The Advent of Loss: 2 (Blue Christmas)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the community Blue Christmas service in Kaniva for 2019.  The service was hosted by the Uniting Church on behalf of all of the town churches.

John 1:1-14

Imagine a Christmas without all the pageantry. In a field of loss that might be nice, and December 25th itself might pass in quietness, another Wednesday in the world, with nothing to set it apart. Imagine if Christmas Day was just another birthday, someone else’s birthday, and joy to them and all of that, but good that I wasn’t invited, or even aware, because I’m not in the mood for celebration. In fact, even if it was my birthday, and it isn’t, but even if it was I’m just not into it.

Do any of you know what date of the year my birthday is? It’s okay, I don’t know when yours are either. It’s probably no surprise to you that your birthday this year was just another day for me, unremarkable, I don’t even remember what I was doing: unless it was a Sunday of course, in which case I was probably preaching, but then I preach most Sundays anyway so I’m sorry if I didn’t notice your special day. Or was it a Saturday in winter and I was at the footy, same answer, sorry I didn’t notice.

There are days like that for all of us. Not just birthdays, but other significant days and the anniversaries of significant days. There are people in this room, at the very least in this town, who lost friends and family to death this year: but what was I doing on the day that that happened? Can’t say. Others observed days of anniversary: a year, two, ten, perhaps fifty since a loved one died, again days unremarked by me or the rest of you, for the most part. And generally that’s okay, we often don’t need the whole world party to our personal grief, especially when healing has begun and the years have made the memories more fond for what was had and less sharp for what was lost.

But then, then there’s Christmas. I know two people for whom Christmas Day is the anniversary of a father’s passing. But even without that, Christmas Day is a loud and bright day, especially in Australia where it’s all-but midsummer, so the parties are outside with cricket in the street and barbeques in the back yard and it’s hard to hide from celebration even if you want to. That’s not to say that there aren’t lonely people, grieving people, distressed people even on the Day when we celebrate Santa’s coming to earth in human form, it’s just that those sad-sacks get their noses rubbed in by their boisterous neighbours and their cordial-powered, remote-control wielding children.

In John’s gospel and the opening chapter, which is really a prologue to the story than the opening of the story itself, we have Christmas without the paraphernalia. No wise men, no shepherds, no angels; no star, no animals, no manger; no baby. What we have is light and a word; a word which is a who (and not a what), a word who is glorious and alive, a word who is light whom banishes the darkness. I wonder what a Christmas pageant would look like if we based it on John’s account rather than Matthew’s or Luke’s. Would it actually be less boisterous if there was no bunch of kids dressed as a flock of lambs, and one solitary boy was dressed as everlasting light instead? I never got to be Joseph when I was a child, although I did play him in a monologue when I was about 42. I wonder how I would have felt had I been chosen to play the real light – the light that comes into the world and shines on all mankind as John 1:9 puts it.

The Good News Translation overlooks the phrase, but in the New American Bible (amongst others) we read in John 1:12 that to those who did accept him he gave the power to become children of God, to those who believe in his name. Now is not the time for a full theology of the Name of Jesus, but briefly, at Blue Christmas, let me say this. The name of the Word who came as light, is Jesus, and that name means “God Saves”. It’s the same Hebrew name as Joshua (Yehu’shua), the one who fit de battle of Jericho and the walls come a tumblin’ down. The phrase “in his name” also means to accept Jesus for all he is and all he stands for: the whole being of Jesus and his story. If you acknowledge and receive Jesus, the one who exists and proclaims the salvation of God, then you will become a son or daughter of God. Many did not accept Jesus when he came, during his life between 4BC and 30AD or whenever exactly it was, John 1:11 tells us that and we know it from other parts of the New Testament too. Many since then and right up to today have also not accepted him, either they have heard the story and rejected it for whatever reason, or they haven’t heard the story properly told at all for whatever reason. That’s why John 1:12 specifically says to those who did accept him, because in John 1:11 we’ve just been told that many didn’t.

And that’s where we find ourselves on Blue Christmas, and others find themselves blue at Christmas, because the story is unacceptable. Here’s a story about eternal light entering the world. Here’s a story about the Word of God, so God’s creative power (remember God created by “saying”) and God’s authority, entering the world. Here’s a story about a man who embodies all of the above and his name is literally “God Saves”, if not “God’s Salvation” as if the man is himself the saviour, and not just a living prophecy whose name is a message, he himself with the name is also the means of salvation. And yet here I am, on Thursday night 19th December 2019 (or Wednesday morning 25th December), and here I am mourning because God did very much NOT save. If God saves then why am I a widow, or an orphan, or a divorcee, or a bankrupt, or a quadriplegic, or a neurotic? Why? All this light you’re speaking about just makes my darkness even more obvious, and it’s just as painful as the noise of children on their new bikes and the sound of their dads on their fourth beer.

You say “God saves”, but I say that’s very hard to accept, let alone believe.

As a pastor I hear that, and I will not trample it. Yes I am a pastor, but only because I am a survivor in life,; and I’m a survivor in life only because I am a Christian. I’m not saying that you cannot survive life without Christianity, but I am saying that I would not have made it this far without Jesus. My story is that I have lost a lot. My grandparents have all died, so my parents (whom I dearly love) have lost their parents (whom they dearly loved). I have lost friends to death, and friends to distance. I have also lost friends to hatred, people who once were close who have turned against me and my family. I have lost health, and poor health has stolen decades of my life; in fact I’m going to say that much of my adulthood has been lost to sickness and disability. I was sexually molested as a child and I have lost most, if not all, of what it means to be in a romantic relationship. So, when you say that God’s salvation is very hard to accept, let alone believe, I believe you, and I accept your story as accurate and true.

But so is John’s story, accurate and true, and I know this because it is also my story. That I am here, after all of that, to tell my story and even more to tell John’s story from the Christian Bible, is all down to the fact that God does save, did save, will save, and that Jesus is the means by which that is accomplished. I am a Christian, a recipient of salvation, because God saved me and not because I saved myself. When I stopped trying to save myself and faced the overwhelming tide of death, because I was out of energy and motivation, that is when God has lifted me out and up and away. If you aren’t there yet well I’m not going to gloat, or accuse, or deny your pain. I will be respectful this Christmas of you in the way that I missed in Christmases past when others denied, excluded, and accused me.

Imagine a Christmas without all the pageantry: in a field of loss that might be nice, and December 25th itself might pass in quietness, another Wednesday in the world, with nothing to set it apart. You know, you are allowed to have it that way, you really are. But if you don’t want to, we’ll be here at 9:00am next Wednesday, and we’ll be telling the stories of how Jesus is God’s Salvation. And we’ll be nice about it too.

Amen.

Seek (WWHS)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the Day Centre chapel service at Kaniva Hospital (West Wimmera Health Service) for Tuesday 22nd October 2019.

Psalm 119:97-104; Luke 18:1-8

When we look into scripture we find a God who is just.

Love for scripture is one of the key identifying marks of the people who call themselves Evangelicals. Even people who don’t identify with that label, or indeed don’t identify with any form of Christianity, recognise that some level of dedication to the Bible and what it says is included within the Christian package. If you’re a Christian then the Bible is important to you; everyone knows that, even Atheists. And that is true of every religion which has a book, every religion has its Fundamentalists, (which can be a good thing where such people are attuned to the fundamental and foundational precepts), and generally fundamentalists love scripture and a focused way of interpreting it.

In Psalm 119:97 we meet a person committed to God’s law, and most commentators understand this man (probably) is speaking specifically about Torah, the Hebrew scriptures at the time when the Psalms were written. “I love the Bible” he says, and in Psalm 119:97b he says that not only does he love the Bible but that he chews it over all day long in his thinking. He wants to know what it means, what it defines, what it allows, what it promotes, what it forbids, and how its teaching should be put into practice; in Psalm 119:98-102 he says as much, and in Psalm 119:103 he says that this is all pleasurable for him. Reading and knowing the Bible promotes growth in this man’s spirit, you might expect that because the Bible is about religion; but he also speaks of growing in social relationships, in learning and applying truth and understanding, and in his emotional maturity. Pretty much everything is better and bigger for this man because of his dedicated reading of the Bible, with the possible exception of his biceps and glutes, but who knows. If this man is to be believed then knowing the Bible, and how to use its wisdom, is the best thing ever.

In our gospel reading today we heard Jesus telling a parable about perseverance. I’d have said nagging and bullying, but Jesus takes the higher road here. The point we are supposed to get is in Luke 18:7 where Jesus says that God honours those who are tenacious in their prayers, especially in their prayers of supplication or the ones where we ask for stuff. The psalmist is tenacious in his study, and I’m going to suggest tenacious in his worship and his prayers of adoration, which also seems to be going well for him in receiving God’s honour, and this is where I think today’s passages intersect. If you persevere in your relationship with God, especially in the conversational parts, God will make you into a bigger person. I’m not saying that growth is a reward, as if God gifts you with bigness just because you say nice to Jesus in your prayers, but that growth is a consequence of your relationship. Just like the consequence of exercise is bigger muscles, and the consequence of reading is a bigger vocabulary and a deeper understanding. God has a role in growing you up in the processes of your prayers and readings, God is not the passive resistance of a piece of gym equipment. Growth through spiritual practices is about engaging with God, not simply about receiving presents or having an inanimate object against which to do your press-ups.

And there is one more thing: which for me is the clincher in this whole scenario. When you persevere in prayer, and when you persevere in scripture and meditation upon it, you discover things about God. God’s character is revealed in conversation just as people discover new and extraordinary things about each other in conversation. What the psalmist and the widow each come to understand about God in these stories is that God is just. God pays close attention to the way the world operates, and God ensures that justice prevails. Even an ambivalent magistrate is no match for the persistence of a wronged woman, and even the enemies of God are no match for the confidence and wisdom of one of God’s beloved.

So, what do you need to know about God? Do you know what God is like? Do you know what God likes? The best way to find answers to all of our God-questions is to ask God those questions. However, you can’t ask God if you don’t know God, and you can’t know God if you haven’t engaged God in conversation. So I encourage you this morning to go, read, pray, sing, adore, ask. Seek, knock, and then you will find. Amen.

Wail

Lamentations 1:1-6; Lamentations 3:19-26; Psalm 137

Well! In all of my years as a Christian in church I don’t remember ever hearing a sermon on Lamentations. That’s not to say it’s never happened; more likely the message as it was didn’t connect with me or appeal to me, so I didn’t take much notice. I hope that today is not like that for you. On the other hand I have heard sermons on Psalm 137:1 with its famous disco riff By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and we wept when we remembered Zion, popularised by Boney-M; less so on the notoriously misquoted Psalm 137:9 where God commands all Christians to bash out the brains of infants and rip the wings off newborn puppies. Yeah, that got your attention didn’t it!

And, like I did with Philemon last month, when I began my reading for this sermon I wondered why we need Lamentations in the Bible at all. I mean, isn’t there enough moaning and sighing going on in Psalms and all of the prophets, why Israel needs a specific book just to lament I don’t know. Well, I do know now, but I was wondering then. Like Philemon which in one way is about the specific message of reconciliation wherein it would be safe for Onesimus to return home, the big theme of the Jewish Bible is homecoming. You have messed up and you have been kicked out, but God is ready to welcome you home: be you Adam and Eve kicked out from Eden, or Saul kicked out from the kingship, or the entire nation of Judah kicked out from their land and into exile in Babylon. Exodus is about the journey home and Joshua and Judges is about how home is then made homely. Ezra-Nehemiah is a similar story. The stories of Kings explain why the exile happened, the messing up leading to the kicking out, and many prophets take up that story with the words of warning included. This is where Lamentations comes in, it is the sorrowful tale of the sorrowful people sorrowing: it is the explanation of why the people of Psalm 137 wept, and why God’s chosen nation had to remember Zion as a decimated past home rather than living in its glorious present. Sometimes it’s good to remember what was lost so that we appreciate it if we get it back: and even if we don’t get it back we are able to see with hindsight how faithful God has been to us, and we are prompted to worship.

In Lamentations 1:1 we read how the daughter of Zion mourns like a widow, how the much cherished princess is now a servant-girl. Her husband is not dead, rather he has left her and now he is threatening her with divorce, that’s why she’s a widow. All comfort is gone, everyone has betrayed her and abandoned her; the daughter of Zion is alone in her grief, except for her enemies who are abusing her we read in Lamentations 1:3. What a tale of woe for the one whom God has caused to suffer: by taking away all her strength and every means of rebuilding that strength the daughter of Zion has been utterly destroyed by God. The sobbing goes on for a bit, and we take it up again in Lamentations 3:19 where Zion is now characterised as a man, and he is speaking for himself rather than being described by a narrator as the daughter of Zion was. Zion speaks like Job here, bitterness is in his mouth and he is utterly desolate, but even in that there comes a spark of joy. Here, again, is the thought that even if God will not restore what we have lost that it was God who gave all the good things first, and God is faithful to God’s own character. God is worthy of worship, and beginning at Lamentations 3:22 that is what we hear and see. The song of Zion is returning to the mournfully abandoned man and he no longer feels betrayed.

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases sings the son of Zion, perhaps with clenched fists and gritted teeth. “I will hope, I will hope,” he says, grasping at that small flicker of light, blowing on that one last bit of red in the coals and ashes of his incinerated life. Like Job he says “I am not cut off”: everyone and everything may be gone, every “thing” and every “one”, but not God. God is here because God is faithful, and not only faithful but steadfast, and not only steadfast but steadfast in love. I have hope, says the son of Zion, I have hope because God always brings the dawn and with the dawn God always brings my portion. Maybe the point has come in time where the son of Zion has confronted his exile, he’s taking account of his sins and recognises why he is in Babylon now and not in Zion. Not every disaster that befalls a believer in God is divine punishment, neither is distress always the plain consequences of sinful behaviour; however in this case it is the truth. God is faithful, and I am faithless: and because I am faithless I am here, in exile, and not in Jerusalem; and because God is faithful I am here, in exile, and not in Hell or otherwise dead. Where there is life there is hope; and even here, by the rivers of Babylon, I am living and I am alive, and God is present. Thanks be to God.

As someone who loves God fiercely, and who knows that he is loved by God with even greater ferocity, I like that the language of the Bible is bold. And as a man who has lived with illness and disability for all of his adult life, and much of that psychological and emotional, I like that the language is not only bold but dead-set blunt. Lamentations is honest in its grief, as is much of Job, and many of the psalms including Psalm 137.

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and we wept when we remembered Zion; and it’s no wonder when you consider what we have just heard. They didn’t just weep, they lamented like the darling daughter who is shut out in the cold not only by daddy but by her fiance. They grieved like the king who has lost everything and everyone, and all he has is cold ashes and boiling memories. That’s what’s going on for them, so when the Babylonians say “hey, gissa song then, how about one of those songs where you boast about how awesome your God is and how Zion is impregnable, bahahaha”, they are not laughing. No, they are seething. First they whinge, and rightly so, about how it’s all a taunt and that even if it wasn’t there is no mood for joy and celebration when you’re living in exile. Then they grieve when they think of the songs themselves, songs about the land God gave them and the land they filled with crops and children, a land that is now desolate and abandoned. No-one wants to be reminded of what was once glorious but is now a ruin, yet these are hymns of praise to God and isn’t God worthy of praise even if the people have sinned and the land has been wrecked? Yes, God is worthy, and in signing God’s praises the memory of what has been lost comes to the forefront. Look at Psalm 137:4 and Psalm 137:7 where the poet refuses to forget God but the memory of God is also the memory of defeat. God’s beautiful city was destroyed by bogan pagans, and as a royal priest and a holy citizen that triggers rage in the poet, which is why he wants everyone and everything associated with the Babylonians dead. Again this is raw, honest, blunt language: but because it is these things it is also worship. To pray like this is to trust God completely, to trust God with your emotions and your vulnerability, to have the greatest respect for God, the God who laid you low in Exile but who hears your righteous rage at what has become of Israel.

The commentaries that I read all said about Psalm 137:9 that it’s good to vent. God doesn’t really want you caving in the skulls of toddlers and God is not going to be doing that sort of thing on your behalf: no children were harmed in the making of this story. If you’re that upset then have a good yell and a good spit and get it out there; however there’s more to it than that, and the commentators say more. The point is not only that it’s good to be raw and honest with God, although it is, but that God is not violent like that. Remember that God is steadfast in love; love doesn’t kill children, even the children of enemies, even the children of the Babylonians who had killed Judahite children. Even exile and slavery are not good reasons to kill people, says God.

To kill children is to kill hope. We see this in the church today where we wonder about the next generation; we wonder whether there will even be a next generation. God who is steadfast in love and alongside us in presence is the source of hope, and the promise to Abram back in the day was not only the land of Canaan but also the millions of descendants who would occupy it. What if God engineered the return of Israel and Judah from exile, just as God had caused the exodus from Egypt in the first place, but the nations had no children and so the nations died out in the land. “That’s not who I am,” says God, God is not the sort of personality to cut off hope from anyone, even from Babylon: neither is God the sort who repays an eye for an eye. As Christians we know that God is faithful to all who place their hope and trust in God, you don’t have to have had a Jewish mother for God to love you as one of the chosen: it seems this love and invitation extends even to the Babylonians. Hope must not be killed, babies must be allowed to live, God is to be glorified even in the depressing place of mockery and isolation.

Our hope lives because our God lives: this is the message of Lamentations and of Psalm 137. That we live in a hole of human construction is not God’s fault, but it is God’s concern. God is concerned because God’s people are suffering, and God’s remedy is coming just as sure as it did last time, in Egypt.

Even in a time of lamentation, of anger and bitterness and shame, we can rejoice in the steadfast love of God.

Amen.

Sunday 6th October 2019

Serviceton Church of Christ

A Rite of Welcome

Good morning Church: know that you are welcome.
 
Know that you are welcome if this is your first time among us,
or your first time in a long time
or your first time since last week.
Know that you are welcome if you have been here since 8:59
or 9:29
or you’re not here yet but are on your way.
Know that you are welcome if you have arrived with peace,
or you have arrived with rush,
or you have not arrived at all.
Know that you are welcome if you have come alone,
or with friends,
or with family, including an untidy child.
Good morning Church: know that you are welcome.

Useful

This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM for Sunday 8th September 2019, the thirteenth Sunday in Pentecost.  I used only one of the four lectionary readings, so this is a sermon on the entire letter to Philemon.

Philemon 1-21

Paul’s letter to Philemon may seem like an odd text upon which to preach, I mean, what does it actually say about anything? It’s more like the sort of message you’d leave on voicemail than an epistle of scripture, don’t you think? “Yeah hi Phil, it’s me, Paul here. Yeah mate your brother’s actually here and says he’s been a bit of a ratbag. Has he? Yeah, well anyway he’s on his way back to P-town now so if you could just be kind to him that’d be great, ‘cos it sounds like he’s had a bit of a rough trot. And look, if he has caused some actual damage then, yeah, just fix it up and send us the bill. Or you could just knock it off the tab you owe me, yeah, ha. Anyway, cheers mate. Oh, and Ephaphras and the mob they say g’day too, yeah. Uhm, yeah, so righto, seeya-mate-bye.” Hmm, hardly words to build you life on are they? I mean, you won’t find anything from Philemon on a coffee mug at Koorong.

So why do we have it? Why’s it in the Lectionary for today, and why’s it even in the Bible? If you’ve done any sort of study in New Testament at a Bible College you will know that there are other letters and gospels that didn’t make it into the New Testament. Things like Didache which means “The Teaching” and is a basic summary of Christian doctrine of salvation against the life of sin, like a two column breakdown, followed by instructions around how to run a worship service, I mean, that’d be helpful. Or The Acts of Peter since what we actually have as The Acts of The Apostles is really just the activities of Paul after Acts 9; again you’d think that’d be a useful read. So, how come something like The Letter of Polycarp to the Philippians didn’t make it in, but this letter to Philemon of Colossae did? The reasons why Philemon is in the Bible and Polycarp isn’t might become clear, but really it’s the reasons why Philemon is in church today rather than more from Hebrews is what I want to talk about.

One of the key things we know about Philemon as a letter is that Paul wrote it. Unlike many of the letters with Paul’s name attached to them, some which are probably not his actual work and three which are definitely not his at all, Philemon is agreed to be genuinely from Paul’s own hand, or at least his dictation to a scribe. So that counts for something, indeed that’s the key reason why Philemon is in the Bible, because Paul actually did write it. (We don’t know who wrote Didache, but we know it wasn’t an apostle. Actually we don’t know who wrote Hebrews either, but it probably was an apostle.)

Paul very likely wrote this letter from gaol in Ephesus, so that puts it around 56 AD and it puts Paul in his mid forties, so around my age. This is very early in the history of Christianity, it’s foundational stuff in that it is some of the first stuff written down and it is being written down personally by the actual founders of Christianity. (I say “founders” plural because Timothy has a hand in this, see it in Philemon 1a.) It’s also personal correspondence, we get the idea that Paul and Philemon are friends if not colleagues, and Apphia and Archippus are Philemon’s wife and adult son. The letter is actually addressed to a house church of which Philemon is the leader and the host; so even though it’s personal correspondence it’s not actually private. Paul writes to the group, via the dad, to teach them all something about Christian fellowship and the central place of reconciliation in the gospel story.

There are varying opinions about who Onesimus was with regard to Philemon. Most scholarship suggests that Onesimus was a slave of Philemon, but not all scholars agree. One key set of scholars present that Onesimus is actually Philemon’s younger brother, maybe like the prodigal from the gospels. Regardless of the foundation of the relationship the facts are that the relationship has been strained or even broken: when Paul sends Onesimus back he does so with the hope that he and Philemon will be reconciled. Maybe they were brothers, but even if they were not they are now Brothers-in-Christ, and that is what Paul wants to say to that little fellowship in Colossae.

So what is Paul saying? Well, we can start by saying that whatever Paul is saying he is not saying it with arrogance. “I could demand this of you as an apostle and a prophet, Philemon”, says Paul in Philemon 8, “but I’d rather appeal to your good conscience and the outworking of your discipleship as my Brother-in-Christ”. Remember that this is way way early in Christianity and Paul has never been to Colossae; he seems to know Philemon, so maybe they met elsewhere, maybe even in Ephesus before Paul was gaoled. So this is making-it-up-as-we-go-along stuff, where the theory of brothers- and sisters-in-Christ and the story of Jesus in Luke 8:21 where him saying these are my brothers and sisters, the ones who do my Father’s will, and even the prodigal’s parable of Luke 15:11-32, have been told around the fellowship but not yet written down. This might be the first time any of them has actually had to do the hard work of reconciling a broken human relationship, in the name of a new kind of Christian relationship, where everyone is family. What does it mean, how does it actually work when all men are brothers even (and not sixth cousins), and returned slaves and prodigals are to be welcomed. What, exactly, is Philemon supposed to do when Onesimus arrives, and stays, and participates in fellowship around the table? Well, here’s some tips from Paul, glory be to God.

So, again, (get to the point Damien), what is Paul saying? Well here’s a list, to stop me getting side-tracked.

1. According to Philemon 6-7 Paul is saying that Christian life is fundamentally and foundationally a life lived together: Christian fellowship is partnership. As local Christians we are to do more than associate together, we are to move beyond casual (and even regular) socialising and into businesslike association for the Gospel but also for our strength. Unity is not optional, we are to do it in groups, and we are to hold each other up. This is love from the guts stuff, which is why it hurts so much when we are betrayed by another Christian. But it’s supposed to hurt, (so don’t betray, stay.)

2. According to Philemon 10-16 Paul is saying that Christian life is fundamentally and foundationally set upon the bedrock of reconciliation. The work of the Church very much includes mediation within itself, the unity of believers is not just about everyone sucking-it-up and walking around on broken toes. We live together as siblings, and our close quarters often means that others will be hurt. When hurt occurs don’t ignore it and don’t shake it off, don’t hand around teaspoons full of cement and tell each princess to harden herself up; actively seek restoration and healing, including (but not limited to) forgiveness.

3. According to Philemon 12-22 Paul is saying that Christian life is fundamentally and foundationally about mutual obligation. Living in unity, actively welcoming and rehabilitating trespassers and those who have been trespassed upon, requires everyone working and them working together. It is within the rights and responsibilities of leaders to tell followers what to do, we have leaders so that the work is co-ordinated according to the shared goal and the talents and input of each person: but it’s so much better if everyone just gets on with his or her work for Christ out of love and obedience to him. Again, get your guts in the game and give God your best; don’t wait to be told what to do when you already know what to do, and you’re confident enough to go with God in trust and faith. I believe my job as a leader here is to help you when you get stuck, and to train you for what comes next: I’m not here to micro-manage what God has given you to do because of God’s trust in you. Don’t wait for me to tell you, just go for it!

You are now Christians, says Paul, and Onesimus has joined us as a brother-in-Christ. As Christians please do the hard work of welcoming the young man home with a prodigious welcome: and live together, heal together, and pull together. That’s how churches work, and how churches grow. I reckon that’s a pretty good message and I’m stoked that Philemon is in the Bible. I’d have liked Didache in there too, and to be honest some of Clement’s stuff (Clement was the fourth pope), and Polycarp’s story (he was bishop in Smyrna, the same Smyrna we read about in Revelation 2, and he was possibly appointed bishop by John himself), are excellent reading too, but then you can buy those in Penguin Classics if you’re really interested.

So, the message is the same for us as local Christians. As two parts of the six-part Church in Kaniva and Serviceton, and the local branches/franchises of the Uniting Church in Australia and the Churches of Christ in Victoria and Tasmania, we have committed ourselves to building the Church in our towns. We’re not here solely for friendship or to be seen with the in-crowd, the days of people attending church for just that are long gone. No, we’re here to work, and if we are serious as I believe we are then the message is clear: do the hard work of welcoming the lost and wayward, welcome them each home with abundant welcome. For those who come in and for those who are here now, the message of God through Paul is that we live together, heal together, and pull together in unity. That’s how our churches will grow.

And with God’s help, we will.

Amen.

Mutual Love (WWHS)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the Kaniva Day Centre (West Wimmera Health Service) for Tuesday 3rd September 2019.

Hebrews 13:1-8

Let mutual love continue says the writer in Hebrews 13:1. We don’t know for certain who the writer of this sermon was, although we can be pretty certain who it wasn’t: it wasn’t Jesus, or any of the apostles, and it wasn’t Paul. With that in mind I wonder whether we should care who it was, and what he or she said. “Who are you to tell us what to do, who are you to tell us how to live a Christian life?” we might ask. Christianity, indeed all life, is very different in 2019 to how it was in 65 AD; and in Australia to how it was in the Roman Empire; and for people born Christian than people born Hebrew. But I’d advise against getting too upset because if we do we might miss the point. The point is that this is good advice; “let mutual love continue” is a good thing to keep in mind.

The thing about mutual love, and this is especially so in how it related to Christians of Hebrew background, is that we are all in this together. At this point in church history much of the terror to come had not yet come. It’s been about thirty years since Stephen had been martyred and Saul of Tarsus had been locking people up; but then Paul had been converted and life had gone on without much backlash, save the occasional bullying episode. Nero hadn’t arrived on the Roman scene yet, and the Temple in Jerusalem was still standing when Hebrews was written: still, that bullying was going on, and especially so at the local level toward Jewish converts to Christianity. You can read about of that in the stories of Paul’s travels in Acts and his letters. And this is interesting, well, I think it is, because I think this is one of the reasons why Hebrews is relevant to Christians in Australia in 2019. We are not being persecuted like the Christians of later decades, look at what was happening ten years later across the empire and the condition that the Romans left Jerusalem in and you’ll know real pain. But no, for the original hearers of Hebrews the message is not about the struggle against flesh and blood and spiritual authorities, but about being kind to itinerant strangers at the door, and about staying in fellowship and encouraging one another for mutual support when the neighbours start throwing sideways glances and well-aimed fruit as you pass by.

This sermon also addresses the hardships of life away from bullying, specifically the things that all people find hard at times. Again this is as true for Christians today and here as if was for Christians then and there, and for people of all times and places who aren’t Christian for that matter. How do we help our friends who are in gaol, or who need advice from a trusted friend because they struggle in their relationships or with self-confidence, or they are becoming distracted by money and possessions, or with fear and overwhelming concerns? The same message applies, let mutual love continue: consider the suffering of others as if it were your own and offer the help you would desire in that person’s place.

The help that the writer of Hebrews wants us to offer to our troubled friends is twofold:

1. Compassionate inclusion. Show care in whatever way care is required – be that practical hospitality to the stranger or practical wisdom clothed in comfort to the friend, do something and do what needs to be done.

2. Share Christ. Encourage others with the promise that God is faithful and consistent, Jesus Christ s the same yesterday, today and forever, which we read in Hebrews 13:8 is a reminder not that the church needs to be sterile but that God can be utterly relied upon. That’s why we read in Hebrews 13:7 to remember your leaders…and imitate their faith. This is not because the Church demands honour for its clergy,  but because leaders as those who have gone before us in the faith, and who spoke the word of God to you know the story of God. When someone is doubting God, assure him or her that God is faithful and make that assurance by your own story. Say something like “I know this looks hard now, but when I was in a similar situation God pulled me though, and because Jesus is the same today as he was back then then I am sure that God will pull you through too.” The leader speaks encouragement drawn from experience, the wise person heeds that voice.

The book we call Hebrews is really a sermon. It’s not even a letter, it’s a sermon and as a sermon it is directed entirely at Christians. So let’s pay attention to this ancient sermon; let those of us who know Christ as Lord, God as Father, and each other as sister or brother look after each other as family. Let mutual love, love for one another, continue.

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.