Swords into Ploughshares

Readings
Micah 4.1–4
Matthew 5.1–9

 

I call out in my anguish
and God answers me:
Save me, Lord, from schemers,
from tongues that speak lies.…

…Why must I wander in Meshech,
Why stay among the tents of Kedar,
living so long with the violent?
I call for peace,
they speak of war. — Psalm 120.1–2, 5–7 (ICEL)

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One hundred years ago, the world was a different place. A war had been fought; they called it the Great War. The war to end all wars.

Sadly, we know it as World War One, because only twenty one years later, World War Two began. 

Will there be a World War Three? 

We are no longer able to speak of a war to end all war. There are wars still, and political leaders still make belligerent speeches. 

So, what are we doing today?

We are not making great speeches about making the world safe for democracy, neither are we being being patriotic.

We are not trying to inspire young men and women to join up.

We are not glorifying and romanticising the sacrifices made by men and women in World War 1; and we are not minimising the horror of trench warfare. 

We are not avoiding the fact that they came home with the scars of PTSD post-traumatic stress disorder, hardly understood at all a hundred years ago. They dismissed PTSD as ‘shell shock’ and shot any deserters.

People at home truly didn’t understand the horrific nature of World War 1. Here are some of the actual questions asked of returning soldiers, recorded in 1918 in the AIF (Australian Imperial Force) magazine, Aussie:

You’re looking fine, old chap. I suppose if war started again you’d be anxious to have another go at them?

I suppose you delighted in splashing about in the water in the trenches?

Wasn’t it delightfully lovely living in those dear little dugouts?

So, if we’re not doing any of those things, what are we doing? 

We are simply remembering those who went and remained, those who went and came back, and those who waited at home. We are holding them in our memory.

We remember those who lie in France and Belgium, some of them unknown to this day. Young men who had a life to look forward to. Young women who went out in the Nursing Corps to tend the wounded.

We remember those who came back, those with visible injuries of whom Eric Bogle sings in And the Band played Waltzing Matilda; and those whose wounds are of the mind and the spirit, the ones invoked in Redgum’s song I was only nineteen.

We remember those who stayed home. Mothers and fathers whose sons or daughters didn’t return. Towns whose economic life suffered because of the loss of a generation.

Some years ago now, I met two sisters who had never married. They lived together, they served the church and I liked them very much. I asked them once why neither of them had married. They told me that after World War 2, some of the men in the town they grew up in didn’t return. The best-looking girls were the ones they married. My lovely friends were left to one side. They hadn’t chosen the single state; the war had pushed it upon them.

How different would their lives have been if they had lived through a time of peace?

General Douglas MacArthur, whose wartime headquarters was here in Brisbane during World War 2, said

The soldier above all others prays for peace, for it is the soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war. 

The Christmas Truce of 1914 that we spoke of earlier shows that the ordinary soldier wanted peace, he wanted to go home and back to his family and job. 

Soon at Christmas, we’ll hear the song of the angels:

Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those
   whom he favours!

That’s our song too. But we can only sing it while still remembering those for whom peace was only a distant dream. 

The other thing we proclaim at Christmas—and across the whole year—is the Jesus Christ is the Prince of Peace.

We honour the dead in war, soldiers and civilians, by working for peace with justice, and praying to that end. We honour them by saying War never again! as well as saying Lest we forget. Amen.

 

Preached at West End Uniting Church, 11 November 2018

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In Sympathy with God

Readings
Revelation 21.1–6a
John 11.32–44

As for suffering: I believe that there are fewer people than ever who escape major suffering in this life. In fact I’m fairly convinced that the Kingdom of God is for the broken-hearted. — Fred Rogers

We are not theologians because we are particularly religious; we are theologians because in the face of this world we miss God. We are crying out for his righteousness and justice, and are not prepared to come to terms with mass death on earth. 

But for me theology also springs from God’s love for life—the love for life that we experience in the presence of the life-giving Spirit and that enables us to move beyond our resignation and begin to love life here and now. These are also Christ’s two experiences of God, the kingdom of God and the cross, and because of that they are the foundations of Christian theology, as well: God’s delight and God’s pain. It is out of the tension between these two that hope is born for the kingdom in which God is wholly in the world and the world is wholly in God. ‘Seek first the kingdom of God…’ — Stephen Morrison, Jürgen Moltmann in Plain English, Kindle ed’n, loc.323

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What is a saint? A man, a Jew called Abraham Heschel once said that a prophet is someone who lives in sympathy with God, with God’s tears and God’s dream for the world in her heart. 

Perhaps we can also say that a saint is someone who lives in sympathy with God.* In particular, a saint is a person who actively hopes in God’s promises, and who cries when God cries.

God does cry at the injustice and madness of the world. Shirley Erena Murray, a wonderful hymn writer from New Zealand, says

God weeps
               at love withheld,
               at strength misused,
               at children’s innocence abused,
and till we change the way we love,
                                                         God weeps.

In each of today’s readings, there are tears. 

In Isaiah: ‘Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces.’

In Revelation: ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more….’

In the Gospel: ‘Jesus wept.’ When God becomes a human being, God sheds tears. A person who lives in sympathy with God will cry at what makes God cry. 

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Suffering God

Readings
Job 42.1–6, 10–17
Mark 10.46–52

 

Those with whom the crucified Jesus is identified in his abandoned death are both the godless, who experience their own turning from God as God’s abandonment of them, and the godforsaken, who experience their suffering as God’s abandonment of them. — Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, Kindle ed’n, loc.182

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When Karen and I lived in West End in the 1980s, we got to know a Greek neighbour. A devout member of the Greek Orthodox Church, he had come to Australia many years before to grow tobacco in Central Queensland. He wasn’t prepared for the climate out here though; after some years of working to make his farm succeed, a series of droughts broke him. He walked off the farm with his family and came to West End. By the time we met him, he was no longer an Orthodox Christian. No, he was an atheist. For him, there was no God.

Suffering can pan out in different ways. In particular, it can deepen a person’s faith, or destroy it. 

Another story. Karen and I were visiting relatives in England a few years ago. My uncle had seen a lot of injustice in the slums of Sheffield when he was growing up. He said to me out of the blue, ‘Thi’s no God, lad.’ He couldn’t reconcile any belief in God because of the way ordinary people were made to suffer.

The Book of Job contains the model scriptural story of suffering. But it doesn’t answer the one question everyone asks: Why? Why do people suffer? Why me? Or, the ‘what’ question: What did I do to deserve this?

In this book, Job loses almost everything. In the terms of his day back in ancient times, he was a squillionaire. We read this about his wealth: 

There were born to him seven sons and three daughters. He had seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and very many servants; so that this man was the greatest of all the people of the east. (1.2–3)

Job loses the lot. His children die in a freak storm, his servants are killed, his animals are carried off by marauders.

What does Job do? He

arose, tore his robe, shaved his head, and fell on the ground and worshipped. He said, ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’ (2.21)

Soon afterwards, Job himself is inflicted with ‘loathsome sores…from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head’.

Soon, three friends come to visit. Visiting sick and grieving people is good, right?

Because it’s an ancient tale, they have ancient names: Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. Job was so disfigured, his friends didn’t recognise him at first. So they wept and wailed and tore their clothes and threw dust on their heads and they sat with Job in silence for seven days and nights; ‘and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great’. 

Wow, that was a good thing to do. It shows their hearts were in the right place. But Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar have a bad reputation, you know? If folk talk about someone being a ‘Job’s Comforter’, it’s not a compliment. It means they made things worse.

What did Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar do that was so bad? They started talking.

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The throne of Jesus

Reading
Mark 10.35–45

Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without repentance; it is baptism without the discipline of community; it is the Lord’s Supper without confession of sin; it is absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ.… 

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which has to be asked for, the door at which one has to knock. 

It is costly, because it calls to discipleship; it is grace, because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. — Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, DBW 4, Kindle ed’n, pp.44–45

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Has anyone ever said to you, ‘Be careful what you wish for?’

A couple had been married for thirty five years and was celebrating the wife’s sixtieth birthday. 

During the party, a fairy appeared and said that because they had been such a loving couple all those years, she would give them one wish each. 

The wife said, ‘We’ve been so poor all these years, and I’ve never seen the world. 

‘I wish we could travel all over the world.’ 

The fairy waved her wand and ZAP! The wife had the tickets in her hand. 

Next, it was the husband’s turn. 

He paused for a moment and then said, ‘Well, I’d like to be married to a woman thirty years younger than me.’

The fairy waved her wand and ZAP! Now, the husband was ninety years old.

Be very careful what you wish for.

Jesus said something very like that to James and John. They had a question for him, a favour to be granted:

Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.

That’s nice, eh? You can imagine sitting on either side of Jesus when his true glory is revealed. I wonder what the two Zebedee brothers thought it would be like, sitting one either side of Jesus on his throne? Continue reading

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Whose story?

Reading
Mark 10.2–16

 

We need not think that hermeneutical despair (‘anything goes’) and hermeneutical arrogance (we have ‘the’ interpretation) are the only alternatives. We can acknowledge that we see and interpret ‘in a glass, darkly’ or ‘in a mirror, dimly’ and that we know ‘only in part’ (1 Cor. 13.12), while ever seeking to understand and interpret better by combining the tools of scholarship with the virtues of humbly listening to the interpretations of others and above all to the Holy Spirit. — Merold Westphal, Whose Interpretation? Whose Community?, Kindle ed’n, 2009, p.18

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I became a Christian at the age of fourteen after accidentally going to a Billy Graham rally. (Yes, it was a genuine accident!) I didn’t go to church for some months after that, but eventually I my best friend asked me to his church. I went, and I found that it was a Plymouth Brethren congregation. There are varieties of Brethren church; mine was the most ‘open’ there is. But they are mostly a fundamentalist group. In my time in the Brethren, I gained an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of the scriptures, but really I didn’t learn good habits of interpreting scripture. 

I was taught that the bible is a book chock-full of propositions and facts to be believed without question. I was taught that the way the Brethren read the bible is the only way to read it. 

So there were no contradictions in the bible. The bible taught a literal six-day creation of the world, which occurred only a few thousand years ago. Jesus was coming again by the end of the 1980s. And women were not allowed to speak in church.

Moving out of the Brethren became another conversion. It was just as profound as my first conversion, and taught me not to stand on a supposedly inerrant bible.

It also taught me that we need to ask questions of the scriptures. I’d like to ask one of those questions today of the Gospel Reading. The question is Whose story is the text telling?

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The Wisdom of the Cross

You show us a child, Jesus,
to show us how to live;
save us from our false ambitions and desires,
that we may receive the pure heart
which comes with true wisdom;
this we ask in your name. Amen.

Reading
Mark 9.30–37

 

The real surprise inherent to the narrative itself comes when Jesus takes a small child and tells the disciples that in receiving such a one they receive him—and through him they receive ‘the one who sent me’ (presumably, following the rule of faith, the Father). Given our domestication of Jesus, however, this often comes across to our congregation as another ‘cute’ story about Jesus and little children. — Nathan G Jennings, in Feasting on the Word, Year B Vol.4, Kindle ed’n, loc.3507

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Sometimes, a novel just has an absolute corker of a first line that makes you want to read more. One of the most famous first lines comes from Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. — Jane Austen (1813)

Or this, from Neuromancer by William Gibson:

The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel. — (1984)

I can see that colour! 

And what about

There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. — C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952), one of the Narnia stories

There’s another first line which I love. It is very helpful to remember it when we read the scriptures:

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

That’s the first line of L.P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between, published in 1953. 

‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’

Let’s keep that in mind as we turn to today’s Gospel story. In it, Jesus teaches the disciples that he is going to undergo something unimaginable: 

The Son of Man is now to be handed over into the power of men, and they will kill him; and three days after being killed he will rise again.

‘But,’ Mark says, ‘they did not understand what he said, and were afraid to ask.’

Even worse,

on the way they had been discussing which of them was the greatest.

Can you imagine? Jesus is telling them about his death; all the disciples can think about was which one of them was the best.

In the Gospel of Mark, the disciples really just don’t get it. And how can they? Jesus is turning everything they know upside down.

Look, he’s doing it again! Now, he says to the disciples

If anyone wants to be first, he must make himself last of all and servant of all.

Hang on, Jesus! The first is the one who wins the race, the one who becomes prime minister, the richest one, the one with the best car and the latest computer system. How can the last be first? How can a servant be number one?

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A deficit of wonder

Readings
Proverbs 1.20–33
Mark 8.27–38

 

There are four things that are too mysterious for me to understand:
an eagle flying in the sky,
a snake moving on a rock,
a ship finding its way over the sea,
and a man and a woman falling in love.
Proverbs 30.18–19 (GNB)

Here’s the thing: in an era when there can seem to be a deficit of wonder, swifts are like the sky: once you start, you can’t stop wondering about them. Frustratingly, though, their elusiveness and pace mean you rarely get more than a glimpse of what they are up to in a town. The edge-land, however, reveals a wider perspective… — Rob Cowen, Common Ground, Kindle ed’n, p.208

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Our daughter lives in Chile, and so (of course!) does her daughter, our granddaughter Emilia. Emilia is nearly three. They visited us a while ago, and it was just a delight to witness Emilia’s joy and wonder at everything she encountered.

Frankly, I don’t miss a lot about being a child. But if there’s one thing I miss it is finding wonder in learning new things, in animals in all their weird shapes and forms, in the expanse of space, in everything really. 

I suppose it’s pretty normal not to experience so much wonder as you get older. You have to pay the bills, cook the meals, get to work. You realise that the world is a pretty messed-up place. You worry about the future.

But then you see a newborn baby, or look up at the night sky away from the city lights, and that feeling of wonder is right back there again.

It may be normal for that sense of wonder to fade as you get older; but it may be fading away more in our time in history. Today, some people are experiencing a ‘deficit of wonder’.

A deficit of wonder. I have seen that phrase twice in the last week, yet I’d never seen it before in my entire life.

A deficit of wonder. I read it in a British nature book (Common Ground, by Rob Cowen) set in the local area where I was born. I read it also in a quotation from Tom Waits, the gravel-voiced blues singer whose work some of you will know.

Tom Waits says

Everything is explained now. We live in an age when you say casually to somebody ‘What’s the story on that?’ and they can run to the computer and tell you within five seconds. That’s fine, but sometimes I’d just as soon continue wondering. We have a deficit of wonder right now.

‘Sometimes I’d just as soon continue wondering.’

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