Good mourning

In 2018, the Uniting Church Assembly decided that the Sunday before Australia Day would be observed as a Day of Mourning. This was a request of our sisters and brothers in the First Peoples council of our church, the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress.

So today, we are remembering the tragic history of our nation and the violent dispossession of its First Peoples. Today, we lament the truth of our shared history, and we lift up to God our prayers for our First Peoples and our nation. We say sorry and we pray for forgiveness, healing and hope. We come together and give thanks to God for the abundant grace and liberating hope that we know through Jesus Christ and which is for all people.

Reading

Jonah 3.1–5, 10 

The book of Jonah is a satire, skewering prophets who can go bad. The author had a whale of a good time (pun intended), attacking those who claim to know God but whose actions are far from God’s desires.… — John C Holbert, Connections, Year B Vol 1

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I’m always excited when I see it’s time to hear the story of Jonah the runaway prophet again. Jonah is my all-time favourite book of the library of books we call the Bible. 

The Book of Jonah is only four chapters long, and only forty eight verses. Read it when you get home — it’s far more than a whale of a tale about a prophet who went feral. No, the Book of Jonah is a hilarious satire on those who can’t keep up with God’s superabundant willingness to forgive and heal people. Any people. 

We meet Jonah today in chapter 3 of the book, striding into Nineveh as as though he were an Old Testament hero. But Jonah wasn’t heroic. The Book of Jonah is the story of a very reluctant prophet, not a hero at all. 

Jonah flees to Tarshish when God calls him to speak out against Nineveh. Nineveh was the superpower of the time; it was a bit like God saying to me, ‘Ok Paul, I want you to go to North Korea and tell Kim Jong Un to change his ways’. I’d be off in a flash, somewhere the back of beyond.

Tarshish was a ‘back of beyond’ kind of place. We don’t know where it was, probably in the south of Spain, but this is the thing about Tarshish: it was as far away from Israel as Jonah could imagine. I reckon Jonah thought, God can’t reach me there.

We all know how the story goes. Jonah is swallowed by a large fish, and after three days and three nights the fish throws him up. While in the fish, he composes a psalm.

After that, God calls him to go to Nineveh again. This is when we meet Jonah today, as he begins his grudging cooperation with God.

Jonah goes to Nineveh and proclaims

Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!

But Nineveh, the great enemy of Israel, is not overthrown. At least not in the way Jonah wants it. 

Jonah wants Nineveh and everyone in it to be totally obliterated, but that’s not what happens. 

Everyone in Nineveh, from the king to the cattle, repents. Yes, even the livestock turn to God. 

What gives? Did God say one thing and do another? Maybe, but maybe not. Remember, Jonah said, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ 

That word ‘overthrown’ translates the Hebrew word hapak. Like a lot of English words, hapak has two meanings. It may mean ‘destroy’, or ‘change’. 

‘Destroy’ was Jonah’s understanding. It’s what Jonah meant. He wanted Nineveh and all its people to be razed to the ground. Pulverised.

But the people and animals of Nineveh repented; God did not destroy them. They changed. 

So did God say one thing, and do another? Jonah thought so, and we’ll look at him again in a minute. 

But look at what happened: Jonah said, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ 

In the Book of Jonah, Nineveh is not destroyed. But its violent way of life is overthrown. Nineveh, the all-conquering, all devouring beast, is overthrown. The people and livestock live; but the old order of violence is gone. Overthrown. 

Just a little note: Jonah is a a short story. In history, in fact, Nineveh did not repent. Nineveh destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel and scattered its people. You may have heard of the ‘ten lost tribes’ of many stories — that refers to the scattered and lost people of Israel. 

Let me repeat: the historical Nineveh did not repent. The Book of Jonah is a story, a wonderful, brilliant story about the God who is ‘gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing’. 

That’s the whole point of Jonah. This book gives us a clear picture of God’s will for us all. It is for the powers of evil to be overthrown and for all to repent. It is for a future of peace and wholeness. 

But what about Jonah? 

Jonah was very unhappy about this and became angry. So he prayed, ‘Lord, didn’t I say before I left home that this is just what you would do? That’s why I did my best to run away to Spain! I knew that you are a loving and merciful God, always patient, always kind, and always ready to change your mind and not punish. Now, Lord, let me die. I am better off dead than alive.’

Here we have a really distressing insight into Jonah. He wants a God who will punish his enemies. He doesn’t want them to hear God’s message and repent; he knows God is ‘gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing’. Jonah wanted God to destroy Nineveh.

The people of Nineveh experienced a good mourning; as the book ends, Jonah has a bad mourning. He is the most spectacularly successful evangelist ever, but Jonah wishes he’d failed. If he had, Nineveh would now be a smouldering pile of dust and ashes. 

Jonah’s grief is more a feeling sorry for himself, and his bad mourning an unwillingness to grasp the vision that God was offering him. He just wants to die. Literally! 

In Nineveh, they caught the vision that God offered. ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ So they repented and their violent ways were overthrown. 

What can we learn from this on the Sunday before 26 January, on this Day of Mourning? 

When Europeans came to these lands now called Australia, they wanted everything to stay the same. (I get that. I remember when we came from England. I was eleven; I thought Australia was England but with good weather. It took me a long time to internalise the reality that Australia isn’t much like England at all. And the weather isn’t always good either!) 

Back to the first white settlers; they wanted to plant Britain in the Great Southland. They brought their laws and their convicts; they planted their crops, raised their livestock and introduced cute little bunny rabbits to these lands. 

When the first European artists painted Australian landscapes, they made gum trees look more like English trees. They wanted it to look like home. 

They also disregarded Aboriginal and Islander people. They subjected them to land grabs, massacres, poisonings, and border wars. Along with that, they conducted a systemic separation of children from their parents. The churches were complicit in this. 

Today, we still have no treaty, Aboriginal people are more likely to do jail time, and black lives are still lost in custody. Aboriginal people die earlier than Second Peoples, and suffer from chronic illnesses at a higher rate than others. The Australian government persists with a demeaning policy of cashless welfare cards. 

How can we respond? In terms of the story of Jonah, we later comers, especially we who are of British ancestry, are the Ninevites. We are the people of Nineveh, the ones who are causing the problem. There is a message of hapak, being overthrown, squarely directed at us. But will the end result be destruction or change? Ways of domination must be overthrown — and believe it or not, that is good news. Australia can go through a good mourning by catching God’s vision of shalom and putting it into practice. The Uluru Statement from the Heart may be a good place to start. This statement seeks the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution, and a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history. What does Makarrata mean? The Uluru Statement says

Makarrata is the culmination of our agenda: the coming together after a struggle. It captures our aspirations for a fair and truthful relationship with the people of Australia and a better future for our children based on justice and self-determination.

What about here in West End Uniting Church? We must discern with the Spirit of Jesus how we act locally. How will we be part of a better world for the First Peoples of these lands now called Australia? 

West End Uniting Church 24 January 2021

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Whose Voice?

Reading
1 Samuel 3.1–10

Silence is Heard. Here is another quandary to ponder… | by StillJustJames |  Tranquillity's Secret | Medium

To be called by God is an act of spiritual intimacy and divine urgency. To be called by God means that God knows one’s name and, in knowing one’s name, exercises a powerful influence on the person. To be called by God also indicates a need for immediate response because the Almighty has indeed summoned one to a specific vocation or course of action.

Joseph L Price, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol 1

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Perhaps, like me, you first heard the story of Samuel as a child. It’s one that kids can really get into. They identify with the little child, woken at night by a voice, going to an adult perhaps for reassurance as much as to answer the call. It’s got a number of homely aspects to it. We get it. 

Little Sam thought Eli had called him. Why not? After all, he’s only three. Don’t forget: ‘The word of the Lord was rare in those days …’ 

Who knew it was God?

Eli knew. This man whose world was about to come crashing down coached Samuel in what to do when he heard the voice. 

How do we know when we are hearing a word from God? Let me say, I realise that few of us hear an actual voice. It is more likely that we experience an inner conviction about something. How do we know that inner conviction is from God? 

One

Some of us may need to find some silent time to become aware of the flow of our innermost thoughts and desires. There are so many distractions! — our devices, our work environment, our search for entertainment or recreation, the need for ‘me time’. 

Time just to be is scarce. Yet to hear God, it helps to practise just ‘being’ somewhere. Not flitting from one thing to another. Allowing our spirits to quieten. Listening to our souls. Not easy for us who are schooled to be active. Not easy either for those with children at home. Yet just a few minutes can help. 

The priest Eli had two wayward sons, and a shrine to run. He was very busy. Little Sam could just be, and in the silence of the night he heard. 

Two

A word from God is unlikely to be quickly silenced. The story tells of Sam being woken three times, and it was only on the third time that Eli realised what was happening. 

You may feel called to do something. If that call is from God — note the ‘if’ — it is unlikely to let you go for too long. I first felt the call of God to the ministry over thirteen years before I finally approached the church. I felt like I was coming in with my hands up, in surrender. I do not regret it one tiny bit. 

Three

We must respond if God is speaking a word to us. It may well be something small, like picking up the phone to check on someone. What would have happened if Samuel had just turned over and gone back to sleep when he heard the voice? 

We ignore a word from God to our disadvantage. 

And finally, 

Four

How do we know if what we are being told to say or do is from God? 

Back in Samuel’s day, ‘the word of the Lord was rare’. Maybe it is today in certain parts. But in other places there has been a veritable flood of words from the Lord. 

I’m thinking about the USA, that hotbed of religiosity where words from the Lord are given alongside guns, glory and the unfettered right to be an individual without regard for others. 

Was that a bit harsh? Maybe so, but it seems that way when you look at what has been happening there since the rise of Donald Trump and especially since the storming of the Capitol building by a riotous mob, some of whom were armed — some of whom built a gallows, presumably for Mike Pence. 

I mention this not because this weekend may see more activity by these people, though it may. I am recording this a few days early for it to be streamed on Sunday. 

I mention it because self-styled Christian prophets have consistently preached that Donald J Trump will get a second term as President. So if he doesn’t, that must mean votes have been stolen. There are photos of people — at this riot! — with signs that say JESUS 2020 or JESUS SAVES. 

There is a certain kind of religiosity at work here. Does this word come from God? Why do churches support and uphold this man? 

There are political reasons of course, and these so-called prophets are religiose members of the religious right. Not only religiose, that is, excessively or even dangerously religious; they want to hang onto the coattails of power. Maybe make a few dollars more. 

Is this a word from the Lord? They think so. Only problem is, history is proving them wrong. Joe Biden has won a free and fair election. 

I’m saying this in Australia, and I know people from the United States will read it later. Why am I commenting on your country? One: we care. And two: what happens in the USA affects us all. No one, and no country, is an island entire of itself. So while we don’t yet know what will happen in the USA over the weekend and on 20 January, our prayers are with you. 

How do we know whether a word comes from God? The best question to ask is, Does it conform to the way of Jesus? That is, if we feel called to confront a wrong, do we see how to do that by sharing God’s love? 

The way of Jesus always involves grace and forgiveness and reconciliation. It seeks for peace by peaceful methods. Is that in the word we are hearing? 

I was once in a small office with someone who told me that he was God, and he could kick me to death if he wanted. (He genuinely believed it at the time.) I looked at him and thought Yes, you could. He was taller and bigger than me. 

Had he really heard a word from the Lord? Would God tell him to kick someone to death? We can easily see it wasn’t a word from God. 

Sadly, there are people who are so under the thrall of powerful religious leaders that they can’t — or won’t — or daren’t — exercise their own discernment. 

Finally, if you think you’re hearing something the Bible may call a word from the Lord, don’t be a lone ranger. We aren’t left alone to discern things like this. We are part of the Body of Christ. Seek wise people out, talk to them and pray with them. See if this ‘something’ is supported by others, and then move forward in the Holy Spirit of Jesus. 

God is still speaking; our part is to have ears to hear, and lives to give. Amen.

West End Uniting Church 17 January 2021

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Welcomed and Baptised

Today is the day that we remember the Baptism of Jesus, and what baptism can mean to us today. We’ll take a look at the way baptism included previously excluded or unimportant people in the Book of Acts. In the light of recent events in the USA — and the kid-gloves way white supremacists are treated — we need to emphasise the way Scripture includes those who have been marginalised. 

Readings
Acts 19.1–7
Mark 1.4–11

The gift of the Spirit in baptism sweeps people up into the dynamic of the Spirit and its expansive Way. It drives believers to participate in the church’s expansive mission. It empowers them to witness in word and in deed to a universally inclusive reality. And so by the Spirit they are empowered to witness to a truth that many in today’s terrorised and war-torn world may need to hear. Now that the Way is come to all, we no longer need be Jews or Greeks or Egyptians or Romans or Arabs in order to be God’s people. — Douglas F Ottati, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol 1

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Baptism of Jesus

Baptism has been the source of some of the greatest debates of the Christian church through the years. How much water should we use? We baptise with water, but should we pour, sprinkle or immerse people? Who can be baptised? Can infants and children be baptised, or just adults? What are the limits of baptism?

The Sunday after Epiphany (6 January) is the day we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus. Jesus is baptised as our representative. So who does Jesus represent? He was a male Jew who spoke Aramaic. No one suggests that only male, Jewish Aramaic speakers can be baptised. Then who does Jesus represent? Jesus represents all of us, young, old, white, black, gay or straight. In baptism, all of us are united with Christ, without exception. 

The Uniting Church’s baptism service says

In his own baptism in the Jordan by John,
Jesus identified himself with humanity
in its brokenness and sin …

‘Jesus identified himself with humanity’ — all of us. Everyone. No one is left out. 

Today, I want to look with you at some of the baptismal stories Luke tells in the Book of Acts. And then we’ll come to the very strange story we heard today, about believers who had never heard of the Holy Spirit! 

Let’s be clear: Christian baptism includes the promise of God’s Spirit. In Christian baptism we are identified with Jesus Christ, who bears the Spirit and shares the Spirit with us. 

It doesn’t matter how old you are. You can be five weeks, five or fifty years old; in baptism, you are publicly initiated into the community of the Spirit, the Church of God. You may be unaware, as an infant; you may need further training, as a child; you may need to grow further in maturity, as an adult. It doesn’t matter who you are. You have the gift of the Spirit, by the grace of God. You have received the sign of belonging to the community of the Spirit. 

The ‘whoever you are-ness’ of baptism is embedded in the Book of Acts. Luke, the author of Acts, tells of a number of baptisms that show God’s grace freely poured out on people who the so-called ‘righteous’ may have looked down on. 

Firstly, the Day of Pentecost in chapter 2. Three thousand people were baptised according to Luke (Acts 2.41). These people were Jews who didn’t live in Judaea. Some of them may have been converts to the Jewish faith. Strict Jerusalem-based believers might have suspected them of having heretical views, and who knows, some of them may have had heretical views. They were welcomed and baptised. 

Then in Acts 8, Philip preaches the Good News to the loathed and despised people of Samaria. Continue reading

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Word, made flesh

Reading
John 1.1-18

On the Second Sunday of Christmas, our focus will be the reading from Gospel of John. Jesus is not introduced by name in this passage. Instead, we see the relationship of the Word and Wisdom of God in terms of the embodiment of God’s vision in the ministry of John the Baptist and the expectation of the coming Christ, the Messiah, who becomes flesh dwelling within the ambiguities, the tragic beauty of history.

Bruce Epperley, The Adventurous Lectionary

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We’re still in the Christmas season — it’s the Tenth Day of Christmas — but sometimes we forget that only two Gospels, Matthew and Luke, give us a Nativity story. 

Mark, the Gospel we’ll spend a lot of time in this year, just kicks off the Jesus story with a bang. Jesus is baptised, the Spirit drives him into the desert where he is tempted by the devil, and then Jesus gets on with it. ‘Immediately’ is one of Mark’s favourite words! 

John’s Gospel begins with a Prologue, which we heard today. 

John’s Prologue is a very dense, even explosive, piece of writing. It presents us with the Word of God who is with God, who is everything God is, who is made flesh, who brings light and life into being, who brings grace upon grace, who makes the hidden God known, who gives us the power, the authority to become children of God. 

Since it’s Christmas, since our attention has been focussed on the infant Jesus, let’s concentrate on that last part. Let’s see how John’s Prologue helps us in becoming children of God. 

John’s Prologue is all about the Word. John begins with exactly the same words as the Book of Genesis:

In the beginning …

That’s no coincidence. John means to draw our attention to God’s creative word in Genesis 1. In Genesis, God speaks and things happen: 

God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good …

And God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.’ … And it was so.…

And God said, ‘Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.’ And it was so.… 

John tells us more about this creative Word that comes straight out of the mouth of God. This Word is with God from the beginning, this Word is everything God is. 

And this Word does something never thought possible: the Word is made flesh. 

Continue reading

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The humble tracks of Jesus

Reading
Luke 2.22–40

Jesus was just a baby — and this is God’s shrewdest device. As Luther put it, God became small for us in Christ; he showed us his heart, so our hearts might be won. Infants wield a kind of power. Muscular men with calloused hands become gentle as pillows when handed a baby; potent people with gruff voices adopt a falsetto and coo to an infant. God came down, not to thrash evildoers or crush the Romans, but as an infant, to elicit love, to nurture tenderness. — James C Howell, Feasting on the Word: Year B, Vol.1

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I always smile when young parents-to-be tell me ‘Having a baby won’t change us!’ 

I feel like saying, ‘Wanna bet?’ But I don’t. I just wait and see. 

Our Gospel Reading is the story often called ‘The Presentation’. Jesus is presented to God in the Jerusalem Temple, and Mary and Joseph encounter Simeon and Anna. 

This is forty days after the birth of Jesus. I imagine two bleary-eyed parents coming, after forty nights of broken sleep and forty days of poo. (And not the Winnie the Pooh kind!) 

Don’t think that entering the Temple was like coming into church. The Temple was surrounded by various courts, and the grounds covered fourteen hectares. I suppose there was plenty of space for Anna to live there. 

Some parts of the Temple were considered holier than others, and there were firm rules about how far into the Temple you could go. Gentiles were allowed in the outer court; Jewish people could go further in, men further than women. Only the priests could enter the inner Temple, and the very holiest place — the Holy of Holies — was only entered once a year, and only by the high priest. 

You had to know your place. The offering that Joseph and Mary were making was made close to the entrance to the Temple courts. Jesus didn’t know it at the time, but he wasn’t allowed very far in at all. 

We may feel a sense of outrage at this, as it offends our ideas of equality and diversity. But what if we also see it as a sign of how low God was prepared to go to win us: God becomes a child who can’t enter the really holy places of Israel. We see here the humility of God. 

This offering was for the purification of Mary. She needed to be ‘purified’ after the physical trauma of childbirth to her body. 

Really? 

Does the Mother of Jesus need to be purified? Again, God’s humility comes front and centre. 

This strange, even offensive, theology of women needing to be purified after childbirth lasted a long time. The 1662 Anglican Book of Common Prayer had a service called ‘The Thanksgiving of Women after Child-birth, Commonly called The Churching of Women’. 

It made sense to have a service of Thanksgiving in days when giving birth was a very risky exercise, and it was not uncommon for a woman to die in childbirth. 

But this Churching of Women had another layer, below the surface. It was considered improper (or, in the biblical sense, unclean) for a woman to reenter the church without going through this service of the Churching of Women. 

This practice is not massively out of date — well, it’s as old as I am, certainly. My mother was ‘churched’ after I was born. And she didn’t even go to church on Sundays! 

Did Mary need to go through a service of purification? Does any mother need it? But Mary brings the Son of God to the Temple so that she may be purified. 

God’s humility is seen in Mary being purified, in Jesus only getting to the outer reaches of the Temple. But there’s more. 

On top of all that, this is a child born into poverty. The normal offering for this service of purification was a lamb in its first year. If a family couldn’t afford a lamb, they were able to being two pigeons or two turtledoves. 

Joseph and Mary bring the offering of the poor. 

We need to have all this in mind when we consider Simeon and Anna’s parts in this story. 

This was an ordinary-looking couple. There were no neon signs with an angel and a Christmas star on them. Mary didn’t have a T-shirt with MY SON IS THE MESSIAH emblazoned across it. 

Joseph and Mary weren’t wealthy. 

They were ordinary people, but Simeon and Anna knew. This was the Promised One. 

It reminds me of the story of the prophet Samuel choosing David as king after Saul. All his big, strapping brothers came by, but God wasn’t choosing any of them. God’s hand was on David. Samuel’s conclusion was God ‘does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart’. (1 Samuel 16.7)

It also reminds me of what Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 1.18–28:

Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world …

We are not counted among the movers and shakers of the world. We are small. We can ask though for the vision of Simeon and Anna, to see God working in small things. 

We’re leaving the hardest year of many people’s lives soon. And frankly we don’t know what’s around the corner. 

Simeon looked his whole life for the messiah, and finally he could say (Luke 2.29–32)

Master,
now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared
in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.

It’s going to be a funny kind of light, a strange kind of glory, involving as it will the cross of Calvary. The cross will be the lowest limit of humility God will embrace, for us. But whatever is to come, Simeon can now rest in peace, after a lifetime of patient waiting. 

Anna’s role was to proclaim the news out loud for everyone to hear:

At that moment she [Anna] came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

We are a community of people, small, unremarkable, called by God to perceive what God is doing in the world, to trace the humble tracks of Jesus and follow, guided by the Spirit. And then to tell the good news to all who will listen. 

West End Uniting Church 27 December 2020

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Mary says ‘No’

Reading
Luke 2.1–20

For years Mary has been portrayed as submissive because of her yes to God at the annunciation. Today it is time to recognise that this prophetic woman also says no to all that negates God’s purposes in human history. — Trisha Lyons Senterfitt, Feasting on the Word, year B, Vol.1

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One of the great traditions of Christmas is the Nativity play. Have you ever been in a Nativity play? I played the part of Joseph once, in a primary school play. 

Joseph is a good part, but it’s not usually considered  the best part. What is the best part? No, the answer isn’t ‘Jesus’! (Usually ‘Jesus’ is a doll, or at best a baby of a convenient age. And not necessarily a biological male.) 

No, the best part was one that was not open to me. The best part is Mary. 

There must be quite a number of little girls who have been thrilled to play Mary, and even more who have been turned away disappointed. 

I suppose (not having been a girl) that the attraction is that Mary embodies everything: she is Mother of Jesus, yes, but she is also a kind of innocent princess. 

So many plays and stories for children have a docile princess in them: the Nativity story has one too. 

So Mary becomes for us a kind of Disney princess, serene and beautiful and pure. 

Preachers often preach about how Mary said ‘Yes’ to the angel Gabriel. And in the words of a Paul McCartney song! ‘Let it be,’ says Mary — ‘Let it be with me according to your word.’ 

I’ve preached about that. 

But today, I want to point out that Mary also said ‘No’. 

Mary wasn’t meek and mild and timid; Mary spoke to the angel Gabriel face to face. And Mary faced Gabriel down.

She sang a song that has echoed though the years. We call it the Magnificat, and in it Mary sings 

God has scattered the proud
in the thoughts of their hearts.

God has brought down the powerful
from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;

God has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.…

In the Magnificat, Mary says ‘No’ to people being kept poor. ‘No’ to hunger, and exploitation. 

In this ‘No’ there is a ‘Yes’; a ‘Yes’ to justice. 

And Mary taught her Son. One day, he would quote the prophet Isaiah — but I wonder who taught Isaiah to him? I reckon it was Mary. 

Here are those words:  

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
     to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim
   release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free,
     to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

And surely on Christmas Day even we heirs of the Protestant tradition can say that Mary still teaches us today to say ‘No’ to injustice in all its forms, and to say ‘Yes’ to the liberating energies of God in the world. 

Let it be with us according to God’s Word. Amen. 

West End Uniting Church 25 December 2020

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Rediscovering Wonder

Reading
Luke 1.26–38

… the language of ‘overshadowing’ is used elsewhere in Luke (9.34) and elsewhere in the Bible (Exodus 16.10; 24.15–18; 40.34–35) to indicate God’s presence. The language is figurative, not scientific. It is a way of valuing Jesus, a way of affirming his uniqueness, not a way of explaining the mechanism by which he came into being. The story is a confessional narrative, not a report of a gynaecological exam; for that, see the Protevangelium of James, chapter 20, where the rationalistic interpretation of the virgin birth is already in evidence.

David R Adams, Feasting on the Gospels, Luke Vol.1

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A good number of years ago now, long before I became a minister, I recall a colleague talking about a Christmas service she’d just been to. She was a little wistful; she’d hoped to find a way back to her childhood faith, but she just couldn’t. In her church’s service, it was made clear to her that to be part of her church meant to believe in the virgin birth. Literally. As a fact of history. 

She couldn’t believe that Mary was a pregnant virgin. It just wasn’t possible.  So, sadly, she decided that being a person of faith was not for her. 

This seemed at the time, and seems still, a sad story to me. Part of my sadness is that I don’t recall having anything to say to her. 

So, was her church right? Do you have to believe the story of the Annunciation and the Virgin Birth literally to be a Christian? What if you just can’t believe it? 

I want to talk about that today. I want to do it by talking about how the way we understand things may change as we move through life. 

Let me go back to my own childhood: I recall a school nativity play sometime in the early 60s, where I was Joseph. I was of course accompanying the Virgin Mary, who was — naturally! — the star of the show. (The baby Jesus was just a doll.)

I didn’t know what a virgin was at the time, but that didn’t seem to disqualify me from playing Joseph. 

I don’t recall hearing Mary being named a virgin either. It really wasn’t that important to me back then. I simply accepted the story at face value. Just as I accepted many other stories. 

You see, kids grow up with stories. We learn about the world through stories. Family stories, stories on TV, stories about dinosaurs, Bible stories and Winnie the Pooh. They all get jumbled together. And all accepted in quite a concrete way. 

An example: the other day, in a WhatsApp call, our five-year-old granddaughter was telling us about a mean king who wanted to kill baby Jesus. In her telling of the story, the king had bad dogs and wolves. I’m not sure what other story these canines had leaked out of, but my granddaughter was insistent that they were essential to the story about baby Jesus. 

A child’s imagination is populated by characters from the stories they love. That’s just how it is in a child’s world. 

This is often called the stage of first naïveté, after the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur. We could call it the stage of first simplicity; we could also call it the pre-critical stage. There’s no critical filter here; wolves join with Herod as he tries to kill baby Jesus. 

If there’s a pre-critical stage, it implies there’s a critical stage. And so there is, for many if not most of us. 

If the child goes through the critical stage of thinking, she begins to sort some of these stories out. As a young person she categorises them, sorts them into groups. She applies critical filters. She realises that some of the stories don’t fit the scientific worldview she is being initiated into. 

In this critical stage, evolution makes more sense than Adam and Eve, and a talking snake. So Adam and Eve are ditched. Evolution is true. The Garden of Eden is false, a tale for children. 

Winnie the Pooh, which once brought so much joy, has become something for little kids. It embarrasses this young person that once she couldn’t get enough of Winnie and Piglet and Eeyore. 

She draws the categories a little tighter. She learns what fits the critical view of life. She may begin to take in that only facts are true. Dinosaurs are facts, at least their fossils are. The sheer vastness of the universe is a fact. Viruses such as coronavirus are facts. 

And facts are the only things that are true. The virgin birth? Not a fact. It can be discarded. 

Yet as she matures, as her emotional life deepens, as her ability to empathise with others grows, she begins to realise some things are true that aren’t actually facts. 

She is attracted to someone. Where does that come from? Is it purely the result of primitive drives and urges? Why is she attracted to this person, but not that one? And why is this the most important question: How can she know if this is true love? 

A friend has a baby, and she feels a sense of joy holding him. Is this only an evolutionary urge, or is there more to it? 

Some things around her are beautiful. The tall trees and mountains lift her spirits. How, why? 

Some beautiful things are not at all useful. Why do we see beauty in them? What’s the point? 

She sees other people who still seem to believe. How do they manage it? Do they compartmentalise everything, or have they found a way to keep their faith? 

One time, my daughter — then in her teens — was feeling a bit cheeky. She asked me where the Garden of Eden was. She knew as well as I that there isn’t a specific place in which we can locate it. 

I had an inspiration. She still recalled valuing Winnie the Pooh, so I asked her right back, ‘Where’s the Hundred-Acre Wood?’ She smiled. She got it straight away. A story’s significance doesn’t depend upon it being a mere fact. The Garden of Eden is a true story. It speaks truly about human beings and our place in God’s creation. I believe it, even though I don’t believe it’s a factual piece of history. 

A story can be meaningful. Now, as a mother, my daughter appreciates Winnie the Pooh even more as she shares the stories with her own daughter. 

But how do we find meaning in things we’ve come to doubt? How can we value the story of Mary and the angel Gabriel again, once we’ve reached that critical stage? 

The answer may lie in rediscovering wonder. Let’s look at that as we go back to the Annunciation. 

A child accepts the story of the Annunciation at face value. The angel speaks to Mary, and soon Jesus is born. It’s a wonderful story, accepted naively. Some people always accept the story that way. And that is a very good thing. 

However, some people enter that critical stage; the day may come when a child doubts the story. She’s never seen an angel, and she lives in a world in which literal virgins do not give birth. 

She may stay in the critical phase for some time, perhaps for life. We need to hear her questions and not run from them. We need to hear her doubts, because doubt is a companion of faith. We may tell her about our own journey through that period of questioning and doubt, if she allows us. And we can always hold her in our prayers. 

Or: she may find the wonder again. She may move from this critical stage to a post-critical stage. This is not a return to childhood naivety; but it may stir a reawakening of the child within. 

We can treasure the story, even with our sophisticated scientific understanding. We can see that the story offers us so much, giving us a renewed sense of wonder. 

We may do that as we enter the story again, but not as a naive child. We may use our imaginations to put ourselves in Mary’s place. @blackliturgies (Cole Arthur Riley) writes

Mary was growing the messiah for months. She and God were working unseen mysteries.  

Perhaps we can learn to identify with Mary. I mentioned before that the child may enter the critical phase by growing in empathy. An empathic imagination is very helpful to recovering a sense of wonder. 

Is Christ growing in you? Are unseen mysteries being worked in you? Let me say: Yes, they are. Whether you realise it yet or not, God is working in you to produce Jesus Christ in your body and in your life. 

God is working to transform you into someone who gives birth to Jesus in words and actions that lift others up, and that speak truth to power. More and more, you are sharing his likeness — if you allow Jesus to grow in you as Mary allowed him to grow in her. 

The Gospels of Matthew and Luke name Mary a virgin. A virgin is very unpromising material in terms of producing a baby — just as Elizabeth was unpromising material, being past child-bearing age. As I look over my life, I see how I was very unpromising material to give birth to Jesus within my being. Yet that didn’t put God off. When, like Mary, I said ‘Yes’, ‘Let it be with me according to your will’, the Spirit overshadowed me. 

Preachers say a lot about Mary saying ‘Yes’ to God; we also need to remember that Mary also said ‘No’. No to the proud, the powerful and the rich. Just listen to the Magnificat!

‘God has scattered the proud
in the thoughts of their hearts.

‘God has brought down the powerful
from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;

‘God has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.…’

Like Mary, with Mary, we too may have a prophetic voice. 

Today, I’ve tried to describe a journey that many though not all people of faith go on. 

It can end in a deeper engagement with the Spirit of God, in a faith informed by empathic imagination. 

The journey can be stalled though — people may decide the Christian faith is not for them, like my colleague of years ago. They may ‘deconstruct’ their faith so much that they decide the Annunciation is a useless fable, belonging to older expressions of faith. Doing that may rob them of new layers of wonder that await them in the journey of faith. 

Or they may fight to stay naive, and shut science out of their faith. They decide to just believe literally in Adam and Eve and everything that goes with it. Or maybe God suspended the laws of the universe for Jesus’ birth? 

Or: they may reenter the world of the story and find a renewed sense of wonder and joy.

Every one of these positions is a position of faith. And God is with us at every moment in this journey of faith that we’re on. We may close ourselves to God, but God is still there. 

Different people are at different points on the journey. Since God is there with them wherever they are, we would do well not to criticise or shut them out. 

So: it’s ok to believe the story of the Annunciation literally. Whatever your age. 

It’s ok to wrestle with the Bible and what it says. Be aware though: your partner in this wrestling is the Holy Spirit. The Spirit can wrestle all your life long.

It’s ok not to believe the story literally any more. Does God only shower grace on those who believe in a literal way? If so, what is grace anyway? 

Mary said, 

Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.

I invite you to say it this morning with Mary: ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Amen.

West End Uniting Church 20 December 2020

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What is ‘the Gospel’?

Readings
Isaiah 40.1–11
Mark 1.1–8

Because John’s preaching of repentance is a call to align one’s thoughts and actions with the new social order made known through the life-act and teachings of Jesus, the fruit of repentance results in a change in the way people think about and view others, especially the despised and marginalised. — Jennifer M McBride, Radical Discipleship: A Liturgical Politics of the Gospel

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We talk about ‘the Gospel’. But just what is the Gospel? One of the formative experiences I had as a young Christian was on a weekend camp up at Mt Tamborine. The speaker told us this: the Gospel is the good news of the kingdom of God; personal salvation is a by-product of the Gospel. We shouldn’t worry, he said about whether we are saved; the Gospel is about living as part of God’s kingdom, now. And this brings the awareness of being accepted in Jesus Christ.

I was truly shocked when I first hear this. I couldn’t believe my ears. I had been formed as a Christian to see the Gospel as all about me being saved, all about my personal salvation, about going to heaven when I die. 

The reason I bring this up today is that the first chapter of the Gospel According to Mark points us in quite a different direction from the usual, individual, evangelical view of salvation. 

Mark starts like this: 

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

This is a title. It could be the title of the whole Gospel, or just a kind of chapter heading for this first part. 

The Greek word for ‘good news’ in Mark’s title is the same word as gospel. The Gospel is good news. 

This word ‘gospel’ was well known back in the day. Usually it was ‘good news’ about a military victory, as when Rome conquered another group of people, or if there was a new caesar. 

This good news wasn’t about caesar though; it was about an unknown from the backwoods who got a following, did some miracles, but then was crucified as a threat to Roman power. 

So, Mark begins his Gospel with a political statement. A subversive statement. This is good news about someone the Romans thought they had got rid of, crucified, dead and buried; it is good news to his disciples, then and now, because they have found him to be risen from the dead and present to them by his Spirit.  

So, this good news is not about Rome, its empire, or about caesar. It’s good news about an enemy of the state. It’s subversive. 

Mark continues his subversive mood by quoting the Hebrew Scriptures: 

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
who will prepare your way,
the voice of one crying in the wilderness:
Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight …

Mark says this comes from Isaiah, but not all of it does; the first couple of lines come from the Books of Exodus and Malachi. 

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‘You have hidden your face from us’

Readings
Isaiah 64.1–9
Mark 13.24–37

 

Truly, you are a God who hides himself,
O God of Israel, the Saviour. — Isaiah 45.15

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It’s Advent, one of those times of year we don’t quite know what to do. Do we have a jolly time thinking about Christmas? Do we focus — as our ancestors may have done — on the ‘four last things’? (Oh, and what are the four last things? They are death, judgement, heaven and hell. Sounds bleakish …) 

We’re not going to go retro with the four last things, but still, there are some pretty bleak words in our reading from Isaiah. Listen: 

There is no one who calls on your name,
or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
and have delivered us into the hand
  of our iniquity.

In these last chapters of Isaiah, we encounter people who are disappointed and struggling. The Jewish people had come home from exile in Babylon, hoping and expecting to rebuild the Temple and be a great nation once again. But this cherished hope had barely borne fruit. Time had passed, the rebuilt Temple wasn’t a patch on the old one, the people were dispirited and under pressure from the nations around them. 

You have hidden your face from us …

In times past, God had delivered the Israelites from Egypt in the Exodus. And centuries later, God had brought them back from the Babylonian Exile. Yet now God was hidden from them. The great things God had done in the past were just that. Past, and gone. Isaiah cries out to God to do what God used to do in the old stories. He invokes the stories of Moses before God on Mount Sinai:  

O that you would tear open the heavens
  and come down,
so that the mountains would quake
  at your presence …

God, you used to act like a real god! You used to do things! Do something now! Come and fix things around here! 

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‘An informed faith’

Readings
Ezekiel 34.11–16, 20–24
Matthew 25.31–46

The Uniting Church acknowledges that God has never left the Church without faithful and scholarly interpreters of Scripture, or without those who have reflected deeply upon, and acted trustingly in obedience to, God’s living Word. In particular the Uniting Church enters into the inheritance of literary, historical and scientific enquiry which has characterised recent centuries, and gives thanks for the knowledge of God’s ways with humanity which are open to an informed faith. The Uniting Church lives within a world-wide fellowship of Churches in which it will learn to sharpen its understanding of the will and purpose of God by contact with contemporary thought. Within that fellowship the Uniting Church also stands in relation to contemporary societies in ways which will help it to understand its own nature and mission. The Uniting Church thanks God for the continuing witness and service of evangelist, of scholar, of prophet and of martyr. It prays that it may be ready when occasion demands to confess the Lord in fresh words and deeds.

Basis of Union, 1992 version

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Last night, we enjoyed the a cappella singing of Daisy Chain and we also welcomed the Brisbane Pride Choir here at West End Soul. What a great night it was!

It’s only right then that today we look at the history of the Uniting Church’s response to and reception of LGBTIQ people. To make it a sermon, I’ll weave something of my journey in with the history. 

Let’s start in 1985. I turned 32 that year, the year I started my studies as a theological student. NSW had just decriminalised homosexuality and the Uniting Church there needed to formulate its response. Gordon Dicker, a good theologian and gentle human being, was Moderator of the NSW Synod at the time and chaired a group to address this question. The committee concluded that the Bible did not support homosexuality, but Dicker also wrote

[However] we did say that people with homosexual orientation should be welcome in the church, eligible for church membership and other suitable roles.

He produced a book, Homosexuality and the Church, and suffered savage abuse from people who disagreed with him. I enjoyed the book, but I have no idea where my copy is now. 

Fast forward to 1997, in Perth. I was out of college, ordained, and attending the UCA Assembly for the second time. The Assembly is the national council of the Church and meets every three years. The Assembly has authority to determine the Uniting Church’s position on areas of doctrine. 

This 1997 Assembly received a report called Uniting Sexuality and Faith, but did not act on it. The Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress was opposed to any consideration of bringing LGBTIQ people into the full life of the Church, as were more conservative elements of the Assembly. 

A young woman came out at the 1997 Assembly, along with a number of others. Subsequently, we became and remain good friends. Three years later, at the 2000 Assembly, she asked if I would be one of the respondents to a questionnaire she had prepared as part of her PhD studies. I recall one question: 

If you were convinced that the Scriptures taught that loving homosexual relationships were wrong, would it change your mind about accepting LGBTIQ people? 

I answered No. It wouldn’t change my mind. 

That was a big call for a former fundamentalist. 

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