Good Things Happen in The Good Country

This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM for Sunday 8th March 2020.  It was a combined service for Kaniva and Serviceton congregations at Serviceton for the celebration of our Harvest Sunday.  Kaniva and Serviceton are farming communities and there are primary producers in our congregations.

Deuteronomy 24:19-22; Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Ruth 1:22

The harvest stories told in the Bible are stories of God’s salvation. There are multiple harvests named in the Bible, which is probably no surprise to the farmers amongst us. Wheat was harvested first and according to Exodus 34:22 this was to be celebrated in Spring, when it happened. Seven weeks later is the harvest of barley and we are told in Ruth 1:22 that it was during this harvest festival that Naomi arrived in Bethlehem from Moab. In late summer, (September) came the fruit harvest which is also a cause for celebration according to Exodus 34:22, and it is this event which we read about in Deuteronomy 26:1-11. The loud message is that God is going to provide such an abundance in the Promised Land, from the Land itself, that God’s people had better get ready to say thank you a lot. To be an Israelite in the future (the future from Moses) is to be a recipient of God’s promise of care and the complete benefit of that providence. Never forget whose you are: you are The LORD’s own family.

More than masses of crop the harvest story told by Moses in Deuteronomy 26:1-11 is a story of salvation. It is true that God promises provision through the sweat of the brow and the tilling of the land by Hebrew farmers, but in the history of the people from Jacob to Moses and into the future we learn that this bounty will be for all, including aliens (outsiders) and Levites (while collar workers). The history of the Hebrew people is dated from the “wandering Aramean”, literally the vulnerable climate-refugee who was made destitute by famine: so when Israel’s people return to the land of Jacob they must remember the destitute they find there or who later come there as refugees from other places. As a nation saved by grace, actually fed and watered by The LORD’s own provision in Egypt, it will never be appropriate for Israel to withhold the same from anyone who comes into their land looking for help. Never forget whose you are: you are The LORD’s own ministers.

The commentary I used this week suggests that this passage was edited together late in Israel’s history, possibly around the time of the exile to Babylon or at the very least a time when invasion and occupation by a militarily stronger foe seemed immanent. In this case the return to the covenant and its specific stipulation on charity and compassion would have reminded Israel that they were indeed The LORD’s own people: that The LORD Godself had their back if they remained in covenant with The LORD and the mission of being God’s light to the nations. “Are you being faithful to the covenant?” The LORD asks in the background, “so, if I were to come down and take a look around I would not find poverty and destitution in your streets, yeah?” The land was given by The LORD as a demonstration of grace, and as a visible example for all the nations of what God desires (mercy) and how God blesses (shalom) when God’s ways are honoured. If Israel fails in generosity then God will withhold the abundance, thereby making the same point in a negative way. This is what Israel and Judah were facing as this history was written, what would they do to keep on the side of God? Would they close ranks and resist the Babylonians, or would they open their arms and welcome the asylum seekers and war-torn refugees with grace and food? And what about internally: would they ensure that no Israelite ever went hungry or sick or naked or alone, would they ensure that the women and men set aside by God as priests and worship leaders were fed and housed as well as the farmers and labourers who grew the food and built the houses? The tithe was not just a token payment, without the tithe there was no welfare for the destitute and no support for the priests and worship leaders: without the tithe there was increased poverty and decreased praise for The LORD. What sort of Holy Nation lets its priests starve because they are focused on national worship and can’t farm for themselves? Why would The LORD continue to bless that nation, why wouldn’t The LORD leave them to fall over as an example of the consequences of breaking covenant, while choosing a new nation to serve God’s purposes of demonstrating compassion in the world?

This is why in Ruth’s story and in Deuteronomy 24:19-22 we read that reaping right to the edge was forbidden. The LORD’s provision is for all who need to eat, so even if you grew it that doesn’t mean it’s all yours to eat or to sell. At the same time, if you didn’t grow it you still need to go and gather it yourself if you want to eat it: welfare for the whole community must discourage laziness as much as it condemns selfishness. The priests are fed because they work elsewhere at priesting; the poor are fed so that they can return to health and to work. This is why harvest festivals were to be big and loud community events, because they were community celebrations where everyone gets to eat because every kinsperson played a role in bringing it in. In celebrating the covenant between God and people every time the food was brought in to the storehouse the nation was reminded that in this covenant there is sufficiency for all, even for those whose work never sees them get dirt under their fingernails.

The harvest story told about Ruth is another story of God’s salvation. It is a story of the resilience of women (of faith) working in solidarity, and how God blesses the faithful and upright. In Tanakh Ruth follows Proverbs, she is perhaps the living example of eshet chayil, the Proverbs 31 woman of noble character, virtuous and industrious. Once more God is shown as concerned about the day-to-day lives of ordinary people, even widows who are not Israelite. God is actively involved in directing the play and the accidents of right place at the right time. God drives the women’s movement from emptiness to fullness: God is both guide and provider.

In practical terms the stories of redemption in Ruth are stories of restoration. By keeping Naomi close to her Ruth is able to restore to her mother-in-law all that is legally hers which was lost in Moab with the death of her husband and sons, and the ensuing famine. Boaz is the man of the moment, the man who has the covenant responsibility through family to care for Naomi, and like God with Israel he is faithful and complete in his care for the destitute and depressed widow. What Boaz does is contractual and familial, it’s the moral and legal thing to do and there’s nothing specifically religious in it beyond the underlying culture of Israel. However in using this as an example of the right and holy way to live as Israelites the point is made that God also acts as family to us and as a covenant partner. What God does is moral and legal because God is Father, God has chosen to obligate Godself here: how we shall respond as the redeemed sons and daughters is one question posed by the story. At this harvest we are like Naomi, our redemption is brought about by someone else’s grace and not by our own deserving: again, how shall we respond?

In modern Jewish tradition, by modern I mean since about the year 150AD, Ruth is read at Shavuot which is the Festival of Weeks held at the traditional time of Israel’s barley harvest. (That’s Pentecost in the Christian calendar.) The book is interpreted with two key themes; loyalty, and the movement from emptiness to fullness. Ruth begins with a famine in Judah, then the desolation of Naomi’s family in Moab and her vulnerability as she returns to Bethlehem…which is now in full harvest mode and topped off by the provision of Boaz the magnificent young man. Naomi is loyal, Ruth is loyal, Boaz is loyal, The God of Israel is loyal; and the tale which begins in famine and widowing at Ruth 1:5 culminates in a post-wedding pregnancy in Ruth 4:17. A story which begins with death ends with birth, passing through the desperate times where Naomi says in Ruth 1:21 that she went away full, but The LORD has brought me back empty. God’s promise to us in this harvest season is that our story will never end at 1:21, because just like Naomi even when we return empty we return to a land bursting with grain. Indeed, the name Bethlehem means “House of Bread”.

In the Jesus traditions and Christian traditions harvest is used as a metaphor for divine action. Jesus speaks in Matthew 9:37-38 of a great harvest where the fields are ripe but the labourers are absent. In Revelation 14:15-16 weeding is going on, but there is reaping in James 3:18. God is still at work in the world, still honouring the covenant made to Abraham and repeated to Moses, still displaying all grace within God’s glory and the fullness of welcome to any who will answer the invitation to participate. I’m not going to touch on those metaphorical stories at all, partly because I’ve just hit the top of page five in this sermon, but also because I want to focus today on the reality of harvest and the actual events of bringing the crop into storage and then to distribution as food. The metaphors are good, packed with extra meaning in a place like the Tatiara, The Good Country, but they’re for another time.

The real story of the real harvest, more than the gleaning along the fence-line but the full heads from the middle of the fields, is that God provides because God has promised to provide. What we have is God’s own because whose we are is God’s own. Children are a harvest, and actual harvest, (just ask Job) and we are the reaping of what God planted in creation as well as metaphor. You are the abundance of God, and in delivering God’s promises to the Holy Nation you, God’s royal priesthood, are also the recipients of the bounty. This is fact, this is true, this is the theology of harvest. Now comes the application: the doing stuff, the questions for challenge.

1. How will you celebrate the harvest that is you and that has been delivered to you? What will your harvest festival look like, in your life, beyond today’s act of worship and the extortionate rates charged at auction in half an hour’s time?

2. How will you spend the harvest that is yours and that has been delivered to you? What effect will the abundance have in your life, beyond today’s act of worship and the extravagance of our festival today. You have an armful of blessing from God today, will you build a bigger barn, or will you set a longer table?

Amen.

New Life (WWHS)

This is the text of the message I prepared for chapel at the Day Centre of the West Wimmera Health Service (Kaniva Hospital) for Tuesday 6th August 2019.

Colossians 3:1-11

New life in Christ seems like a great topic for any act of Christian worship: the hope of faith we have in Jesus means that we’re all looking forward to what lies ahead.

Recently I was listening to an ABC podcast which featured three Christians, each from a different tradition, discussing the place of Hell in Christian thought in 2019. One of the key outcomes, perhaps a point of similarity between the three people, was the idea that God is the source of all life, and so whatever Hell is as the place where God is absent so too is life absent to some degree. Maybe there is existence without fulfilment, hardly a “life” at all; or maybe in Hell there is no life of any sort and it’s simply the case that if you don’t make it to Heaven then Hell is place where you go to just cease to exist: you die a second time in being annihilated. Well I don’t want to talk about Hell or annihilation today, I’m sure you’re pleased to hear that, because such a future is not something any healthy person would look forward. It is true that mental illnesses of various kinds might mean that you’ll look forward to ending the struggle and sinking into nothingness, (I have lived with that thought on several brief occasions), but as I say that’s illness and not what God intends for any living creature. However I think that’s a good first point, that God is the source of all life; because if that is true then new life can only come from God in which case new life can only be good.

In Colossians 3:3 Paul suggests that the new life we have in Christ is a replacement for the old life. New life is not an improvement on the old, it is not a renovation, a new lease on life: no the new life is a second, different life because the first life, the old life, has ended. Paul quite plainly says …for you have died, and there you have it, which is why in Colossians 3:5 Paul writes …put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly which he unpacks in a list of unhelpful behaviours and attitudes. We can get bogged down in this list, trying to decide what is sin and which sins entrap us, but we needn’t do. The simple truth, simple in that it isn’t complex even as it is a bit challenging to out in place, is that earthly behaviours belong to earthly lives, and we who are alive in Christ are earthly dead. So don’t act like the life that is past, act like the life that is present, the life that is found in Christ, the new life we live which flows from the source of all life which is God.

Beyond the new set of behaviours and attitudes, which doesn’t look at all like the old one which shaped the old life, is a new shape for relationships. In the new life there is no distinction between people, on any basis at all, when it comes to living the life. The new life, sourced from God, channelled through Christ (the only way, truth and life), and lived out in the company of the Church is available to every person. The Jews heard the news first, the Christians are now proclaiming it as a done deal, but you don’t have to have already been a Jew or a Christian to get the new life (although once you get it your Jewishness and Christianity will be transformed). But you can be a male or female, of any age, from any nation and speaking any language, having a shed-load of money or none: so long as you like the idea of the new life you can have it for the asking according to Colossians 3:11.

What can that mean for us, the us who are gathered here today? Well the invitation applies to us as much as anyone else, so if you want the new life of Jesus and you don’t yet have it then now’s as good a time as any. And of course if you do already have that new life, the life that means you’re empowered by the love and grace of Jesus in your daily life, then what you have is the promise that that will remain with you always. Once you have died to the world’s way of doing things, to those earthly attitudes and activities, and accepted the gift of life from Jesus then that is what you have for ever.

We rejoice, Christ is with us and we are with him.

Amen.

Seen by Women (The Day of Resurrection)

This is the text of the message I prepared for KSSM for Easter Day 2019.

Luke 24:1-12; Acts 10:34-43

Hmm, “they”.  I am always dubious about they.  “They”.  You know “they”, don’t you; they of “they have been saying”, or they of “they wear their shirts untucked these days”, or they of “they think that it’s dangerous to eat those foods now”. They, phsh!  So when Luke 24:1 tells us that “they” came to the tomb I immediately want to close my ears: who cares about they?  Not me, because if “they” truly mattered then “they” would have had names and faces, and “they” would have come to tell me to my face rather than sending you to tell me what “they” think.

Sadly you don’t have to be a pastor or a leader to be suspicious of “they”.  Indeed the “they” that Luke wrote about have been ignored and shunned since the day that Luke wrote about, even before Luke wrote about the day, which is probably why they are “they”, and not…well not who they actually were with their real names and faces.  So who are they, this “they”?  In the Greek text we don’t find out until Luke 24:10 who they were, although in some English translations we at least get a pronoun in Luke 24:5.  So they are “the women”, specifically Mary Magdalene, Joanna the wife of Herod’s chief of staff, and Mary the mother of James.  Also with them were “the other women”, you know, “they”.  And what happens when “they” begin to tell the story of the empty tomb?  Well it’s pretty clear in Luke 24:11 what happens, they are accused of idle talk and the apostles do not believe them.  Fair enough because “they” are women and you know, women eh, idle talk: they are not apostles, they are not men; they are not to be trusted or believed without corroborating evidence from a man, a man who is not one of “they” but one of “us”.  And for two thousand years they have been written out of the story, except as minor characters who prompted Peter to go to the tomb where he was amazed.  And then Peter went home.

I don’t know about you, I hope you agree with me, but it really doesn’t matter if you don’t because I am going to say it anyway: praise God for they!  If it wasn’t for “they”, the women who went to the tomb then Peter (who did not go to the tomb initially) would not have known that Jesus was raised.  And if it wasn’t for “they”, the women, continuing to tell the obtuse ten after Peter went to the tomb that Jesus was raised then no one would have known because Peter, (who went to the tomb and found it abandoned), went home without telling anyone.  So it’s a blessing for us that “they” did tell!

It was “they” to whom the angels spoke, it was “they” who remembered what Jesus had told them while he was still alive, and it was “they” who first carried the news of the resurrection of Jesus to the weeping world.  So when that other “they”, they with their untucked shirts and their ingredients-free diets, and “they” in their constant state of “have been saying”; when they tell you that women have no place in Christian leadership or proclamation, you tell them that without women there would have been no Christian leadership or proclamation to begin with.

Without these women there would have been no Peter, beyond Good Friday at least.  And with no Peter beyond Good Friday there would have been no sermon in the house of Cornelius, and therefore no assurance that God does not show partiality based on race, no assurance that God accepts with gladness all that come to God with humility and openness, and no assurance of peace and rest.  It is not just the resurrection that brought shalom to the world, not just the resurrection that brought forgiveness through grace by faith, not just the resurrection that jumped the rollout of the kingdom of God into a higher gear; it was the news of the resurrection, the news proclaimed first by women, then by Galilean peasants and fishermen, which did that.  The news proclaimed to “us” by “they” is the news that in God through Christ there is no us and they, that all are “we”, and we are God’s own.

Without women, and without Peter and the apostles, there would have been no Paul.  With no Paul there would be no Church in Corinth, no Christians in Europe, and no Christians among the European people of the planet.  (So, no Christian whitefellas in Australia.)  There would have been no letters to the Church in Corinth, and no assurance that since Christ has been raised from the dead, and that his gospel was vindicated by God, that ha-satan is on the way out and that the ultimate victory of the Kingdom of God, and the God of the Kingdom, is assured.  No resurrection: no hope says Paul.  Resurrection but no news of the resurrection: also no hope says Paul.  Our job as Church is to proclaim the resurrection, and hope, to those who haven’t yet heard, and those haven’t heard properly.  But who told us the news?  And who told them, and them before them?  With no women there is no proclamation and no hope.  With no hope, there is no life.

So, who have you chosen not to listen to?  Through whom is God not allowed to speak to you?  “Yeah, I’ll listen to Joyce Meyer, but not the local bloke, because she’s anointed and he’s just appointed.”  Or “I’ll listen to Rick Warren, but not to Joyce Meyer, because women shouldn’t preach.”  Or “I’ll listen to anyone on a podcast but I’ll never read a book, because it’s 2019.”  Or “I’ll listen to Damien, but not to anyone from the Baptists, because Damien’s humour and scholarship are awesome.”  Who are you shutting out?  Well, you’re shutting out God, d’uh, but you know what I’m asking.

More important to me is, whom are you shutting off from God?  From whom are you withholding the gospel, whom are you not talking to?  I’m pretty sure that Joanna and the mob of Marys knew that the male apostles wouldn’t have a bar of what they were saying, but did it stop them saying it?  No, it did not!  Would it stop you saying it, has it stopped you saying it?  I’ll leave that with you to ponder.

We are each and all called to proclaim because first we were each and all chosen to receive: chosen by God (as all are, without partiality); and chosen by whomever told us (having first gathered herself around her bravery against our possible rejection of her as gospeller).  The message of the risen Jesus, the vindicated forth-teller of the Reign of Heaven, is that hope lives and that God is gracious and welcoming through God’s own invitation to come and be welcomed and to learn to trust.  Like the women who first told it, the gospel itself is resilient, resolute, and relentless; strong against resistant voices yet soothing for those who need to be enveloped by its embrace.  The women were not silenced by the disbelief of the eleven, but they continued to sing and dance the message of the abandoned sepulchre and the abundant celebration until at last the men were stirred to look, and were amazed.  Isn’t this the hope that stirs your heart, your guts, your grin this morning?  Is it not so that Jesus is Risen, and so can you be, and so can “they” out there be, because the One who can raise the dead can certainly restore the broken?  Is it not so?  Is our God, our King, our brother not dependable and true?  Is this not a faith worth keeping?

Keep the faith, but in the model of the Marys and Joanna do not keep it to yourself.  “They” out there need to hear it, so don’t stop telling out your soul until they do.

Amen.