Category Archives: Church & world

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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Filed under Basis of Union, Church & world, RCL, sermon, Uniting Church Assembly, Uniting Church in Australia

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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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