they can hear him when he speaks, (which isn’t very often because he is also shy and embarrassed about living inside his glass box), but they cannot touch him – and he cannot touch them.

When Glass-box Man is at the shops and is walking up and down the aisles pushing his trolley, people can pick up the packets of food in his trolley, but they can’t reach Glass-box Man because of the box.

When Glass-box Man walks home past the school, or the park, he can see the children laughing and playing but he knows he cannot go and join in, because of his glass box.

Even at the doctor, no-one can touch Glass-box Man, although they can see that he is sick and they can hear him cough and sneeze, and sometimes sob, because of his glass box.

That was until last Tuesday.

Last Tuesday Glass-box Man was walking home from the shops, carrying his groceries, when something strange happened.  Just as Glass-box Man was nearing the school a cricket ball came flying out between the trees and hit Glass-box Man in the forehead.

“Ouch!” he yelled, and dropped his groceries.  The people in the street helped him pick up the groceries and put them back into the bags, and a small boy took Glass-box Man’s hand and helped him to his feet.

“Ooh, that must hurt,” said the boy, gently touching the red lump on Glass-box Man’s head where the ball had struck him, “you should get home fast and put some frozen peas on that.”  The boy gave Glass-box Man his groceries, and a big smile, and ran off towards the park carrying the cricket ball.

“Wait!” yelled Glass-box Man, but the boy had disappeared into the trees and was gone.

Now everyone can touch No-box Man, and he can touch them.  No-one can explain how the cricket ball broke No-box Man’s glass box, (since no-one had ever seen or touched the box in the first place, not even Glass-box Man), and stranger still no-one knows who the mysterious boy was.  But since No-box Man can now enjoy being with other people, no-one really cares how it happened, they are just thankful that it did.  Most of all No-box Man, whose name is actually Malcolm.