Monthly Archives: July 2011

Striving in the midst of plenty (Year A, Sunday 18, 31 July 2011)

Genesis 32.22-31
Matthew 11.13-21


Do we live in a world of scarcity, or a world of plenty? It seems that human beings have always felt we live in a world where resources are scarce. From the beginning, we have fought one another to gain advantage. One of the most vivid examples of this is found in the first chapters of Genesis. In this story of human beginnings, Cain kills his younger brother Abel because God favours him. As far as Cain is concerned, God’s favour is a scarce commodity. If he can’t have it, no one can.

The Book of Genesis is full of stories of brothers fighting. Today, we heard the story of Jacob wrestling with…who? With a man? An angel? God?

Jacob was on his way to meet his older brother, Esau, the one he’d done out of his inheritance. Esau was heading his way with four hundred men. Jacob was quite aware of what those four hundred men were capable of, and he was mightily afraid of what they might do.

Jacob’s attitude seems to have been There ain’t no room in this family for the both of us… So he’d diddled Esau. Now, he was going to face the consequences—but God intervened.

Jacob came out of his encounter with God with a limp. He was never the same again, but if you asked him I think he’d say the limp was a blessing. As we said last week, ‘All things work together for good for those who are called according to God’s purpose’. All things. Including that terrible night when Jacob didn’t know whether he would live or die. Continue reading

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I am/not a Progressive Christian

I accepted Christ at a Billy Graham rally in 1968 at the age of 14. I’d had no experience of belonging to a church, so when my best friend at school invited me to his church I was both relieved and delighted to go.

It was an Open Brethren group, full of lovely, uptight people. And lots of girls (so I could safely hover on the edges of friendships with girls for a long time).

I began to see cracks in the fundamentalism I was being taught, in the ways the scriptures had to be twisted to make them ‘inerrant’ and fit oh-so-neatly together. I began to see that taking the Bible seriously meant allowing its internal debate about things. Many things.

At the same time, I began to feel God was maybe calling me into the ordained ministry. Problem: The Brethren don’t ordain anyone. They argue against ‘one man ministry’ (I still do!).

When I plucked up enough courage to say this is what I wanted, and moreover in the Uniting Church, there was a great deal of resistance from some of my brothers and sisters. These people would accept my going to Sydney (nowhere else!) to be an Anglican minister. But Uniting? The word soon got out that Paul Walton may not be a Christian at all, even that he never really was. For a while, I doubted it myself. Leaving fundamentalism can be a scary journey at first.

That was around 30 years ago. A few years past, I went to a gathering of people from my old church. Enough time had gone by for me to be forgiven, and to forgive. I was keen to see how their views had changed over the decades. I was very disappointed to realise that their understanding of the Faith had stayed static.

Recently I read that

At its core, progressive Christianity maintains that there are no easy answers to the questions of faith simply because our understanding of God and Jesus evolves and changes (i.e., “progresses”) enormously over a lifetime. As we move through life, and as our experiences and knowledge shape and alter our view of faith, we come to see that we only have a piece of the truth and that we must be in conversation with others who themselves possess part of that spiritual truth.

It seems that this is one of a number of views on what ‘progressive Christianity’ is. It may be true, but I can’t accept it as an adequate definition.

Of course our understanding changes through life. Surely, no one has precisely the same belief in God in their adult years as they had as a young child. So if I can sense that changing understanding of God in my life, I must be a ‘progressive’ Christian? There is of course a necessary value judgement in the statement I quoted: a ‘progressive’ belief is one that has “come to see that we only have a piece of the truth and that we must be in conversation with others who themselves possess part of that spiritual truth”. There is a real humility here, but I’m not sure all ‘progressive’ Christians are this humble—a trait so many of us share. I’ll have to think some more. Maybe I’ll share again soon.


(See the articles in the What is Progressive Christianity? Symposium here.)

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All things work together (Year A, 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 24 July 2011)

Romans 8.26-39
Matthew 13.31-33, 44-52


The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.

What was the difference between Paul and Jesus? (Besides the obvious, that Jesus is the eternal Son of God…) It was this: Jesus told parables, Paul didn’t. But if we could apply just one of Jesus’ parables to Paul, I think the Parable of the Pearl of Great Price would be a good contender.

Surely Paul was like the merchant: when he found the secret of the kingdom, that Jesus crucified and risen is the longed-for Messiah, he turned his back on everything and followed him. Others may have said he was a fool, they might say he threw everything away for this Jesus of Nazareth. But once Paul found his Pearl of Great Price he could pen the great eighth chapter of Romans and proclaim this wonderful, liberating  truth:

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.


When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God…

And further,

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword…[nothing] in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

This is indeed a prize worth living for. This is a prize worth losing everything else for.

Paul’s confidence in the Lord Jesus is such that he has even become convinced that

all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

Which things work together for good? All things. Not just some things, and not even most things. All things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

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Led by the Spirit (Ordinary Sunday 16,Year A, 17 July 2011)

Romans 8.12-25
Matthew 13.24-30

Two weeks ago, we talked about rules. We said, ‘rules may hurt as much as they help’. We spoke about a rule-bound shop where everything got messed up because the manager was trying to exert control by a system of rules to which the shop assistant stuck too rigidly.

We said that rules are good, rules are fine, but following them too rigidly can harm relationships in the workplace, in church or at home.

The Apostle Paul had been bound by rules. We call his set of rules the Jewish Law and we find it in the first five books of the Old Testament. Paul was in a real predicament. The Law was good, it came from God. It showed him right from wrong. But by obeying the Law, he ended up doing harm in quite a spectacular way when he persecuted the followers of Jesus of Nazareth. He discovered that we can set off to do the right thing, but if all we do is follow the rules we can’t be sure we’ll achieve the good we set out to do.

The truth is, if we want to live well, the answer isn’t in rules and laws. The power of sin is too great. It taints our best efforts.

So, if following rules isn’t the way, what is?

Let’s look at Romans chapter 8 for an answer. Here, Paul says:

So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh—for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear…

Paul has been on a journey of the spirit.

  • He has stopped living ‘according to the flesh’.
  • He has ‘put to death the deeds of the body’.
  • He will not ‘fall back into ‘fear’.

It may surprise you to hear that when Paul talks about the ‘flesh’, he isn’t necessarily talking about sexual sin. When he persecuted the Church, he lived in the fear of God; and Paul says he was living ‘according to the flesh’ at that time.

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Vehicles of Hope

A sermon preached at the induction of Rev Henry Swindon as a chaplain at St Andrew’s War Memorial Hospital on 15 July.


Romans 8.12-25
Matthew 8.5-13


I remember once going on a routine visit to the Renal Dialysis Unit while I was a chaplain at The Wesley Hospital. If there’s anywhere that could show the truth of what today’s reading from Romans says about creation, it’s a hospital; and in particular, chronic units like renal dialysis. St Paul writes of a creation ‘in bondage to decay’ and ‘subjected to futility’. What more futile existence could there be than sitting in renal dialysis several times a week, depending on machines to stay alive, hoping against hope month after month for a transplant to come up?

I never quite knew what I was going to encounter entering any ward, especially this one. I often felt out of my depth in the renal unit.

On this occasion in I walked, and I went up to the first bed. I’d never met this patient before. He was an Asian man, and he positively beamed a welcome at me. Before I could sit down, he announced with the same infectious smile, ‘Life is suffering!’

I thought to myself, I know where you’re coming from. ‘Life is suffering’ is how the ‘First Noble Truth’ of Buddhism is often expressed. And I had a lovely time with this Buddhist gentle man, allowing him to share the joy in his soul with me. I really hope I helped him, because by the time I left his side, I was certainly feeling really great!

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14th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year A, 3 July 2011)

Come to Me…

Romans 7.15-25a
Matthew 11.16-19, 25-30

Rules may hurt as much as they help. True story: a customer enters a shop near closing time, and wants a special service that would mean working past closing time.

Recently, the manager had sent a memo out requiring the staff not to work overtime. So the assistant told the customer it couldn’t be done. She then complained to the manager, who rebuked the shop assistant in front of her and told him to do whatever the customer wanted, however long it took.

What was happening here? Both the shop manager and the assistant were rule-bound. The manager was trying to exert control by a system of rules. The assistant was content to follow the rules. The customer was caught in the middle.

How could things have worked better? It would have been better if the shop assistant had gone to the manager and ‘asked permission’ to ‘break the rules’. This situation needed a relational approach, not a rule-based approach. In other words, it needed people to work together, to discuss a way through, to treat each other in some sense as partners.

(It might even have helped if the manager had a sign over his door: Come to me, all you shop assistants who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. But, he didn’t.)

Rules are good, rules are fine. But following them slavishly can harm relationships,  whether they be relationships in the workplace, in church or at home. Continue reading

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