This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of God gathered as Yallourn Uniting Church and Morwell Uniting Church in a cluster at Newborough on Sunday 30th September 2018. It was my last service in that district before I moved to a new placement in Western Wimmera.
Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22; Psalm 124; James 5:13-20
Over the past month we have been examining the letter attributed to Jacob, the brother of Jesus, and the message that James offers in the way of keys to discipleship. Today’s reading from the fifth of five chapters is not so much the pinnacle of what Jacob wrote, simply the last things he got to before he stopped. There is no summary of all that has gone before, no conclusion, no wrapping up of loss ends. Jacob has laid out his dot points, and today we come to the end of his list.
And so today, with no particular order in mind, Jacob writes in James 5:1-6 of the intransigence of wealth, and of the honesty required from the rich to say that all that others aspire to is not good in the end. Money cannot buy you salvation, this is a central Christian understanding and Jesus and Paul are as clear on this as Jacob, but we are also told today that money cannot buy you happiness. This is also an ancient lesson, known to wise Jews at least since the days of Ecclesiastes and the teacher Qoheleth who taught the same, if not before. Jacob instructs the wealthy members of society who are also participants in the local church to confess that having shedloads of money, (remembering that Jesus spoke of bigger barns) is not all that it is cracked up to be. Jacob also counsels them directly to look at where that wealth has come from. Remember in James 2:7 where Jacob tells the church to be wary of the wealthy rather than fawning? Well, here he addresses the wealthy directly asking whether their wealth was ill-gotten through corruption, injustice, and exploitation of the poor. Do you have anything to confess to your sisters and brothers in faith? God looks for justice and God has heard the complaints of the downtrodden against the unjust, the unmerciful and the exploitative.
The section of Hebrew scripture suggested to us this morning comes from the climax of the story of Esther. In assorted verses from Esther 7 and Esther 9 we hear about Haman, the arrogant and corrupt official to offered bribes against an honest man, and who is discovered and executed. Haman’s wealth and position could not protect him from his comeuppance, but they could have allowed him to do great things. Haman chose poorly, Jacob encourages those of his hearers who have wealth and influence in the world, including some of us in this room, to use what we have for the good of the Church and the world and not for our own selfish and ultimately fruitless pursuits. Back to Esther we hear about the ever-reliable Mordecai and how he recorded all that took place in Susa so that the celebration of deliverance wouldn’t be forgotten: here is a man using position and opportunity to do a good thing.
Today’s Psalm, 124 which I read to you in paraphrase, is another reminder that God alone saves, and that God’s salvation is complete. In a reading suitable for Purim and the remembrance of Esther and Mordecai the story of God’s people is that the inevitability of annihilation became victorious, total rescue with not one soul lost. Similarly, Jacob wrote in James 5:7-12 of how followers of the Way of Christ can wait for God in patient confidence that God is faithful and true. More than that, a future left in God’s hands and with an ear to God’s word of instruction in the Present, is a secure future. Even if you have been exploited and were the receiver of unjust action, says Jacob, anxiety and irritability are not necessary; enjoy each other’s company in the Church without envy. Allow the wealthy to apologise, if they offer, and live with patient hope and even endurance like Job. God knows what you have been though, and God also knows what you have put and are putting others through and God hears everything you say – so don’t you become unmerciful either. God’s call for the exploiters and thieves to repent is not a licence for the survivors to enact revenge and extract punitive reparations. Be faithful in conversation and honest at all times. Be so dependable at your word that oaths and public curses would not be required of you; let it be such that everyone trusts you to speak the truth at all times because it’s all you ever do.
And finally, in James 5:13-20 we read Jacob’s exhortation towards faith in action. Here we get some nitty gritty teaching and some practical tips on the ways in which the local congregation goes about the work of being “The Church”. Remembering the tradition that this was written by the first bishop of Jerusalem, whatever that means for you in terms of Church History, I’d say we can take Jacob as a man who knows what he’s talking about. Maybe you’ll take this also as an encouragement from me as I move on and you are left without an incumbent in the manse; an encouragement that God trusts you and has entrusted to you and equipped you for the ministries in and out of this place. “Ask the elders” says Jacob, there’s a good idea. Two weeks ago, at Narracan, and it was a cluster service, so Morwell and Yallourn heard me say this, I encouraged you to look for and identify your leaders, and to pray for them. Yallourn currently has people named as Elders and who form a church council; Morwell congregation is its own council and you do not have a nominated eldership. Regardless of who does or does not have a title right now, look for leaders and encourage them to lead. Let those who know how to, pray for the sick and expect God to heal. Any and all of you can pray, even yourself, however Jacob writes, and I remind you to invite others into your praying, pray in pairs and teams and friendship circles as a sign of faith and belonging. I commend to you the activities of loving, laughing and lamenting in public. Continue to share life with the brother-sisters of your church so that all are built up in family and confidence in the God who is visibly active in your midst. And above all, look for those who are straggling and struggling, and go in grace to them to help them and to seek to restore them to God and to fellowship. Continue to pray (with prayer) for the worn out, the worn down, and those Jacob refers to as the spiritually weak in James 5:15.
When I was invited to come here I was given three main tasks, to be completed on a 0.5FTE or 2.5 days per week contract. Foremost, it was presented as foremost, I was to preach a good sermon every Sunday. None of this once a fortnight stuff for 0.5FTE, every Sunday and Christian holy day, every week. I have preached every Sunday, as well as Christmas and Easter – whether they were good sermons I shall leave to your discernment, but since I’ve not heard any complaints, or had second-hand reports of complaints, I think I’m safe. Second task was to take time to prepare and write the good sermon. Don’t preach from your archive as a lay preacher, write us something new and pertinent every week, and don’t write one sermon and preach it at Morwell and again and Narracan and again at Newborough. We want God’s fresh word, not some random devotional to fit the ten minutes between the third and fourth hymn. And third, visit those who cannot attend Sunday, the ill, the old, the hospitalised, and the residents of Narracan Gardens, Mitchell House, Heritage Manor, and Latrobe Valley Village. In other words, you asked me to bring God and God’s word to you, wherever you were, and to prioritise that over the other things that ministers do.
I commend these tasks to you.
Your task as Church, as churches, is to bring to each other and to the people of the Latrobe Valley the means of spiritual healing. This is the work of prayer and visitation that Jacob wrote about, because as The Message translation renders James 5:20, to do so may prevent an epidemic of wandering away from God.
God and the Church have called me elsewhere, but God and the Church call you here. Stay, and minister. I know I’ll be missed in Moe-Newborough, Yallourn North, and Morwell, and thank you for saying that. But please, don’t you be missed in this places – because that is where your ministries lie.