All shall be well

Reading
Ezekiel 37.1–14

 

Katherine Amos asks a powerful Lenten question. ‘What can your spiritual dry bones teach you?’ What are the dry bones in the life of your spirit? Would you like for them to live again? Faced with the foreboding spectre of a valley of dead bones, I wonder if one of the prophet’s first responses to Spirit’s question, ‘Can these bones live?’ is, instinctively, ‘I certainly hope not!’ Who would these bones become? Friend or foe? — Jane Anne Ferguson, in Connections: Year A, Volume 2

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Our Old Testament Reading today brings us before a scene of utter desolation. 

Ezekiel takes us to a valley of dry bones. (You remember the song, Dem bones, dem bones them dry bones? It comes from this scene in the Bible.)

We are possibly at the scene of an old battle. Those who fell stayed where they were. No one buried their bodies. Perhaps there was no one left to take care of them; they were all dead, or fled. 

The victors left the bodies there as a warning to others. 

By the time Ezekiel sees them in a vision, they are just bleached bones. There’s no life in them. There’s no life possible. 

The bones are disconnected, separated, fallen apart. Disjointed. 

‘Can these bones live?’ God asks Ezekiel. Ezekiel isn’t sure how to answer, so he says, ‘O Lord GOD, you know’.

Clever move, Ezekiel; toss the ball back into God’s court. 

Ezekiel has bought himself some time, but there’s a definite trickle of sweat coming down his cheeks. He’s waiting for God’s next move. 

Ezekiel doesn’t have to wait long; God says, ‘Prophesy to these bones…’ (‽) 

Ok, Ezekiel is a prophet, but prophesy to bleached, dry bones? That’s kinda useless, don’t you think? 

But Ezekiel is a prophet, he’s been told to prophesy, so he does. He says,

Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the LORD.

God will bring life, the very life-giving spirit of God, to these bones. These defeated, abandoned, even godforsaken bones will once again be covered with flesh. 

We are not yet at the point of these dry bones. But we’re doing it tough. Queensland has closed its border. Some things will not survive this testing time. Yet new things will emerge. 

We’re trying to do ‘social distancing’. A terrible name. Why not call it ‘physical distancing’, and keep in contact with one another? We need to intentionally draw near to others during this pandemic, just as in Ezekiel’s vision where bones are knit together with sinews and flesh. We have the means to do this as no other age has had. 

The bones are knit together and clothed because life is God’s will for them. And life is God’s will for us too, today. 

I want to end this brief reflection with two things. Firstly, part of a beautiful poem called Pandemic. It is from Lynn Ungar, and was only published on 11 March this year: 

Know that we are connected in ways
that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has become clear.)

Has it become clear to you yet? I hope it is becoming clearer to you. Our lives are in one another’s hands. We are connected. To live as though we are not connected is madness. 

Secondly, a reminder of the fourteenth-century mystic, Julian of Norwich. She was the first woman to have written a book in English; her book is The Revelations of Divine Love. Famously, it contains these words: 

All shall be well, and all shall be well, and absolutely everything shall be well.

These words sound optimistic to us, even Pollyanna-ish. But we should be aware of this: Julian didn’t live in an easy time. She lived in a time of various plagues. In her home city of Norwich, when she was a little girl, 7000 out of 12000 people died of the Black Death. Twenty years later, a further 25% of the reduced population died in another pandemic. 

Yet her hope in God remained: 

All shall be well, and all shall be well, and absolutely everything shall be well.

God desires life for us. God wants to clothe our dry, bleached bones with living flesh. 

Can we too learn the truth of this? Only as we trust in the God of all grace, who pitched his tent among us in Jesus Christ and who calls us to become — in the fullest way possible — children of God. 

Streamed from West End Uniting Church 29 March 2020

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Filed under Grief and loss, Lament, RCL, reflection, sermon

From the depths

Reading
Psalm 130

1 Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD.
2 Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my supplications!

3 If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities,
Lord, who could stand?
4 But there is forgiveness with you,
so that you may be revered.

5 I wait for the LORD, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
6 my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.

7 O Israel, hope in the LORD!
For with the LORD there is steadfast love,
and with him is great power to redeem.
8 It is he who will redeem Israel
from all its iniquities.

 

Pandemic

What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath―
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
Center down.

And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.

Promise this world your love–
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.

― Lynn Ungar 3/11/20

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Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord …

The psalm writer is in deep water. He has nowhere to stand, no firm footing. 

He’s out of his depth. He’s overwhelmed by the waters, in danger of drowning. 

Ancient Israel feared the sea; in creating the earth, God had to bring the primeval depths under control. [Genesis 1.1-3] 

The waters overwhelmed the earth in the great flood of Noah, and Jonah was cast into the sea’s depths. The sea was the home of giant monsters like Leviathan. 

The Sea of Galilee was sea enough for them. 

Today, we may think we have found pretty safe ways of navigating the seas, but we have our own fears. The Coronavirus pandemic has us bunkering down, anxious lest we come too close to someone carrying the virus or if we touch a surface on which the virus lurks. 

In the depths, the psalmist finds a place to stand. It is in ‘waiting for the Lord’. That isn’t doing nothing, it’s watching, peering, searching: 

my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for the morning …

The psalm writer expects God to shine light onto his life, to act for him. 

Beyond all the necessary warning about physical distancing and washing our hands, we need hope. Hope in God, who we see in the face of Jesus:

O Israel, hope in the Lord!
For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
and with him is great power to redeem.
It is he who will redeem Israel
from all its iniquities

It’s time to hope, to simplify, to learn how to wait. 

as Lynn Ungar’s poem above puts it, 

Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
Center down.

And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.

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Psalm 130 is a Lament Psalm. Laments typically begin with a complaint; then they remember what God has done, and finish with renewed hope in God. 

U2 sings ‘40’, based on another lament psalm, Psalm 40:

https://youtu.be/3z_LBNF_-xI

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Jesus sees

Note: Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are not holding our usual services. This sermon will be part of a shorter service at 9.30am (Brisbane time) tomorrow. It will be streamed at https://www.facebook.com/westenduniting/

We welcome your feedback and questions.

Readings
Ephesians 5.8–14
John 9.1–7

At the centre of a Gospel riddled with light and darkness, blindness and sight, truth and lie, John tells the story of a man born blind from birth. From birth he knew nothing but darkness. That Jesus sees the man who cannot see him is a literal fact. It is also a theological truth. From Nicodemus in the middle of the night and the Samaritan woman at the well to Judas in the garden and Pilate at the headquarters, those who dwell in darkness cannot of their own volition see the God who has come to them in Jesus Christ. Rather, God in Christ sees them in the darkness of the human condition without God and pitches his tent. ― Cynthia A Jarvis, Feasting on the Gospels, John Vol. 1

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A very short sermon today. One point.

Jesus sees the man born blind before the man sees Jesus. Jesus sees him because he is the Light of the world. 

That’s it, that’s the sermon. 

But, just so you don’t switch off disappointed, I’ll preach for longer. 😉

Let me remind you of the Gospel text:

As [Jesus] walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 

Jesus saw a man. A person, in all his particular-ness. This man was a beggar. He was a beggar because he was blind. Not only that, he had been blind since birth. 

Jesus saw him. 

His disciples saw something too, but they didn’t see him. They saw a puzzle to be solved, a riddle to be answered, a theological conundrum: 

Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind? 

Jesus sees, the disciples see; yet they see different things. 

Jesus sees a person in need; the disciples see an object of theological speculation, to be discussed and discarded. 

The story in John’s Gospel goes for the whole of chapter 9. That’s 41 verses. Read them. It begins with everyone in darkness, except Jesus. It ends with the man born blind also in the light, but the other players in the story remain in darkness. 

The Pharisees want to check this unauthorised healing out. They ask his family if it’s really the same man. His parents don’t want to get involved. 

The Pharisees are adamant that it can’t be the same man. They prefer to stay in the darkness. 

Jesus sees them every one, but only one responds. 

The disciples separate themselves from the blind man by their judgement. It’s not social distancing, it’s ostracism framed in nice theological language. Nice God-talk. Of course, that’s the worst kind of ostracism there is. 

The religious leaders also ostracise the blind man; they ostracise Jesus too. Jesus sees them, but it disturbs their religion. They remain in darkness. 

How can we live confidently as people who are seen by Jesus, ‘as children of the light’? St Paul says:  

Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. 

The days that we are in certainly are evil. Many have died. More will fall sick. We have taken the extraordinary step of suspending public worship to help, as they say, ‘flatten the curve’. But we want to make the most of our time. We want to see others, just as we are seen and loved. 

Let us see others in the coming week. Others who may be discouraged and disheartened, depressed or downright sick. See them for themselves, pray for them, and reach out. 

Don’t make the mistake the disciples made, and speculate about them. It’s our business to walk with people through what may be a difficult journey. It’s our call to relieve suffering where we can, and to pray always. 

Was there only one-point in today’s sermon? Maybe there are two — 

  1. Jesus sees the man born blind before the man sees Jesus. (We call that grace.) Jesus sees him because he is the Light of the world. 
  2. Jesus calls us to truly see others in this time of ‘social isolation’ because in the Lord we are light, and are called to live as children of the Light. 

Amen.

Streamed from West End Uniting Church 22 March 2020

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Being transformed

Reading
John 4.1–42

 

The courtship in John 4, however, is not a normal one. Jesus and the woman do not ‘marry’ literally, but symbolically, restoring the link between Samaria (the northern tribes of Israel) and Judea (the southern tribes of Israel) to bring all of Israel together again. The woman’s calling Jacob ‘our father’ in 4:12 points to their shared ancestry in Jacob/Israel, but Jesus is greater than Jacob and ‘shows the way’ to the Father of all. ― Alicia Myers, Reading John and 1, 2, 3 John: A Literary and Theological Commentary

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Last week, we met Nicodemus. Remember him? He’s a theologian and a man with authority. A high-stays man, a man with qualifications, but he doesn’t get it. When Jesus says to him, 

Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.

Nicodemus takes him literally: 

How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?

Today, we meet a woman, who is unnamed. A village woman, a despised woman, a low-status woman, yet she manages to engage far better with Jesus than Nicodemus did. 

I also want to say that this wonderful episode reminds us of an ancient love story. We’ll come back to that. 

Why was this woman despised? 

The Jewish people despised her because she was a Samaritan. The Samaritans lived around what we call the West Bank today. Some do today; there is still a Samaritan community in Israel. 

Samaritans followed a form of the Jewish religion. They claimed theirs was the original version of the faith, while the Jewish people rejected their claim. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? It’s a song that has been sung — often way off key — throughout history. People insist that God is on their side, not the other side. Even sophisticated residents of West End may fall for it. 

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Being born of the Spirit

Reading
John 3.1–17

 

How can we look at the biblical text in a manner that will convert or change us? I am going to define the Bible in a new way for some of you. The Bible is an honest conversation with humanity about where power really is. All spiritual texts, including the Bible, are books whose primary focus lies outside of themselves, in the Holy Mystery. The Bible illuminates our human experience through struggling with it. It is not a substitute for human experience. It is an invitation into the struggle itself: We are supposed to be bothered by some of the texts. ― Richard Rohr, Yes, and.… Daily Meditations

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I wonder if Nicodemus got what he wanted when he came to a conversation with Jesus. I suspect he may have been hoping for a discussion, you know, two theological minds nutting things out together. Seeing what’s right and what’s wrong. Bros bonding over tough theological issues. 

What happens? Let’s see. 

Nicodemus starts with a bit of flattery, all socially quite acceptable: ‘Rabbi,’ he says,

we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.

To me, this is an open invitation to talk about business, that business being religion. 

Nicodemus knows something about Jesus: he is ‘a teacher who has come from God’. He thinks that’s a good start. Yet it’s not enough. There’s a lot more to Jesus than this. 

Jesus doesn’t want to indulge Nicodemus in theological banter, however learned; no, he responds to Nicodemus with something much deeper than a chat about God. Jesus confronts him with a word about his relationship with God: 

Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.

What you’ve got right now isn’t enough, Nicodemus; you need to go from talking about God to talking with God. Thinking about God is good; allowing God to make his home within you is better. 

It’s like being reborn. 

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If / Since you are a child of God

Reading
Matthew 4.1–11

 

The temptations [Jesus] faces will each in turn urge him to take his relationship to God as a position of privilege, using it to meet his own needs, receive protection from the vulnerability of his humanity, and gain power over all the kingdoms of the world. Is this what it means to be ‘the Son of God’? Or will Jesus understand his calling in terms of God’s redemptive work and take up a role of serving God and God’s people toward that end―even if the end was suffering and death for him? ― Anna Case-Winters, Matthew: A Theological Commentary

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Our Gospel story today shows Jesus in the wilderness, tempted by the devil. 

To get it, we need to look a little behind the story. What’s in the background? 

Interestingly, Jesus has just been baptised. At his baptism, a voice from heaven says

This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.

We have baptised J today, and we can equally say to her, ‘You are a child of God. You are beloved by God.’ 

But for now, Jesus is in the wilderness. And for forty days. It’s a time of testing. A time of trial. And Matthew wants us to recall another time in the wilderness, a long time before. 

The people of Israel were in the wilderness too, weren’t they? They were there wandering not for forty days, but for forty years. It was a time of trial and testing for them. 

The people of Israel failed the test. But Jesus passed it. They gave in to temptation, where Jesus did not. 

I just want to look at one detail today, very briefly. I want to look at one part of the questions that Matthew puts into the mouth of the devil. The first two begin,

If you are the Son of God …

If you are the Son of God, take shortcuts! If you are the Son of God, be a superhero! And let me give you power and wealth beyond your wildest dreams! 

(Of course, if you can’t do any of that, maybe you’re not the Son of God after all … maybe you’re just a deluded fool.) 

Today, we have declared J to be a child of God. Baptised into Christ, she is one with Christ. But there may be times to come when she doubts it. That accusing voice may say to her, ‘If’ you are a child of God … Perhaps we too doubt that we could be God’s children? Yet in God’s eyes we are. Always. And always beloved. 

I need to remind you at this point that every word in our English Bibles is a translation. Matthew wrote his Gospel in everyday, ordinary Greek. Our English translations sometimes have a hard time getting the Greek exactly right when we put it into English. 

So: The word we translate ‘if’ (If you are the Son of God …) could just as easily be ‘since’—Since you are the Son of God … 

Since you are the Son of God, you can take shortcuts! Since you are the Son of God, you should be a superhero! And you deserve power and wealth beyond your wildest dreams. Let me give it all to you! 

When we read it as ‘since’, the Tempter isn’t sowing doubt. Instead, the temptation is for Jesus to think of himself as entitled. Since you’re the Son of God, you deserve power and wealth, everything you want …

Yet Jesus didn’t come to grab power. Jesus came to serve. He didn’t think of himself as entitled. Jesus, the Son of God, came to be a servant, to reach out to others in love, to bring healing. 

That’s what being a child of God means today. It’s not a title, it’s not about being entitled. It’s a way of life that begins with looking out for the interests of others and not putting ourselves first. 

That’s what we have asked for J today. 

They say it takes a village to raise a child. They’re right. We all have a role in Josephine’s life now. We’re all involved. 

Parents and godparents: you have promised to ‘teach [J] the way of Christ until the Spirit draws her to make her own response in faith and love’. Please do. 

Congregation: you have promised to ‘continue a life of worship and teaching, witness and service so that this child and all the children among you may grow to maturity in Christ’. Please do. 

Family and friends, having witnessed this day, I ask you also to do your part. For J. For all the children. Since they are children of God. 

Let us encourage one another to be the best children of God we can be. Let’s not settle for second best. Let us excel at serving others, at caring for the earth, at showing the love of God for everyone. Amen.

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‘With eyes that have cried’

Reading
Matthew 17.1–9

While the church today, as always, is challenged to confess in word and deed that Jesus is indeed ‘the Christ’, it is simultaneously warned against using that confession in the service of triumphalist religion. ‘The Christ of faith’, when true, always leads again to the ‘Jesus of history’―that is, to him who ‘was crucified, dead, and buried’, and whose anointing entailed a ‘descent into hell’ before it could sit him down at the right hand of God. ― Douglas John Hall, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol.1

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Trigger warning re domestic violence

Christophe Munzihirwa was a Catholic, a Jesuit, and an archbishop in the African nation of Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He was in office for just over a year, until he was assassinated by Rwandan soldiers in 1996. He was a protector of Hutu and Tutsi refugees in the Rwandan civil war and a proponent of democracy and reconciliation. He once said:

There are things that can be seen only with eyes that have cried.

I thought of these words after the dreadful murder-suicide last Wednesday just fifteen minutes from here in which Rowan Baxter cruelly killed his wife Hannah Clarke and their three children Laianah, Aaliyah and Trey before killing himself. How many eyes have cried since then, and what have they seen that they hadn’t seen before? 

There has been a lot of criticism of the reporting of the murder of Hannah Clarke and her children. I would say that much of the reporting avoided tears. 

Initially, it sidestepped the reality of what happened; then, it spoke of what a ‘good bloke’ the murderer was, a footy player and great dad. 

When we try to sidestep the issues, we avoid our tears. Are we afraid of tears?

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