It’s All About The Good (Pentecost 6C)

This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM for Sunday 21st July 2019.

In our story from the Hebrew Traditions today we come across a people bored with religion. This could be Australia in 2019 where much of the population just wants to set it aside all of those obligations of ritual to live the lives they want. “When will it be Monday,” they cry “when can we stop having to sit around (boring!) in our Sunday best and we can do what we want and play outside again?” Well obviously that’s not Australia in 2019; it was probably Australia in 1919 for most people but nowadays the shops are open, the parks are not patrolled by the fun police (who used to be actual police) and you can even buy a beer at the footy on Good Friday. But that’s not the case for Israel in the 700s BC, and their complaint goes even further: “why does God always have to be looking over our shoulder, when will God turn away so that we can fiddle the scales a bit and make a bit of extra in our margin?” So not just Sunday trading instead of church, but dodgy trading instead of honesty! But God remembered what the covenant stipulated (Amos 8:7) and God knows what should be expected of the chosen nation who are the light of God to the world, and God is not prepared to compromise the high standards of ambassadorship. God will remove the blessings due to the Chosen ones, those benefits that they have taken for granted (Amos 8:11-12) so that the people notice how bereft they are, the poverty of their own shame, and they will hunger for God again, but God will withhold divine favour from them just as they have withheld divine favour from the other nations of the world. This is utter devastation and the loss of all hope, the nation is beyond the point of salvation and it will be annihilated. There won’t even be prophecy any more in Israel; God has finished speaking to them.

As we saw last week, so this week, the Psalm connects with the theme and action of our reading from the prophets. Here the faithful one (this is a human voice, not God) speaks to the evil ones quizzing them on their evil. The people being accused are outright wicked, there is no pretence and there is no error here, the veil is blatant and is celebrated, boasted about. The retort comes in Psalm 52:5 where the faithful man says but God…, because God has seen and God will vindicate the true and hospitable manner of the chosen people. Evil will not win, injustice will not prevail, God will restore the world to the way it is supposed to be and God will tear away and remove completely anything or anyone that undermines the goodness of creation. And not only this but those who have stood firm for goodness will be delivered and will in their turn mock the downfall of the evil: Psalm 52:7 tells the whole story of why the destruction has come, and Psalm 52:8-9 tells the whole story of what should have happened in the first place. It cannot, surely, be made any clearer what God expects of us: take refuge in God, trust in God, and seek refuge nowhere else except in the steadfast and eternal love of God. Following that plea we see the response: if you depend on God so tightly and so completely then when God comes though, public worship will be thrust out of your spirit in a proclamation of thanksgiving and praise. God will destroy the self-reliant before they can destroy anyone else because of their wickedness, and God will rescue the faithful and deliver the ones whose trust and hope is in God, secure in God’s own knowledge that the faithful when delivered from the wicked will honour God with praise and obedience because The LORD is good.

Our reading from the Christian Traditions this week, just like our reading from the Hebrew Traditions, follows directly on from last week’s readings. Last week we read along with the Colossians as Paul praised them up and spoke back to them about the reputation he had heard that they were generous and hope-filled people, an exemplary church when it comes to displaying the likeness of God in action. Now Paul goes on to say more about the likeness of God, in that he describes Jesus for them. “I have heard that you have hope,” Paul tells the Colossians, “and that hope is centred in the redemptive, sin-destroying work of Jesus. Now let me tell you more about Jesus.” Jesus is the image of the invisible God says Paul in Colossians 1:15, he’s probably quoting a hymn that the Colossians already know and he’s about to explain what the lyrics mean. This is doctrine, it’s something to be learned and understood, but it’s also straightforward; there’s no philosophising or metaphors here but only direct information and that information is that what God is like is what we have seen Jesus to be like. We can’t see God, but we used to be able to see Jesus and we know what Jesus was like: well Christ is like what Jesus was like, and The Son is like The Father (I’m moving away from Paul’s wording here), so if you want to know the characteristics of God’s perspective remember Jesus.

It’s straightforward, there’s no metaphors here, but it’s not exactly simple to understand. Okay so God is like Jesus, patient and loving and compassionate and radically protective of the downtrodden against even the most scripturally literate religious leaders, but how does that actually work? How did Jesus get these characteristics? Well Paul goes on to tell his readers and hearers, and we can see for ourselves from Colossians 1:15b-20, that Jesus is special because Christ is an eternal partner with God in creation. Christ is the means of Creation (through him) the reason for Creation (for him) and the centre of Creation (in him all things hold together). In everything Christ is first, all of the fullness of God dwells in Christ, and through Christ all Creation is being reconciled with the Creator, including the Colossians who are creatures being drawn by Christ to reconciliation with God.

So that’s good stuff; again pretty straightforward in that there’s no metaphors, it’s all about what Christ is because he actually is those things. But it’s also rather heavy. All of that is what Jesus was? Jesus from Nazareth you mean, man with the beard and the nice smile, handy with a hammer and a water-filled wine bottle; all of that Christ stuff is him? Yes. And all of that crucifixion stuff, with pain and blood and a borrowed tomb, that’s Christ too? Yes, and more so than Christ too, that’s God in all of God’s Godness too. This is why Paul is so prescriptive, so picking up our story at Colossians 1:23, we read where Paul indicates that Christian salvation (salvation through unmitigated trust in Jesus the Christ) is effective only so far as your unmitigated trust never mitigating.

Go back to Psalm 52:7-9, the wicked are not destroyed because they are wicked, but because they are self-reliant in the places where they should have been God-reliant. The wickedness is a result of their self-reliance, not a cause, and the same is true of Christians. You can start good, beautiful in fact, but as soon as you begin to take God’s authority out of God’s hands and try to wield it yourself, even if only for yourself, you get broken. The brightest angel in Heaven, the most luminescent one named for light itself, was not immune to this sort of disaster: we all know what happened to Lucifer don’t we? And then as happened for Lucifer, and for the people of Amos 8 and Psalm 52, broken and deviated individual people began to break and hurt others, and lead them astray, and before long the whole world was in peril of destruction not because God was ready to smite the sinners but because the sinners were empowered and emboldened in their numbers by their own unmitigated sinfulness to break everything. God doesn’t smite sinners, they destroy each other; and they and we have done so in wave upon wave throughout history. No, God rescues sinners, and God does so in person through Christ: and yes I did say “does so” and not “did so”. Jesus died in the human past, but Christ continues to save, so he does, and so he shall continue to do until there are no sinners left. Ultimately there will be no sinners left; either every human life will individually have been redeemed and turned around by contact with the grace of God (so they’re not sinners anymore) or that life will have ultimately and completely destroyed itself in spite (and in flagrant denial) of contact with the grace of God. The choice for salvation is yours says Paul in Colossians 1:23, now that you have become aware of what God is like through awareness of who Jesus Christ is.

I said last week that I don’t think the destructive part of Amos’ message applies to us, and I specifically said that with reference to the Uniting Church. Of course I did not mean that God is going to annihilate the Churches of Christ and only the Churches of Christ, not at all; what I meant was that the Uniting Church uniquely in Australia, and especially in South Australia, seems to be in a self-destructive fit. That destructiveness is not the work of Holy Spirit, God is not tearing apart the Uniting Church and God is not tearing apart the holy catholic and apostolic Church beyond that. Rifts, schisms, breakings away, whatever they are called, are painful for God. Both the Uniting Church in Australia and its sister denominations in other parts of the world, and the Stone-Campbell Movement internationally, were established by Christians with hearts for unity and goodness, Godness, in the world. It is not in the nature of the Uniting Church with its Basis of Union, nor is it the nature of the sesquicentennial restoration movement which includes all believers in the slogan “No Creed but Christ”, to seek to divide the Body of Christ on any point of human thought, doctrine, theology, or opinion. Neither is it the work nor intention of God The Trinity, God The Community, and certainly not the unilateral activity of God The Holy Spirit to tear apart the community of God The Son.

So, how then is the Church being torn apart like it is, because no one can say that it isn’t? Well we’ve had the answer today haven’t we?  The Church is tearing itself apart because its people and its leaders have compromised their unmitigated trust in Jesus Christ. We, and I mean we rather than “they”, (this isn’t about a handful of suits and albs in Sydney or Adelaide), we are not listening to the prophets like Amos, like the Psalmist, like the Galilean. This isn’t about the orthodoxy of scriptural faithfulness, as if the Evangelicals are standing up for God and the Progressive are standing up against God, (and I dare you to say that to my face, or even in my hearing); neither is it about the orthopraxy of what actually would Jesus do, as if the Evangelicals are resisting the compassion of Christ and the Progressives are rejoicing in the compassion of Christ (and the same warning applies). And the thing is, it’s not just the Uniting Church in South Australia, or even nationally because it’s not just the Uniting Church…look at the kickback for and against Israel Folau just inside the Church. Think about the anguish expressed by some Christians when the Australian Christian Lobby took up the call to funds when gofundme.com shut it down. Whether you agree with Folau in his theology, and/or in his stance, (because it’s possible to stand with Bible truth without standing with the need to do it on Twitface), or whether you do not; and whether you respect “political correctness” or you think it’s “gone mad”, the conversation itself has got out of hand. The Church in its wings has moved outside grace, the people saved through trust in love and sent back into their neighbourhoods as agents of the King of the good Creation have become sidetracked, and the message is about to be lost.

We must not let that happen.

It may sound odd to hear the next sentence in the light of such passion, but there’s a reason for it. I am not going to take a stand and I am not going to call you to steadfastness. Not. There’s enough fighting in the world and in the Church, and in the church in the world and the world in the church, without KSSM publicly declaring a side.

The choice for salvation is yours says Paul in Colossians 1:23, now that you have become aware of what God is like through awareness of who Jesus Christ is. This is what we proclaim: not as a stand, not as a rampart, do not even attempt to assemble a barricade because that is not what God has called the Church to do in any era of Christian history. Popes yes, bishops and deacons far too often, local pastors all the bloody time, but never God. We are not taking a stand, but we are standing a stance: KSSM is the place where if you know you need God’s loving welcome you will find it.

This is not a house where we rush through Sunday to get to Monday and the more exciting life: we are not the Israel of Amos and we are not the Australia of the post-war years. We are a house of integrity, of respect, and ultimately of welcome. We are a house of truth and accountability to Christ and to the gospel. We are not a house of destruction but we are a true Bethel, a house of God.

Amen.

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Together

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Yallourn Congregation gathered at Newborough on Sunday 8th April 2018, the Sunday after Easter in Year B.

Acts 4:32-35; John 20:19-31

On previous Sundays at this point in the service I have spoken of my time as a teacher, and this morning I want to briefly touch on that experience again.  Some of you may remember from my earlier stories that in several schools in the past was a teacher of students who wore the label “EBD”, which stood for “Emotional Behavioural Disorder”.  These were kids, and kids they were, whose disability was not physiological in that they had brain damage or a missing limb, but emotional in that they experienced mental illnesses or simply displayed anti-social or asocial behaviour.  I taught kids who had been expelled from other schools because they had taken a gun or a bong to school, or been involved in repeated fights, or were chronic non-attenders.  In other words, “EBD” quite often stood for “every bloody day” because that is how often they were naughty in class (or not in class as the case may be).  These weren’t the special children in wheelchairs you might feel sorry for, no, these were the special children who would spit at you because you wished them good morning and for whom no one ever felt sorry.

In other words, these were children with a reputation, and specifically a reputation that they were each and every one of them irredeemable.

In today’s reading from the gospels we came across a man of irredeemably poor reputation, the disciple Thomas.  Now when I name Thomas I am sure you don’t immediately think of the ambassador in chains, that apostle to the east who was the first man to live and die for the sake of the gospel in the lands of India.  I am sure you aren’t immediately put in mind of the Thomas Christians who to this day worship Christ in India because of Thomas, and who have a tradition of faith that is as old as the Petrine and Pauline Christianities of the Roman and European churches.  No, when I say Thomas you say, “ah, Doubting Thomas”.  Poor Thomas.

Well, let’s have a look at that story.  The lectionary jumps us in to John’s story of the twelve on the evening of Easter day, and the time when ten of the twelve, plus some of the women no doubt, were gathered together in shell-shock. Jesus appears in their midst and these gathered disciples were given divine authority as apostles, given the right and power to reveal Jesus and make him known to those who did not believe.  Jesus delegated this holy power personally through his breathing on them and conferring the infilling of the Holy Spirit in John 20:22-23.  There is no seven weeks wait for Pentecost according to John, this is the time, on Easter Sunday evening, when the Spirit is conferred and the ten are blessed with power from on high.  The power they are given, alongside the task of preaching for which they are empowered, but the authority as power, their right and duty of command and superiority relates to sin which they are authorised to forgive or not forgive.  “Now that you have seen me again,” says Jesus, “and you know me as the risen one and have received the Holy Spirit, go and meet unbelief in the world with grace and enthusiasm.”  That’s what they’ve been told to do: tell people that Jesus is Lord, proven by his resurrection, and help them to believe him and follow him as disciples.  If the apostles spoke of faith, then the rumour of God would be in the world and people would be able to respond; but if the apostles did not speak of faith then the word would remain hidden and the people living in darkness would not have the opportunity to respond.  The future of the Christian story, as we heard last Sunday in the story of the frightened women, was up to the witnesses of Christ.  Jesus wasn’t going to preach any more, the duty and authority to speak and to keep silent was up to them, the apostles.

Jesus made it quite clear: whether people live in the sin of unbelief or in the sun of understanding is up to us because we have the job of telling them the story which leads to hope and belief.

Now, Thomas wasn’t there John 20:24 tells us, so he missed out on the empowering sight of the risen Christ and the impartation of the Holy Spirit so it’s no wonder that he’s doubt filled.  Thomas was where the other ten had been seven days earlier, they’d not believed the women so how can they judge him for not believing them?  They’d seen Jesus, so how can they begrudge him the same evidentiary experience?  And, most importantly, how ineffective must their preaching have been that Thomas was not convinced?  Here are the apostles charged with all of the authority and resource of Heaven to declare new life to the world, and they can’t even sell it to one of their own?

Psh, “doubting Thomas”, more like “dubious apostolic preaching”.

When the resurrected one appears a week later and speaks to Thomas, Jesus does NOT breathe on him; rather in John 20:27 Jesus addresses the area of Thomas’ unbelief, which was Thomas’ desire to have touchable proof in John 20:25.  Thomas, having been offered the chance to put a finger in Jesus’ wounds, but without actually doing so, worships Jesus in John 20:28.  Jesus words in John 20:29 are probably not what he actually said to Thomas, after all Thomas has done more than the ten with the evidence he was given; more likely John later put these words in Jesus’ mouth as encouragement to those who read the gospel.  Thomas is no more doubting than the ten, and a week later he worships Jesus as Lord which indicates to me that he was far more convinced, and therefore far less doubting of Jesus than the other ten.

No wonder it was Thomas who Jesus and the Holy Spirit sent to India, and less effective Peter and James who Jesus left in Judea.  As with my EBD-labelled kids in England, reputations can be undeserved, but they stick once stuck, and they mislead.

In both of our Old Testament portions for today, one of which comes from Acts 4 in that strange way the lectionary provides for our history lesson in the time between our celebrations of Christ’s resurrection and ascension, the theme is unity.  Better said the theme is the opportunities that congregations of believers provide God with to bless the world through our single-minded devotion to each other in God’s name.  Unity is not enough, even ten-against-one the apostles could not convince Thomas of the resurrection, it is unity with devotion that God requires.  How good it is when brothers and sisters dwell together in unity we heard as our call to worship from Psalm 133:1Now, the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul we read in Acts 4:32, such that with great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus and great grace was upon them we read in Acts 4:33.  The spoken out witness of the apostles as individuals was supported by the lived out witness of the loving fellowship in which all lived, including the support of all from the common wealth of resources.  Everyone had a bed under a roof, everyone had food and clothes enough, everyone had love and comfort as part of the family, everyone had encouragement and good cheer from the testimony of the others.  No wonder they saw three thousand added to their number in one day, and others added daily because of the apostles’ testimony: who wouldn’t want to be part of such a loving community with a profound and delighted sense of hope in the world.

Thomas was part of that Acts 4 action, and then he went alone to India where he spoke of Christ and established a community of faith that lives to this day.

So, what does this mean for us?

  1. We must hear the message and take it to heart. Like Thomas we must believe and know that Jesus once dead has been raised by God in vindication of his message of the Kingdom of God, the forgiveness of sins, and the assurance of salvation.
  2. We must proclaim the message and take God’s appointment to heart. Like Thomas we must go where God draws us and filled with the Spirit and the authority of God to do so we must proclaim the Kingdom of God, the forgiveness of sins, and the assurance of salvation.

Our evidence that the gospel is truth is that we have met the risen Christ.  Like those who came after Thomas we have not seen Jesus in the flesh, but like Thomas we don’t have to touch the resurrected one to believe, we believe without seeing yet we believe by having known Christ. The world’s evidence that the gospel is truth is that we who have met the risen Christ live in harmony, unity, peace, and mutual enjoyment.

Where our reputation is one of love and peace the world will believe that we have the life-giving words of faith.

Every.  Blesséd.  Day.

Amen.

The Good and Pleasantness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s what Jesus said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Come.

Amen.