Monthly Archives: March 2019

Baptism: a beginning

A short off-Lectionary message for the baptism of an infant

Readings
Isaiah 55.1–9
1 Corinthians 10.1–13

Baptism is Christ’s gift.
It is the sign by which the Spirit of God
joins people to Jesus Christ
and incorporates them into his body, the Church.
In his own baptism in the Jordan by John,
Jesus identified himself with humanity
in its brokenness and sin;
that baptism was completed in his death and resurrection. 

By God’s grace,
baptism plunges us into the faith of Jesus Christ,
so that whatever is his may be called ours.
By water and the Spirit we are claimed as God’s own
and set free from the power of sin and death.

Thus, claimed by God
we are given the gift of the Holy Spirit
that we may live as witnesses to Jesus Christ,
share his ministry in the world and grow to maturity,
awaiting with hope the day of our Lord Jesus. — ‘The Meaning of Baptism’, from Uniting in Worship 2 

______________________

Twice in C’s baptism today, I addressed her directly. The first time, I said these words from Mark 7.34, words traditionally used at baptisms:

C,
may the Lord open your ears to hear his word
and your mouth to proclaim his praise.

This echoes what Jesus said as he healed a deaf man with a speech impediment. It also reflects that without God’s grace, our ears are closed to God’s Word and our mouths utter imperfect praise. We need to be brought into relationship with God to become people of God’s grace. 

The second time I spoke directly to C was in these beautiful words derived from the Baptismal Liturgy of the French Reformed Church:

C,
for you Jesus Christ has come,
has lived, has suffered;
for you he endured the agony of Gethsemane
and the darkness of Calvary;
for you he uttered the cry, ‘It is accomplished!’
For you he triumphed over death;
for you he prays at God’s right hand;
for you,
long before you were born.

It’s traditional to address an infant who is about to be baptised. Now, S and B, I know C is really clever, but—she really didn’t understand what I was saying to her. (I’m sorry to break it to you like this…) 

But you know, we all talk to babies and we don’t mind that they just look at us and smile. We do that because one day, they will understand. And one day, C will talk back to you. 

And that of course is why we do so many things with children before they are quite ready for them: we want them to learn.

So, we let them practise sitting up. We sit them on the floor with plenty of cushions around them so if they fall, they don’t hurt themselves. 

We give them a spoon to eat food with, even though it ends up on their clothes, their face, and on the floor.

We teach our children by doing things with them. We don’t give them a lecture on table etiquette, and expect them straightaway to use the soup spoon instead of the dessert spoon. 

It’s the same in every area of life, including the spiritual. So we do things that open the spiritual world to our children. We make sure they aren’t strangers to the church. We bring them to the  Eucharist. We pray with them, perhaps at meals and the end of the day. We teach them values, like fairness and sharing. 

One day, they’ll grow up and call fairness and sharing ‘justice’ and ‘compassion’. They will make the link with caring for the earth in a time of climate change, and with welcoming those who have a different culture or faith or sexuality, resisting the forces that try to entrench division and hatred in Australian society. 

We’ve seen something of this lately; we have seen what extremist nationalism can do when it is unleashed. As people of faith, we stand against this, and for a peaceful and multicultural society.

One day, we all realise that life is far bigger than we are, and that we need to be plugged in to something bigger than we are in order to flourish.

We Christians name that something bigger as ‘God’. We plug in to God through faith, hope and love. 

Baptism is the public beginning of a walk with God, with Jesus as our companion and the Holy Spirit strengthening our hearts. 

Today, C has started that public walk. We all have a responsibility in her spiritual care. The congregation has promised to provide a secure base; parents and godparents have also promised to teach her the Way of Jesus Christ. 

To do that, we all need to pay attention to our own life of love, faith and hope, of prayer, sharing in the life of the church and serving others. 

So we give thanks for C, and for the triune God who has received her as a member of God’s family. And we pledge ourselves to help C and all the other children here towards a mature Christian faith.

West End Uniting Church, 24 March 2019

Leave a comment

Filed under Baptism, Liturgy, sermon, Uniting Church in Australia, Uniting in Worship 2

A God who laments

I had already written this sermon on Lament before the horror of Christchurch on Friday. We heard the statement from the President of the Uniting Church and prayed together; but I left the sermon unchanged apart from one small paragraph.

Reading
Luke 13.31–35

Lament is a complex language of complaint, protest, and appeal directed to God. At times, lament may be subdued in tone as a poet wrestles with trouble; at other times, lament may be as loud and vigorous as any praise song.… laments share one commonality: deep faith in God in the midst of pain. — Glenn Pemberton, Hurting with God, p.30

…the merciful humility of God [is] the most powerful force imaginable. — Jane Williams, The Merciful Humility of God.

______________________

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. He’s already told the disciples why, though they will not listen:

Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands. But they did not understand this saying… (Luke 9.44–45a)

Jesus is going to the last great confrontation with the powers that be, a confrontation that ends with his death. 

In his mind’s eye Jesus sees Jerusalem, and he laments over the city: 

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!

We can say that a lament is a faithful expression of grief. In lament, we ask for God’s help. We know things should be different, we want God’s justice. We may even accuse God, like the Psalm 77 (verses 8–10): 

Has [God’s] steadfast love ceased forever?
Are his promises at an end for all time?
Has God forgotten to be gracious?
Has he in anger shut up his compassion?

And I say, ‘It is my grief
that the right hand of the Most High
  has changed.’

Here, Jesus is continuing this tradition of lament. He is pouring his heart out to God. Why does Jerusalem, the home of God’s great Temple, turn its back on God’s prophets? 

Jesus wants to embrace the people of Jerusalem as a mother hen embraces her chicks under her wings. In this queer imagery, Jesus shows what is in his heart: it is the salvation of Jerusalem. Jesus loves the people as a mother loves her children. 

And Jesus will do whatever is needed to protect her children. 

Jesus laments for Jerusalem. Jesus grieves, all the more so because Jesus knows just what Jerusalem needs: to welcome God into their midst. 

Anyone who laments is aware of their powerlessness. We have grieved over the boys and girls who suffered abuse at the hands of ministers and priests, and not only in the Catholic Church. We have grieved the choice of the special conference of the United Methodist Church in the USA to turn its back on its queer members. We have grieved because we care for the people involved; because we want a safe church; because we want an inclusive church; because we are powerless to bring it about ourselves. 

Most recently, we have grieved over the horror of Muslim believers killed while at prayer in Christchurch. We have asked ‘How long, O God?’

Jesus laments—but what about God? Does God lament? But surely God is almighty, not powerless? Couldn’t almighty God just fix things like *that*? And if God can fix everything but doesn’t, what good is God? 

What do you think about that?

I ask this question about God because the New Testament says things like this about the risen Jesus:

…the full content of divine nature lives in Christ, in his humanity… (Colossians 2.9 GNB)

Christ ‘is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being…’ (Hebrews 1.3)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.… And the Word became flesh and lived among us… (John 1.1, 14)

In Jesus, in his humanity, we are met by ‘the full content of divine nature’. Do you want to know what God is like? Look at Jesus. ‘Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. Why, then, do you say, “Show us the Father”?’ (John 14.9)

So, that question again: Jesus laments—but what about God? Does God lament? 

There are plenty of people with a pagan idea of the Christian God: that is, the central thing about God is that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-seeing. Oh, apart from that, and reassuringly, God does love us.

Yet perhaps the most profound statement about God in the scriptures is found in 1 John 4.16: ‘God is love’. 

That’s the first thing and the last thing we should ever say about God. Can God do anything? No! God cannot act against God’s nature. God is love—God cannot be unloving. 

So the way forward for Jesus is the way of love. Not to gather an army together. Not to plot and scheme. The Way of Jesus is the Way of Self-giving Love. 

So Jesus laments, and in Jesus God laments too. Is God almighty? Yes, if we are talking about the love of God. God is almighty in love, but love waits, loves serves, love gives and gives again to the beloved. And we, dear friends, are God’s beloved. 

A lot of people who say to me they can’t believe in God mean that pagan God, the all-powerful being who can slay, and punish, and put people in hell for eternity. Some parts of the Bible talk that way, but we see God in and through Jesus Christ. 

And anyway, I don’t believe in that pagan God either. 

The clear image of God our faith gives us is Jesus Christ. In him ‘the full content of divine nature lives…in his humanity’. 

We see God in the humanity of Jesus Christ. A God who loves to the end, who laments when God’s beloved turn away. A justice-bringing God, but only by the narrow way, the Way of self-giving love, the Way of the cross. 

One more thing to add, and it’s the end of Jesus’ lament. Jesus cries out,

I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’

‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’ Do you recognise that? We sing it every week: 

Blessed is the One who comes
  in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

We welcome Jesus as he comes to us in the Holy Meal of the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Communion. 

Jesus (and we) are quoting Psalm 118.26:

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.

This psalm was a thanksgiving for a returning hero. But Jesus turns it upside down. When he comes to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, people are shouting these words; but Jesus is coming on a donkey, not a war horse. He is coming to the cross, which is the only throne he gets. He comes in peace. 

When we sing these words in church, we welcome Jesus into our hearts, we prepare to receive him in bread and wine. Not as a hero, but as the very love of God made flesh. We commit ourselves to follow his Way of self-giving love. 

And yes, we often grieve for the world that turns its back on the ways of peace, the ways of love, the Way of Christ. And we lament, keeping our hope in God, whose ‘almightiness’ is the Way of Jesus. Amen. 

 

West End Uniting Church, 17 March 2019

Leave a comment

Filed under Church & world, Lament, Lent, RCL, sermon

Finding ourselves, and others

Readings
Deuteronomy 26.1–11
Luke 4.1–13

All this is the role that Jesus is acting out in the wilderness. He learns to be the precarious one in the desert. But where Moses reassured his listeners with the little word when, as in ‘when you come into the land,’ the devil comes to Jesus and thrice tempts him with the word if. If is the entry to privation, not abundance. ‘If you are . . .’ is supposed to cause Jesus to doubt that he is the Son of God and feel the need to prove it. If is the trigger for me to foreclose, to grasp my identity before time, to settle for a fake identity rather than to wait for the identity that is mine already, but coming upon me, not available to be grasped. —James Alison, https://outline.com/EULmKB

…my son continued his hand-me-down exposition of the text. Leaning closer to me and dropping his voice to a loud whisper, he said, ‘If we were at a store, and you and Dad were in one aisle, and I was in another aisle, and’—his hushed tones became downright conspiratorial at this point—‘there was candy…’ He paused for effect. ‘The devil would say, “You should take some!”’ I am not sure what was most startling to me in this retelling of the story of Luke 4:1–13 by my three-year-old: that he could, in fact, retell it—especially in such dramatic fashion—or that the version he had learned placed such heavy emphasis on the temptation and the personified tempter. — Lori Brandt Hale, Feasting on the Word: Year C, Vol. 2

______________________

What are you giving up for Lent? You have to give something up for Lent, don’t you? Alcohol, chocolate, Facebook… Something, anything.

Lent is all about self-denial. Isn’t it? 

Not really.

Jane Williams writes

Lent is not primarily about ‘giving things up’, or denying ourselves. It is about finding ourselves.

Lent is about finding ourselves… The thing is, we’ve been hiding ourselves, and hiding from ourselves, ever since Adam and Eve discovered they were naked. 

We hide from ourselves by achieving things, and defining ourselves by our achievements. And of course, an achievement can be almost anything—a well-paying job, a trophy spouse, a PhD, a child who has done well, winning a competition… 

We hide from ourselves by drinking, by using other drugs, by driving too fast, taking risks, anything really that turns our eyes away from ourselves and who we actually are. 

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Basis of Union, Lent, RCL, sermon

Not the mountain, the plain

Reading
Luke 9.28-43

There is a terrible cruelty to it. Baptizing them as children, teaching them in Sunday school, hosting lock-ins & game nights in youth group, encouraging their calls to ministry, and then, when they work up the courage to tell the truth about their sexuality, kicking them out. — @rachelheldevans, Twitter 28.02.19

The society in which we live suggests in countless ways that the way to go is up. Making it to the top, entering the limelight, breaking the record—that’s what draws attention, gets us on the front page of the newspaper, and offers us the rewards of money and fame.

The way of Jesus is radically different. It is the way not of upward mobility but of downward mobility. It is going to the bottom, staying behind the sets, and choosing the last place! Why is the way of Jesus worth choosing? Because it is the way to the Kingdom, the way Jesus took, and the way that brings everlasting life. — Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey, p.186 (https://henrinouwen.org/meditation/downward-mobility/)

The transfiguration is something any old atheist could understand: ‘glory’ is a body and face shining with supernatural light. This does not unsettle my pagan presuppositions of what ‘divinity’ and the ‘supernatural’ mean. What we need faith to see is this: that the dead Jesus, forgotten and abandoned, naked and hanging on the Cross, is truly the Love of God Incarnate. In the wounding of his fragile being is the fullness of the divine glory. He is not ashamed to be our God. — Brad Jersak, A More Christlike God, p.135

______________________

There’s a tradition in preaching on the Transfiguration of Jesus, that we talk about ‘mountaintop experiences’ that we take down to our everyday lives on the plain.

So where do we start today, on this Day of the Transfiguration of Jesus? Do we start on top of the mountain, along with Peter, James and John, with Moses and Elijah in glory? Do we begin bathed in the reflected heavenly light coming from Jesus? Do we start with a privileged glow mixed with strange feelings of awe or even dread?

Well no, not today. Today, we must start on the ground, along with the helpless, hapless and confused disciples who couldn’t expel a demon from a young lad, the only son of his father. That’s where we are today, at the bottom of the mountain. 

We have to start—and stay—on the ground today because as Christians in Australia, as members of a mainstream church, many people see us as representatives of something that is not only wrong but despicable. There’s a man I know who frequents the same coffee shop I do. We get on, we pass the time of day. The first time he saw me in a clerical collar he wondered if I should be wearing one, because it could make me look like a ‘paedo’. 

This week, Cardinal George Pell was found guilty of child sexual abuse. The charges relate to acts committed in 1996, while he was Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne. Pell had forcefully denied all charges, but now that a media ban has been lifted the news is known within Australia. 

A number of prominent figures have leapt to his defence, he will mount an appeal, but the fact remains: today, Pell is a convicted child abuser. 

We have to stay on the ground and not go to the mountain today because last weekend one of our sister churches in the USA, the United Methodist Church, discussed the place of LGBTIQ people in their church. Their special conference began with hopes of full inclusion of people regardless of their sexuality. Instead, the conference voted to accept the so-called ‘Traditional Plan’ which keeps the current exclusions of LGBTIQ people in place. 

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under church year, RCL, sermon, the risen crucified One