Monthly Archives: January 2020

The Kingdom comes near in Crisis

Readings
1 Corinthians 1.10–18
Matthew 4.12–23

 

Australia is a lucky country run mainly by second-rate people who share its luck. It lives on other people’s ideas, and, although its ordinary people are adaptable, most of its leaders (in all fields) so lack curiosity about the events that surround them that they are often taken by surprise. A nation more concerned with styles of life than with achievement has managed to achieve what may be the most evenly prosperous society in the world. It has done this in a social climate largely inimical to originality and the desire for excellence (except in sport) and in which there is less and less acclamation of hard work. According to the rules Australia has not deserved its good fortune. ― Donald Horne, The Lucky Country

The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all. At the global level, it is a complex system linked to many of the essential conditions for human life. A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon. Humanity is called to recognise the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it. ― Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, para. 23 

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Do you have a favourite book of the Bible? I do. My favourite is Jonah, a funny, witty extended parable about a prophet who tries so hard not to do the right thing but is manoeuvred by God to do it anyway. He’s called to preach to Nineveh, the enemies of Israel; when he finally gets there, when his work is successful, when Nineveh repents and turns to God, Jonah sulks. In the very last verse of Jonah, God tries to bring Jonah around to the Divine way of thinking. God says:

…should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals? [Jonah 4.11]

At least 32 people have died in this heartbreaking bushfire season. Over 2000 homes have been lost. 

I love that Jonah reminds us that God loves animals too. We’ve been made aware of the deaths of over a billion animals this bushfire season. For some reason, that number doesn’t include fish, frogs, bats or insects. (How many insects must have died? How many bees have we lost?) 

Whole ecosystems are in peril. 

Bushfires have long been seen as carbon-neutral events. The forest burns, the forest regenerates, the carbon is once again locked up in trees. But doubts have been expressed about this current season. Are we in a new, dangerous time? Will the forest regenerate, or will the land formerly occupied by trees become grassland? If that occurs, Australia’s carbon output this year may be increased by a third because of this bushfire season. 

And so we have come to 26 January 2020, Australia Day. Or Survival Day. Whatever we call it, it’s surely a day in which we must take stock of what we are doing to our country. 

Australia Day/Survival Day has been a day of controversy from the beginning. At first, 26 January was only the date that New South Wales held the day, as the anniversary of the landing of the First Fleet at Port Jackson where Arthur Phillip raised the Union Flag on the land of the Eora nation. 

Other dates in other states have been called ‘Australia Day’: 

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Left to right: 30 July; 1 July; 28 July

26 January was only made the ‘national’ Australia Day in 1994, 26 years ago! Before then, we always had a long weekend. I don’t blame people for finding the date offensive. I mean, it’s Sydney-centric (hello, Australia is much more than Sydney!). And as it commemorates the first steps of the British on Australian soil, it is humiliating and unacceptable to First Peoples in our country. 

As we heard last week, the Uniting Church stands in covenant with the First Peoples of our church. Therefore, we recognise the pain they feel about the choice of 26 January. 

So now that 2020 is here, what have we done to the land that the First Peoples lived on for more than 60000 years? 

We have imposed European-type farming methods on land that is often unsuitable for it.

We have introduced species such as the cat, fox, rabbit and cane toad that disrupt the ecological balance of the land. 

We have driven species such as the Tasmanian tiger to extinction. Others may now be on the brink.

We have made Aboriginal and Islander people strangers in their own country. In 2018, suicide was the leading cause of death in Aboriginal children. Many Aboriginal people have died in custody; the latest was earlier this month in Victoria. This 37-year-old woman had been remanded in maximum security. Her alleged crime? Shoplifting.

To cap it all, our government still refuses to engage in any meaningful action on climate change. 

Australians have thought of ourselves as ‘The Lucky Country’ since Donald Horne coined the phrase in the 1960s. We should remember the fuller—and very ironic—quotation by Horne, which begins: 

Australia is a lucky country run mainly by second-rate people who share its luck.

That we are run by second-rate people has now become frighteningly apparent. It is no exaggeration to say that Australia is in the midst of a crisis. No less a figure than David Attenborough has made this claim. (See here also.) This bushfire season is the worst ever seen, and this is partly because of the abnormally dry conditions which climate change has brought in the south east of the country. 

You can hear all this on the nightly news. And this sermon is not a news report. So what can we say that’s not on the news? What must we say as the church of Jesus Christ? 

In today’s Gospel Reading, Jesus says 

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven [the kingdom of God] has come near.

Jesus wasn’t living in easy times right then. He began proclaiming this message after John the Baptist was arrested. Jesus himself was already under threat from the powers that be. The kingdom of God comes near in times of crisis. 

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God has no favourites

Readings
Acts 10.34–43
Matthew 3.13–17

 

The Apostle Peter:

‘I now know that God shows no partiality.’ … God is not a looker upon the face, does not play favourites, shows no partiality. Can we hear what an upsetting, exciting, world-reversing word this must have been to those whose faith was based upon assumptions of partiality, who had suffered in spite of and because of this partiality, and yet still believed? It was not an easy word to hear. Throughout Acts, step by step, laying scriptural proof on proof, gradually edging us out of Jerusalem and into Samaria, now into Joppa, past the converted Samaritans and then the Ethiopian, Luke has brought us face to face with this Roman soldier so that we may feel the full blast of the gospel, may know the reluctance of the disciples to be here, may know how long and painful was their journey to realise the full and frightening implications of the gospel―God shows no partiality! ― William H Willimon, Acts: Interpretation series

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Today, the Church celebrates the Baptism of Jesus. Yet we’re not touching specifically on Jesus’ baptism this morning; we’ll be looking at the baptism of Gentiles in the Book of Acts. 

You may recall that last Sunday, we talked about the greatest controversy in the early decades of the the Christian movement. It was this: at the very beginning, the Christian movement was a subgroup within the Jewish faith. When Gentiles, non-Jews, were attracted to the movement, should they become Jews too? Many leaders, like James the brother of Jesus, thought they should. Others like Peter wavered. But Paul stood firm, proclaiming that God had opened the way for Gentiles to come to Christ without becoming Jews first. It was a huge fight. The nearest equivalent we have is the ongoing quarrel between those who welcome LGBTIQ people as full members of the church and those who deny them full participation in the life of the church. 

In the past, people have put it to me that I am for the inclusion of queer Christians because I’m a ‘liberal’ Christian, or because I’m some kind of ‘woke inner-city latte-sipping greenie’. A label I utterly reject! — I take my coffee black. 

Really though, I am for inclusion because of the way I read the Bible. Today’s reading from Acts comes from one of the foundational scriptural texts of inclusion. Let’s turn to the scripture together, and look at Peter’s dilemma. 

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The True Light enlightens everyone

Readings
Ephesians 3.1–12
Matthew 2.1–12

 

The secret of the divine purpose is in Christ, and it is an ‘open secret’ accessible to all believers. It is and remains a mystery in the sense that no human intelligence could have guessed what God planned to do; but it is now revealed to Paul and his group (see 3:3–6). Its content is that Gentiles as well as Jews are united in a common hope and blessedness, with all racial barriers broken down (2:11–22) and all specious claims to exclusivity exposed. — Ralph P Martin, Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon, Interpretation Commentary

Do our churches embody the reconciliation and unity of often hostile groups—Caucasian and African American, Christian and Muslim, heterosexually identified and LGBTQ persons, the one percent and the working poor? Do they manifest the wisdom of God in its rich variety?… — Stephen B Boyd, Connections: Year A Vol.1, Advent through Epiphany

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What was the biggest struggle of the early Christian church? What was the thing that divided one group of Christians from another? 

Hint: it’s something we all take for granted today. Another hint: we heard it in our Ephesians reading.  

In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

The biggest struggle was this: most of the first leaders of the church, like those in the mother church in Jerusalem, taught that Gentiles should become Jews in order to follow Jesus. They should be circumcised and stop eating prawn cocktails and bacon sandwiches. The way to Christ was strictly through the covenant God had made with Israel. The Apostle Paul on the other hand taught differently. Paul taught that the covenant God had made with the Jewish people had become an open covenant in Christ. It was a new covenant, available to all who received it in faith. Gentiles were welcome as Gentiles. And this was really controversial. 

There’s no problem now, of course. As far as I know, I’m 100% Gentile. And I suppose many of you are. We don’t think at all about having to become a Jew if we’re going to be a Christian. 

Paul’s way, ‘his gospel’, encountered lots of opposition. But he won through and the church became a mixed body of Jews and Gentiles. Paul’s Gospel won so completely we’ve forgotten it wasn’t always this way. 

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