Category Archives: Church & world

‘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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Keeping the Law―yes. But…

Reading
Matthew 5.21–37

 

The great Talmudic sage Hillel was born in Babylonia in the first century BCE. As a young man he came to the Holy Land to study Torah at the feet of the sages of Jerusalem. He was initially a very poor, but brilliant student, and became a famous Torah scholar and eventually the Nasi (president) of the Sanhedrin. He is often mentioned together with his colleague, Shammai, with whom he often disagreed on the interpretations of Torah law: Shammai often follows the stricter interpretation, whereas Hillel tended toward a more lenient understanding of the law. In the great majority of cases, his opinion prevailed. Hillel encouraged his disciples to follow the example of Aaron the High Priest to ‘love peace and pursue peace, love all G‑d’s creations and bring them close to the Torah’. Hillel was a very humble and patient man, and there are many stories that illustrate this.

One famous account in the Talmud (Shabbat 31a) tells about a gentile who wanted to convert to Judaism. This happened not infrequently, and this individual stated that he would accept Judaism only if a rabbi would teach him the entire Torah while he, the prospective convert, stood on one foot. First he went to Shammai, who, insulted by this ridiculous request, threw him out of the house. The man did not give up and went to Hillel. This gentle sage accepted the challenge, and said:

‘What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation of this―go and study it!’ ― https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/689306/jewish/On-One-Foot.htm

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In the Sermon on Mount Jesus says, 

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil.

How can Jesus say he is not abolishing the law, but fulfilling it, when he says ‘You have heard that it was said [in the law of Moses] … but I say to you…’ 

In looking at this, I want to spend most of my time this morning talking about sex and sexuality. 

Got your attention? 

Firstly though, a few words about anger. Jesus says, 

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’… But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement … 

I have never murdered anybody. It’s true. Believe it or not! 

But have I been angry? Why, yes I have. Is it wrong to have angry feelings? People often have angry feelings. We’re all subject to feelings of anger, some of us maybe more than others. Is Jesus condemning angry feelings? 

Can’t we be angry about the climate crisis? About a lack of integrity in government? Can’t we get annoyed that the Brisbane Heat came seventh in the Big Bash League? 

Yes, we can. And some of us may. 

Jesus isn’t talking about feelings of anger here. He’s talking about what we do with our anger. It’s possible to be angry for a while, and then calm down. 

Alternatively, we can nurse our anger. We can feed it and let it grow. We can justify it. We can say it’s all someone else’s fault. 

We can decide to get even. 

That’s where the real harm is. Not in getting mad sometimes, but in what we do with it. The Book of James helps here: 

Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. [James 4.1–2a]

Anger often comes because we’re anxious or scared, or wanting something that isn’t ours. The Apostle Paul says,

Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, [Ephesians 4.26]

I just wanted to spend some time here on anger, because we all get angry sometimes. You know what else we feel? We all have feelings of attraction to other people. We are sexual beings. 

We may be attracted to another person; who that is partly depends of course on our sexuality. People have varying degrees of attraction to people of their own or the ‘opposite’ sex.

Feeling angry is not a sin; what you do with the anger is the issue. Do I let it go, or do I let it build up so that I mistreat someone else? 

It’s similar with sexualised feelings. Do I accept them as part of life? Or do I dwell on them, do I let them grow in my thoughts, until I want to possess another person? Until I want to use another person for my own gratification? That is the issue. 

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Going with God’s flow

Readings
Micah 6.1–8
Matthew 5.1–12

 

Unlike offerings, lifelong habits of kindness, justice, and humility are not transactions to dispense and check off, duty done. Rather, they characterise a stance of leaning toward others: extending grace reflexively, without measure, as God has done, not because others deserve it but because they need it; promoting fairness, especially toward those at risk; and certainly not trying to appease and be done with God, but instead humbly keeping hearts open and pliant. What God sought from the Israelites, what faith says God still seeks from us, is to cultivate capabilities we have seen in our Maker, capabilities we who are made in God’s image already possess: a warm heart for all, a passion for fairness, and the flexibility to learn as we go in this complex matter of seeking grace alongside justice. ― Patricia J Tull, Connections Year A, Vol.1

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Today, we’ve heard one of the great Old Testament scriptures. It’s from the prophet Micah (6.8):

[God] has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

It may surprise you to hear that this is part of a courtroom drama. So come with me to court, and see how it all unfolds. 

Ok, let’s see who the characters are in this courtroom drama. Our drama needs a jury; who is the jury? The mountains and the hills, who have been there for millennia and who have seen the ways of the Lord from everlasting. 

Our drama needs a plaintiff, someone to bring an accusation. Who is the plaintiff? God! 

Micah sets it all up at the beginning of chapter 6:

Hear what the Lord says:

   Rise, plead your case before the mountains,
and let the hills hear your voice.
Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord,
and you enduring foundations of the earth;
for the Lord has a controversy with his people,
and he will contend with Israel.

God had a controversy with the people of Micah’s time. You know, the religion business was going really well. People were flocking to the Temple of Jerusalem. financial offerings were way up. That’s good, right? 

Yet God has a controversy with the people of Israel, a bone to pick with them.

O my people, what have I done to you?
In what have I wearied you? Answer me!
For I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
and redeemed you from the house of slavery;
and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. 

God is gathering evidence here, and calling witnesses. The evidence is Israel’s history: God brought them out of slavery in Egypt and into the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 

And there are those willing to testify for God: Moses, Miriam, Aaron. Unimpeachable witnesses. 

It’s an open and shut case, but God reminds them of other events as well. King Balak of Moab wanted a non-Israelite prophet called Balaam to curse Israel, but—so the story says—a talking donkey stopped him. 

And God reminds them about what happened ‘from Shittim to Gilgal’. What happened? Shittim was where the waters of the Jordan parted to allow Joshua to lead the Israelites across the river, and Gilgal was where they entered the Promised Land. 

God is building a pretty impressive case here as the saviour of Israel. 

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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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Weeping with Rachel

Reading
Matthew 2.13–23

 

Jesus has come to save God’s people, but if this passage is to be taken seriously, that salvation will occur in the midst of the struggle between good and evil in the world, not in the creation of a utopia that does not match our experience of reality. — O Wesley Allen, Matthew (Fortress Commentary)

Hope takes root as the ability to express compassion for others develops. It blossoms when people grow in their capacity to take concrete steps to make things different. And where real hope lives, there is also a constant invitation to broader and deeper meaning. As we learn to talk about our own suffering and grief, we become sensitive to the often greater suffering of others. Because hope emerges from processing grief and suffering in community, it draws its practitioners to consider matters from a much wider field of vision. As we grow in our ability to imagine a different world, hope emerges among us. It all begins by talking about it. — Daniel Schultz, ‘Living by the Word’, Christian Century, 18 December 2019

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We know how Matthew’s Christmas story continues, once Jesus is born: in time the magi come, wise ones from the east. They come to honour the new king whose birth was foretold by a new star. 

These magi may be wise in the ways of stars and other heavenly bodies, but politically they are naive. They assume the new king is in the palace of Herod. Ok, fair enough; but they don’t see that Herod is playing them, trying to find out where this new king is so that he can kill him. 

The magi are warned in a dream to avoid Herod on the way home, and so we come to today’s story: the horrific slaughter of all children two years old or less in Bethlehem. 

If you were here last Sunday, you may remember we spoke of Matthew’s theme. Let me repeat what I said then: 

Jesus had fulfilled the story of the Old Testament. Jesus was the promised Messiah, greater than Moses or Elijah, he was the son of David who is greater yet than David. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus fulfils the story of Israel, in fact he fills it to overflowing. Matthew’s aim wasn’t to inform his readers about history; his aim was to convince us.

Matthew wants to show that Jesus fulfils the story of Israel. So, Jesus fulfils Isaiah 60, which in part says:

Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.…

They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.   Isaiah 60.3, 6b

Matthew ransacked our Old Testament to find ways to show how Jesus fulfils the scriptures. So it is to the light of Jesus the nations come to; they bring him gold and frankincense. 

Matthew adds something to the mix: myrrh. Myrrh was a spice used in burials, and it foreshadows the death Jesus would die. 

And there’s death aplenty in the story now. When he has told the tragic story of Bethlehem’s tiny children, Matthew tells us:

Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah [31.15]:
‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled,
because they are no more.’

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Swords into ploughshares

Readings
Isaiah 2.1–5
Matthew 24.36–44

 

Our nature is goodness. Yes, we do much that is bad, but our essential nature is good. If it were not, then we would not be shocked and dismayed when we harm one another. When someone does something ghastly, it makes the news because it is the exception to the rule. We live surrounded by so much love, kindness, and trust that we forget it is remarkable. Forgiveness is the way we return what has been taken from us and restore the love and kindness and trust that has been lost. With each act of forgiveness, whether small or great, we move toward wholeness. Forgiveness is nothing less than how we bring peace to ourselves and our world. — Desmond Tutu, Mpho Tutu, The Book of Forgiving

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Isaiah the prophet wrote this: 

God shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more. Isaiah 2.4

Well, Isaiah, someone might say—if you’re going to dream, dream big. 

Let’s look at this verse a bit more. It doesn’t only tell us about whatever dreams Isaiah may have had: it tells us of God. 

God shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples…

Nations have gone to war with other nations for centuries. Often—far too often—they claim that God is on their side. They pray for God to make them victorious, and to grind their enemies into the dust. 

Yet in Isaiah’s vision, when God judges between the nations, it is for peace. Not for victory for some or defeat for others. God is the God of peace. When God arbitrates, when God is the umpire, God decides for peace. No one wins, no one loses. Instead,

they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks…

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