Wail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Sunday 6th October 2019

Serviceton Church of Christ

Word!

This s the text of my ministry message in the KSSM monthly news sheet for October 2019.

Recently you heard me preach from Paul’s letter to Philemon, and about the ways in which God uses human relationships to bring reconciliation in the world.  As part of my preparation to preach on that text, and since the whole letter is only 25 verses long and I was only going to preach on Philemon 1-21, I decided to have some fun with it and to read the passage in every Bible I own.  Now when I say every Bible I don’t mean every copy, just each of the different versions; so Good News and King James and New International, and so on.

What I discovered is that I have eighteen different versions of the New Testament in English in my house.  I have a Greek New Testament as well, and some versions I have doubles of because I have the “Study Bible” as well as the plain text.  Most of those different Bibles also have the Old Testament, and some also have the Apocrypha.  That’s a lot of different ways, in English (only) of saying what God said; and in case you’re wondering, no I do not have every version available, but surely I have enough.

The most important thing about owning a copy of the Christian Scriptures, whether you have one or whether you have eighteen (plus doubles) is that you read it.  I don’t often (ever) read all eighteen of my Bibles in one sitting, although when I’m writing a sermon I usually read at least three and as many as six.  In my devotional life I read only one, a favourite copy of the NRSV which I bought in England, and I do read it every day, with With Love For The World, as company.

October marks one year of my being in Kaniva and Serviceton.  What I desire for us in the next year is that we all commit to reading more of the Bible. Maybe we need to read more Bibles (perhaps my devotions will include a second Bible, different to the NRSV as well as the NRSV), maybe we need to read more than just the passage set in our devotions, but if we are serious about living out Biblical values in 2020 we’d better know what those values are, and there is no better place to find them than in the Bible itself.

Pastoring is hard work (parts 1-3).

Pastoring is hard work, and there’s stuff I wasn’t expecting.

I did not exactly grow up in a manse, I was 14 when my family moved into a church-owned house, and I was 17 when my father was ordained and we had our first manse as a ministry family.  I lived in all of my father’s manses for various amounts of time first as a still-at-home teen.  Later I lived with my parents as a post-Uni gap-year resident, later still as a “returned to be nursed by parents through a debilitating illness” thirty-something, and finally (twice) as a ministry student living-in to do prac.  I have seen my father work from home, I have seen my father called away from home, I have seen my father come home after meetings/church/visits/councils, and I have answered my father’s phone.

And still there’s stuff I wasn’t expecting.

Growing up in the leader’s house, being on the leadership team (lay preacher, elder, secretary of church council, school chaplain and a member of ministers’ fraternal in my own ministry), being the one to man the phone and hold the fort at times, I was still left with things unknown when it came to my own manse and my own ministry.  I never thought I knew it all, but I didn’t know what it was I didn’t know: I didn’t know the extent of what my father did, and what he put up with, even though we’ve shared a ministry house and a love for beer in each other’s company for more of my adult life than not.

Ministry is frustrating: that’s the key thing.  Yes it is rewarding, yes it is challenging, yes it is my job and therefore it is work, and yes it is my calling and therefore it is a privilege and a blessing.  I suppose life for everyone is frustrating at times; it certainly was for me as a teacher and as a prisons officer, but I wasn’t expecting the frustrations to come from where they came from.  My father was good, is good, at hiding his professional and pastoral burdens and at keeping confidentiality: and so he should be. I don’t feel cheated by his lack of communication of “what it’s really like”, but I didn’t know that I didn’t know.

  1. The Church is not what it used to be, in society and in church, and this is especially evident for me in that people don’t come at Christmas and Easter anymore.  If they haven’t come during the year they won’t come even for the special occasions now.  I knew that I think, I’ve been to church on the high holidays and seen the size of the congregation (or lack of size): the world has stopped going to church once or twice a year.  What I didn’t know is that many Christians, people who are there many Sundays, don’t come at Christmas and Easter either.  Christmas Day means a road trip to Nana’s house, so no time for church (or if church then church with Nana at Nana’s church).  Easter is a long weekend, so no time for church (or if church then church near the campground).  People don’t come at Christmas and Easter anymore.
  2. Pastors work when everyone else doesn’t. This is not a universal truth and I’m not on night-shift; and even if I were well others work odd hours too.  My point is that I work and am paid to do a job where everyone else is a volunteer and their participation occurs in their spare time; which is usually on evenings or weekends.  I remember a time when I was in my office planning a worship service and I rang the lead musician to check on some aspect: she asked me to ring her in the evening instead because she was “at work right now and can’t talk.” Fair enough; but I was also “at work right now” in that I was at my desk planning a worship service, and I had intended to spend that evening decidedly “not at work”.  Pastoring therefore requires a lot of waiting for people to be available and fitting in around them.  That is the nature of the job, however it means that deliberate attention must be paid to scheduling rest and time-off.  The standard hours of time-off in Australia are exactly when my otherwise-employed-during-working-hours volunteers are available to meet up with me, therefore I must be available for them outside business hours.  The other side of this is the minister’s day off: because we work on Sundays, when everyone else is not at work, ministers usually have a mid-week day of rest.  This can cause consternation when church members ring during normal business hours on that day with the understanding that they are at work so why aren’t I.  Of course even when it is not my day off I might be taking some time off during the day conscious of the fact that I’ll be at an appointment that evening.  Try explaining that to someone on the phone: I don’t bother, I just answer the phone.
  3. Prayer is work.  Not that prayer is hard (although sometimes it is) but praying for your congregation takes time in the day and the diary.  If I’ve got to 11:30am and not typed anything or phoned anyone, have I really been “working” if all I’ve done since 8:30 is ponder and converse with God and an open Bible?  Of course I have, it is what I’m paid to do, but I didn’t know that until I started doing it in my own office.

Just If I’d…By Faith (Romans 5:1-8)

A Prayer of Confession

 O Lord, how we love a good boast!

As Christians, we love how our boasting brings you glory!!

We suffer with patience,

and are patient in our endurance.

Our hope is that our character

will prove this intolerable suffering

was worthwhile.

 

We are proud of our scars Lord,

the evidence of trials unseen,

(but oh, let me testify to how brave

I was…umm…of course for Jesus’ sake.  Of course.)

 

Thank you for your endurance, Lord.

For the ways in which you were patient

as we noisily endured,

racking up our Frequent Martyr Points.

 

Thank you for peace with God,

made obvious to us by the work of Jesus Christ

in revealing God’s truest nature as love beyond dimension.

 

Thank you that while we were sinners,

that God died for us,

thinking only of us,

and that the words of Christ from the cross

were of pity for us and not for himself.

 

Thank you for the assurance,

that you’d do it again if it were necessary,

which it isn’t,

but you’d never know from all the

pious whining.

Amen.

Extraordinary Day (Psalm 116:1-2, 12-15)

I love you God: I love that you hear me when I try to speak with you.

Especially when I try to speak with you but my words fail me because I have been ill.

Because you listen to me and delight to hear me,

I will continue to speak to you and speak with you.

 

And I will listen, in case you want to speak to me.

 

What else can I give you?  What do I have that you don’t have?

What do I have that you could possibly need?

All that I can truly offer you is my desire to receive more from you.

All that I can truly offer you is my desire to love you more,

and for others to love you because they have seen you and known you

as I have seen and known you.

I want my worship to be overheard, not that I become famous as a worshipper

or wordsmith:

but that the content of my worship, the story of my salvation,

the litany of my thanksgiving should be heard;

and that the evidence of that which has not yet been seen by others

should be made audible to them.

 

Your care of me is so apparent to me.

Your love of me has never been more real.

It is truly shocking how intimately you know me and

the degree to which you love me.

 

I have been known by God in the Biblical sense,

and this is what you have desired for each of your daughters and sons.

 

This is an extraordinary day.

But, then every day is when you are near, Lord.

 

Amen.

Through Matthew (Matthew 9:35-38)

Father, through Matthew you tell us that

Jesus went out:

teaching and preaching,

healing and raising,

revealing and praising.

And then he went to the next town and did the same again.

 

Father, through Matthew you tell us that

Jesus had compassion.

Enduing the crowds

and curing the crowded.

Shepherding the lost

and gathering the blest.

 

Father, through Matthew you tell us that

Jesus needs assistance.

Here we are: send us.

 

Amen.

Women at Wells

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

John 4:5-42

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.