Category Archives: Church & world

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.

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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

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The Year of the Lord’s Favour

Readings
1 Corinthians 12.12–31a
Luke 4.14–21

We held a long-planned service last week, and so held our Day of Mourning service today rather than last Sunday. In this service, we remember the truth of our history and honour the culture of Australia’s First Peoples, their families and the next generations.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. — Martin Luther King, Letter from Birmingham Jail

In choosing this passage from Isaiah to read in his hometown synagogue, [Jesus] announces the year of the jubilee, that all-bets-are-off year described in detail in Leviticus 25. Debts forgiven, slaves freed, bad real-estate transactions redeemed—economic, agrarian, and even domestic life in the year of jubilee will be quite unlike life as most people live it, which is why scholars have had their doubts about whether the jubilee was ever actually observed in ancient Israel. — Feasting on the Gospels—Luke, Vol.1

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I’d like to make two brief comments today. The first is to quote St Paul:

If one member suffers, all suffer together with it…

We often talk about being church members, but I’m not sure we always get what St Paul meant. We’re not members of the church like being members of a book club or a knitting circle. 

We’re members of the church like being members of a body—the body of Christ. We don’t often use the word ‘member’ like that these days, but Paul is using the word ‘member’ to mean organs, or parts, of a body.

The closest we get these days is watching a grisly forensic pathology show on tv where someone ‘dismembers’ their victim. 

If one member suffers, all suffer together with it…

We do know that. I know what it’s like to have back problems, and when your back really hurts that’s all you can think about. Or if you have a really bad toothache, or you have a spot on your skin that’s looking like it’s changing. You tend to focus on that.

If one member suffers, all suffer together with it…

That’s an indication of how close we are to be in the church. You may not feel close to every single person to that degree, but it’s beyond sad when a member isn’t that close to anyone in the church. 

A lot of members of Christ’s body have suffered in our lifetimes. We can name asylum seekers, LGBTIQ people, or the First Peoples of this country. 

When they suffer, we all suffer. And the church does suffer, even if individuals within the church don’t care at all. The church suffers because it becomes known as a place where people don’t care. A house of hypocrisy.

The Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress has done a great job of reminding us of what has been done to First Peoples; it has sought to exercise its own life and make its own decisions within the Uniting Church; it has invited us to go further in covenanting with them; it has challenged us to recognise continuing Indigenous sovereignty; and it has extended a gracious hand of forgiveness and fellowship to us as Second Peoples. Yet, 

If one member suffers, all suffer together with it…

Indigenous people have suffered since Europeans came to this land, and they continue to suffer.

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Jesus Christ: faithful witness, firstborn of the dead, ruler of the kings of the earth

Reading
Revelation 1.4b–8

Reading the Bible with the eyes of the poor is a different thing from reading it with the eyes of the man with a full belly. If it is read in the light of the experiences and hopes of the oppressed, the Bible’s revolutionary themes—promise, exodus, resurrection and Spirit—come alive. — Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, Kindle ed’n, loc.394.

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It was a Sunday. John was on the island of Patmos. Patmos is a Greek island, but John wasn’t there on holiday. He had been exiled to Patmos, confined there, imprisoned there. I doubt they had a cocktail hour or any all-you-can-eat buffets on Patmos.

It was a Sunday, the ‘Lord’s Day’, and John was ‘in the Spirit’. His eyes were opened to a vision in which he  Continue reading

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Walls fall

Compassionate Shepherd,
your love flows from the heart of God,
and touches us in our points of pain;
hearing your voice,
may we find healing in your word
now and for ever. Amen.

Reading
Ephesians 2.11–22

 

Eliminating boundaries does not in itself create peace. Peace comes only by eliminating the hostility behind the dividing walls. God does not merely tear down walls, but unites people in the One who is our peace, creating one new humanity. — Karen Chakoian, in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 3, Kindle ed’n, loc. 9130

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There’s a saying: Good fences make good neighbours. And I can believe it.

But I’m not so sure about walls.

History is filled with stories of walls, and littered by the remains of walls. Perhaps the earliest walls we know about were around the city of Jericho. We know what happened to them.

Walls fall.

Or if they don’t fall, they are remnants of an earlier time. Perhaps you’ve walked along the top of the walls of York or Jerusalem, as I have. Or along the Great Wall of China, or Hadrian’s Wall across the North of England, as I’d like to. 

Once, these walls served to keep undesirable people out. They were walls of separation. They have a very different purpose now. They’re tourist traps, bringing the outsiders in rather than keeping them out.

Walls fall, whether literally or not.  

I don’t remember the Berlin Wall being built, but as a child I expected it to last forever. I recall watching tv news reports of people escaping over or under it to the West, or dying in the attempt.

But in 1989, the Berlin Wall came down. 

Walls fall. 

 Walls may fall because their day is done, because they crumble to dust; but walls fall too because people cry out against them. We saw that very clearly in Berlin in 1989. The Wall could not withstand the weight of protest.

Walls may have their time, but that time ends.  

About 500 years before the birth of Christ, the Jewish people were in exile in Babylon. When they returned to Jerusalem, one of the first things they did was build a wall and throw all the foreigners out. 

In an age of technological sophistication, walls are less useful.

But we still build them.

When I visited the Holy Land a few years ago, I was saddened to see the wall that separates Jerusalem  from Bethlehem. 

Wall at Bethlehem

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Why read the Bible?

God our refuge and strength,
you call us to give ourselves to Christ,
whether life is long or brief;
ground us in your love
and anchor us in your grace,
that we may find peace and joy
in knowing you;
this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Readings
2 Samuel 6.1–5, 12b–19
Mark 6.14–29

 

The biblical scholars I love to read don’t go to the holy text looking for ammunition with which to win an argument or trite truisms with which to escape the day’s sorrows; they go looking for a blessing, a better way of engaging life and the world, and they don’t expect to escape that search unscathed. — Rachel Held Evans, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again, Kindle Ed., p.28

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I want to ask a deceptively simple question today: 

Why do we read the Bible?

I’m reading a wonderful book by Rachel Held Evans, called Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water and Loving the Bible Again. In her book, Rachel speaks of her rediscovery of the Bible after losing her love for it for awhile. 

She was brought up in the American Bible Belt, which has a fairly intense relationship with the Bible. I have had a similar experience, and I know some of you have too.

You see, after I became a Christian in 1968 at a Billy Graham rally, my best friend at school invited me to his church. So I went. His church was a Brethren congregation, which I only found out once I got there. I’d heard bad news of the ‘Exclusive Brethren’, but I was assured my friend’s church was part of the ‘Open Brethren’. I soon settled in, because I was hungry for teaching. 

If you don’t know much about the Brethren, think of them as ‘Baptists on Steroids’. In particular, they are fundamentalists who generally believe the Bible is inerrant and that it cannot contradict itself. The Brethren are really heavy duty. Yet they helped me to gain an excellent Bible knowledge.

But why did I read the Bible?

Back then, my answer would be to gain knowledge. I would have said that the Bible is the only source of knowledge about God.

I soon learned that there were people who were in error, people like Anglicans and Catholics, not to mention Methodists and Presbyterians. So I read the Bible to marshal arguments against such people. The Bible became a ‘blunt instrument’ for me to whack them about the head with. I loved to win arguments against those who were just plain wrong. It could be very satisfying.

In time, I became a little tired of this, especially as I began to see how much I could hurt people. But I didn’t know what else to do. 

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Clean/unclean

Jesus, hope of the hopeless,
give us abundant confidence in you
that we may find comfort at all times,
relief from our burdens,
and healing where it is your will;
until that day when we see you face to face,
and know you as you are for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings
2 Corinthians 8.7–15
Mark 5.21–43

 

 

Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ — Jesus, Matthew 9.13b

[H]ow are we to draw the boundaries of exclusion and inclusion in the life of the church? Sacrifice—the purity impulse—marks off a zone of holiness, admitting the ‘clean’ and expelling the ‘unclean’. Mercy, by contrast, crosses those purity boundaries. Mercy blurs the distinction, bringing clean and unclean into contact. Thus the tension. One impulse—holiness and purity—erects boundaries, while the other impulse—mercy and hospitality—crosses and ignores those boundaries. — Richard Beck, Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality, Kindle edition, p.2

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I want to talk today about things that are ‘clean’ and those that are ‘unclean’.

It’s important to know about if we are going to really hear this Gospel passage.

Years ago, I was working on a Sunday morning in the Casualty area of a hospital when a man came in. He’d gone on a scout camp with his son as an interested dad. He’d picked some mushrooms to fry up for Sunday breakfast. No one else wanted any, so he scoffed the lot.

But they were ‘magic’ mushrooms and he was hallucinating madly, seeing frightening things that weren’t there.

It took him about 36 hours to fully recover. 

Some mushroomy-looking things are ok to eat. In biblical language, they are ‘clean’. Other mushroomy-looking things are ‘unclean’. You’ve got to know the difference if you’re going to pick your own. 

We read about unclean foods in the bible, like pork, and we wonder why it should be so. (It’s about pigs having a divided hoof but not chewing the cud, but you might still wonder if that’s a good enough reason.)

We have unclean foods too. If I invited you to my place for a succulent roast horse dinner with all the trimmings, would you come or would you be busy that night? We don’t eat horses, but they do in some European countries like Italy and the Netherlands.

We don’t use the word ‘unclean’, but for us the horse is ‘unclean’. Why? It just is. (I could say that nothing could make me eat horseflesh, but my mum tells me she ate it in England during the Second World War.)

So some things are clean all the time, others are unclean all the time. But we’d probably eat some unclean things in an extreme situation.

Now, there are things that are only unclean in certain situations. Hang on, the next bit is a little gross.

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Ascended

Today our Lord Jesus Christ ascended into heaven; let our hearts ascend with him. Listen to the words of the Apostle: If you have risen with Christ, set your hearts on the things that are above where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God; seek the things that are above, not the things that are on earth. For just as he remained with us even after his ascension, so we too are already in heaven with him, even though what is promised us has not yet been fulfilled in our bodies. — St Augustine, sermon on Ascension Day

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I find the story of the Ascension of Jesus to be a very difficult one. Are we dealing with a historical event, or are we meant to understand it as something symbolic?

If it’s a historical event, it really only makes sense to me if we live on a flat earth. 

That may have been ok for the disciples. They lived in a three-storey universe. Heaven, the home of God, was somewhere beyond the clouds; hades, the place of the dead, was below the earth. And we are in the middle of the two.  

So when Jesus ascends he travels a short distance to heaven, and he is hidden in a cloud. A cloud, for them, symbolised the hidden, mysterious presence of God.

Think of a photo of the earth from space. Jerusalem  is on just about the opposite side of the world from Brisbane.  

My question is, Which way is up? ‘Up’ from Brisbane is a totally different direction from ‘up’ from Jerusalem. Or are we meant to believe that heaven is a place directly above Jerusalem? And if it is, how far away is it? If Jesus took off at the speed of light, he’d only be 2000 light years away by now. That’s not very far in terms of the size of the universe.

The important thing in the Ascension, as in many things in the scriptures, is not whether it literally happened but this: What on earth does it mean?

How do we engage with it today?

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