Category Archives: sermon

‘Seek the welfare of the city’

Note:
We held a Blessing of the Animals service earlier in our Eucharist.

Reading
Jeremiah 29.1, 4–7

But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jeremiah 29.7)

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‘The city where I have sent you’ is Babylon. Jews in exile are to work for the well-being (shalom) of the empire and its capital city. The well-being (shalom) of Judah is dependent upon and derivative from that of Babylon. This positive attention toward Babylon is very different from the deep resentment toward the imperial masters generally and Babylon particularly as expressed elsewhere (in the Jeremiah tradition, see chs. 50-51, and also Isa. 13-14, 47). Prophetic faith is powerfully realistic about the political situation of the Jews in exile. — Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming

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‘Seek the welfare of the city…’ 

Last week, we were immersed in the agony of the exiles in Psalm 137.

Let’s recap: the people of Jerusalem and the surrounding country were forced into exile in Babylon from the year 597 BC. Their great Temple was destroyed in 586 BC. They were a long way from home, existing rather than living in Babylon. Remember, Babylon was the superpower of its day, situated in what we call Iraq. 

In Psalm 137, they are grieving and more than that, they want revenge. Gruesome revenge. 

There were prophets who were speaking to their situation. Some were false prophets speaking fake news. So the prophet Hananiah said,

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon. Within two years I will bring back to this place all the vessels of the Lord’s house, which King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon took away from this place and carried to Babylon. I will also bring back to this place King Jeconiah son of Jehoiakim of Judah, and all the exiles from Judah who went to Babylon, says the Lord, for I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon. (Jeremiah 28.2–4)

Don’t worry folks, it’ll all be over soon. You’ll be home in two years. 

Not to put too fine a point on it, Jeremiah called BS on Hananiah. More than that, he said

Listen, Hananiah, the Lord has not sent you, and you made this people trust in a lie. Therefore thus says the Lord: I am going to send you off the face of the earth. Within this year you will be dead, because you have spoken rebellion against the Lord. (Jeremiah 28.15–16)

And, we’re told, Hananiah died within the year. 

Jeremiah has a different time span for the duration of the exile:

For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfil to you my promise and bring you back to this place. (Jeremiah 29.10)

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No foreign land

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A weeping angel, but not from Dr Who: part of a mosaic in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem, showing that even the angels weep at the death of Jesus.

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Thirty-odd years ago, Karen and I were living over in Granville St. An elderly Greek couple lived across the road, and we were aware that the husband was very ill. 

In the early hours of the morning, while it was still dark, a great wailing began in their house. It woke us up. We looked at each other; we knew his end had come. When it was light, we went across the road to offer our condolences and were welcomed inside. The house was packed full of people. We didn’t know any of them, and none of the conversation was in English. Everyone but us seemed to know what to do. We had a drink and nibbled on something, sat there for what seemed a long time (but really wasn’t) feeling useless and uncomfortable, and then said our goodbyes.

We tend to be uncomfortable with grief, and unschooled in lament. Today’s Old Testament passages are grief-filled laments. You may feel uncomfortable. I invite you to stay the course. Don’t bail, as we did.

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Look and see

Readings
1 Timothy 6.6–19
Luke 16.19–31

 

…the poor person has a name: Lazarus; the rich and powerful person, by contrast, does not. In the world today the situation is reversed: the poor are anonymous and seem destined for an even greater anonymity. They are born and die without being noticed. They are disposable pieces in a history that eludes their grasp and excludes them. — Gustavo Gutierrez and Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Muller, On the Side of the Poor: A Theology of Liberation

Blessed are you who are in need;
the kingdom of God is yours.
Blessed are you who now go hungry;
you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now;
you will laugh.…

But alas for you who are rich;
you have had your time of happiness.
Alas for you who are well fed now;
you will go hungry.
Alas for you who laugh now;
you will mourn and weep.                    Luke 6.20b–21, 25–26

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Let’s start with a story.

A young couple were killed in a car accident on the day before their wedding. They arrived at the Pearly Gates. St Peter felt sorry for them, and asked if there was anything he could do to make being in heaven even more pleasant for them. So they looked at each other and asked if it would still be possible to be married in heaven. St Peter looked a little thoughtful and said, ‘It’s never been done before. But leave it with me.’

About a hundred years went by. One day, they ran into St Peter and asked about the wedding. ‘Everything is being arranged,’ he assured them.

Another hundred years passed, and they saw St Peter in the distance. They reminded him about the wedding and said, ‘We know that in heaven, a day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day, and time is of no consequence…but we’ve been waiting over two hundred years.’ St Peter replied, ‘I am truly sorry. All the arrangements were made the day after you arrived but there’s just this one problem.’

‘What’s that?’ they asked.

St Peter said, ‘Have you ever tried to find a minister up here?’

When we hear a story about St Peter at the Pearly Gates, we know to wait for the punch line. We don’t imagine that we are hearing anything about what ‘heaven’ is really like. We know it’s not a theological treatise that claims to describe the future life. 

Similarly, when we come to the Parable of the Rich man and Lazarus, we don’t read anything about what life beyond death may be like. We’re reading a story that was told in different forms, possibly originating in Egypt. When people heard it, they knew it for the story it was. 

But what is the story about? 

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The Flow of Grace

Reading
Luke 16.1–13

Grace only works on those it finds dead enough to raise. — Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus

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We’ve heard maybe the toughest parable in the whole of the scriptures today. A shifty steward has been ripping off his boss; his boss finds out, and sacks him. Before it’s too late, the shifty steward fraudulently reduces the amount his boss’s clients owe him. Not only do the clients think he’s a great bloke but his boss praises him too. And Jesus says to us, Be like him! What on Earth? 

I’ve heard that the great St Augustine once wrote about this parable, saying Jesus really oughtn’t to have  said that. Or words to that effect. (Actually, what he said was in Latin, so it was much more profound.)

So let’s see what we can make of this parable. 

First thing, and it’s really important to understand this: it comes straight after the parables in Luke 15 about lost things, the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost sons. Why did Luke put it here? 

Here’s one reason: one word. That word is ‘squander’.

Now, I can go for weeks without saying ‘squander’. I’ve got nothing against the word, it just doesn’t come up that often. It was like that for Luke too. He only uses it twice: firstly in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, who squanders his inheritance; and in the very next parable, the Parable of the Shifty Steward, who fraudulently squanders his master’s money. Coincidence? I think not. 

Let’s try and draw some more connections between these two parables. 

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Costly grace

Reading
Luke 14.25–33

 

Cheap grace is the mortal enemy of our church. Our struggle today is for costly grace.

Cheap grace means grace as bargain-basement goods, cut-rate forgiveness, cut-rate comfort, cut-rate sacrament; grace as the church’s inexhaustible pantry, from which it is doled out by careless hands without hesitation or limit. It is grace without a price, without costs. It is said that the essence of grace is that the bill for it is paid in advance for all time. Everything can be had for free, courtesy of that paid bill. The price paid is infinitely great and, therefore, the possibilities of taking advantage of and wasting grace are also infinitely great. What would grace be, if it were not cheap grace? 

Cheap grace means grace as doctrine, as principle, as system. It means forgiveness of sins as a general truth; it means God’s love as merely a Christian idea of God. — Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship

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There are some easy-to-miss words at the beginning of today’s Gospel Reading. Here they are again:

Now large crowds were travelling with him…

Large crowds were travelling with Jesus. Great numbers of people. You know what can happen when people get together in a crowd? They can become a mob very easily. A mob mentality can take over very quickly. 

Jesus needs to stay on mission. He doesn’t want a mob. He is starting what we could call the ‘Jesus Movement’, and he wants the people with him to stay on mission too.

So what does Jesus do? He gets them to count the cost. He sorts them out. Those who really can’t last the distance need to feel free to leave. So he speaks in the exaggerated way that teachers of his day had: 

Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 

Count the cost. In other words; If you follow me, you may find opposition from your family. If you follow me, you may be persecuted. Count the cost before you take another step. 

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A Beggars’ Banquet

Reading
Luke 14.1, 7–14

The Good News of the gospel of grace cries out: We are all, equally, privileged but unentitled beggars at the door of God’s mercy! — Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel

Beggars know how to open their hands, trusting that the crumb of grace will fall.…living not with clenched fists but with palms open, ready to receive. — Sue Monk Kidd, When the Heart waits

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Tonight, some of us will be going to the Beggars Banquet here in West End. A section of Boundary Street will be blocked to traffic, and tables will be set up. You bring the meal for your table, and leave a seat free for anyone who needs a place so they can join you. Sounds wonderful! 

I like going out for a meal. Do you? I enjoy sitting with people and getting to know them more over a good meal. Eating with other people isn’t just about the food; in an overused word, it’s about fellowship too. It’s about deepening relationships. 

When I was single, I learnt to go to restaurants and eat alone. It took me a while to feel comfortable with it; I did it though, and in the end it was fine. After all, I am a certified introvert. I like my own company, and I’d bring a book to read. But something was missing. Sharing. Conversation. Entering into the life of another, and also allowing them to enter my life. 

In today’s Gospel Reading, Jesus was invited to a meal. If you read Luke’s Gospel in particular, you’ll see that Jesus ate out a lot. For example, he eats at Levi and Zacchaeus’ houses—both of them were tax collectors. He has dinner with several pharisees, he feeds 5000 in the wilderness, and eats at Mary and Martha’s house; he eats with the twelve at the Last Supper, and with two disciples in Emmaus on the first Easter Day. 

Today’s story concerns a dinner at a pharisee’s place. The host had invited Jesus, but not out of the goodness of his heart; he and his friends were watching Jesus, to catch him out. But Jesus was watching, too. 

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Living in the tension

Reading
Luke 12.49–56

 

I have often repented of judging too severely, but very seldom of being too merciful. — John Wesley, Letters to John C Brackenbury, #656

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The sermon I’m about to preach had a few false starts. I started it at least four times with different ideas. That happens from time to time. Sometimes, in working out how to approach a difficult sermon, I take a personal approach. Which is what I’m doing today. 

Why was it so hard to write? I didn’t want to avoid difficult verses like this, but I didn’t know quite what to say: 

I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!… Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three…

Division isn’t easy. 

I’ve been divided from people because of my faith. Let me tell you about one or two times. 

I had a sudden conversion experience; I’ll tell you more about it another time. It was at a Billy Graham rally, and a couple of days afterwards I plucked up the courage to tell my dad. 

Dad was not best pleased. He told me not to post back the study material I’d been given, because all I’d get would be ‘begging letters’. He told me he’d believe what Billy Graham had to say if he rode into town on a donkey rather than flying in on a jet plane. 

That was my first taste of division, and of how complex divisions really can be. Hear again what my dad said: he’d believe what Billy Graham had to say if he rode into town on a donkey rather than flying in on a jet plane. 

Dad was saying that he was prepared to give a hearing to someone who truly followed Jesus. But he wasn’t prepared to listen to a man he believed (wrongly, in my opinion) was only in it for the money. 

This is a story of necessary division. When Jesus is there, we ultimately need to make a choice. Will we follow, or turn away? 

(By the way, my dad eventually listened to the voice of Jesus. But that’s a story for another day.)

The second division came a few years later. I was going to my best friend at school’s church. I mean, why not go to your best friend’s church, right? 

It was an Open Brethren outfit, a fundamentalist group who insisted that there were no errors or contradictions in the Bible; that the earth was 6000 years old; and only men could offer leadership in the church. What’s more, expressing any doubt or having other opinions was questionable or even sinful, and thoroughly discouraged. 

Before long the Vietnam War was getting close to home, and I was studying medicine at uni. The things I was being taught at church seemed very simplistic when I put them next to what I was learning at uni, and next to the problems we were facing as a country. The church’s teachings seemed like kindergarten stuff compared to what I was hearing and discovering elsewhere. 

To relieve the tension I felt, I read widely about the Christian faith. I realised that if I was learning Medicine at a university level I would have to educate myself as much as I could about the faith I believed. 

Problem: the more I read and learned, the more I realised that a fundamentalist way of thinking made very little sense. 

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