Called to Compassion

Reading

Mark 6.30–34, 53–56

Our call to serve others is grounded in the fact that God in Jesus Christ has first served us and loved us. Jesus extends grace, compassion, healing, and hospitality to us and therefore we are called to extend grace, compassion, healing, and welcome to others.

Robert W Brewer, Feasting on the Gospels, Year B

If the church today is unrecognisable as a place of healing, then we need to reflect on what our mission and purpose in the world are and how we communicate the good news of God’s healing grace in this time and place.

Karen Marie Yust, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 3

———————-

We began our service today with these words from Psalm 145:

The Lord is gracious and compassionate,
long-suffering and ever faithful.
The Lord is good to all;
his compassion rests upon all his creatures.

Psalm 145.8–9, REB

You see something similar in my very favourite book of the Bible, Jonah. Although Jonah wishes God weren’t so compassionate. Once the people of Nineveh repent, people Jonah hates with every fibre of his being, Jonah complains to God:

I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, long-suffering, ever constant, always ready to relent and not inflict punishment!

Jonah 4.2, REB

And one more:

you are a forgiving God,
gracious and compassionate,
long-suffering and ever constant …

Nehemiah 9.17

This formula is repeated with minor variations all over the Hebrew Scriptures, the ‘Old Testament’.

The compassionate God emerges as the God Israel worships. And not the God of Israel alone; the God of the earth, of the universe.

The compassionate One is God of ‘all that is, seen and unseen’. And then — in our midst! — God’s compassion is seen in Jesus Christ. Jesus

had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.

Mark 6.34

The Compassionate One is revealed but not as law, or rules. The Compassionate One is revealed as one of us. The compassion of God takes human form in Jesus Christ.

So: what are we talking about? Just what is compassion? Is there a difference between pity and compassion? There is.

We may feel pity when we see someone homeless. Or a child in a wheelchair. Pity is a human feeling, a good feeling, a sharing of humanity with another.

Compassion is pity in action. Compassion is talking to the homeless man, sharing food with him, seeking to advocate for him. Compassion is pity in motion.

Let’s have a first-century biology lesson. I might say to my wife ‘I love you with all my heart’. But do I really? Is there in fact a chamber in my heart that is devoted to her? No. There’s not.

Of course, we use language about our hearts as a metaphor. We know that. There was a time, though, when people used it literally. For them, the heart really was the seat of love.

In the first century, the bowels were the home of compassion. Mark says Jesus ‘had compassion for them’. That’s a pretty bland translation of the original Greek. Mark says Jesus esplanchnísthē (ἐσπλαγχνίσθη) towards them. That means his bowels churned up when he saw them.

That’s an intense feeling, and much more than that; it’s a feeling that you need to do something about. Compassion cannot be content with saying ‘Poor thing!’ and walking away. It is a gut feeling that leads to a response.

That’s a bit of first-century biology. Another kind of biology is also quite different from ours. It’s the biology of the Hebrew Scriptures, the ‘Old’ Testament. The Hebrew word for compassion is rachamim (רחמים).

So, we speak of the heart as the seat of love; some of the ancients spoke of the bowels as the seat of compassion; but where was the seat of compassion for the ancient Hebrews?

It was in the womb. The Hebrew word for womb is racham (רחם). Racham, womb, rachamim, compassion. Rachamim is the plural of racham. We could say that for the ancient Hebrews, compassion was highly concentrated womb energy.

The Hebrews saw compassion made vividly real in the love of a mother for a child. Some of us are mothers, all of us have a mother. In a normal upbringing, our first experience of love is likely from our mother.

A mother’s love may be gentle, firm or fiercely protective. A mother’s love seeks the best for the fruit of her womb, her child. The love of a mother causes her to act quickly if her child is in any kind of danger at all.

So when the Hebrew Scriptures speak of God’s compassion, they do it in Hebrew terms. God’s compassion is love for the children born from God’s womb. (You see how the Scriptures don’t picture God in purely masculine terms? Many people assume they do.)

So a mother shows compassion, indeed anyone with a womb can be compassionate. The God of compassion has a metaphorical womb. What about the blokes? We can be compassionate too; in terms of Hebrew Scriptures, a compassionate man has a metaphorical womb. Think of it as men accessing their feminine side. Or think of it (if you like!) as gender-fluid imagery in the Bible.

Compassion is part of who God is. It’s not simply something God has. It’s part of God’s being. It’s foundational to the universe. Where the Hebrew Scriptures speak of God as compassionate, long-suffering and faithful, the writer of 1 John will simply say ‘God is love’. By ‘love’, John means self-giving love. Love that took Jesus to the cross. The love we call compassion.

It’s clear that disciples of Jesus are called to act with compassion, to let it flow from us. That’s not always so easy though. Let me highlight something else in this story today.

When the disciples returned from their mission trip, Jesus said to them ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’

Jesus saw they needed a break. Sometimes, when we see how great the needs are around us, we forget to be compassionate to ourselves. We neglect self care. We keep on going to our own detriment.

Yet what else can we do when the needs are so great? How can we stop?

What we simply cannot do is meet all the world’s needs ourselves. We are just not big enough, robust enough. We aren’t loving enough to meet all the world’s needs without falling apart at the seams.

What we can do is this: figure out what energises us when we do it. I think of that as what feeds me. What can I do for others that feeds my soul? That’s where I can make my contribution. When I focus on doing that, I can keep giving and giving for a long time.

And I can allow others to find their ‘sweet spot’, as it were. I can encourage you to find what you can do that nourishes you so you can serve.

In the body of Christ, there are many parts. And many parts to play. Our task is to discern our part.

Frederick Beuchner is an American theologian. He was 95 last Sunday! He once wrote

The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.

The place God calls you to is to the place of your deep gladness. The place that feeds your spirit, that builds you up. When you find it, stay with it. It may be in ministry, like me; it may be in serving food to others; it may be in visiting the sick or doing administration well. Stay there. Put your roots down deep, right there.

The world’s deep hunger meets you there. Well, it meets us everywhere. The world is in a shocking state at the moment.

When the world’s deep hunger meets us somewhere other than where our deep gladness is, we start to get worn down and frazzled. We’re more likely to have ‘compassion fatigue’ if we try to meet the world’s deep needs from the wrong place.

Not long ago, I was chatting to someone I studied medicine with, back when dinosaurs ruled the earth. He said that while ministry pays less, it would be a happier life. Well, I can certainly attest to that. I have found my place of deep gladness as a minister, and from here I can meet some of the world’s deep hunger. But don’t ask me to be in some other place. Don’t make me try to meet the world’s deep hunger doing something that doesn’t make my heart sing.

Heart. There’s that biological language again, and it may help us find our place of deep gladness. If you’re looking for that place, ask yourself

Does this make my heart sing?

Do I have a real gut feeling about this? Does it ‘feed’ me, does it nourish my spirit?

Does this awaken a deep, womb-like desire to awaken life in others, to nurture them and help them grow?

If so, you may be finding your place of deep gladness. If you find it, trust God with it.

We are called to a compassionate life, and called in a way that leads us to be compassionate also to ourselves.

I invite you for a few moments to ask God to show you just where your place of deep joy may be.

West End Uniting Church 18 July 2021

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Healing Country

Readings
Psalm 146
Revelation 7.9, 22.1–2

Today marks the end of NAIDOC Week 2021. The theme is Heal Country!

How has WEUC helped to heal country? 

When people think of the West End Church and its work in the community, their thoughts may well go to the beginning of Blue Nursing here in the 1950s. We shall speak more of that at our annual Blue Care Service on 22 August. 

Or they may think about Tuesday lunches, our support of refugees, our concern for climate justice, and our welcome of LGBTIQ people. 

I see all these as part of healing country country is everywhere. Yet we can’t be said to be healing country is we are not in real, living contact with the First Peoples around us. Some may not realise the ways in which we have joined with indigenous peoples in their work to heal country. Let me mention a few: 

We must remember the ministry of Pastor Don Brady, who was a Kuku Yalanji man. After a period of training at the Methodist Training College and Bible School, Pastor Don began work as a lay pastor in July 1964 with the West End Methodist Mission, ministering to urban-dwelling Aborigines. He expanded his ministry to include the Christian Community Centre, based at the Leichhardt Street Methodist Church. He set up a gym in Red Hill and taught boxing there. An activist, he showed his contempt for the Queensland Aborigines Act by publicly burning a copy of the legislation. Sadly — and we should lament this — it was this kind of gesture led to his sacking from the ministry of the Methodist Church in 1972. He then set up his own church, the Black Christian Community Church, where he continued his ministry.

At his funeral in 1984 — right here in West End Uniting Church (a sign of reconciliation?) — Rev Charles Harris, a founder of the NAICC and its first president, described Don Brady as ‘the Martin Luther King of the Aboriginal race’. He was widely known as a civil rights advocate who gave Aboriginal peoples a sense of pride and taught them to stand up for their rights. 

There was a school that accepted many Aboriginal children — this seems to be connected with the move to start Murri school in Acacia Ridge. And a group including Tiga Bayles met upstairs for a while, out of which emerged the 4AAA Murri Radio station. 

We need document more about these things, to record as part of the story of this congregation. 

A Service of Welcome and Healing on 30th May 2010 was held here and planned by Rev Kerrie Pierce, community worker Andrew Johnson and Pastor Ray Minnecon, who identifies with the Gubbi Gubbi and Gooreng Gooreng nations. We made a Declaration of Commitment at that time. It reads: 

We, here today, commit to being a community which respects this land; values the prior and continuing custodianship, culture and heritage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples; and seeks justice and equity for all.

We commit ourselves to listen to Indigenous peoples in order to understand and respect their spirituality and culture, and to seek to understand the historical, political, social and economic relationships in Australia of our Indigenous brothers and sisters in Christ.

We acknowledge and grieve with Indigenous peoples that the coming of people from overseas, over the last two centuries, has resulted in great losses for Indigenous peoples — losses of land, life, children, language and culture. We acknowledge that the church has sometimes been complicit in this and that we will seek to stand against further abuses of Indigenous Peoples.

We seek to be a congregation that witnesses to God’s reconciling love by sponsoring positive relationships between Indigenous and non-indigenous peoples in our local community. We also commit to listening to; respecting and learning from our Indigenous brothers and sisters in Christ as together we build a partnership that reflects God’s justice, love and grace.

How are we living up to this vision today? How can we work into the future with indigenous peoples to Heal Country, Heal our Nation? These questions address us as we meet at the end of NAIDOC Week. They will continue to address us into the future. Let’s pay real and genuine attention to them. 

West End Uniting Church 11 July 2021

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No room for boasting

Readings

2 Corinthians 12.2–10

Mark 6.1–13

… in the modern period, despite the efforts of the Reformers to recall the church to the gospel, the church — including the Protestant churches! — has by and large yielded to the temptation to secure its place in the modern world by accepting ‘its proper place in service to the new secular splendour of Western man’. We nevertheless ought not to despair, even though Christians will no doubt go right on seeking their security in strength rather than weakness, because Holy Scripture — as in this passage — recalls us again and again to the good news of the cross: ‘For when I am weak, then I am strong’. — Garrett Green, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 3

When the crucified Jesus is called the ‘image of the invisible God’, the meaning is that this is God, and God is like this. God is not greater than he is in this humiliation. God is not more glorious than he is in this self-surrender. God is not more powerful than he is in this helplessness. God is not more divine than he is in this humanity. — Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God

———————-

The city of Corinth in the first century was 

a city where an enterprising person could rise quickly in society through the accumulation and judicious use of newfound wealth. (Ben Witherington, Conflict and Community in Corinth)

It was a place for entrepreneurs, wide boys, self-made men, for social climbers and the glitterati. A place that valued wealth and status and knowledge and power. 

When Paul came with the good news of Jesus, a Jewish teacher from the bush, he was coming with something very different. Very un-Corinthian. 

Paul could have begun in Corinth by teaching about the resurrection of Jesus, but the Corinthians might see that as something achieved by a particularly powerful soul — rather than God’s vindication of the life and teaching of Jesus, the peasant teacher who ended up on a cross. 

So when he brought the message to Corinth, Paul focussed on the cross rather than anything that could feed into any Corinthian bias. He told them 

I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. (1 Corinthians 2.2)

The Corinthians valued eloquent speech; Paul came to them ‘in weakness and in fear and in much trembling’. (1 Cor. 2.3) 

Paul put the cross at the very centre of his message to them. 

In time, there was opposition to Paul. Other teachers came to Corinth without Paul’s sensitivity. They were flashy wonder workers who claimed to do miracles, who spoke with eloquence and a good command of rhetoric. The Corinthians just swooned. They fell for these new teachers, big time. 

Paul didn’t get along with these teachers, not at all. He caustically called them ‘super-apostles’. 

In turn, these teachers said of Paul: 

Paul’s letters are severe and strong, but when he is with us in person, he is weak, and his words are nothing! (2 Corinthians 10.10)

Paul supported himself in Corinth by tent making, which some Corinthians looked down on. Paul was ‘trade’. They could relate more to these up and coming aspirational teachers who continually promised ‘bigger better brighter’. 

Problem: there is no room for the cross in bigger better brighter. 

I’m going to digress a little here, and tell you about something that happened to me over 45 years ago. I was a student, and a friend of mine had just become engaged. She was happier than she’d ever been, and she wanted to be thankful to God. The thing was, she’d never been taught anything about God. She asked me to tell her about God so she could direct her thanks godwards. 

So I told her what I knew. 

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Forty four years …

Forty fours years ago, the Uniting Church began its life. I won’t write on it today; I made some comments in the last post. Today, I can do no better than to point to what John Squires has written in his blog, An Informed Faith:

https://johntsquires.com/2021/06/22/forty-four-years-on/#like-3643

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Getting across to the other side

Reading

Mark 4.35–41

Mark consistently refers to the freshwater lake as a ‘sea’ in order to invoke the most primal narratives in the Hebrew tradition: the Ark of Noah; the crossing of the Red Sea; and the psalmic odes to storms. But, above all, Mark draws on the tale of Jonah, the prophet who resisted the call to preach repentance to foreigners (read Jonah 1). — Ched Myers, ‘Say to this Mountain’: Mark’s Story of Discipleship

———————- 

Eight years ago, my wife and I were in Israel on a tour. While there, we went on a boat trip across the Lake of Galilee. We were in a boat that was almost a twin of this one; I took the photo from our boat.

21st-century boat

Storms come up on Lake Galilee all the time, and they come quickly. When we were something over halfway across, our little boat began riding some pretty rough water. 

Our guide looked thoughtful. To be more accurate: our guide looked like he was trying to appear thoughtful rather than worried. 

When we were safely onto dry land, he told us that had the storm been brewing as we were about to leave, he would have cancelled the boat trip. It would be just too dangerous. 

If you go to the museum in Tiberias, a town on the western shore of Lake Galilee, you’ll see a boat that may have been very like the one that Jesus and the disciples were out on. This first-century boat was found in 1986, buried in silt and quite well preserved.    

1st-century boat

Storms blow up very quickly indeed on Lake Galilee. And while the tub we went out on was pretty basic, the boat Jesus and the disciples were in was far more spartan still. 

I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t be getting on that boat to go on a duck pond. Imagine being in it if a storm came! I don’t blame the disciples one tiny bit for being terrified.

So far, I’ve named the expanse of water that the disciples were on, and we were on some years ago, as the Lake of Galilee. Or just Lake Galilee. 

Of course, it has another name. It’s often called the Sea of Galilee. That’s very common way of naming it. But why call it a sea? Galilee is a landlocked freshwater lake. Why ‘sea’? 

A week ago, I found out for the very first time that Mark, the writer of this Gospel, was the first person to call Galilee a ‘sea’. (Ched Myers, Say to this Mountain’: Mark’s Story of Discipleship). No one ever called it a sea before Mark. Isn’t that amazing? (I think so!) 

The question remains: why call it a ‘sea’? 

When Mark calls Galilee a sea, he is deliberately echoing certain stories in the Hebrew Scriptures. 

For example: the Great Flood of Noah. Like the story we heard today, often called The Stilling of the Storm, Noah’s Flood can be seen as a story of God’s deliverance of people from a watery grave. 

Or take the parting of the Red Sea: the Israelites walk through the hazardous sea as if on dry land. We imagine the parted waters holding still while the people walk through. (Remember Prince of Egypt?)

The sea was a place of dangerous monsters. The ancient Hebrews named one ‘Leviathan’. In Job 41, God says 

No one is so fierce as to dare to stir [Leviathan] up.
Who can stand before it? …
Who can strip off its outer garment?
Who can penetrate its double coat of mail? … [vv 10, 13]

It sounds like Leviathan was something of a marine dragon:

Its sneezes flash forth light,
and its eyes are like the eyelids of the dawn.
From its mouth go flaming torches
sparks of fire leap out.
Out of its nostrils comes smoke,
as from a boiling pot and burning rushes.
Its breath kindles coals,
and a flame comes out of its mouth. [vv 18–21]

Yet — Leviathan is only a creature of God, formed by God to play in the sea: 

Yonder is the sea, great and wide …
There go the ships,
and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it. [Psalm 104.25-26]

The sea can be a terrifying place, but God is greater than the sea. In Mark’s story, Christ is greater than the storm on the ‘Sea’ of Galilee. 

There’s yet another sea story from the Hebrew Scriptures that comes to mind here: it’s the story of Jonah. My all-time favourite book of the Bible. I reckon Mark definitely had it in mind.

Jonah is another story of a great storm on the high seas. Jonah is called by God to go to Nineveh, the capital city of the brutal Assyrians. 

He gets on a ship to go as far away as he could, to a place called Tarshish. He figures God won’t find him there. And of course, he is thrown off the ship at the height of the storm, then swallowed by a great fish and finally thrown up onto a beach. 

When he finally goes to Nineveh to cry out against their wickedness, they repent! 

Why did Jonah hide from God? Because he suspected that God would be kind to Jonah’s enemies. Listen to what he says:

That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. [Jonah 4.2]

God was too gracious for Jonah’s liking! Jonah wanted God to destroy Nineveh. He didn’t want to be the means by which God showed them mercy. Poor old Jonah. 

Some of you may have been hoping I’d talk about the Uniting Church, since our 44th anniversary will dawn on Tuesday 22 June. Shall we do that? 

The Christian church has long been symbolised as a boat. The logos of the World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches of Australia reflect that: 

The structure of this church building reflects it too. It’s meant to remind you of a boat. Can you see how the struts on the ceiling suggest a ship’s hull? And the central aisle is the ‘nave’, which comes from the Latin word navis. The word ‘navy’ is also derived from navis

The Uniting Church is a small boat on a treacherous sea. We are often frightened by the waves that seem to us from all directions. How will the Uniting Church survive the storms? What will we look like in another forty four years? I have no idea. 

Why did Jesus and the disciples get in a boat? To get to the other side. No, really, it’s not a poor attempt at humour, a play on ‘Why did the chicken cross the road’ — Jesus said to the disciples, ‘Let us go across to the other side’. So they got into the boat. 

What was on the other side? Gentile territory. ‘Other’ people. ‘Those’ people. Read chapter 5: they were about to get right out of their comfort zones with a naked demon-possessed self-harming Gentile who lived in a cemetery near a huge herd of pigs. I think that would be something like hell for a pious Jew. 

The Uniting Church also gets into trouble when it follows Jesus and goes across to the other side. It’s trouble alright, but it’s ‘good trouble’. (This is a phrase used by US Congressperson John Lewis, who marched across the Edmond Pettus Bridge with Rev Dr Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama in 1965.)

Why do we go across to the other side, in our rickety boat that has more holes in it than nails to hold it together? 

It’s simple: we go because Jesus calls us. Because just staying on the one side is to be untrue to our calling. So how has the Uniting Church gone across to the other side? 

We have gone to the other side to where people are not like what we imagine straight, white, middle-class 1950s people were. We go there in the name of the God who is ‘gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love’. 

As NAIDOC 2021 draws near, we recall that we have said the Uniting Church is not a white mob that does good things for Aboriginal people. The Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress determines indigenous business in the Uniting Church. We got into good trouble back in the day. I remember a small book called Red over Black, which claimed that Communism (not just socialism) was behind the fight for Aboriginal justice. 

And because we are not a white mob, we are also a multicultural church that embraces non-Anglo second comers to these lands now called Australia. We have ethnic congregations, such as Park Church, a Tongan congregation a few blocks away. Every Sunday, the Uniting Church worships in many languages other than English. Is that the end of the journey? Maybe not, maybe we haven’t reached the other side yet. But it’s where we are at the moment. 

Just as we are not a white church, we’re not a straight church that tolerates LGBTIQ people if they stay quiet. Though that is still a hard nut to crack in some places. That’s a sea some congregations don’t want to cross. Whether they cross it or not, the Uniting Church is an inclusive church. Here at West End, we are open and affirming. Let’s not pat ourselves on the back though; let’s see how we can be more inclusive still. 

There are any number of ‘other sides’ we can go to. Any amount of ‘good trouble’ we can get into. 

We can’t stay huddled on the shore and be faithful to Jesus. Let’s never forget though, when the storms blow up: Jesus is in the boat with us. When the waves buffet our leaky little tub, we call to him for grace and strength and direction. 

There is a prayer I love. It’s called the Breton Fisher’s Prayer:

Dear God, be good to me;
the sea is so wide,
and my boat is so small.

The sea is so wide. It always will be!

Our boat is so small. And it sometimes leaks water! 

Yet God’s Spirit is with us, and we are on our way across to the other side. Amen. 


West End Uniting Church 20 June 2021

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Trinity sermon: Dr Janice McRandal

On Trinity Sunday, Dr Janice McRandall preached at West End Uniting Church. We are very grateful to her for this message:

Think for a moment of a group of adult friends, maybe three or four, sitting around a dinner table eating, drinking wine, and having a wonderful time. The conversation among them has really taken flight. There are jokes, stories, hysterical laughter, imitations, self-parody, irony, and wit. Serious matters float in and out of the conversation — such as politics, sex, death, and love — but nobody is really being serious. Nobody is preaching or trying to control the outcome of the conversation. Nobody’s personality dominates. Everyone’s individuality, if only for a short while, gives way to the greater pleasure, indeed the ecstasy, of the conversation.

Now imagine a six-year old child wandering into the kitchen and trying to get a sense of what is going on. She sees and feels that the room is full of joy and delight and communication, but can’t grasp what is going on. She can’t form any definite idea of what is happening or what is being said. Nobody is telling anything to anyone — like what the weather is like outside. Nobody is doing an activity with a goal or outcome — like cleaning up the kitchen. And most intriguingly, nobody is telling her anything or trying to get her to do anything — like clean up their room or go to bed. There is all this commotion, a kind of explosion of excitement, but it doesn’t seem to have any purpose. There is no ‘why’ to it all. It might feel to her either bewildering or alluring, or both.

What I want to suggest is that this is what our relationship to the Trinity is like. We are in the position of that little child in relation to the life of God: standing before, or within, a mystery that exceeds us, yet one that we are created to join. What the gospel about Jesus tells us and shows us is that the life God, the very being of God, is like an explosion of excitement and joy among friends who know each other very well and love each other very much. So well and so much, in fact, that there could be nothing better than wasting time in each other’s company. To speak of the Trinity is to say that God is relation, relation so intense and intimate that there really is no image or idea we can ultimately form of it. When we say that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, that is what we are trying to say. Or when we say Holy Mother, Christa, Sophia, in the feminine, or when we say Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, that is what we are trying to say. Not that God is three human people, or that there or three gods, or that there are three parts of God, but that God is what happens between Jesus, the mystery he gave his life to, and the Spirit of that giving. And what happens there is the joy and liberty that sets the galaxies in motion and the love that death cannot defeat.

The reading this morning from John’s gospel speaks of a liberty that was with God at the beginning of all things, a liberty through which God makes and sustains all things.

“The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Nicodemus, who only appears in John’s Gospel, was a very important Pharisee, a member of the Sanhedrin, judges and rulers over Israel. That Jesus is seen to so deeply challenge him is a purposeful stroke by John. A bit like me telling Ash Barty how to play tennis. Now Nicodemus Is indeed very wise, so when he responds to Jesus “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” He’s not being literal, he knows that’s not what Jesus is saying. But he is looking for something exact. He wants Jesus to tell him exactly what it means and how it is to be born again. Jesus does not give him a formula, or a scientific explanation. He gives him a mystery: the joy and liberty of the spirit

“The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

I’ve often considered it ironic that this story of Nicodemus approaching Jesus at night, to speak of such mysteries, is included in the same passage of John 3.16, a text taken up so frequently to create the bluntest, scientific like formula for what it means to come into relationship with God. This idea, popularised over the last few centuries, that to be in relationship with God requires precise prayers and confessions — “a sinner’s prayer” — and then membership in the right church. But Jesus says first,

“The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

And there’s a double irony in this text being chosen in the lectionary on Trinity Sunday, one week after Pentecost, an event that is often reduced by Christians to being the birthday of the church. As if Pentecost is to be entirely understood as the Spirit creating churches around the world.

“The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Throughout the centuries of the Christian church, many theologians have taken this passage in John 3 to hint at the idea of ‘trinity’. They have read it alongside the first chapter of John’s gospel, which speaks of the logos or word through which God makes all things and which becomes flesh in Jesus, and then later in John 13–17, where Jesus prays for the same Spirit to make his followers one, or draw us into the life of God. What we are being shown here is not only that God’s life is marked by relation, but also that this relationship of God to God, marked by joy and delight, is the very liberty that underlies all things and into which all things may grow. Well beyond our formulas and well beyond our churches. To access the liberty of any created thing is to let it become a sacrament of pointless joy, of eternal relation. From all of us animals, all of the fields, and mountains, and rivers and seas, from microorganisms to quarks, algae and iron — to think the Trinity is to think the relationship of us all. Each and all a sacrament of pointless joy, of eternal relation in God.

“The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Let me return to that six-year old child standing in the kitchen. She is on her way to a mysterious adulthood the way all of creation is on its way to sharing in the mysterious life of God. She may not understand now how a kind of pointless sitting around with friends is actually the best of pleasures and the height of liberation, but someday, hopefully sooner than later, she’ll begin to catch on. The unconditional loving care and attention of parents, or carers, and other adults are her best clues to what awaits her as the liberty and joy of adulthood. Likewise, the way Jesus loves us to death on Good Friday, the way the Father returns him to us on Easter Sunday, and the way the Spirit enflames us with this love on Pentecost are great clues to what the eternal life of God is that we have been created to share as God’s friends. It is a life of unfathomable mystery — which is to say, unimaginable intimacy, unstoppable hospitality, and the unspeakable joy of its gift and sharing. Church is that place where we begin to catch on.  

“The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Dr Janice McRandal is Director of The Cooperative, a project in public collaboration in the spirit of public theology.

West End Uniting Church, 30 May 2021

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Nurturing the Seed

Reading

Mark 4.26–34

The kingdom, like the sown Word, is in the works, and it will settle for nothing less than full manifestation. We are not waiting for its power to come; we believe that it is already here — and that it will inevitably have its perfect and utterly triumphant work. — Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgement

———————-

In Mark’s Gospel, these are the first words Jesus speaks:

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.

What is the kingdom of God? Well, it’s something Jesus tells stories about.

We can tell that this kingdom is near at hand because when Jesus tells those stories about it, he tells stories about things that are near at hand. Jesus’ ‘Parables of the Kingdom’ are stories about farmers and seeds and merchants finding pearls and women baking bread.

These stories have a bit of a twist. The twist is there because while the kingdom of God is nearby, it is also hidden. You can see it — hidden in plain sight — if you have eyes to see. If you can change your way of thinking and find a new way to see things. The parables call us to engage with them, to rethink, to redirect our hearts and minds.

In today’s terms, we could tell a parable something like this:

The kingdom of God is like an old woman in a coffee shop who pays for the strangers at the next table, and slips out before they realise it.

Or,

The kingdom of God is like a pregnant woman getting on a full bus, whereupon a homeless man gives up his seat for her.

There’s an old woman in a coffee shop. Happens all the time. But imagine the surprise of the people at the next table when they find their bill is paid.

A pregnant woman gets onto a bus, which is full. Happens all the time. But who gives up his seat for her? Someone who other people have pretended isn’t there.

Jesus’ parables of the kingdom are about such ordinary things, but with extraordinary twists. But you need eyes to see how what is extraordinary about them may be connected to God’s hidden work in the world.

With this in mind, let’s look at the Parable of the Mustard Seed.

The kingdom of God is so close, it is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; and eventually the birds of the air nest in the branches.

Mustard is good, I like mustard a lot. I’m glad people plant it. What could be the extraordinary twist?

There are two twists I want to mention.

The first is that for Jesus and his contemporaries, mustard was a nuisance. Once you had it, you couldn’t get rid of it. Why would anyone plant mustard? It grew like the weed it was. It’s like a Queensland farmer carefully cultivating a field of prickly pear. Why would they do that?

The second twist is that the image of birds making their nests in the branches of a tree comes from Old Testament texts about the great cedars of Lebanon.

For example, Psalm 104.16–17a says

The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly, the cedars of Lebanon that he planted. In them the birds build their nests…

However, Jesus chooses not to talk about massive, impressive trees. He tells a story about a bush that you just can’t get rid of.

The kingdom of God is not like a great tree that impresses everyone with its imposing size. It’s more like a huge weed that doesn’t invite our admiration but which digs in for the long haul. Mind you, the birds of the air don’t mind that it’s a weedy kind of bush. They find a home in its branches.

Another parable.

The kingdom of God is like a cafe which weathered the global downturn in 2008 because of the loyalty of its regular clients. When things recovered, the owners invited all the regulars to an evening on the house, with huge amounts of wonderful food and drink. Everyone went away full of joy.

I tell you this as a parable, but it’s also a true story. My wife and I were two of those regulars.

In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray

Your kingdom come, / your will be done / on earth as in heaven.

What are we praying for? We are praying for something already near at hand. Something hidden from us until our ears and eyes are opened. Something unknown by the wise and powerful, but which is made known to the poor in spirit. God’s kingdom is hidden in plain sight.

It’s something that Jesus tells stories about, so that we might see and hear.

Where is the kingdom here in West End?

The same place it is everywhere. Hidden in plain sight. You don’t have to strain to see it. Just listen for the stories that are being told. And when you hear a story, tell it to others.

The kingdom of God is like a disabled person, moving in her wheelchair with the wind in her face and joy in her heart.

The kingdom of God is like a dog that buries a bone and later digs it up to share with another dog.

The kingdom is near at hand. Look for it. Open your eyes, see how close it is.

There was another parable in today’s Gospel Reading. Not much seems to happen in it; it seems a little — well — dull.

Someone scatters seed on the ground, and goes about their daily life. Eat, wash, bed. Rinse and repeat. Out of the earth comes a crop. Which they harvest.

That’s it. Oh, and the kingdom of God is like that. It is happening all around us, without us doing much at all. Can we sense it? Can we draw hope from it?

Let me tell you one more parable before we finish:

A woman had a most peculiar dream. In her dream, she was wandering around some shops in a large shopping centre. Suddenly, she noticed a shop which took her fancy. She wandered in and saw Jesus behind the counter! Jesus said to her, ‘You can have anything your heart desires.’ Astounded but pleased, she asked for ‘Peace, joy, happiness, wisdom and freedom from fear.’ Then she added, ‘and not just for me, but for the whole Earth.’ Jesus smiled and then said, ‘I think you misunderstand. We don’t sell the finished product here, we only sell seeds.’

How are you nurturing the seed within you?

West End Uniting Church 13 June 2021

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That which is of God

Reading

Mark 3.20–35

The blasphemy resulting from bad apologetics will always be pardonable…. What is not pardonable is using theology to turn real human liberation into something odious. The real sin against the Holy Spirit is refusing to recognise, with ‘theological’ joy, some concrete liberation that is taking place before one’s very eyes. — Juan Luis Segundo, Capitalism versus Socialism

When we grab hold of ‘correct’ thinking for dear life, when we refuse to let go because we think that doing so means letting go of God, when we dig in our heels and stay firmly planted even when we sense that we need to let go and move on, at that point we are trusting our thoughts rather than God. We have turned away from God’s invitation to trust in order to cling to an idol. — Pete Enns, The Sin of Certainty

———————-

Let me tell you about one time when some older men thought they’d speak to me in the name of God and God’s will. They believed I needed to hear a Word From God. I was probably around 23, and about to graduate from medicine.

This Word From God was about (of all things!) my beard. You heard me right.

I first started growing my beard in the mid 70s. A year or so later, I was a young leader at a children’s camp. There, I was taken aside by a group of older men. They took me to a little room (no kidding!) so they could impress on me that my wearing a beard as a sign of rebellion. I was too young to wear a beard, according to them. (Remember, I would have been about 23.)

They saw it as their Christian duty to convince me to shave it off, so I could conform to what they thought God wanted. It was an intense discussion, and my refusal to remove my beard only served to cement their opinion that I was in rebellion against God. That I was identifying with all those rebellious rock ’n’ roll stars. (If they’d only asked me, I would have told them I was into folk music back then. Although Peter and Paul, if not Mary, did have beards …)

I left that church within the year; later I heard that some people were saying that it had seemed in the past that I was a Christian, but now I’d left I couldn’t ever have been a ‘true’ Christian.

You know, back then I was still young enough to wonder if they were right. After all, they claimed the authority to speak for God.

We met some men who claimed the authority to speak for God today. They were ‘the scribes who came down from Jerusalem’. They had a Word From God for Jesus.

Not about his beard, thankfully.

Mark’s Jesus has been rubbing up against religious authority from the beginning. Let me give you an overview:

Chapter 1: Jesus is in the synagogue at Capernaum, where

They were astounded at [Jesus’] teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. [Mark 1.22]

A line in the sand is being drawn here. Jesus is on one side, the scribes — the authoritative religious teachers, the men who speak for God — are on the other.

Chapter 2: Jesus heals a paralysed man with the words ‘Your sins are forgiven’. This shocks the scribes again, who say that only God can forgive sins.

In the same chapter, Jesus calls Levi the tax collector to follow him, and he eats in Levi’s house with ‘many tax collectors and sinners’.

When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ When Jesus heard this, he said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’ [Mark 2.16-17]

Jesus is popular with the ordinary people, the ones Mark’s Gospel calls ‘the crowd’. At the same time, he is becoming a notorious figure in the eyes of the religious establishment.

Then, Jesus’ disciples are challenged about why they don’t fast. And the Pharisees imply that Jesus is a sabbath breaker, when he and his disciples walk through a wheat field on the sabbath and pick the grain to chew on. Jesus tells them that human need trumps any religious law.

And as chapter 3 begins, Jesus enters the Capernaum synagogue and heals a man with a ‘withered hand’.

This time Jesus challenges the Pharisees:

Then he said to them, ‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?’ But they were silent. [Mark 3.4]

They didn’t want to encourage healing on the sabbath day; after all, God had given six days a week in which people could be healed. The sabbath was not a day in which the work of healing should be done. For his part, Jesus was angry at them and saddened by their hard hearts.

For the Pharisees’ part,

they went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against [Jesus], how to destroy him. [Mark 3.6]

Jesus is becoming well known across the Galilee region, in the north of the country. Two groups are concerned: his family, because people were saying he’s beside himself, he’s gone mad; and the good old scribes.

The word has got out so much that a heavy mob comes from the south, from Jerusalem, from head office. These VIP scribes have come to sort this mess out for good. Nip it in the bud.

They have a great line of attack, so they think, one that would destroy Jesus’ reputation:

He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.

It’s a conspiracy theory, folks! You’re being fooled — Jesus is an agent of Satan himself!

One of the frightening things these days is that some Christian people are being fed conspiracy theories. People on the inside of a conspiracy theory have been let in on a secret. They are the chosen ones. These theories often involve predicting the date of the second coming, the sign of the beast or one-world government. The conspiracy theory du jour is Q-Anon, which has become the topic of an argument between the federal government and the ABC.

Jesus shoots down the conspiracy theory the scribes propose:

How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.…

He then tells them a parable which features him — Jesus — as a home invader:

no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.

Satan is the strong man, Jesus is the burglar who is stronger still.

The scribes are in disarray. I’m sure that the crowd looking on just loved Jesus getting the better of them.

God can speak through wit and clever talk, but God is speaking much more clearly still in this story. And it’s not through those we might expect, like Jesus’ family.

They want to take him away from the public gaze. People were saying Jesus was beside himself, he’d gone mad. Maybe the family were also concerned that the heavies from Jerusalem were gunning for him, and wanted to protect him.

Their motives may have been more caring than those of the scribes, but the result would have been the same: Jesus would have had to give up the mission of God.

We haven’t talked of the scene in today’s story yet. Jesus has gone ‘home’. We’re not actually sure where home was. It could be Capernaum, where he’d made his base, or it may have been back in Nazareth.

People are crowding around him. People who want to hear what he has to say, people who want to be near him. And Jesus welcomes this crowd with open arms.

That’s the only qualification anyone needs to be here today. We want to hear Jesus. We want him to come near to us.

We sang earlier,

Draw the circle wide.
Draw it wider still.
Let this be our song,
no one stands alone,
standing side by side,
draw the circle wide.

This song was inspired by the American poet Edwin Markham, who wrote

He drew a circle that shut me out—
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!

Yet: there seems to be an edge to this circle. Jesus speaks of a sin that can’t be forgiven. Is that possible? What could it be?

It appears to be about refusing to see something of God in others. The scribes damned Jesus to hell. His family couldn’t see God acting in him. Both groups were unable to hear God speak in and through Jesus. They refused to see God in him.

We too can refuse to see that which is of God in others. We can consider others to be worthless because of their political or theological positions.

We’re in a time when social media encourages people to see things in black and white, and even see black as white. We need to have eyes that see the greys. We need such eyes to see something of God in others.

My task is to see something of God in the men who wanted me to shave my beard off. Can I see a concern, however misplaced, for my soul? Can I appreciate their zeal, though it is misplaced? I can learn.

Soon, we’ll sing

Who is my mother, who is my brother?
All those who gather round Jesus Christ:
Spirit-blown people born from the Gospel
sit at the table, round Jesus Christ.

Of course, these words are inspired by our Gospel passage today. We gather today, blown together by the Spirit, to hear a word from God and gather at the Table of Jesus.

We gather as graced people; we have sensed the grace of God in our lives. That’s faith.

We gather here because Jesus welcomes us as his family. Let us seek to draw others, and look for that which is of God within everyone we meet. Amen.

West End Uniting Church, 6 June 2021

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Sunday, 6 June, 2021 · 17:54

Grace with no buts

Reading

Acts 2.1–21

We are constantly trying to catch up with the Spirit and keep pace with a God who is calling forth the new creature in the Spirit. That new creature in the Spirit collapses diaspora and empire into each other and seeks to weave together a breathtaking joining. Yet the Spirit is being resisted by flesh and the desire of God is being denied by women and men both inside and outside the church. We have yet to hear the message of Acts of an erotic God who seeks to place in each of us desire for those outside of us, outside our worlds of culture, clan, nation, tribe, faith, politics, class, and species. — Willie James Jennings, Acts: A Theological Commentary on the Bible

———————-


On the Day of Pentecost, the Spirit is poured out upon all flesh. Peter reminded the crowd that the prophet Joel had promised:

In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh …

What will the Spirit cause to happen?

your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.

Fair enough. These are the kinds of people God’s Spirit was poured upon in ages past. Upon men, young and old. And upon women. If you’re wondering who the women are, think of Miriam and Jael, think of Deborah and Ruth, think of Mary the mother of Jesus, and of Mary Magdalene, Lydia and Dorcas.

For me, the real surprise is at the end:

Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy. [Acts 2.17–18]

Slaves were nobodies. They weren’t citizens of course, but they weren’t even considered human, really. They were commodities, items, objects that could be bought, sold, and disposed of.

Pentecost is an eternal reminder that God pours the Spirit out upon slaves. God values and honours slaves. God speaks through slaves, whatever their gender. Grace is given to slaves. Hashtag: Slave lives matter.

And looking at the Day of Pentecost itself — as the Spirit comes as wind and fire upon the apostolic group, others share in the experience, hearing them speak in their own language. They ask ‘how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?’

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God reigns as Love

Readings
Ephesians 1.15–23
Luke 24.44–53

What if Jesus’ humility, meekness and servant heart were never a departure from God’s glory and power, but actually define it and demonstrate it?… So while God in his fullness is far beyond our comprehension, who God is can be known through the revelation of the Cross, by which we mean cruciform love, by ‘laying down his life’. Love is not merely one of God’s attributes. Love is who God is in his very nature. God is Love in a way that exceeds character qualities. God is living love. — Brad Jersak, A More Christlike God: A More Beautiful Gospel 

———————-

My wife and I were in Chile almost six years ago to visit our daughter and her partner. One night, we went to a barbecue. They don’t do it the same as us!Smouldering coals are laid in a shallow pit; big slabs of meat are placed on a griddle over the top, and the meat is slow cooked. So, what do you do at a Chilean barbecue while you’re waiting for the meat to be ready? You drink red wine and you talk. 

I introduced myself to the man who was making the barbecue. He spoke good English, which was a relief. My Spanish is still a bit ordinary six years down the track. He asked me what I did, and I told him I am a pastor. 

‘So you believe in God?’ he said, his eyes wide like saucers. I said I did. ‘I don’t believe in God,’ he replied, ‘I’m an atheist’. I asked if we could talk further, and he agreed. 

So before we settled down to talk I went and fetched a bottle of red wine. What else could I do? When in Chile … 

As it turns out — as it turns out so often! — my new friend had some very good reasons for his atheism.  

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