Category Archives: Church & world

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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Filed under Church & world, church year, RCL, sermon, the risen crucified One

Love is sacrificial

Readings
1 John 3.16–24
John 10.11–18

For Christians, self-sacrifice should be ordinary, not extraordinary. — David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Kindle Locations 15550-15551). Presbyterian Publishing Corp. Kindle Ed’n.

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Wednesday is Anzac Day. 103 years ago on 25 April, the Anzac forces—and, don’t forget, the Turkish soldiers too—would’ve been going through hell. 

We sang the 23rd Psalm today; some of the Anzacs will have been reminding themselves of the words of that psalm. Later we’ll say the Lord’s Prayer; some will have been saying that prayer. They must have been praying above all for it to stop, so they could go home to their sweethearts and wives. After all it was General Douglas MacArthur who said: 

The soldier above all others prays for peace, for it is the soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.

We know of course that these scars are not just  obvious ones such as lost limbs. They are post-traumatic stress disorders, they are alcohol and drug problems, they are homelessness, depression, broken marriages and chronic unemployment. 

You may have heard that Australia became a nation on 25 April 1915. Of course, that’s not literally true. We became a nation on 1 January, 1901. What actually happened on that day at Anzac Cove was that we suffered our first great disaster as a nation. Over 620 men died on that one day. All together, Gallipoli cost the Allies 141000 casualties, of whom more than 44000 died. Of the dead, 8709 were Australians and 2701 were New Zealanders. More than 85000 Turks died.

As a nation, we had to make some sense of it for ourselves. So—apart from that last part, apart from the casualties the Turks suffered—Gallipoli has become our founding myth. Like so many myths, parts of it are true. But only parts.

To mention but one aspect of the myth: mateship. It’s true. But Jesus challenges our notions of mateship. He calls us to spread our circle of mates very wide indeed. Jesus has mates in the Pacific, Papua New Guinea, and Indonesia. Therefore, so do we. The amount of foreign aid we give is a very small proportion of GDP, and it’s getting smaller. We have mates on Manus Island and Nauru. For Jesus, mateship has no limits. The big question for us is this: Are we acting like mates to them?

How can we speak truth about the Anzac story, while being true to the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

Let me suggest two ways: we can honour those who served their country in time of war while we critique the politics that sent them off to war; and we can watch our language when it comes to speaking of ‘sacrifice’. 

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Filed under Church & world, church year, Grief and loss, RCL, sermon

The Year of the Lord’s Favour

Reading

Isaiah 61.1–4, 8–11

Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbour, does not yet understand them as he ought. — Augustine, On Christian Theology

The entire Biblical Scripture is solely concerned that man understand that God is kind and gracious to him and that He has publicly exhibited and demonstrated this His kindness to the whole human race through Christ his Son. However, it comes to us and is received by faith alone, and is manifested and demonstrated by love for our neighbour. — First Helvetic Confession, 1536

You have heard that it was said … but I say to you … — Jesus, The Sermon on the Mount

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse brought down its final report on Friday, after 4.5 years. The life of the churches has changed for good in the light of the Commission.

One survivor of child abuse said on Friday:

Care and compassion has already lifted tenfold. We need to make sure we keep people alive and in a good place, by making sure they’ve got the counselling care they need.

It has taken a royal commission to bring this care and compassion to this man, and no doubt to many others.

In our reading from Isaiah today, we heard these words:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me
to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,

to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour,
and the day of vengeance of our God;…

I think we can see who are the oppressed, brokenhearted ones are in this situation. It is the children who have become adults with burdens that were never lifted from their backs.

Jesus once placed a child in the midst of his disciples. The story is in Matthew 18:

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me…”

The disciples hanker after greatness; Jesus shows them what greatness is in God’s eyes.

To be great is to take the place of a child, to embrace humility, to serve others. There is no other way; this is the way of the cross.

Time and time again, we have seen that the way church leaders took is another way altogether. It has been to protect their church’s good name, to keep their mouths closed, to disbelieve what they were told. Or they can’t remember anything about it.

The end result has been to deny care and compassion to the children in their care.

Perhaps I should read the next verse in Matthew18:

If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.

It’s a grim warning.

The consequences for the churches are also grim. Many non-churchgoing Aussies have lost any faith they had in the church as a community in which the love of God is to be found. Our moral authority is at record lows.

What should be our response?

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Filed under Advent, Church & world, Lament, Lord have mercy, RCL, sermon, Uniting Church in Australia

Good News

Readings
Isaiah 40.1–11
Mark 1.1-8

The gospel here is not just Jesus (1:1), but also the gospel-of-God kingdom that Jesus himself proclaims (1:14-15) and its resultant faith/ repentance, too. — David Schnasa Jacobsen, Mark (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries)

Revivals are hindered when ministers and churches take the wrong stand in regard to any question involving human rights. — Charles Finney, Lectures on Revival

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I heard the story once of a national Assembly meeting where some representatives were feeling introspective, but not in a constructive way. “What have we got to offer?” said the speaker.

The reply from someone in the cheap seats came: “What have we got to offer? What have we got to offer? Eternal bloody life, that’s what we’ve got to offer!”

We have wonderful good news to offer. I love the way Mark’s Gospel begins:

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

The grammar nazis among you will tell me that’s not a sentence because there’s no verb in it.

And I shall reply that’s because it’s not meant to be a sentence. It’s a title. And it’s best understood as the title to the whole of Mark’s Gospel. The title tells us that the whole Gospel of Mark is just the beginning of the story of Jesus; we are continuing that story today.

Perhaps we’re still at the beginning. Who knows? “With the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day”. (2 Peter 3.8) Maybe we’re still in the early days of the Church.

Perhaps we’re still learning how to get it right. Maybe we’re still learning how to speak of the good news of Christ into the world. Maybe we’re even having to learn whether some things are good news or bad news.

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Filed under Advent, Church & world, church year, RCL, sermon, Uniting Church in Australia

Joy, and two jailbirds (Advent 3, Year A; 11 December 2016

Readings
Isaiah 35.1–10
Matthew 11.2–11

Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another? (Matthew 11.3)

I want to tell you a story today. It’s the story of two jailbirds. One of the two is the Apostle Paul. The other is John the Baptist.

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Bad religion (8 November 2015, Year B)

Readings
Ruth 3.1–5; 4.13–17
Mark 12.38–44

…spiritual brokenness affects our lives and the lives of others. We have found, however, that God is eager to bless us even in our spiritual brokenness. (from Soul Repair)

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

That’s the opening line of a 1953 novel called The Go-Between. It’s a brilliant opening line for a novel and for a sermon. We must always remember when we read the scriptures that the past is a foreign country. They did things differently there. We’re going to see that as we look at our scripture passages today.

Firstly, widows: in an age with no social security, no pension, they could be in a precarious position.

The readings for this week and last draw our attention to the plight of widows in biblical times. We have Naomi and Ruth, husbandless and childless, forced to eke out a living gleaning grain from the fields that hadn’t been gathered by the men working there; and also forced to plot and plan to ensure that Boaz noticed Ruth. This is more than a romantic story; it is a matter of life and death for Ruth and Naomi.

And in today’s Gospel Reading, we have the widow who had fallen on hard times, whose offering is two small coins, each worth only about six minutes’ work. Her offering is practically worthless. But it was all she had.

And don’t forget that last week we heard Psalm 146, which proclaims that

The Lord keeps faith for ever,
giving food to the hungry,
justice to the poor,
freedom to captives…
comforting widows and orphans,
protecting the stranger…

The scriptures of the Old and New Testaments proclaim that God seeks justice for the widow, the orphan and all who are being failed by the society they live in. Continue reading

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Filed under Church & world, Lord have mercy, RCL, sermon, Year B

Suffering is not a problem (Year B, 4 October, 2015)

Readings
Job 1.1; 2.1–10
Mark 10.2–16

Like a weaned child on its mother,
like the weaned child on me is my soul…        Psalm 131.2

When I was a chaplain at The Wesley Hospital, we noticed something quite concerning. We chaplains saw the way a number of young couples responded when they were confronted with a stillborn child.

These young couples were absolutely floored, of course. They suffered terrible grief, as you would expect. It was something they would never forget. That is the natural reaction to an unnatural situation.

That’s not what concerned us. Our anxiety was because it was obvious that these largely middle class couples had never before come across a problem that couldn’t be fixed.

Even more than that, to them any setback at all was a problem to be fixed. If you or your dad couldn’t fix it, you paid a professional or a tradie to do it for you.

They asked the question common to nearly all people: Why me, why us? But they also asked, Why couldn’t our technology solve the problem?

For some couples, this was the very first time they had been confronted by something huge that just couldn’t be fixed. Their usual way of coping with things just didn’t help.

What they found hard to grasp is that in losing a baby they were not being confronted by a problem. They were being unwillingly plunged into an encounter with loss, with grief, with suffering too deep for words. They couldn’t fix it, solve it, or manage it.

What could they do?

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Filed under Church & world, Grief and loss, RCL, sermon, suffering