Resurrection Day

This is the text of the message I presented on 16th April 2017, Resurrection Sunday, to the people of Lakes Entrance Uniting Church.  It was the first time I had preached on Easter Day.

Colossians 3:1-4; Acts 10:34-43; John 20 1:18

One of my favourite songs for Resurrection Sunday is not a hymn or chorus, or even a “church song” at all.  It’s by U2, it’s called “Window in the Skies” and it begins:

The shackles are undone,

The bullets quit the gun,

The heat that’s in the sun

Will keep us when there’s none.

The rule has been disproved,

The stone – it has been moved,

The grave is now a groove,

All debts are removed.

 Oh, can’t you see what love has done?

It may seem strange to begin a reflection on the most foundational of Christian truths with a ten-year-old rock song, but I believe that this song, written by Christian men who work in “the secular realm”, expresses the same sorts of emotion that our reading from the gospel summons.

John’s gospel tells us that Mary Magdalene came to the tomb alone and before dawn.  She arrives to find that the stone – it has been moved, and so she runs for help, believing that the body had been stolen.  When she and a couple of the men return, the “disciple whom Jesus loved” is said to have “seen and believed”, although we’re not told what he believed, and he and Peter having seen what they have seen promptly go home.  They just go home: as you do.

But not Mary, Mary stays there.  She takes another look in to what she understands is an empty tomb only to find that it is not empty at all.  The empty tomb is now occupied by angels, two of them, the same number of angels as there were men who have just gone home.  They ask her who she’s crying for and she tells them.  Did you get that, Mary tells a pair of angels, sitting in an empty tomb, that she’s upset that the dead Jesus has been removed without her knowledge.  There are angels…in an empty tomb…  Something extraordinary is going on here but Mary’s distress is too overwhelming for her to look past the first thing she’d seen; that Jesus’ corpse is missing.

The story goes on, Mary is alone in the garden once more since the men have gone home and the angels have not left the tomb, yet she is not alone and a man is there.  He calls her “woman”, and those of you who were around a few weeks ago know what happens when Jesus addresses a female conversation partner as “Woman”.  Revelation is about to happen.  Something more has happened in Mary’s vicinity, the story is reaching its climax, and Jesus calls her name.

The shackles are undone.

Some traditions put the words “don’t touch me” in Jesus’ mouth at this point, but I like what we have heard here, “do not hold on to me”.  Mary is allowed a hug, but not a long one, as Jesus has a very important appointment to keep.  I just love this moment in this story.  Consider what is happening here in what I believe to be one of the finest, and yet also one of the most under-reported events of that first day of resurrection.  Jesus is in the process of ascending to the Father, he’s heading for Heaven for the first time since he left Heaven at the annunciation of Mary his mother, this is the culmination of the resurrection when the Son of Man is to be vindicated in glory by God the Father, but that can all wait until Jesus has comforted his friend.  The risen saviour of creation pauses in the very act of ascension to embrace his weeping, confused friend to assure her that he is there and that it is truly he who is truly there.  And then, like every other man in this story so far, Jesus goes home.

To every broken heart,

for every heart that cries:

love left a window in the skies,

and to love I rhapsodize…

So sings U2.  So sing we.

The repercussions of the resurrection of Jesus are not limited to the final chapters in Matthew, Luke and John; neither are they evident only in our day and the miracle of today’s salvation in Jesus’ sacrifice.  In Acts 10:34-43 we read the immediate events of the resurrection of Jesus, of how the truth that God has no favourites was revealed to the disciples of Jesus and of how that message was quickly spread to all corners of the known world.  Peter, speaking in a Roman household in the Roman capital city of Judea, i.e. the city where Pilate and the bulk of his army actually lives, tells that pagan yet imperial household the message of Jesus: that Jesus alone is the source of forgiveness of sins, and of fellowship between those who have accepted his grace because they have received the message of his witnesses.   Cornelius the centurion had been searching for God, and God had sent one of Jesus’ moist experienced eyewitnesses to tell him that he was welcome in the family of God.  Cornelius, the gentile agent of an invasion force, is welcome to sit at the table of grace with Peter himself because of the resurrection of Jesus.

In Colossians 3:1-4 which was written before Acts but describes events that occurred following what we read there, Paul exhorts the Jesus-believers in Colossae to be confident in their pursuit of God and the Way of Jesus in life.  In other words, live as if you are already in Heaven because Christ who is in Heaven lives in you.  This is the story of the Reign of God which we have heard about so much in past months.  Live as if God is king and Jesus is lord: as if the world is already God’s own province, and that the influence and governance of God extends to where you live.  You can live like this, even though the roll-out of the rule of God is not yet complete, because Christ has ascended.  Yes, there is evil in the world, and yes there is harmful and difficult stuff which is not necessarily evil but is just not good, but since you are “hidden with Christ in God” as it says in Colossians 3:3 you can rely on the resources of the Kingdom to flourish where you are right now.

Jesus is celebrated by Peter’s testimony as one who went about doing good and healing all who were repressed by the devil (Acts 10:38).  The Way of Jesus was picked up very quickly by the apostles, disciples, and witnesses who followed him across the world.  Enter a place and tell the story of Jesus, heal any sick, expunge all demons, raise any dead, welcome each of the restored, go to the next town, repeat.  What was once a tomb, a dead-end, is now the front door to a well-worn path:  the grave is now a groove.

I have heard it said that a grave is a rut with the ends filled in.  But I’d like to flip that around and say today that a grave with the ends blown out becomes a channel.  Christian life is not about slipping into a rut, at least it is not designed to be:  Christian life is a way; and more than that it is a way where there wasn’t a way before.   Dead-ends become tunnels and channels, high walls become ramps, ridgeways and bridges like the raised track of a train.  The road of the way, just like the recently-dead Christ on Sunday morning, is unstoppable.

And so, we find ourselves where every Sunday finds us: knowing that we are loved beyond our capacity to understand, rescued and restored from terrors we could never fully appreciate (nor want to), and empowered to live a life of unparalleled freedom and joy because of the Spirit of God who lives in us, just as that spirit lived in Jesus, Peter, Paul, all the Marys, and Cornelius.

Two weeks ago, we heard from John 11:25 that whomever continues to believe into Jesus will live into eternity.  This is the story of resurrection day.  Life is assured for you, not just eternal life in the sense that you will live forever in Heaven, but complete and abundant life in that your existence will always be bountiful, extravagant, and well resourced.  Trouble may come and trouble will come, the resurrection power of Jesus did not prevent Peter and Paul each being murdered by the Roman authorities, and I’m sure Cornelius didn’t long in command of his cohort once his conversion story came out, but such trouble will always be temporary.  The grave cannot hold any of us, it is now a groove, and a groove where Jesus walked before us to open the way.

Love left a window in the skies, and to my God, (who is love), I rhapsodise.

Come and see what love has done, what it’s doing in me

Amen.

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Liturgy of the Palms

This is the text of the message I preached on Palm Sunday, 9th April 2017 at Lakes Entrance Uniting Church.

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29; Matthew 21:1-11

Palm Sunday is one of those days of which I have specific memories from childhood.  I couldn’t tell you what happened on the third Sunday in August in any given year, or even the second Sunday in April for that matter, but while actual years are uncertain I can recall Palm Sundays from years long past.  I mean there was that year, several in fact, when we(e) Sunday school kids paraded into church waving huge palm fronds and singing Carl Tuttle’s “Hosanna”.  There was the year when “Jesus” actually rode in to church on a mountain bike covered in tinsel, and the year previously when a real donkey had been sourced.  (When said, donkey left behind what donkeys sometimes do, right in front of the pulpit, the mountain bike was substituted in seemed a better option the following year.)  I remember the cool vicar we had in one church where we high-fived each other in passing the peace because it was “palm” Sunday.  (Don’t laugh, I nearly made you do it today.)  I remember the huge palms we had available to us the three years my family lived in Darwin, and how the front of the church looked like a Pacific Islander hut.  I remember processing in to the cathedral one year with a couple of hundred of us, waving the palms we’d collected in the forecourt as we walked the length of the nave, back down the sides to the great doors, and then up the nave again to find a seat.  I remember the palm crosses we had in Hobart, and how those were kept by us as bookmarks in our Bibles and then returned to church the following year on Shrove Tuesday when they were incinerated and used for the ashes of the next day’s Ash Wednesday.  I remember several years hearing the “Hosanna, Hey-sanna, -sanna, -sanna, Ho” from Jesus Christ Superstar as our call to worship.  And I remember last year when there were no palms at all but clay crosses made by a potter in our congregation: I’ve been wearing mine all Lent this year and have it on now.  (Thanks Mark from Yankalilla!)

But what I don’t remember, really, is any of the sermons from Palm Sunday.  Perhaps, like me, you know the story so well that you don’t remember ever being told it, or any specific occasion upon which it is told.  What the other lectionary readings are never really mattered since you know the minister would preach from Matthew 21:1-9, Mark 11:1-10, or Luke 19:28-40 depending upon which year of the cycle we were in.  (And in case you have forgotten we are in the Year of Matthew in 2017.)

My lectionary tells me that for this Sunday, this year, there is no Old Testament or New Testament reading set.  None.  They are blank spaces in my chart for today.  Just a Psalm, and a Gospel.  Looking further into the lectionary I see that the same Psalm is offered each year, actually a choice of two, and one is not a song of celebration at all.  Amidst all the branch waving, coat flinging, song and dance and donkey poo of Jesus’ heralding by the crowd there is a note of distress and depression.  Some are sad when everyone else is celebrating.  Well spotted, I say to the choosers of the lectionary: always someone will be sad whenever a party is passing through, and oftentimes, indeed always I would suggest, there are sad feelings within the party itself.

I’m not convinced that Palm Sunday was a completely joyful day for Jesus.

One interpretation of the events of Palm Sunday, offered by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan among others, is that Jesus on his donkey is deliberately making a fool of Pilate.  The whole event is parody. Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday is a mirror of and a direct challenge to Pilate’s own entry into the city on the same day as an act of protest at the Roman imperial procession.  Jesus is possibly simmering with anger, perhaps frustrated by the noisy crowds who haven’t got as clue of what he is up to as he calculatingly affirms the alternative way of the Reign of God.  The contrast between the two processions is plain: one, a procession of peasants lead by Jesus on a donkey coming from the East and Bethany via the Mount of Olives, and the other a procession of soldiers lead by Pilate coming from the West and the provincial capital at Caesarea Maritima on the coast.  More than competing parades the two processions indicated competing theologies.  Beginning with Augustus and now in the person of Tiberius the Roman emperor was hailed as “the Son of God”, “lord”, “saviour”, and bringer of “peace on Earth”, terms unwarranted according to Jewish theology and terms later taken by the Christians to refer to the man entering the capital from the mountains.  With Jesus being hailed with “Hosanna” as blessed and Davidic there is a distinct and deliberate political feel to this event: Jesus’ parade is anti-military, anti-war, and decidedly anti-imperial.  It is not a party, not at all.

I don’t remember hearing that message in my childhood, not at all.

But that’s okay, Borg and Crossan might not be “right” in their interpretation, and even if they are not “wrong” there are other ways of looking at what is going on

Jesus acts deliberately on this day, the Bible assures us of that.  In Matthew’s account, which we heard today, Jesus appears to rides two animals, a donkey and a colt and we are told that the disciples put their cloaks on “them” and Jesus sat on “them”, which is to say both animals.  Matthew, and so does John, quotes Zechariah 9:9 as the reason why the donkeys must be present, but in Matthew Jesus explains it to the disciples before the ride and in John Jesus speaks to the crowds after he arrives.  In John Jesus responds to the worship by riding a donkey, in Matthew Jesus orchestrates the worship by arriving unannounced on two donkeys.  Either way, he’s up to something.

I think the clue is found in the Zechariah passage itself where the king of Zion triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on…the foal of a donkey has a few things going on.   He is obviously a victor, both in the tradition of the Jewish Scriptural tradition and the Roman Imperial tradition, but he is also humble.  He’s riding a foal, not a stallion.  Perhaps the parody of Pilate is not so nasty in its intent, perhaps Jesus is humble and is showing a better way.  Yes, he is king, yes, he is returning to his capital, but he doesn’t need to make a big show of it, he knows who is he and his people flock to him because he is their king, not because he is loud and covered in brass and flags.  Real kings, like real men, don’t need to show off; real kings are confident and calm.  Let Pilate have his monkeys, the unruffled Jesus does what he wants to do, and he is so attractive because of it.

This also is missing from my memory of child and youthhood pageant, the chillaxed Jesus cruising in to town.  But I like it.

Open the gate for the righteous to enter so that he might to give thanks to God, demands the Psalmist in Psalm 118:19-20. We read of one man’s public, celebratory thanksgiving for salvation in Psalm 118:21 found in God’s seeing the hidden potential in him and for giving him a second chance to shine in Psalm 118:22.  This leads into delight in recognising God’s handiwork at work in Psalm 118:23, which leads into the day of rejoicing in Psalm 118:24.

The first words spoken by Elizabeth Tudor after she was told that she’d inherited the queenship of England are said to have been Psalm 118:23. For a Protestant, bastard, girl under house-arrest and the ever-present threat of execution for treason (or a simple, quiet murder) to inherit a kingdom from her Roman Catholic, and rather bitter half-sister, the new Queen Elizabeth knew that divine forces were at play.  The same is true of us: let us rejoice and be glad in this day is a fitting response.  Look at how the psalmist goes on, crying out “Hosanna” which means “God save me and look here my salvation comes” all at once.  The hosanna in Psalm 118:25 is the beseeching cry of a woman who knows she has already been chosen for salvation and is waiting with bated breath for God to complete the marvellous work in her.

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD says Psalm 118:26, “baruch habar b’shem Adonai” as Jews still yell to each other in worship, and “baruch b’shem” when they’re passing the peace.  The crowds called this to Jesus as he rode past them, indicating that their hosannas were directed towards him.  The one who comes in the name of the LORD is the same one who brings salvation and success, and the one who calls forth the light. These words are loaded with meaning for Jewish worshippers.  In the story of Jesus these are not the cries of an overexcited mob who have lost their minds, the people know what they are saying and that is why the Sanhedrin are so disturbed by it.  Tell this uneducated rabble to stop using worship language, they tell Jesus later.  Jesus responds that they may be uneducated but they know worship when they see it, and it is so obvious that even if they (like you) missed it the geology of Zion itself would cry out.  As Hillsong pastor Darlene Zschech has said “no way!  If Jesus is here I refuse to be out-shouted by a rock!”

The Psalm, when placed beside the gospel, gives us two versions of the events of this day in the life of Jesus:

Version one is that Jesus himself is demanding that the gates be opened to him, so that he may enter and worship the God who has been so amazingly faithful to him.  Let’s not forget how amazing the Father was to the Son; Jesus had a lot to say thank you for.  Even as he set a model for us in receiving baptism, Jesus also shows us that no-one is above the duty to worship God in thanksgiving and wonder.  So, gates, open wide and let Jesus himself cry Hosanna! to the God who will save and is right now saving him.  This might be a less well known version, but when you consider that in Matthew Jesus gets off the donkeys and walks straight into the temple I believe he had worship on his mind.  (That he then throws the noisy farmers’ market stallholders out is even more evidence, he’s here to pray and not to eat jam donuts at 30c each or three for $1, or buy perfumed candles and bric-a-brac.)

Version two is the better known one, that the crowds recognise in Jesus the one who brings the salvation of God.  We bless you, the one who comes to us in person with the authority of God, (coming in the Name, Ha’Shem), to do the work of God amongst us.  Open wide those gates so that when the saviour comes he will not be held up for one second.

So, whether you believe Jesus rode one animal or two, that he came as parody of Pilate or as humble yet confidently beloved worshipper of God, that he was enjoying the moment of the joy of the crowd or silently meditating on the full ontological meaning of the prophetic sign he was enacting, the public entry of Jesus to Jerusalem is significant.  This year amidst our palm branches and our memories of the pageants of decades past, of donkeys, mountain bikes, sword-grass and pottery crosses, High-Church, Low-Church, and perhaps even no-church Palm Sundays of remembrance, that our key duty is to worship God in thanksgiving and awe at what the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem really meant for him and for the world.  One man came to give all that he had in worship of God, and all that he had was taken from him before a week had passed.

Amen.

Beyond the Last Straw

This is the sermon I preached at Lakes Entrance Uniting Church on Sunday 2nd April 2017.  This was our first service back ” home” after two months retreat at the chapel at Lake Tyers Beach.

Ezekiel 37:1-14; John 11:17-27, 38-44

 I have heard it said that the key difference between the Old Testament and the Jewish Scriptures is their end point.  Last week Lyn read to us from Isaiah and she introduced that reading as “from the Hebrew Scriptures”, which was not incorrect, even as she was actually reading from what is the Christian “Old Testament”.  What’s the difference you ask?  The end point I answer.

So, here, in celebration of our return to this house, I offer another quiz with a pen as prize.  (And let’s hope this time the pen which is won stays in Gippsland.)  Here’s the question: what is the last book in the Jewish Scriptures?  And before you answer I’ll give you a big hint, it’s not the same book at the end of the Christian religion’s Old Testament.

[Anyone?  It’s 2 Chronicles.]

In today’s first reading we hear the story of the prophet Ezekiel and his vision of a valley of dry bones.  Ezekiel is asked whether the bones can live again, in other words could any good come of the situation.  I love the answer Ezekiel gives, he says “you know Lord”.  The obvious answer is of course “no”.  Here we have a valley of thousands of dry bones, very dry according to Ezekiel 37:2, and God asks “mortal”, (so there’s a hint), “mortal, can these bones live?”  Of course they cannot, they are dismembered and dried out.  There is no flesh.  Bones cannot live without a blood supply, and a dried-out dead bone cannot live again even if blood is returned to it.  The valley of dry bones is a valley of dead bones.  But listen to Ezekiel, “oh Lord GOD, you know.”  Even as a mortal faced with the firmest evidence of mortality Ezekiel has enough faith to look beyond the obvious “no” to acknowledge God’s sovereignty in that God alone determines what does and does not happen.  And then, through Ezekiel’s prophesying and God’s responding to the word as it is being proclaimed, the Lord’s spirit moves upon the bones to create new life in dead Israel.

There’s three things I want you to hear before we move on to the story of Jesus and Lazarus:

  1. Ezekiel “only” prophesies to the bones, just as Jesus “only” calls to Lazarus. There is no mechanical manipulation in either story; no laying on of hands, no making mud from spit, no forensic anthropological jigsaw puzzle while singing “’dem bones, ‘dem bones”.  There are only human preaching and God’s re-breathing spirit at work here.
  2. Ezekiel’s story is set in the wider context of his life of prophecy and the book which carries his name. As is true of the story of Jesus within his life and within the story told by John these stories are not about individual corpses but about whether dead people can live again.  In Ezekiel’s time the question is whether there is hope for a defeated, decimated nation.  These bones not only lacked sinew and muscle, but breath and spirit.  In the same way that God makes Adam by forming a body from the elements at hand, and then breathing life into that husk of a man, so the bones are re-ligamented (which is where we get the word “religion” from) and then re-animated with the spirit of God.  This is a story of national, indeed global significance; it’s not just about the dead soldiers.  Jesus’ raising of Lazarus is also a story about more than just the once-dead brother of Mary and Martha.
  3. The promise in Ezekiel’s story is not just life and spirit, but these “on your own soil”. Yes, the nation will be restored, but more than that the people will have a home.  This is the big story of Torah, Tanakh, the Jewish religious scriptures.  Where the Christian Old Testament is fulfilled in the coming of the messiah, and its last paragraphs (Malachi 4:1-5) are about “The great day of the LORD”, the Jewish story is fulfilled in the Jewish people coming home from exile and dispersion to Jerusalem.  Its last paragraph (2 Chronicles 36:22-23) is about King Cyrus of Persia restoring the razed temple so that the Judahites may “go up” to worship once more.

In John 11 Jesus is similarly on his way “up” to Jerusalem to celebrate Pesach, the Passover, the celebration of the work of God in liberating the Hebrew nation and giving them a land of their own.  We remember that John has built his gospel around seven (or eight) key “signs” that Jesus is indeed Immanuel and in this chapter we see the penultimate one, the last one John presents in Jesus’ lifetime.  In John 11:44 by his spoken word alone Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead.  This episode is the hinge point of Jesus’ life according to John, a major major plot device by the author.  Indeed, this event is the last straw which solidifies Jewish opposition to Jesus, and from this point it is only a matter of days until Jesus is murdered.  In Matthew, Mark, and Luke the Jews decide to kill Jesus when he knocks apart the temple traders on Monday in Holy Week, but in John it is this event which gets Jesus killed: this is blatant in John 11:53.  Jesus is gloriously dangerous at this point because when Lazarus walks from the tomb Jesus’ earlier words “I Am…the resurrection” (which he said in John 11:21-22) are confirmed.  The authority of the messiah has been displayed and for the Sanhedrin, this is a situation which cannot be allowed to go unchallenged.  The only way to respond to a prophet who proclaims himself to be “the resurrection” is to kill him dead, and to do it publicly.

But let’s look at the other team, the ones who believe in Jesus.  Martha in saying “even now” in John 11:21-22 shows that she has confidence in God in the way that Ezekiel did.  Lazarus, her brother, is dead; but Jesus is now present and anything might happen.  Mary in John 11:32 gets part way there, suggesting that Jesus might have prevented the death, and Jesus is moved by her challenge.   One of the commentators I referred to this week suggests that Jesus’ weeping is compassion for the mourning sisters, who appear to be deep friends of his, but also his indignation that death has come to this house.  In his God-with-us persona Jesus is livid that a human life has been taken, something so precious to God snatched away by the insidious evil of illness in the world.  There’s more going on here than an empathetic man welling up in the presence of his tearful favourite girls, he’s had enough of the world wherein humans suffer and he wants it finished.  The fact that Lazarus and his sisters love and are loved by Jesus did not preclude Lazarus from terminal illness and death; God does not play favourites in that way.  But the fact that this family is dear to Jesus touches the heart of God profoundly on behalf of all human grief and the pains which cause it.  So, in the presence of the sisters’ faith in him and in the hearing and seeing of their tears for their beloved brother Jesus does the God-thing.  Jesus, like Ezekiel, does not dwell on Lazarus’ condition (that he’s dead) but shifts his focus to what could be done through it (that God would be glorified).  Not even death is the final word when God is involved.  God is not in favour of death and destruction, God never has been.  The God of the Jewish scriptures and therefore of Jesus’ theology is the God of homecoming and the end of exile.

There is no option for Jesus here, Lazarus must come back.

Martha’s confession in John 11:27 is the best example of what John believes about Jesus, and it sets the scene for what Jesus does by explaining why and how only he can do it.   What Martha says is far more profound than anything that Peter says about Jesus in John’s gospel: Martha knows who Jesus is, and she knows that death is never the end of the story for Jews.  However, in John 11:39 she still worries about the stench if the tomb is opened.  Maybe she is so used to Jesus speaking metaphorically that she struggles with his speaking literally.  She believes wholeheartedly that Jesus can restore Lazarus to her and Mary, and I think she even believes that Jesus wants to do this, but like Mary the virgin last week the wonder of its actually happening in the real events of the day is beyond her.  Even the deepest, most profound faith cannot overcome all trouble.  This is a great reminder for us when we doubt our faith, as strong as it is.  If we are not in a place where we can be baffled by God and amazed by the activities of Jesus, then we’re not really paying attention.

I am reliably informed that a direct Greek translation of the words spoken by Jesus in John 11:25 reads the one who continues believing into me that one will definitiely live into eternity.  Our hope, like that of the ever homecoming Jews, is about far more than believing certain concepts and doctrines; it is trusting in someone and being entrusted to him as a relational thing.  Only God can breathe life into what is as long dead as a valley of desiccated bones or a four-day’s stinking corpse in a desert cave, but we are assured that God will do entirely that in God’s perfect time, however late that seems to us.

Amen.

The Prayer of a Righteous Leader.

(Exodus 17:1-7)

Oh God!
Oh, God these people you have sent to me are dead-set doing me in….
Doing my head in, I’m done in: they’re ready to stove my skull in and rip my tongue out.

Oh God!
Oh, God this message you have sent to me to proclaim is too harsh.
Harsh like this ruddy, rocky, wrathful desert you’ve lead me to, and lead the ones following me following you to too.

Oh God!
Oh, God these people circling me are neurotic in their simplicity.
Simple understandings, literal conclusions, lack of imagination and devoid of the creative response of compassion.

Oh God!
Oh, God this message is as contradictory as a rehydrating mirage.
Rehydration, for a million souls? It’s inhospitable in Horeb, it’s an impossible request to make of me.

Oh Man!
Oh, man strike a rock and do it before the people.
Before the people sup I will provide all good things; in their right time and right place.

Oh Man!
Oh, man you ask “is the LORD among us or not”?
The LORD among you will refresh and support you; quench your questioning when I AM is identified in the overflow of outpouring.

God of Moses, God of us:

Hear us when we call out to you for what only you can provide.
Hear us calling in faith and trust, and not in whinging complaint,
when we ask you for what we cannot provide for ourselves.

Be generous to us and patient when we call on you again.
Be patient and generous in your provision and in our haste to receive,
and remind us that we cannot do anything without you.

Amen.

Temples and Turning Another Cheek

The text of the message I preached at Lake Tyers Beach Uniting Church on Sunday 19th February 2017, Seventh (A) Sunday of Epiphany

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23; Matthew 5:38-48

Several weeks ago, I suggested that the paths Christians follow towards God are unique; and that within that difference they are potentially opposite in direction to the paths of others.  I also said that no-matter how different your path is to another’s ultimately all paths lead to Jesus if each pilgrim has had Jesus as his or her source and goal.  We each start from the place where God found us, but we all end at the place where God is, we start separated by the width of the world but we end together within the presence of God.

This week as I began reading the passages for study for today, and looking at the commentaries and different interpretations presented by the scholars I listen to, that thought returned to me.  By coincidence I have spoken with several people this week as part of my pastoral care role, I have visited several members of this parish in their homes and I have caught up with others at the Op Shop, by telephone, and for coffee on the esplanade.  I heard different perspectives on the recent history of the Uniting Church in this part of Gippsland.  These stories were not so different that they were contradictory regarding facts, but as a sociolinguist I was interested to hear the different ways of reporting and the different conclusions drawn by those who had reflected upon common events.  More than one of your previous ministers have received praise and happy memories, others of your previous ministers are, shall I say “less missed” than the others, but each showed talents and strengths in places.  I am confident that after I leave my stay here will be remembered and evaluated in several different reports by you, and that is fair enough.

What I have heard is that each minister you have had has performed valuable work, but as each had his or her own preferred way of doing things, so each of you has your own preferred way of doing things.  Ways in which things are to be done, and the setting of priorities for which things must be done first and which might be left for later, was the substance of what was volunteered in conversation.  I didn’t ask, but you told me.  I hasten to add it’s not just the conversations I have had this week which has raised these points, but it was this week when I remembered previous conversations alongside today’s set of lectionary readings.

As an example of what I’m saying, let me read a paraphrase of today’s Psalm, and once again it’s from James Taylor’s Everyday Psalms (Kelowna, BC: Wood Lake Books, 2006).  Each week I promise myself that I will not use it again but every week his emphasis seems to meet the ancient text right where God is pointing me.  So, here’s today’s lectionary reading, Psalm 119:33-40, in a poem entitled “Clear Instructions”.

(Poem read here)

I’m not going to ask you if that sounds like anyone you know, or if you think it sounds like you.  I’m also not going to ask if you think it sounds like me.  But I’m sure it sounds like someone you know, and I’m sure it also sounds the complete opposite to another person you know.  So, whether you are a t-crosser and an i-dotter, or you are an eye-crosser at such precision in activity, you will recognise that some people are like the one described by Taylor and some people are not.

Listen, and contrast, the same passage paraphrased by a different poet:

Oh God, let me know what you want done; teach me Torah then let me loose to fulfil your purposes in the way you created me to do.

My LORD I know you know everything, and I know that I do not; but only let me in on the secret and I will utilise the fullest portion of my unique talents, skills, love and opportunities to bring your plans into being.

Show me the way you want me to go, because that is the only direction I wish to choose.

Draw me to you and the things you love; attract me away from anything that might distract me, but remind me where you are and of the place from which you call.

You chose me to fill a unique plan in this world, and then you liberated and released me to run my own race toward the prize which is you.  You gave me a bearing, but not a lane.  You gave me a road, but not a railroad.  As I move about on the track you gave me, the track of an athlete but not the track of a tram, continue to call me on so that I may finish well and that in seeing me finish the world may cheer for you.

I don’t need a leash or reins LORD, I am neither a toddle, a pet dog, nor or carthorse, but sometimes I need a compass.  When I am lost only call to me and I shall return.

I love your way LORD, that your road is straight and safe, but that it is more than two feet wide.  I want to walk in your footprints, not in the ruts of the wheels of others, because it is you alone I follow.

Whichever translation you like to read, whichever poetic interpretation you prefer, (or none if you aren’t the arty type), what I hope you find clear in the Psalm is the cry of the individual for God’s help.  “May God help me focus on God alone”, might be the Psalmist’s theme.  Whether you are the columns and double-entry type, or the one who prefers to think like a hiker rather than a tram, this passage is a prayer for divine guidance along the path of faithfulness.  If I were praying this, and I have prayed words like this without ever reciting Psalm 119), I would say “My God, I promise heartful, desperate devotion to you but only if you’ll lead me closely and make the way of righteousness plain to me.  Those ‘vain things that charm me most’ are tempting, especially when I am alone or lonely, but my God please hold my gaze (and my hand), and please don’t let me go so far as to require yours or the community’s rebuke.  I want to be a man of good reputation.  My God, it matters to me what others think of me because what they think of me as a Christian reflects upon what they think of you LORD, and I do so want them to think well of you.”

This leads me to ask how God would like to be thought of.  In today’s reading from Leviticus God commands the people to be generous and considerate.  I think God wants to be thought of like that.  If the people of God, be they the Hebrews entering Canaan or the Christians going back to work on Monday in Lakes Entrance are requested by God to show generosity and consideration it is most likely that that is the image of God that God wants us to get across.  We are to present the gospel by our God-likeness, which is to say our godliness.  Not that we are godlike in our Herculean strength or Artemisian beauty, but that we are like God in our patience, compassion, perseverance.  “People need less promotion of the gospel and more free samples”, says Steve Bell in his book Muslim Grace, which is a book about telling the followers of Islam about what Jesus is really like.  When I was a teacher I used to use the phrase “less talk, more walk” when my class was in transit, I think it works the same here.  Talk about Jesus if you must, but to live as Jesus did is a better witness.

The Hebrews to whom Moses is speaking are not to take revenge nor hold grudges, and since Leviticus 19:2 specifically says to tell this to all the congregation we know that God wants this followed by all the people and not only the Levites.  Rabbinical sources well after Moses stipulated that one sixtieth (1.67%) of any harvest was be left for the poor, it is here we are reminded of last week’s message where the gospel according to your prosperity meets the gospel according to another person’s adversity.  So, that’s the bit about not reaping right to the edges.  In the same way robbery, (which is stealing by trickery and/or by force), and withholding rightfully earned wages (which amounts to the same thing in a power play), are named as wrong.  As you behave so God’s reputation is shared: do not exploit the weak but rather support and encourage them (with that 2%).  Demonstrate justice toward all, even the rich: do not show undue partiality even for the poor just because they are poor but treat all people justly.  Do not slander and do not stand idly by when someone (anyone) needs help which you can provide.  Do not hate, which is to say do not bear secret grudges nor engage in plotting.  If you have a dispute bring it out into the open.  In all things act with love, even when seeking to resolve a dispute.  This is not only the word of the LORD (thanks be to God), it is also the way of the LORD (praise to you Lord Jesus Christ).

Christ is the foundation upon which God’s temple is built, says Paul.  Traditionally the temple is the place where God dwells on Earth and it is a sacred place.  Paul says that the temple is now you, you are the place where God dwells and because you are thereby made sacred God will protect you from danger and attack.  That’s all well and good, but this week I followed the train of thought we’ve ridden this past month and I came to a new understanding.  Christ is our foundation, I’ve got that.  But I’ve always thought that that meant that belief in Christ is the foundation; like the fundamentals we heard about last week.  Believe the scriptures, trust in the cross, that’s the rock.

I think that is true, but I think there is more to it than just that.  Certainly, not less than that, in all this niceness I proclaim to you remember that we are Christians and that the cross and the empty tomb are what we are about.  But the foundation which is Christ is that we act like Jesus, which is to say act as if God’s reputation is on our shoulders.  If you are the temple of God then being a solitary house of belief and piety is not enough on its own.  Act like God, with compassion and justice and fairness; let your temple be a house of hospitality.

In today’s reading from Matthew Jesus teaches his disciples to turn the other cheek, give the coat as well as the shirt, walk the second mile, and love their enemies.  Act like God, indeed act like God acted toward you before you were Christian.  Act like God acted toward you after you were saved but every time since then when you messed up through sin, stupidity, and clumsiness.  How does Jesus act throughout his life?  Like he did, oppose violent attack with non-violent resistance; to turn the other cheek or walk the second mile is not passivity or surrender but assertiveness with confidence of being vindicated by God.  Confound the aggressor, maintain your dignity, disarm the attack with courage and implied shame.  When the Romans or the Sadducees or the Herodians boast in their superiority act as if the insult you have received is a blessing – and thereby make them look foolish.  In Aussie terms we might think of a situation where the question might be asked of a big tough man “seriously mate, would you really hit a woman with glasses?  You may as well hit her again if you’re so big and tough.”  Fine, Decurion, you can order me to carry your bag for a mile, I’ll carry it for two and shame you publicly, but ever so nicely, when you try to take your stuff back and I insist upon going further.

Torah doesn’t say anywhere to hate your enemies.  “You have heard it said…” says Jesus, but it’s human wisdom that says it, and Jesus reminds the gathering crowd of what Torah says in Leviticus 19:18.  Love like God loves: love with complete love by patience and grace for everyone, no one excluded.  As the temple and ambassador of God, and follower of Jesus Christ and the way of Torah, what else could you possibly do?  But remember to do it your way, whether you are an i-dotter or an eye-crosser when it comes to rules serve God in the way God uniquely created you to.

Amen.

For Better or For Worse

This is the message I preached at Lake Tyers Beach Uniting Church on Sunday 12th February 2017, Epiphany 6 in Year A.

Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37

There’s been a lot of talk about other religions in the news recently, and by recently I could say that these conversations go back decades.  We hear, especially about Islam, of people who are “radical” and others who are “moderate”. In Islam and Christianity, we hear of “fundamentalists”. Indeed, if you follow the news from Open Doors or Barnabas Fund or another agency concerned with persecuted Christians you will hear of “radical” Buddhists, Hindus, Zionists, and atheists.  My concern today is not with the radical believers of any faith, nor with the moderates.  I find both of those adjectives quite unhelpful when speaking of religious believers and I may well speak on that in months to come.  (After all, how would you like to be described as a “Moderate Christian”?  If someone called me that I’d probably bite them, which would make me a “Radical” I suppose.)

No, my concern today is the fundamentalists, but I want to use that label in a positive way.  Today I want to talk about those people who have taken the time to learn and practice the fundamentals of the Christian faith, the foundational stuff upon which can be built a mature and substantially unique faith.

Each of the texts presented to us by the Lectionary this morning has as its key theme a focus on what we might think of as the basics, the fundamentals of the faith.  In the passage from Deuteronomy Moses sets two clear choices before the Hebrew people.  Having begun speaking at Deuteronomy 1:6 Moses is still going as we pick up the narrative at Deuteronomy 30:15; where he has come to the climax of his oration.  For the great leader of God’s people and a man who has walked for forty years to reach this point this really is a life or death moment for his people, even if the threat is not immediately apparent to them.  For those of us who live in the twenty-first century and have been taught to dislike the idea of a “prosperity gospel” Moses offers an alternative in the “adversity gospel”.  Obey God and go well in the land: disregard God and perish soonishly.  Do not be lead astray, all of creation is called as witnesses to the decision you make today.  It’s your choice to make, says Moses, and it’s a free choice.  But please, for your own sake, choose life so that God will be able to fill the promises made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

The key decision is not one of law or obedience, but of worship.  As newcomers to the land of Canaan will the Hebrews continue to worship their ancestral god, the One who brought them out of Egypt, or will they default to the baals and the local demigods of the defeated native peoples?  By the same token will they trust the LORD while they are exiled elsewhere, or will they worship the gods of the receiving nations and conquerors?  So, what is the fundamental teaching here?  Well it is that the People of God should worship God only, and they should rely completely upon God to deliver them next time just as God delivered them last time.

Then the Psalmist joins in.  Happy are the blameless, says the Psalmist, are those who love God and who seek God and who obey God.  In other words, how blessed you are if you have learned to trust God out of a proven relationship with God.  Happy are those who know from experience that God’s way is always better, even if it seems to lead through the valley of shadows.  Those who heed God’s advice will never be forsaken by God: God has never been in the business of mocking or abusing disciples and God does not set traps for the trusting.  The psalm opens with a word of declaration, this is not a question or a desire but a statement of fact: those whose way is blameless are happy, that’s just the way it is.

This is paragraph “Aleph” or “A” in an acrostic poem, a poem which may well have been an A-Z primer for young Jewish disciples learning Torah.   It is basic teaching, spoon-feeding, and like Moses the message is trust God and worship God, first and only.

In the same simplistic way, Paul addresses our friends the Corinthians, speaking to them as if they were just starting out in life at big school, drinking their milk at play-lunch and learning their alphabet.  Look at 1 Corinthians 3:1-3 where he says “I once spoke to you as if you were infants, and I see I still have to because in many ways you are still so immature.  So long as you continue to act like squabbily kids I’ll treat you as such”.  Ooh harsh!  But he doesn’t leave it there, he addresses the nature of their childishness, specifically their self-directed name calling, by placing each of those names and the characters they represent in an ongoing process of growth.  It is God from whom you should all take your belonging, says Paul, since I, Paul, and Apollos (to name but two) are merely facilitators of the work the Holy Spirit is doing.  Paul and Apollos were both ministers (diakonoi in Greek), and they had slightly different roles in the life of the Corinthian church.  But they were colleagues none the less, and servants of God the master gardener and God the landowner.  So, what is their message?

Trust God and worship God, first and only.  Who is Paul?  Who is Apollos?  Who even are Moses, David, Solomon, Asaph and the Sons of Korah?  All great men, but the LORD is…well the LORD is the LORD, and the LORD alone is worthy of adulation, obedience, and utterly dependant love.

Your instinct for tribalism is good, says Moses and Paul, but your focus must be upon being the people of God, and not on yourselves or your favourite preacher.  Don’t fix your eyes on Moses, or Paul: look to God.  In our tradition and generation, we might say don’t fix your eyes on John Knox, John Wesley, Brian Houston, or Damien Tann, great men of God that they are.  Look to God.  Moses says look to God.  Paul says look to God.  Wesley and Houston constantly say look to God.  And I certainly say look to God.

So, what does God say?  Some of this we have been told in scripture.  Moses is speaking on behalf of God when he says choose the way of life.  Choose the way of obedience to the precepts of God, which includes the commandments, but is so much more than that in encompassing your god-directed conscience.  Be faithful to God in the confidence that God has already been faithful to you.  Trust only in God because if you have nothing except God you have everything, but if you have everything except God you have nothing.  What Moses says, as the voice of God, is that if you have God you will never have nothing, because God is generous and God is kind.  God knows how the world works and that you need stuff.  God does not promise you a Ferrari if you tithe 12%, but God promises you will never be left destitute if you trust God.  The “prosperity gospel”, if there is one in truth, is not that God will guarantee you excessive wealth if you trust in Jesus Christ, but that God will guarantee the Spirit’s presence and wise-guidance with you in every instance of adversity, and that God will bring you out of adversity every single time.  The promise of eternal life is not Heaven after you stop breathing, but that your life will be worth living while you are breathing.  In other words, there is no living death for you: trust God and you will be brought through adversity.  Try going it alone in adversity and, as Moses says in Deuteronomy 30:17-18, you will not live long in the land.  As a Christian you will still go to Heaven, but your life will have been wasted and your call will have been left unfulfilled.

Let’s turn now to Matthew and to more of that great advice for living from Jesus..  In Matthew 5:21-22, Jesus says “you have heard it was said to those in ancient times…but today I say to you…” and what he is doing here, apart from re-interpreting the text for personal application of its meaning is that he’s directing that meaning towards personal relationships. God’s divine law is actually about helping you to be a good bloke/sheila, and a great mate.  Don’t let your anger, or your lust, or your bravado get out of control such that you cause harm to yourself or other people.  Perhaps Jesus is saying “’be a moderate Christian”, more likely he is saying, “be a person of moderate behaviour because you are a foundational Christian”.  As I indicated last week, and I’m really coming to believe this the more I study and the more I preach on this, God would prefer you to be nice to each other than that you come to church.  God certainly would prefer that you did both, and certainly church is a place of sanctuary and not a home for the upwardly pious, but given a choice between you being an easy man or woman to befriend and who spends Sundays being nice, and you being a grumpy sook who comes to church, God’s preference is the first one.  By all means if you are a grumpy sook keep coming, we hope that the lovely people here will make you feel safe and loved so that you have less to sook and grump about.  But if you are truly, passionately, devotedly following God revealed in Jesus Christ then your life should be reflecting that in your kindness, patience, honesty, transparency, and good humour.

This is no easy gospel.  There is much more to Christian discipleship than “be excellent to each other” as Bill and Ted once said.  (Twice actually because there was a sequel.)  The fact is that you can’t actually be this nice if you don’t have Christ within you and the confident hope that comes from the salvation of God earned for you by Jesus on the cross.  A “good Christian” must be more than “a nice person”, but he or she should certainly not be less.

The fundamentals of Christianity start at Calvary, I have no doubt of that and my own feet are planted firmly on that rock.  I believe in the empty manger, the empty cross, and the empty tomb, and because of what those locations represent in the distant past, human life of Jesus who is and forever will be the Christ of God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel, today I have the confidence to be patient, resilient, and kind.

You have been saved.  It’s more than okay to smile, laugh, and be kind because of that.  In fact, it’s practically required of you to do so.

Amen.

The in a car notional faith

Going to a church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car.  I have heard that before.  I have said that before.  I used to agree with it, and in some ways I still do.

But not completely.

Because, they are different, garages and churches I mean.  There is a point at which the analogy breaks down.

Garages aren’t designed to turn you into a car: that’s not what they’re for.  Depending on the type of garage you have in mind the purpose of the garage is either a place to park a car (which is already a car and has no intention of being anything else), a place to repair a car (along the same parameters), or a place to refuel a car (ditto).  Garages are for storage and repair, not for transformation.  Even if your Ride is to be Pimped, the car remains a car throughout the process.

Churches on the other hand are designed to turn you into a Christian: that is what they are for.  Depending upon the type of church you have in mind…well actually that doesn’t matter because all churches are supposed to make people Christian.

I have heard that some people, indeed many people, go to church for stupid reasons.  You know, stupid things like being dragged along by your parents, or because you’re lurking for lerve and churches have a unique kind of talent, or because you want to be seen in church, or because you are hoping to do business networking with actual Christians when you are actually not one.  Or maybe the stupid reason is that you’ve always gone to church and you no longer remember why at all, any more.

Yet I believe in grace, mercy, and a somewhat interventionist God.  I believe that if you’re going to be made a Christian you’re better off in a church than not in a church.  The proviso of course is that the church you are in is a positive, Christ-centred, love producing fellowship of worshipping believers.  If that’s not your church then you are, no doubt, better off in another one, but you’re still better off in a mediocre church in place of a bad church than in no church at all.

So, in Christian phraseology, I now believe the opposite.  Belonging in a local fellowship will enhance and equip you in discipleship.  If it isn’t, well maybe the place you are going to isn’t actually a church at all…