Sermon 6 Nov 2016 Rev Dr Wes Campbell
Daniel 7, Hebrews 11 Luke 6

If you have a diary, the chances are that it will record special days, anniversaries. Open up Facebook (if you connect there), and up pops the reminder that today is someone’s birthday.

We mark marriages by the number of years they clock up.

Today we are recalling the 11th of the 11th, Remembrance Day; and also All Saints, 1st November.

Not long ago, a month perhaps, a great crowd gathered to see their heroes at the MCG. They pursued a ball back and forth, covering a great distance!
That athletic activity reminds us of a long distance race, the Marathon: when the Greeks defeated the Persians in 430BC, a messenger  ran from Marathon to Athens (22 miles) with the news
My own little version of this took place on the school sports day when I joined the one mile race. I started off wewll enough, running with the pack but, before long, the faster runners pulled away, and there I was with feet like concrete falling ever further behind. The sports teacher, thinking he would help, came up to me and urged me on!

That is exactly what the crowd in the arena did; they called out in encouragement, urging the athletes on.

So the Letter to the Hebrews takes up the marathon. In chapters ten and eleven, the marathon is taken up. The long race reminds the readers – people of faith - they are runners in a race. As they run, the arena is filled with the crowd – the great cloud of witnesses - who have run before them. They call out in encouragement, urging those still running not to give up.

That is even plainer in the pamphlet, the Book of Daniel.
It was written when the Jewish people were scattered among the nations. The city of Jerusalem, and the temple, had been demolished. The Jews are now a people scattered among the many and various peoples in the great ancient empires – Babylon, Persia and Greece. It wold have been easy for the Jews simply to be absorbed by thee many peoples. The story told in Daniel warned them not to give up the faith even though they face strong resistance.

The book of Daniel is written in code. It pretends to be written in the time of the Babylonian empire, but in fact was written in the time of the Greek empire. Thje bizarre pictures of beasts rising up from the seas (the powers of nothingness) is a graphic promise that the empires will not win, they will be destroyed by the Ancient One – that is, God.

The Jewish community reading Daniel know that if they do not swear their allegiance to the Emperor they are threatened with a fiery furnace. These were times when one empire was changed for another: Babylon, to Persia, then to Greece. For Daniel it is confirmed that those living under Greek rule could lose the faith. When Jesus was active it was the Roman Empire, called Pax Romana, the Peace of Rome

The celebration of All Saints reminds us of Jesus’ call into a new community. A strong word of encouragement.

I have found that to talk like this sharpens our experience of a church that is now not so confident. Our Western society has deserted the church, our children and grandchildren included.

I have found a number of writers to be helpful, particularly one written by American church thinkers, Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, Resident Aliens (those permitted to live in the society but not as citizens and with no support from the state).
They remind us that the faith has never depended on big numbers. And more challenging: we are called to side with the people who have no permanent residence and are not welcome. That’s why so many were out in past days, opposing new cruel visa arrangements for people who are asking for a welcome here in this country.

Today we are drawn into conversation with Jesus who offers blessing: all the more important for us, as we live in today’s empire of  the United States.
Jesus offers an invitation to blessing. The  theme of ‘All Saints’  reminds us how small numbers of people have learned to be faithful, even when others do not understand what they are on about.
That’s where the saints take us.

Jesus has a message about a new nation, a kingdom. That sounds, at first hearing, as though he is also offering the role of the soldier. But read again, and we hear the good news of blessing.

Can we trust that? We have lived through a century of war, a nd are marking the First World War in various commemorations. How can we trust a promise of peace especially when we recall that the 1914-18 war was declared to be the war to end all war. And so many have been killed in the name of the nation?

The windows and honour boards in this church building, and on the town memorials, remind us of the great grief that is the twentieth century.

Remembrance Day takes us to the world we live in – as world of missiles, and bombs, and deaths.
Every day the news takes us into one battle or another; and also closer to home, people are punched or stabbed or abused sexually.

The most startling thing is this: The nation takes as its right to call citizens to go to war. Ads pop up every so often – on TV, in cinemas, showing young people wearing uniform and being offered training. The ads are coy – they don’t say that these young people are being trained to kill, and must be ready to die for it. It offers solidarity, mateship, in the military forces.
And the result: trauma, grief, fear.

By contrast All Saints Day reminds us of people who lived in loyalty to Jesus. Their witness shows it is possible to live with integrity as faithful people.

The promise is that though we die, as humans do, death will not wipe us out, for God sides with us even in that deepest darkness.
So, as we recall the saints, the faithful
Community of Christ, we are asked to remember the destruction of war – to resist when violence wants to shape us – refusing to give it the last word and trusting the word of blessing given in Jesus.

May we continue to live trusting him.

Prayers of the People
Response:   God of life:
hear our prayer

Living God of peace,
In our world at war,
we thank you that you come to us in your Son
as peacemaker and lifegiver,
giving us a calling to bring peace in our world.
God of life:
hear our prayer
Raise up peacemakers.
Encourage those who live under the threat of missiles, bombs and weapons.
Response:   God of life:
hear our prayer
For the wounded and traumatised, bring healers.
For conscientious objectors and all who suffer for peace:
Response:   God of life:
hear our prayer
For this congregation
and the christian community in this town,
Foster a welcoming heart toward all who have fled persecution, and seek protection and welcome:
may we never fail to assist them.
Response:   God of life:
hear our prayer
strengthen and encourage all who work to put an end to war – in the World Council of Churches and the United Nations,
and all other ways people labour to bring us peace.
Response:   God of life:
hear our prayer
We thank you for all your saints; martyrs and witness to your resurrection. Bring them into your resurrection light.
So we pray together :
Salvation belongs to God,
Who will guide us to springs of living water.

Pentecost 6
26th June 2016
First reading 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14

Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20

Second reading:  Galatians 5:1,13-25
The Gospel according to Luke 9:51-62

SERMON - Rev Dr Wes Campbell

‘For freedom Christ has set us free.‘

A word that is often used. Probably overused.

Freedom has its power form us.
We are living in the modern society that was the result of revolutions in the late 1700 hundreds. The French revolution declared its movement with the slogan ‘liberte, fraternity, equalte’ :that is  freedom, brotherhood, equality.
The United States challenge to British rule expressed the hope of freedom.

A longing for freedom grows up in places where people are imprisoned: we are hearing the cry of imprisoned asylum seekers on Nauru, Manus, Christmas Island among other.

A longing for freedom leads people to extreme acts: during the ‘Troubles’ in Ireland Irish prisoners went on hunger strikes; in Vietnam when the war was at its peak, Buddhist monks doused themselves with petrol and set themselves alight. In recent months two people detained in Australian detention centres set themselves alight.

People deprived of their freedom reach a point when they have nothing left to lose. Such is the loss of their freedom, they are willing to give up their lives.
The cruel irony is that these people now detained in camps came looking for a place to escape oppression which robbed them which robbed them of their sense of self – they lose their sense of being human.

Freedom is offered in another way. That is, freedom is offered along with security. When there is a threat – either imagined or real – the government asks its citizens to prepare to defend our freedom. An example of how strong that is in our imagination plays out in the remembering of Gallipoli. When youngsters are asked about the meaning of ANZAC they will often reply that the ‘soldiers at Gallipoli fought for our freedom’.

In that same spirit youngsters don uniforms and go to Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. They discover what returned soldiers and their families have experienced in every war, call it shell shock or post traumatic stress disorder. They have often gone to some lengths to hide it.

So there is a great irony: the readiness to go to battle in the name of freedom, actually imprisons the soldier in another way

We have read texts this morning written for people of faith.
The story of Elijah and Elisha takes us into a great struggle for the heart of the Jewish people. Over the past weeks we have been taken into a struggle that was centuries long. Against the advice of the God of Israel, the Jewish people longed for a monarch, to make them look more like their neighbours. The prophets were given the risky and costly message: As the psalmist says: ‘Do not put your trust in princes.’ This was said to people whose liberty had been taken from them. They should remember that they are different. They were reminded every time they celebrated the Passover that their ancestors had been slaves in Egypt. And yet they had escaped the power of the Empire. The chariots of the armies of the Pharaoh bogged and the Hebrew slaves escaped. The LORD YHWH had taken their side. And now they are to live differently.

As a people they depend on the Word of the Lord announced by Moses and the prophets. They are to live among the nations, refusing to worship the idols of the nations.

That is the story of the people of Israel.
They live under the instruction: ‘Have no other Gods’.

That was said to the Jews.
Enter Paul the apostle, and there is a word spoken through him to the people of the nations, the goyim, Gentiles.

Paul’s message is this: the people of Israel are chosen by the God of the Jews to be different. To live in a distinctive life, free of worship of idols.

The power of Paul’s message is now spoken to us – non Jews. In the earliest Christian church there were leaders who argued that to receive the benefits of Christ Gentiles would have to first become circumcised Jews, then admitted to the Christian community.

No, says Paul. The word of the good news is available to Jew and Gentile alike. The Jews have an ongoing, special relationship to God; and now through a connection with Jesus Christ, Gentiles may receive the gift of God’s generous welcome.

How is that received: by the Spirit of God, Paul insists on this: the Spirit is the new and distinctive life to be lived by those who receive the benefits of Christ.

What is the benefit? To live in the freedom of living for others.

Notice that: mostly I have talked of freedom as if we were concerned with the freedom FROM.
But Paul points us to a life to be lived FOR others.
Paul contrasts the life of the Spirit with the life of the flesh: flesh means a life lived in our self interest, a life lived for ourselves,. No, says Paul, the life of the Spirit has an entirely different character.

 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.
Some people think that Paul is difficult.
Hard to understand.
But if we sit with the verses we have just hear, we will hear a call that is challenging. As bold and strong as we heard in the Gospel. We are called to live – not for ourselves but for Christ who calls us to be his. And with that to live for others – especially those who suffer so much that they have lost the benefits of the freedom of Christ.

So Paul says to us:

Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

Live in the liberty of Christ. For freedom Christ has set us free.

Trinity Sunday   22nd May 2016
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31,   Psalm 8,   Romans 5:1-5,   John 16:12-15
In the last eighteen months or so, there has hardly been a day when domestic violence has not been mentioned in our media in some way. It took the public execution of Luke Battye by his father, at a football match to have us say, “Enough! This has to stop and we need to change whatever needs changing to make things better.”
You will have heard the figures. They started saying one woman dies every week somewhere in Australia as the result of Domestic Violence. But that was not enough. The number is closer to two each week, with over eighty dying last year.
With the road toll the number of people who are injured badly enough to require hospitalisation, is about ten times the number who are fatally injured. If we think that it is probably similar for Domestic Violence, and the actual number could be worse, the cost to our communities of this behaviour is enormous and growing.
Abuse can be classified into nine different categories; physical, psychological, emotional, verbal, financial, religious, social, sexual and neglect. These are things like:                                                                                  Making acceptance and care conditional,                                               holding grudges, using guilt as a tool,                                                                                        spying, snooping and demanding disclosure,                                                             social isolation and financial control,                                                                            chronic criticism and veiled threats,                                                                               jealousy and accusations, presuming guilt,                                                        making someone earn your trust,                                                                                teasing and ridicule, wearing one down to comply,                                           thwarting educational and professional goals,                                                            lack of consideration for and ridicule of others views and beliefs,  pressure to unwanted and unhealthy behaviour such as drug taking,  alcohol consumption and sexual activities,                                                                   neglect and abandonment.
All these are considered improper ways of treating another person. Many prefer to use the term ‘violence’ rather than ‘abuse’ even when there is no physical violence, because these behaviours violate the rights of others.
While it has been generally accepted that more that ninety per cent of physical and sexual violence has been perpetrated by men and historically they have had the ability to financially abuse, women have the upper hand in subtle verbal abuse like ridicule and are becoming increasingly physically violent. Sometimes women abuse their children as their husbands violate them.
Recent study on the effects on children who grow up in violent homes show heightened anxiety and some copycat behaviour. Not much research been done on the effects that behaving violently has on the perpetrator. People who seek to control others in these ways are never free. They must always be on the alert in case their victim breaks free of them.
While research has shown that not all who are abused become abusers, it has also shown that almost without exception, people behave violently were themselves treated violently. To save future generations, it is therefore vital that we not only work to stop violence but that we also do all we can to heal those who have been abused, especially children and to find out why people feel the need to use violence and how we can help them to stop this behaviour.
Violence is linked with power against the powerless and sometimes people who feel powerless hit out at those they see as low down than themselves in an attempt to remain in control. To begin to understand the dynamics of this tragedy, we need to understand how things we do and say may contribute to this behaviour.
Violence and abuse take place across all levels of society and all levels of education. It differs slightly in the way it is played out, but perpetrators are no less controlling in rich, well- educated households that they are in poor ones. State sanctioned violence has been worse in English speaking countries. While the United States is the worst, England has more people imprisoned for life than many other European countries put together.
Why has it come to this that in a civilised country some people think that it is okay to behave in this way towards others? Is it that do they not know how to do things differently? How have they been taught by their parents, their peers and the community to behave? Could the teachings and model of the institutional church be contributing to the problem? Why, when women now have more freedom than ever before might it be worse for them in some ways?
Much of this behaviour comes about from the desire to be in control and to have power over others. While there is no doubt that in most cases males are physically stronger and therefore more violent, it is important that we do not assume this is the only reason for their dominance. It is a complex situation that has been going on for centuries and the Royal Commission has shown us that calling yourself “Christian” doesn’t mean you will behave in Christlike ways. We need to examine, among other things, how our male images of God and the Churches’ teaching on gender, may contribute to the idea that abuse/ violence is acceptable.
This Sunday is the day on which Christians traditionally celebrate the Holy Trinity. For the first sixty years of my life I only ever heard the Trinity described as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, one God in three persons. In recent years there have been a number of variations on this in an attempt to broaden peoples’ understanding of the Trinity.
Any words we use to name or describe God are limited by our understandings of those words and the understanding of the first person who used them. For instance, every person has a slightly different idea of what a father is according to their own experience of ‘Father.’ It has been pointed out that even two children in the same family don’t have exactly the same ideas of their father. When the first child is born, it is an only child. It will be the father’s first experience of being a parent and so he may be somewhat apprehensive. With the second child he is likely to be more relaxed and so behave differently. It stands to reason that if someone had a father who was always angry and abused them in multiple ways, then their understanding of God as father is going to be different from those who had gentle and encouraging fathers.
Those with violent fathers may take on board all the violence in Scripture as their main idea of who and how God is. This then legitimises violent behaviour on their part. They rationalise that it must be okay to barge your way into places and to take over from others and punish severely because this is the way God is said to have behaved in many stories in the Old Testament.
When we have the Trinity presented to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, all male, is it any wonder that males think they are superior and hold all the power?
How big is the picture we are getting of God when we limit our understanding of the Trinity to Father, Son and Spirit? In a conversation I had recently, shortly before the death of a good friend, she mentioned something of her life that I hadn’t heard before and it changed how I saw her. Then at her funeral, I heard more and met people who told how they appreciated different things all of which gave me a wider understanding of her character. I wished that I had known some of this before because then I may have been a better friend to her.
As humans, we are incapable of knowing all there is to know about God, but there is much more we can know when  we are open new understandings and are willing to listen to what others have experienced and now know.
In the reading we heard from Proverbs the writer spoke of Wisdom being present from Creation. It is a similar passage to that in the first chapter of the Gospel of John where the writer says that Jesus was present from the beginning of Creation. Why might those who compile the lectionary have chosen this passage on Wisdom for this Trinity Sunday? Where does Wisdom fit into the Trinity?
Paul, in 1 Corinthians 1 calls Christ the Wisdom of God. Remember that Paul only knew the Risen Christ. He never met Jesus the man and must have seen something in the Risen Christ that prompted him to say this.
There is a problem in that Wisdom is thought of as female. How could she be one with Christ Jesus who was obviously a man? One thing we have learned in recent years is that the divide between male and female is not clear cut. Many scholars believe Wisdom was written out of Christianity early on because it was too difficult to explain this male/ female identity. With the development of ideas about the Trinity, the Holy Spirit who was always depicted as female in Hebrew Scriptures was also shown as male.
Jesus had many women followers and Paul’s letters show that there were many women in leadership in the early church. But following quickly on from the masculisation of the Godhead Trinity, women were increasingly excluded from leadership roles in the early Church especially as the Church became more Romanised.
The template of all reality is Trinity : Trinity that is totally male AND totally female. We are told this in the first chapter of our Scripture.  “Let us create humanity in our image, male and female they were created.” the creation story says [Genesis 1:26]. Within the Trinity perfect love and are perfectly loved. We come to know who God is through exchanges of mutual knowing and loving.
We will always run into trouble when we try to name or describe God with human words. We do not have either genderless or gender inclusive pronouns to use when talking about people. This is a problem for people with gender dysphoria so perhaps some will be developed in coming years.
If Wisdom was present in the beginning as John tells us Christ was; where does Wisdom fit with the Trinity? Was Paul correct in naming Christ the Wisdom of God and has the Body of Christ been severely limited through the centuries as it has ignored this? As we heard earlier, Paul saw Christ as both the Power and the Wisdom of God. If the Church had honoured this image it may well have come to call Christ, the daughter of God with subsequent very different outcomes for women through the centuries.

Total exclusion of women in the Church did not occur until after the Reformation. The Orthodox Church has at least one famous icon that depicts a member of the Trinity as female. The Roman Catholic Church has always had Mary, revered as the Mother of Christ. But after the Reformation, neither men nor women in the Protestant Churches had even one woman to look up to. How much might our portrayal of God as totally male influence male dominance and violence against women? It is surely something to prayerfully contemplate.
Rev Julianne Parker

ANZAC SERVICE ST PAUL’S 25 APRIL 2016 - Rev Dr Wes Campbell

Daniel 3:1-9a; 12-14a; 15b-20
Mark 6:45-52

In the name of the living God, Spirit, Son and Father.

We gather today to remember the war dead.
The dead cannot remember so it is left to us to remember.
And we do this because those who forget the dead will soon forget the living.
 ‘Lest we forget’.

We learnt that at the cross of Christ.  The Son died there.
The Father witnessed his death, and remembered.

A fortnight ago the Australian newspaper reported on Aboriginal children being taught their culture in dance and song. The heading is: Without a story you don’t know who you are.

In the same paper was a photograph of older men and younger women in uniform, with the exhortation, Learn the Legend: ANZAC to Afghanistan. Something similar was said to us as school children in the 1950s, gathered in the school yard for an ANZAC service.

Last year we acknowledged ANZAC cove. Now we are confronted by the six month battle at the Somme.
We want to remember truly.

But the merchandising is overwhelming, even offensive.

It is strange that ANZAC commemorations seem to focus on the soldier before the battle; joining up, anticipating adventure, even honour. And there is the cliché: they fought for our freedom! Will honesty demand that as we remember their deaths, we remember them as wasted lives, as was the destruction of nature, the deaths of horses, the birds that flee.

War poetry makes it clear that nothing had prepared them, generals included, for the mud and blood and bombardment of the trenches.

We will be shaped by the legend.

But if we are tempted to romanticize, the war poets put the reality of their experience before us,
where the trenches are deep, and piles of dead comrades are silent.

The silences of those who died, and those who survived, warn us of the unspeakable. My dad who was a chef in the RAAF broke the silence to say to me, a boy fascinated by his uniform: Men do terrible things in war.

Monuments in almost every Australian town stand as silent witnesses to the deaths and the deep grief. I have seen similar monuments in German towns. What are we remembering?

Jesus’ call not to kill, to put the weapons down?

But that seems to be forgotten as we remember the Battle of the Somme.

[QUOTE: ‘A Death at the Battle of the Somme, 1916.]

That is also our story.

It is a story of distress: one in which children bear scars, and adults justify destruction of whole towns and cities..

War poets, such as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, stretch the language to help us: and with their words, together with black and white photographs, from the carnage, they vow, ‘Never again’.

In 1929 Sassoon (p. 181, The War poets) wrote a poem entitled ‘Aftermath’:

Have you forgotten yet?
For the world’s events have rolled on since those gagged days.
But the past is just the same – and War’s a bloody game…have you forgotten yet?...
Look down and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.
Do you remember…the rats and the stench –
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench
Do you ever stop and ask, ‘Is it all going to happen again?

This is how Sassoon understands the phrase ‘Lest we forget’.

He was right to fear that second plunge into chaos, with the new step of atomic and nuclear disaster, at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the threat to all life on earth.

Something leads us to minimize the tragedy. When individual persons kill each other (with a knife or fist or gun)  we call it murder, and are appalled at the violence done.

Why then do we train people to kill, organize for battle and name it ‘war’, claiming it to be just and legitimate, as millions are killed?

In this ‘War to end all wars, the number of casualties – deaths – is estimated at 37 million. Stanley Hauerwas, American ethicist, protests that we should not call this ‘the Great War’, but the Great Slaughter.

Today, gathered here, we are pressed to offer a note of confession to soldiers.

Can we admit that we have failed to recognize that many soldiers are also victims, drawn in by the false promises of politicians, and then carry for a lifetime wounds and trauma and grief, for themselves, their lovers and children? I notice that soldiers now talk about their ‘work’, and seem to assume that post-traumatic stress disorder is a normal work place hazard.

Have we, in our rejection of war failed to seek out those scarred by war, whether by bayonets, or bombardment? Have we been remiss in not making clear that we want war to cease, and soldiers liberated and, with that, their loved ones, set free for a just peace.

That is the point of the poem read on CD by Peter Cundall  (Tom Earley:  Incitement to Disobedience, selections.)

I wish that I were able to incite
Young men in every land to disobey
For wars will cease when men refuse to fight…
I know that idols all have feet of clay
[…] wars will cease when men refuse to fight…

In 1916 when facing the immense casualties in France, Prime Minister Billy Hughes, attempted to conscript men into the army, with two referendums; citizens, led by Archbishop Mannix and others rejected the proposal.

Then in the 1960s and 70s when conscription was reintroduced for Vietnam, young men declared against the army and resisted conscription.

In preparing this sermon I was taken to a speech by Martin Luther King in 1967, exhorting Ministers of draft age to tear up their papers and be prepared to go to prison, taking the path of non-violent civil disobedience.

I also discovered material that shows King’s call found an echo in Australia. In 1967 the Revd Alan Walker and others in Sydney drawing on King’s speech, formed a chapter of the International Committee of Conscience on Vietnam. Across Australia you’ll recall there were (20 year old) Conscientious Objectors.
Church and community leaders joined in the opposition to the war; we each bring our memories to those times.

Exemptions were granted, including Aboriginal people, full time theology students, and the ill,
including the mentally ill. Those who were eligible for call up went to court, hid underground, went to prison. Eligible for National Service in 1968 I sought counsel from senior Ministers in Perth. My memory is they were very cautious because they faced a prison term if they counseled against conscription.

Jean McCaughey in 1970 wrote of her experience of the Moratorium, in the ASCM magazine, Crux.
She told of the fears of violence  replaced by a peaceful gathering of people of all ages, a sit-in on the streets, attentive to the voice of Jim Cairns.

In opposition to the Vietnam War, church people and councils, with the wider Australian community, including ‘Sve our Sons’.began to discover a new voice.
They claimed the church tradition, which called Christians to oppose oppressive tyrants, and permitted civil disobedience.

So we may ask, as we gather within earshot of the ANZAC commemorations, which story are we to tell now?

Poet Wilfred Gibson says:
We are to ‘feel the heartbreak in the heart of things.’

This takes us to Detention Centres – that is prisons - to our north, the deep fear in many Australians of invasion, as permission to treat people seeking asylum badly. We must make the connection between those fleeing their homes and the war in Syria – as happened for people in Afghanistan and Iraq. Be angry at the waste.

Isn’t it is time for congregations Sunday by Sunday, as a matter of conscience, to heed the call to civil disobedience? Faced with years of imprisonment and large fines, we must act together, shaping a renewed ecumenical movement, welcoming our sisters and brothers from distant lands.  

Isn’t it time for us to warn politicians that our actions can put us outside the faith: as we do violence so we become an opponent of the Gospel.

Isn’t is necessary for us to hear the story of the First Peoples of this Land. Especially we who benefit from the invasion, with violence and deaths.
It is urgent for us to appreciate and celebrate the rich culture at the heart of this Land and its First Peoples; broken, yet in surprising ways, finding new life. Joining together with joy.

If we forget our story we no longer know who we are.

That is why we have listened to Scripture today, sung hymns, prayed, lit candles – and why we have donned our ecclesial uniform of servant’s clothes and the fiery red of the Spirit.

We are invited into a ‘counter’ story: a remembering that resists the drive to conflict and fear.

‘Do not put your trust in princes’, says the psalmist.
Do not submit to monarchs, says the prophet Samuel; in the name of Israel’s God; those monarchs will tax you, engage in warfare conscripting your young men; snatching your daughters away.

Listen to the subversive books, Daniel and Revelation, and their resistance to the then Empires - Greece and Rome - and their idols; now capitalism and militarism.

Listen carefully to the story told by congregations who, when the heat is on, stand with and for Israel’s God. Just as the white robed martyrs have done. They encourage us to resist the idols of Empire.

The powerful Gospel crafted by Mark tells how Jesus conscripts his followers to board a small boat – that is, treh church - and to launch out over the waters, the powers of chaos and nothingness. When the storm comes, he calls them to trust his authority. Jesus who feeds with bread and justice sails to the ‘other side’ into foreign territory.

Confronted there by a man chained, possessed by legions (a military hint), he does not rain down fire as James and John wanted, and as our armies do. He removes the fear. And abolishes the powers, sending them into the sea, into the dark waters of chaos, where they belong.

Jesus refuses to let the powers of death have the last word. He takes their violence into himself. He disarms the powers. He seeks to liberate us from the powers of death and the idols of empire.

And the result for the man Jesus met: he is dressed, seated and in his right mind, now a carrier of the story.

 Jesus knows the community in the boat – his church - is vulnerable. But he doesn’t give up on it. He doesn’t give up on us.  We are the tentative, fragile community he chooses. 

He conscripts for life. 

And gives us a story to tell us who we are.

So don’t be fooled into thinking otherwise! The powers love to make mayhem. They insist that war never ends; they use church language and try to convince us we are powerless to stop the chaos.

But we can resist! We need to train even more seriously than the military do. We have to take risks.

So acts of imagination are called for, ones we must share with children and grandchildren, as they look toward their future. Even working for the abolition of war!

We must say all this for Jasmine who stood up for a man about to be deported, and now faces the power of the law.

We must say it for the Brisbane Canon, Peter, and the Sanctuary church movement. To Grandmothers against Detention, and ‘Love Makes a Way! To all who gather to write letters, visit the detained, keep hope alive in a welcoming and friendly Australia.
To those who craft a Treaty with and for the First Peoples.

And to ourselves as we practice the art of declaring the oppressive powers to be null and void.

In his life Jesus embodies the dream the prophets announced – of a world transformed, rich in life-giving. Peace, Shalom, Salaam for humans and nature alike.
And for this Pope Francis announces the call to non-violent discipleship,

And then we must expect that the Spirit of God, the wind of life, will create turbulence that pushes our little boat into surprising places.

So grieve and  be angry at the waste;
Act for Peace.
This is the counter story Jesus tells, as he conscripts us for life.

That is what Easter celebrates!
Jesus Christ is risen: Alleluia;

 He is risen indeed, Alleluia.

Lent 1   14th February 2016 - rev Julianne Parker

Psalm 91:1,2,9-16, Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Romans 10:8b-13, Luke 4:1-13
I have just finished listening to a story written and read by Jackie French. Called “Hitler’s Daughter”, it tells of a story related by a young girl to several children who travel with her on the school bus, somewhere in rural Australia. I think the story was probably written for children and teenagers and it addresses issues of knowing what is right and what is wrong and how to behave accordingly.
As the story advances, there are different responses from the children. The younger girl just hears it as an exciting story. One of the boys seems to be only interested in fighting and wars and every time Hitler is mentioned, he provides battle sound effects, “Pow, pow.” The other boy who is listening gets caught up in the broader implications of it all. What might it have been like to have been the loved daughter of such a man as Hitler? How did she perceive this man that so many hated? Would she have known what was happening around her or was she shielded from it?
This lad started asking one of his teachers questions as to how Hitler held so much power, how he had been able to convince so many to vote for him and why those in power hated the Jews and others they killed. The teacher at first seemed interested in his questions and then, perhaps challenged by them he tried to fob the boy off.
Of course the story is fictitious but we do know that some of Hitler’s close associates led almost normal lives as family men while planning to and then murdering millions of people.
The boy begins to ask questions like, “How do we tell right from wrong?” “How do we learn what behaviour is good and what is bad?” How responsible would Hitler’s daughter have been if she had known what he was doing?” As he thought about it over several days he reached the point of asking “How would I behave if I found out my dad had done or was doing something terrible?”
We might answer such questions by saying, “Well, we have the Ten Commandments to guide us, or we have other Scripture we can quote. The dilemma of knowing how to behave was that which Jesus ultimately faced in today’s story from the Gospel of Luke. As with many issues in the Bible, it seems quite simple but it is not always as easy as simply quoting a verse though at least knowing some verses does help.
How do we know what the right choice is and the right way to behave? 
It is too simplistic to rely on the Commandments. Life and big issues are not simple. We may want to argue that it is as simple as that. The commandments say, “Thou shall not kill. It is quite plain.” But it is? Even for those who were conscientious objectors it might not have been easy if they themselves were threatened. We might think that we would be willing to be killed rather than compromise our beliefs but what if it were someone we loved who was about to be killed, could we then refrain from trying to save them even if it meant killing their attacker?
When we did Christian Ethics, we were told that it was not necessarily a sin to do the wrong thing. What made an action a sin, was if we did not consider every possibility before deciding how we were going to respond. It is when we are sure that we know and that we would do right that we are most likely to fail. We saw this when the disciple Peter boasted that he would not abandon Jesus and shortly after denied that he knew him.
Temptation is not often as clear cut as choosing between good and evil.  Sometimes it is about choosing the lesser of two evils.  It can also be about choosing between what is good and what could be even better. We can be tempted to take the less good path because it is easier or because we are less vulnerable in taking that path. We can also take the less good path because we are unaware that we have a choice to do better. We may be unaware that there is a better way!
Christians for centuries have been largely choosing to follow the good path of helping people in need in all sorts of ways. Without realising it we have chosen the easier path and in doing so have fallen short of following Jesus’ way. Especially in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus not only healed and helped people but also in every such situation he also attacked the social or religious culture that was causing the pain. In deciding our course of action, or inaction, in any situation, it is important to ensure that the end justifies the means. Or should that be that the means justify the end. The desired result may be noble but only if it is honourably reached. Jesus was tempted to take shortcuts to save trouble and sometimes so are we.
The culture many of us were brought up in discouraged us from questioning what we were told and from looking for other sides to situations. Often it did not occur to us that choices could be made and that we had a responsibility to make them. We may not have wanted to rock the boat, or more likely, because we were not taught to think things through, we may not have thought of the possibility that we could change the circumstances so that people could stand on their own feet. Then they would not need our help. Many of us, especially women, have got our sense of self- worth from being helpful and would like to maintain the status quo.
Most of us have not dared to question, to look at all possibilities before deciding how to behave. To do so can be scary. To do so is to commit to living life in all its fullness. To do so is to follow Christ into our Promised Land. Sometimes this is because we are scared of God. We may see God as punitive, judgemental and mean. The Church has often given us the impression that all that matters to God sin and punishing us when we get it wrong. But this is wrong. God practices restorative justice. By God’s mercy, we ARE forgiven. When we grasp that God does not hold our sins against us we are free to move on. We have thought that punishment transforms people but the only thing that positively transforms us is love. While we may suffer the consequences of our sin, God keeps on loving us enabling us to move on to new life.
People outside of the church and younger ones have learnt to question and sometimes to our shame, they are better than us at lobbying for justice and fairer conditions because they have dared to question. Beginning to look at the bigger picture before making decisions and judgements is like beginning a new phase of our lives. It takes us into new territory where we learn to trust ourselves in partnership with Christ’s leading. This can become surprisingly productive.
The Israelites we heard about in the reading from Deuteronomy had reached the end of their journey from slavery in Egypt and where about to enter the new land God had promised. They were no doubt relieved to have reached this point after many tedious, testing years but they might also have felt apprehensive about this new place. Perhaps they were wondering what challenges they would face, how they might cope with becoming farmers when they had been nomads for the last generation and construction workers prior to this. How would they get on with governing themselves when previously they had been slaves who only had to do what their masters told them? In the wilderness, for survival, they had been cared for and choices had been made for them. Now they would be responsible for their own decisions.
They had been wandering for many years during which time God had supplied them with food. Now they would have to produce their own. They would have to adapt to new and different ways of doing things. Moses who had been their leader was not going into the new land with them. Still he wanted to encourage them to remember God’s faithfulness when things were difficult and to be grateful to God who had saved them from slavery and protected and fed them on their journey. Now God had provided them with a new leader, Joshua, to lead them in this land that gave them new hope and also presented them with a challenge.
Moses’ words encouraged the people. When he instructed them how to give thanks to God for their harvest, he was indirectly assuring them that there would be a harvest! Moses knew from his life time of experiences of God’s love that again and still God would be there for them.
Jesus, in the reading from Luke, was about to enter a new land in his life. He was beginning a new thing. From the moment he stepped back from this time in the wilderness, it was going to be full on for him. It was not going to be easy making the change from being a village carpenter to being a wandering preacher and teacher. There would be many challenges but there were also going to be time of joy and satisfaction as well as frustration. Some translations speak of testing rather than tempting which makes the purpose of this time in the wilderness a little clearer.
It is still early in the New Year and each New Year can be a fresh start for us, but so can any day! Today can be the day when you decide to ask questions of things you have not dared to question before. From now on, you can resolve to make informed decisions when you come to vote in this year’s elections and when you are debating right and wrong of attitudes, ideas and behaviour.
Like the Israelite people, and Jesus, God the Holy Spirit has been journeying with us, encouraging and sustaining us through these years even when we have felt we were wandering in a wilderness. Each new day can be the beginning of something new for us. It will be good because God does not lead otherwise; with the promise that like it was for the Israelites so it can be a productive time for us. It may be scary and a challenge, but the guarantee is that we will thrive in this place.
Do not forget to celebrate the achievements you make by giving thanks to God. God will bless you all in this.

Transfiguration 6th August 2016 - Rev Dr Wes Campbell
Exodus 34:29-35

Psalm 99

2 Corinthians 3:12 - 4:2

Luke 9:28-43

Moses came down from Mount Sinai., Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God (Exodus 34)

18And all of us, with unveiled faces, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; (2 Corinthians 3)

Jesus went up on the mountain to pray. 29And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. (Luke 9)

In the name of the God of light, in whom there is no darkness at all.
I acknowledge that we gather on land of which the Elders of the Dja Dja Wurrung Elders are custodians.

‘You light up my life’, goes the popular song.
‘Her face lit up’, we say.
A proverb: Far better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.
They shone a light on the situation.

Today is designated as ‘Transfiguration Sunday’; or the day transformed with light.

The traditional day chosen for Transfiguration was the 6th August. In order to reflect the pattern of the Gospels, the day now falls on the Sunday before the beginning of Lent.

The Gospel began with the words, ‘About eight days later…’.
For Luke what happens before those eight days is crucial. Jesus sets his face to go to Jerusalem. He will leave the remarkably successful ministry in the north, and will go to Jerusalem. As he speaks to his companions about this turn toward Jerusalem, he meets with great resistance from his companions.  He has spoken of rejection, torture and death at the hands f authorities.
 Not surprisingly, they are terrified by what he is saying and try to dissuade Jesus from his path. Peter, in particular, attempts to turn him from that path. Jesus insists and instructs them on being his followers.

 Then Jesus goes up the mountain to pray. He takes three disciples with him, peter, James and John. Jesus is aligning himself with his Father, just as he will on the night of his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane.

At three points in this Gospel a voice declares Jesus to be God’s chosen.
At his baptism where Jesus hears a Divine Voice confirming him. You are my Chosen.

Now a second episode: on the mountain. Like Moses before him Jesus shines with blinding light. His companions are terrified. And then they are ‘enlightened’ by that Voice: this is my Chosen beloved Son; listen to him (alone).

There will be a third time a voice speaks. But this time t is a human voice which can be heard by onlookers: it is the Roman soldier’s voice we hear at his cross. The Roman soldier declares Jesus to be God’s chosen, the Innocent.

Three times Jesus’ path is confirmed.

Luke is a powerful narrator. He develops the account of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in the synagogue in Nazareth. Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah: ‘I am anointed to bring good news to the poor, to open blind eyes, to liberate the oppressed, to declare the Good News. With these words he declares that this is happening in him!
With these words Jesus is casting light on his ministry to the poor. He will open the blind eyes!

So, what does Luke want us to hear about the light? He is thoroughly immersed in the Hebrew Scriptures. He would expect us to recall the first verses of Genesis: where the dark chaos is broken by the Creator’s command: ‘Let there be light’; there was light, and it was good.

That is the light streaming from Jesus, who is, as the creeds say: ‘God from God, light from light’.

Some see the light of Jesus’ resurrection here. The Eastern Orthodox say that in this light on the mountain we are glimpsing the future light of God, when all will be transformed.

The vision of the Apostle John in the Book of Revelation takes us to that same future, to the city of Jerusalem with the light of God at its centre. The dark waters of nothingness have been changed to crystal, and the immense crowd of white robed crowd with palm branches in hand sings, for the time of tears is past.
The prophets depicted such a future, when humans and animals will live together in harmony, and those who are now enemies will be friends!

So, on Transfiguration Sunday, we look forward, we anticipate, we have a mere taste of a creation utterly transformed. (

Jesus who shines with light is an agent of life.
That is confirmed when he comes down from the mountain onto the plain, to find a boy possessed by demonic powers, and no-one able to heal him – no-one, that is, except Jesus.
(If you want a picture of the darkness of the plain listen to the names Nauru, Christmas Island, detention centres, illegals.)

Is this the moment when the three will tell what they have seen on the mountain? No, they say nothing. Is it their terror, or the ecstasy that silences them? Poets might help. (Castlemaine is a remarkable town where living poets walk among us!) But like most of us, the disciples are no poets!
And they say nothing. Their time will come later - after Jesus’ resurrection.

Does it help to consider the healing of the boy as a moment of ‘enlightenment’? That word enlightenment takes us to those who declare themselves atheists – anti- God because of the world’s violence; because they cannot see God. The healing of this boy has been placed there on the plain for them – and for us.

What we have heard today requires a leap of imagination. Such an leap shouldn’t worry those skeptical scientists because they use their imagination day in and day out, imagining the seconds after the big bang, the coupling of sperm and ovum, the sudden appearance of a new galaxy. Physicists work with light, as do makers of cinema, as do teachers.

That is where the Mount of Transfiguration takes us. To new sight. Intellectuals in the Eighteenth Century, like today’s new atheists were right to seek ‘enlightenment’. But they missed Jesus’ power to open eyes and hearts. Even now they fail to appreciate that his light opens up the mysteries of the cosmos.

This brings us back to the date of the Transfiguration. The traditional date for the Latin church (that is us) is the 6th August.

On this day, 6th August in 1945, at 8.15am, one atomic device nicknamed Little Boy was dropped on Hiroshima, then three days later, 'Fat Man' devastated Nagasaki, the Christian city of Japan: These strangely named bombs  reduced the people of these Japanese cities to ash, leaving survivors to carry in their bodies unseen radiation. The flash of the explosion has been called the light brighter than a thousand suns. Photographs of people who looked at the nuclear flash show that they had their eyes burnt out.
Since that morning in 1945 we have lived under a nuclear cloud, a radioactive fog. Notice how the images of light, and sleep and fear are in both Hiroshima and the light of Jesus.  

On witnessing the first test of the atomic bomb Robert Oppenheimer later said:
We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent.
I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, "Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."

Trinity was the code name of the first detonation of a nuclear weapon.

During the past seventy one years we have lived under this mushroom cloud. There are those who protest against those destructive devices. Even now are those who seek to abolish nuclear weapons: ICAN (International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.) But like the disciples on the mountain, most of us wake up to their threat but, then, finding the pain and grief of such destruction is too much, like the disciples we retire again into an anxious sleep. Instead of hearing the Voice calling us to listen to Jesus alone, we find other voices to divert us.

Some so--called Christian realists think it is possible to use these nuclear devices to engage in politics –in the 1980s they sought protection with the policy of ‘MAD’ –mutually assured destruction. With that, they enter into the grasp of the powers of threat and death, as if they are on that plain where Jesus encountered the boy possessed by the demonic powers.

Other Christians take a different path. They call themselves nuclear pacifists, opposed to nuclear destruction. Even stronger is the challenge thrown out by the theologian Karl Berth. He refused to call these nuclear devices, ‘weapons’ or ‘bombs’ because that would lead us into thinking of them as devices of a limited range. These nuclear devices threaten to destroy all life on earth and must be utterly rejected.

The State of Israel has nuclear weapons. Strange that the Exodus desert pillar of cloud and fire should be mimicked by the nuclear mushroom cloud. Modern Israel was founded out of fear of genocide. It is their fear that leads them to be ready to use nuclear destruction.

Today, along with all nuclear States, we must pray that Israel is released from fear, and gives up its attempt to gain security with nuclear devastation. That prayer also includes Australia, prepared to accept nuclear protection by allying with the United States, the so-called Christian nation.
Our true safety comes not from fear and anxiety prompted by the atomic cloud; but from the God of life whose light heals and gives hope for life.

So, today we are presented with two names: Hiroshima and Transfiguration.
Hiroshima, with its devastation, stands as a warning of the devastation we can unleash;
The Transfiguration of Jesus has the liberating power to bring us to the light of the Creator who wants all to flourish.

Aren’t Christians called to be the first to seek the abolition of nuclear devices, and the first to celebrate for all a world without weapons?

So let us go from here trusting the God who in the beginning broke the darkness, and with light utterly transformed Jesus,
chose him to be the Beloved Son, fed him at his mother’s breast, anointed him with the Spirit; and is calling a company of people marked by his light.

Let yourself be claimed by this same God of light. Take hold of Jesus Christ whose light was witnessed on the mountain and in his resurrection. Join in his celebration of life.


Advent 4C   20th December   2015
Micah 5:2-5a, Psalm 80:1-7, Luke 1:47-55, Hebrews 10:5-10, Luke 1:39-45.
They began the Church service by singing “Turn your eyes upon Jesus.” Kay turned her eyes towards the cross hanging above the communion table. As she did, a painting of Jesus that hung in the supper room came to her mind. She was thinking about this when the painting seemed to come alive and it was as if Jesus turned and smiled at her. Maybe this image lasted a second or two and then Jesus’ face was replaced by a soft glowing light.
After that, every time Kay thought of God the glow was there, slightly above her. She knew it was the face of God but she could never see and features, just the shining light. It was positioned so that she felt that if she dared reach out her left hand, she could have touched it. She never felt the need to do that. Each time she became aware of it she had the feeling that God was smiling at her. It took her a while to get used to as she had always seen God as stern and judgemental, waiting to pounce to punish her. She much preferred this new image of the God of Love.
About two months later, Kay’s husband died suddenly. The shining light was something for her to hold on to as life as she had known it crumpled around her. It stayed with her for many years through many difficult times. It was more than just a comfort. It assured her of God’s constant presence. Prior to this she had always seen God as distant and unapproachable. Encouragingly, the shining light didn’t go even when in her grief and hard time, she ranted and raved and shook her fist at God.
However it did change. Sometimes there was sadness with it. But the time that really surprised her was several years later when Kay was having a whinge about something, she suddenly got the impression that God was laughing at her. She felt indignant. How dare God behave like that! Then she realised that she was taking herself too seriously. In the months that followed, this scene repeated itself many times until Kay learned to “lighten up.”
Eventually the light became just a memory. In reality though, it can never be just a memory. It meant too much to Kay for that. It kept her going through some severe trials. Not surprisingly, the Aaronic blessing is really special to her and a joy every time they sing it at Church. “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you. The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.” Kay prefers the translation which says “May Yahweh show you his face” rather than ‘countenance’  [Numbers 6:24-26 New Jerusalem Bible] as she has ‘a bit of a thing’ about using words that are not in common use and so do not speak to many people.
While Kay has no doubt that this was just what God had done for her she doesn’t think that her experience in this is a “one off”. The Aaronic Blessing from over 3000 years ago and the words of Psalm 80, slightly more recent, would indicate that God has been blessing people in this way from the beginning. The Psalmist asks twice, “Restore us, O God; let your face shine on us and we shall be safe.”[Psalm 80:3&7 New Jerusalem Bible] With anxiety being one of the biggest problems in our culture the reassurance of this blessing and prayer would be a comfort to many if we could help people to know the blessing of God’s face shining on us.
Although we don’t often describe it as such, people’s faces shine when they smile in a friendly way. The shine is not there if the smile is cynical, leering or sarcastic. Someone smiling at you is a sign that they have noticed you and have accepted you as you are. A face shining towards you indicates love, enjoyment of your company, a peaceful and blessed relationship. There is no hostility or judgement in this image. In body language a face shining at you is telling you that the other is friendly towards you; that they like you. Experiments that have been done with babies only a few hours old show that when their mothers fail to smile at them, the babies feel shame. Their eyes are cast down and their muscle tone weakens so that they wither. When the mothers smiled, the babies held their heads up more.
This shows the importance for our growth of having people smile at us. When babies and children don’t receive the blessing of many shining faces, they fail to develop to their optimum physically and emotionally. There are many circumstances when this can happen such as if the mother has post-natal depression, if the child was not wanted or if the mother is struggling to cope with her family. It emphasises the need for communities to support people with young families to give children a good start in life and to prevent trouble as the children get older.
It would appear that we have rediscovered what the ancient Hebrew people knew. It is perhaps not surprising that the idea of God’s face shining on us has been so important. Some might say that the image of God smiling on us is a metaphor; that it was never intended to be taken literally, but such is the grace and love of God that we may feel God smiling on us even when we may not see it, just as we may feel God weeping with us in distressing situations.
In Genesis 1 we read that God was pleased with creation and so we can reasonably assume God was smiling as creation unfolded. A shining face is an indication that the person is pleased with what they are seeing. We actually speak of the shine being taken off a situation when it becomes hard work and the shine quickly disappears when a person is displeased.  The writer of the letter to the Hebrew explained that what pleased God was not offering sacrifices as the people thought, but doing God’s will and acting with justice and mercy.
In Luke 1:25 Elizabeth says that the Lord has looked favourably on her, presumably an indication that she felt God’s face was shining on her. The reading from Luke 1 comes immediately after Mary has found out she is to become the mother of the Messiah. It must have been a time with more than the usual mixed emotions that go with pregnancy in her situation as she grappled with the awesome news.
We are told that Elizabeth spent five months in seclusion at the beginning of her pregnancy and that Mary remained with Elizabeth for three months after she had come to her home to tell Elizabeth that she also was expecting a child. Many expectant parents would appreciate a quiet time to contemplate the enormous task ahead of them and it would probably benefit the expected child. Elizabeth and Mary were in a privileged position to be able to have that time. Until the last century poor women were expected to work until the baby was born and then return to work soon after. Only the rich could afford time to relax and prepare for the birth.
Then with the development of middle class societies, where married women were not expected to work outside of their homes, some had time for some contemplation through their pregnancy. Now again women are expected to take the absolute minimum of time with their babies. This pressure limits the blessing of peace within the mother, putting her under stress so that she is less likely to smile at her child.
Luke is the only Gospel writer who links the births of John the Baptiser and Jesus. We are told that Mary, not surprisingly, went straight to Elizabeth perhaps for the encouragement and support of the older woman. We are also told that Mary stayed on for three months which might indicate that it took her a while to get her head around the news the angel had brought, a while before she could praise God for the situation in which she found herself.
Blessings are not always apparent in the beginning and may bring sorrow as well as joy. Much focus has been put on the words of the Magnificat as Mary’s statement has been called but it might have taken her some time to reach the point of being able to utter these words if she ever did. They are based on the words of Hannah [1 Samuel 2:1-10] but Elizabeth’s situation was more like Hannah’s than was Mary’s. Hannah had been married and childless for many years when she became pregnant. She didn’t find herself pregnant outside of marriage with all the shame and disgrace that brought.
For many unmarried women who find themselves pregnant, Mary’s rejoicing would seem almost bizarre. They do not feel that it is a blessing. Fortunately society does not condemn them as much as they did fifty years ago but it still looks down on single mothers. It may take many of them time to adjust to the new circumstances. It would be better for them and ultimately for their child and our communities if we were friendly faces they could turn to as Mary did to Elizabeth; if we were the ones who could give them space to contemplate the situation in which they find themselves.
We may think of the glory of God as being what is shining in God’s face. Moses asked if he could see the glory of God and was shown the goodness of God. God is far beyond what we can know and God’s ways are not our ways but God blesses us too, with glimpses to encourage us.
In the Hebrew tradition, the person pronouncing a blessing is making a commitment to carry through the promise embedded in the blessing. This is the tradition Jesus came from and that Christianity follows. Every time we sing the Aaronic blessing, such as at a baptism, we have a responsibility to help the person to whom we are singing it, understand and experience God’s face shining upon them. We are committed to lives which shine and reflect God’s love, acceptance and encouragement.
This is the week in Advent when we contemplate and celebrate love and the God of Love whose love was most apparent in the life of Jesus the Christ. What can we learn about the shining, smiling face of God’s love as we turn our faces towards the new born child this Christmas? Can we dare to take time out as Elizabeth and Mary did to contemplate the nature and purpose of the blessings of God? Can we face the God who faces us and say, “I delight to follow your way”?
May those of us who know the blessing of God’s face shining on us live in that blessing and pass it on in smiles of love given freely to those who need to see a friendly face this Christmas and for all of our lives.

Advent 3C   13th December   2015

Zephaniah 3:14-20   Isaiah 12:2-6   Philippians 4:4-7   Luke 3:7-18
There is a series on SBS called the Kebab Kings. Two inner city Kebab shops, in Sydney and Melbourne were filmed for a year to make the programme. One is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week and the other closes for a couple of hours at five am. It is confronting to see that many young people who come into the shops have been drinking and taking drugs so that they can enjoy themselves. It is hard to watch people behaving as they do when under the influence of such mind altering substances. Surely there are different, less destructive ways that we can help people enjoy life.
Today is when we celebrate joy in the Christian calendar but many of us have little understanding and experience of joy in our lives to pass on to younger folk. Joy is not happiness. In Hebrew Scripture they are two different things with twice as many references to joy as there are to happiness. Generally in our culture we see happiness as more superficial with joy having with it deep peace, contentment, acceptance. Someone recently pointed out that happiness is connected to happenings. Joy is deeper, more lasting and permeates our souls. In a fascinating way, we can experience joy even when we are not feeling happy.
Joy is the second named fruit of the Spirit. [Galatians 5:22] Does this make it second in importance?  We don’t know if these fruit are listed this way, but it is interesting to contemplate this. The first listed is Love. Someone once suggested that all the other named fruits of the Spirit, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control are actually all elements of love. Jesus told us that the greatest commandment was to love God with all your heart mind, soul and strength and to love your neighbour as yourself. We can logically follow on from that with “Enjoy God with all your heart soul mind and strength and enjoy your neighbour as yourself. Be gentle towards God, your neighbour and yourself and be generous towards God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and to your neighbour and yourself.” As people of the Spirit, we would expect joy to be prominent in our lives.
I asked a group of about thirty women at a Fellowship meeting, what it was that they enjoyed in life. They sat there in stony silence. Not an expression changed nor a person spoke. I wondered if they had heard me or understood the question. I tried again, more encouragingly, “Come, there must be something you enjoy.” After what seemed like an age, one said, “Well, I enjoy it when the grandchildren go home.” One or two others commented, but the joy was conspicuous by its absence.
I asked the same question of a group of men at a discussion group in a prison. Instantly they came to life, all laughing and talking at once. It was a shock to see such a different reaction. One managed to say, “Caw, Miss, you don’t really expect us to tell you what we enjoy, do you?”
People enjoy different things. The music and food which some people enjoy are a torture to me. People enjoy in different ways. The way we enjoy a grand final victory in sport is different from the way we enjoy the smell of a rose, or watching a sunset or a baby.
Enjoyment releases chemicals in our bodies which help us feel good. Even remembering something we have enjoyed can do this. We may like to share our enjoyment. We feel warm, happy, relaxed, contented and more. These feelings and responses are part of enjoyment.
I asked this question because I wanted to talk about God and joy, but was unsure of how to do so as the word ‘joy’ isn’t used much these days. It seems to have been out of fashion for a number of years. We seemed to only get it out at Christmas with the decorations, then put it away till next December. Recently, advertisers seem to have rediscovered it and it has appeared in several TV ads with a plentiful, playful supply of chocolate being a prerequisite. Few of us have thought to enjoy our relationship with God or even thought that it might be possible to enjoy such a relationship. Many have seen God as distant and unapproachable. We may have had a slightly more relaxed view of Christ. Zephaniah 3:14 says “Rejoice and exult with all you heart” and v17b says “God will rejoice over you with gladness and renew you with His love.”
A number of times in the Hebrew Scripture that we call the Old Testament, God encourages people to enjoy themselves by celebrating things like the end of harvest, or having their lives saved. In Nehemiah, the prophet told the people to celebrate the finding of an old manuscript. He said it was important to celebrate because “the joy of the Lord is our strength.”
The Hebrew language distinguishes between joy and happiness, with joy getting twice as many mentions in the Scripture as happiness. Some translations fail to make this distinction, instead interpreting it all as happy. The Jewish people, with all the strife they have suffered through the years, know how to enjoy themselves. They make up about 3% of the population of the USA and about 80% of its stand-up comics.
When I was attending classes for confirmation, we were required to learn part of the Shorter Westminster Catechism. The first sentence says, “Our chief aim is to glorify God and enjoy God forever”. We are frequently told, “God is love”. It could be equally valid to say, “God is joy”. The Hebrew language has a richness, an exuberance, that goes with joy, speaking of exceeding joy and rejoicing greatly. Joy was expected to be accompanied by excitement and to be demonstrated. There was festive, social joy with cheerfulness and high spirits. At the same time, peace is the inner state, forming the basis of joy. People were expected to enjoy worship and to have a number of festivals each year.
According to James Hastings, who must have enjoyed counting, joy is mentioned more in the Bible than in any other literature. Somebody else said joy was more conspicuous in Christianity than in any other religion. Other religions must be pretty sombre or the person who said it grew up in a different place from me because joy hasn’t been a major part of my Christian experience until more recent years.
Some people are afraid of joy, of experiencing it themselves, or even allowing others to experience it. A surprising number of people actually feel that they don’t deserve to enjoy life and feel guilty if they do. Many still have, from the Victorian era, a strong view that if you are enjoying yourself you must be doing something wrong. When I was young, if we were seen to be enjoying ourselves it was assumed we were ‘up to no good’.
In this way, sadly, joy has been more associated with sinning and the devil than with God. Joy was sometimes associated with loss of control and that made people nervous. Many Church people were so negative and against that which others found enjoyable that they were known in the community as “Killjoys”.
Enjoying God is about spending time together, listening to and honouring God and all God has for us! It’s about not taking ourselves too seriously. The writer of the piece of music we call “Jesus Joy of Man’s Desiring” must have known about enjoying God. I heard on the radio that a better translation of the title of this music would be “Jesus Remains My Joy”. What a delightful thing to be able to say! When we are enjoying God, it changes our life. We are more relaxed in other relationships and we are likely to read the Bible quite differently. Joy is about connecting with the things that really matter in life. It is a spiritual experience that helps us to be both gentle and generous.
Most of us will have known from an early age of the call for those who have two coats to give one to someone who has none and to share our food. We may have thought these were the words of Jesus, not realising that these words are attributed to John. Many of us have endeavoured to be generous in our sharing. We may have heard that we should not only tithe our money but our time and talents as well. Paul, in writing to the Philippians, urged them to be generous in their thanks, enjoyment and gentleness so that all people could see and experience it. [Philippians 4:5]
Fred has a great passion for justice. He spends much time lobbying politicians and other people of influence to bring fairer conditions for those who are unable to do this for themselves. He spends time with people in need such as those who are homeless and refugees. He told of the spiritual practice that underpins his life and work.
“Four to five times a week, it is not every day; I sit for half an hour to give thanks to God for my blessings and to name them. Then I ask, ’Which ones are surplus to my needs and to whom can I pass them on?’ Then I look at the blessings I have that are skills and abilities that can be used to help others and I ask where these can be best employed today or in the near future to bring blessings to others.”
It is overwhelming to think of how the world might be changed if more of us adopted such a practice; how many more would enjoy life and thank God. Generally we fall far short of any such behaviour. Someone else had told of how once a year she sat down and worked out how much she had that she could give to charities like the Christmas Bowl appeal and Uniting World. We may, at times like our immanent retirement, spend some time contemplating our gifts and how we can use them productively for as long as we are able. A couple of times, Spiritual Mentors have spoken of the beneficial effects of choosing five things to give thanks to God for at the end of each day but I have never before heard of a near daily check on how generously and affectively we are using the gifts with which we have been blessed.

Perhaps when we are taking stock of things as New Year approaches, we might reassess our lives and the way we are using them, realising that it is a blessing to be alive. And of course, we are all familiar with the idea that if we have two coats we can give one to someone who has none, but we don’t often get around to doing this even when our wardrobes are full. 

Advent 1C   29th November 2015

Jeremiah 33:14-16    Psalm 25,   1 Thessalonians 3:9-15    Luke 21:25-36

The World Climate Change Conference was held in the shadow of recent super storms in the Philippines. How much can we trust the commitment to lower carbon emissions when the Conference was largely funded by those whose industries cause much of the problem? It is hard to be hopeful in the face of such news.

As if nature itself didn’t have enough things to throw at us with earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, droughts and cyclones we add wars, large scale wrecking of forests with their incredibly interdependent habitat, for monoculture crops to feed our extravagant life styles. There is always war somewhere. There have been bombings of a Russian aircraft in Sinai, and buildings and people in Beirut and in Paris. Brazil is dealing with the failure of the tailings dams which have caused kilometres of devastation and the value of BHP shares to plummet. And as if stories of mass destruction weren’t enough, the news is topped up with murder, domestic and drug and alcohol fuelled violence and traffic accidents. It is surprising that anyone can see a ray of hope anywhere in all.

Closer to home it has been the driest winter ever in parts of Australia and there are predictions of an extreme fire season in most of Australia. Crops have failed, in some places for the third year in a row and people are despairing of how they will manage with little income over wide areas. How can we hope when we are involved in these things? We can identify with the prayer in Psalm 25:16-18a, “Turn to me and be gracious to me for I am lonely and afflicted. Relieve the troubles of my heart and bring me out of my distress. Consider my affliction and my trouble.”

In Hebrew Scripture, when the going got tough, people had trouble seeing God. Over and over in Psalms, Job and Lamentations, the writers talk about not being able to find God. Over and over they are asking, “How long, O God, will you leave me desolate?” It seems that they have little hope of things getting better. To counteract this loss of hope, almost always after they have expressed their feelings, they recall God’s faithfulness. They remind themselves that they have been through tough times before and have not only survived, but subsequently thrived under God’s care.

Things are not much different for us. When we go through rough patches, it is often as if we are blinded to God’s presence. Sometimes it feels like when we need God most, God is least likely to seem to be with us. It is as if we are blinded by our distress, anxiety and depression. In such times it is important for us as individuals and us as communities to remember times when we have experienced God’s graciousness and hold on to the hope that we will again experience it..

When areas around experienced their driest July ever, we knew that there would be people in trouble as crops failed, again! It was not surprising when calls asking, “What can you do for us?” began to come. As a first response, the Presbytery ministers organized a day to clarify what kind of assistance people wanted and what was available in the way of help from other people and organizations as we didn’t want to double up nor to waste time and resources doing what we thought people wanted when it was something else they were asking for.

When planning for this day, I spoke to a number of people including someone at the National Farmer Health group based in Hamilton. One thing that had come up several times was the threat of suicide as people became increasingly desperate and ashamed to ask for help. The person told me that they are discouraging people from saying that someone “committed suicide.” This term belongs to the time when to do so was a crime against the state and an unforgivable sin by the Church. Killing oneself is no longer seen as either of these. It is a choice a person makes to end his or her own life.

People often have incorrect understandings about this action such as that people who talk about doing it are unlikely to carry it through. Research shows that at least eighty per cent of people who kill themselves have told one or more of their intentions. It is scary to have someone tell us this and we may not want to hear or to get involved. When we don’t know how to react, our reaction might be to say or think that the person can’t possibly be serious. But they may well be. When someone gives us a sign such as a comment that life is unbearable or that others would be better off if they weren’t here, we need to ask the person directly, “Are you planning to kill yourself?” If they say they are, then ask them “How?” If their plan is credible, it is essential that you do not leave them until you have been able to organise immediate help. It is critical to remove the means from them or them from the means. For most people it is a relief to be able to talk with someone, anyone. It is beneficial to have someone show that they care.

The killing of oneself has an infectious element. When one person in a family or district does it then others close to them are at a higher risk of doing the same. It is a tragic waste to family and community to lose one. It is worse to lose more. We may think that ending one’s life is more common among young people but middle-aged men form the greatest risk group. This is why as family, neighbours and friends we need to be particularly vigilant in hard times.

Aside from depression, motivators for people to kill themselves are guilt and shame. Guilt says “I have done something wrong,” and the Church has been good at alleviating guilt through confession and forgiveness. Shame says, “There is something wrong with me. I do not come up to my expectations or those of the community.” We have not been good at helping people who are ashamed of themselves. Shame can be an add-on to guilt, especially when we have repeated failings many times, or when the community or government blame you for failing to plan for these hard times. The writer of Psalm 25 pleads to God to save him from shame. Perhaps he knew how toxic shame can be as it can prevent people from asking for needed help.

One of the things we identified as a helpful response for those struggling with drought, is a need for encouragement to see that people have resources within themselves and their communities to help them through all difficulties. They may not recognise these things and so this is about giving them hope as loss of hope is the main reason people kill themselves. A favourite old hymn is, “All praise to our redeeming Lord.” The beginning of the second verse says, “God bids us build each other up.” Such action is desperately needed at times like this and the Presbytery is offering some training in pastoral care and listening skills to help people do just this.

People with depression are not easy to live with or listen to. It can be depressing being with them. But it is important that we do not lose hope in a good future for them. It is important that we have strategies for building ourselves up and holding on to hope. These can include contemplative or meditative prayer, meeting with others who can support them, taking time out, eating nourishing food, exercising and some pampering.

Another way to build people up is through the great Hebrew tradition of blessings of which we have examples in the reading from the Thessalonians reading set for today. “May our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus ease our path to you. May the Lord make you increase and enrich your love for each other and for all, so that it matches ours for you.” [New Jerusalem Bible 1Thes:3 11,12] Hebrew blessings have several parts to them. They are not just written or spoken words. They are chosen especially by the person blessing for the recipient and carry a commitment to see that the blessing comes to pass. They are delivered to the other in a respectful manner, where possible with eye contact and a gentle touch.

As we study history and geography, we know that fighting and wars have been occurring as long as there have been people and earthquakes, floods and droughts and meteors smashing into our planet have been happening since creation. So what was Jesus on about in the reading we heard from Luke? This story is similar to the one we heard a couple of weeks ago from Mark’s Gospel. It begins in the previous chapter with Jesus condemning the scribes for devouring widow’s houses and continues with his comment on the widow’s contribution to the upkeep of the Temple at her own expense. Again the disciples are more interested in the grandeur of the Temple that Jesus says is to be torn down and they ask him when will this take place? Jesus told them that Jerusalem would be surrounded by armies and destruction, a dire prediction, ending with…
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars and on earth distress between the nations, confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and terror.” [Luke 21:25,26a]

We know that the Temple had been destroyed before the Gospel of Luke was written.

Following all this terrible news, Jesus gave them hope by encouraging them to look for a sign in among all the horror that God was near. Some think a clearer translation of the word usually put in English as “near”, is “here”. We tend to read “near” as “almost”, a time thing, rather than as a geographic indication as in “close by”  Jesus suggested that as when they notice the sprouting of leaves on trees they knew that summer was near so when they saw all these terrible things they would know God was near. He went on to say that God was going to be with them in that generation. It seems that Jesus was pointing out that the world is in chaos all the time and that it is in the chaos that we can know God is near.
Where do you see God in all that is going on in our generation? The word, “near” for God could have been a time thing when Jesus said it. But for all generations since it has been a geographic reality. Christ has been with us even though the emphasis with Christianity has been on Christ enthroned in some distant heaven, we have the assurance from Matthew’s Gospel [Matthew 28:20] that Jesus will be with us till the end of time and from John’s Gospel [John 20:17-19] that Jesus ascended to the Father and returned to be with us on the day of resurrection. So even when it feels or seems that God isn’t with you, you can hold on to hope, knowing that others have felt like this before and have come to know that our feelings are not always logical even though they are valid.

Your desire to help your friends and neighbours at this time and in their distress, are the buds of the fruit of the Spirit growing within you. They are the indications that God is so near as to be within you. They are the signs of hope and encouragement that are so needed in your communities. May you be blest with the assurance of God’s Presence and unfailing care in the weeks and months to come.

Reign of Christ   22nd November 2015
2 Samuel 23:1-7   Psalm 132:1-12[15-18]   Revelations 1:4b-8   John 18:33-37
Almost every little girl wants to be a princess.  Sometimes they are even called Princess by people close to them.  The life of a princess seems so much more romantic and glamorous than ours. Prince Harry is followed wherever he goes by hopeful mobs of young women who are sure that they would live happily ever after as a princess. These days it is far more likely for young boys to have super heroes who have many of the attributes of kings. We have been told stories from childhood of kings and queens with all the prestige of castles and palaces, thrones, wealth and power beyond our dreaming.
When the queen came to Adelaide in 1954, Janet was among those who threw rose petals on the road, thrilled that she could just once be so close to the monarch. These days she sees herself as a republican and so was shocked by her reaction when she went to Buckingham Palace where the changing of the guard was about to happen. From deep within her welled up emotions of awe, and excitement even though there was no likelihood of seeing the queen that day.
In Old Testament times the people wanted a king but God did not want them to have one. Judges were appointed to rule the land. It was not Gods way for people to have kings. God would care for the people much more than any King could. But they nagged God to have one so they would be like the people around them Finally God gave them Saul who was a disaster. He was replaced by David. When the people got their king, they then began to see God as the king of kings.  Early in the Bible there are frequent references to God as Rock, Holy One or the Almighty, but as time went on, this was replaced by the more glamorous image of God as King. We may not realise how the way we see God impacts on how we see ourselves and others and so how we treat ourselves and others, how we live. When we call God King, we think of the royalty we know and then think God must be like that, only more so, if God is King of Kings. It is right that we see ourselves as children of God. But it is not right that we see ourselves as little princes and princesses who are superior to others around us.
Another result of seeing God and therefore Christ as King, is a distancing between Christ and us. We common folk do not have access to royalty. A few people may get to a Garden Party once in their lives, but most of us will never be close to the Queen and certainly not be able to spend time one on one with her.
Jane and Margie became friends soon after Margie moved to the district. Margie, sometimes spoke of prayer as being in the throne room of God. When she said this, her face lit up. Jane longed to have this experience also. She prayed that she too, could experience being in the throne room of God. She imagined the throne room of God as immense, with pale green and white walls and lots of gold and many treasures. She had seen pictures of palaces and knew that if God was King of Kings, Gods palace would have to be better that anything she had ever seen. In her imagination, there were many people present and a lot of noise as they were all talking. There were two huge thrones in centre stage, one for God and at Gods right hand, a slightly smaller, slightly less ornate one for Jesus.
One day when she was praying, Jane had a vision. She was sitting cross legged, on the floor. She was surrounded by mist and could not see anything but somehow she knew she was in the throne room of God. The mist began to clear. She found that she was in a basement room that was about 4 metres by 6 metres.  There was one small window high up on the wall opposite to the door. The door opened into a narrow corridor. The only furniture in the room was an old carvers chair that had seen better days. The state of the varnish suggested that the chair had been rescued from a shed and that possibly a cat had slept in it for some years. Sitting in the chair was the only other person in the room. As she saw him, Jane had no doubt that this was Jesus. He looked up and saw her there, smiled and slid to the floor to sit also cross legged beside her.
In her mind Jane saw the stable where this man had been born, and the cross on which he has died and felt ashamed that she had ever linked Christ with such opulence as she had pictured for his throne room. Certainly where she saw him that day was much more in keeping with the image of a servant king, she had heard. If Jesus were to be executed today as he was 2000 years ago, it would probably be by hanging, an electric chair, or a lethal injection. This is who we worship. This is who we celebrate today, the vulnerable God who enters into our lives and our deaths and whose reign is very different from any earthly king. 
In her prayer and meditation in the years following the vision, Jane remembered the throne room. Often it was empty though several times she saw Christ in the corridor. It seemed to her, that Christ much preferred being out and about with people, rather than seated on a throne.  All too often we turn our backs on ideas of a servant God. We prefer to concentrate on the crime scene of the cross, though even this we Protestants, do not like until it has been cleaned up, body removed, following the resurrection. We prefer our pictures of God to be studio portraits, of Father and Son, recovered from the trauma of the cross, safely seated in a distant heaven, surrounded by the wealth associated with earthly rulers and adoring redeemed sinners. 
When Jesus told Pilate that his kingdom was not of this world, he did not mean that Gods reign was identical to the worlds kingdoms only in a different place. Christ and His reign are an alternative to the worlds way of doing things, distributing power and making peace. Jesus said that when we had seen him, we had seen the Father. When we see Jesus, we see a homeless wandering preacher and teacher, not a royal prince. Through the centuries, the Church has put much emphasis on Orthodoxy which is right understanding of the doctrines of the Church. It would have been better to have put emphasis on Orthopraxy, right practice. It is more important for us to imitate Jesus that to worship Jesus.
Earlier in this Gospel we call John, Jesus had washed his disciples feet and told them to serve others as he had served them. He did this at the Last Supper. In John, there is no story of the breaking of bread and the drinking of wine, just the incredible story of caring and humility as Jesus put on servant’s clothes and served. After he had washed their feet, He told them, “For I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” But we, in the church, did not take Jesus up on this. Instead we opted for the less challenging option of sharing bread and wine.
We have even elevated the wise men who visited the baby Jesus to kings. How can we persist with such images when Jesus told the rich young ruler to go and sell all he had and then to come and follow him. Several years ago, I received a Christmas card which had the wise men drawn as kings, with crowns, ermine and the full works, approaching the stable where Jesus was laying, surrounded by shepherds and animals. One turned to the others and said, “I think we are a trifle over- dressed!” There is another card with the disciples following Elvis Presley and one is asking, “Are you sure we are following the right King?” The question is not only what the image of Christ as King means for us, but what might it convey to those we are trying to tell the Good News.
Constantine was the first Christian Emperor and a significant change took place in the church when Constantine was converted. Before this, the Christian Church opposed of most of the Empires law and government. This is what Jesus modelled for us. This is what we read about in the gospel stories. Jesus criticised the elite, the self -righteous and the proud. He reminded all that they would be called to account for their behaviour and attitudes.
The word ‘Christ’ is the Greek word for ‘Messiah’ which means ‘the anointed one’ and the same word in Latin is ‘Lord’. There are three ways in which Christians see Christ. Through the centuries the most commonly used image has been that of Christ the King in both the Eastern and Western Churches. This has led to a very hierarchical structure to the Church and the building of huge, opulent places for worship requiring exploitation of poor people to complete them.
The second way of seeing Christ is as a man who was adopted by God as his son either at his baptism as Mark’s Gospel says or at his conception as Matthew and Luke have it.
The third way of seeing Jesus is to see him as part of the embodiment of the Eternal Christ in the way that the writer of the Gospel we call John did when he spoke of Jesus as the embodiment of the Word of God present at Creation and therefore eternal with God. Paul also saw Christ as the Word and Wisdom of God. [1Corinthians 1:24] He also saw each believer as part of the body of Christ so part of this Eternal Creator One. The more we learn about the complexity of creation and such things as its age and size, the more we can see how inappropriate the image of Christ seated on a throne is, how inconsistent it is with the call, as part of the body, to take care of all creatures and all creation.
So as we celebrate the reign of Christ this day, lets examine how we reflect this to the world today, how the world sees us, for the good news is that we have been called to be Christ like by following the example Jesus set for us.

 PENTECOST 25B    15th November 2015
1 Samuel 1:4-20,2:1-10,   Psalm 16   Hebrews 10:11-14,[15-18]19-25,   Mark 13:1-8.
In many cases, Church buildings are millstones around the necks of the people who like to gather and worship in them. In our Presbytery is a modest complex of buildings built in the 1960’s, with sacred space, two small halls, a meeting room and a kitchen. They are desperately in need of some repair and painting. The lowest quote for the scaffolding for the work was over thirty thousand dollars. This was before any work and material costs more than double this figure, were considered. There are about thirty in the congregation, meaning that for the work to go ahead, each person would need to contribute at least three thousand dollars. Most of the congregation are retired and some are pensioners.
At a couple of other places, manses have been sold to fund repairs and upgrades on the buildings. Huge amounts are spent for a few or maybe only two hours of use a week. Or they are not spent so that the buildings are slowly deteriorating, crumbling and becoming an eyesore in the community and a hazard to those who use them. A few congregations are able to lease out rooms and halls for public use and so get an income to cover upkeep. If anyone dares to suggest that the congregations get rid of the buildings and so of the burden, they are likely to reply, “But where would we worship?”
Where indeed? It depends on what you see as worship. We have been led to believe that the only place God can be worshipped is in as grand a building as the people of the congregation could manage when it was being built. In many cases, the bigger the building the more exploitation there was of those who constructed and those who financed them. The cost to individuals of erecting cathedrals has been enormous. While some of the funding has come from wealthy individuals, many poorer people have been exploited as donors and labourers with some even losing their lives, on these massive buildings many of which are more monuments to someone’s vanity than they are honouring to God. In towns in the early years of white settlement in Australia, different denominations strove to outdo each other for the prime position, the grandest stained glass, the highest steeple or the fanciest detail on their buildings. Many of these have been much admired through the years but now stand empty for most of the week.
It is likely that we would say these were built to enable people to worship God, but they have been more for our benefit than for God. The more we understand of the complexity of creation, the more we can see that such a Creator, after many billion years, would not need our praise and admiration. Worship is to remind us of who we are in relationship with God. It is about how we live our lives 24/7 not what we do for one hour on one day of the week.
Just before the reading we heard from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus had pointed out to the disciples how the religious authorities were exploiting vulnerable people by requiring that a widow pay her last pennies for the Temple tax leaving her with nothing to live on. They couldn’t have been listening to the point he was making because immediately they started admiring the building, talking about how magnificent it was. It meant more to them than a poor widow facing starvation and homelessness.
For generations the Jewish people had seen the Temple as the dwelling place of God and this was why they saw Temple worship as so important. The Temple had been destroyed twice before and rebuilding had not long finished. It was inconceivable to the disciples that it could be destroyed again as Jesus was saying. But it was and this may have happened about the time this Gospel was being written. The other three Gospels were certainly written after its destruction.
The Jews began to realise that God was not confined to the Temple, something God had been trying to teach them for hundreds of years and especially since the Babylonian exile. The main worship at the Temple was the offering of sacrifices and God had been telling them through the prophets, 
“I hate, despise your festivals and take no delight in your solemn assemblies, even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them… Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. [Amos 5:21-24] 
After the loss of the Temple, the Jewish people learned to worship in a different way. Some were at last getting the message that God was not only to be found in the Temple and nor was worship of God what they had thought. It was at this time that the smaller, regionalised synagogues were developed as meeting places and for worship in a different form.
The early Christians met in people’s homes. It is likely that they would have been even more persecuted if they had tried to have special buildings for worship. The Christian Church since it became the state religion of the Romans has been guilty of fostering the idea that God is present in Church buildings and absent from the rest of the world. The buildings have been called the “House of God” and while the whole buildings have been consecrated, parts of them have been seen as especially holy where only priests have been able to enter. To a casual onlooker, it might seem that we have come to idolise and worship many of our buildings rather than worshipping God. 
Some have become tourist attractions and like the disciples, many people are in awe of their grandeur. There is no doubt about the dedication and skill of those who made them; but at what cost? They have become more important than the mission of God and now some are being torn down violently as was the Temple. The one we attended for twenty years was demolished and now there is only an empty paddock. Another near- by is used to store hay. Others are being left empty and crumbling into ruin or being sold to become commercial or domestic buildings. Someone in Bendigo recently suggested that one of the under used building complexes in the city be offered to the Muslims centre as they are facing opposition in building a new centre for worship.
For many years we have been looking for strategies that will get people to “come to church” without much success. Many different schemes have been tried and plans offered, Messy Church being one of the latest. There have been after school and holiday programmes for children, contemporary services with bands instead of organs and cafĂ© services where all sit around tables and sip coffee. People may come for a while but then move on. Like Hannah, many in our congregations are weeping because we have no children or young ones to follow us. We sometimes blame ourselves or our ministers and are taunted by the sight of young ones at mega Churches, even though we do not see God as they do. Like Hannah we have become distressed and wept bitterly to the Lord, pleading for new life to come to us. We have promised God all sorts of things if only our congregation does not die.
Some members of the body of Christ have heard the promise that new life is coming and are preparing for it. They are developing fresh expressions of Church outside of and away from the traditional buildings. Instead of fruitlessly trying to get people “into the Church,” they are going to where the people are and meeting Christ there. They are showing God’s love in trying to bring justice for people of other faiths and for refugees. By facilitating rallies and candlelight vigils in public spaces, they have engaged with young people who do not normally come ‘to Church’. These events, at the same time have made meeting ecumenically easier than going to your Church or mine provides.
The Vision and Mission statement arising from Synod’s Major Strategic review is, Following Christ, seeking community, compassion and justice for all creation. The statement says, “The Church exists both to enjoy God’s loving grace and mercy and to participate in realising God’s wonderful purpose for the world.” In developing these ideas further, seven points have been made for which the Spirit empowers us:
  1. To share the Good news of Jesus Christ revealed through Jesus’ life, teachings, death and resurrection. God invites response through the hearing of the Good News, so this means telling the story to those who have not heard.
  2. To nurture disciples in life-giving communities of reconciliation. Discipleship takes place within faith communities because new life in Christ is both personal and communal.
  3. To respond in compassion to human need that begins within and moves to action. It occurs in the like identification with those in need, in feeling pain with those in pain and in responding in the hope that God has given in Christ.
  4. To live justly and seek justice for all. God is just and calls us to work for the day when justice fills the earth.
  5. To care for creation in following the witness of the First Peoples in caring for God’s creation, to uphold its integrity and protect the life that comes as a gift from God.
  6. To express the Gospel in fresh ways for each generation and culture as God desires reconciliation with people of all cultures. The Spirit teaches us to respectfully listen and leads us to be open to new words, deeds and forms of Church.
  7. To pursue God’s mission in partnership; to seek reconciliation with the rest of Christ’ Church and to work with those who are not Christian for the good of all. [Paraphrased]
We are challenged by the God who dwells within us to decide what it is that our hearts are leading us to and how we may work towards fresh expressions of Church away from our buildings and understanding worship as far more than a Sunday Hymn Sandwich. Jesus said that he came to bring us life in all its fullness and so it is reasonable to think that in these fresh expressions will be opportunities to develop and use all our skills and talents in encouraging others. We do need to meet together as the reading from Hebrews points out, to show our concern for one another and stir and encourage each other to respond in love and good works. [Hebrews 10:24 paraphrased from New Jerusalem Bible]

In answer to the disciples’ enquiry about the end of the Temple, Jesus spoke of war, earthquake and famine indicating the very beginning of new birth. There is a way still to go, and the way may be painful, but no woman who has ever given birth would consider giving up at the first signs of pain because it will be worth all the pain in the end; so with new birth for the Church. May your pain be eased by hope for the outcome.
PENTECOST 23B   1ST November 2015

Ruth 1:1-18,   Psalm 146,   Hebrews 9:24-28,   Mark 12:28-34.

There is a delightful children’s book called “Edward the Emu” and written by Sheena Knowles. Edward the Emu was sick of the zoo. There was nowhere to go and nothing to do. Edward saw that the seals next door were having fun so he went to play with them. Then he heard someone say that the lion was the best thing to see in the zoo. So Edward decided to join the lion, roaring and snarling. Then he heard someone else say they liked to see the snakes best.

Edward decided that he would have a go at being a snake which was a lot of fun till he heard someone say that they liked emus best.  So the next day Edward was back in his home cage where he found another emu the zoo had bought to replace Edward. He was very pleased to see her and that is the end of the story.

I have read this story many times as a children’s talk in church services. When I ask at the end, what the story is about, people inevitably tell me it is about being content with being yourself; that it is about Edward learning to accept himself for who he was and not trying to be someone else. Then I ask people what they think that an emu being itself would look like. I ask, “Who has ever seen an emu in the wild? Only once or twice has anybody seen one outside of a zoo or a wild life park.

I have a different understanding of this story because I have lived in an area where there were many emus. We had emus on our farm, in the scrub and around the district and saw them from time to time. From what I learned in observing them, it must have been hell for Edward cooped up alone in that tiny cage at the zoo. His life there in no way allowed him to be himself. For an emu to be itself it needs room to run. They may cover many kilometres in a day. And it is rare to see an emu alone except when they are incubating eggs. They lived in flocks of up to fifty or sixty birds. It is the male who incubates the eggs and tends the young chicks. A clue to a meaning of the story could be in the second line where it said Edward was sick of the zoo because there was nowhere to go and nothing to do. If he had been free to live as emus do, free to be him-self, then he would not have gone wandering.

Was there supposed to be a moral to this story when it was written? I do not know. There isn’t one stated in the book. Was the writer trying to tell children that it was best to be them-selves and not to try being someone else? Or might the writer been trying to point out how heartless it is to keep animals caged up in zoos where it is impossible for them to be themselves? All I know is that having actually lived with emus, I cannot see anything in the story that encourages Edward to be who he was born to be except in an incredibly limited way so it is interesting that in a church setting this is how people hear this story.

How we read and what we get from stories, what our interpretation is, depends on where we are coming from, what our life experiences have been, what we are taught and what our culture is. Our understanding of Biblical stories is influenced by how we see God and in turn, how we see God influences how we interpret the stories. If we are people who have been in the church for most of our lives, certain Bible stories have become very familiar to us. We presume we know what they are about before the reader at the service gets more than a few words out. We have been told the same interpretation many times in a culture of similar understandings.

Sometimes something stirs within us that causes us to question a particular interpretation. When we know we live with the presence of Christ and observe Jesus’ behaviour through the Gospels, we can see stories differently. Remember, most of Scripture has been interpreted for us by white, celibate men in a restricted church culture. In more recent times, people have been seeing old stories differently. Women and non-European men from a great variety of backgrounds have been bold in saying, “This is what I see in that story. It shows me God’s love in this way or that.” Of course this causes some controversy as we tend to think that what we were told when we were young must be right even though it may only have been seen that way for a hundred years or so.

Before the beginning of the Gospel reading for today, some Sadducees had been arguing with Jesus. “Jesus said to them, ‘Is not this the reason why you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God?” [Mark 12:24] They read the Scripture differently because they did not know God as Jesus knew God. We too, can know Scripture enough to argue about it without really knowing where God’s love is in a particular story.

Then some scribes came along. The Hebrew people loved a good argument about the meaning of Scripture and spent much time engaged in looking for many possible meanings in passages, so it is not surprising that they enjoyed listening to respected teacher engaging in debate like this. It is likely that they enjoyed participating even more so it is also not surprising that Jesus was frequently questioned by groups of these people. It is, of course probable that their motives were more likely to be to prove their own ideas valid than to learn something new from Jesus. Often we are told they were trying to trap him with some of their questions so they could condemn his teaching.

Today’s reading doesn’t suggest this so maybe they were actually looking for a quality discussion on what was the most important commandment. Jesus answered by quoting two texts from Hebrew Scripture [Deuteronomy 6:4,5  Leviticus 19:18]. And the scribe praised him and added that doing what Jesus had said was more important than all offerings and sacrifices. It was Jesus’ turn to praise the scribe, telling his that his understanding showed he was not far from the kingdom of God.

From childhood most of us have known this passage, “Listen, Israel; the Lord our God is the one, only Lord and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this, “You must love your neighbour as yourself’”. [Mark 12:29-31 New Jerusalem Bible] 

As with many of the texts that we have been taught, we have focused on some words and ignored others. The part in this passage where the scribe says that these commands are more important than all offerings and sacrifices has not been part of the learning of many Christians. Sacrificial offering often in the form of obedience, has been drummed into many as what God requires from us. We have seen this attitude reflected in the way people have taught their children up until recent generations. A woman in her late seventies spoke recently of how her father’s idea had been that there was only one thing for a child to learn and that was unquestioning obedience.

Love had not come into her childhood and she was still struggling with relationships with other people. She was taught that love said God expected her to offer herself and sacrifice herself completely for others. It was only recently that she had realised that Jesus had been saying that love for God, others and yourself was the most important thing and such sacrifice as she had lived left her resentful and often wasn’t showing love for self.

So we get to the story of Ruth, one of the best known from the Hebrew Scripture. Ruth has been held up to women and girls of countless generations as a saint, modelling the sacrificial behaviour required of women in Christian context. We were taught to see her as a paragon of virtue in her servility.

Could Christ be telling us, “You do not know the Scriptures?”  Could it be that Ruth was a feisty lass who knew her rights and was sticking with her mother-in-law in order to ensure that her children inherited what was due to them under the Jewish system? Or it might have been that Ruth clung to Naomi because she understood Ruth’s grief better than others because of their shared loss?

What are we to make of the bitterness of Naomi’s grief? It is of utmost importance for us to learn if we want to be reasonable pastoral carers that statements people make when distressed may not be facts and questions they ask may not reflect reality. When Jesus asked from the cross, “My God, why have you abandoned me?” he was not saying that God had abandoned him but that that was what it felt like. Naomi was expressing a similar thing when she named feeling bitter because “the hand of the Lord” had turned against her. [Ruth 1:13]

Most of us do not have the loss in our entire life times that Naomi has suffered. In all his loss, Job did not lose his wife. We knew someone whose wife and four children were killed coming home from school, in the Ash Wednesday fires. Can one ever recover from such devastation? And yet one must if one is to go on living. It takes many years to recover from dramatic loss.

The night my husband died suddenly I could not sleep and one of the things I did was to go through a chain reference Bible looking for all the texts on widows and fatherless [orphans]. I had come to know these Scriptures in a new way, to see them differently now they could say something personal to me. Most were about God telling people to take care of strangers, widows and orphans or admonishing them for not doing so. Psalm 146, set for today, was one I read. V9 says among other indications of God’s concern for social justice, “The Lord watches over the strangers: he upholds the orphans and the widow.” This Psalm and its sung version in the hymn, “I’ll praise my maker while I’ve breathe,” [number 90 in Together in Song] particularly verse 3, have brought me comfort on many occasions as I’m sure it has for many others.

Soon after my husband died, several people likened me to Ruth and my mother-in-law to Naomi as my father-in-law had died shortly before. Now, nearly thirty years later, and since more daughter-in-law died four years ago, I feel more like Naomi. I have known feelings of bitterness and thought on a number of occasions that the Lord has turned against me. It has been good getting to know Scripture in different ways and having experienced God’s love in many ways has enabled me to love God, other people and to love myself, something I had never dreamed of being able to do.

PENTECOST 22B   25TH October   2015
Job 42:1-6,10-17,  Psalm 34:1-8,[19-22]  Hebrews 7:23-28, Mark 10: 46-52
Find out for yourself how good God is.
There was an interesting programme on SBS “Insight” this week about how as humans we vary greatly in how we perceive things. It showed how some people see colours when they hear or otherwise experience things; how some don’t see colour and how still others cannot see through their eyes but can learn to see by reflecting sound as bats do. They talked about how no one person can ever know exactly what another may be seeing. We can agree that we call something ‘red’ but we can never know if what we call red is seen by another person in the same way.
They also demonstrated how we taste things differently. People were given a clear liquid drink. Some thought it was just water, others said it tasted mildly bitter and still others were almost overwhelmed by its bitterness. Without actually tasting the substance for ourselves, we could not know how bitter we would find it.
Each of us is a unique being formed from our genetic makeup, our training, our experiences and the culture in which these took place. Some years ago, it was said that it is important to introduce children to a variety of tastes before they reach eighteen months old because about this time they close down to new flavours and may not be persuaded to try something new until adulthood. You will be familiar with the term, “An acquired taste”. Jenny has recently acquired a taste for olives but cannot imagine ever acquiring a taste for chilli or for coriander both of which seem to be added frequently to food these days. She is grateful to Maggie Beer who said, “The world is divided into coriander lovers and coriander haters,” because no amount of trying to acquire the taste seems to have worked.
Parents used to tell us as children, “You will never know if you might like it until you try!” when we were refusing to eat something. “You have to give it a go; give yourself a chance to find out.” Then when we are adults, we realise that our parents never tried to get us to eat things they didn’t like. In Jenny’s home, they never had porridge or cooked cabbage and when their father tried to introduce them to tamarillos, their mother, in an unusual display of solidarity with her children, said they were not to be force to eat them.
As with varieties in our senses of sight, hearing, taste and smell, we are all different in our personalities. Some are bold in trying new things and actually enjoy seeking out new experiences. Others cannot even imagine what it must be like to do that. Some of us aren’t game to try new things out for ourselves, maybe because we can’t predict where they may take us. Sometimes whether we will give something a go or not has to do with how much we trust the person who is encouraging or challenging us. Sometimes it is about whether we trust ourselves. And sometimes it is about how desperate we are for things to change for us. Sometimes we simply would never get around to trying something unless our lives depended on it.
Unless we are willing to try some new things, we live a restricted, maybe even malnourished life. It is not good for us to live in adulthood on what may be called “nursery food.” We need a variety of foods and so a variety of tastes, smells, texture and appearances in our food to remain healthy and to engage fully with life.
Our ideas about God are like this. To engage to the best possible extent with God, it is necessary for us to try new and different understandings that lead to new and different relationships with the Divine. Many Christians were not introduced to a variety of images and understandings early in their lives and so will only accept what they were fed as pre-school children.
Well, the truth is, whether we recognise it or not, to be fully engaged with God, others and ourselves, depends on us being willing to try out for ourselves how good the Lord is. We simply can’t rely on what others tell us to come to life in all its fullness. If we are willing to dare to grow in our understandings, God will introduce us to new things. Sometimes this may happen slowly, like an acquired taste. Sometimes it will be something we like and instantly respond to and then wonder why we never tried this before.
Job was forced by the circumstances surrounding the loss of all his family except his wife, and the loss of all his belongings to take a look at how he saw God. In the reading we heard, Job is acknowledging that God is far greater than he had understood prior to his losses. He said that before, he was relying on what he had heard about God but now he could see with his own eyes whom God is. He had found out something new about the greatness of God.
Many of us go our whole lives relying on we have heard from others about the Divine One. It sometimes doesn’t even occur to us that we can ask for an encounter with a member of the Holy Trinity, that we can experience God with us. Of course, that makes it sound a whole lot simpler than it is, but God is not inclined to intrude into our lives unless invited even though, paradoxically God is always present.
The blind man in today’s Gospel reading dared to find out for himself how compassionate Jesus was. Jesus not only healed him but also praised him for his faith. Each time Jesus praises someone for their faith, they have dared to step out, to do something others weren’t game to do, to try, to test, Jesus’ willingness to help. They were in effect, willing to “taste,” to see if Jesus would and could help them.
When Jenny was about eight years old her RE teacher encouraged her to learn Psalm 34 by heart. She never got past verse ten, but now, well over sixty years later, it is still one of her favourite Psalms, especially verse eight, “Taste and see that the Lord is good, happy are those who take refuge in the Lord.” [NRSV] The Good News Bible puts it this way, “Find out for yourself how good the Lord is.” She is inclined to think though, that this verse would be better placed at the beginning of the Psalm for in her experience, it was when she found out for herself how good God is, that she wanted to Bless and praise the Lord at all times.
 Sometimes she has voluntarily looked for new ways of understanding God, when she has intuitively felt there must be something else and then she has found that, yes, people before have talked and written about seeing God, Christ, Spirit, Wisdom, as she has been tentatively wondering. But many of the changes in her understanding and relationship with the Divine have come, like Job, from circumstances which forced her to try something new or give up on God altogether and somehow that was unthinkable. She needed to nourish her soul with more than had been fed to her as an infant.
Jenny had developed an intolerance of some of what she had fed on and had helped her grow when she was younger. She realised that she needed to avoid some things like exclusive and sexist language that was no longer life giving to her. She has been through a time of seeking out fast food endeavouring to get a quick fix for the week in the least possible time and now, like others in our culture, she is concentrating on the slow food nourishment of contemplation and meditation. Like our understanding of food has developed incredibly over the last few years, so our understanding of God and the call to relationship is there for us to explore and experiment with.

When we try out for yourself how good God is, we will not be disappointed and we will be in better health to serve others. Ask others you know about their favourite understandings and reading and listen to discover more. May you be blessed as you dare to explore, “Taste and see.”

PENTECOST 21B   18th October 2015

Job 38:1-7[34-41] Psalm 104:1-9,24,35c   Hebrews 5:1-10   Mark 10:35-45
For the first fifty years of her life, Barbara wanted to please her parents and get their approval. She couldn’t ask for love from them. She didn’t deserve that much. It would be sufficient if they welcomed her as part of the family and approved of something, anything she did. There had been no pleasing them, no matter how hard she tried. As a child she had been frequently beaten by both parents and now they were critical of her husband and children.

It seemed the same with God the Father. She saw God as sitting in a distant heaven taking note of her every transgression, ready to punish her instantly. God for her was an angry ogre, someone else she could never please no matter how hard she tried. And she had tried. More than her parents or anyone else, she wanted to please God, to do the right thing, to gain his approval. She did her best to obey every command and when she failed, she begged forgiveness promising that she would try to do better in future.

Over the next twenty years, she had a number of experiences that changed how she saw God. She had come to see God as loving her unconditionally. She now understood God to be always with her rather than in a distant heaven. She defended God when people spoke of God as being harsh and having hard expectations of us. She had been told a couple of times that God didn’t need her to defend him; that God was great enough to take care of Godself, but still she worried about what some people said that was contradictory to her experience of God. She wanted to tell them they were wrong, that God wasn’t like that. It bothered her that some still thought as she used to and some didn’t think at all. They just seemed to go along with what they had been told all their lives about God, whether it made sense or not.

Many Bible passages, or at least how they had been translated and interpreted, seemed to show God as harsh, even irrational. Sometimes she wondered if her experiences had been real or if they were just wishful thinking. But they all showed God as caring, loving, compassionate, and kind. A couple of times she tried to talk with her minister about an experiences but it just seemed to make him feel uncomfortable. Her Spiritual Mentor, though, took them seriously, explaining that if they were unexpected, consistent with the nature of God and of help to her, then they were of God.

Barb spent many hours each week working out how she could tell others about God’s love as she had come to understand it, in stories and in language they could grasp. She had the passion of a new convert in wanting to help other people come into closer relationship with God. Some thanked her for being brave enough to speak of things they wanted to say but had been scared to speak about. Some were pleased when she gave new explanations of Bible passages they had been wondering about for years. She saw it as a privilege to help these people even if it had been only a few.

In the twenty years, her image of God had changed immensely, growing and changing, sometimes in tiny steps, sometimes in large leaps as she studied, conversed, listened to the experience and thoughts of others and practiced different forms of prayer that helped her to a closer relationship with God.

Barb became bolder in speaking of her insights and understandings and convinced herself that in doing this, she was doing God’s will. But apparently God didn’t see it that way. When she spoke of the possibility that many women were sisters of Jesus, it seemed that God came down on her like a tonne of bricks. “Who do you think you are, obscuring my intentions with your ignorant words?” [Job 38:2 New Jerusalem Bible]

Barb felt this reprimand as sharp as the cane of her father or the leather strap of her mother. She cowed in the corner trying to protect herself from this tongue lashing. She wished she could melt, disappearing into the walls. She knew the words she had written would be controversial but her constant prayer had been, “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable, O my God” and “God grant that I may speak with wisdom and have thoughts worthy of the gifts I have received.” [Wisdom of Solomon 7:15 NRSV].

Had she got too cocky? It had taken her over twenty years to speak of what she had heard back then. Had her memory tricked her? She had once asked God why he hadn’t sent his daughter instead of his son. The answer seemed to be that he had sent her but people failed to recognise her. Barb had asked her Spiritual Director about the possibility of God having a daughter and she had replied that all women were God’s daughters. This answer given in an off-hand way, had been disappointing and was too simplistic to Barb. But perhaps she had just had been wrong.

The experience of being reprimanded by God was revisiting her childhood relationship with her parents and became like a Post Traumatic episode for her. She waited for God’s blows to rain down on her but God just seemed to disappear. She felt bereft and confused. Had God been reprimanding her or was she just remembering her childhood? Her experiences of God had never before been brutal like this. Perhaps this was not “of God”, But who could she clarify this with? What was the point of experiencing God’s love if you couldn’t share it? She had met several people through the years who were willing to speak of an experience or experiences they had had and this had been encouraging. The Church has put great emphasis on believing in God and the Bible and the Church teaching but has made little room for us to believe in our own experiences of God and to have faith in what we know in our inner beings to be “of God”.

How do we come to terms with Bible passages that are disturbing and directly contradictory of our experience of God? It is important for us to keep reminding ourselves that we are incapable of understanding everything but this doesn’t prevent us from seeking an explanation that might broaden our understanding and therefore our lives. We are free to leave explanations that are not life-giving, that don’t fit with our experiences of God, or the present stage of our faith journey. We may revisit them in different circumstances at another time and learn something we never thought possible but now is.

So many questions arise for us from this book of Job which many tell us was designed to teach us to sit with the questions rather than expect answers. The trouble is that the new questions that arise are different from those about why bad things happen to good people. Are we ready to accept answers such as that it would appear that all things come from God, both good and bad?

The book of Job leaves us with many more questions. The more we read it, the more our questions multiply. What was the point of testing Job? Was it for God’s amusement; to give Satan something to do; to prove how good Job was? Because if it was that, God’s dressing down of Job in chapter thirty eight makes it seem that Job failed. If he did fail, why did God give him back twice as much? Was it to make God feel better? Ask anyone who has lost a child or children and they will tell you that while it is good that they were able to have more children, the subsequent ones don’t replace the ones who have died.

 If Job was repaid twice over, why aren’t all people who suffer given the same recompense? And what of Job’s wife; was she just collateral damage in it all?

It is perhaps not surprising that we have come to believe to Bible more than our own convictions. If the Bible says it is this way and we see it differently, we think we must be wrong, that we are evil even to contemplate that God is other than some stories depict. This leads us to constantly judge our thoughts and behaviour and that of others, rather than becoming aware of God’s presence at all times, everywhere, in everything.

These stories have truth within them, but the framework for that truth is very difficult for people of the 21st Century to see past. It hampers their understanding. Recently Barb tried to read Henri Nouwen’s book, “The Wounded Healer”, which was written in the 1970’s. She found it difficult even though she had lived through this era. The wording was so dated and the culture quite different to what we are living through today. How much more difficult it is to grasp what is being said in writing thousands of years old. Most people today find it too difficult to even begin to try. When what they read doesn’t go with what they feel, think and experience, they give up.

In Mark 10 we are told that Jesus was trying to teach his disciples things as profound as that he was to be betrayed, condemned to death, handed to the Gentiles, in other words, defiled, mocked, flogged and killed. They didn’t want to hear what he was saying. Instead they were arguing about getting the most important places in his kingdom. They hadn’t been listening and they totally missed the point about what it means to serve. When we are sure of whom we are in God’s love, we don’t need to seek positions of power to bolster our image. We are free to serve others rather than seeking favoured positions.

The God we are called to follow, with whom our hearts long to have a close relationship is inviting, encouraging, full of joy, peace and patience and does not demand absolute obedience. Part of the invitation is to live with unanswered and sometimes unanswerable questions without judgement.

 Jesus said that he came to bring us life in all its fullness. It will include hard times and easy, good times and bad, highs and lows all within the depth and length and height and strength of God’s everlasting love. May you be blessed with knowing that you are loved by God and that all else is secondary to that.

PENTECOST 19B   4TH October 2015
Job 1:1,2:1-10   Psalm 26   Hebrews 1:1-4,2:5-12   Mark 10:2-16
Auntie Phil used to say with a sigh, “These things are sent to try us!” when something happened to make life more difficult. She saw them as challenges to be dealt with and she just got on and did what needed to be done. Younger ones these days are inclined to say, “Shit happens” with a shrug. This attitude also takes disasters in their stride, but only if it is not too personal or too bad. Others put trouble down to bad luck, fate or punishment.
 Since the beginning of time people have struggled for an explanation as to why bad things happen and why evil exists. It has frequently been attributed to fickle gods. Are bad things just part of life, of the way things are created? Are they there to try us as Auntie Phil said and if so why do we need to be tried? Why can’t we just be allowed to get on with life? Sure, we would think that it was an advantage to pass the trial, but what of those who do not. What happens to them? Are they forever seen as weak, as lesser people?
 The story of Job which is one of the oldest in our Scripture was written to try to work out an answer to this problem. The truth appears to be that we, as mere humans, as the psalmist puts it, are not capable of understanding. We are not God. We can guess, argue, speculate, blame, make pious statements, even scream at God, but it is beyond us to know. We are called to work to eliminate evil, poverty and suffering wherever we can and have made much progress in the last couple of centuries.  
Does God deliberately cause suffering in order to test us or to teach us something or to help us? What about all those who ended up as collateral damage in the testing of Job? Towards the end of the story, we hear of God losing patience and becoming angry with Job, so could we assume he failed the test? It would seem not as he was richly compensated in the end. Could it be that the compensation was because God felt guilty for putting him through such a severe test? And why was Job compensated when people hit by Hurricane Catrina or the Boxing Day tsunami or Black Saturday fires have not been? Why isn’t everyone tested with the same level of testing? It seems unfair that some have harder tests than others.
Job’s wife was vocal in her protests and fair enough. Part of the story we skipped over tells us that all her children and all their live- stock had been killed and their home destroyed by a tornado. We would think that she was acting in a more normal way than Job. But their different behaviours could be showing examples of how ordinary folk react differently when extraordinary events occur. We know that many marriages break down from the stress that is put on couples in times of severe trial because people react and grieve differently.
Somehow, we are asked to live with all these unanswerable questions. Death is part of the bringing of new life. One cannot happen without the other. But this is of no comfort to someone who feels the pain of injustice in what is happening for them. We will never be able to control many things that cause immense misery, such as earthquakes, fires, floods, droughts and storms that are part of the fabric of our planet. And it is hard for us to work against much of the misery caused by human greed, corrupt governments and lust for power.
The answers may be unattainable to us but we still can wrestle with the ideas that arise and see how our understanding of these issues inform our culture, attitudes and behaviour towards our own suffering and that of others. It seems to be human nature to want to blame someone. It is not unusual to find others blaming us for our misfortune. Of course it is rare for people to be blatant about this, but even subtle remarks hurt. After Kay’s husband had died suddenly aged 45, people questioned how well she had looked after him and suggested that maybe if she had fed him differently, then he would not have died. She was relieved that the coroner’s report proved that his diet had nothing to do with his death. Then, when other disaster happened, two women came from the Church to urge her to stop sinning and confess so God would stop doing these things to her! She protested that she was no worse a sinner than all in the district but that didn’t soften their attitude.
Are these events God’s punishment? Were the people of Darwin worse sinners than any other Australians at the time of Cyclone Tracy? Some were heavy drinkers but not all who were killed, injured or lost their homes fell into this category. So is it that we and/or others have to wear the consequences of other’s wrong doing? Sometimes the answer appears to be yes and sometimes no. It is truly beyond our knowing. Much controversy surrounded the introduction of anaesthetic to ease the pain of childbirth because the pain was thought to be part of God’s punishment of Eve God [Genesis 3:16] and so we shouldn’t interfere. It gives a very vindictive image of God who for one person’s wrong doing would punish billions of women.
The Psalmist who wrote today’s Psalm asks God to try and test him. This seems to be either very brave or a very rash thing to do in view of what happened to Job. Was it Shakespeare who said someone protested too much? It seems as though this is what was happening for the Psalmist. His talk of how good he was seems boastful.
We could ask why God needed to have Job tested when God knew how good Job was. Why did God have a designated tester of people and do we see Satan as a tester or something different? Somehow in the last two thousand years, our ideas of Satan have been transformed with many Christians crediting him with him much more power than he was seen to have in Hebrew Scripture. We have taken the ideas of his near equality to God from an ancient Persian religion, not from Hebrew Scriptures.
Many now see the power of evil as equal to the power of good and that the two are constantly struggling for supremacy. This was not how Job understood it, nor how Jesus did. God is creator and Satan merely a created one whose role was to test people for God as we heard that Jesus was tested after his baptism.[Mark 1:12] In understanding God as love, we would hope that any testing we undergo is for our benefit and that we will never be tested to breaking point.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus was again being tested, this time by Pharisees. Their aim was to trip him up, their intention malevolent. They wanted to get evidence against him. Instead Jesus tested them and went on to teach his disciples that we must be as little children to follow God’s way.
In response to His wife’s remark, Job said, “Shall I receive the good at the hand of God and not the bad? The sentiment of this question was echoed by the writer of the Letter to the Ephesians when he said, “Give thanks to God at all times for everything.” [Ephesians 5:20]  We are often willing to talk of times when our prayers have been answered or when coincidences happen that area blessing and we call them God-incidences. But what of the times when the coincidences fall the other way and turn into disasters? Are we then willing to repeat Job’s words?
The day before my husband died suddenly, aged 45, our 18 year old son was reminded of the verse, “All things work together for good for those who love the Lord and are called according to his purpose. [Romans 8:28] He said it went round and round in his head all day. The next morning his father had a heart attack and the verse sprang into his mind again. It stayed with him as his father died on the way to the hospital and in the months and years ahead when there seemed to be endless trouble.
We were more than happy to thank God for this blessing for Mike, but what we to make of the fact that on the Wednesday of that week, Mike was to have started a first aid course and on the first night would have been taught CPR that might have saved his Dad? Or the fact that Ed, normally a very cautious person had thought that God had told him to buy some land. He went ahead, borrowing the money, and settlement day was the day of his funeral?
Were we to give thanks for disaster after disaster which happened in the years ahead as interest rates on the money we borrowed to pay for the land went to 20% and the price of wool, our main income fell to almost nothing. Was I to see all the bad things as coming from the hand of God? I can say thank you that these things happened and that we survived them. But except in the sense that God as Creator is ultimately responsible for all that exists, I still have trouble even after 27 years thinking that bad comes from the hand of God because in many ways, God has been exceedingly good to me. Perhaps my ideas of God are still too small. Or perhaps my ideas or good and bad are skewed.
One of the puzzling things about the testing of Job is the lack of a clear purpose. One could maybe think that there was a point to it if he was being considered for a major role such as Moses had in leading the people from Egypt t the Promised Land.
Ultimately, the major test for us seems to be, can we sit with the questions? Can we have faith and trust God in areas we can never understand? In my personal struggle with this, there have been times when all I could say was, “I believe God is, that God exists. What is happening in my life is such that I am unable to see God as Love or as caring, merciful and compassionate.” It has sometimes felt as though God was playing with me as a cat plays with a mouse. One of my sisters said when my daughter-in-law died suddenly, “How many more experiences do you need to have to identify with the pain of others?” Perhaps there is some truth in this question.

Mystics call the ability to live with the questions one of the greatest blessings. They strive to live in the moment, trusting that God is and that ultimately all is well. Should we take the bad things from God as well as the good and give thanks for all things? Well, I would say it is worth giving it a try and may you receive many blessings in it as I have.

PENTECOST 18B   27th September 2015
Ester 7:1-6,9,10,9:20-22,   Psalm 124,   James 5:13-20,    Mark 9:38-50
Edith started to pray early. Her mother told of how by the age of eighteen months, she was word perfect with saying her prayers before bed. “Gentle Jesus meek and mild; look upon a little child. Pity my simplicity, suffer me to come to thee, God bless mommy, daddy, Ros and me Amen.” They also always said grace before their evening meals. Thirty years later, her praying had not advanced much beyond this. Her Scripture knowledge and reading had advanced considerably and formed a major part of her Christian life. She supported Bible charities almost to the exclusion of all others.
Then she learned that Christianity calls us into relationship with God others and ourselves. The Bible is a tool for helping to enable our relationship with God. Prayer is the name we give to the communication in that relationship. There is a vast difference to reading about God and spending time with God. If the Queen was staying with you, it would be considered rude for you to sit, reading a book about her but this is what we do with God.
There are many who consider the Bible the “Word of God”, but the Bible doesn’t say this. It tells us that Jesus is the Word made flesh and dwelling among us. The writer of the Gospel of John tells us, “In the beginning was the Word and the word was with God and the Word was God.” [John 1:1]. We are called to be part of the body of Christ and when we talk about being people of the Book, we are limiting our vision of ourselves in relationship with God.
The Uniting Church affirms this understanding in the basis of Union. Sections of the Bible are known to have been around for perhaps as long as three and a half thousand years. Christ has been with God from the beginning, maybe more than thirteen billion years and we can see the creation story written in the glory and goodness of the cosmos with its trillions of stars. We know that people have been offering forms of worship and prayer to deities they feared, were in awe of, and to whom they attributed various aspects of creation including the fertility  that provided them with food, for many thousand years before the written word came into being. It is almost arrogant of us to think that this book, although very special to us, can tell us all there is to know about the  Divine and be a substitute for a relationship with God through prayer.
Prayers, what we pray and the way we pray can show how we understand God so it is important that we reflect on just what we are saying and the message we are conveying. Our Church services have traditionally started with a prayer of invocation, inviting God, Father, Son or Spirit to come and be with us. These come from an understanding of God who is in a distant heaven and only visits us. On the other hand, we sing, “Into Thy presence we come ‘, as if God only lives in our Church buildings and is absent from our everyday lives. Many Christians believe that God is ever present with us in line with when Christ told the disciples, “I am with you always,” [Matthew 28:20] or “In God we live and move and have our beings.” [Acts 17:28] and so wonder the need for prayer of invocation. We could instead give thanks for God’s constant presence.
Then we have prayers of Adoration. These prayers are for our benefit. It is unlikely that God needs our adoration but it is good for us to remember how insignificant we are alongside the Eternal One.  
Usually these are followed by prayers of confession, to cleanse us so we are right with God to receive the word for the day that comes later in the service. Having been assured that we are forgiven, we have our prayers of thanksgiving. Again these prayers remind us of who God is and all God has done for us. As the slogan says, it is good to live with an attitude of gratitude. Later we have prayers of the people; prayers for others and ourselves. We end with a blessing that is a request for God to look after a person or people in a specific way.
Our church services have been called traditional hymn sandwiches but they could just as easily be called prayer sandwiches. Often some of our hymns are also prayers although we don’t always recognise this.
The person spoken of by the disciple John, [Mark 9:38] the one who was casting out demons in Jesus name must have observed Jesus at work and had enough faith in Jesus and in himself to give it a go. Centuries later, when leaders in the Church tried to explain why people who had never heard of Christ could do good things and came up with the term, “Anonymous Christian”.
The Holy Spirit was not discovered on Pentecost Sunday around 30ce. The Spirit, too, has been round since before Creation and isn’t limited to those calling themselves Christian. Surely Peter was right when he said, “The truth that I have come to realise is that God does not have favourites and anybody of any nationality who respects the Divine and does what is right is acceptable to God.”[Acts 10:34-35]
The writer of Mark showed Jesus constantly trying to demonstrate to the disciples the value of prayer when he sometimes went away by himself for a time of prayer and when he took them with him as at the time of the Transfiguration. Just before the passage for today, some had failed to heal and when they asked why, Jesus said, “This kind cannot be driven out except by prayer.”[Mark 9:29]
The reading we have heard from James is all about praying. Let’s look at some of our images and understandings of God and at some of the ways we pray and what they say about our understanding of our relationship with God and God’s nature.
Firstly, God as parent, and looking at Biblical verses. “Ask and you shall receive.” “You have not received because you didn’t ask.” We all know that as parents, we have the wisdom to know if a child is ready to receive what the child is asking for and if it would be good for the child to receive that particular thing. It is not good for a child to receive everything that the child wants, or at least not immediately. Sometimes it is better to wait awhile or to not give that particular thing. Although disappointed, as the child matures, she or he may well be relieved that they didn’t get what they were asking for.
Then there is God as friend. Someone recently said they frequently shoot arrow prayers at God. As a friend yourself, would you like frequent sharp requests for help or favours? Friends are generally more than willing to respond to emergency calls for help on the spur of the moment, but constant requests are not the basis of ongoing relationship. It is sometimes the role of a friend to encourage us to do things for ourselves. When the disciples came to Jesus saying that the thousands of people gathered round were hungry, Jesus said, “You feed them”. When they wouldn’t even try Jesus showed them how it was done [Mark 6:37] The next time Jesus was so discourages by the lack of response from the disciples, that he just did it himself. [Mark 8:17-21]
Thirdly sometimes our prayer practices imply God is like the statues of Justice seen on courthouses, blindfolded and sitting with a balance, waiting until there are enough prayers on one side to tip the scales and God’s hand to act in response to our request. A woman was frantically trying to rally a country town to pray for the victim of a horrific road accident. There was nothing wrong with her actions except that the impression she gave of God was that of a reluctant giver who would only come to the party if enough pressure was applied. Did she not believe God would respond to her prayer or was all the activity arising from her need to feel useful in the situation? If God is love, surely God would have been getting the best available for the victim from the beginning.
What does prayer mean for you? God is the great Mystery we can barely begin to know and yet, paradoxically, are called to know and prayer often seems even more of a mystery and paradox. Many people can give examples of prayer being answered and maybe even more of prayer seeming not to be answered. When you start talking about frustration with unanswered prayer, people are likely to tell you that it’s your fault that it isn’t working, you are not doing it right. This is frustrating.
Perhaps it would be easier for us to understand pray if we gave it a different name and expanded our view of it. The word ‘prayer’ may make us nervous and we be anxious about getting the right words or we may think that only certain people can pray or even that God only listens to some people. Prayer is communication with God and we are aware of the importance of body language in communication. It is about our attitude and activities as well as our words.
It is intended to be two way but we sometimes don’t let God get a word in. It doesn’t always require conversation. It can be about being present to God the way we spend time with friends. If we talked ceaselessly in any given situation, our friends would soon become tired of us so sometimes it is better to remain silent. Meditation and contemplation are forms of silent prayer and Lectio Divino is prayerfully asked God to speak to us through contemplation of Scripture, creation or a particular situation.
Unfortunately, most of us never get anywhere near the pinnacle of prayer experience. That requires dedication, concentration, practice and commitment. It also about realising that more is available and possible for us than we have ever dreamed of in relationship with God.
Research around the world, about a number of different subject showed that the more people came to know, the more they realised how little they knew and would ever be able to know on the subject. This is true;  the closer we come in relationship with God, the more we realise how limited our understanding can ever be. This should not deter us. The Divine One is longing for close relationship with each one of us.

When Brent Rue realised he was boring God with his constant prayer requests, he decided to commit some time each morning practicing being in God’s presence. He would make himself a cup of coffee and put on some Christian music. Sometimes he would sing along, if the mood took him, but mostly he remained silently focusing on God. Amazing things started to happen. “Oh, God,” he said, If I had known you were going to do that, I would have prayed about it!” Let’s look at our prayer habits to see if they hamper or enhance our relationship with and hence our work for Christ. In this, blessings will come to God, others and ourselves.

PENTECOST 17B   20th September 2015
Proverbs 31:10-31,   Psalm 1,   James 3:13-4:3,7,8a,  Mark 9:30-37
This week, we had the news that the Matildas, our national women’s soccer team that made it to the quarter finals in the World Cup, is struggling to keep going financially. The members of the team are paid $20,000 dollars a year and are expected to get a job for added income. Their equivalents in the men’s soccer are paid many times that amount. Earlier this year, it was said that less than ten percent of the sport covered by our media was women’s sport though the ABC seems to be making an effort to correct this. Does it reflect an accurate position of how women are still seen in our communities?
We also heard again recently that while equal pay applies for all work in Australia, because there are less women among higher earners, women’s incomes are still substantially below that of men. Women are still retiring with less superannuation funding than men because of having less time in work and because they are in more casual and part time jobs as this is all that is available to them. When Kate was a teenager thirty years ago, she said to her Mum, “We don’t need to worry about women’s liberation. We are equal to the boys now!” In her mid-forties now she sees that there is still a long way to go before there is justice for all.
Can the Church ever claim to be taking justice issues around gender equality seriously while it still has readings such as the one from Proverbs set for today in the Lectionary? It has been used for centuries to keep women in their place. It has been used, usually by male preachers in recent times, to refute claims of control of women by pointing out that this woman was free to make decisions such as buying and selling land. While the woman was ensuring that her family was well taken care of, her husband was sitting by the gate probably doing nothing more strenuous that chatting, discussing or philosophising. This was the custom for men of the status of the woman depicted. She was in a substantially better off household than most of the women in the world. These sermons generally leave the women listening, feeling inadequate for not living up to the standards set and the men gloating because what was being said didn’t apply to them.
There is no corresponding passage in the Bible about how a good husband should behave. Sure, occasionally there is a sentence directed at men. We have in Genesis 2:24 that a man should leave his father and mother and cling to his wife. Deuteronomy 24:5 says, “When a man is newly married he shall not go out with the army or be charged with any related duty. He shall be free at home one year, to be happy with the wife who he has married.” and in Ephesians 5:25, “Husbands love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” NRSV.  But these are all, and in our rural areas it has been far more likely that the wife has had to leave her parent than the husband would leave his.
From time to time Kay’s husband would quote Proverbs 31 about a good wife to her. It is likely that he meant it as a compliment but to her it seemed like a judgement. It felt manipulative; that he was reminding her of his expectations. Also, he only ever called her ‘wife’, only using her given name when speaking to others about her. A woman new to the district told Kay how when she was trying to find out Kay’s name she asked her son, “What is your mother’s name?” He just shrugged. Seeking further information, she rephrased the question, “What does your Dad call your Mum?” “Wife,” he answered. “He’s right,” Kay answered.
Kay felt resentful about the use of this text. She argued that men were more or less free to pursue many different career paths according to their skills, gifts and interests while all women were expected to be a perfect wife and mother no matter what their skills and interests were. As a couple, it did not make for good relationship between them. Recently on TV they showed a mother trying so hard to do what she considered was “the right thing,” for her child that she had him, at eight, doing fifty hours of work a week to develop his maths, music, sporting and dancing skills. Perhaps it is time we replaced this passage in the Lectionary with something more life giving for struggling women.
Today trying to control a woman by comparing her with an ideal is seen as abusive. It is about keeping the woman in her place. Kay has long regretted that her daughter and now grand-daughters have little to do with the Church but she can understand their reasoning and their refusal to be manipulated into thinking that this sort of behaviour is what God expects of them or that they will be punished for not complying with such texts. Her daughter did suggest that perhaps the church could substitute the word wife for partner or couple, saying that a good partner of either gender would care for the family to the best of their ability. Then both would have the opportunity to sit at the gate and be praised.
It has long been noted that our Scripture depicts women as either saints or whores. The truth is that few are either saints, behaving perfectly or so-called fallen women in our communities. Most are doing the best they can in the circumstances and culture in which they live.
There has been focus on domestic violence in the past year and again recently. We as members of Christ’s body, the Church, must ask how much we are contributing to the plight of battered women by our understanding of how women should behave and how men may treat them. It is time we questioned closely how our beliefs may affect others and ask if this is what Christ wants for people. How can we condemn the practices of genital mutilation and the burning and acid throwing attacks on women in other cultures and the murder and harm done in our own if we have not learned better than this by now?
In the reading from Mark, Jesus had been trying to teach the disciples, trying to help them to understand who he was and what his mission and the consequences of that would be. He was trying to tell them that their ideas of who he was were wrong. He had taken some of them with him when he went up the mountain for the special encounter with God but this hadn’t helped. They had missed the point because they were blinded by the spectacle rather than listening to the voice that said, “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him!” Mark 9:7 [Italics is mine]
The Gospel of Mark can be seen as being based around the parable of the sower. We have always seen Jesus as the sower, but it has been relatively recently recognised that the disciples are not represented by the good ground as we would have expected. That is the people of faith, like the parents who brought their children for healing and believed that Jesus would help them. Mary Ann Tolbert, a biblical scholar names the scribes, the Pharisees and the Jewish opponents of Jesus as the ground on the path where the seed doesn’t even get a chance because the birds fly off with it. She points out that the disciples are the rocky ground where the seed begins to grow then dies away, and the thorny ground where the seeds are choked by other things represent Herod and wealthy people.
Mark gives a disparaging view of the disciples who in spite of Jesus’ best efforts in modelling the need to go aside regularly for prayer, continue to miss the point. Taken as a whole, this Gospel gives a discouraging picture of the chosen disciples. We read today that they were having trouble understanding Jesus but were afraid to ask what he meant. He had been telling them that he expected to be betrayed and killed. One wonders what questions this raised for them. Instead of asking, they distracted themselves by arguing about who was the greatest. Jesus’ action was to take a small child in his arms and declare that those who wanted to be first would be last. In welcoming small children they would welcome him and the one who sent him.
“Never be afraid to ask questions! Better to seem a fool for a minute than to be one for the rest of your life.” This was my mother-in-law’s response to anyone who was afraid to ask a question as we heard the disciples were. Mark 9:34. While this is usually true, it doesn’t acknowledge how hard it sometimes is to ask them. It may also take quite a bit of courage to ask hard questions. There are questions and questions; some important and needing to be asked and some of no importance. It is sometimes just easier for us to drift along, distracting ourselves with irrelevant questions such as “Who is the greatest?” than to ask what might be the causes of domestic violence in Australia and what can be done about it. it occurs across all social classes but is carefully covered up by those more wealthy.
The reading set for today from the Epistle of James talks about acting in wisdom. Surely it is wise to question tools of suppression and reasons for abuse. It tells us that the wisdom of God is pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to change, full of mercy and goodness and without a trace of hypocrisy. Further on it suggests, “Lament, mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy to dejection. Humble yourself before God.” This could have been our call to our nation as it has let violence and abuse continue, especially against women.
At our church service this morning different readings were offered and a comment made about an alternate Lectionary. I asked questions of Google and found a review of a book. The writer pointed out that less than 25% of our Scripture is used in the Lectionary and that with the three year cycle most people have heard the same thing over and over in their lives. He thought it was time we looked at the rest of Scripture and elsewhere for God’s Word for us. Perhaps we could exchange Proverbs 31 with something that has missed out. Or perhaps we could turn it on its head and say the good wife is a model of how God cares for us.
People of God, are we like the disciples who started out with such promise and have wilted? Are we beginning to realise that we might not know it all but are afraid to ask? According to Mark, Jesus tried very hard to explain to his disciples and he is willing to answer our questions still.
In prayer, we can ask for Christ’s guidance for gender issues of this time and not think we heard the final word on it three thousand years ago. When we are in closer relationship it is easier to ask questions. You are part of the body of Christ. Do not be afraid to question and question and question as you ponder God’s Way and what is meant by God’s goodness and love. Remember that nothing can separate you from God’s love, not even what may seem like the most trivial of questions. The answers may take a while. They probably won’t be what you expect but God will bless you with interesting answers.

 PENTECOST 16B   13th September
Proverbs 1:20-35   Psalm 19   James 3:1-12   Mark 8:27-38
When Jan was a student in placement, the minister complained several times about one particular woman. “She always interrupts, wanting to get her say in”, he said, “I don’t know what to do with her.” On the following two Sunday afternoons, they were having meetings to discuss the future direction of the church. He suggested that Jan draw a plan of the seating, marking every chair with the name of the person seated there. Then, every time someone spoke, she was to mark it, correlating it later so she could see for herself what a nuisance this woman was.
Jan did this and the results she came up with were astounding. On the first Sunday, there were thirty people present, twenty women and ten men. At the end of the afternoon the minister said to Jan, “See what I mean about her?” Jan could not see. All of the men had spoken at least once. In total, nearly 90% of the speaking was done by the men. Only six of the women spoke. The one the minister saw as a problem tried to speak three times in the hour and a half the meeting went for, but she was never able to finish what she wanted to say. Each time she was interrupted before she had said more than a couple of sentences. What’s more, her husband, a quiet chap, was also cut off when he tried to speak.
The minister didn’t believe these results and so for the second week, he got Jan to chair the meeting while he did the plan and he ended up with almost identical results to the week before except that his “problem woman” didn’t try to speak at all. He found it hard to believe that the way he saw the woman had been so different from reality. If someone had asked him, “Who do you say Judy is?” he would have given a false impression. This shocked and challenged him to examine the way that he saw others and himself.
Who we say others are directly reflects how we see ourselves and ultimately, how we see God.
In the reading from Proverbs we heard Wisdom lamenting that people wouldn’t listen to her. By ignoring Wisdom they are saying she isn’t important enough to them for them to attend to her. Judy could have made a similar complaint. Hebrew Scripture and for Jewish people, the Wisdom of God is always seen as feminine. Perhaps this is why she has had such trouble getting people to listen to her. It isn’t as if Wisdom doesn’t try to be heard. She cries out in the street and on busy corners. She raises her voice in squares and at the gate. She is trying to get the people to take life seriously, to see that life in all its fullness is not simple, that there is more to it than they care to acknowledge. If they would accept the complexity they would treat others with respect and be in far more awe of the Creator. Wisdom’s complaint is that they are too complacent about their relationship with her.
The Risen Jesus was seen as the Wisdom of God, [1 Corinthians 1:24], perhaps because of the preaching and teaching Jesus did. It is believed that the use of this image was dropped because men had trouble with its feminine nature when Jesus had been a man. It remains part of our Bible and so something for us to consider when we look at the passage in Mark where Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”
Mark was the earliest Gospel written and so it is accepted that this version is likely to be the nearest to what actually happened. Biblical Scholar Mary Ann Tolbert, in her book, “Sowing the Gospel”, develops the theory that the whole of Mark is based on the Parable of the Sower, with Jesus being the Sower. The disciples turn out to be like the shallow soil where the seed began growing but quickly withered or the ground where other things crowded the seeds out. This story comes from the section of the Gospel where Jesus was becoming more and more frustrated with them because they are constantly failing to hear what he was trying to tell them. Their ideas about who they wanted him to be were in conflict with how he saw his mission. We can hear echoes of the cry of Wisdom from Proverbs about the people not listening in Jesus’ struggle to make the disciples understand.
We are told that when Peter replied to the question by saying, “You are the Messiah”, Jesus “sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.” [Mark 8:30] Jesus immediately began to teach them. He was trying to get them to see that what was going to happen to him was nothing like what they expected would happen with the Messiah. It is perhaps not surprising that Peter got so upset with him. Jesus had just shattered all Peter’s dreams, and probably those of all the other disciples as well! It also sounds like the disciples were shattering Jesus’ dreams for them to carry on his work.
Over and over, Mark shows the disciples as failing to hear what Jesus was trying to teach them and failing to comprehend what he was trying to show them. Then we are told Jesus called the crowd who were with his disciples and said, “If any of you want to be my followers…..” [Mark 8:34] it was as if he had given up on his disciples and hoped that some in the crowd would listen instead.
The writer of the Epistle we call James must have had some terrible experiences of damage done by what people say. Perhaps those to whom he was writing were engaged in a war of words. At that time, written material was limited. Today problems arise over words that come from the pen or keyboard as much as from the tongue. We have heard of the bullying that goes on through electronic media.
Many nasty words have been said about the plans to build a mosque in Bendigo. Recently Dave Andrews, of TEAR Australia, spoke in Bendigo about non- violent protesting. He said that confrontation did not work and that we needed to find other ways of showing what we think and feel about issues. Many of the words used on the placards of those in favour of the building of the mosque demonstrated the points that both the writer of James and Dave were making. It seemed that there was a contest between both groups of protestors over who could say the most unpleasant thing about the other. Neither group was showing respect nor guarding their tongues. They had written on their placards their ideas of who they were saying the other was and it was unpleasant and insulting.
Words can also be used to encourage good and social media can be used to empower and encourage those who have previously felt isolated in their desire for justice.
The question Jesus asked, “Who do you say I am?” is one that is universally asked by humans. In almost every encounter with others, we, at least subconsciously, wonder what the other would say if we voiced the question. We are called to also ask of ourselves in each encounter, “Who am I saying you are?” We demonstrate our answer not only in our words but also in our actions, in the attention, understanding and encouragement we give. We are only just beginning to acknowledge how much damage can be done to a growing child by what is said to her or him. Up until a generation or two ago, it was believed that praise was detrimental to a child’s development and so little or no praise was given, only reprimands and criticism. This often had the effect of crushing the person’s soul and spirit. We wonder why many older people are reluctant to try new things but it is often because they were dissuaded from being adventurous as children. It has been said that people need twenty positive affirmations to negate every negative one they have received. This can take a long time to achieve. We are called to treat each person with whom we interact as a fellow child of God, one with us in the Christ,
If Jesus asked you the question, “Who do you say I am?” I wonder what you would answer. You may think it is a little impertinent to be asked. You are a Christian and are likely to reply, “Christians believe Jesus is the Son of God”. Our Muslim friends say Jesus was the last great prophet before Mohammed. Millions of others would say, “Jesus was a good man who lived an exemplary life.”
It may surprise you to know that within the Gospels we have three different ideas about what it means for Jesus to be the Son of God.
The writer of the Gospel of Mark believed that God adopted Jesus as his son at his baptism when God said, “You are my Son, the Beloved.” [Mark 1:11] The writers of Matthew and Luke’s Gospel saw Jesus as Son of God from conception. [Matthew 1:18-20, Luke 1:35]  And the writer of the Gospel we call John believed that Jesus was the Divine Christ who had ever been with God and was present at Creation. Paul started out thinking that Jesus was a pesky rabble rouser who needed to be stopped at all costs and then, after his Damascus Road experience, he understood Jesus in a similar way to that of the writer of John. He went on to expand this idea further to include us all in the Divine Christ with the explanation, “You are the one body of Christ and individually members of it.” [1Corinthians 12:27]
This is no surprise to most of you who have known this quote for many years but how do we understand this? Are we members of the church as we might be members of Probus where we go along regularly to listen to a speaker; or members of a golf club where we may play a more active part; or members of a choir where the aim is to all sing from the one hymn sheet? Or might Paul’s image indicate a closer relationship, one suggesting that we are of the same substance as the Christ, that we are one with the divine nature of The Christ as well as one with his human nature? It is important for us to know who Christ says we are before we can answer the question of others. John’s story of Jesus saying, “I am the vine and you are the branches,” seems to tell us plainly that we are part of the body of Christ.
Around the world the voiceless scream of refugees asking, “Is no one listening to me? Who do you say I am? Who do you say my family is that you will not help us?”

Our readings for today call us to listen carefully to the other so we can be better placed to answer their yearning question with respect and then act according to our calling as members of the body of Christ. Wisdom still calls to us to treat her and all others with dignity and respect. May we humbly acknowledge who we are, respectfully acknowledge others and honour and live in awe of the Wisdom of God.

PENTECOST 15B   6th September 2015
Proverbs 22:1,2,8,9,22,23   Psalm 125   James 2:1-10,14-17   Mark 7:24-37
The News came on the radio as Mary sat waiting for her laptop to open. Hundreds of refugees had drowned in the Eastern Mediterranean when the boats carrying them had sunk and the bodies of about 70 people had been found decomposing in the back of a truck in Austria. They were thought to have been abandoned by people smugglers. Earlier in the week it had been many thousands of people breaking through barriers in Macedonia in an effort to reach Hungary before the wall they are building to prevent refugees entering their country could be completed. And last week it was the French and British who were erecting bigger, longer, razor wire topped fences to prevent people boarding trucks and semi-trailers to smuggle themselves into the United Kingdom. Another boat was found drifting with many bodies below deck. They were thought to have suffocated from engine fumes and inadequate ventilation.
Why would people risk such situations? Usually it is because conditions are worse for them in their home country. Most people would happily stay in their own country if all things were equal. Think what it would take to get you to leave Australia, or even to leave where you are living now. We are often critical of these people but generally it is only terrible circumstances that cause them to want to move somewhere they see as safer, where their children may hope for a better life.
Mary had once been asked to open the church op shop one Saturday afternoon some years ago. Someone had brought a woman and a six year old girl who had just arrived as refugees from Bosnia with only the clothes they had on. The husband and father had been killed in the war that had been raging for months. They were cold, thin like their clothes, with wary eyes. The child clung to her mother until she saw some trinkets on a shelf. She dashed across the room and picked up a small china dog. Her mother reprimanded her and she reluctantly put it down and returned to her mother’s side. A couple of minutes’ later, temptation became too much for her and she tried again to reach the dog. Her mother’s priority was clothes. The child began to cry.
Mary said through the interpreter, to let the child get what she wanted from the toys and trinkets for she felt that then she would be happy to do as her mother wished. Although there was a whole corner of the room full of things she could have chosen, the girl took only three things, but the joy on her face as she clung to them was something Mary would never forget. She thought of how an old minister had told her that whenever he moved to a new place, his wife always put up a few pictures and trinkets first before doing the rest of the unpacking. “As soon as they are there,” she would say, “It feels more like our home.” She also thought of her young grandchildren who had so much. Here she was, for the first time in her life, face to face with a child who literally had nothing; no clothes, no toys, no home, no country and no security.
Our government smugly announced recently, that we no longer have a problem with desperate people trying to reach our country. Our strategy of off-shore processing and turning boats back has become a successful deterrent. We no longer have to face the pestering of despairing people at our gates, to take our cast-offs and left-overs! They are not our problem! We can change channels on TV when we have seen enough. We can turn deaf ears to what is happening elsewhere. Or can we as followers of Christ ignore these things? 
Earlier in the week, Mary had been sitting, waiting for her turn to have her hair cut. Something caught her attention. On the counter of the shop was an ‘A4’ sized glossy advertising placard. It had a photo of a beautiful, smiling girl and a few words that caused Mary to snap to attention. They said, “Everybody wants justice.” She couldn’t argue with that! Justice had always been a passion of hers. The problem was that this was an advertisement for beauty products. On the wall behind,  a section of shelving held hair care products all labelled with a big ‘J’ and the word ‘Justice’, presumably a kind of play on words of the name of the shop.
Mary was angry. It is almost obscene that an advertising company would come up with a marketing strategy that corrupted the meaning of the word ‘justice.’ “How dare they do this to our language as they already have done with using the word “wicked” for chocolate and ice-cream?  They trivialise the work of all those dedicated to bringing justice?” She thought of all the real injustice in the world. Had the people who had produced these products received a just wage? Do the millions of refugees around the world who are labelled illegal and herded into compounds and crowded camps with little food receive justice? Do people who are homeless and poor of our country receive justice?
The reading set for today [Proverbs 22:8-9] links justice with generosity. Despite the huge difference between the wealthiest in Australia and most of us, even pensioners here are financially better off than 97% of people in the world but like spoilt children unprepared to share, most of us go to almost any ends to hold on to what we have. “This land is ours; we got here first!” we say with our actions as well as our words. “It’s ours; we worked hard for it,” we say about our assets to those less well off as if they have not worked hard. We back up our words with the actions of our government. It refuses to make taxes fairer for the poor and employs the navy to ensure that no one we deem underserving gets a share of what we have. It vilifies people who are unemployed even when there is not enough work for everyone. It makes it harder and more expensive for people to gain skills. This is not just and it is far from being generous either with our possessions or our attitudes.
Proverbs 22:22 says, “Do not rob the poor or crush the afflicted at the gate”, but isn’t that just what we rich nations are doing to refugees world- wide? For years we have been seeing how the USA protects its southern borders and now it is Europe that also has the problem. Unless we learn to share more and have more concern for bringing justice our future generations are going to spend their lives under siege. More and more people will want to flee here. Our lack of generosity will cost us dearly as we need to build bigger and stronger barricades, fences and walls and employ stronger navies and armies to keep poor people from seeking a share of what we have in our relatively peaceful democracies. If we were prepared to be more generous in what we pay for goods produced in some of these countries and in other ways helped to lift the standard of living of the people, it would be a start towards bringing justice for them.
Already threats are more personal. Mary had grown up with little and knew the freedom of not having to be fiercely protective. It was new for her when her brother-in-law got a job in a developing country where the “expats” lived in a gated community with a security guard for each house to keep them safe from the poorer local people. These measures severely curtailed freedom of families. Then her sister and brother-in-law, living in a wealthier suburb of the city where they had been born, had an alarm system installed which allowed them to lock themselves into their bedroom and contact the police from there if there were intruders. Does wealth and status mean so much to us that we are prepared to live in these ways?
So far, we who still sometimes claim to be a Christian country, have, contrary to Biblical teaching, successfully crushed the afflicted at our gate. Most have applauded the “offshore processing” option. It means that these people are no longer banging on our gate. They are out of sight because reporters and cameras are banned from the facilities, and so they are largely out of mind. But it is only a temporary solution. Our borders are too long to erect fences right round and the country too big to wire for alarms. We fool ourselves if we think this will work long term. As we become richer, more people are going to want to come to this country. We denigrate many who are trying to reach our shores by calling them economic migrants, but it was for such a better life that most of our ancestors came here. It is time we looked more seriously at how we can make life fairer for others.
Proverbs 22:2 reminds us that “The rich and the poor have this in common: the Lord is the maker of them all.” The writer of the Epistle we call James follows up on this centuries later, calling for us to behave justly in recognising all people as precious, not just the one’s we prefer the look of, or wish we could be more like.
It is difficult for many of us not to judge people in dozens of ways and we have already cast judgement on those who have little or nothing. Recently Beth was talking to three people when she suddenly realised that actually, she was only talking to one of the three. She was almost completely ignoring two of them. She was focusing her attention on the man and seemed to be subconsciously blocking out the women. Some would have us believe it is a product of evolution that we give our attention to those who are of most advantage to us. We can see the rationale behind this, but it is not what we are called to do as followers of Christ. Jesus gave preferential treatment to the poorer people, the less attractive ones in society. He wasn’t impressed by wealth and fine clothes.
The celebrity and the materialistic aspirational culture by which we are surrounded makes it more difficult for us but it is never impossible. Our Government happily welcomes migrants who can bring millions of dollars with them. It is only those who have little we don’t want. Proverbs 22:9 tells us “Those who are generous will be blessed.” It is about being generous in our hearts and minds, in our attitudes and behaviour. Like Jesus we might just want to get away from it all for a while.[Mark 7:24] But we can take heart from his example and see that we do have the strength to help those who come and those who are in need of justice here and on the other side of the world.
The writer of James challenges us to action. Through the centuries the institutional Church has put great emphasis on Orthodoxy, right doctrine. Jesus by his life actions put his emphasis on Orthopraxy, right practice. James [2:14-17] stresses that faith without right action is dead.

 May we never forget how privileged we are and may we be generous in our attitudes and actions to bring justice and help others wherever we  can.

PENTECOST 14B   30th August 2015
Song of Solomon 2:8-13,  Psalm 45:1,2,6-9,   James 1:17-27,  Mark 7:1-8,14,15,21-23
It’s spring time! A profusion of green paddock, budding fruit trees, golden wattle and warming days lifts our spirits. Almost subconsciously we head to nurseries to buy vegetable and flower seedlings and prepare the soil for later tomato plants. Spring is quite noticeable this year after the unusually cold, grey winter we have had. This season is well named. It really does put a spring in our steps and then facing the weeding which must be done, is almost a pleasure.
The only thing that can put a dampener on these feelings is looking at the Lectionary readings for this week. There are some parts of Scripture that are hard to deal with and we groan when we see them come up. What are we to say about them that may convey new understandings of the Love of God? There are even whole books that we avoid if we can and Song of Solomon has been one of these. We may look hopefully at all the other set reading for something that is easier to deal with. Song of Solomon is not easy for the older ones of us who were brought up with the prudish attitudes of the Victorian era still the predominant influence.
Many of us find it easier to talk about war, violence and murder than tender, erotic love. For many Christians who hold to the concept of Original Sin, anything sexual is seen as evil. God’s love, we were taught, was Agape, pure, and holy, unlike corrupted human love.  Christians for whom at least 90% of the portrayal of God is as Father and hence male, the idea coming later in our exploration of images of God as that of lover is almost impossible to contemplate. It has homosexual overtones for men and makes the Father image even more difficult for anyone who may have been sexually abused by their father.
Perhaps not surprisingly, we tend to take all we have been told about God seriously, especially what we heard as children.  Hopefully, we also take ourselves and our relationship with God seriously. This is good, but is God always serious? It is shocking for some of us when we first hear it suggested that Jesus was joking when he said things like about the camel going through the eye of a needle.[Mark 10:25] Thomas Merton, a Christian mystic, wrote, “We are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds and join in the general dance” [of God and all creation]. This is, as so much is, about the way we see God, ourselves and others.
If you love God, then today’s set reading from the Song of Solomon is an invitation to spend some relaxed time with the One you love. It will be easier for many of us if we use the word, “Friend” instead of “Beloved”. For many of us a favourite hymn has been, “What a friend we have in Jesus” and through it we have become familiar with the concept of Christ as Friend. We have friends who get in touch and invite us for a coffee and a chat or to visit a gallery, one day soon. They are inviting, not demanding or compelling. They leave the response up to us and we know that even if we have to turn this particular invitation down, they will not stop being our friend. There will be other invitations.
Or it might be easier to read it as Sister of Brother. Jill’s sisters are some of her best friends and two were in Melbourne from interstate this week. A couple of weeks ago, one of them rang and said, “Come and spend the day with us. Let’s have a fun day together.” If she had replied, “Look, thanks, but I am really busy at the moment”, they would have been sad, but they will not give up on her. They will still be sisters who love her. If Father, Parent or Mother are more comfortable images for you, that’s okay. They still invite us to spend relaxed, quality time maybe fishing or playing golf or going shopping together. In the beautiful spring weather we are experiencing, it may be easier to substitute any of these or other images you have of God that to read, “My Beloved speaks and says to me, ‘Arise, my love and come away with me.’” In this way we can feel more comfortable and not want to dismiss this book altogether.
What Song of Solomon shows us is a light-hearted invitation to relaxation and enjoyment of our relationship with God who is always far more than we can ever imagine. It is a call for us to engage with the Divine with our hearts as well as our heads. We have been quite good with the head stuff but have often avoided more intimate relationship. To begin this requires listening with the heart which is about feeling what you are hearing; listening, feeling and then acting.
Bev believed that if your heart was in it, you were likely to be more committed; your actions more intentional. So when her son said he didn’t know what course to enrol in for University, she advised him to go away for a fortnight and examine his heart and then come to tell her. When he came back, he said, “I want to be an actor.” Bev threw up her hands in horror. “Oh no”, she said, “What about being and accountant or something sensible like that”. Bev had failed to listen to the feelings behind what her son said. It can be difficult to get the balance right between taking things too seriously and following your heart’s guidance.
Head is where we think. Heart is where we feel emotions and the gut is where we feel intuitively. When we have generations of people who have been taught to deny their feelings, to mistrust their intuitions and been ridiculed for daring to show emotions we become people of the head, people with little heart, people functioning at only a third of our potential. Life in all its fullness that Jesus said he had come to give us includes acknowledging and accepting feelings as God given gifts. We are in dangerous territory when we are unaware of our feelings and of those around us, because we may miss calls from God and be subconsciously guided in our behaviour and led into trouble.
The list of evil given by Jesus as arising from the heart, [Mark 7:21-22] can all come from ignored emotions. The idea to steal for gain or revenge comes from envy and greed. If a starving man steals food, it is not considered as a sin. Murder often comes from pent-up anger; adultery from lust, avarice probably develops from jealousy. Wickedness, deceit, indecency, envy, slander from jealousy and pride or arrogance are attempts to overcome feelings of shame. Folly or foolishness, irrationality and stupidity arise from lack of contemplation perhaps because a person thinks he or she already knows best.
The Pharisees and scribes in the story from Mark criticised Jesus’ disciples for not washing in the way they considered correct, before eating. They were proud of how well they themselves, kept the traditional cleanliness code that bordered on obsessive. But it did not impress Jesus. He called them hypocrites because they honoured God with their lips while their hearts were far from right. We are called to honour the whole of creation and the Creator with our whole being, especially our hearts.
Two or three years ago there were articles in the media about the connection between a particular heart condition and grief. It seemed that research had shown that some people suffer from a broken heart after the death of someone they love. Of particular interest was the fact that this condition was characterised by half of the heart ceasing to work. This was not news to Kay. Some years before this, when she heard someone in a group of widows say that losing your husband was like having an arm and a leg ripped off, another one had added, “And having half of your heart ripped out as well!” She thought this was a good analogy.
It is not long since the mechanical function of the heart as a pump was worked out, but ideas of it as the seat of our emotions go back much further. When we fail to acknowledge our feelings, we end up with arteries clogged with muck that can be far more lethal than cholesterol. Because of the pressure build-up, the walls of the blood vessels may weaken and cause us to haemorrhage. Then we are left with an awful mess to clean up. There may be such a burden on the heart or we may have become so hard-hearted that it is unable to beat efficiently.
As we can only have a physically healthy heart when we eat well, exercise and rest in appropriate proportions and undertake remedial action when there are signs that all is not right, so we can only have emotionally healthy hearts when we reflect on what goes in and out of them. We have expressions such as when we speak of something as being ‘heart-felt’ or having a heavy heart, or being heart-broken that show that on some level, we recognise these things. God, through Solomon was inviting a light-hearted time in our relationship.
Earlier in the chapter of Mark, the writer tells of Jesus quoting from the prophet Isaiah, saying that God desires us to worship with our hearts as well as our heads. It is not enough to go through the actions. Our hearts can’t be in it when we deny what we feel about things, maybe because we find some emotions painful, hard to understand and costly to face.
All of our relationship with God is about holding things in balance, being serious about it but not too serious, being able to relax in the friendship but never to take it for granted. We focus so often on a Divine One who seems to be always angry about some aspect of our behaviour that many of us feel we can never get it right that we may miss the invitation to arise and come away for some rest and recreation
The writer of the Epistle called James called his readers to be doers of the word not merely hearers. [James 1:22] Doing can mean taking up the invitation to have a special time with God. After such times our faith will be strengthened and we will be better doers. It is like spring has come to our hearts and we have renewed enthusiasm to be co-creators with the One who loves each one of us as if there were only one to love. Someone once said that the verse which we translate as “Be still and know that I am God,” would be better expressed as, “Relax, I’m God.”

If at all possible, take time to walk in a garden, or park or in the countryside in the next week and know with all your heart that the Beloved God is there with you, knowing your pain as widows and orphans, your struggles in trusting and accepting love and cherishing every moment of your companionship deep in God’s heart.

PENTECOST 13B   23rd August 2015
1 Kings 8:22-30,41-43   Psalm 84   Ephesians 6:10-20   John 6:56-69
“Pray also for me so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness, the mystery of the Gospel.” Eph 6:19
Kay had a bit of a thing about health and safety that came from her work as an Occupational Therapist where she many suffering from preventable injuries. People are often vulnerable and can now get protection from recently developed items. While still a student and before they were compulsory, she scraped together enough money to buy a set of seat belts for her parent’s car. When Kay got married, one of the first gifts she gave her farmer husband was a set of good quality ear muffs. She had met too many prematurely deaf people. Her husband was unconvinced but gave them a try to please his new bride. As seeding progressed, with long hours on the noisy tractor each day, he said, “You know, the surprising thing is that it is less tiring when I wear the muffs.”
As an Industrial Chaplain, travelling to various worksites Sarah’s car has become her office. In the boot she keeps a plastic box with her protective clothing. She has steel-capped boots, and disposable paper overshoes, a hard hat and hairnets, earmuffs and ear plugs, goggles, masks, a high-vis vest and gloves. When needed, one place provides her with a lab coat.
In the past fifty years or so, we have become very conscious of what physical damage can be done to people when we fail to provide adequate protection for them. Much work has been done to find new products which keep people safe in specific circumstances. The interesting thing though, is that as the work places have become safer, people have become more vulnerable elsewhere. Never has the hearing of the population been as vulnerable as amplifiers at concerts or in homes, deliver louder and louder music. And physical, mental and financial health, are at constant risk from illicit drugs and the influences of advertising, celebrity idolisation and peer pressure. All the protection available is only useful if people will put it on themselves. Bosses and Workplace can make it compulsory. Governments can legislate but it is largely up to individuals to protect themselves.
The writer of Ephesians could see this two thousand years ag and might have used the articles that Sarah has as examples for his letter if he was writing today, but as far as we know, the only people who had protective clothing were soldiers so that is the metaphor he used. The image of God as King has contributed to our imaging of God as a military leader as historically one of the main roles of a king has been to lead the army in war. This passage may also have contributed to military images of Christ.
In spite of Jesus’ non-violence, Christianity has been militarised through the centuries and much damage has been done, wars fought and lives lost because of this. Dave Andrews, head of Tear Australia, speaking at the Bendigo Library recently, reminded those present that all of the atrocities that are being perpetrated by ISIS in Iraq at this time, have first been enacted by Christians against Muslims. This statement would not surprise those who know the true history about the Crusades. It is disillusioning and even horrifying to learn about what really happened during the several hundred years that this fighting took place. The Crusades had been held up to us as a wonderful example of how Christians defended the faith, but it can be sickening and shameful to read details of deeds carried out that were said to be to the glory of God and to realise the cost financially, in lives and to human dignity.
“Dave Andrews argues that while this inter-communal conflict is endemic, it is not inevitable. Depending on our understanding, our religions can be either a source of escalating conflict or a resource for overcoming inter-communal conflict; and for our religions to be a resource for overcoming conflict, we need to understand the heart of all true religions as open-hearted compassionate spirituality. In the light of an open-hearted compassionate spirituality, we can reclaim the word “jihad” from extremists who have [mis]appropriated it as a call to “holy war,’ and reframe it, in truly Qur’amic terms, as a “sacred non-violent struggle for justice”; and we can reconsider Jesus, as he is in the Gospels, not as a poster boy for Christians fighting crusades against Muslims, but as a strong and gentle Messianic figure who can bring Muslims and Christians together.”  [Back cover “The Jihad of Jesus” Dave Andrews]
We can relook at the passage from Ephesians from a non-violent view point and also examine our understandings of the labels given to the various pieces of protection.
The writer began this final passage with the encouraging words urging them to “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power” [Ephesians 6:10]. These words seem straight forward enough, but what might being “Strong in the strength of his power mean if we are thinking of it in other than militaristic terms? There are many words that are frequently used in Scripture and in church services for which we assume the meaning and presume that everyone understands what we mean when we say them. When we use words the context in which we use them may alter our understanding of them. For example, when we see reference to God’s power in a passage that talks about armour, we may assume God’s power is militaristic, but God’s power is goodness and love.  Jesus staunchly refused to mount a military campaign. He worked for justice through non-violent means and for this reason many Christians now avoid all militaristic examples of God’s power. Hence it is preferable to speak of protective clothing rather than armour and it is probably closer to Christ’s way to say, “Be strong in the strength of God’s goodness and love.
We can say, “Put on the appropriate clothing to protect yourselves when under attack. Our attacks may come from people who wish to alter the way we see things, like politicians who try to get us away from talking about refugees to calling them illegal immigrants, queue jumpers, economic migrants and other derogatory terms. We are regularly attacked by advertisements trying to persuade us to buy things we may not need and may not be able to afford. Attacks may come at school, in the work place or on social media from people wishing to bully or belittle us. We may be attacked by anyone in our families or communities who disagrees with our politics or other ideas. Maybe the protective clothing that people who work with poisons use would be an appropriate defence for these; something that does not allow these things to penetrate our skin, that can be removed and discarded when it is safe to do so. 
The belt of truth represents genuineness, legitimacy and reality. Reality is something many people find hard to face. For several years now, we have been bombarded with the question, “Are you a glass half full or a glass half empty person?” as if one is totally right and the other wrong.  In fact, the glass is both half full AND half empty if we are truthful about it and to choose one is to deny the other aspect of life when we need both.
The writer of Ephesians next speaks about the Breast plate of righteousness. We may have been taught that righteous is about me being right with God. To do this, we are called to behave with justice, decency and honesty. Breast plates were painted with the standard of the leader, showing which army the wearer belonged to. Sarah’s ‘hi-vis’ vest in lime green, has CHAPLIAN in large letters across both the back and front showing who her leader is and this leader will be judged according to her behaviour.
The next thing the writer speaks about is shoes. The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible puts it this way, “As shoes for your feet, put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.” It may be that you need steel-capped boots for venturing into rough, dangerous, and prickly situations, with the kind of soles provided for welders for when things get hot. At other times it may be slippers that are needed to enable you to tread softly and gently.
The next piece of protective gear mentioned was the shield of faith. The dictionary defines faith as confidence, trust, reliance and conviction. The shield for you may be a high- vis vest, a lab coat or the kind of garments people who work in extremely cold conditions need for protection. It is relationship with Christ, prayer and Scripture that provides this for you.
 The helmet of salvation is next and again it is interesting to look afresh at more meanings of the word salvation; escape, rescue, recovery and revitalisation are listed. Again we have a choice to make as to whether a particular situation requires a hard hat or a soft cap.
The Sword of the Spirt, we are told, is the word of God and we know from John 1, that Jesus is the Word of God so the writer of Ephesians was calling Jesus the sword of the Spirit. This is the only item mentioned that is associated with offense as well as defence and becomes less useful when its edges are dull, so it is best kept sharp by following the rest of the advice that was to pray at all times, to keep alert and especially to pray for those who care for you. This is about reflecting on all we see and hear and are fed by the media. It is also about keeping our whole beings alert to times when we are able to defend ourselves from our relationship with Christ through prayer and our knowledge of Scripture as Jesus used it when he was being tested. [Luke 4:8-13] Many people have been sustained in trials by their knowledge particular verses about God’s love and encouragement, and also by the words and music of hymns. These words have often been written by people of faith in difficult situations which add to their power to help.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus was trying to tell this to his followers. He did not mean that they were to become cannibals, but that they were called to be closely integrated with his life. Many of them decided that it was going to be too hard and they walked away from the opportunity of life in all its fullness. But some trusted Jesus enough to stay.

It is sensible both for every-day life and for our spiritual life, to have our means of protection on hand and in good order at all times so we are prepared for whatever comes. The fact that we are advised to use protective equipment tells us that being a follower of Christ is not an easy journey and our preparation may make the difference between life and death for us. Don’t scoff at the offered protection as some do, but be as fully prepared as possible. Keep alert, listening for the message which is the mystery of the gospel. [Ephesians 6:19] 

PENTECOST 12B   16th August 2015
1 Kings 2:10-12, 3:3-14   Psalm 111    Ephesians 5:15-20    John 6:51-58
“…giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” [Ephesians 5:20]
“Yes, please” and “No, thank you,” were drummed into us as children. One teacher at school regularly reminded us that “good manners are the oil that keeps communities running smoothly”. As I recall, there was never any understanding that we had to feel thankful.  We just had to be thankful for whatever was being offered to us whether we wanted it or not.
Many years ago, a charity shop manager said, “Always be very grateful for whatever is brought to you. If you are not, people stop giving. Some things may need to go straight to the dump but much will come that is useful and occasionally real gems will turn up. Then you will be truly thankful for the time and effort you have put into dealing with the rest and somehow, you always seem to come out on top.”
Perhaps when we receive gifts at Christmas and birthdays is the time when we are most likely to be expected to give thanks. We are taught from small children to at least pretend to be thankful for what we receive, being told things like, “Go and say ‘Thank you’ to Grandma” even as we are pulling a disappointed face at the undies and socks that are lying in the torn paper. And we were expected to give her a hug to show our thanks as well as to say the words.
Is it a lie and therefore a sin to say words we don’t mean? Perhaps this behaviour also oils the wheels that keep families running smoothly. It is not always easy to be polite in these situations. Helen was opening her 21st Birthday gifts. She had a well-off maiden aunt who always gave her something special and it was with excited anticipation that she opened the present that night. When she saw the expensive Dalton figurine of a mermaid, her heart sank. It was not to her taste at all. Quickly she tried to cover the look of horror that had crossed her face. She said, “Oh Auntie, it’s beautiful, thank you so much” before turning away to compose herself and hoping that she had not betrayed her feelings too much.
There is a branch of psychology which says that if we keep behaving in a certain way our feelings will eventually line up with our behaviour making it easier. Did the writer of the letter to the Ephesians know this? If we keep on saying we are thankful for all things, we will eventually feel thankful for all things and we might receive some treasure along the way.
There are two verses in different Epistles which give the readers these instructions. 1Thessalonians 5:18 says, “..give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Ephesians 5:20 says, “…giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Perhaps these two were written by Paul or one may have been written by someone who had read or heard the other. It doesn’t really matter.  They are relatively easy instructions to follow when things are going well, when we like what we are receiving. But what happens when nothing but trouble turns up; when load after load of rubbish lands on your doorstep, what then?
The version of this verse from Thessalonians had come to my attention because the rest of the sentence, in the two preceding verses says, “Be joyful always, pray without ceasing.” I had been doing a study on joy and had noticed the end of the sentence which said, “give thanks in all circumstances.” I sincerely wanted to do the will of God so, in an off -hand kind of a way, I started saying thank you for everything that happened.
But it did seem bizarre when the day after I had told the congregation that this was my favourite verse, my husband died suddenly. The minister went with me to see Ed’s body and was unable to answer when I asked, “Is this what it means to give thanks to God in all circumstances?”
We give thanks to people who give us things. Does this imply as some said, that God gave me freedom from my marriage, that God actually killed Ed or in some way caused him to die on that day? When we think of such a scenario, though, we wouldn’t say God killed him, it would be too horrific to contemplate. We put it in a less confronting way by saying, “God took Ed.” Either way, I do not think that God. Nor do I believe that we are or were just left to our fate in his death. There was comfort and help provided in other ways. The verse my older son had quoted the day before was “All things work together for good for those who love the Lord and are called according to his purpose.” [Romans 8:28]. Ed and our younger son, then aged nine, had had a conversation several weeks earlier about what being a mature follower of Christ meant and Chris said that the memory of this helped him.
The passage from Ephesians says to be filled with the Spirit and to sing Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs and the words and music of many of these helped me through the first few years. Only yesterday, a woman asked me if I knew where she could get the words and music for “Because He lives, I can face tomorrow” which became a constant encouragement for me and I can easily give thanks for that. Its words go on, “Because He lives, all fear is gone… Life is worth the living, just because He lives.” The passage from Thessalonians says to be joyful always and to pray without ceasing. I was pleased to learn that being joyful was not the same as being happy as there were months at a time when I wasn’t happy but had some joy in knowing God’s presence in our lives. As for prating without ceasing, that I never achieved. There were weeks when I couldn’t face praying at all.
Deciding to “give thanks for all things,” was a turning point in my faith. It was about letting go of some ideas that I had held about God, about trusting although I had really no idea at least some of the time of what it was I was trusting in as my understandings of God and God’s will for us changed.
My life since Ed’s death has been full of the most amazing highs when it has been very easy to give thanks to God for coincidences and events that have been great blessings that it is a pleasure to be able to say thanks for. There have also been incredible lows; times when it seemed that the whole world was siding with God to make things as difficult as possible. There have been painful things for which I have been unable to bring myself to say thanks ever or at least not for a considerable time.
It seems a strange ask to want someone to say thanks for the loss of a reasonably good husband, a very good father to my children, our income earner and encourager. Even now after twenty-seven years, I could not ask my children about this. I feel I have been adequately compensated with an incredibly different life that I could never have dreamt of as a farmer’s wife. But I could not speak for my children or my grandchildren who have not had the opportunity known him. Giving thanks for all things is a decision each person must make for themselves.       
Why is this giving thanks important? In the reading set for today from Hebrew Scripture, God invited Solomon to “Ask what I should give you.” And Solomon asked for and understanding mind, to discern what is good and what is evil. [1Kings 3:9] God replied that God would give him a wise and understanding mind and more besides. Perhaps that needs to be our prayer in seeking to understand what is behind giving thanks for all things. The Psalmist [Psalm 111] gave thanks to the Lord with his whole heart. I cannot in all honesty say that I have ever given wholehearted thanks to God for Ed’s death and some of the other pain we have suffered since. But God as I know God at the moment is okay with that. I do not believe it is being held against me.
James Finley writes, “If we are absolutely grounded in the absolute love of God that protects us from nothing even as it sustains us in all things, then we can face all things with courage and tenderness and touch the hurting places in others and in ourselves with love.” [quoted by R Rohr] This is about where my understanding is at the moment. I don’t believe God does these things to us. I believe that part of life in all its fullness is about going through such experiences with God to support and encourage so that we can then support and encourage and love others.
A couple of Bible verses have helped and I am thankful for them. “Every test that you have experienced is the kind that normally comes to people. God keeps his promise and he will not allow you to be tested beyond your power to remain firm; at the time you are put to the test, he will give you the strength to endure it.” [1 Corinthians 10:13 Good News Bible] And “Whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect so that you may be mature and complete” [James 1:2-4 New Revised Standard Version]
We know, for ourselves, that it is easier to do things for people who are grateful, who say “Thank you”. I cannot say if this is so for God but I do believe that it benefits us to say thanks; to develop grateful attitudes. A good gift or experience, may be one that at the time it is received, has nothing going for it. It may well turn into a great blessing.
Ed came home from a Farmers’ Field Day with a flat pack spinning wheel for me. He almost never gave me gifts for birthday or Christmas so I should have been both pleased and grateful but I wasn’t. I felt obliged to assemble, varnish and learn to use it or I might never get another present. As I struggled with it, there were many times when I considered using it for firewood. Eventually I mastered it and even won a State prize in a CWA competition for a hand spun garment.

What I have learned although it’s taken thirty years, is that I am the one who benefits most from developing a grateful heart that is able to give thanks to God for all things. May you, too, receive this blessing.

PENTECOST 11B   9TH August 2015
2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33,   Psalm 130,   Ephesians 4:25-5:2   John 6:35,41-51.
There is a lot of anger in our communities. Every day we can see people on our televisions, bristling with righteous anger and indignation over numerous issues. We see the aftermath of anger expressed by people intoxicated by alcohol and drugs when people are killed by a single blow. We hear of, and may experience road rage. Within five minutes of Betty walking into the shopping mall recently, she heard a child having a tantrum and an older woman angrily speaking to her partner, telling him how stupid he was for forgetting to bring the list of things they needed. “You can’t be trusted to do anything,” she shouted at him.
We have just had Domestic Violence Week, aimed at curtailing the violent behaviour that is mainly fuelled by anger. It was said that on average a woman dies every week in Australia at the hands of an angry partner. Before we can do much about the damage done by ill directed anger we need to acknowledge how many people live with ongoing anger and then to teach people from an early age how anger can be used to our advantage and to that of the community. Although anger causes much damage, it can also lead to good. Public protests that lead to changes for the better arise from feelings of anger in unjust situations of inequality of treatment.
Anger has been unfairly maligned by most Christians since wrath was included in the list of Seven Deadly Sins but wrath is not itself anger. Wrath or rage, arise from ill directed anger. We were created good and part of our nature is the ability to become angry, to feel anger. Anger, like all emotions, is of itself neither good nor bad. It is how we respond to feelings which matter. It may also be logical or irrational so it is important to look carefully at why we are feeling this way.  Like many things human, we all fit somewhere along a continuum of feeling and handling anger. It is unfortunate that emotions have been divided into good and bad categories as all that have been labelled bad actually have uses for us and we ignore or suppress them at our peril. We cannot simply pretend they don’t exist or that they don’t affect us because they do and undealt with, virus-like, they can infect us and all who come in contact with us.
If you are one of those people who protest, “But I never get angry,” it is probably because you have been taught that it is culturally unacceptable or a sin, to express anger. This has the consequences of blinding you to injustices and closing your heart to the needs of people around you. Unfortunately, the church has many people within it who have been taught that it is not good manners to express feelings. These people are often described as ‘nice’.  However, the word ‘nice’ is three quarters ‘ice’ which is the opposite to the firey passion needed to stimulate remedial action against injustice. Generally, if you can’t acknowledge your own feelings then you have trouble allowing others to acknowledge theirs.
Nice people may say when pressed, “Well, I may sometimes become a little upset or cross, but I have never been angry.” When pushed on this, their body language may shout that they can indeed get quite angry but they may go on denying what is obvious to any observer. It is hard for them to be sincere followers of Christ and live life in all its fullness because compassion, from which anger over injustices arises, needs to be heartfelt to be acted on.
Before we can address the issues around anger, we need to give ourselves permission to acknowledge that we do at least sometimes, feel angry. Anger within ourselves can be scary, especially if we have not been taught how to handle it or given ways of coping with it. Anger in others can be frightening. We can feel we are being attacked or blamed. We may wish to defend or justify ourselves. Or we may just wish to flee the situation. The Epistle to the Ephesians was written to a congregation who were quarrelling among themselves and this sort of behaviour has continued through the centuries, causing anger and frustration. It has been the reason why some people have left the church fellowship.
Anger generates energy that when well directed, can be used to rectify injustices. Whoever the writer of the Epistle, probably Paul, he was right in telling them to “Be angry.” Many of us would find the directive to “Be angry,” quite confronting because being angry is often associated with thoughts of losing control which is frightening. Perhaps aware of this, the writer gave two pieces of advice about handling anger. The first was “Do not sin.” Remember, it is not necessarily a sin to act in the wrong way but it is a sin not to have considered all the possible reasons and responses and this could especially so when dealing with this volatile emotion.
There are a number of ways in which we can sin when we are angry. We can hit out at people and things, physically or verbally. We can become more controlling. We can become impatient or plot revenge. Anger can lead to jealousy. Undealt with anger is believed by some to be at the basis of depression and despondency. Or we can walk away and do nothing. But, perhaps surprisingly, doing nothing could also be classed as sinning. To let injustices remain when we are aware of them, without attempting to do something, is sinful. Particularly in the Gospel of Mark, we continually see Jesus addressing injustices that he was passionate about. We can pretend we aren’t angry but that leads us to being unable to connect on an emotional level with others and can lead to physical illness.
The second piece of advice given on being angry was, “Do not let the sun go down on your anger.” This is not about supressing the feelings. This is about responding promptly to the perceived unjust situation, to at least get started on rectifying the situation. Much has been made about the type of response in recent years where people are advised to own their feelings, reflect on why they have arisen and what can be done, then to act appropriately. Much trouble in congregations and elsewhere could have been avoided if people had not let injustices smoulder on like a dormant volcano, sometimes for decades. Often in the end, all the pain and anger erupts and molten words are spewed over the surrounding area causing great destruction as blame and shame are heaped on all in its path.
Possibly one of the saddest outcomes of misdirected anger is suicide. Someone said, “No one ever kills himself without first having wanted to kill someone else.” There is an element of revenge in many suicides, especially of young people; pay-back of people who they felt somehow let them down. Some believe that after death they will be able to watch their tormentors suffer as a result of their death.
We can help people discern the cause of their anger and to work out positive strategies. We can listen to those who are angry to help them understand what is behind the feelings and how they might respond appropriately in the situation. Not being listened to is, one of the biggest complaints of angry people. We can listen to ourselves to work out what is behind our own feelings and how best to handle them.
A number of times I have heard people say that there are no contradictions in the Bible. Clearly those people haven’t looked closely at the reading from Ephesians set for today. It says, “Be angry, but do not sin.” [v26] and then five verses later, “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice.”[v31] What are we to make of that? These things, bitterness, wrath, wrangling, slander and malice are all unhealthy ways of responding to situations that inspire anger.
The passage ends by advising, “Be kind to one another and tender-hearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven you.” These words are translated in other versions as, generous, sympathetic, and compassionate.
In the Gospel reading set to go with Ephesians, the Jews were complaining about what Jesus had said about being the Bread of Life. [John 6:41] They were angered by his words. They felt indignant about his claims that were, to be honest, confronting. Their smouldering rage led to them having Jesus killed.
The Gospel of John was written around the end of the first century after the split between Jesus’s followers and the Jews. While there is little doubt that there was trouble between Jesus and some Jews in his life time, it seems that this has been expanded to include all Jews by the time this Gospel was written. Jesus’ claim to be the Bread of Life and likening himself to the manna in the wilderness would have seemed outrageous to many. However it can be a source of strength and encouragement for those fighting injustice.
If we are true followers of Jesus, acknowledging that we feel angry about an injustice is never enough. We are called to follow Jesus’ example of doing something to rectify the situation. What God requires is justice.[Micah 6:8] Feeling anger is to be followed by action by us as members of the body of Christ. Grumbling and complaining among ourselves is not enough. Justice for all is to be top of our agendas and we will be guided into the area of our work by examining our feelings of anger. Therefore, “Be angry, but do not sin and do not let the sun go down” without having begun to address the situation that aroused your anger.
May be richly blessed as a passionate member of Christ’s body ready to discern and respond to injustice.

Kay went from Australia to work as a minister in England. A few weeks after she had started, a friend rang. “Are the people there different from here?” she asked.
“Their circumstances may be different, but their pain is just the same,” Kay replied. That day she had visited a woman in her nineties who told her how her only daughter had died at the age of four and how she still grieved for her.
Then she visited a man in his sixties and he told her that his father had died when he was six years old. An aunt had taken him across the road to a neighbour’s house without any explanation. When he cried for his Mum he was told he just had to wait there till she came for him. After several days, he heard some noise outside and snuck into the parlour. He would be in big trouble if Mrs Payne found him in there.
He looked out of the window and saw a number of people in strange black clothing and a very strange looking carriage kind of thing with two black horses. As he watched some men came out of his house carrying a very big box which they put in the back of the carriage. He noticed his mother among the people who had followed the men carrying the box out of the house and wanted to run outside and call out to her but he knew he would be in trouble if he did so he just sat there. The carriage started moving and the people started walking behind it. Since he wasn’t meant to be in the room and so shouldn’t have seen what he had, he didn’t speak about it to anyone for fear of a good beating. The next day his Mum came to get him and never spoke of that day or of the death of his father. In fact he was left to figure out for himself that his Dad was no longer there because he had died.
His experience was probably not much different from many people sixty to a hundred years ago. We would hope that we were better now at handling grief, but that is not always the case. It is such a complex thing, complicated by previous life experiences. No two people ever respond in exactly the same way. Advice given about how best to handle things when the loss is new may be good in theory but impossible in practice.
Two of the most common stories I hear in ministry are from people who have “lost” a child and from those who had a parent die when they were young.  These seem to be among the hardest griefs to live with and however well the mourning is done, there is never closure because losing someone so precious to you changes you. Perhaps it is to do with the breaking of the bond between parent and child.
Regrets may be one of the harder parts of grief to come to terms with. In some funeral liturgies we have prayers for forgiveness for things done or left undone and for the hurt that arises in such situations.
Prior to the reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, [2 Samuel 18], King David’s son Absalom had gone to war against his father and it had become apparent that David’s army was going to win. David gave specific orders concerning his son. “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.” [2 Samuel 18:5] We do not know exactly what he had in mind when he said this, but we are told that all the people heard these orders. Somehow, in the heat of battle, or in the jubilation of the aftermath, these instructions were overlooked and when an opportunity arose to do so, they killed Absalom.
The men who did this were obviously proud of what they had done as they ran to tell David the good news that his enemy was defeated. The first thing David asked was if Absalom was okay.
On hearing the news that Absalom was dead, David immediately retreated to a private place to mourn. His poignant words have rung and echoed through every generation since. “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would that I had died instead of you.” Unknown numbers of parents have uttered words like this as news came to them of the death of their sons and now daughters also, in war. In fact, almost every time a child dies, the parents express such words, “Would that I had died instead of you.”
The story goes on to say that the victory turned into mourning for all the troops who instead of celebrating joined the King in respect for his grief. But then the twist in the story came. Joab one of the army commanders had specifically disobeyed David’s orders in encouraging the soldiers to kill Absalom and he wasn’t about to put up with David’s response to news of the death. He told David in no uncertain terms that he was letting down the nation by mourning the one who had betrayed his father.
It is somewhat reminiscent of the Prime Minister of England going to the Queen in Scotland to tell her she had no right to be mourning as she was when Dianna died.
In the book of Job, we read of how his friends tried to tell him how to grieve and why he had brought all this trouble on himself.  Unfortunately today, people still try to tell others how they should mourn and remind them too early of major responsibilities.
It is almost natural to ask questions following a death, especially a sudden one. Why did this happen? What could I have done to prevent it? David must have wondered why the army officers had not done what he asked.
It is not only parents who say “Would that I had died instead of you”. They were my words when my husband died. He was such a loss to the community as well as our family and I was just his wife. In grief there is confusion, despair, unbearable agony. The thing that the story of David tells us is that no matter how bad it gets or how badly we handle our grief, God is still there for us, in it and through it.

Perhaps the words of Psalm 130 are also ones that you have uttered in desperation, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleading.”  People who haven’t experienced major grief fail to understand. Many mean well with their advice but grief is a thing that you have to do for yourself for the most part, with the help of God.

PENTECOST 10B    2nd August 2015
2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a   Psalm 51:1-12   Ephesians 4:1-16   John 6:24-35
It is estimated that one in every two to three women in Australia has been sexually assaulted at some time in her life. There is a wider range in the figures for men; somewhere between one in five to ten adult men. The current Royal Commission is a great start to addressing and hopefully limiting this abuse in future generations, but with it only looking at those who have been interfered with as children and in institutions, it is only touching the tip of the iceberg. We have been shocked by the numbers of people who have come forward to speak to the Commission, but they are by no means all who were victims in such places, let alone those who suffered elsewhere.
With the evidence of these figures, we must be surrounded constantly by people who have been so abused. We can look at any group and wonder how many of them have been victims and carried the secret ever since. Nearly thirty years ago, a Social Worker spoke at the Parents and Friends meeting at the local Secondary School about this matter. Judy had been abused by her father and had been so ashamed and confused by it that she never spoke to anyone. The woman sitting next to her at the meeting whispered to her that she had been abused by her father and Judy was surprised to find herself replying, “So was I.”
It took her nearly a fortnight but she finally plucked up the courage to ring the Social Worker to tell her. When she did, the woman said, “There were fifteen of you present that day and you are the ninth to get in touch with me. We are planning to meet soon. Would you like to come?” They formed a self-help survivor group and let the local doctors and other health workers know and it was not long before they were being asked to meet with others who were disclosing their abuse.
Judy heard some horrific stories and learnt that sexual abuse was/is almost never the only form of abuse the perpetrator uses. Often it was more about expressions of power and control as much as sex. The women’s stories frequently contained elements of physical, psychological, verbal, emotional and financial abuse. Some had been abused almost from birth while others had been first abused as adults. In some ways, there was more shame for these as they wondered more if they had done something to encourage or deserve the treatment they received. But most hadn’t. Until the last few years, females have been seen as possessions of men and objects for their gratification, so men could do what they wanted with them.
It is confusing for those for whom the only love they had received was sexualised and abusive. Judy had never told her husband and was even less likely to after she read a book where the woman’s husband couldn’t bear to touch her after she told him. He also threatened to kill her abuser who was a close relative. Judy hadn’t talked to her sisters either, as she was the black sheep of the family and couldn’t believe that they might have been targeted too. Many years later, she learned that they had in fact, also been abused as had at least one of their children.
Through the years, she has met a number of women who became victims as adults, taken advantage of by men sometimes thought to be pillars of the community. Sexual predators seem to have a way of picking those who they think will comply to their wishes with little fuss, women who are vulnerable financially, who need to keep their job and so are unlikely to complain. Often women who have been divorced are targeted or their children are. Because of the stigma and blame still sometimes attached to this, they are less likely to be believed if they complain. Abuse of women happens across all social classes. It is not limited to the poorer areas and there is likely to be more shame among those better educated. Judy was relieved to find that she was not alone in struggling with the image of God as Father because of how her father had behaved. Some wanted nothing to do with the Church or God because this seemed to be the only image of God offered.
As women with such experiences, we may find the readings from Hebrew Scripture which we have had for the last two weeks, some of the most offensive in the Bible. The story begins by explaining that it was the time of years when kings go out to battle. But David didn’t bother going. He just sent his army and remained in the comfort of his own home.
In his leisure, David saw a woman he lusted after. It goes on to tell how this vulnerable woman was raped by this most powerful man in the land, who has been held up to us as an icon because of his prominence in the Old Testament and his place in the lineage of Jesus. When the woman became pregnant from the rape, David connived to manipulate her husband into thinking that the child was his. When this failed, he had the husband killed. We are told that when the period of mourning for him was over, David brought the woman to his house and she became his wife and bore him a son.
The story goes on that David’s behaviour displeased God. Well, good. It displeases many of us too. So God sent Nathan the prophet to tell David a story to help him to see what he had done wrong. Good again, so far. But then the story Nathan told, compounds the complaints that women have about this whole incident and many depictions of women in the Bible. It likens the woman to an animal, albeit a cute little lamb, a possession of the man, making the whole thing about David stealing another man’s possession and not about the abusive treatment of the woman. King David had hundreds of wives and concubines many of them the objects of political alliances.
All round the world, women are still being treated as commodities, as objects to be traded and enslaved for sexual gratification and bashed and controlled. We still generally read Scriptures such as this one from Samuel from the view of the dominant male and close our eyes and our hearts to its impact on the vulnerable ones in our communities, especially women who are on their own.
David’s behaviour had consequences way beyond anything he had foreseen as does this kind of behaviour anywhere. We may not realise it but the whole community is damaged, weaken and limited as a result of abusive behaviour of any kind. Whether we believe God rains the punishments listed on those involved or they are the consequence of inhumane actions, the results are there for all to see. But we would rather close our eyes to them.
The final words in the passage are some of the most disturbing and hardest to understand from the God we call Love. When David admitted that he had sinned, God told him he would not die but that the child born from his actions would. This may have been a relief for David. We have all heard of women becoming pregnant in illicit relationships and the man telling her to “get rid of it!”  The innocent child paid the price for his father’s action in raping his mother. You may think that rape is too harsh a word to explain his behaviour but it is rape when someone in a greater position of power forces himself on someone who has no say in the matter and Bathsheba certainly would not have been able to refuse his advances.
These verses remind us that it is the innocent ones who suffer most.
Some of the words in Psalm 51 where David lamented his actions and asked for God’s forgiveness again show how little understanding he had of the impact of his actions. In verse 4, David was addressing God and said, “Against you and you alone have I sinned.” Well NO! It is not only God who is sinned against in such circumstances. Bathsheba was sinned against. Uriah was sinned against. David’s other wives were sinned against. The whole community suffered and suffers for such sins.
Psalm 51:6 still addressing God says, “You desire truth in the inner being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.” It is high time we took these words to heart.
The truth is that there are many parts of Scripture where the morality is at best questionable and even some parts, like the condoning of slavery that we now reject. In John 6 [the Gospel reading set for this day], the people come looking for Jesus. He has fed them once and they wanted to be fed again. He encouraged them to seek the bread of life, which he was longing to provide for them.
There are many in our communities who are hungry for acceptance, acknowledgement that they matter to someone, that someone cares about the pain they have suffered and the neglect they have felt, who long to be fed with love and kindness, to be appreciated for who they are. Most survivors of abuse do not seek revenge. Most are looking for assistance to thrive, to come to feel God and others really care about what has happened to them.
When are we as the Church in general going to freely acknowledge that Jesus is the Living Word of God and that there are a number of passages in Scripture that are not consistent with Jesus’ teaching of justice and mercy? Probably the closet story we have to this one of David and Bathsheba from Jesus is the one about the woman taken in adultery where Jesus said, “Let the one without sin cast the first stone.”[John 8:7] He didn’t treat the woman like an object and nor did he blame her. Instead he treated her with quiet dignity.
If your response to this sermon is one of discomfort or agitation; if you want to say that it is making a fuss about something that doesn’t matter much, I urge you to think again. God loves and honours each of us as individual persons. God does not treat us as objects or possessions. Christ longs for us to be filled with the bread of life. When we can assist more survivors to thrive, our whole communities will also thrive.

The writer of the Epistle to the Ephesians talks of us being part of the body of Christ.  This body can only thrive if we seek healing and wholeness for all its members and God longs to bring us such healing. May we be open to listening to the prophets of today who bring us the truth, even when it is painful.

PENTECOST 7B   12th July 2015
Samuel 6:1-5,12b-19,   Psalm 24,   Ephesians 1:3-14,   Mark 6:14-29
Bev thought she had known Uncle Fred reasonably well. He had always been there, her mother’s older brother, as part of her life. He had no children of his own so every year at Grandma’s home, it had been Uncle Fred who had dressed as Father Christmas to distribute the presents. However, when she went to his funeral, she heard stories about his childhood, War service, business and personal life which surprised her and led to her thinking of him in different ways. He had done and achieved things that amazed her and when she asked her mother how come she hadn’t heard of these things, her mother simply shrugged and said, “I guess that I as I have always known this. It was so familiar to me that it never occurred to me to tell you. I had assumed you would have heard about it somewhere along the line. There are some things that I couldn’t have told you when you were a child and I have never got round to saying them since you are an adult.”
Her mum began to talk about Fred and their childhood and told her a number of things that were new to Bev. Still, she wondered about her mum’s account. Fred had not been her favourite brother and this had likely influenced what she said. Also, Bev had a sneaking suspicion that her mum was consciously or unconsciously editing the stories to make points for her benefit. She began wondering if there was still more she could learn elsewhere. If Grandma and Auntie Jean, Fred’s wife, had still been alive, they would have been able to tell her different things about him, how they knew him.
What we can know with for certain about another person is limited to our experiences of them through relationship with them and what we hear from others. We can think that we know them reasonably well from what we have been told about them. But people will tell us different things with different emphasis, according to their relationship with that person and their relationship with us. Some may withhold information from us and we can only speculate as to their reasons for doing this. Often we also rely on what is passed on from a third person, someone who knew someone who knew the person. Again what is said depends on their relationships and understandings.
So it is that we get to know God and Jesus. In our tradition, not much stress has been placed on our personal relationship with Christ. We mainly rely on the Bible and what others tell us is in the Bible; their particular understanding of it. The words of the hymn say, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so” as if this is the ONLY way we can know this. It is so much better if we can come to know through our own relationship with Christ. Sometimes we think that because we weren’t alive in Jesus’s time we have missed the opportunity to ask him directly but we still can, through prayer and we may be surprised by the responses we get.
Last week we were talking about pondering about God’s love in our worship services. The reading from 2 Samuel invites us to continue this activity. At the time of David, the people believed that God presence was in the ark. This is why David was keen to bring it to Jerusalem, to have God with him there. David’s joy in retrieving the ark was expressed in dancing and feasting. Besides seeing how David saw God, we get a glimpse of how the people in general saw God in the verses that were left out of the passage. The story said it looked like the ark was going to topple from the cart and so Uzzah reached out to steady it and because he touched the ark, he was killed. This seems grossly unfair. One imagines that his action would have been reflex. It is almost instinctual to reach out to grab someone or something that is threatening to fall. Would a God of Love kill someone who was only trying to help? His death spooked David. Perhaps he became conscious that he hadn’t been as respectful of the ark as he might have been. We do not know. He parked the ark for some time in a nearby house. Eventually he saw that the people of the place he had left it were being blessed. It is possible that in this blessing God was trying to reassure David that the ark, and so God-self, were not to be feared. This seems to have calmed David and so he brought it to Jerusalem with much fanfare, dancing and celebration.
The Gospel reading follows on from last week when we heard the people of Jesus’ home town wondering about how someone they knew could be doing and saying the things he was. They thought that they knew him, but their inability to be helped by him showed that they did not understand him. Then we read that Jesus had come to the notice of King Herod. There were several different opinions expressed about who Jesus was. Perhaps because of his guilt for having him killed, Herod thought of Jesus as John the baptizer come back to life.
The writer of the Epistle to the Ephesians had different ideas of who Jesus was. He had the benefit of a number of years hindsight that King Herod did not have and the ponderings of many as to who this person was. He was no longer Jesus the man. He had become the Christ of Faith. This writer had not known Jesus as a boy and may never have known Jesus the man. He has some quite different ideas of who Jesus was.
It is possible to see a progression in the way people understood God in the Old Testament. It is also noticeable that there is a progression in the way people saw Jesus post resurrection in the New Testament. The writer of the Gospel of Mark, the earliest story we have in Scripture, believed Jesus was adopted as the son of God at his baptism. To him Jesus birth stories and family were unimportant. Matthew and Luke writing some twenty years later, thought of Jesus as the son of God from birth so we have their birth stories. John writing at the end of the first century again thought Jesus’ birth insignificant but for a very different reason. He believed Jesus had existed from the beginning in Christ and with God.
It has been similar with their stories of Jesus’ death. The Western, Roman Church from which our understanding has come, has mainly gone with the idea that Jesus was divine from conception and with the grandeur of the Luke/ Acts version of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. It waits for a dramatic return of the Triumphant Christ. This branch of the Church developed ideas of Jesus, creating the divine Christ now spoken of, through the centuries as it struggled to reconcile ideas on one God with the Trinity.
There have also always been people who have an understanding closer to that expressed in the Gospel of John. The writer of the Gospel we call John believed that the divine Christ was present with God’s Spirit at Creation [Genesis 1:2] and incarnated in the man, Jesus [John 1:1] many billion years later. He wrote of Jesus being resurrected, ascending to God, returning to earth and gifting the Holy Spirit all on the one day. For him, Christ is ever present everywhere now.
Richard Rohr writes, “Most Christians were taught to associate the Incarnation only with Jesus’ birth 2,000 years ago. Yes, that was the unique and specific human incarnation of God… But matter and spirit have always been one since God decided to manifest God’s self in the first act of creation. Modern science is demonstrating that this is, in fact, the case. Where does the endless drive toward life, multiplication, fecundity, creativity, self-perpetuation come from except from Someone/ Something we call an indwelling “Spirit?”
He continues, “Un fortunately many Christians believe that the motive for divine incarnation was merely to fix what we humans had messed up- which seem rather self- preoccupied to me. The “substitutionary atonement theory” of salvation treats Christ as a mere Plan B. In this attempt at an explanation for the Incarnation, God did not really enter the scene until God saw that we had screwed up. Creation was not inherently sacred, lovable or dignified. And, further, God was revealed to be petty and punitive.”
This theory has done much more damage than good, and people are working to undo the damage done by this view of God. Many Christians believe the only real rationale for the Divine incarnation was to produce a human body that could die and rise again. It hasn’t mattered what Jesus taught and revealed or how he behaved. Things like his simple living, non-violent inclusivity, which are now proving necessary for our very survival, were ignored. Christian focus was shown in the creeds which went straight from his birth to his death, omitting his life’s work.
Jesus became the problem solver for our guilt and fear instead of the blueprint for what God has been doing all the time and everywhere. The Epistle reading [Ephesians 1:3-14] tells us that God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world. Most Christians are familiar with the image [John 15] of Jesus as the vine in which he names us as the branches. A vine is not a vine without branches so Jesus was saying we formed part of him. In the same way, we have the image of Christ as the head and us forming the body of Christ [ Colossians 1:18].
This understanding says we are each one of us, part of Christ and have been since the beginning of time. This simply does not fit with the idea that Christ is in some distant heaven, separated from us, until such time as he decides to return.  This understanding was held by St Francis of Assisi. He believed that every part of creation was part of Christ. That is why he treated animals with such respect. A common image we have of people in prayer is with their hand raised towards heaven. The statues of Francis show his hands turned towards the earth. What difference would it make to our respect for creation if we all understood all creation to be divine, part of God in Christ? 

May we be open to hearing what others say from their relationship with Christ and willing to ponder/contemplate our thoughts and feelings as we seek to know Christ and to serve him.

PENTECOST 6B   5th July 1015
2 Samuel 5:1-5,9,10,  Psalm 48, 2 Corinthians 12:2-10, Mark 6:1-13
Young Albert had been a bit of a worry for his family. His parents loved him; but… well, he seemed a bit dull, a slow learner. He didn’t even talk until he had turned four. You can imagine the relief of the adults around him when he did start. These days he would have been referred to a Speech Pathologist several years earlier to give him a better chance in life. In spite of this shaky start, Albert grew up to do amazing things. It was not only those close to him who were astounded but people all around the world were asking, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him?”
You’ve probably heard the story. The man was Albert Einstein. It is possible that people who had known him all his life found it hard to understand his genius and discounted it because it didn’t fit with their ideas of who he was.
Sarah came back to her home town as guest speaker at the Church Anniversary celebrations. She is a scientist and spoke about the medical research she had undertaken for her PhD. The people were amazed to hear her. “I have known her from birth,” several said. Another announced, “I taught her in Sunday School. What is this gift she has? We know her parents and they are just ordinary folk like us. Where could she have got such ability?” Some said, “She grew up with our kids and it’s hard to believe from what we knew of her back then, that she could be doing these things.”
We have just heard of Jesus doing amazing things. The people of his home town were astounded. Although they recognised the wisdom in what he was teaching they were unable to accept his help for themselves. Was Jesus the man much different from Einstein, Sarah, Newton, da Vinci or any other of the thousands of people through the centuries who have brought new understandings to us through developing the skills and abilities they were created with? Humans have the most incredible ability to develop insight.
As back then, we still struggle with accepting the gifts and abilities that appear extraordinary to us. This makes it difficult for those who experience things which may even amaze them, to talk about it. It can be humbling to realise you have a special ability or have had a special experience which has given you insight, especially if it is something which others may struggle to understand. When people exceed the normal bounds of their community and do and achieve extraordinary things, many may feel threatened and uncomfortable. Could this be because the behaviour of the high achiever challenges us to extend ourselves, to believe that we too, just might be able to do similar things if we dared to step out of our comfort zone?
The second half of the Gospel reading for today tells us that Jesus went among the villages teaching. He taught anyone who would listen to him and at the same time, he was specifically teaching the disciples, encouraging them and giving them the confidence to attempt to do things that, never in a million years would they have seen themselves doing. The last sentence says that “They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them. How do you think they felt about what they had achieved? It is likely that they were saying to one another when they returned, “You wouldn’t believe what we were able to do!” Would the people of their home towns have believed that they could do such things?
We may believe people were genuinely helped or do we may dismiss the casting out of demons because we would probably say today that these people had a physical or psychiatric disorder. Recently on a science show, they were taking about an extended view of the Placebo Effect. They had learned that it wasn’t necessary to give people sugar tablets. Research has shown that the more faith the practitioner has in the treatment offered, whatever it was, the better the outcome. Isn’t that amazing?
The disciples were pleased with what Jesus had encouraged and enabled them to do. Unfortunately, if we read on towards the end of this Gospel, we see that the disciples appear to have achieved less and less and to have forgotten their ability to do more than they could ever have imagined. God, who is love encourages all to wholeness in life where all our gifts are developed and used for the greater good. This is life in all its fullness and something of God’s love we could ponder in our services.
Verse 9 in Psalm 48 which is set for today says, “We ponder your steadfast love, O God, in the midst of your temple.” [NRSV] I don’t know about you, but pondering God’s love wasn’t something I did much of for the first forty years of my life.
Pondering all sorts of things has become one of my favourite pastimes and I have done a lot of it in the last thirty years or so. I hadn’t been long into it when, one cold Sunday morning, as I was walking from where we parked the car into the church building, I saw the words on the notice board in a new way. I had been walking past them each Sunday for twenty years without actually seeing that they said, “Service of Worship 10:30 am”. I began pondering why we called this thing we were attending a ‘service’. I didn’t realise it at the time, but this bit of pondering was to become life changing for me.
As I thought about the roots of the word ‘service’ and its links with the idea of serving, I realised that I could attend these gatherings for months at a time without any thought of serving God through my worship. Of course, God was there in the background of my life and I was an avid Bible reader, but serving God in worship, what could that possibly mean? I determined that during the next service I attended, I would concentrate on the idea of being of service to God whatever that might mean. Pondering this led me to understand I was being called to be a minister of the Word where I have the privileged task of continuously pondering.
Pondering is about wondering and contemplating why, what, when, where and how all things seen and unseen, things of faith and things of the material world. It provides an endless source of thought and feelings from wide-eyed amazement to the pain of anger and the tears and sorrows of disillusionment, justice and mercy. Pondering leads and encourages us to action. It is a tremendous privilege to have the time and space to ponder.  Perhaps it is because I am a ponderous person that I enjoy this. The thesaurus gives us contemplate, consider, deliberate, muse, mull over, wonder about, weigh up, reflect on and even brood over as alternate words. It is about looking at things from many directions and being open to taking on new understandings.
It was exciting to read verse 9 in Psalm 48 which is set for today, “We ponder your steadfast love, O God, in the midst of your temple.” [NRSV] The question for us to ponder today is, “Do we indeed ponder God’s love in our worship services?” We hear about it. We sing about it. We read about it. But do we contemplate its length and depth and height and everlasting qualities? Pondering is about chewing over all the implications of God’s love, of feeling it as well as thinking about it; about sharing it as well as taking it on board for ourselves and what this all means. It is about looking for the manifestations of God’s in the Scripture readings and what this means for us.
How many who attend our services of worship in our temple equivalents, are like I was, just turning up week after week with no actual knowledge of God’s love and its implications for us?
We have a wealth of subjects for pondering this week. In the reading we heard from 2 Corinthians 12, Paul was coming to the end of a long list of experiences he had had since becoming a follower of Christ. He speaks about this one as if it happened to someone else but there is no doubt that it was personal for him. We know of his first encounter with the Risen Christ. It has become so well known that even people who have nothing to do with the Church speak of Damascus Road experiences.
This vision was more complex. It seems that Paul felt he must mention it but didn’t know what to say because he didn’t really understand it himself. If he talked about it, he was in danger of having others think of him as somehow more special than others. He was already tempted to do that himself. Ninety year-old Mary told me how, a couple of years earlier, she had been sitting in a church service when she felt herself wrapped in a giant warm blanket and instantly she knew God loved her. It was the first time in her life that she knew for certain she was loved.
Many, many people have had special experiences of God; life changing events; experiences which have caused them to repent in the true sense of the word that is to turn and go in a new direction. Especially in the mainstream Protestant Churches, we rarely ponder the aspect of God’s steadfast love that is individual’s experiences of God. It is outside of our comfort zone and we find it hard to believe that ordinary folk, people we think we know well, could be blessed in this way.
We can contemplate the revelation of God’s love in ordinary people doing extraordinary things and Jesus’ promise that we would do far greater things than he did. We can reflect on God’s love in experiences such as those of the disciples, Paul and Mary. We can mull over Bible passages, weigh up our own life story and open up our minds and hearts to the possibility of God’s love being far beyond anything we can think.

Pondering God’s love brings many surprises. We are able to see people more as God sees them, with love and not judgementally. We are not surprised by how much people are able to achieve if they are given opportunities and encouragement. God’s love says to us today, just as Jesus said in affect to his followers, “Go out trusting that everything you need for your work you have or it will be provided when the time is right and if the place where you find yourself isn’t right, then move on to a place that is right, where you can make a difference!” Perhaps this is some of the most startling advice Jesus gave and shows us another aspect of God’s steadfast love. May you be blessed in your pondering of God’s love, especially in your church services.
Rev Julianne Parker

Pentecost 2b
1 Samuel 17
Rev Gordon Bannon
I watched the movie ‘Braveheart’ this week. I love it. Its all about how William Wallace (a David of his Day) led some rebellious scots in their attempt to gain freedom from the tyranny of British rule. No matter what you think of the historical accuracies of the story, it is a classic archetypal story of the David and Goliath type.
     We live in a time when people are uncomfortable with the warrior form of energy – and for some good reasons. Women are often especially uncomfortable with it, because they have often been the most direct victims of it in its shadow form. But this is not a part of ourselves that just goes away. If we suppress it, it does not go away.
The biblical Hebrews were a warrior people and followers of a warrior God. Native American peoples ( a people who have a great influence on alternative spiritualities nowadays) lived and died with the Warrior energy informing even the smallest of their acts, living their lives nobly and with courage and with the capacity to endure great hardship and pain.
We think of the East timorese rebels who held out for years and years against a seemingly unstoppable foe. Xanana Gusmao wrote a book recently called, to resist is to win, and in many ways it is about being a warrior for what he believed to be right, the freedom of his people.
The warrior’s loyalty is to something  beyond and other than him or herself. Jesus had to resist the temptations Satan offered him in the wilderness and the Buddha had to endure his three temptations under the Bo tree. These men were spiritual warriors.
     But like so many archetypes, it has a shadow side. We may dream, but we will not act decisively to make the dreams come true. This naturally leads to a lack of vigour and depression.. We will look at the task ahead and be defeated before we have started. We will think the task is too big and that we are not heroes. We are heroes.
It is our call to be heroes. Not Warriors of destruction but creative heroes who merge compassion with the better aspects of the warrior. If we can access our warrior appropriately we will find energy, courage, endurance and loyalty to something greater than ourselves.
I hope that what I am sharing this morning will spark images of how we, unlike David, might tame the mighty giant rather than kill him.
Maybe, instead of trying to examine the "Goliaths" in our lives, we would look at the "Davids," those pesky little things that tend to knock us down the moment we are full of pride.
The lesson we learn from the passage, whether you are a Hebrew, a Philistine, or a 21st Century Westerner, is to let God be the giant rather than our egos or our fears.
By the way, Judah and the Philistines are at war. This was not an execution nor a blood bath. Goliath was the Philistine champion. In Hebrew, the word for champion (vs 4) is literally "the man in the middle," that is, the one who would stand alone in no-man's land to fight to the death a representative from the enemy. (Notice the care the writer takes in vs 3 to describe the two armies on opposing mountaintops and the valley between them.) The army whose champion lost would surrender to the winning side. Ideally, this prevents massive bloodshed. Goliath wanted a one-on-one fight to the death. He and the rest of the Philistines just didn't expect him to lose.
How do we face a crises in our lives? There is the way of Israel which is paralizing fear as seen in Israel's army, shirking responsibility as the tallest man in Israel, Saul, wants to pay someone else to fight his battle for him, and scathing cynicism of Eliab who would rather for all Israel to perish than for his little brother to be right.
There is the Goliath way of confronting crisis which is faith in one's self wielding weapons of arrogance, ambition, and audacity. But there is always a chink in every armor of humankind. ( Of course, if Goliath could speak, he would say that it was the shield bearer's fault because he failed to hold the shield high enough.)
And there is the way of David- the way of faith, A faith based on a belief in past interventions of God- a faith based on belief that the Divine spirit equips individuals with unique gifts- a faith based on belief that God delights in using weakness to gain glory.
We can face our crisis by shaking in fear, shirking our responsibility, and soaking in cynicism. We can face it with arrogance that we have all power, the audacity to believe that we are self protected, and the ambition to tromp on anyone who thinks otherwise. Or, we can draw courage from our past experiences and the experiences of others, careful confidence from the unique, God-given gifts discovered within, and commitment to allow God to use our weakness to gain glory for the Divine Vision.

          You and I are called to participate in taming giants, in healing and liberating the world around us.

By Rev Julianne Parker

Easter 7B    17th May 2015
Acts 1:15-17,21-26
Psalm 1
1 John 5:9-13
John 17:6-19
Losing things is part of everyday life, though more so for some than for others. We have minor and major losses. It may be our glasses or keys. It may be that our team loses the football. It can be a friend we lose if they move away, or our health, our home, our income, or someone close to us through death. All these losses and more, affect us in minor and major ways.
Fifty years or so ago, people began naming the feelings that were experienced when we “Suffer a loss”. Feelings have always been part of what makes us human but many of us come from the British, stiff upper lip tradition where showing or expressing most feelings was frowned on. There are dozens of feelings we can experience and for centuries most of them were viewed with suspicion. It was believed that to acknowledge feelings would lead to debauchery or worse. People were discouraged from speaking of feelings. Generally, women were allowed to express love and men allowed to express anger but our culture didn’t want to be shown much more than these.
We limit our relationships and our lives when we ignore our feelings and those of others. They are signals to us of responses that for a complete life need to be attended to. Perhaps the greatest gain we had from the sixties and seventies was permission to get in touch with our feelings and to recognise that when we realise we have lost something or someone, the reflex action of our bodies is a series of feelings.
The first feelings are often shock and disbelief. “I can’t believe my keys are not on the hall table. I always put them there.” We may blame others. “Someone must have taken them.” We may feel guilt. “If I was more attentive to taking them off, then I would remember where I put my glasses.” We may feel sadness. “They tried so hard, it’s a pity the scores weren’t closer.” We may feel anger. “That umpire! Did you see how many frees he gave to the others?” We may feel jealous. “They just sail through life with everything going their way.” We may feel disgust when we blame others for their loss. “If only they had been more careful this wouldn’t have happened.”
There are many different feelings but they all fall into 7 different categories that are consistent around the world. For instance we all smile when we feel happy, we all wither when we feel shame and we all curl our lips when we are disgusted. These physical manifestations act as non-verbal indicators to us and it is beneficial for relationships for us to learn to read them.
During the school holidays, Betty was having a day out with her teenaged granddaughter. A number of times, Betty’s phone dinged to indicate that an email or message had arrived. Her granddaughter was impressed. “You get more messages than I do, Nan!” she exclaimed. Nan wasn’t quite so excited. She knew that most of them were about work and would require a considered response from her. She wished that she could ignore some of them, pretending they had never come. Betty mostly found these modern forms of communicating time-saving, but sometimes they were demanding and she wished she could just pretend she hadn’t heard.
About a week later, she saw a small canon, captured from the French in the Napoleonic era two centuries ago, on “Antiques Roadshow”. The expert explained that it was not for fighting. It was for signalling. A message would be hauled aloft in flags and then the canon fired to tell those who heard it to look to the Admiral’s ship, read the message and respond accordingly. The sound of the canon being fired demanded the attention of all around, followed by a considered response.
Feelings are like the ding of the mobile phone or the bang of the canon. They are to alert us to consider the message they bring and respond appropriately. Generations have been robbed of valuable relationship because people were taught that the right thing was to ignore their emotions. Feelings are reflex reactions by our bodies to thoughts, news, recognition of situations and behaviour. They are not of themselves either good or bad. They deserve a considered response because they may energise us and that energy needs to be used in appropriate response. Jesus used the energy from righteous anger to face and fix injustices not to fight or flee.
We limit our relationships and our lives when we supress our feelings and those of others. They are signals to us of responses that for a complete life need to be attended to.
Feelings are there for our advantage in having a richer, more connected life. They are indicators that we have received a message and invite us to a considered response. We when supress them and pretend they have not come, we can make ourselves sick. We also make ourselves less human when we deny feelings and try to keep them secret. A man on TV who was talking about the damage done by secrets, quoted this advice from Shakespeare, “Give grief words.” We only have the strength to keep them secret, push them down or put them aside for so long then they may burst from us in uncontrolled and harmful behaviour.
Somewhere along the line, Christianity lost touch with most of its feelings. It was and is, very good at cultivating feelings of guilt. In fact for centuries it has thrived on guilt and fear. It hasn’t helped people well with feelings of shame. Perhaps the greatest loss in denying feelings has been that of love and joy. Love as a feeling as well as actions and joy as part of the gifts of God for us has been forgotten. In Western culture, Christianity has developed as a religion of the head. It has largely ignored the heart and gut responses where humans feel. Some must have valued feeling though, as the Shorter Westminster Catechism tells us our chief aim is to glorify God and enjoy God forever.
We should not be surprised that joy was part of Jesus’ life. As a Jew, it was part of their culture and still is. Jews make up about 7% of the population of the USA but form the major part of their comedians. The things we enjoy vary in different cultures but we might be surprised to find just how much Jesus enjoyed his life and work. At the very least, there must have been joy when he observed those he had healed and helped, going to a new life.
The Gospel writers may or may not have known about feelings, but the way they have Jesus telling, commanding people to love would indicate little understanding of them. People cannot love unless they have been loved. They can act in loving ways but this tends to become just doing our duty unless feelings of love are present as well. We can know all there is to know about love and still not feel love. No matter how much we read about love, how many love movies we see, it is not until we experience love that we really know what love is. Reading about joy may help us feel good for a while, but it is nothing compared with experiencing joy first hand.
The Gospel reading for today comes from the time when Jesus was facing huge loss in preparing for his death. He was honest about his feelings. He was praying and summing up what he had achieved and what his hopes were for those he would be leaving. We hear Jesus repeating what he said only a short time before. “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be full.” [John 15:11] In his prayer, Jesus said, “I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.”[John 17:13] It may seem incredible to us that someone facing death would be speaking of joy and concerned for others to know and share his joy.
Somewhere along the line, Christianity lost its joy and it didn’t even seem to realise it, miss it. Has joy ever been seen as a major indicator to those either within the Church or outside of it, of our relationship with God? Unfortunately, not. Even the Charismatic, happy, clappy worship services haven’t been seen as particularly joyful. This is probably because happiness and joy are different. The Hebrew Scripture makes clear distinctions between the two with twice as many references to joy as to happiness.
We may see joy as part of love or as a partner to love. There was an old song which said, “Love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage.” Well, love and joy fit together like this or perhaps you prefer to think of them as going hand in glove. Whatever image you like, love and joy exist together in the Spirit in us. They are often intermingled feelings. It was from Jesus’ love for us that he wanted us to have his joy complete in us. All feelings are complex, almost never existing in isolation. Wine connoisseurs speak of this and that with a hint of something else; so our sense of loss can include feelings of sadness, disbelief and love, or anger, fear and jealousy. This complexity is one of the reasons why it is wise to examine them. Such things left unattended may spoil, contaminating all we do and are.
There is a psychological practice which says for us to behave in a certain way and we will come to feel whatever it is. If we behave in loving ways we will come to love. This requires great dedication, commitment. It is hard work and it may or may not happen. It apparently can work if you don’t get discouraged and give up. Some suggest we can learn to love by reading the Bible. It is true we can learn about God’s love this way but what we have then is head knowledge. The best way to come to love is by being loved. When we experience God’s love and know God’s joy in encouragement and hope, we will love and our joy will be complete.

The Aaronic blessing with its words, “May the Lord make his face to shine upon you,” is an understanding of God smiling upon us because God is enjoying us, our presence, our company. Imagine that! Surely one of the greatest gifts we can receive is this blessing. People of God, observe your feelings. Enjoy loving and being loved. Reclaim joy and enjoy God and Christ’s joy within you forever. May you be blessed richly in these things.

Easter 5B   3rd May 2015
Acts 8:26-40
Psalm 22:25-31
1 John 4:7-21
John 15:1-8
Mary had been feeling low for weeks; not without justification. She was going through a rough patch physically, financially and emotionally. She could see little hope of things improving in the near future.
There was a knock at her door and she opened it to find Janet standing there with an armful of fragrant roses. “I was dead-heading the bushes when the thought came to me to share the abundance of blooms still on the bushes. Would you like some?” she asked as she held the large bunch out to Mary. Mary felt overwhelmed by the gesture. She began to cry as she pushed her face into the petals trying to breathe deeply the healing perfume.
Janet later explained how humble she felt that it had meant so much to Mary. “It was a kind of impulse thing,” she said, “and I don’t usually go with my impulses. Perhaps I should do it more often. I don’t know who I might get to help!”
Sarah, the minister, had called on old Mrs Fraser but she wasn’t home. “What shall I do now?” she asked. As she was wondered about who lived in this area and might appreciate a visit, she had the feeling that she should go straight to the hospital, which she did. When she got there, the first people she saw were the family of a church member. He was critically ill and they had just been told that he might die in next few hours. They saw her arrival as a gift from God.
Maybe it is the dour racial background of many of us that makes us reluctant to act on impulse. Or it could be to do with our cultural ideas that acting on impulse is likely to cause us to sin, to do something wrong. It is not something we tend to be good at. We hesitate and the moment, gesture and outcome are lost. Our Protestant background tends to lead us to think that we would never get a message with directions from an angel as Philip did in the reading from Acts.
We tend not to “Do” angels even when we accept them in Biblical stories. We probably think they are not for us today. It is likely that we would explain such a message as an impulsive thought; something rather unexpected. Some, however, might be bold enough to think it could be “of God.” However, the word ‘Angel’ in Hebrew Scripture, simply means ‘messenger from God’, and many times in is not clear in what form that messenger came to the person. Even God can appear in the form of a person or persons. [Genesis 18:1,2]
Philip had no idea what was in store for him when he set out to follow the message given to him by an angel. He was sent on a hazardous journey that could have led to trouble for him. The road went through the wilderness. He took the risk of starting on the way, not knowing where he would end up. When Philip got to the place he was then directed by the Spirit to speak to the Ethiopian man. Philip’s reaction to the message had profound results reaching to the present time. The Coptic Christians trace their origins back to this encounter with Philip. Their story says that the newly baptised man returned to his own country and spread the Good News from which their church developed.
Acting on impulse is by definition doing something without knowing the eventual outcome. It is taking a risk. It doesn’t necessarily mean it is done without any thought, just that prolonged thought and planning are not part of it.
People say that one of the reason young people take silly, irresponsible and even dangerous risks is that as a culture we have become risk averse and we don’t give young ones opportunities to learn which impulses are safe to follow and which are best avoided. We don’t want to risk looking foolish or to end up embarrassed so we often do nothing and many people fail to be blessed by God because of our hesitancy. What we fail to realise is that we also miss out on the blessing it is to know that what may seem like a small thing on our part, can end up blessing many people as its affects ripple outwards.
Philip is only mentioned once more in the New Testament. Acts 21:8,9 tells us, “We came to Caesarea; and went to the house of Philip the evangelist, one of the seven, and stayed with him. He had four unmarried daughters who had the gift of prophesy.” That must have been quite a blessing for him.
Many acts of love are carried out on impulse, the stirring of the Spirit within us. The reading from the Gospel of John explains our relationship with Christ by saying he is the vine and we are the branches, an intimate linking. The same sap that runs through Christ, runs through us. We are the bits that bear the fruit, but only as a result of the life force that comes to us as part of the vine. The branches ARE part of the vine. Jesus didn’t say as he could have, “I am the trunk or the roots and you are the branches”, which would have made more distinction between us. We are the parts of the vine which are capable of bearing fruit and the fruitfulness of the vine depends entirely on us.
The impulse to act in love came to Philip in two apparently different ways as we are told about an angel and the Spirit. It can come directly to us through the essence of who we are in relationship with Christ or through other people consciously or unconsciously acting as messengers of God. In other words, others can be messengers of God to us and we can be such messengers to others. There may be more truth in someone’s exclamation, “You’re an angel”, than what we realise. When we hesitate or are reluctant in our responses to those impulses, others are not helped and we bear little fruit.
1 Corinthians 13 is perhaps the most popular passage on love. It tells us what love is. 1 John 4 urges us to love, to get on with loving. “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God… God is love”. God lives in us through God’s Spirit and it is from the Spirit we receive the impulse to love. When we are afraid of acting on the urging of the Spirit, we are not loving. We may be worried that we will ‘get it wrong’, or that we will seem foolish. An older woman used to say, “Better to seem a fool for a day than to be one for the rest of your life.” She was talking about our fear of asking questions to learn something, but the words could as easily apply to our reluctance to act in love because we also lose out when we fail to act in love. If Philip had failed to respond to the message he got, millions of people would have missed out. [Acts 8]
There is no doubt that “we love because God first loved us.”  [1 John 4:19] To keep on loving we need to receive God’s love continuously otherwise we become dry and withered. It is essential we accept the necessary pruning and feeding, allowing God to nurture us. We who have lived in cities or places where vines don’t grow, do not always remember the place of seasons in the productivity of vines and branches. Probably about half of a congregation in an area that produces table grapes, works in the vineyards year round. They know it is a continuous job caring for the vines to have the best fruit. Pruning the right bits is a skill as is training the branches to grow along the wires. Even when the branches have begun bearing, the fruit needs protection from frosts, insects, birds, hailstorms and moulds. There is continuous input from gardeners for optimum results. We can reasonably expect that God, the Gardener would work with great skill and care.
As we do not expect vines to produce all year round so it is likely that God provides times of fruitfulness and times of regeneration for us. Where they grow the table grapes, there are different varieties planted so that the productivity is spread over many months. There are times when we can leave the work to others and times when it is our turn to produce our best results, guided by the Spirit within.
Perhaps you might like to buy some grapes today and as you eat them, ponder the implications of the fruit of the vine of which you are a branch and dare to be impulsive in your response to the Spirit’s stirring within you.

 Easter 4B   26th April 2015
Acts 4:5-12
Psalm 23
1 John 3:16-24
John 10:11-18
There has been a rise in the number of programmes on TV, usually coming from the UK, which feature restoration of some kind. There has been Grand Home Restoration and Make My Home Bigger.  And I believe that much of the attraction of Homes under the Hammer is not so much in how much money people can make but rather in how people are able to take something that seems to be of little value and turn it into something beautiful, true to how it was meant to be.  Some require little restoration; others need to be almost remade from the foundations up. The people who work on these things can see beauty where most people only see decay and destruction.
Buildings that have suffered damage, been poorly maintained and inadequately repaired are brought back to life. Components of the buildings, such as fireplaces that have been ripped out are reinstated. Beautiful features that have been covered up are disclosed. Some damage comes from general wear and tear, some from extraordinary accidental circumstances and some from wilful destruction.
Restoration often requires a lot of work. It can take time. It can be costly. Some restoration can be done by family and friends, some needs skilled workers for a really good job to be done. If it is not done well, it may be worse in the end. Sometimes it is done creatively in the best sense of the word. It is best when it is done with sensitive recognition of the character of the building, what it was intended to be from the beginning. You can see that some people love the buildings, love the challenge and get great satisfaction from carrying the job through to completion even when it is costly in time, effort and money. The satisfaction they obtain from a job well done is good to see. Some people get endless hours of satisfaction from restoring old cars. There is often some controversy about restoration. Is it worth the time and effort the person puts into it? Does the result justify the cost?
Older people are also restored to life with such things as joint replacements and cataract removals. Some don’t need surgery. For some, physiotherapy, appliances and learning new techniques are sufficient to restore independence and life. Most medical procedures are aimed at restoration of function and health. We tend to assume that most people can access the help they need in these areas by themselves or with the help of family and friends. If this is not happening and we know they could be helped, it is remiss of us not to help them.
We would never dream of saying to someone who has just been injured in a road accident, “You know where the hospital is. You can get yourself there!” As soon as we discover someone is injured enough to need special care, we ring an ambulance. We ensure that the people are in the hands of the paramedics and then the hospital staff on their way to being restored, before we walk away. And it is fight that we behave like this.
There are other ways in which people can benefit from being restored. For many of us, our souls have suffered, been damaged, been covered up or suppressed through the years. Many people have souls in desperate need of restoration but we often do not recognise this or because we don’t know how to help, we ignore the problem.
There are so many things which happen to people are soul destroying. Anything that demeans a person as a human being is soul destroying or damaging. Remarks made such as, “You’ll never amount to anything,” damage our souls. The person who said. “Sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me,” had no idea just how much some names can hurt us by bruising our souls. And being overlooked can diminish our souls.
I believe that one of the reasons the 23rd Psalm is so popular is the hope for and the promise of soul restoration that it gives. Its words are encouraging, life enhancing for those whose souls need restoring. From the first verse we have hope. As some modern versions put it, “The Lord is my shepherd, I have everything I need.” In our affluent societies it surprises us to recognise how many people live deprived of what is needed to keep our souls well nourished. People crave love and affection, recognition and acceptance for who they are. People long not to have to pretend they are different from who they are in order to belong to the group or family. All forms of abuse, physical, psychological, emotional, financial, sexual, verbal among others may leave our souls withered and cracked.
The Psalmist’s reassurance that God gives us green pastures beside still water to lie down talks of an attractive, peaceful, well supplied, place to rest. Recently I have been talking with people in drought affected places. Early on someone said, “I bet you didn’t see a blade of green grass anywhere along the two hundred kilometres it took you to get here.” I hadn’t. Dry grass and dried out dams and waterholes don’t make attractive places to rest and drought conditions seem to dry up our enthusiasm for life.
We cling to the reassurance that God as Shepherd will lead us along the right paths and protect and comfort us. God shows that God esteems us by tending to our needs when we are surrounded by those who put us down and soothes our troubled spirits with oil.
It is no wonder that the writer is able to say in the end. “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life” and he is able to make the decision to dwell in the house of the Lord for his whole life. Just reading the words of this Psalm bring hope to people’s lives and hope is always life-giving to the soul, especially one that is in need of restoration.
God is still in the business of restoring souls.
The image of God as Shepherd is one of the favourites of the church, but our understanding of this image has been distorted by centuries of urban living. We forget that shepherds were from the lower classes of people. They were despised by some. They faced dangers other than wild animals such as wolves, from which they needed to shelter their flocks. Forty or fifty years ago, there was a song in a musical; I think it may have been “Oklahoma”, that said “There farmer and the cowboy should be friends.” It was about conflict between farmers who wanted to settle and cultivate the land and cowboys who wanted to roam the country looking for the best pasture for their herds.
This kind of conflict has been going on for centuries and until very recent times it has been a cause of conflict in the Middle East. Pasture specialists from the South Australian Department of Agriculture went to Iraq in the nineteen seventies to help improve pastures so the shepherds would no longer want to feed their sheep where people were growing crops. The shepherds were hated by the people who led more settled lives. Shepherds have known over and over that conflict with others in our communities can be soul destroying.
Psalm 23 is Good News and has been good news to millions of people who have been suffering in various ways through the centuries. There is more Good News in the New Testament readings for today.
Prior to the beginning of the passage from Acts, Peter had healed a man who had been lame from birth. Acts 4:9,10 “If you are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known… that this man is in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.” Peter found out about the cost of restoration when he was attacked by those who  didn’t like it that he had restored the body of this man and in doing so had given him new life.
In the Gospel, Jesus points out how totally dedicated we need to be to saving the life of those entrusted to our care. And the writer of the Epistle challenges us whose souls have been restored to consider giving our lives to bring this treasure to those who have not yet received it.

We have been called as followers of Christ, to become restorers of the souls of those who are considered the least among us. It is soul destroying to be labelled a no-hoper, an addict, a dole bludger, homeless, an idiot and many other things that you will have heard. We are called to be willing to sacrifice our aspirations to assist such people to act in ways which will help people to know they are valued, cared for by providing homes and quality food, protection and comfort as the Good Shepherd did. Then we too, will have satisfaction and joy in restoration well done. It is not an easy job. It is not quick or cheap, but it is worthwhile for the future of our communities.

Easter 3B   19th April 2015
Acts 3:12-19,
Psalm 4
1 John 3:1-7
Luke 24:36b-48
Laurie used to say to his students, “You may have heard it said that people learn from their mistakes. That is rubbish! You only have to think for a moment or two to know that people make the same mistake over and over, showing that they have not learned from their mistake. You only learn from pondering your mistake; by asking questions of it and yourself. Then you are in a place to behave differently the next time.”
It is not only mistakes that we can learn from by pondering. When we are disturbed in any way, we are more likely to make mistakes, to say or do the wrong thing. When we feel disturbed by anything; any situation, anything we hear or see, it may be God’s way of stirring us to learn a new thing or to behave in a new, more life giving way. So it is advantageous to take time to consider why we are feeling this way. Pondering is about looking at all possibilities, taking time to assess things rather than jumping to conclusions. Feeling disturbed is the way in which our bodies seek to get our attention and say to us, “Here is something you need to ponder.”
The psalmist for today wrote, “When you are disturbed, do not sin;” Frequently when we are disturbed we may indeed sin by acting from anger, fear or frustration, if we do not give ourselves time to think about what is disturbing us. Another lecturer, this one in Christian Ethics, told us, “It is not a sin to make a wrong decision. It is a sin not to have considered all the possibilities before making the decision.”
Sally had been having trouble with her oldest child Grace for several months, ever since they had started coming to play group, in fact. They lived on an isolated farm and Grace’s life so far had been very quiet. Play group was busy and noisy and Grace was requiring more and more time out. She didn’t seem to be able to play nicely with the other children for very long, especially when she was tired. Initially Grace was keen to play with the others but as more arrived and the noise escalated, Grace became disturbed to the point that she would need to be removed from the situation.
After this had happened several times, Sally began to feel disturbed about it. The other parents muttered about Grace’s behaviour and Sally was so disturbed that she had almost reached the stage of just staying home to save embarrassment. What stopped her doing this was the thought that in eighteen months or so, Grace would need to start school and what might happen then? She was also upset that Grace didn’t seem to be learning from her time out time. The same thing would happen again and again. As Sally pondered the situation she wondered, “What if Grace could be taught to recognise when she was beginning to feel disturbed and to then ask if she could leave the group for a while instead of having to be taken from the group?
She talked with Grace about the idea and then helped the child to learn to recognise the signs that she was becoming disturbed. They discussed withdrawal options such as reading in the quiet corner or going for a walk outside and that she would need to let an adult know what she planned. This strategy worked surprisingly quickly. Grace could tolerate longer times in groups because she had permission to leave if she felt she needed to and didn’t feel she was forced to stay. Now in her twenties, Grace still loves quiet times and her friends and families enjoy the times she is with them more.
The psalmist writing well over two thousand years ago knew this. The advice given in v4 “When you are disturbed, do not sin; ponder it on your beds and be silent.” [Psalm 4:4 NRSV] In the last forty years or so, there has been a swing in Western culture towards meditation and contemplation, both of which can be part of pondering. It has become quite the thing to ‘go on retreat’. In some area of Australia there are many retreat houses offering different styles of contemplation and meditation. Some are busy places for pampering. Some focus on healing. Some focus on spiritual health and wholeness.
Some of the practices at such places were initially condemned by Christians as pagan and evil. But throughout Jewish and Christian tradition, there have been those who practiced meditation and contemplation as part of their prayer life. Moses’ trips to the mountain were such events. Prophets set the example of retreating, like Elijah when he went to the cave. Paul is believed to have had a number of years in the wilderness of Arabia before he began his mission. Near where I lived in England, there were several sites where hermits had lived through the centuries and I got to visit a present day hermit in his home high up a steep hillside accessed only by a narrow path, away from distractions other than the beauty of the countryside.
There are also many Christian Retreat Houses around Australia though we Protestant have been slow to make much use of them. Our so called Protestant ‘work ethic’ has got in the way of going to our bedrooms or some other quite place to meditate. The Quakers have contemplation as the central part of their worship services and a young person said to me recently how much she would like a worship service that was many silent. “We have so much noise and busyness in our lives. It would be really good to be able to sit quietly pondering in a sacred place.”
The ideas of pondering, contemplation and meditation are so foreign to many of us that they are seen as self-indulgent and have been sneered at as ‘naval gazing.’ But in recent times, their value in enhancing life has again been appreciated.
 Some parents and teachers are encouraging children to develop this habit. Catholic schools in Queensland have a quiet time daily for students to meditate and they have found they have less trouble since introducing the practice.
The writer of the Psalm indicates that pondering leads to a sense of awe and a desire to worship God. Contemplation helps us see the complexity of all things and to appreciate diversity. The first action he suggests after this is worshipping God by offering sacrifices. We no longer think that God requires burnt offerings from us but that there are countless forms of worship and sacrifice including living selflessly.
One of the speakers in the psalm goes on to say, “There are many who say, ‘O that we might see some good!’” That is a familiar cry still today. Perhaps if we taught and developed reflective behaviour in our communities we might see more good in many different areas of life. At least if we were taught to withdraw when we are feeling disturbed, we would see less violence, less fear of foreigners maybe less bullying.
One unexpected place people have seen good has been in the unexplained idea of placebo healing. For many years the placebo effect has been known to researchers. All around the world when trials are being conducted into the efficiency of a new drug, they allow for the placebo effect in assessing the results. A certain percentage of the people will always improve simply because they perceive they are receiving treatment. Some have ridiculed the people who respond in this way saying their illness was just about mind over matter. But the Placebo effect may well be a gift that should not be sniffed at. If it enables people to heal from diseases it should be praised. Anything that enables people to have better health is surely good.
Recently I heard part of a radio broadcast in which they were talking about an extended version of the placebo effect. Researchers pondering on differing outcomes for people diagnosed with similar illnesses found that when medical workers believed that recovery was likely and gave people optimistic diagnosis, they were more likely to recover than when they were pessimistic about the outcome for the individual.
The reading from Acts we have just heard follows on from the story of Peter healing a lame man. Many of us heard the story as children and remember singing about the man who went “walking and leaping and praising God.” Was it something like this version of the placebo effect that had happened for the man who Peter had healed? Was Peter the first to have faith that together with Jesus Christ he could encourage the man sufficiently for him to be able to walk? We do not know how this healing occurred only that it did. This is indeed good. It is another way in which people are healed. Many major advances have been made in health sciences by people who were disturbed about early deaths or suffering, pondered the situation and were enlightened.
Sometime it is passages from the Bible which disturb us. Then it is particularly good for us to ponder the passages prayerfully. It may take weeks, months or even years to come to an understanding of what God is saying, or not saying through these particular words. Meditation, contemplation and pondering are about waiting patiently for answers. It isn’t always easy to be patient when we are disturbed by something. We want answers immediately but we may not be ready for the answers.
It is arrogant of us to ever assume that we know what particular passages of Scripture mean without pondering all possible implications and may well lead to us sinning. It is up to each of us to ask questions such as who wrote this, to whom, in what circumstances and why? We can also ask, do the words mean the same today, what were the cultural understandings at that time, how did they see God and Jesus?

We have been gifted with the ability to contemplate and meditate, to think and to feel and to ponder. We have the privilege of being called “children of God”. Let these things be a blessing to us, to our relationship with and worship of God and to our relationship with others.

Easter Day   5th April 2015
Isaiah 25:6-9 or Acts 10:34-43
Psalm 118:1,2, 14-24
1 Corinthians 15:1-11 or Acts 10
Mark 16:1-8
Today, of all the days of the year, is when we think and feel and tell the Good News. Today we are celebrating the irrepressibility of love, joy, peace and all the other fruits; of faith and hope; of life in all its fullness, overcoming all obstacles. Truly, love will come again like wheat that springs up green; not only love but joy and life. This is the key to the conclusion of Mark’s Gospel. That we are here celebrating today is evidence that love can be battered, bruised, even thought to have been killed, but that is an illusion.
Love cannot and will never be destroyed. It can be ignored, suppressed, denied but still it keeps on springing back. Love has been largely overlooked as the source of all good. To show love has even been considered a weakness. But love will be expressed. When it could not be spoken of openly for cultural reasons, it has been shown covertly. One doesn’t have to watch many episodes of the Antiques Road Show, to see and hear them talk about the language of love being powerfully expressed symbolically in flowers and jewellery.
Love is what happened on the first Easter day. It had, of course been happening since the beginning of time. Creation itself was the first act of love and it is believed to have gone off with quite a bang!
You may be wondering how anyone can be optimistic and think love will triumph. There is far more of it around than you may think. Perhaps it needs to be promoted more. Real love can be scary and costly. It can find resistance and is rejected. People can be suspicious of it, especially if they are not used to being loved or have been hurt by it. They may even build walls to protect themselves from it.
Love is the ultimate paradox. It is strong and fragile, eternal and fleeting, forceful and gentle. It is flexible and multifaceted. It is all the things that are said of it in 1 Corinthians 13 and 1 John. 
This year we are looking at the Gospel of Mark which originally finished with an empty tomb. Verses 9-20 are believed to have been added later, maybe in the second century to make it more like Matthew and Luke. At the time of Jesus, language was seen differently from how we see it now. We are obsessed with what language means while they were much more concerned with what it does. This Gospel was written believing it had power to exert an influence on what people did, how they behaved.
Mary Ann Tolbert believes the whole of this Gospel is based around the parable of the sower where the seed fell on different ground which dictated its outcome. She writes,
The ending of a book was not only to sum up what had come before but also to move the readers to action. Books on how to write suggested that the best way to promote a response was to depict a reversal of fortune from good to bad. This is simply stating fairly common human experience: we are more roused if our expectations are dashed than if no expectation had been raised in the first place. The disciples as a group in Mark –the rocky ground type- exemplifies such a procedure; their failure is more painful to witness because of their initial promise than it would have been if they- like the Jerusalem authorities – rejected Jesus from the beginning. If things look well, then collapse, the fall is more affecting than if they never looked well at all. However, by the time of Jesus’ crucifixion and unexpectedly sudden death on the cross, all the active character groups from earlier in the story have supplied graphic evidence of their failure…. Whatever expectations they may have embodied have now been fully demolished… 
Mark begins the epilogue by introducing a previous unknown group; “women looking on from afar… who when he was in Galilee, followed him and ministered to him [15:40-42]. Their newness [in the plot] permits a renewal of hope in human fruition when all hope seems to have been lost.”
Some of these women are the ones who went to minister to Jesus’ body like to unnamed woman had before his death who anointed him with oil. They are the ones who found the huge stone which they thought might be an impediment to seeing Jesus had been removed and the tomb empty. Their expectations had been dashed but there was an element of hope in the message they received from the young man in the tomb.
Then again the readers hopes are dashed as we are told they fled the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them and they said nothing.  For us who like a happy ending, this could not be more tragic. Even the women failed in the end.
But we know it was not the end. There must have been power beyond our understanding in the small piece of writing we call Mark, the power of the Spirit of his central character.
Because they were written by four different people, over a period of sixty years or so, the Gospels in our New Testament tell slightly different stories about what happened after Jesus was crucified.
It is interesting to set the various accounts of the empty tomb next to one another, in order to see their special emphasis. Mark’s was the first written and he said that the women who found the tomb empty ran away in fear and told no one. Matthew’s account was written about 15 years later, and truly could be described as an earth shattering event. The focus was on the huge stone that the soldier’s had placed in front of the tomb of Jesus. The women’s main concern was who would roll the stone away for them.
To their amazement, the stone had been rolled away. The stone symbolised the finality of the death of Jesus that confronted the women at the cemetery. It was so big that it could only be moved by someone stronger than they were. The help came in the form of an earthquake, which was Matthew’s unique contribution to the Easter story. The earthquake signifies that the resurrection was not something private and personal with Jesus. The earth quake signifies the earth shattering significance of the event. 
John’s story, which was written possibly 70 years after, said that when they got to the tomb on Easter morning, and it was empty, they went back home to tell the others. This reminds us of the two disciples in Luke who were going home to Emmaus. Some women had told them that Jesus had been raised from the dead, but they were so intent on having supper in Emmaus that they went ahead with their plans in spite of what they had heard. It is as if they thought the empty tomb was just more bad news.
The common theme in these stories is that it was women, two named Mary, who were the first to see the empty tomb. But they didn’t realize the significance of this. And when they told the men, they were not believed. The men had to see for themselves. Women didn’t have much credibility in the eyes of the men and so they didn’t believe what these ones had told them. Maybe they were so distraught in their grief that they did not hear.  Maybe they were just glad to get away from all the noise and violence represented in Jerusalem. Who knows?
The resurrection is about the irrepressibility of love. There is more love around than we can ever imagine or the media would let us believe. Someone has pointed out that all the trouble and strife we see so prominently displayed in the media is called news because that is what it is. It is the news because it is not the norm. People doing good and loving things is not news because it happens all the time. In a majority of homes, love triumphs over dysfunction. Most people are not bullied at work even though if you are experiencing this it may feel as though there are. More women are not abused than are even though the difference in number may be small.
Don’t be afraid of love or to love. It is the most amazing thing. Some of you will know that over thirty years ago I looked at my husband and children and felt nothing. Well, that is not true. I felt guilty so I set out to find what love is and how to love. It has been and amazing journey or maybe more of a dance with as many steps backwards as forwards sometimes. I hadn’t long begun to love my husband when he died and that put me off risking love for quite a while. Then I heard a talk on letting God love you. Twenty five years later, I am still pondering all the implications of that one. I have also been reaping the benefits of it in learning to love. I am still a relative novice at loving, often finding it hardest to love myself even though I know that when I am not loving myself, I am not able to truly love others.
Love cost Jesus his life. This month Australia is celebrating the centenary of Anzac and we have been hearing stories of the love shown by many as they risked personal danger to rescue injured mates or even gave their lives to save others in battle.  Unfortunately there are many thousand whose lives and those of their families, were curtailed by the trauma of war. We tend not to honour the sacrifice they also made. We honour service personnel best by living full lives in the freedom which they won for us.
No one knows exactly what happened all those years ago on that first Easter morning. We do know that love continues to encourage all to life in all its fullness for all of creation. May you be blessed to know that Love.

Lent 6B   29th March 2015   Passion Sunday
Isaiah 50: 4-9a                                                                                                               Psalm 31:9-16                                                                                                Philippians 2:5-11                                                                                            Mark 14:1-15:7
There are a number of ways in which we can read Scripture, as a set of good stories; by asking what God might have been saying to the people at the time the story was set, at the time it was written or edited and what God might be saying to us and what can I learn from that. Lectio Divina is an ancient way of praying with the Scriptural passage to discern what God is saying to us at this particular time through this text. Midrash is an ancient Hebrew way of asking questions of the text, discussing all possible meanings with others and being open to sitting with the questions where there doesn’t seem to be an answer.
Last week I suggested a way of hearing the readings set from Hebrew Scripture was to see the Psalm as a prayer and the Jeremiah reading as God’s reply. Today’s Psalm is also a prayer for mercy but the reply doesn’t come directly from God, it comes from a person in the form of the reading from Isaiah. This is a gentle reminder to us that God can speak through another person to us or that God through us can speak to others. God and us together can make a good team! The word and actions of others can also speak to us of God.
The reading from Psalm 31 is a person giving a graphic description to back up the claim that he is in distress as he cried out to God through the words of his prayer. If we failed to hear the word, “distress” we could not fail to register the stark reality of the words that follow. There will be some for whom those words are an accurate description of their experience and just knowing that others have experienced similar pain can be a comfort. There will be others who have not been through such suffering and may feel this is over the top language. They could dismiss it as being too dramatic, or could learn something of what it can be like and so be somewhat prepared if they  find themselves in a similar place.
Isaiah 50 is written by a person who is relating his experience of God in his particular suffering. He have been encouraged by what God has done for him and the gifts he has received that have enabled him to keep going in difficult circumstances.
It is possible that ‘encouragement’ is the most overlooked word in our Scripture. En-courage-ment is about enabling. It is not pushing. That is putting you will on to another. It is not strengthening which seems to have rigidity to it. Good encouragement is about helping the other to see they have what it takes to accomplish whatever it is they are seeking to do, or at least to give it a good try. It has a gentle strength and we have many examples of good encouragement through the Bible. The name Barnabas means “son of encouragement.” [Acts 4:36] It is a great gift to be able to encourage others, especially when they are disheartened or depressed.
The Prophet writer of Second Isaiah is a servant facing persecution and suffering, but he remained confident that God would deliver him. He had been encouraged by God’s gifts and actions towards him. God has given him the ability to teach and encouraged him to listen each morning to be himself taught. The prophet knew that those who tried to teach the way of God were despised, ridiculed and insulted, but because he was so sure his help for the task came from God, he was able to stand against all the others could throw at him. He had not become discouraged.  
Up to recent times, this Sunday has been referred to as Palm Sunday in most Protestant Churches. But for some, all the fuss made of this day didn’t seem to fit. Research about the time of Jesus, showed that much of the activity on the day he entered Jerusalem, the singing of Psalms and the waving of palm fronds was not something special. It was the way in which the people of Jerusalem welcomed all pilgrims coming to celebrate the Passover with them. It had been attributed to the people realising Jesus as the Messiah but this might not have been so.
It was hard to reconcile all the cheering of Palm Sunday to the pain of the next six days and we have tended to ignore it and jump straight to the joy of Easter Day. We have attributed the change of heart in the crowds from Jesus’ entry to the city to his arrest to the fickleness of people.
It was something of a relief for some people that this day is also designated as Passion Sunday. The reason the Church gives for calling this Passion Sunday has to do with the suffering of Jesus as he faced his inevitable death. But that may be restricting passion too much. Passion is about feeling with one’s heart and soul. It is about being PASSIONATE. The laptop Thesaurus has many words describing passion such as desire, hunger, thirst, appetite, craving, urge, ache, rage, fury, outburst, fever, anger, furore, wrath ire, fervour, ardour, obsession and zeal among others. Wow. We could say that many of these are part of the suffering of Jesus but generally we imply that his suffering was an uncomplicated payment to God for our sins.
We could feel quite passionate about this! The thesaurus says that the antonym of passion is indifference and we have the choice of being passionate about Jesus’ suffering or indifferent to it. This time in Jesus’ life was rife with strong emotions and it is good that we can now acknowledge that. In fact, all the people featured in the Scripture readings for today are passionate about something. Jesus had been telling his followers for some time that when he came to Jerusalem he would be killed. Most of them were in denial about this. There behaviour and responses had been disappointing for him as when he called Peter “Satan’ because he contradicted Jesus [Mark 9:33].
The chief priests and scribes were looking for a way to get rid of Jesus. He was causing them too much discomfort with his encouragement of poor people. The word for “poor” in Hebrew, can also be translated as “oppressed”. His popularity with these people was such that the only way they could see of getting him out of their hair was by killing him. Then Jesus had done an unthinkable thing by visiting the home of a leper. This automatically rendered him unclean in their eyes. They were angry and frustrated with his blatant disregard of the cleanliness code as well. The example he was setting was not good in their eyes.
The unnamed woman who anointed Jesus feet encouraged him with this gesture. She showed she had an appreciation of who he was and what he was going through that the disciples did not, even though he had been trying to get them to understand for some time. We know from her actions that the woman who poured ointment on his head was doing so in response to her passionate feelings for Jesus though we can only speculate from Jesus’ words what these feelings might have been. It would seem she the only one of his followers who had taken on board what Jesus had told them about the inevitability of his execution. She would not have made such a gesture, at huge cost to her financially and socially, if she hadn’t felt for him and his pain. It brought her immediate criticism from Jesus other followers. 
Judas was angry with Jesus because he hadn’t lived up to his expectations as Messiah and he saw the woman’s actions as a waste of money. This led to his betrayal of Jesus. Peter and some of the others seemed confused. They seemed to have assumed Jesus would just go on as he had been, preaching, teaching and healing, for at least a bit longer.  Jesus stood up for the woman. Two thousand years later, we are no closer to knowing her name but we do know what she did for him.
Peter was passionate in response, denying that he would betray Jesus. Later we are told Jesus was distressed and agitated and told Peter, James and John that he was deeply grieved when he went to pray. We can tell by his words that this worsened when his friends went to sleep. He had hoped they would also pray. They were insensitive to his distress.
Protestant Christianity largely ruled out our experiences of God, saying Scripture should be enough to encourage and sustain us in our faith. But how can we explain our faith if we can’t speak of how our experiences have shaped that faith as Second Isaiah was doing. He directly attributed his strength in the face of adversity to the experience of God in his life and the abilities he had gained through this. His telling of his story was and is an encouragement for others.
Since the story of the resurrection has been known it has been an encouragement for those who are experiencing suffering, whatever its cause. There are several places in the gospels which seem to indicate that Jesus knew that he would rise again after three days. Why then was he so distressed at this time? After all, it would soon be all over! If we believe that Jesus was truly human he could not have had this knowledge and scholars believe these passages were written with the benefit of hindsight.
It can be encouraging for people to read of the experiences of how others coped with adversity two and a half thousand years ago and how Jesus did two thousand years ago, but it is also encouraging to hear stories since then and in particular, in our time. Feelings associated with difficult times are similar today to those experienced by the Psalmist, by Isaiah and by Jesus. It is good to know God is with us in these experiences now.
We may speak of the encouragement we have received through experiences of God’s action in the lives of others. These people may be seen as special, not ordinary folk like us. We are often reluctant to tell of the encouragement we have received through the experience of God’s love in our own lives even though we know it will help others because we fear being ridiculed as Isaiah was. God still wakens our ears to listen, to be strengthened, to have the words to encourage and sustain the weary. God answers our desperate prayers with encouraging reassurances that all we will need for this day will be provided.
Thursday I became worried. Friday I began to panic. I could not think of more than a few words that were needed to be written. Then I remembered that I didn’t need them on Friday, I only needed to have them by Monday morning. I decided to put it aside and to do something else. I would panic again Sunday if necessary. Saturday I woke with surprising, encouraging ideas. Thanks be to God who was and is and ever will be there to encourage us in times when we are suffering and when we feel passionately about our lives and those of others.

 Lent 5B   22nd March 2015
Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 51:1-12 0r 119:9-16, Hebrews 5:5-10, John 12:20-35
The Lectionaries which we use to determine what Bible readings we work with each week are set out in four columns. The first column is Hebrew Scripture, the second psalms, the third epistles and the fourth contains the Gospel reading. Traditionally this is the order of the readings in the worship service though the singing of Psalms has sometimes meant they were put before the other Hebrew Scripture. Today the Psalm needs to go before the reading from Jeremiah to make sense of it. The Jeremiah reading God seems to be replying to the prayers of the Psalmist. I invite you to listen carefully as we read the Psalm together as a prayer and then hear Jeremiah 31 read.
The anguish of the psalmist is almost palpable. It is said to have been written by King David after his adultery with Bathsheba had been pointed out to him by the prophet Nathan. Adultery is probably not the best word to use as it implies consenting parties where as we know that Bathsheba was not a willing participant. These days we would rather call it what it was, manipulated rape. David had all the power in the situation. Bathsheba had none. As a woman and the wife of an ordinary soldier she was powerless to refuse David’s advances. He compounded his wrong doing by having her husband killed, hoping to cover up his appalling behaviour.
It is almost a relief to think that he felt so bad about it afterwards though he mistakenly thought that it was only God who had been offended against as shown when he said, “Against you and you only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” Sin never affects only God and his behaviour was not evil only in God’s sight. Most of the community would have considered what he did wrong.  Surely, if he had been really honest, he might have seen that he had also sinned against the wife or in his case, the many wives he already had, Bathsheba, her husband, their wider family and as king, against all his people. And what he had done was evil in the sight of others as well. He needed to take responsibility for all this and how his behaviour had damaged him as well.
So, even with all these seemingly contrite words, he was still only “Getting” part of the picture. It leaves us with the feeling that he might not be totally sincere in his words; that he might just be going through the motions. Many victims of domestic violence hear such words of sorrow after they have been battered physically, mentally, emotionally and sexually. There are promises that it will never happen again, sincerely meant at the time, but it does happen again. That is often the nature of evil when people are reluctant to take responsibility for their actions.
The reading from Jeremiah is God’s answer to such prayers as this. It gives hope in place of despair. God will change things so people can be responsible for their own behaviour. The Psalmist realised he needed help to change. This is another passage that is used by those who think that God was learning and changing his behaviour towards people to help them towards richer lives. The writer cried out for a new heart and God, through Jeremiah promised to give people new hearts.
We sometimes think people need a new heart, a new way of thinking and feeling about life. A grandmother, almost in despair about the behaviour of her eighteen year old grandson was overheard to say recently. “Someone needs to have a chat with that boy about maturing and taking responsibility for his actions.” The last straw had been that he had yet again missed the school bus because he had slept in having stayed up half the night playing computer games. Many younger people are not taught to take responsibility. In past generations they would have been at work for several years by this age.
I was working in Community Health Care when it first came in that we were to issue clients with a list of their rights. Very soon it became apparent that there needed to be a list of their responsibilities as well or they were quickly infringing the rights of the workers. Ideally, as a child grows, they are given more and more responsibility. This is what helps them to mature. This requires parents to accept the responsibility of nurturing their children this way, which is not always easy. Often it is quicker and easier to do things ourselves than to encourage young ones in learning to behave responsibly.
We prepare children to take responsibility by teaching them skills and explaining right behaviour to them. When we give young ones appropriate responsibility we indicate that we believe in them and trust them to carry out the task you have assigned for them. This in turn helps them to accept responsibility and live responsibly.
One of the most frustrating things for those who care about how many people are killed on our roads is that so many of us don’t think our actions and reasons through. We don’t reflect on whether it is sensible to behave in certain ways and how our motives lead us to take unnecessary risks. Many of us drive at the speed limit just because we don’t want to get caught and not because this is the safest speed for this section of road. Many times might we speed up after we have passed a speed camera, thinking that now we are unlikely to get caught.
God seems to have realised, after David’s behaviour; that people needed to take responsibility for their own decisions. God had made a covenant with their ancestors that said God would take care of them. In the Jeremiah passage God expressed this as having taken them by the hand, an action which is more suitable for young children and others who are incapable of looking after themselves than for adults.
Now, God is talking about instilling the guidelines for the right ways to live and behave within each person so that they no longer need to consult a list on how to behave or have God holding their hand to be sure they don’t get into trouble. They will be able to think things through and figure out for themselves the right way to go.
God trusts us to behave responsibly with Jesus as our example and mentor. This is telling us that as well as rights as children of God, we have responsibilities. More than that, God understands the things that make it easier or more difficult to tell what the right decision is to act responsibly. God knows what each one of us has been taught, how we as individuals have been mentored in right behaviour, how we have been encouraged or discouraged, how our personalities and experiences influence our decision making.
The church has always interpreted “the days are surely coming,” as predictive of Jesus’ time and ministry. Looking at it from our perspective, we are well and truly into that time. So why then has the church put so much time and energy into convincing people what terrible sinners they are and taken so much money from poor people to ensure God forgives them enough to let them into heaven? This is bordering on abusive behaviour. Many of us grew up with the idea that the only thing that mattered to God was our sin. We never heard that God trusted us and believed in us and had gifted us to do good things. Maybe there is nothing more merciful than God saying, “I will forgive their wrongdoing and guilt and remember their sin no more.”
Still sin is a major issue with the church. It is as if the Church has said, God may well remember your sins no more but we certainly will. Only recently someone was telling me about raising money to have a mass said to help release a friend’s soul from purgatory. We still inclined to judge ourselves and especially others harshly as sinners. Often it is because we want maybe subconsciously, to appear better than others
In the Gospel reading, we heard Jesus say that unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth it remains a single grain, but if it dies, it bears much fruit. This could be another way of expressing the idea that the primary goal for Christians is not their own comfort and advancement but to do everything possible to encourage others to life in all its fullness. We know that the seed falling to the ground does not die. In fact, if it did die, it would produce little except a minute amount of nutrients for another plant. What happens when the seed falls to the ground is that it comes in contact with the ground of all being which enables all the hidden potential of the seed to be released and to flourish.
Christians for the main have aspired to move away from earthiness rather than towards it. Why has the Church thought that grand buildings were what brought glory to God? Does a great cathedral, which was built at the cost of many lives both in the actual building and in the cost it was to the poor people of the district show more of God’s glory than a single sprouting seed? It depends on how you see glory. Do we see the glory of God’s humble goodness or is it the power and wealth of Empires we see? Such buildings show how clever humans are rather than the glory of God..
Being prepared to lay down our lives is about acting humbly rather than showing how great we are. The world by now might be quite different if the Church had remained an example of the humility of God rather than its idea of the glory of God? If we had taken note of what God told Moses about the glory of God being goodness, if we had heard the prophets telling us that God hated the way the people worshipped and that what God wanted was justice, mercy and humility, the whole world might be different.

God has made a new covenant with us and put God’s law with in us. God has given us many gifts, fruit and abilities to enable us to become more Christlike. We have the responsibility  to trust these are sufficient for us to behave as Jesus behaved and calls us to do.

Lent 4B   15th March 2015
Numbers 21:4-9
Psalm 107:1-3,17-22
Ephesians 2:1-10
John 3:14-21
Some Christians believe that as the world has evolved, so has God. They see that God has been and is being changed by the creation of humans. They base this understanding on Biblical stories. It is that God has learnt more about love by having to deal with people it comes from stories like Noah and the Ark where God made the decision to destroy all humans because they were behaving so badly. Then, when he saw the destruction, he regretted the decision and promised never to do that again. Then they cite the passage we heard from the Hebrew Scripture this morning where God seems to have become fed up with the grumbling and complaining of the people. God is said to have acted rather like some parents used to when they would scream at a crying child, “Stop that noise or I will really give you something to cry for!”
The story says that God sent poisonous snakes among the people because of their complaining. Many died as a result. That sounds blatantly vindictive and the PR people will have to work hard to reconcile that behaviour with the God of love we would like to understand. It is stories like this one that bring some to have a kind of good cop, bad cop understanding of Jesus and God. Of course we could go on to say that things worked out okay in the end when God told Moses to make a model of a snake and put it on a pole so that everyone who got bitten and then looked at the snake did not die but this seems a harsh way to get their attention.
In a previous book, Exodus, God had become very angry with the people for making the golden calf and one of the guidelines for life God had given the people was that they did not make images of animals. Now God seems to have been breaking his own rules, contradicting God-self.
Did things happen exactly as is written? We can never know and does it matter? The story of the Israelites and their journey out of Egypt to the Promised Land is one of the great epic stories of humankind and there is much we can learn about ourselves as we read it. That is what matters as does our relationship with God today. We can ask what there is in this story that can help us in our understanding of and relationship with God, others and ourselves. And there is much this story can tell us about grief and specifically the grief of losing one’s home, land and food security.
Moving from one’s home is considered one of the most stressful forms of grief. This is especially so if one is forced from one’s home by circumstances beyond one’s control. Also, when people shift from their home, they lose some of their possessions. The buildings of the Hebrew people would have been humble and their possessions meagre, but they could have taken only a small amount with them.
This grief is not often recognised when people move into Aged care facilities nor when they are required to move for their work or that of their partner. Moving is a multiple loss situation. It is often suggested soon after an older person’s partner dies, when they are already grieving. So they have lost their partner, their home, the possessions they were unable to take with them because the new place is smaller, their independence, their privacy. They are given food that they are not used to, and have their time regulated in ways they are not used to. Through the change in circumstances, they lose friends. It is not surprising that every time we visit they are complaining about something or just seem miserable. Of course there are or will be gains but these are hard to see when the feelings of grief are overwhelming. And sometimes the gains are slow in coming as with the Israelites.
I learned more about this grief when I went to work in another country.  I believed I was following God’s call in doing this, just as the Israelites did when they left Egypt. In November 1996, I flew out of Adelaide, heading for Northumberland, in the United Kingdom. I was newly ordained and this was to be my promised land. This was the first day of the rest of my life. WOW. It was something I wouldn’t have imagined in a million years when my husband had been alive and we lived in the Bangham Scrub. It wasn’t even something that I dreamed of three months before when one after another of my fellow students were accepted into placements. I was facing the end of studying and would have to wait fifteen months for a placement due to a surplus of ministers.
There was so much excitement leading up to my departure as negotiations were completed, I finished my degree and prepared for ordination prior to leaving. I was enthusiastic, newly released as I was from the confines placed on me as a student. Although I was fourth and fifth generation Australian, I had been brought up on the idea of the great British Empire with England as the Mother country so there was an element of coming home in the depths of my psyche.
Within a few days of arrival, reality began to hit. This was not like the home I was used to. So many things were different. There were so many people crammed together on the Underground as I headed for the railway station where I would get the train to Newcastle. It was colder during the day than I had ever experienced. The men who met me grumbled because I arrived half an hour later than I had told them. They took me somewhere for tea and gave me fruitcake with a slice of cheese on it, rushing me to eat so we could get to my place before it was totally dark at 4pm.
Surprisingly quickly, I was pining for the warmth and certainty I had left behind. The place I found myself in felt totally foreign. I couldn’t understand what people were saying to me even though we were both speaking English. The food was different and I didn’t know where to buy some familiar things. They used different weights and pricing systems to what I was used to. I couldn’t always understand the language or the way they did things.
I realised I was grieving for what I had left behind, the familiar and the support of family and friends. How could I have been so crazy as to leave home and come to this place? I would have been better off back in Australia; which of course was ridiculous as I had no job back there. But it didn’t stop my longing for familiar things.
This experience enabled me to develop a new appreciation for the difficulties encountered and the grief experience by those who emigrate. I went to England because I thought there were better opportunities there for me at that time and I believed God had led me there. But it was hard to keep that in mind when so much of daily life seemed so painful. In the end I would say that it was one of the greatest experiences of my life time. I learned so much valuable stuff through going. But it was painful, difficult. I began wondering about the people I had known as a child and young adult who had migrated to Australia who were known as whinging Poms. Their grumblings almost certainly had been part of their grief for the loss of the familiar and we had been completely insensitive to their suffering.
In the same way, we can be critical of the Israelites as they wandered. We don’t actually know exactly how long it took them to reach their destination. Someone reminded me recently that it is a journey of less them a week on foot if you go directly from Egypt to the Promised Land. But when you are in the wilderness of grief, it can seem a long, long time and many times you wonder if you will ever make it to the other side. Like the Israelites, it can help us to have something held in front of us by a friend, to remind us that God still cares even when we feel we are being attacked on all sides. We can hang on to the knowledge of Christ and the message from the Gospel of John that God did not send Jesus to judge or to condemn us but to save us.
It is not at all unusual for grieving people to feel they are being condemned by others who think they should be over it or just forget about it and get on with their lives. People who have suffered loss do not need to be further traumatised by the use of Scripture that condemns them and seems to show God as harsh and uncaring.
It has been pointed out [Richard Rohr] that Jesus selectively emphasised texts that revealed his God as good, faithful, inclusive and merciful. And he created stories and healing events to communicate that point. Jesus consistently ignored passages that reveal God as punitive, exclusionary, imperialistic, small or tribal.  The Gospel reading set for today [John 3: 19-21] talks about people preferring darkness to the light which has come into the world. Concentrating on passages about God sending poisonous snakes is preferring darkness to the light which Jesus shines on God.
In a few weeks, a new minister is coming to this congregation. It may not be evident to you but inevitably she will be experiencing some degree of grief. She has left familiar places and faces and come to new ones. Her grief will be multiple. Those of you who have lived your entire lives in Bendigo will find this hard to understand. It has always been home and familiar to you. Di has had to do this before. She may know what to expect but that doesn’t always make it easier. It will take time to find her way around, make new friends and become familiar with your ways of doing things.
People in congregations don’t always realise that the whole church is not like them, that they are a unique entity which has developed unique ways that are foreign to incomers. People in congregations also grieve for what they have lost. The number of times they talk about past ministers is an indication of this grief. One of the best ways of helping people through grief is to listen to what they are finding difficult. They generally only grumble when no one seems to hear and respect what it is that they are finding painful. Grief experts say people are better able to move on to their new circumstances when their complaints are taken seriously and adjustments made.

Whatever actually happened for the Israelites, let’s claim our understanding of God as the one who listens and has compassion on all who are mourning losses. Let’s cling to Jesus’ words, “Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted” and commit ourselves to behaving in a Christlike manner to all who lose their homes and move to unfamiliar places for whatever reason.

Lent 3B   8th March   2015
Exodus 20:1-17
Psalm 19:
1 Corinthians 1:18-22
John 2:13-22
A long time ago some people were beginning a new way of life. For some considerable time, they had been slaves and slaves are not expected nor allowed to think for themselves. Now they had been freed there was some uncertainty among them about what to do. Some tended to behave like their old slave-masters who had treated them harshly and followed other religions while their leaders were trying to follow the God of their  ancestors but were unsure of how to do this in a new way.
Their God decided to give them some guidelines in how to behave in a loving caring way towards each other. They had been learning more about their God who had many names such as Supreme-being, Creator, the Rock and the One who sees. When their leader asked this God’s name, he received the reply, “I AM; the God of your ancestors.” This God, unlike all the others around, cared about people and saw when they were being abused and oppressed and worked to rescue them from such conditions. In fact, their God favoured caring for oppressed people who were powerless to care for themselves. The rich and powerful could and did take care of themselves and their friends.
Some of the guidelines showed how it was best for them to think about and behave towards their God. I AM was called their God not because they had claimed that, but because I AM had claimed them, a small insignificant tribe of people who were at the mercy of the larger, more powerful countries of the region. Their land was often invaded by foreign armies and I AM set out to make things better for them and through this, to show others the life I AM hoped all people would be able to live, free to be all they were created to be.
Now, I AM had given them a very sensible set of guidelines that would help them as individuals and community to develop ways for living in freedom in a new land. These were not rigid rules that were never under any circumstances to be broken. I AM, being God, knew the people well and knew their abilities and hang-ups and trusted the people to take the responsibility for interpreting how these guidelines were to be applied and if and when they could be set aside.
This required educating people in things like the rationale behind the guidelines and helping them to understand the love which encompasses justice and mercy with which the guidelines were formed. People, being people, this was not always done well and it wasn’t long before some wanted to make their own mark on controlling behaviour and understandings.
The guidelines became rules and then commandments which had to be kept at all cost. Mercy somehow got forgotten as the rules became more rigidly applied. Learned men endless debated what each of the guidelines could possibly mean and they came up with hundreds more interpretations, applications and stricter laws as they looked at how they might be applied and law breakers punished.
One of the original guidelines was to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. There was a story in their tradition which told how God had worked to create everything in six days and on the seventh day, God had rested. Now, with the guideline, it gave the people permission to rest on the seventh day so that they had a day of rest each week. This was a really good idea. If the Creator needed to rest, how much might the created need a regular rest.
When the guidelines were given, the word “Holy” simply meant “other” or “other than”. It had none of the overtones of purity that we associate with it now. God was Holy because God is other than us. God is Creator. We are created. The rest of the week was time for work, the Sabbath is a day of rest so it is other than Monday to Saturday. The day of rest was a gift not only for these people but for all people and animals. Later, I AM also included the land they farmed in the idea of having a regular time of rest, every seventh year. Leviticus 25:1f tells them to rest the land every seventh year. They are promised that if they follow this practice, their land will yield more for the other six years so there is enough food for the Sabbath year.
Every fifty years, that is the years after seven time seven years, there was to be a jubilee year when among celebrations, land was to be returned to those to whom it had originally been allocated but who had had the misfortune to lose it, usually to pay a debt. In this way, I AM suggested to them a way for the rest which is essential to the restoration of all creation.
Jesus showed that these directions for living were guidelines rather than commandments by practicing situation ethics. He showed that if people were hungry or in need of healing, it was OK to feed and fix them on the Sabbath. Mercy trumps justice, people are more important than rules in Jesus’ book.
Through the centuries it has been mainly those who are better off who could afford to keep a day of rest each week thought they were often the ones in least need of it. Poor people in the under classes didn’t have the opportunity to rest until they began forming unions to lobby for better wages and conditions that allowed for shorter working weeks as well as better pay.
Keeping a day every week ‘holy’, free from the work of the rest of the week, gives us time to smell the roses. In our busy world and culture, many people long for a day of rest, for a bit of peace and quiet without realising that God’s guidelines for life include such a day each week. God would not have us limit our enjoyment, admiration and wonder to roses either. Every part of creation is there for us to contemplate. Age, size, structure, colour and interrelationship of all creation are displays at which we can only stand in awe and which we can only begin to appreciate if we have time to do so. God has given us this time in the Sabbath.
Unfortunately, through the centuries, people have narrowed down what it means to keep this day Holy. Our ideas about God and worship have become constricted to the point that many resented God because of the restrictions put on them and what they could do on Sundays, not realising that these were imposed by people with limited views of God.
Creation is the non-verbal communication of God’s love for us. Most of us know how inadequate words are for conveying our love for our partners, our children and grandchildren and friends. We long to do things to show them, rather than just tell them. In Creation in its entirety and the inter-relationship of people in particular, we can see God. We have been misguided into believing that worship is something that can only take place in particular man-made buildings that have been specially consecrated, for an hour on the day of the week we deem to be holy. Many have been enculturated into thinking they are unworthy of worshipping without the aid of a priest or minister. How could we ever have let the idea of worship, of praise and thanksgiving, become so constricted?  
Almost daily we are learning more about creation and as we have our eyes, ears, minds and hearts open to the possibilities, we can be continually in awe of the implications of God’s love in every small detail of what we observe. We cannot help but worship the Creator.
What a tremendous privilege it is to be living at this time when new methods of communication allow us to be privy to the wonderings of others. We owe a great debt to the likes of David Attenborough and National Geographic. We can be fed daily on a diet of TV and radio shows that amaze us with new information about everything from nano to light year size. The glory of the Lord that the heavens now reveal to us is vastly more that the people of the time of David could have ever imagined.
The writer of Psalm 19 which is set for today knew and showed, by what he wrote, that worshipping God was about contemplating creation. What things would you select to include if you were to rewrite this Psalm today? What is most awesome of the things you have learnt recently? Today on the radio they have been talking about the malaria parasites which are animals that behave more like  vegetables and so they are looking at herbicides that might possible kill them.
Jesus had every right to be angry with the traders in the temple. In selling animals and bids for sacrifices, they were showing that they had not grown up in their understanding of God. They wanted to stay with the childish practices of sacrifices. Several of the prophets had tried to tell them God hated their sacrifices. What God wanted was for them to act with justice and mercy. They were inclined to worship the temple. It had become for them and idol. They were also exploiting the poor by charging exorbitant prices for the animals.
May we be brave as Jesus was in the stand he took in the Temple against corruption. May we dare to practice situation ethics when deciding right behaviour and not be bound by unjust laws. May we be brave in reclaiming the word “Holy”. May we reclaim the Sabbath day of rest to have time to smell the roses. It is a wonderful gift from God for us.                                                                                                                                   

Lent 2B   1st March 2015
Genesis 17:1-7,15,16 Psalm 22-23-31
Romans 4:13-25
Mark 8:31-38
Names reflect who you are and influence who you will become. They are used by others to determine the likely age, gender, ethnicity and social class of the bearer. Names can be a blessing or a burden. We say this is who I am, Betty Joy Smith nee Williams, or Robert John Brown. They denote membership of a family, a clan. But they are always limiting. They don’t tell others all there is to know about the person. And we found how limited they are when, as a gesture towards liberation, women marrying decided to keep their maiden names instead of taking on their husband’s name. It was quickly realised that surnames went back along the male lines and so the protest was really only valid for one generation. Even if one was radical enough to decide to use their mother’s maiden name, it still came from her father.
Other cultures seem more conscious of the meaning of given names than we are. We are probably more likely to be influenced by the sound of the name than by its meaning. Would my parents ever have named me what they did if they had read the book which says that my name means “soft haired?” Perhaps I should just be grateful that it doesn’t mean soft headed. A colleague rang me one day saying he had a perplexing situation. He had just received a call from some parents about the baptism of their child. How does one Christen a child called “Pagan” was his question for me. This was resolved when he explained the meaning of Pagan to the parents and they decided to choose a different name.       
It is a sign of the importance of the name that it is used so prominently in the baptismal service and that people not wishing to make the commitment to Christianity necessary for a baptism are offered a naming rite for the child.                                                                             
Many children and especially teenagers have a time when they rebel against the names they have been given and wish that they could be changed and we have all heard of celebrities who changed their names because they weren’t considered glamorous enough. Many settle for shortened versions of their original name or favour a nickname. Mothers are the ones most likely to cling to the original given name, perhaps because they invested so much in choosing it.
If how we name ourselves and others is important, how much more important is how we name God or the name God gives us?
Last week some of you heard how the Hebrew Scriptures have two strands running through them, the Priestly and the Law. When we read through Genesis we can see the two different versions of Abraham’s story. In one, Ismael is a teenager when Isaac is born and in the other, he must still be a toddler as Hagar carries him into the wilderness.
Richard Rohr reminds us that the Hebrew Scriptures are also divided into three major sections: the Torah, the Prophets and the Wisdom Books. Walter Bruggermann says that these three sections represent the ordinary and healthy development of human consciousness in a sequential way. The Torah gave the Israelites the Law and a sense of their chosen-ness. For healthy development, any family must follow this pattern of first providing structure, which develops identity, boundaries and self-worth as beloved and special. Names form part of this development. Often a first child will learn its parents’ names before she or he learns to say mum or dad because they hear the parents call each other by name rather than by their title.
During the time of the Torah there was a development not only in how the Hebrew people saw themselves but also in how they saw God. Both visions were continually expanding and we see this in the renaming of God and the people.
The second set of books is the Jewish Prophets, and they represent the birth of critical thinking. The prophets have clearly been the most neglected part of Scripture for both Jews and Christians, because neither have showed much capacity for healthy self-criticism. You can see the rise of critical thinking in young people in our culture, but it is most often oriented towards others rather than themselves. Parents often feel their teenagers oppose them on everything! Some get stuck in it, being critical all their lives. And yet it is a necessary stage, though it often doesn’t go far enough.
On the individual level, self-critical thinking is necessary to see one’s own shadow self and one’s own self-centredness. This is a small, early death as one realises the reality of who one is, warts and all. Only when we encounter our shadow do we realise that the biggest problem is me! We have to go through a great interior death to get to the third stage of wisdom. This is what Jesus was taking about when he talked about it being necessary for people to be prepared to lose their lives. “Those who want to save their life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake and the sake of the gospel will save it.”[Mark 8:35] This is the ‘dying to self’ death. Then we can begin to learn to live with mystery and paradox. It is the birthplace of compassion and wisdom.
The Wisdom section of the Hebrew Scriptures includes the books of Job, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs, and many of the Psalms. Such Wisdom literature reveals an ability to finally be patient with mystery and contradictions—and the soul itself. Wisdom people have passed through a major death to their ego. This is the core meaning of transformation. It opens us to what Marcus Borg and others have rightly called alternative wisdom instead of the mere maintenance of social order [conventional wisdom].
It is from this third stage of alternative wisdom that Jesus teaches. For most of Christian history the Church has tried to understand Jesus inside the first stage of law and the need for social order. Some have not had a solid foundation in this stage to understand how special they are and why. As a result, many Christians have been stuck in the stage of being somewhat critical of others but have not reached the maturity of faith to act in justice. We need to understand who our unique self is before we can give up that self for the sake of our self and others. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is anything but maintaining the status quo, and it goes far beyond mere negative or critical thinking!”
Our reading for today comes from early in the Torah when the Hebrew people were learning who they were especially in relation with God. The material prepared for Seasons of the Spirit points out that in Genesis 17 God introduces three new names not just the two we usually acknowledge, “Almighty”, Abraham and Sarah.  God is given a new name as well. The Hebrew word El Shaddai is traditionally translated for us as “Almighty” based on Latin and Greek translations. In Hebrew it can mean “mountains” or “beasts” and both may be alluded to at the same time. They both have the same shape, and are the source of nurture or nourishment. Mountains as home of God and a source of nurture and nourishment are common images in the Bible and the ancient Near East. It is interesting to ponder why the Church has chosen to use the word ‘almighty’ instead of mountain or beast. God is referred to as the Lion of the tribe of Judah [Revelations 5:5].
The discomfort many feel at associating God with beasts may be due to the strict division between spirit and matter in Western minds. This dualism, along with male/female, rational/emotional, heaven/ earth has trained our minds to think in either/or thinking patterns. Genesis 17 encourages us to expand our awareness in both/and patterns. El Shaddai, like Abraham and Sarah, is both mother and father to a “multitude of nations.”
The passage begins with God of Mountains/Beasts and ends with Sarah as mother of nations. The beginning of the passage emphasises the promise to make Abraham the ancestor of many nations. The verb translated as “I will make you exceedingly fruitful” is just one word in Hebrew and is the same as the creation story in Genesis 1:22,28 translated as “Be fruitful”. The promise to Abraham is the continuing of creation. The next part which is omitted from the Lectionary is about the land which is central to the fruitfulness of life.
If we go back only four verses from where we began today, [Genesis 16:13], we read that Hagar gave God a new name. The Word El was a common way that different cultures referred to God and Hagar called God El-roi, the God who sees, when God promised to care for her and her son after she ran away from the harsh treatment of Sarai and Abram. Her son’s name is to be Ismael which means God hears. Surely it was a very bold move by someone in as lowly a position as Hagar to give God a new name. We are reminded of how much controversy there has been about people giving God the name of Mother.
It is said that the Hindu people have a thousand names for God and that the Muslims have ninety-nine name for Allah. In Christianity, we have largely limited our names for God to Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The titles Messiah, Christ and Lord all have the same meaning, that of military leader/commander in chief.
In their minds, the disciples had named Jesus, Messiah. The problem was that their understanding of that name was quite different from how Jesus understood his work. When he tried to explain clearly that this meant he would be killed if he continued, his followers did not want to hear. They were even more reluctant to hear that he wanted them to be willing to follow the same path.
The name that Jesus gave to himself, son of man, the church has written with capital letters as with Son of God. But this may not have been Jesus’ use of the term. At the time it was a common way people referred to themselves.

The question comes for us today, which stage of development are we at in our lives of faith as individuals and as congregations. Is our name the most important thing? Are we clinging to who we are because we are not yet certain of who we are for God? Have we just moved far enough into the second stage to be critical of others while not being secure enough to face all of who we are? Are we willing to die to all that we think we are and think we know for sure to grow into the wisdom of the mystery of God who is beyond all names and follow the wisdom of Jesus’ teaching?

Lent 1B   22nd February 2015
Genesis 9:8-17
Psalm 25:1-10
1Peter 3:18-22
Mark 1:9-15
Back in the fifties we had the film, “On the Beach.” Since then, there has been no end of Hollywood Blockbusters that tell of the world as we know it being wiped out by a terrible and terrifying event. Only a handful of humans survive to start all over again. “On the Beach” was designed to alarm us, to alert us to the dangers inherent in the arms race with nuclear weapons. Such a disaster would not have been attributed to God because by this time, many things that had formally been said to be the work of God had been recognised as having different causes. But never-the-less, the function of such stories is to warn people to change their ways to avoid ultimate disaster. This is not as new a new thing as we might think. This genre of story has been around since before the time of Noah.
Maybe several thousand years before the time of Jesus, there was a massive flood. There is geological evidence of such an event over much of the Middle East though its cause remains a thing of speculation. Traditional stories arose about this event among many groups of people as they tried to work out why their natural world had behaved in this unpredictable way.
Neighbouring countries to Israel had stories about divine beings who fought amongst themselves. They only noticed humans when the noise they made became annoying. The gods then decided to use water to wipe the planet clean. This story was called Utnapish tim and comes from the ancient epic of Gilgamesh, which is believed to be at least a thousand years older than our Scripture. The writers of Genesis apparently knew these stories and decided to adapt them for their purposes to show the Hebrew people something of God and God’s will for them.
Much of the writing in the Hebrew Scriptures which fall into the category of Wisdom Literature is common to many of the surrounding cultures of the Middle East and in these cultures they are generally older than the Biblical material. The Hebrew Scriptures are the only Scripture Jesus knew and in them two sets of stories have been intermingled. One set is known as the priestly writings and they are merciful and the other is more legalistic with emphasis on the law. Scholars know these things because of the way words are used and stories are told. They examine other writing from the Israelites and from surrounding cultures and look at the way words are used and change their meanings and spelling over time.
The two strands can be seen from the beginning of Genesis where there are two different creation stories in Chapters 1 and 2. The original readers didn’t expect these to be historically true according to what really happened. They are poetry and don’t need to be scientifically accurate either. This is what Wisdom literature is like. It includes the books of Psalms, Job and Proverbs. These contain common writings from neighbouring countries that have been adapted to suit the needs of the Hebrew writers by adding things about God and changing the emphasis.
The story of Noah and the Flood is such a story. We can see the legalistic arguments in the part of the story leading up to the flood. In Genesis 6:13, “God said to Noah, ‘I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with all the earth.’” We might think God could be saying these words right now. The earth seems still to be filled with violence. Many despair of it. Millions live their lives as victims of it. Who could blame God for this action if such an event happened again at this time? We might even think that God won’t need to wipe us and all creatures out. We are doing a pretty good job of doing it for ourselves between wars and blindness to the causes of climate change!
The reading set for today, though, comes after the flood and shows the God of mercy and compassion as God makes a covenant with the survivors that never again will God behave in such a severe way. The rainbow is to become for them a reminder of this covenant and a sign of the God’s presence and compassion. Rainbows are universal signs of the connection between people and the divinity whatever or whoever that may be for the particular tribe or nation of people. Many cultures have mythical stories that include rainbows and there is no doubt that rainbows are special. Somehow seeing a rainbow lifts our spirits.
The passage we heard today from Genesis reminds us of God’s compassion and love for creation. In adapting this story for their use, even the legalistic writers showed their understanding of God’s compassion by having God warn Noah and encourage him to save other creatures as well as keeping at least a remnant of people safe.
The rainbow is to be a reminder to the people of the covenant God made. The word covenant has two slightly different meanings. One is an agreement between two people or groups. The other is a pledge by an individual towards another individual or group. It is this second meaning that is understood in this text. God did not require anything of the people. Perhaps this is one of the great mysteries of compassion, that God would promise to love and care for creation including humanity without requiring anything in return. Such is God’s unconditional love.
In the reading from Mark, it is interesting that after Jesus received the blessing of his baptism, he was tempted. This is not automatically the way things go, especially with child baptism. As adults, though, many of us may recall moments when we have felt the love of God, maybe even a sense that God was pleased with us and then we find ourselves tempted in some way. 
Mark doesn’t make a big deal of it, simply saying Jesus was in the wilderness for forty days and was tested or tempted by Satan. He was with the wild beasts. This was their natural habitat and angels attended Jesus. This story has been somewhat embellished by the writer of Matthew and even more so by the writer of Luke. Mark’s version doesn’t mention fasting and the angels appear to have been with Jesus all the time, not just at the end. Mark shows the compassionate presence of God through the ministering of the angels.
He also had a healthy attitude towards the wilderness as part of creation, with a respect for the wilds animals. Those of us who have spent our lives in neat suburbia where the wildest animals are cats and dogs, tend to be disdainful of wilderness areas and think of them only as areas to be avoided or exploited. There is no sense of Jesus being in danger from the wild animals that were there. It doesn’t say the angels are protecting him.
The Good News of this story is in God’s promise and we test that promise by looking at what is occurring in our lives today, not by looking back to what may or may not have occurred 3,500 years ago.  What really matters is our relationship with God today. Through the last 100 years or so, many thousands of dollars and much time has been spent on trying to prove the authenticity of the Noah story as if to find something would vindicate God.  It is as if people can’t trust God until they find the remnants of the ark or explain the flood. It is said that the purpose of the rainbow is to remind God to never again destroy all things, but rainbows are also very useful for reminding us of the promise of God’s love for and faithfulness to us.
When Jill drove her children to school across the plains, it was sometimes foggy.  One such morning, the sun had not been up long.  It was shining from low down through the fog, and one of the children noticed that there were white rainbows in the fog.  It became a reminder that even when they could hardly see their way ahead, God was there. Jill told this story in a children’s message at church. That morning a five year-old boy was there. He had been born prematurely and had not had an easy start to life. For more than a year he had not spoken and this was a great concern. The next morning as his mother was driving him to school it was a little foggy and he said, “Do you think we might see a white rainbow, Mum?” God’s faithfulness to us continues.
Early Christians, as in 1 Peter, saw the Noah story as a symbol of baptism.  The waters of baptism do not symbolize the washing off the dirt of everyday life. They are a sign of our return to ‘original blessedness’ by remembering the grace of God which Jesus experienced. His baptism in the Jordan was followed by fleeting time of testing. Then it was on with his mission. We are reminded of the forty days of testing time in the forty days of lent.
We can be reminded of God’s grace by the entire creation, not just rainbows. We will hear more of these messages in the readings through Lent.  Ancient people understood how interlinked the whole of creation is; what affects one species affects all, an idea that seems to have been newly discovered in our time. Human actions have planetary and cosmic implications.  The oneness of creation under God’s grace shines in every rainbow, a witness to God’s promise that God will never again reduced to primordial chaos the earth from which we come. We must take responsibility for our part in disasters which kill millions each year.
The rainbow also reminds humans that we are part of that earth, sharing its fate with all living creatures.  Perhaps there is still time for us to remember how dependent life is on water.  We are called to seek justice in clear water supplies for all people on earth. People are being denied access to water so multinational companies such as Coca Cola/Amital can profit from the sale of bottled water in rich countries and precious oil supplies are being used to ship the water.
This lent begins with remembering, and baptism can be a powerful symbol through the season.  We are called to recognize God’s mercy and faithfulness, and to reflect that covenant in solidarity with others, including the non-human creation.  Lent invites sober reflection on the world around us.  Where can we see violence and division dismembering creation? How are we complicit in this?  What actions could we begin, in this time and place that could help other know God’s love and faithfulness?

Some years ago, after my husband had died, I was driving the 50kms to work.  I had with me the three teenage children of our workman who I took to the High School in Naracoorte.  It was a showery, winter’s morning with the sun shining intermittently.  Things were not going well for us at that time.  Interest rates on our loans were still climbing and the price of wool had fallen so that you could hardly give it away. I was having trouble paying the bills and wages.
I noticed a partial rainbow in the sky away across a paddock to my right.  As I turned to look at it, the thought crossed my mind that this was God winking at me.  I was horrified at the thought and quickly turned back to look at the road.  This was totally ridiculous.  God doesn’t wink at people!  Where on earth did such a thought come from.  I tried to block it out. The thought persisted, though, and I could not resist turning back to look again at the rainbow.  I realized that I was smiling and wondered if the three teenagers had noticed.  I tried to keep a straight face so that they wouldn’t.
As we drove on, we saw many partial rainbows.  At every bend in the road there seemed to be a new one.  I had never seen anything like it.  At last we came up over a hill to go down into Naracoorte and there was a complete double rainbow over the town.  It was spectacular.  As I worked with people during the day, I asked them if they had noticed the rainbows. Several said that they had seen the one over the town.  I was careful NOT to mention the idea of God winking.

After work it was my custom to go to the home of a friend for a cup of coffee before heading home.  I started to tell her about the rainbows and a strange look came on her face so I asked her what the matter was.  She replied, “Yesterday, when you were here, you were so down that I asked God to give you a rainbow to remind you of how much God loves you”.

Epiphany 6b   15th February 2015
2Kings 2:1-12
Psalm 50:1-6
2 Corinthians 4:3-6
 Mark 9:2-9
Malcolm was in his nineties and had been living in an Aged Care Residence for five years. He had become very frail and his mental functioning was diminishing with each small stroke he suffered. He was ready to die and told his family this every time they visited. The only thing that bothered him was that he felt bad that he could no longer care for his wife. His family told him that it was okay for him to go. They reassured him and promised that they would continue to look after their mother. The professionals tell us that this makes death easier, if terminally ill people are not only given permission to leave those they care about but also receive a blessing to do it.
It is often difficult for families to broach the subject of a member’s approaching death. How do we tell those we love that we are terminally ill when we want them to be able to go on with normal life as long as possible? What can we say to one we suspect may be dying but doesn’t seem to want to talk about it? Hard as it may be, we are told that it is better if we can talk about it, make plans, finish what needs to be done and say our good-byes. The biggest regrets around the time of death by both parties are for things left undone and unsaid. We often hear people comment when they know someone they love is dying, that they do not want them to die alone.  But many people also say that they do not want their family to have to watch them die. Some even seem to hang on for days until everyone else has left the room, to take their last breath.
We have just heard of an extraordinary exchange that went on between two men, Elijah and Elisha. Had they talked about the fact that their time together was almost over? Perhaps Elisha had just realised it and did not want Elijah to have to die alone but didn’t know how to talk about it. And did Elijah not want Elisha to have to see him die?
Elisha was Elijah’s apprentice as a prophet of God. They both knew Elijah’s time on earth was coming to an end. Elisha was reluctant to be parted from his mentor before it was absolutely necessary. Elijah told him to stay where he was but he refused to leave him in his journey to the end. A group of prophets, possibly friends of theirs, were concerned for Elisha and wondered if he realised what was about to happen, so they asked him if he knew he was about to lose Elijah. They got a sharp reply in effect telling them to mind their own business, maybe because Elisha was having trouble facing the reality of what was about to happen.
Again Elijah told him to stay but he refused to do so. The other prophets became more insistent in their message for him, this time saying that Elijah would be taken that day. Again Elisha told them he was aware of what was happening and to be quiet. He didn’t want to listen to them.
A third time, Elijah told him to stay and again he refused to leave him and they went on to the Jordan River. For a third time so far in Hebrew Scripture, we hear of water parting to let people walk across on dry land to a significant new beginning place in their lives. There is the story of the Red Sea parting [Exodus 14:21] when Moses held up his staff so that the people coming out of Egypt could cross.  And the story of the waters of the Jordan parting when the soles of the feet of the priests touched the water [Joshua 3:13] to allow the people into the Promised Land and now we are told that when Elijah struck the water with his mantle, it again parted to give them safe passage. This mantle was to be passed on to Elisha as a sign of his authority as a prophet.
Finally Elijah asked Elisha a question which indicated for the first time that they were willing to be honest with each other about what was going to happen. “Tell me what I may do for you before I am taken from you?” Elisha all this time may have been refusing to leave because he was trying to find a way to ask Elijah to bless him at this ending of their relationship. Was he scared, worried how he would cope without Elijah to guide him? Was he finding it difficult to work out how to say “Good-bye, and by the way, can I inherit your spirit?” It is interesting to note that although he said this would be difficult, Elijah then made the inheritance conditional on Elisha remaining with him till the end which is contrary to his trying to get rid of him earlier. The story goes on to tell us that after Elijah was taken, Elisha picked up his mantle, inherited double Elijah’s spirit and went on to perform many miracles.
According to tradition, Elijah did not die but was taken to heaven on a whirlwind. One could picture it as a bit like Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz.” We have seen enough tornados on television and damage from whirlwinds in Southern Australia to know the possibility of a person being flung/ sucked into the air by such an event and possibly never found.
What is the point of this story? Is it to show that dogged determination pays off, that not deserting a friend has its benefits? Or is all this just the backdrop to the story of how Elijah’s life on earth ended, since it is Elijah and not Elisha who is said to have appeared with Jesus in Mark’s story? Why does it matter that it seems Elijah went straight to heaven without dying and could therefore appear alive with Jesus when we are told in the last chapter of Deuteronomy [34:5] that Moses did die and he was also present at the Transfiguration. He was not taken straight to heaven so it could be said he was still alive when he appeared with Jesus. Is it telling us something about life after death?
There are weeks when, having prayerfully read all the Lectionary texts and the reference books we are left with pages of questions and few answers. Could it be that questions could somehow be good news for us?
There are more questions when we look at the reading from Mark. Why did, Jesus chose to take Peter, James and John and not Andrew or any other of his disciples, with him up the mountain? Why are we so keen to be critical of what Peter said when he saw Moses and Elijah? Many years ago it was known that people said things when they were in shock that were uncharacteristic and should be considered carefully before being given credit and the person judged for it. Surely Peter was shocked by what he was witnessing. He may even have been afraid that he was going mad or was imagining it.
Many people faced with a revelation of God find it so overwhelmingly awesome that they close off their minds the possibility of it as quickly as possible only to regret not having stayed with it longer. Peter was willing to wait with it, whatever the ‘it’ was that was happening that day. The implication is that Peter wanted to hang on to the situation too long. Think about how you might have reacted in such a situation.
The disciples had not been present at Jesus’ baptism and so had not experienced hearing God’s voice at that time. They had been called immediately after his baptism and had started out with great enthusiasm, but they were not hearing what Jesus was trying to teach them. It is significant in view of this, that the voice they heard told them to listen to Jesus. It is possible that the change in appearance of Jesus’ clothing was a visible sign of God handing God’s mantle to Jesus in a reminder of the mantle that was passed from Elijah to Elijah.
Jesus told those who had been with him not to tell anyone. It could have been that they were likely to have boasted about being part of such an event. However, most people who have experiences of such divine revelations are reluctant to speak of them. They are humbling, awesome affairs that demand contemplation and assimilation before they can be shared. Perhaps it was that the time was not right for such a disclosure or it might have been that Jesus thought they had not understood what had occurred.
In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul indicated that he believed that each of us has the same brilliant light of the glory of God present within us. The glory of God is shown in goodness. The glory of God within us is shown in our goodness. While it is unlikely ever to shine from us to the degree that it did from Jesus that day on the mountain, never- the –less it still can and does show in us, in every living creature and in all creation when we are being who we were created to be and when we are loving and caring. In Genesis 1 we are told that as God completed different parts of creation, God declared them good and when God had created humans, God declared they were very good. All creation and especially us, reflect God’s glory.
For centuries our mantle of goodness has been shrouded by the cloak of emphasis on sin that has been laid on us all as the church has only been interested in us seeing ourselves as sinners and not as blessed prophets of God in the line of Moses, Elijah and Elisha.
The appearance of the light of the glory of God within every person has been dimmed because of this. Like the disciples, we haven’t been listening carefully to what Jesus has been trying to tell us. Like Peter, our own agendas often obscure the true reality of Christ. And when we don’t listen to God, we probably don’t listen to those around us either. We may fail to hear their anguish and to follow Jesus’ example in trying to eliminate the causes of pain and suffering in our communities and the world.

We, like Elisha have been blessed with the Spirit that was in both Elijah and Jesus. We are in effect, witnesses to Jesus death and Jesus told his followers that they would do greater things than he did. The mantle of Jesus has been passed on to us. In grief and in joy, we have been blessed. Let’s listen to Christ and work to show people and all creation, the Good News of God.

Epiphany 5B   8th February 2015
Isaiah 40:21-31
Psalm 147:1-11,20c
1Corinthians 9:16-23
Mark 1:29-39
When Peter was learning woodwork, he decided to make a blanket box to go at the foot of his bed as a present for his Mum. She had often said there wasn’t enough storage space in their house so he knew she would be pleased. But he had trouble getting the edges of the pieces of wood squared. He just didn’t seem to be able to saw in a straight line. Each time he tried to correct his previous saw-line, his possible box got smaller. His sister joked that by the time it was finished, it was no bigger than a jewel box! Perhaps Peter was rather like the tribal people in Africa who do not understand the concept of straight lines because there are no straight lines in the natural environment in which they live.
They probably don’t understand the concept of boxes either. We use boxes to store things in, to keep things tidy. We put labels on them so we know what we understand we have and can keep things under control. Whole industries have grown up around our desire to box things in as an attempt to keep chaos from invading and taking over our lives. We have metal filing cabinets for documents and safes for our more valuable things. In shopping malls we now have storage shops that sell plastic, cardboard and cane boxes of all sizes and shapes. There is no excuse for anyone not to have a tidy home and workplace and a neat life any more.
On a recent home style programme I watched as they stripped a child’s bedroom and then brought in boxes for her few remaining treasures. The room was indeed neat when they had finished, but is the whole object of our lives to be neat? Yes, there was more room for her to play, but less for her to be creative with. Someone made the comment as they were surveying their handiwork, “Tidy life, tidy mind”.  Since when have tidy minds become important? Does Stephen Hawkins or any creative genius have a tidy mind? Do artists keep everything neatly in boxes? Does God prize tidiness by making one of the fruits or gifts of the Spirit tidiness?
Creation itself is not neat and tidy and nor is the process of creating. It is messy and painful as anyone who has given birth knows. We may try to tidy things up, to keep them under control in boxes, but inevitably they seep or burst out with new life.
Over and over people have tended to limit God, fence God into something more manageable, more understandable, more how we would like God to be. We have put labels on God and expected God to comply with our understanding and to stay put in the particular box of our choosing. Our Religion, Christianity and our denomination are ways in which we have tried to keep God neat for us. Another way has been by implying that all that can be known of God is revealed in the Bible. It has become another box for keeping God from getting into other parts of our lives.
Through the centuries since the time of Jesus, people have sought to make their own boxes to contain neatly their understandings of the Holy Trinity, their explanations of how God can be one yet three, of what constitutes Scripture, worship and the Good News Jesus said he had for us. Often these boxes have been like the one Peter made, becoming smaller and more confining, less able to hold much of the essence of God with each paring down and neatening up. In many cases what we have received is only a fraction of what Christianity is and Christianity as we have been taught to see it is only a small expression of the Divine.  
One of the other problems that arise with boxes is that while we use them to store what for us are treasures, they are where we put the things we want to keep for ourselves. When they were doing the girl’s room on TV, she was asked to sort things into three piles; things to be discarded, rubbish, things to pass on to someone else and things to keep. The things we store in boxes may not easily be shared.
From well before the time of Jesus there have been people who decided what constituted worship and where and how it should take place. Usually there was an attitude of “My way is the right way”. The Pharisees and Sadducees disagreed about whether Scripture was the first five books of the Old Testament or all of it as we know it. From early on Christians started deciding which books to save and which to throw away from those available for Its Scripture. Through the centuries, more of Scripture has been discarded so that after the Reformation a large chunk was abandoned by the Protestants along with many worship practices.
We have inherited a very tidy Christianity. It is much more manageable than some forms, but how does it limit our understanding and relationship with God? Might it stifle our creative powers and our possibility of life in all its fullness? Could it be that what has been happening to the mainline churches in declining membership be due to the Spirit of God seeking to escape from the limits we have set for God?
We can come to know God through more than the Bible. Hebrew Scripture which forms the bulk of our Bible is full of praise for God the Creator and over and over urges people to look at Creation to get a larger vision of God. We may see immensely more than we have imagined by seeking the Divine as Creator and through creation even though the creative process is chaotic. Paul reminds us that in God we live and move and have our being.
This year our set Gospel readings are mainly from Mark which is the shortest and believed to be the oldest, of the Gospels. There is nothing in this book that the writer did not believe needed to be there to tell the Good News of Jesus Christ. Its message is succinct. As with all the books of the Bible, Scriptural scholars have been trying to come to a clearer understanding of what the writer was trying to convey to his intended readers. And as with all the others, there are a number of ideas about Mark. Over a hundred years ago one scholar came up with an idea that has since been called the Messianic Secret, the idea that Jesus was trying to keep it a secret that he was the Messiah until the time was right. Several times we will hear how he told his disciples not to say anything when they alluded to him being the Messiah. But more recently it has been suggested that he told them not to say anything because they misunderstood his mission.
Mary Anne Talbot believes that the whole of the Gospel is based around the parable of the Sower and the story of how the sown seed, representing the Good News Jesus was telling, fell on different soil with correspondingly different and somewhat surprising results. The writer of Mark shows the disciples as enthusiastic at the beginning but by the end, they have all deserted Jesus with Peter’s denial being the last straw. However, the women followers surprise readers by being the ones who are still there at the empty tomb.
Mark had no paragraphs, verses or chapters when it was written as is the way with all the New Testament books. All these have been added later and in many cases they changed the meaning of stories. There is an urgency to the writing, quickly moving from one thing to the next and it is often short on detail. In Today’s reading we go in ten verses from healing Peter’s mother in law to the whole of the city gathering for healing, to morning prayer, to the disciples searching for him because everyone was looking for him, to moving on to neighbouring towns to proclaim the message.
What is your understanding of Jesus’ message? We have tended to narrow down the Good News to “Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand,” or post resurrection, “Jesus died for our sins, you are forgiven.” But Jesus’ message was far broader than that. Over and over he told people that God was right there with them, not in some far distant place, or only in the Temple. God was among them. He demonstrated God’s loving compassion for the ones who the community considered of little value as he healed helped and taught them with encouraging words.
Jesus taught using creation and creatures as examples such as considering fig trees and lilies, mountains and deserts. He gave the example of spending time in prayer at the beginning of the day. Over and over the writer of Mark shows Jesus addressing the social conditions that are causing the disease as well as healing the person.
Paul in his letter to the Corinthians says he has become all things to all people that he might by all means save some. We can see this is also how Jesus behaved. If this is how humans behave to bring the Good News of God’s love, how than might God behave towards the diversity that is humanity? Might it be possible that God becomes all things to all people that God might save some? God’s love for the diversity of humanity and all creation could be an indication of this.
Much of Hebrew Scripture is song. We have followed this tradition with putting Scripture into song, using music. We still have the verses of a Psalm as one of our Lectionary readings every week of the year.  We use words set to music for praise and thanksgiving and sing hymns that tell of and reinforce our understandings of our faith. Sometimes this is beneficial, but sometimes the words of much loved hymns box God in.
An example is “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Generations of children sang this lustily and in more recent times, older people are moved to tears as they sing and remember these words. But much as we love these words for the comfort and reassurance they give us, they are misguiding. They limit our understanding of how we can know God’s love for us. We need to and can know through more than the Bible, that Jesus loves us. Good as the Bible is in showing us this, there is much more we can see in creation and in relationships.  Another old hymn has a verse which says, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea….. But we make God’s love too narrow by false limits of our own and we magnify his strictness with a zeal God will not own.”

Chaos can be scary for people on the obsessive/compulsive spectrum but it is necessary to take the risk if we are to truly worship God who is everywhere with us and become like Paul, all things to all people that by all means we may save some. May you be blessed in taking this chaotic risk.

Epiphany 4B   1st February 2015
Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Psalm 111
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Mark 1:21-28
“If the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, I should be a very wise person indeed,” thought Mary. She saw God as sitting in heaven with his eyes glued on her, watching for her slightest trip up, her inevitable wrong-doing, selfish act or outright sin so he could punish her appropriately. She had lived her entire life in fear of this punitive God. It governed who she was and how she saw herself, sapping her self - confidence, scared to act in case she did wrong and yet scared not to in case she failed to do the right thing. It influenced how she saw others. She realised that she constantly judged them, almost hoping their behaviour would be worse than hers so she could feel better about herself. It influenced the way she understood love, which for her was harsh and judgemental. There wasn’t much joy in her life.
“How could you NOT fear God”, her thoughts raced on. God was omnipotent, all powerful. She always addressed him as “Almighty God” partly because that was who he was but partly also to remind herself how impotent she was in relation to God. It was God who had the power to forgive her sins or to throw her to eternal damnation in the fiery pits of hell. It was God who punished the Israelites in double measure for their wrong doings because a point needed to be made about who had all the power. She had read about that in Isaiah [ch40]. And, you had better be friends with God’ people because he did some terrible things to their enemies. Remember, the way we see God influences how we see ourselves and others and when we are terrified of God we may unreasonable fear others, those who are different from us.
Every now and then, Mary came across stories like the one from Deuteronomy where, when the people were honest about how they were terrified of God, God respected their fears and treated them gently. She longed to know this gentle God.
We may feel relieved that we are not that scared of God, that we know God as love. The only intermediary we need is Jesus. We can address our prayers directly to God who does not terrify us, but might we have gone too far in not being afraid of God? Are we presumptuous in believing we don’t need to fear God?
Richard Rohr reminds us that fearing God is about being awed by God and we can best do this through being awed by God’s creation. He points out that both Anthony of the Desert [c251-356] and Thomas Aquinas [1224-1274] said there are two books of scripture. The first book of scripture is the natural world which has existed probably for 14 billion years. The second book of scripture is the written Bible which has only existed for a bit over 2000 years. We basically threw out the first book from the beginning of the second though it got worse from the time of the invention of the printing press. When we fear the influence electronic devices are having on our young people we can look back and see that the written word in book form was such a massive change. If we are honest about it, has been a mixed blessing in the Church where some have become obsessed with and idolise, the written word at the expense of the Living Word.
Richard says, “We have given most of our attention to the written book, which has kept us in our limited left brain, outside direct experience, and with a dualistic mind that the ego always prefers. Mere words, even and most specially, “holy words” and authoritative words, when used apart from the experience of an Eternal Word, tend to create argumentative people. The small self loves to use whatever words it needs for purposes of self- protection and self-promotion. The Great self allows One Eternal Word to override all such tactics because it lives in a much larger field of meaning. Words are often two or three steps from true experience.”
He says, “We have not honoured and learnt from the first and primary Bible of creation, so how would we know how to honour and properly use the second Bible? We have largely mangled and manipulated the written word of God for our own purposes instead of receiving it within the mystery, awe, silence and surrender – which the natural world demands of us and teaches us. Many have said that a fundamental attitude of awe is the primal religious experience and the beginning of the search for God.” Many of you will know of the verse about being nearer God’s heart in a garden than anywhere else on earth and for many people, this is true.
Rohr challenges us to imagine a religion called Aweism! Instead of wasting time trying to disprove miracles, this religion would be inhabited by people who see everything as a miracle. Only people who can fully surrender to things beyond themselves can experience awe, wonder or enchantment. Spiritual surrender is not giving up, which is the way we usually understand the term. Surrender is entering the present moment, and what is right in front of you, fully and without reserve, resistance or efforts to control. In that sense, surrender is almost the exact opposite of giving up. In fact, it is a being given to!
Nature surpasses any human created buildings, however grand. Nature is the one song of praise that keeps singing, as many of the Psalms tell us. If you feel a sense of awe anytime, you can always talk to a mystery that is so much larger than yourself. It takes no theology classes whatsoever, no proofs, no arguments. Aweism is the one true religion. All other native and historical religions merely build upon this primal awe that bows before everything.” Awesome fear, not terror is the kind of fear that is the beginning of wisdom. It leads us to treat all people and things with respect and to look to Jesus for guidance in this in the Gospels.
In this respect, it is interesting to note that, as we heard read today, the first healing by Jesus in the oldest gospel is that of a person with a psychiatric disorder. Much has been made of the first miracle story told in the last written gospel, John, where Jesus is said to have turned water into wine at the wedding celebrations. It is a feel good story with interaction between Jesus and his Mum. The one from Mark doesn’t rate such celebration and we could well ask why we enjoy the John’s story more than Mark’s. Surely in God’s Way, healing a person with a psychiatric illness is at least as much a cause for celebration as having enough wine to finish the wedding feast!
Many people who are in our prisons have psychiatric illnesses. It is unlikely they would be imprisoned if we as a society had better ways of caring for them. Until about thirty years ago, they were cared for in vast institutions. They were uninviting places and needed to be much upgraded or closed down. They were replaced with something called “Care in the Community” but for many this has meant Lack of care in the community. Scant resources are made available for those needing support with disastrous result for some.
It has also been recognised that up to thirty percent of all prisoners have intellectual disabilities. These too, could live in the community if we had better ways of helping them with supported accommodation and help with financial management. Only about one third of those in prison, need to be there for the protection of the community. Prison is a very expensive way of keeping people we do not like out of sight. In many cases it is ineffective in rehabilitation and yet politicians talk about harsher, longer sentences to get more votes. Maybe if we feared God’s judgement on our attitude to people with such disabilities we would be wiser.
We read Scriptures through the eyes of our culture, experiences and how the stories have been interpreted to us through the centuries. We have a tendency to select parts that suit us and like the people Paul was writing to in Corinth, we may not think about how our thoughts and actions affect others.
In the Gospel passage, Jesus saw past the loud and abusive voice of the man who cried out when Jesus was teaching in the synagogue. He recognised that the man was ill and instead of arguing with him or being rude to him, he addressed the thing that was troubling him. He spoke to him in a way that brought inner healing and peace. We assume that we could not heal people as Jesus did and that may be true. But we could probably do more to help them if we were less afraid of them and saw them as loved children of an awesome God.
Has the Orthodox Church got something to teach us about the awesome majesty of God?
Recently, there has been as icon exhibition at the Ballarat Art Gallery. Christians have used icons for worship almost from the time of Jesus. Images of Jesus were painted on the walls of places like the Catacombs in Rome and later onto wooden plaques to help people focus attention in worship. Millions of Christians through the centuries have used these objects. God is never painted as we must never even try to come up with such an image, but Jesus was a historical person so it’s okay to paint him though the icons are not meant to be a photographic representation of the person. They are two dimensional images which suggest what it is about that person that demands veneration.
Icons are not objects of worship in themselves but are intended to assist people to worship. They come from such a different culture and practice from ours that it is easy for us to judge them and the people who use them from our perspective. The skill of those who produced most of the ones on display is incredible and they were obviously produced with much love and care. Most that we saw were of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and of saints such as the Gospel writers. People pray to these people to intercede with God because they believe they are not worthy to speak directly with God. They are used by people whose form of worship shows their awe of God.

Paradoxically we hear over and over in Scripture, when a messenger of God appears, the first words are, “Fear not,” “Do not be afraid.” Like many other things associated with our faith, the fear of God is to be held in balance. We can be crushed by fear and we can be inhibited in our growth to wisdom by dismissing it. May the awesomeness of God and all creation lead you to wisdom and truth.

Epiphany 3B     25th January 2015
Jonah 3:1-5,10
Psalm 62:5-12
1Corinthians 7:29-31
Mark 1:14-20
Jim Forest told these stories in his book, “Praying with Icons.”p35f
He said, “An obstacle to prayer is preoccupation with time.” He remembered an experienced he had with a Buddhist monk from Vietnam who was visiting the United States. They were waiting for the elevator doors to open. Jim noticed his companion looking at the clock above the lift doors. The monk said, “You know, a few hundred years ago, it would have been a crucifix not a clock above the door.”
Jim commented that the monk was right. The clock is a powerful religious object in our world.
He continued with a story of Daniel Wheeler, a Quaker engineer who had gone from Britain to Russia at the time of Tsar Alexander 1 to organise the draining of swampland south of St Petersburg. A group of peasants was sent to his home with an urgent message. They knocked on the door and received no response so they went inside to look for him. Once inside, one’s first duty as an Orthodox Christian was to find the icon corner and pray. But nothing in the room looked familiar as an icon. The peasants, realising things would look different in a foreign country, wonder what a British icon would look like. What impressed them most was the mantelpiece clock. So they crossed themselves, bowed before the clock and said their prayers.
In a way the peasants were right. They had identified a machine which has immense power in the lives of people of our culture.
At a Theological school in America, a number of students were asked to prepare sermons on the Parable of the Good Samaritan to be recorded on tape for grading by their professor. Without their knowledge, the students had been divided into three groups. Some were told they could go into the recording room any time of a certain day. Others were told they had to be there within the next few hours. The rest were told they had to attend without delay.
The testers arranged that as each student arrived at the building, they would find someone lying on the ground, seemingly unconscious and in need of help. About one third of those ready to preach a sermon on the Good Samaritan stopped to see if they could do anything for the collapsed person. Those who did stop were almost all the ones who had been told they could come any time. They felt they had the time and this gave them permission to be merciful. They weren’t overwhelmed with deadlines and overcrowded schedules – the constant problem of many people such as the clergy person and lawyer Jesus spoke of in the story.
Forest continues, “in reality everyone has time but people can have a very different sense of time, so that one of them is preoccupied by worry or fear or plans for the future and hardly notices what is immediately to hand, while the next person is very attentive. Each person has freedom to pause, to listen, to pray, to change direction. Learning to pray in an unhurried way can help us become less hurried people.
It can be hard work learning how to get off the speedway inside our heads. There are times not to answer the door or the phone, not to do undone things, but to rest in silence from everything. The world can wait for five minutes. In fact, no matter how busy we make ourselves, no matter how well organised, how little rest we allow ourselves, we will never do everything that needs to be done. So how do we do well what we are supposed to do? It is essential to nurture a capacity for inner stillness. Such quiet, deep down listening is itself prayer.
Jim remembers a conversation about listening in silence he had with his daughter when she was about four or five. She asked, “You know what those sounds are that you hear when you are alone? That’s God.” “What sounds?” he asked. “You know, those sounds you hear when you are alone.” She replied.
The psalm set for today talks about God as a mighty rock where we can find refuge, where we can wait in silence for and with God. The prophet Elijah is the patron saint of quiet waiting. He withdrew to a cave and after all, a cave is the perfect place of refuge in rock. He was hiding from those who threatened his life. In his refuge, God instructed him to stand on the mountain and wait. There was a storm and an earthquake and a fire, but God didn’t speak in any of these. After the fire came a still small voice and in that whisper, Elijah heard God. He had to wait through much noise and distraction to hear God, not in words or noise but in the sharpening of consciousness, insight and understanding.
Sometimes our busy-ness is running from the call of God. God persists until we realise running is futile and we pause to listen in the quiet. Within Protestantism, where so much emphasis is put on Jesus, Word of God, the Bible and preaching, words we are surrounded by the noise of words. It runs a close second to the pressure of time. God may be calling us to keep quiet for a while and listen even to the sounds of silence. God may be silently calling to us to stop talking in order that we may hear. Wisdom is found in silence and wisdom is found in stillness. Could the moss that the rolling stone fails to gather be wisdom? If we are to hear God, we need to be still and be silent at least for some of the time. There is a prayer of a preacher which says, “Do not let my too many words separate you from astonishment or provide you with a substitute for your own inner experience.”
This is the time of year when, having been reminded of our baptisms by the story of Jesus’ baptism, we traditionally recommit ourselves to serve God and follow God’s call on each of our lives.
The call of God is always challenging to the point of being scary. If what you perceive you are being called to isn’t, then it’s probably not of God. Responding to God’s call in an opportunity to grow and to do things you never imagined you could do and to be the person you never dreamt of being. Responding to God’s call brings us ever closer to life in all its fullness. We are already equipped, gifted for whatever it is and if we aren’t already, we will be when the time comes.
Later we are going to sing the hymn, “I the Lord of Sea and Sky”. I was impressed with the words of the chorus when I first heard them. When I sang, “I will go Lord, if you need me” I really meant it but it never crossed my mind that that might mean I would go to Northumberland, Kununurra and Bendigo among other places. But that turned out to be the easy part. After several years of singing this, the next call came as I was challenged with the words of the last line, “I will hold your people in my heart.” Oh, no, Lord; not your people in my heart! They are a prickly lot. They are heavy going! The other was an exciting adventure. This looks like hard work. I wasn’t intending to be that involved with them.
Last week we had two call stories in our readings and again this week we have two. God called to Samuel who responded three times before Eli realised it was God and directed Samuel how to reply. Jonah knew it was God from the beginning and wanted none of it so he ran in the opposite direction, getting himself into all sorts of trouble. Now he had stopped to collect himself and this time when God spoke, he did as God requested. The story of Jonah shows us another aspect of the call of God in that God’s calls also often benefit others as well as the individual who was specifically called. Jonah’s response enabled the people of Nineveh to reform their ways and avoid the catastrophe that was bound to occur if they continued behaving the way they had been.
When Simon and Andrew and James and John responded to Jesus’ invitation to follow him, they had no idea what that would mean for them, or what a blessing they would be for future generation to our time. Before we can consider responding, we need to hear the call, to be silent and listen. As in the time of Samuel, the voice of God is not often heard, but that doesn’t mean that God has given up calling to us. Frequently God’s call is nonverbally communicated through the pleading eyes of babies and starving, orphaned children, the hopeless eyes of the elderly and terrified looks of those fleeing war zones that we see daily. We don’t require words. We have listened to enough sermons. We know what God wants from us and for us.

If you are unsure of what Christ is calling you to at this time, you might like to commit to a few minutes of silence each day for a week. It is likely things will become clearer for you. Put aside the tyranny of the clock and the floods of words and other noise. It could be that what you are being called to is a time of resting as Elijah in the cave. You too may be being called to follow Christ who holds all people in his heart which can be done anytime anywhere. If you can put into your covenant with Christ, a clause of commitment to silent attending, there are guaranteed that God’s grace will be sufficient for the task and there will be many blessings for you and others from taking the risk.

Epiphany 2B   18th January 2015
1 Samuel 3:1-10
Psalm 139:1-6,13-18
1Corinthinans 6:12-20
John 1:43-51
The reading from John places us as onlookers to a scene played out sixty to seventy years before the writer of John included it in his gospel. The way we interpret what happened in the exchange can vary greatly according to how we assess things and what our experiences have been. As with the story of Jesus’ baptism we heard from Mark [1:9-11] last week, parts of this story are short on detail. We are not told why Jesus decided to go to Galilee nor how he found Phillip. Was he deliberately looking for him? Did he know of his connection with Andrew and Peter or did they meet by coincidence, get chatting and discover the connection? Is the connection significant? Were Andrew and Peter with Jesus and did they said, “There’s a chap we know. Let’s invite him to join us”? we aren’t told and can only speculate if it matters.
The story reads a bit like a game of hide and seek. We have all played this game as children and as adults. We have observed how children play this much loved game. It is a favourite with eager screams of, “Find me Daddy or Mummy!” that become more of a challenge as the child gets older. And the parent pretends she or he has no idea where the child is while all the time they know exactly where the child is hiding, often in plain sight. Because of their love for the child, they would never let the child put themselves in a place where they could not be found. And if the parent takes too long to find the child, he or she may pop up and say, “Here I am!”
We can assume that Jesus was looking for Phillip since we are told he “found” him. Phillip was obviously delighted to have been found by Jesus and wasted no time in finding Nathanael, presumably a friend, to let him know. It is interesting to note in only a sentence or two, the perception of who was doing the finding has changed. After he found Nathanael, Phillip said, “We have “found” him about whom Moses and the prophets wrote.” Phillip seemed completely unaware that the story said Jesus had found him!
The wording implies that Phillip and his friends had been searching for some time for the Messiah. That would account for Phillip being so pleased and wanting to share the Good News.
Nathanael’s response, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” can be interpreted in several ways. It could be friendly banter. He could have been teasing Phillip in a way that we might tease someone who supported the Nazareth football team if we played for Galilee. He could have been cynical, trying to dampen Phillip’s enthusiasm. There may have been much cynicism in the population due to being under military control of a foreign power where some of your own people were collaborators. He may have been snobbish, considering himself better than those from Nazareth. Was it a serious question from his experience of Nazareth? 
Several times recently, the subject has come up about us judging people.  Maybe judge is too harsh a word but we constantly assess people according to our own criteria. Are they one of us or strangers? Are they handsome, attractive or pretty? Do they wear nice clothes? Do they appear intelligent? And we ask, “How are they assessing me? Are they listening to me or is something distracting them?”  Then we may consider the colour of their skin and whether they speak our language. Even when we have few prejudices, we are likely to take note of such things, often subconsciously and then correlate our response.  Nathanael was making such assessments before he had even met Jesus.         
It could have been any of these or something different. We do not know because of how limited written language is in its communication with us as many people are learning from the use of emails. Many of us take Scripture and ourselves very seriously and have difficulty in thinking that there can be any amusing parts. Even when we are frequently reminded that Jesus is the light of the world we find it difficult to think he might be calling us to lighten up and enjoy life more. It is a risky thing to contemplate. It is easy to put too much emphasis on something which is of secondary importance while overlooking things of ultimate importance.
Phillip invited Nathanael to come and see for himself. Jesus praised Nathanael for his honest approach and if Nathanael was cynical he probably responded with suspicion. “Where did you get to know me?” If his comment about Nazareth had been teasing, a sort of, “just cos we both play football, you needn’t assume you know me.” He may have had a feeling of importance that Jesus had noticed him or it may have seemed awesome that Jesus would be aware of him. Jesus said that he had noticed him under the fig tree and that impressed Nathanael no end.
The psalm set for today is an answer for us all to the question we may have of God, “Where did you get to know me?” The writer of the Psalm is almost overcome by the idea that God knows everything there is to know about him. Perhaps from wisdom of maturity beyond childish games, he knows the futility of even trying to hide from the God who has known him and what he is up to, since before he was conceived. God, he knew, was everywhere around him, always was and always would be. This concept was difficult for him to grasp but he loved the reassurance of it. He knew God didn’t need to find him because God never lost him.
We can only guess at the story behind his knowledge. The psalm is said to be for a leader, but we do not know who that leader might be. Its writing is attributed to King David but that does not necessarily mean it was written by him. David is believed to have lived around 1200 years BCE and the books of the Hebrew Scripture were edited and rewritten after the exile, about 400BCE. Regardless of this, these words can be both a comfort and a challenge to us. It can be scary to realise God knows everything about us, that not even the smallest detail of our lives is hidden from God or it can be a relief that we don’t have to pretend with God who accepts us as we are. In our spiritual immaturity we may try to play hide and seek with God but in truth, God always knows where to find us, even when we find it difficult to find God.
Many of us love the Biblical stories. They comfort, teach and inspire us. But sometimes they seem to be about people very different from us. The story from Hebrew Scripture was about Samuel, a longed for child, who was a blessing from God and had the privilege of living and working in the Temple. It is no wonder he was such a joy to all who knew him. It is not surprising that God called to him. Does God limit speaking to special people? All people are special to God so anyone may hear God calling to them in the night. We all need someone we can go to tell of our experience who can say to us, “I think this may be the voice of God,” here’s how you could respond to check this out.” And we can be the one to whom someone may come. We may not be the one to whom God speaks but we can help others to hear God’s voice by considering what they may tell us.
We are no longer children and God may well engage with us in different ways in the evening of the day and of our lives. We are reminded of Jacob’s rather more robust encounter with God in the night. He wrestled with an unknown figure for many hours before dawn. This left him with a permanent injury that caused him to limp. Some have said that Jacob had been wrestling a demon of the night because the wrestler had to go when dawn was coming and demons were thought to inhabit the night. Only last week though we heard [Genesis 1:4,5] of God ‘s presence in night.  Even though it seems to have been an enormous struggle, Jacob was not willing to let his opponent go without being given a blessing. When he received the blessing, Jacob realised that this struggle had been with God.[Genesis 32:26-30]
Many, many people, especially older ones are woken in the night by pain, grief, the inability to breathe, worries and concerns, noisy neighbours, uncomfortable beds and nightmares. Some live alone. Others have people or children in the home they are caring for who call them in the night. Is it just possible that any of these things could be God attempting to communicate, to give a message either for us or for others? Some have wrestled with these nocturnal disturbances waking them for a considerable time. They may be envious of Samuel having someone to alert him to their meaning or of Jacob that he only had to struggle for one night before he recognised God and was blessed by God.
In verse 1 of the story we heard from Samuel, it states, “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread” {1Samuel 3:1] indicating that there was a low expectation that God would communicate with them. Was it that God wasn’t speaking or that because of other distractions people could not hear or didn’t know how to recognise something that was “of God”?
Many might think that the word of God is rare in our day and that visions are not widespread. Could it be because we priests and church leaders are not expecting to hear the voice of God that we are slow to recognise when God is communicating with someone in this way?
The two passages from Hebrew Scripture can be comforting to people struggling with who they are and if they matter. They show God in serious mode, taking us seriously also. But God is also full of surprises and may let us think we can hide for a while if that is the game we want to play.
The Epistle reading set for today,[1 Corinthians 6:12-20] begins with the words, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are beneficial.” We could say this about hiding from God. We can try to do it, but is it beneficial in the long run? The rest of the passage is about not allowing one thing to dominate our lives because our bodies are a temple of the Holy Spirit and part of the body of Christ. Do we hide because we like playing games, because we are ashamed, because we don’t know God would like us to reverse the game and the try to find God. As mature Christians, is it our turn to go “Hee” and seek out God?

One thing we can rest assured of from Jacob, Samuel, the writer of the Psalm, Phillip, Nathanael and Paul, is that it will be a life changing, joyful, exciting blessing when we find and let ourselves be found by God.

Epiphany 1B   11th January 2015
Genesis 1:1-5
Psalm 29
Acts 19:1-7
Mark 1:4-11
We can tell a continuing story of how the institutionalised church drove out not only those who clung to the original purpose of its establishment, but also those who could not or would not agree with what it had become, and found its understandings of God stifling or just different from their own.
There is no hint anywhere we know of that Jesus wanted to start a new religion called Christianity. He was intent on liberating people and remaining within the Jewish tradition. He encouraged others in his rescue work and demonstrated how to go about it. Martin Luther wanted to rescue people from the excessive demands of the Roman Catholic Church. It was not his intention to begin a new establishment. John Wesley remained an Anglican priest trying to save people from poverty and call the institutional church as he knew it to its core task. The members of the Methodist church where I worked in England were proud of their forebears work in establishing trade unions. But now most congregations where I’ve been are mainly focused on their own survival rather than the task of bringing renewed life to oppressed people.
Splits occur in the Church when people have different experiences of God and so come to different understandings of the work of the Church. The Church became an institution and to maintain good order it became necessary to establish rules about who was acceptable as a member. In organisations where people look more or less the same, how do we know who actually belongs? Much emphasis has been placed on complying with orthodox doctrine within the institutional church to establish who is “in” and who is “out”.
Baptism quickly became the required initiation practice in the early church. It has has caused much controversy and many splits in the membership through the centuries and still does now. In today’s Gospel reading, we heard the writer of Mark’s brief version of Jesus’ baptism. It tells us that along with many other people, Jesus was baptised in the Jordan by John. Although John told about the coming person who was more special than he, there is no indication that he recognised Jesus as that person as he arrived for baptism. One of the later Gospels indicates that they were cousins [Luke 1:40], but Mark gives no sign of this.
We are told that at his baptism, the Spirit in the form of a dove descended on Jesus and a voice claimed Jesus as God’s son in whom God was well pleased. Thus Jesus received the Holy Spirit from John’s baptism.  Baptism for ritual purity was a common practice at the time of Jesus. Archaeologists have found the remains of baths used for these purposes in ancient monasteries. There is no indication that Jesus ever baptised anybody, nor that the disciples were baptised after Jesus selected and called them to follow him.
At the end of the Gospel of Matthew, we have the verse, “Go, therefore , and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” These are said to be the words of Jesus post resurrection but many scholars think they are much more likely to be the words of early Christians. In the Book of Acts, there are several stories of the Baptism of whole households of people, families with members of all ages plus the servants and slaves as well. With these, it was only necessary for the head of the household to be a believer and all could be saved through baptism. It was early recognised that Christian baptism was a one off event. A person was saved for all time by the act but this was not easy for some people to accept. Because people worried that they could sin again and fall from grace, many delayed their baptism to as close to death as they could get. Later baptisms were only performed around Easter and this became a problem for those who might die in the rest of the year. Needless to say, some died before baptism had taken place which left their loved ones worried about them being eternally damned.
This led to a swing to babies being baptised as close to birth as possible. Still today, most labour wards have the facility for doctors or midwives to perform an emergency baptism if a child is not expected to live. Somewhere in a back cupboard there is a small bottle of holy water and brief instructions with correct wording for the act of baptism.
At one stage, those being baptised were done so naked. The shedding of the old clothes symbolised the shedding of the old sinful life. When the people emerged from the water they were clothed in a simple white garment, signifying purity, poverty new life as they were in the garb of a new born. This garment has evolved into unrecognisably elaborate “Christening robes” such as those worn by the royal princes for their baptisms were the one being baptised is a long way from being naked. Fonts large enough to immerse a baby were located near the entrance to the church, signifying that the act of baptism meant entry into the church. We have moved the fonts to the front of the worship space where they are at all times visible to remind worshippers of their baptism.
Splits occurred at the time of the Reformation over infant or believer baptism, over whether full emersion was essential or whether sprinkling of water was sufficient to show the intent. Fonts became smaller and in some places are now about the size of a wine glass so that the person baptising can only get two fingers into the water. Does this matter as long as the child is baptised in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit?
We heard a second story of baptism today. These people, like Jesus, had been baptised by John. Why didn’t those in the Acts story [ch19] receive the Holy Spirit when they were baptised as Jesus did?  And if speaking in tongues is a sign of receiving the Holy Spirit, why is there no record of Jesus speaking in tongues following his baptism? The story in Acts is the first indication of the conflict and controversy that has to come through the centuries over whether the right baptism had been performed, at the right time and by the right person.
After hundreds of years of it seeming not to matter, in the early twentieth century people began talking about being baptised in the Spirit, the proof of which for some is speaking in tongues. For thirty years or so from the early nineteen eighties, the church split and split again over different understandings of being baptised in the Spirit based on today’s text. It has been a painful disillusioning experience for many. People have left congregations where they felt misunderstood. Some have returned when they new didn’t live up to its promise.

Is baptism the proof that you have been saved? Is it essential to get to heaven? How much does it matter to God or is it more for our benefit? What does it mean now when parents bring their child and then we never see them again? From the last week in January, through February, we have a baptism every other week. In the service the congregation promises Christian nurture for the child? What does that mean to you who make that promise?

The Psalm you have just heard is interesting in that we have just had the fortieth anniversary of Cyclone Tracey and the tenth anniversary of the Tsunami that killed hundreds of thousands of people. The psalmist has an extensive list of natural disasters which overwhelm people. Perhaps the only one not there is the one we are most familiar with, fires.
Storms, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, cyclones and floods are all described in his words. They are disasters for the people involved in them. These days they are classified as “acts of God” by insurers, perhaps because of the words of Psalm 29. Traditionally they have been seen as punishment by God for wrong doing. There were comments following Cyclone Tracey about it being God’s wrath for the sinful way Darwin’s citizens lived. Some were evacuated to extended family our district having lost everything they owned. They were no more evil than we were, and nothing had happened to us. What is being implied about God who is love when we say God does these things to people?
Why is it that we so often assume the worst about God, ourselves and others? That is not what the Psalmist was saying. In an effort to show the strength of God as far beyond what we can understand, he said that even the voice of God is powerful enough to cause these events. That is not the same as saying God makes them happen and from there saying God does this in a deliberate show of strength or to punish people. He was saying that the voice of God can be heard in these things which can be quite different. When disaster strikes, it is not because God is doing it but that God is present wherever there is trouble and suffering.
On the first day of creation, as the story is told in Genesis 1, God was in the darkness and brought light into that darkness. God saw that the light was good and gave the world light, but only in equal parts with dark in the form of day and night. With so much artificial light, we may think that the split is around one third dark and two thirds light. From the beginning of the practice of Daylight saving there have been jokes about the extra sunlight, but ozone holes and global warming aside, there is still only the same amount of sunlight as there has always been.
Almost from the beginning, we have seen light as good and dark as evil. There is nothing in these verses to suggest that darkness was anything but good also. In and of themselves they are neutral. Both can be good in some ways and both can be used for evil. We have also spoken as if there is a sharp distinction between them, that there were no grey areas. It is only on the Equator that this is a sharp division between night and day. As we move further from the Equator so the time between dark and light, night and day, lengthens. Dawn and twilight take up more of each day. Could this be what the words “And there was evening and there was morning, the first day” mean?
We speak of some people for whom everything must be seen as black or white, who cannot tolerate grey areas who find uncertainties about god difficult to live with. We believe God sent Jesus to give us more certainty about the nature of God and how God cares for creation, especially people. However, we get caught up in trying to put things into categories of right and wrong, night and day, light and dark. If there is one thing we can see in the life of Jesus, it is that it is not clear cut like that.

Is dark as bad as we make it seem? If so, why didn’t God do away with it altogether, instead of leaving some for night? It is because we need darkness in our lives. We need night to rest and recuperate, to wind down and be prepared for what is to come. We need sleep to organise our thoughts and feelings through our dreams.
The interesting thing is that God was present in the dark before there was light. God introduced the light to the dark. When we are going through dark times, it is interesting to think that God is already there, even when we cannot see anything or even feel God’s presence.
Many of you may have heard the modern parable that I was reminded of recently when it was told by Richard Rohr on a CD. It goes like this…
“On a dangerous sea coast where shipwrecks often occurred, there was a once a crude little life- saving station. Its building was just a little hut, with only one boat and a few devoted members. They kept constant watch over the sea and with no thought for their own safety, would go out night and day in stormy weather to rescue those who got into trouble, tirelessly searching for the lost. 
Many lives were saved by this wonderful little life-saving station so that many wanted to become associated with it, some from surrounding areas and some of those who had been saved. They gave of their time, money and effort to support the work, train new crews and buy new boats. The membership grew.
Now some of the members became unhappy that the building was so crude and poorly equipped as the first place for those rescued to be brought. Many thought a more inviting place should be provided. They replaced the emergency cots with beds and they put better furniture in the enlarged building and very soon it became a popular meeting place for all of its members. They decorated beautifully and furnished it exquisitely and made it more comfortable so that it became more of a club. Fewer members were now interested in going out to sea to rescue people so they hired life boat crews to do the work for them. The lifesaving motif still was part of the decoration and they even had a special room for the initiation of the members.
About this time, a large boat was wrecked just off the coast and the hired crews went out to save people. They brought in boatloads of cold, dirty, half-drowned people to the station. They were a mixture of people from many ethnic groups. The beautiful new building was in chaos. So the property committee immediately built a shower outside where ship-wreck victims could be cleaned up before they were brought inside.
Soon after that there was a split in the membership. Most wanted to stop the life-saving activities altogether, as being rather unpleasant and too disruptive of the socialising of the members. There were some who still wanted to save people and they pointed out that they were a life-saving organisation, but they were voted out and told that if they wanted to continue this, they could build a new club down the coast. So they did.

As the years went by, the new station experienced the same changes as the old one had. It also evolved into another club and history repeated itself over and over. If you visit that section of coast today, you will see a series of grand buildings along the way. Shipwrecks are still frequent but most of the people drown.”

Christmas 2B   4th January 2015
Sirach 24:1-12
Wisdom of Solomon 10:15-21
Ephesians 1:3-14
John 1:10-18
The other day, I had cause to look up Hogmanay on that fount of all knowledge, Wikipedia. I wanted to check something about its meaning being “Old Year’s Night”. I had been told it is when they look back on the year that has been to give thanks and praise for it, before moving on to look forward to what is ahead as we do on “New Year’s Eve”. It did not confirm this for me but it did say that Hogmanay became popular because from the time of the Reformation until the nineteen fifties the Church of Scotland had banned Christmas celebrations. I had known for some years that the Puritans had passed an act of Parliament when they came to power in England, banning Christmas celebrations but didn’t know it had been the same in Scotland.
 Many of us regret that Christmas time has become so sentimentalised and commercialised, but we do not think to ban it altogether. Christmas is only one of the many things which started as perfectly reasonable but which has become idolised to a point where some want to reject all of it. When I asked the woman cutting my hair what she was doing for Christmas, she said she always spent it alone as a choice. As a single woman with no family, she has spent many years working with children in the U.S.A. to promote non-violence. “If we spent a fraction of what is wasted on Christmas promoting non-violence, we could make a considerable difference to the lives of many people,” she said.
But forbidding Christmas celebration is not the answer. That is taking it too far in the opposite direction.  The people of Scotland, forbidden to celebrate a Christian event, have made more of the pagan festival which is believed to go back to the Vikings. Someone at Hogmanay celebrations I attended in England had driven 200 kilometres to get some authentic Scottish black bun which was unattainable locally. His act received great praise from those present as did the bun.
Another thing besides celebrating Christmas that was eliminated by the Protestants and which has been slower to be reintroduced into our worship and praise of God are the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical books of the Bible. In dismissing them completely, we have robbed ourselves of a rich source and limited our understandings of God. There has always been controversy around what books should and should not be included in Scripture and the way we understand it. Different branches of Christianity have different ideas on this, but it doesn’t make them any more or less Christian. Martin Luther wanted to exclude James from the Canon.
These books help inform us of the immediate history of the Jewish people into which Jesus was born. They fill in the gap between the Old Testament which finishes about 300 years before the Birth of Christ and the New Testament which begins fifty years after. In the Lectionary readings for this week, there are two alternate readings from Apocryphal books, one instead of the Jeremiah reading and one instead of the Psalm.
There is a partial text from one of the books on the front wall at St Andrews, just near the steps leading to the pulpit. It says, “But of others there is no memory.” It is from the book Ecclesiasticus which is also known as Sirach. It says in full, “Some of them have left behind a name so that others declare their praise. But of others there is no memory; they have perished as though they never had existed: they have become as though they had never been born, they and their children after them. But these were also godly men, whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten; their wealth will remain with their descendants and their inheritance with their children’s children.[Sirach 44:9-10] They are poignant words, full of meaning and I wonder who it was who knew them well enough to suggest them for the plaque.
I was introduced to the Apocryphal books for personal devotion many years ago. I was discussing with my Spiritual Director the verse, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable be acceptable to you, O Lord my rock and my redeemer.” [Psalm 19:14] as the constant prayer of a preacher. She suggested that I also look at The Wisdom of Solomon 7:15, “May God grant me to speak as God would wish and to conceive thoughts worthy of the gifts I have received since God is both the guide to Wisdom and the director of sages.”
I have never used these books for preaching. Perhaps it is time to reintroduce them to our worship services, trusting that we can discern God’s voice in their words as in extra- canonical literature and other aspects of creation and our lives.
Let us now hear some more words from the texts set for today from Sirach, the Wisdom of Solomon and from the Gospel of John.
As Christians, we have not given much attention to Wisdom as an attribute of God. It is important in the Jewish faith with several books in Hebrew Scripture being of the wisdom genre and part of others falling into this category.  The Wisdom of God in Hebrew Scripture, as we heard in the readings, is always referred to as feminine and this was a problem when Jesus was obviously masculine. As the early church leaders struggled to suppress the women Jesus had encouraged, and Jesus was made more divine, all female reference had to be eliminated in light of the perceived masculine nature of God. In the first letter to the Corinthians written well before John’s Gospel, Paul refers to Christ as the power and the wisdom of God. [1Corinthians 1:24] Christ also is referred to in this way in some extra canonical writing of the time.
The church, Wisdom and women have paid a high price for discarding of the feminine Wisdom an early example of going overboard in a change of direction from the way Jesus had led them. Let’s consider what we can learn about the Wisdom of God from today’s readings. In what might be seen as bold words, Wisdom praises herself and celebrates who she is. “I came forth from the mouth of the Most High, and covered the earth like a mist.” Sirach 24:3 “Before the ages, in the beginning God created me, and for all ages I shall not cease to be.”[v9]
The text tells us that God sent Wisdom to live with the tribes of Jacob and that Wisdom accompanied them as they left Egypt and went to the Promised Land.
Some of the words you have just heard from the Hebrew writings are similar to the words from the first chapter of John; similar, but not identical. Wisdom is said to have come from the mouth of God and words come from the mouth. In effect, Wisdom, spoken into being by God could be synonymous with the Word of God as the writer of John saw it.
I don’t know how many of you follow the lectionary readings through aids such as With Love to the World, but if you do, you may have noticed that the invitation to praise God has been given many times in the last few weeks. Over and over we are told to praise God. The reasons given are many and varied.
Does God need our praises? I don’t know but I think not. Having contemplated it for a while, I think the most likely thing is that we need to praise God more than God needs our praise. It is important for us to get into some sort of perspective who we are in relationship to God; how small we are, how little even the wisest of us can know and how fleeting our life is. When we have more of this understanding, we can’t help but praise God who is so vastly more than we can imagine. Spiritual mentors suggest that, rather than waiting till the end of the year to look back for reasons to praise God, we do it every evening, to be more precise, to try to name five things from each day for which to give God thanks and praise.
The reading from Sirach is about Wisdom praising herself. In so doing, she is praising God from whom she comes. She is thanking God that she was with the Hebrew people as they came from Egypt. The final verse in the Wisdom of Solomon reading says that Wisdom enables us to praise by giving us the words and the ability to do so.
Perhaps unwittingly, those who banned Christmas celebrations encouraged people to look back over what has passed before moving on to the future. This is the wiser way to go. Too often we are too eager to get on with the new before we have come to terms with what has been before. Perhaps this is why so many New Year’s Resolutions fail.
There is much we can learn from Hebrew Scripture about the Wisdom of God. This was Jesus’ Scripture and that of the first Christians. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 1:24, “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” This is a less familiar image of Christ for us, but we can be enriched by contemplating it.
The carol that turned the wise men from the East into three kings, has a lot to answer for! There is wisdom all around and available to us from God as there is love and joy. We are poorer for failing to recognise her and deliberately excluding her in some cases. There are very few hymns written in praise of or about joy which shows how neglected she has been.
The person who has prepared material for Seasons of the Spirit wrote, “While few of us enjoy being pulled outside our comfort zones, both word [written] and the Word [living] impel us there. We are invited to join with all people in being blessed children of this ever creating God. We are urged to set fear aside and be citizens of God’s realm – our true inheritance – rather than be bound to limited ideas and the small arena of our usual lives.” The person then asks us, “What is at stake for you if you step outside your usual comfort zone and into the wider realm of God’s love? Where and to whom can you turn to find courageous travelling companions for this journey?”

These are serious questions to contemplate. With the wisdom of hindsight, we can examine our past for clues and courage to answer them.

Christmas 1B   28th December 2014
Isaiah 61:10-62:3
Psalm 148
Galatians 4:4-7
Luke 2:22-40
Jan’s third child was born as a result of an emergency C Section. Her labour was being induced and was progressing when the obstetrician came into the room. As he had arrived, her waters broke and the cord prolapsed. They ran, pushing the bed she was on to theatre and the operation was performed within a couple of minutes. Her husband, who had arrived just in time to see all the frantic action, noticed that a couple of the nurses cried when it was evident that the baby was breathing.
A couple of days later, Jan thanked the doctor for saving her child. Tears rolled down his face as he said, “You have no idea how terrible it is for us when we do not manage to save them.” He paused and then went on. “Do you believe in prayer?” he asked.
“Yes, I was praying as I was lying there in the labour room.” she replied.
“I knew it, I knew it,” he said. He went on to tell her how he had been returning to his rooms after lunch that day. As he went to get out of his car, he felt that he needed to go to the hospital. He called to another doctor in the car park to come with him and they raced to the hospital arriving just in time. He explained that he was Hindu from Sri Lanka but that he believed prayers crossed faith lines  and he was in no doubt that it was Jan’s prayers that had enabled the baby to be saved. ”He has been blessed by God,” he said. When they went for a check-up some weeks later, the doctor again spoke to Jan about how he was sure her child was especially blessed.
As Jan watched her son grow she struggled not to treat him differently from his brother and sister, but found it hard. Did she favour him because he had so nearly died, was it because of the doctor’s words or was it because he was the last child she would have that made him special? He did seem to have been blessed in many ways. He found learning easy, being interested in many things and he was good at sport. He had a quiet nature, got on well with others and achieve more academically than his siblings. As life went on, he also has had more pain than many of his friends. So what might it mean to be blessed from before birth?
The Dali Lama is one who should know. He was named very early in his life as a special one and treated differently by all around him. From that moment, every part of his life has been grooming for the role he would and has played. Has this been a blessing for him? Millions around the world see him at this time as the Prince of Peace. They flock to hear his message, to see his almost radiant face and to experience his welcoming, friendly nature. Is he like this, and has he been able to achieve what he has, because of who he would have been anyway or did being seen as special from birth contributed to his achievements? Has the way people spoke to him and of him influenced who he has become?
These days, it is hard to think of parents we know not thinking of each of their children as special. Perhaps this is why many are able to achieve so much more in life than people in previous generations were able to. Most of our families and acquaintances chose when they want a child. They don’t usually have children because they don’t know how not to have them. But there are still those in our wider communities for whom pregnancy is unwanted and abortion isn’t an option and so there are unwanted children who aren’t special to their parents. Researchers know that how parents view the baby makes a difference to the whole life of the person. We have all heard of the instance of a child have been blessed with the name of a famous person and them growing to be like that person.  John Howard was given the name Winston because his mother admired Winston Churchill and he became our Prime Minister.
According to the writer of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Jesus could not have gotten off to a more auspicious start than he did. Firstly being named by an angel as the saviour of his people was special. The Jewish Messiah was to be a special person and many young girls hoped to become the mother of the Messiah but it was not expected that God would father the Messiah. If the story in Luke is authentic, imagine Mary must have felt about her son.
 Everything that is said to have happened, from the response of Elizabeth and her baby, the message Joseph received, the  angels, the shepherds, the wise men and Herod, all play a part in stressing how special Jesus would have been seen by his parents. And now today, we have been told of the reactions of Simeon and Anna to meeting the baby Jesus. It is a wonder that Jesus didn’t grow up with a Messiah complex. We know that he didn’t because the Messiah was expected to form an army and defeat the Roman occupiers of their land and Jesus didn’t do that.
It is highly questionable as to whether these things did occur around Jesus’ birth and early life. There are no birth stories in the oldest Gospel, Mark while Matthew and Luke tell entirely different versions. Some scholars believe that although the Gospel of Matthew and Luke were written within twenty years of that of Mark, their birth stories were not added until later, perhaps into the second century.  It is much more likely that Jesus’ followers thought he could only have become the remarkable person he was if he had been this blessed from the beginning.
If Jesus’ early days were as stated in the Gospel, then he was truly blessed in the Jewish sense. Some of you will remember that a Jewish Blessing has a number of elements which include seeing the person being blessed as special, making eye contact and meaningful touch, spoken words and a commitment to ensuring that the spoken blessing becomes a reality
If someone is thought to be special, we might presume there is a better chance of them being blessed, of them being treated well and being encouraged to fulfil their potential in life.  However, there some in our communities who have been labelled ‘special” because they are said to have special needs. We tend to put the emphasis on the word ‘Needs” rather than the word special and so generally we do not see these people as blessed. We are much more likely to see them as a burden or a nuisance. Special needs people are a diverse lot with physical, sociological, emotional and educational needs beyond those of the ordinary community. It is within our means to give at least some of these people a more blessed life by being generous towards them with our time, money and attitudes.
When the government set up the National Disability Scheme hundreds of thousands of people saw it as a blessing. However it has failed to deliver on its promises, leaving many frustrated and with little hope. Another scheme which was designed to assist young people to better parent their children and so prevent future delinquency has had its funding cut even though it had been a blessing to the parents and the children who had been able to access it.
Generally we consider privileged people as special and those who have special needs as anything but special. If their special needs are discovered in utero the mother is offered an abortion. For the century prior to this, they were often put in homes as soon as they were discovered and their parents told to forget about them. Some people had a gentler approach, thank goodness. The same day my oldest son was born, 45 years ago, another woman gave birth to a boy in the same hospital. Both were first grandchildren. They were both considered very special by the farming families into which they had come. I listened to the two sets of excited grandparents as they admired them. The grandfathers had been good footballers in rival teams and were expecting that these two boys would have all their skills and abilities and more.
A few months later I learned that the other boy had Down’s Syndrome. The doctors had recognised this as the child was being born but had chosen not to tell the parents. They said they wanted the parents to have a chance to learn to love and accept the child before they heard the “sad” news. Now this behaviour is seen as patronising but then it was a step up from sending the child to a home before they had a chance to love him. Many people who have had children with disabilities like this can tell us that they are special and bring joy; different but also a blessing.
The prophet writing in Isaiah 61, knows that he is special to God because God honoured him by provided him with garments of beauty and value just as God clothes the earth. The writer of the Epistle to the Galatians pointed out that we are all adopted children of God and as such have been given the Spirit of Jesus.[Gal 4:5,6]  Everyone is special to God and Jesus showed us that God displays preferential treatment towards those who have special needs.
There are others who are special to God but are not considered special in our culture. These are older people. In the work place, people don’t need to be elderly to be undervalued. From the age of thirty, people are thought to be too old for some jobs and those who lose their job after the age of fifty find it increasingly difficult to find a new one. Many older people are made to feel they are a nuisance to society especially if they also have a disability. Many, many times I have heard older women say, “I don’t want to be a burden on my family.” Yet from early on in our Scripture we hear God telling people to take care of widows. Older people feature strongly in God’s scheme. Living to an old age was seen as a blessing from God. Abraham and Sarah were old. Moses was certainly elderly when he finished leading the Israelites. The Wise men would only have had that said of them if they were elderly. Simeon and Anna from the Gospel reading, were both elderly.

May we bring praise and thanksgiving to God by treating all people and all creation as special.

Advent 4B   21st December 2014
2 Samuel 7:1-11,16. Luke 1:46-55, Romans 16:227, Luke 1:26-38                                                           
Someone once wrote, “Love poems are not for me, sloppy and sentimental. I prefer the practicality of prose.” While they may not be for everyone, there are some beautiful expressions of love in poetry for those who are able to see them. Some have been made into songs. We are spoilt for choice if we are looking for songs about love, but not many of them are very practical.
Today in Advent we traditionally look at love, not sloppy, sentimental love; but practical, precious, enduring love. The kind of love we are pondering and celebrating today is dedicated, unconditional love, the kind shown by the many people who are parents of children with disabilities. Some are now in their eighties and are still caring for their fifty to sixty year old children because no one else cares and there is nowhere for them to go. It is the kind of love shown by other elderly people who are caring for partners with dementia and other progressive conditions requiring continually more care. It is the devotion shown as some go twice daily to Aged Care facilities to feed their loved one who refuses to eat for anyone else.
Today we celebrate love in action as when we hear and know of people who give one of their kidneys as a live donation and those who donate organs after death so that another or others can have a better life. And we see love in action in the thousands of people who do volunteer work in our communities, in those who lobby for better, fairer conditions, who seek to make our country more caring of those with less material goods, less education, and less power to help themselves.
We all know people such as Rosa Parks and Dr Martin Luther King and Mary McKillop, who have become famous for the love they have shown and the price they have paid. There are also the quiet achievers in Rural Australians for Refugees and those who have given up an easy retirement to work with indigenous communities in remote areas and the tireless workers providing meals for people who are homeless and food for those who have no money to buy it for their families. Then there are those who work for years answering phones for Lifeline or raising money for research into diseases, both physical and mental? We could go on till lunchtime and still not have named all the expressions of love which we have seen, experienced and enjoyed in our lives. It might surprise us if we made a list of the love we have been able to show towards others in large and small ways.
We can only love when we have been loved and we love because God first love us [1John 4:19]. This is almost overwhelming to contemplate it. We are given an abundance of love so we can be generous in our loving. Mystics who have pondered all this, say God is Mystery and surely the greatest mystery of God is love: love with all its complexity, unconditional, unending love.
Perhaps the popular song we could go with today is, “Love is in the air, everywhere I look around. Love is in the air, every sight and every sound.” Did the person who wrote these words have love in its widest understanding or were they only thinking of romantic love? Do people in general realise the extent of love or is it limited to romantic love for them? For much of the time and for many people, it is not obvious that in love we live and move and have our being. But if we believe that God is always with us, then love is not only in the air, it is in each and every person and in the whole of creation. It is easy to forget or overlook with the media feeding us continuously with stories that lack love. Many get more pleasure from the troubles of others than from hearing stories of love, hope and care.
But we must be careful that we do not name things as love when they are not loving. This can be done to manipulate situations and people. For generations corporal punishment was named loving, tough love, when it was people who had not known love, hitting out in anger and frustration and often causing injury to the one they were claiming to love. They were also damaging themselves as they behaved in this way.
We have similarly misinterpreted parts of Scripture as loving when the actions were not those of love or when it comes from a wrong understanding of love.
All his life Tim had heard it said that “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believed in him could have eternal life.  The quote had been interpreted to mean that God sacrificed his son to make amends for our sins so we could be reconciled with a holy God who could not be contaminated by our evil. The text from the Gospel of John [3:16] was written sixty to seventy years after the resurrection when the historical Jesus was being replaced by the Christ of faith. Even so, it probably wasn’t referring to Jesus being sacrificed but rather that he was sent to show God’s love and he did that so well, the people in power had to kill him because his preaching, teaching and actions were demanding social justice.
For the first two Sundays of Advent, our Gospel readings came from the Gospel of Mark. It is believed to have been the earliest written of the Gospel in our New Testament. Mark has no birth stories for Jesus. They were not important to his understanding of who Jesus was. The writer saw Jesus as being adopted by God at Jesus’ baptism. In view of this, it is interesting to think about why so much emphasis has been placed by the church on Jesus’ birth.
Last week’s reading came from the Gospel of John which doesn’t have a birth story either. John saw Jesus as the Word of God, present with God at Creation, always divine. Today’s reading is from the Gospel of Luke and this writer saw Jesus’ divinity from his conception with one divine and one human parent. In the centuries around Jesus birth, it was common for important people to be attributed in this way. Some Egyptian Pharaohs, Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome and Alexander the Great are among those who are said to have had a human mother and a God for their father so Luke’s Jesus wasn’t unique in this.
It was about thirty years ago that Tim first heard someone say that the idea that God required Jesus to die so that we could be save from our sins showed God as a child abuser. This is hard to reconcile with God of love. These days when we are more aware of such things it is important to think of how stories can be seen differently according to life experiences. Accountability has become a buzz word in workplaces and in our lives and we are accountable to God, others and ourselves for how we show God’s love and also for what we say about how it is shown in Scripture.
A few months ago, Tim was at a discussion group where they looked at the passage we heard from Luke this morning. In recent years he has been working with adults who had been victims of sexual abuse, in their teens and as children. As the people in the discussion group spoke about what this reading meant to them, he suddenly sat upright and said almost under his breath, “This is a classic grooming scenario. This is a text book example of how sexual predators work.” Perpetrators are usually in more powerful positions that their victims. Being older, richer, and male gave them power in Jesus day and still does today.
There are six recognised steps in grooming victims. The first is targeting, selecting the one who has gained favour. The target is someone within the acceptable age range but is usually someone much younger than the perpetrator who is often an authority figure.  The Angel Gabriel speaking on behalf of God would have had immense authority in the eyes of a young Hebrew girl V26-28. The second step is gaining the victim’s trust by engaging with her. Mary would have had no trouble in trusting Gabriel even though she did express some doubtsV29-30. The third step is called filling a need. This is saying or doing something that makes the victim feel special and what would make you feel more special than to be told you have found favour with God and that God has chosen you to be the mother of the Messiah. It is believed that most young Jewish girls longed to be the mother of the Messiah.
The fourth step is isolating the girl. The fifth is sexualising the relationship and V 34 and 35 explain this. The sixth step is maintaining control. Mary appears to be such a willing partner in all this that there would have been no trouble in maintaining control over her. In fact, the writer of Luke would have us believe Mary was highly delighted and sang a song [Luke 1:46-55] reminiscent of the one Hannah sang when she found she was pregnant with Samuel [1 Samuel 2:1-10].
Tim went quiet in the group and then almost started sobbing out his questions, “What have we done? What have we done?”  What have we done to all girls and women and to God for nearly two thousand years in idolising what were said to have been God’s actions towards Mary? We have known for a long while that Mary was probably only in her early teens when this is said to have happened. How can we still continue to suggest such submission as a privilege when we know it is abusive, that people for whom such a scenario has been a reality? It denies the possibility of any pain and disgrace for Mary in being an unmarried mother. That is a major difference from how it is for most victims. However, it can be linked with the confusion some feel when the only person who is ever nice to them is the perpetrator,
Virginity has been glorified beyond all reason. A young couple from one congregation where I was went to another church on the morning after their wedding because the Uniting Church will not be part of a system that demands they bring the bed-sheets to the service to prove the virginity of the woman.
How differently we would see the love of God if we had been told Mary had conceived as a result of rape which would have brought shame on Mary’s family. Mary would have been blamed, disowned or even stoned to death. What if the story said God saved her by adopting and loving the child. That is more like what a God whom we call love is likely to have done. In these circumstances her singing of the Magnificat would have been poignant and its words meaningful to women and children who have been manipulated and victimised through the centuries.

Love says to the victim, “What would you like me to understand?” Can I hear your pain, anger and disillusionment and become more compassionate and proactive?” In the quiet love which is everywhere we look around, in every sight and every sound, let’s continuously ask of our thoughts, words and deeds, “Is this Love and are we reflecting the Love of God generously and unconditionally? Amen.

Advent 3B   14th December 2014
Isaiah 61:1-4,8-11
Psalm 126
1Thesalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28
Until the advertising department of a certain chocolate manufacturer rediscovered it, the word ‘joy’ had largely fallen from use in our culture. There were still a number of women, usually over the age of sixty who had the given name of Joy and it seemed to me that most of the Joys I have known have been blessed to have had that name. They enjoyed life and enriched the lives of others. One had been widowed with two small children and life had been difficult as she had a genetic condition which was a handicap for her. However she had an exuberance which made her a joy to be with. It was not a superficial happiness but came from a deeper part of her nature.
Today in Advent we ponder joy. We have a pink candle for this instead of the usual purple candles. Joy is the second named fruit of the Spirit in the letter to the Galatians [5:22]. We do not know if there is a deliberate hierarchy in this list but it is interesting to contemplate that joy may be second only to love. We speak of God of love and God of peace but we don’t often speak of God of Joy. Someone has suggested that the fruit of the Spirit are all components of God’s love.
This year our Scripture readings focus on the doing form of the word, ‘joy’ with the word “rejoice’.  The material we have to help us prepare the services calls today “Rejoice Sunday”.  Again this word has slipped from use outside of the church. If we want others to enjoy relationships with us we need to use words which mean something to them. We could substitute ‘rejoice’ with ‘enjoy’ as long as we understand that there is deliberate intention implied in rejoicing. Sometimes enjoy seems to be a passive response rather than an active initiative. The dictionary suggests celebrate as a more appropriate replacement.
Do you celebrate your life, your family, your work? It is tough keeping going when we aren’t enjoying things. It is hard work keeping relationships when we are not enjoying them. Perhaps this is why most celebrations have to do with relationships. Snippets of joy are what makes otherwise difficult situations run smoothly. Enjoying the company of those you work with makes the day go faster in a dreary job. Enjoyment of the work brings enthusiasm which gives energy to keep going. In following God’s way, we have been given work to do for God. To be employed on God’s behalf is daunting. That is how it has to be. If we don’t see it that way then we are not taking it seriously enough. There is irony there. To a certain extent, the more seriously we take it, the more we are likely to enjoy it.
Good News is enjoyable for those who receive it and it is often enjoyable for those who are able to deliver it. It is something to be celebrated. The safe birth of a baby is good news and a time of rejoicing and celebration.  One of the jobs of a minister is to bring Good News. The Uniting Church believes in the priesthood of all believers, in every member ministry.  This is confirmed in Acts 2 where Peter reminded those listening to him of the words of the prophet Joel, “God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh.” This surely is something to celebrate.
We believe that Jesus has baptised us with the Spirit so that each one of us can say with the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me and has anointed me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.” So far three different forms of people who are not free have been named. They are those who are oppressed, those who are captives and those who are prisoners. I’m unsure of the difference between captives and prisoners and would think that both of these could be considered oppressed. The stress being placed on those who are not free by the elaboration of these descriptions helps us to understand how much freedom for these people means to God. God wants liberation for all. And it is a point to celebrate that we can help bring it about.
Recently there was an historic meeting at the Vatican of the leaders of all the world’s major faiths. They were there to sign a document pledging to end slavery. There are more slaves in the world now than ever before and this came to the attention of and bothered the Australian Mining Magnate, Twiggy Forrest. He instigated the meeting. It was a grand gesture and many people hope it will be far more than that, that those involved will continue to work out their commitment.
We might be tempted to think that it is all very well for someone as rich and powerful as Twiggy to do this. He has what it takes to influence these people. It is different for us. But is it? Well maybe it is from the scale of what we can do. But in the essence of it, you and I are no different from Twiggy Forrest. We can all work towards abolishing slavery which would certainly be good news for those whose lives have been oppressed by such a practice. An end to slavery would be good news to those in slavery. Even hearing that people are working to bring it to an end would be encouraging so long as there are plans made for helping those involved into a new, sustainable future. Imagine the celebration we could have to mark the end of slavery; what joy there would be!
The next thing we are anointed by the Spirit to do is to comfort all who mourn by giving them a garland instead of ashes and oil of gladness instead of mourning, a mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit or despondency. Not only can we say it but we can do it. Well, maybe each individual can’t do all those things, but we can all do some of them and that in itself is good news. We can make a difference. This is not about jollying people along, nor about trying to force them into positive thinking. It is different for each individual, but it may be being there, sitting and listening, providing the warmth of human companionship, encouragement and flowers as suggested by Isaiah.
As a result of the privilege of being able to assist people in these ways, we can say with the writer of Isaiah said, “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord. My whole being shall exult in my God.” We can celebrate the trust and faith God has shown in us to do this work.
Psalm 126 which is set for today has the prayer “May those who sow in tears, reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.”[v5,6].  The Epistle reading set 1Thesalonians 5:16-24, begins with “Rejoice in the Lord always. Pray without ceasing and give thanks to God in all things for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.”
Politicians, Company Directors and others have a duty to declare their interest in issues being discussed so I declare my interest in this subject of rejoicing in God and life and giving thanks for all things. On National Bible Sunday in 1988, the minister asked us what our favourite Bible verse was. I have had many favourite verses over the years and what I chose to say that day is the one you have just heard, “Rejoice in the Lord always. Pray without ceasing and give thanks to God in all things for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.” The next afternoon, I was standing with that minister, beside the body of my husband who had died suddenly aged 45. “Is this what it means to rejoice always and give thanks to God for everything?” I asked quietly. As a friend of Ed, the minister was too upset to answer.
I could not even begin to think what rejoicing in the Lord always might mean though I quickly realised I was praying more frequently. That might sound pious but I assure you it was a sign of how devastated and desperate I felt. Often I was frustrated, disappointed and my words were angry. There were also times when I wanted to leave God out of it altogether as God just complicated things. As for giving thanks for all things, that just seemed totally ridiculous. How could anyone give thanks for the mess we found ourselves in as more and more problems and expenses arose that were directly attributable to Ed’s death.
Incredible as it seems, I came into closer relationship with God through this terrible event and subsequent traumas. Somewhere along the line I was reminded of the first line of the Shorter Westminster Catechism which I learnt for confirmation many years earlier, “Our chief aim is to glorify God and enjoy God forever.” I had skimmed over it before. We had been told that the way we lived our lives would bring glory to God and I was comfortable with that. But enjoying God seemed to be altogether another thing.
As with rejoicing and celebrating, enjoying God is about putting some time and effort into expanding our relationship with God. We can do that by living prayerful and grateful lives.
Many times it might feel as though we don’t have much to rejoice about. Is it unfair to expect us to “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing and to give thanks for all things”? Probably not when we realise the size of the gift God has given us in anointing us to become the agents of release for those who are oppressed, captured or enslaved; to be a comfort to those who mourn and an encouragement to those who are dispirited.

May the joy of the Lord be your strength as we all learn to enjoy God forever.

Advent 2B   7th December 2014
Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85:1,2,8-13
2Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8
The gift of being able to speak words of comfort is surely one of the greatest abilities one can have. To put into words the thoughts and feelings that people want to convey, is a blessing. Although her work is not to everyone’s taste, Helen Steiner Rice is a person who has provided comfort to millions of people by providing soothing words that some long to say and that others long to hear. The greeting card industry in general provides such a service. When they are in distress people yearn to be wrapped in words of comfort. They can be a warm cloak in bleak conditions, bringing hope and peace of mind.
Such are the words at the beginning of the reading from Hebrew Scripture this morning. It is from the start of the writing of an unknown prophet who is referred to as Second Isaiah. He began with the Good News that the people in exile were longing to hear. His words brought comfort for people who were struggling with life and faith. They had been in exile for many years and understood this as that they were to blame because they had failed to live as God had guided them. They saw the exile as God’s punishment but it had gone on for longer than they thought they deserved and they were struggling to keep their faith in a God who would punish them so severely.
The reading we have from the Gospel of Mark also starts with words of comfort as the writer states, “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ”. This, too, was written for people struggling with life and faith. A foreign army occupied their land and their leaders collaborated with the oppressive rulers. Part of comforting is the bringing of hope and the sign of hope was that here at last, was the messenger who had come to prepare for the arrival of the Promised One who they expected would save them. Most people in those times, as some do still today, thought that ill fortune was punishment for wrong-doing, that if you were good, God would bless you and if you did wrong things, you would be punished.  
Advent is traditionally a season of penitence of doing things to show you are sorry for what you have done wrong. This is one reason why purple has traditionally be the liturgical colour for Advent. Before things can go smoothly, the rough places must be faced and something done about them. This is the preparation during Advent.  Part of the roughness, the mountains that make our life more difficult, are the things which separate us from God, that alienate us from one another and exile us from our homes. It may have been our own sins or it may have been the sins of others, most probably a combination of both, that contribute to this. Then our need is for metanoia, turning our lives around, returning to God’s Way.  John reminds us that this requires preparation. It doesn’t happen instantaneously. There are steps of recognizing the situation one is now in, pondering how it happened and then recognizing what needs to be done to change things and return to God’s Way.  
John’s garments, with his rough camel hair coat, are the garments of someone seeking a deeper connection with God and who is prepared to work on this. He is an ascetic figure who preaches out in the wilderness, far from the centres of prestige and power.  In his whole person, his life style and in his appearance, John embodies mourning for the pain and suffering of the world caused by alienation from God and the humility necessary to truly begin living in God’s graciousness. His offering of baptism as a sign of forgiveness brought comfort to many. It is also a sign of reconciliation with God so it is no wonder that it was a comfort to troubled people.
God’s comfort is not for those who are already comfortable. We can get too comfortable and slip into complacency. God’s comfort is to provide a time of recovery of relationship with God which leads to a fuller life, not necessarily a more comfortable one. God may reverse things for the comfortable, making their smooth lives rougher and their plain sailing ways more bumpy!  With comfort though, comes peace; the peace of body, mind and soul that is at the heart of peace in families, communities and countries. Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid.”[John 14:17] Some of the components of comfort are reassurance, hope and encouragement and these can all be seen in Isaiah’s words. There is the reassurance that they have not been forgotten by God, even when it feels as though they have. There is the reminder of how transient human existence is in the face of the eternal God. Hope is given in the call to prepare the way for the Lord, and encouragement in the implication that they are capable of this task of preparing the way for the Lord.
 The people at the time of John the Baptiser had been waiting for a couple of centuries for a Messiah, a man who would rescue them from the tyranny of occupying forces. John reassures them with the quote from Isaiah that the time has come for them to begin preparing for this person. It gives them hope and he encourages them by offering Baptism as the beginning of their preparation. The reassurance, hope and encouragement give the people peace of mind.
Today is the day in Advent when we concentrate on peace.
When Fran was a child and she asked her Mum what she would like for Mother’s Day, she would always say, “A bit of peace and quiet.” Fran longer to comfort her mother with some of this elusive stuff but had no idea herself, where to find it. When Fran became a mother herself, she could understand what she was longing for but, as a child, she found her mother’s replies distressing. She was very aware that she was probably the main cause of her lack of peace. She would have been only too happy to give her some peace if she had known how to but, looking back, she don’t think that she had much herself. She always seemed to be in trouble one way or another and she too, longed for some peace.
The peace most people long for is an ending of war and an absence of conflict and strife. This is not surprising when so much of our news is taken up with war stories. The language of war pervades our culture. We have wars on terror, wars on violence, war on illnesses. We are expected to fight for our rights. Such words are confrontational. Even to have a campaign is to use a military term. It might be a comfort to some and more conducive to peace if we spoke of working towards reconciliation with those who wish to kill us or working towards finding cures for illnesses. Smoothing rough places and making the way easier is about social justice issues and it is likely we would have less conflict and more peace if we worked on these issues.
When peace comes at the end of armed conflict, it is the time we are able to sigh with relief, celebrate and enjoy life because things are, for the present, calm and serene. This is the kind of peace that a truce brings. The peace of God is much broader. It begins with inner peace, an assurance that all will be well and that all is well even though war rages around. There will never be an absence of conflict while people do not have the peace in their hearts and souls that comes from God’s comfort and tenderness.
On the back wall of the church building at Gambier East there are three paintings done by a local artist. They are not the sort of thing we are used to seeing hanging on the walls of Uniting Church buildings and I was somewhat shocked when I first saw them. When they were commissioned some years ago, the artist was given instructions to paint where he saw God in the local area. The paintings are good although they were nothing like what most of the congregation were expecting.
They hung for some years at the front of the church. I was glad that, by the time I arrived, they had been moved to the back of the worship space as I think people would have been tempted to meditate on the paintings rather than listen to the sermons. Most people had grown to love them and respected them as aids to worship. They act rather like banners do in other churches or the stained glass windows in others. It was interesting to hear various people telling what they saw in them and how this had helped them to see God in their everyday lives.
The background of each painting is a familiar local spot. One is of a child playing with a boat in the vicinity of the Blue Lake.  Another was of a draught horse in fog, the rich brown-black, volcanic soil under its feet. The third one was of a small bird sitting in the middle of a patch of blackberry canes, leafless and with the apparent lifelessness of winter. The bird has its feathers fluffed up against the cold and wind, but it looks totally at peace, protected, secure and calm in the middle of the storm surrounding it.
All three paintings are comforting. They depict the peace of God in distinct ways and I also grew to love them as I contemplated this mystery within them. The building was small enough for me to see them clearly through the worship services.
Some Christians believe that it was at his baptism by John that Jesus was adopted by God as his Son.
People are often hungry for words of comfort and longing to be spoken to tenderly. Tender words come from the place of inner peace.

It is interesting that Isaiah depicts God approaching through the mountainous wilderness areas of our lives where travelling is difficult and isolation is easy, not across the plains. The glory of God is seen in people making these places easier for others as well as for God, ironing out the difficulties many face. May we bring comfort to those who are suffering by our words, attitudes and actions in Christ’s name. Amen.

Advent 1B   30th November 2014
Isaiah 64:1-9
Psalm 80:1-7,17-19
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:24-37
Today is the first Sunday in Advent, the season in the Church of preparation for Christmas. The commercial world would have us preparing for Christmas from the end of October. It is likely that many families have already worked out to which home they are going, where they are gathering for Christmas, what travelling plans need to be in place. Crescos and other companies who sell Christmas Hampers, would have you already committed to buying one for Christmas next year. Some banks have schemes where you can have money taken from your wages each payday for the year to have some extra spending money for Christmas. People have made lists and started buying presents, begun attending parties and carol events. With all these things to remind us to get ready for Christmas, why do we need a special time in the Church? In all this busyness, it is possible to overlook the reason why we have Christmas.
Over the past few weeks, our lectionary readings have been talking about being ready for what is to come. We began with the bridesmaids being ready for the wedding celebrations and we had being ready for judgement day. Today is the beginning of the Church year and as such it is the time when the Church begins its preparation for Christmas. It is the first Sunday in Advent and we often speak of it as the journey towards the celebrations of the birth of Jesus. It is a time which calls for reflection to ensure we are ready for welcoming the Spirit of Christmas.
It has become the tradition as part of our preparation, to look at four aspects of Christianity, Love Joy, Peace and Hope on the four Sundays of Advent. Today we are looking at hope, and looking for hope. Being ready is about preparing for unexpected hard times in our lives as well as for the good times. It means deciding what things bring you hope, what things remind you to hope, before the difficult times come. It is also about remembering good outcomes from past painful times to encourage endurance until things improve.
This time of year can be hard, painful for many people. Some will find preparation for Christmas difficult because they don’t have money to spend on the many things others are doing or buying. Some will find it hard because someone they loved has died since last Christmas and there will be an empty chair at the table this year. For some the difficulty will be because there is no one to be with because they are alienated from their family and there hasn’t been anyone for many years. For others it is about having to face people they would rather avoid and be nice to them.
In our culture, at least for a hundred years or more, from the Victorian era until the nineteen-eighties or so, people were discouraged from expressing their feeling and from crying out to God in despair. This may have come from the theology which said that your lot in life was God given and if it wasn’t good, that was probably because you hadn’t been good, that God was punishing you. If you prospered it was seen as God rewarding you.  This led to people believing that if they helped someone, they might be going against God’s wishes.  Some people thought that if they endured the hardship it would be better for them later. People who had suffered were told to forget about it and to get on with life.
In our Scripture there is a lot about hard times when people were physically alienated from their families, their homeland and their places of worship. There were times when they were enslaved and treated harshly. Sometimes it felt as though God had abandoned them. They would plead with God for a sign that God was still with them. The Hebrew people have not been shy in speaking about the pain of these hard times and there are some eloquent descriptions of their agony, bewilderment and distress such as the readings from Isaiah and Psalms set for today attest.
Often at the end of such passages is an expression of hope in God which comes from remembering God’s faithfulness in the past. They are saying in effect, that no matter how horrible things get, no matter how hard it is to find God, God is actually there because God will not abandon them. Many times the people of Israel found themselves in situations because of the sins of their leaders or the abuse of power and greed by leaders of other nations.
Many of these feelings arise in situations of hopelessness and we have been inclined to blame people who find themselves in such places and label them as “hopeless losers”. Often though, people are in such places because they have been sinned against. By the sins of others they have been alienated, bound, exiled or starved of what is necessary for life in all its fullness.
There are thousands of such suffering people around us; people who have been sinned against by those who were in positions of power over them. We have heard many stories in the last few years of those alienated from the church by the abuse they have suffered at the hand of those who were trusted to care for them. We have also heard of those who were already disadvantaged by not being cared for by their parents and who were further abused in the institutions that were trusted to care for them. It would not be surprising if many of them felt abandoned by God as they have been abandoned by society.
Some people have been waiting many years for release from the suffering they have endured; to be brought home to the place they belong, to be found by people they can connect with so they no longer feel lost.
So where does hope fit in? Is Christmas a time of hope for you or do you dread it? Sometimes we use the word ‘hope’ in a throwaway sense as when we may say, “Hope you have a nice day”, as a parting comment. We may well hope they have a nice day, but we don’t invest much in our words. We don’t make an effort to see that they have a good day. Or if we say, “Hope you get home safely”, it is just a vague sort of comment, we don’t accompany them or do anything else to ensure that they travel safely.
The hope of Scripture is more than these uses of the word. It has a sense of commitment to it. With the Jewish blessing, when one hopes for another it implies that one will do all possible to see that the hope becomes a reality. This may mean financial help, encouragement over a period of time, working alongside and assisting the other to notice hopeful signs such as the ones Jesus spoke of with the fig tree and signs of new life.
Hope isn’t about denying the present situation. Nor is it to be confused with Positive thinking which may deny the struggle and the journey. Hope brings an awareness of the soon to come but not yet here aspects of the new, good thing. It isn’t about putting on a brave face so you don’t bother others.
When I worked in the prisons, I was surprised to see the Nativity set up without baby Jesus. I thought he had been forgotten or that maybe he had been lost when the Nativity set had been stored last year. Eventually I said something and was told that Jesus was never placed in the manger before 25th December, Christmas Day. We had to wait patiently for Jesus. The presence of the scene was the sign to give us and all who saw it, hope that the day of celebration would come. That part, at least was ready to receive the Good News of Jesus’ birth.
 “Restore us O God; let your face shine, that we might be saved,” is the poet’s plea in Psalm 80.  The psalm echoes Isaiah’s deep longing and hope for a restored relationship with God and acknowledges the need for the people to work towards this restoration and asks how long it will take.
The community of Mark’s gospel is also waiting for a better world, and they too, wonder how long it will take.  The reading is taken from Jesus’ final talk with his followers before his arrest and execution.  The people in Mark’s community remember the promises of God’s presence in a better world and long for clear signs that the promises are being fulfilled. Jesus reminds his followers that only God knows the timing. In the meantime, he challenges them to stay awake and be alert and live in expectation.
Hope is a gift from God for us in the bleakest of times.
Our reading from the Hebrew Scripture today was from the book of Isaiah which was written by at least three prophets over about three hundred yours.  The reading came from the third writer and from the time when the people had returned from exile to Jerusalem.  They had been hoping that things would be the same as before they left. But history has shown that things were never the same again.  The Temple had to be rebuilt and that took hundreds of years.  It was only completed about eighty years before it was torn down again.  Worship for the people changed when they were taken into exile. They thought that to worship properly, they had to worship at the temple. Suddenly, they were in a foreign land with no hope of worshipping God in the Temple.  They had to learn new ways of worshipping God. When they returned, they still did not have the temple that they had hoped for.
Hope for Christians, is about looking for the new thing God is doing and preparing for that thing rather than looking back to what was in the past. Christian life is an ongoing journey. It is not a short trip then back to what was. Things are never the same as before however much we hope for that, so one of the things we need to be prepared for is change. Like the budding shoots on the fruit trees, what brings you hope?

This Advent, may we hope that we will get better at hearing the pain of others so that we will work to bring them more hope through encouragement and care. 

Pentecost 23A   16th November 2014
Judges 4:1-7
Psalm 123
1Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30
“He had a choice. Of course he had a choice. We all have choices. He could have chosen to do something with it; but he didn’t, so he has no one to blame but himself!” Jim’s angry voice could be heard clearly in the next room.
Sally had no idea what had prompted this outburst, but still she cringed, fearing what the next verbal blow might be. How many times in her life had she heard such words? Sometimes they were about others and sometimes they were directed at her. It was a bit better now than it had been for her as a child. At least in her late forties she had learnt that she did have choices, that she could say “No” or even “Yes.” Until recently, it had never occurred to her that she could stand up for herself, that she had the choice of saying “yes” or “no”.
But knowing that you could decide didn’t always make it easy to decide and then say it out loud. That sometimes took more courage than she could muster. Her self- confidence was pretty low. She had had it beaten out of her when she had failed to obey the seemingly impossible demands her parents had put on her. She had always wanted to do the right thing, always meant to do it, but somehow failed over and over again. So many times she had been yelled at, “You stupid, silly, lazy girl. You should have….. “  As an adult she still felt others blamed her for her lack of initiative. She found it so hard to find something positive to say in her favour at job interviews. To do so seemed like bragging to her and then she’d feel it was all her fault when she was rejected yet again. She would cringe when she heard the words in our Gospel reading, “You evil and lazy slave. You ought to have…” In other words, it was perceived that he had made the wrong choice.
The prayer from Psalm 123 could have been hers, “Have mercy on us, for we have had more than enough of contempt. Our soul has had more than its fill of scorn of those who are at ease, of the contempt of the proud.”
Last week we heard about Joshua calling on the Israelites to choose which God they would serve. It has not always been clear to us that we can choose how we understand Scripture. Often we have not thought about it for ourselves. We have lacked confidence in our interpretations and understandings. We have held Bible Studies which taught us to accept other people’s understandings rather than having discussion groups where we could listen to those around us and their interpretations. The Uniting Church says that it believes in every member ministry, in the priesthood of all believers and yet in practice, we fail to give every member the opportunity to minister from their relationship with God.
The parable of the talents has been interpreted to us for centuries as a story in which we can see the contempt of the proud for the one who was unable for whatever reason to make the most of the opportunity that was given him. It has been taught that he made a poor choice; that he failed to capitalise on his assets even when those assets were only on loan to him. At best, we have felt sorry for him but mostly we have sneered at him for his poor judgement. He has been held up to us as an example of how not to behave.
He may also have prayer using the words from Psalm 123, “Have mercy on me, for i have had more than enough of contempt. My soul has had more than its fill of scorn of those who are at ease, of the contempt of the proud.”
We have congratulated his fellow workers for their enterprising initiative. We have never once asked, “Who did they take advantage of to make such exorbitant gains in such a short time?” What of the Jewish Laws which do not allow people to lend at exploitative rates? It has rarely crossed our minds to ask, “Why were the servants not given equal amounts?” or “Why didn’t the other more capable ones offer to help him make the most of what he had been given?”
We are in the enviable position of knowing we have choices and we have a choice to see this parable as we have always been taught to see it or to see it for what it actually is as a critique of the world’s ways. Jesus was pointing out the unjust ways in which the less well off, less well- endowed people in the communities were treated by others and still are treated today.  The interpretation we have been given comes from the top side, from the side of the powerful ones and has put us in the position of sneering with contempt at the ones who became the losers in the story because he chose, for whatever reason, not to play the game. Indeed, the word, “Loser” is a term of contempt in our culture.
The story tells us that the slave knew that his master reaped where he did not sow and gathered where he had not scattered seed. These are exploitative actions. No one deserves to take advantage of other people’s labour in these ways. It confirms the suspicions we might have had about how the other two who received the money had been able to make such exorbitant profits for their master.
It is unbelievable that we who are called to follow Jesus could have accepted the interpretation we were given of this parable and closed our eyes to the social justice implications in it. We always knew that talents were units of money. Why was it treated as a metaphor?  The final two verses tell us that what money the third man had was taken from him and given to the one who had most. It has ever been thus that the rich benefit at the cost of the poor and in the Western World, the gap between the rich and the poor is ever growing. There is no doubt that more of the poor are being condemned to a hell on earth as a result of this.
While priding ourselves that we are using our talents to grow more, how much of what we have been given as a church, do we have invested in banks and buildings? What expansion could we see in God’s Way if we made the choice to invest these riches in helping and encouraging those with less?
The usual interpretation of this parable has been in a way that saw God blessing some with many talents and blessing people more if they used their talents to advantage. This understanding comes in part from the theology which says that God will bless us if we are good and punish us if we are evil and lazy. Today’s equivalent is seen in our attitude towards so called dole bludgers. In the reading from the Hebrew Scripture we have this same understanding where the people saw their captivity as punishment from God. This way of seeing God is a problem. When we see our place of privilege and those underprivileged as having been made that way by God, then we are unlikely to address issues of social inequality.
Since there is a disproportionate number of women among the world’s poor, it will be interesting to look more closely at the passage from Judges to see if there is a link between it and the Gospel reading.  There are also a disproportionately small number of readings in the Lectionary about women. This is one of only two or three where the woman is in leadership of her community. Deborah was a judge, an important person for settling disputes in the land where they had come to live from Egypt. We are told the Israelites cried to God for help because they had been cruelly oppressed for twenty years. Deborah told Barak how God was going to save them. Here the reading ends but the story does not. It goes on to say that Barak had such faith in Deborah that he wanted her to go with him and the army to ensure their success.
Deborah reassured him that she was coming but told him that Israel was going to be saved by a woman, not by Barak. And before the end of the chapter, we hear how this was accomplished. Why isn’t the story of Jael, the courageous woman who actually saved the nation, in our Lectionary readings? Who was it that has made the choice of what people hear in church? Do we have any choice in this matter? How have the choices that have been made by those in power affected the choices that are able to be made by those with little power? Have our choices empowered others or left them poorer?
Our media and much of our society are scornful and contemptuous of those who have less money, less ability and less choices, those who find it difficult to manage what money they do have. That is the world’s way. We are called to be as Paul urges the Thessalonians in the Epistle reading. “Therefore, encourage one another and build each other up, as indeed you are doing.” He has pointed out to them that they are in a unique place to be prepared for whatever comes and warns them to remain alert. Again, we are in the privileged place of having a choice.
Carol was a teenager in the sixties and Stephen was arguing about her conformity, urging her to choose to be different. “All my life I have been forced to be different with home-made clothes and a wooden school case. I have been constantly sneered at for my difference. I had no choice in that. Now I choose to comply, to belong for once.”
May we grow ever more sensitive to our attitudes to those with less talents. May we encourage and build each other up in all things.

                                                                 Matthew 25:14-30
In a well-known Christmas song are the words, “He’s making a list and checking it twice. Got to find out who’s naughty or nice.” These words are, presumably, to encourage children to behave well and scare them from bad behaviour. This may be argued as a good idea. For many people, there is not a lot of difference between the way we see Father Christmas and how we see God, for whom the most used image in the Christian Church is Father. We believe God also sees us when we’re sleeping and knows when we’re awake and knows if we’ve been bad or good. There’s no real problem with that.
It can lead to some seeing God as sitting up in Heaven, making a list and checking it twice to find out who is naughty and who is nice so God can bless the good ones and punish the bad ones. The problem with these ideas is the implication that God treats us differently according to our behaviour. This belief impacts on the way we see God, others and ourselves. It also changes the way we read Bible stories.
From the beginning of Scripture, there have been those who believe that God will bless you if you behave well and will curse you if you don’t. Fair enough, if that was all there was to it. The problem arises when we take that belief it to the next step. We may see people whose lives are not blessed and assume they have done wrong, been bad and are being punished. We may think they have only themselves to blame for the situation they are in. We may assume that, if we do anything to help them, we are going against God’s punishment. If we are honest, we all know people who have been no worse than average and yet have terrible lives, full of trouble and tragedy. At the same time, we probably all know people who have questionable morals, or who have been blatantly bad, for whom nothing ever seems to go wrong. They seem to sail through life, getting all the breaks.
The book of Job, believed to be one of the earliest written from Hebrew Scripture, wrestles with this problem.
In both the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew and the Sermon on the Plain from Luke, it is reported that Jesus said the poor are blessed. Over and over, Jesus’ actions towards poorer people show that while the world may judge them as unworthy because they haven’t earned blessings, to God they are special.
It is incredible how deeply the idea is imbedded in our culture. The haves have because they have been good. In some way they deserve what they have. They have worked hard. They “have” because they have studied and been responsible. They have been good citizens as we see it. They have been rewarded.
It automatically follows that “have nots” don’t “have” because they haven’t worked hard, been responsible or even worshipped God in the right way.
This has been the way we have looked at the parable of the talents. But, is this the point Jesus was making when he told this story? Most of us have accepted what we were told, that we are expected to make the most of our talents. Then we will be given more according to how responsible we have been. This story was not about natural gifts. It is about money and possessions. Talents were gold coins.
I was in a group discussing this when someone said, “I feel sorry for the guy who was only given one. He obviously did what he thought was best with it.” The room went quiet and all eyes swung to see who had spoken. The comment had set us thinking. Someone else said, “I feel sorry for him, too. Neither of the others helped or encouraged him. He was obviously afraid. Maybe he had reason to be. Maybe he was inexperienced in such things. The master showed that he didn’t have much faith in him by giving him the least. He knew the master was demanding. Perhaps the master had told him that he thought he was hopeless, as my father used to tell me.”
A third person in the group spoke up. “I don’t understand this story. My experience and understanding of God and Christ are just not like the master in this story. Jesus didn’t condemn those who had less. That’s what the world does! And to reap where you did not sow and to gather where you did not scatter seed is to rob the people who did the work in sowing and scattering.”
Another person in the group lived on a farm on the outskirts of a major city. She told of how people had helped themselves to their sheep and how orchardists in their district had trouble with people helping themselves to the fruit. She said, “I can’t see Jesus doing that to people. What if we have been wrong in assuming that the master in this story is representing God? What if the point Jesus was making is that this is the way the god of this world works?”
There was a stunned silence as we all re-read the passage. Then someone said, “This is the way the economy has been run in recent years. People are expected to work hard to make more because the more people earn, the more the government gets through taxes and the more managers get in their salary packages. The rich are getting richer and what the poor have is being taken from them. Like the master here, some people in our community think all poor people are lazy, whatever the cause of their poverty.”
This is not a story about ability. It is a story about money and the pressure to make more money. We have been guilty of trying to make it “nice” by interpreting it metaphorically. We can know this because the next part of the gospel story is about Christ judging the sheep and the goats on the grounds of how they treated the poor, fed the hungry and thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked and visited those who were sick or in prison.
Could it be that, in doing what he did, the third man was taking a stand against the system which exploited poor people? This story may have been different, even in our usual interpretation, if they had all worked together to achieve what the master wanted. Maybe the two more able servants could have offered to mentor the third.

The Global Financial troubles are a reminder to us that we are not called to feather our own nests, but to see how we can best help those with no nests. Christ continually challenges us to question assumptions as we follow his way. May you receive many blessings as you contemplate this.

Christ Church Castlemaine
Rev Dr Wes Campbell
Rev 7: 9-17
Ps 150 (Tis 97)
1 John 3: 1-3
Matthew 5: 1-12

In the name of God. lifegiver, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

We are here to remember the dead.
On the day called ‘All Saints’, all Souls, Halloween (Holy Evening), also called Sunday of the Dead, we remember those who have died.

We are warned: If we forget the dead, we will soon forget the living.
A forgetful heart will empty us, and take away  our feeling for both the joys and sorrows of our companions.

So we are to remember.
Much to our surprise, as we remember them –
they give us a memory’.
As we look back to them, they turn us around to give us a glimpse of the future they lived for;
they arm us with hope for the future!

With them, as a living memory, a lively presence,
we can walk boldly and confidently into the days that come.

So, do not forget.
I am reminded of that moment of remembrance taken by those who recall the 11th hour, of the 11th day of the eleventh month. An expression of hope that this would be the war to end all wars. Our experience, however, is to observe one scene of warfare cascading onto another! 

(When Fr Ken invited me to preach in this service, he suggested I make connection with our ANZAC identity. I had not anticipated how much we would be hearing of ANZAC now.)

ANZAC commemoration has been reported this weekend, with the gathering of crowds in Albany. TV shows recall the young men (and women) enrolling in the military forces. In the local paper this week was a photo of locals dressed in old military dress marking those early days. I am puzzled by this. Though we are assured that these are not celebrations, it has a celebratory feel. Only time will tell whether we are being invited into commemorations or celebrations of that rush to enrol. Though these are not said to be celebrations, we seem to be asked to remember the high hopes of those new soldiers – as if we did not know of the deaths and carnage that was to follow.

One thing is certain: war memorials in Australian towns, mark the grief of war. Will we remember too those who returned shattered, maimed, shell shocked.; and those silenced by the horror.
Only time will tell if we are able to remember the whole picture including Australians who resisted the war effort and refused to join it.
On this All Saints day what does a Christian preacher say? It is a day to help us remember. A sort of therapeutic act of honesty – especially because the church largely supported the call to arms. Why would we not be suspicious of those who call for prayer as they also bless weapons; whose God  blesses nationalism.

The young dead call us to remember them. As we remember, will they offer any hope of a future?
As we approach that question we will hear voices that speak of war as necessary. Awful but necessary.

Tragic as it is, war drives human culture into new heights of achievement. So human imagination generates new technology, together with weapons of war.

The ancient Egyptian empire took up the wheel and built chariots. That made them into a great superpower.

The Roman Empire combined technology and warfare.  Rome blended Greek culture and its military skill. Copper mixed with tin made hard bronze weapons which assisted the Romans to rule for centuries!

The story of steel is similar. Peter Mason in his book Blood and Iron explores how necessary iron is to our planet. Then charts the development of steel. In the nineteenth century steel as a defence and a weapon led to preparation for the first World War.

In in the second half of the 20th century we lived with the fruit of physics: the atom was split and nuclear weapons were made. As you know we have lived under the nuclear cloud ever since. The technology we have created threatens to annihilate us. Yet, nations have these weapons and refuse to disarm.
With the internet and the personal computer the world has suddenly grown smaller; we can communicate with ease around the globe. And drones have been produced to make war in a new way.
So, they are right: war and human imagination seem to go hand in hand. But what are we to say of the destruction?

Is it possible that poetry might help?

I have started to read again the poetry of the World Wars, and I am reminded of the way poetry changed. Poetry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was confident in tone, regarding military experience as honourable, shedding glory on the soldier. Those like Rupert Brooke looked to their own death quite serenely –his grave would be a little bit of England on foreign shores.

Then, as you know, from the defeat of Gallipoli into the trenches of the Somme, the tone shifts. Soldiers live with mud and corpses. Some wrote poetry to survive. Some wanted us to know what they experienced. Others wrote as protest; their poetry was a rejection of the old lie that war is noble and glorious.
Their writing is an act of resistance. They will not forget the sacrifice made of their life. They do not want us to forget and to go on repeating this carnage. That is the meaning of that phrase: ‘Lest we forget!’

No glory now.
Our language does strange things here. The only point of war is to kill. We are talking about killing human beings. Organised, planned, regimented. The young are trained to kill.. By calling it ‘war’ it seems to gain some sort of credibility. And we have that old sleeper: the ‘just war’ when nations try to excuse that killing! Replace that with massacre: or slaughter, and what happens. The Great Slaughter!

What happens to faith here? Many simply lost faith. Political rulers and church leaders cooperated to take these soldiers into a living death. Why would they trust them again?

What are we in this?
If once citizens could hide behind the defence that they did not know about war, we cannot. We have seen the brutality of war on TV and cinemas.

What do our Gallipoli soldiers offer here? Can they prize open our ears to the cries of the maimed, our hearts to the slaughtered, and not only human suffering but also the suffering other creatures of this planet at war, starting with horses? Can we deal with their suffering that is meaningful? Will their sacrifice point us to a different future?

Will they remind us of the biblical instruction: do not put your trust in princes? Do not give your loyalty and life to the rulers who will conscript you into armies and take you into the killing fields. They serve death, not life.

What if those dead soldiers remain mute? Silent. What then?

I once preached on ANZAC evening and wrestled with the call of peace and our drive toward destruction. At the conclusion of the service as I greeted people at the door a teacher in New Testament who had also been a chaplain said to me: the problem is guilt.

What did he mean?
Guilt is our attempt to cover over the terrible things, our attempt to block out feelings, to deaden the danger or the hurt. Guilt silences us. It would even turn that declaration, ‘Lest we forget’ into readiness for the next war.

What can offer a different future? How can our guilt be removed and our humanity returned to us?

The key can be found in the strange vision of John, with that great crowd dressed in white robes, holding palm branches, and singing songs of victory. In the vision the apostle is given a memory.

And remembering, the vision opens up a new future.
The dress of this crowd recalls those earliest Christians who died as martyrs. From the perspective of the Roman Empire they were terrorists who challenged the right order. They certainly did challenge. They were prepared to die as witnesses. Yet without violence to another. They pose the question: what is worth dying for?

Christian faith holds out a vision we need to show our young people. Not  the vision of a military advertisement offering training and a career – as is regularly advertised on TV and cinemas -  where we see two young people, a man and a woman, walking from one environment to the next – from aircraft hangers, to a jungle setting, to a desert, to a warship, with sophisticated weapons that change for each environment. Note that the advertisement does not tell them or us that employment includes readiness to kill other human beings, and to bear the guilt and trauma of that.

As long as such ads are shown, we do a disservice to our young. And we will end up insisting on a guilty cover-up. Or, we will blame the soldier for a lack of discipline without admitting we have sent them to war!

What is the alternative? In the Revelation reading: at the centre of a new Jerusalem sits a slaughtered Lamb. Yes, the imagery is graphic; just as life is. In his dream the Apostle is opened up to a source of new life: in a mutilated body. The promise is that in his body Jesus addresses a world of war, uncovers its guilt, and takes us into a new future. Jesus’ body: that is both the body of Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified; it is also the body, the church, where people experiment with a new life of peace. Matthew regarded the teaching of Jesus (in the Sermon on the Mount) as unavoidable for Christians.

He means us to take this on as a political calling. Jesus teaches and lives a new way of blessing: for the poor, the humble and defenceless, for peacemakers and the merciful. On this path we learn what it means to love our enemy!

It is this vision that makes Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel so essential and practical. Either we learn to love our neighbour, or we will destroy ourselves.

Some have said that this teaching is too difficult. It is challenging. It may even make us look foolish. You’d have to admit a slaughtered Lamb is not as alluring as the great beasts – any four year old will tell you how fascinating dinosaurs are. But that is the point. The beasts of prey, the empires that spill blood, are dinosaurs; by contrast Jesus offers a role model for a new defenceless future. Can we say that Returned soldiers who know about the blood and tears will recognise the murdered Jesus in their past; and will they also seek to find a way into his future.

This came into sharp focus in the first meeting of the World Council of Churches in Amsterdam in 1948 – where participants, facing the destruction of the world war declared they we willing to live without the defence of weapons.

This is the contribution Christian faith can make to an Australia that is trying to come to grips with its ANZAC identity. The church has profound gift to offer here: a new imagination that no longer treats war as a necessary burden and a tragic necessity. It offers a liberation that shows up all violence  to be a mistake, a failed experiment.

Grasped by such anew imagination we will have courage and energy to point forward to a new Australia where people ae no longer fearful of people arriving in boats, who dress differently, or are of another faith. Most important, we will be encouraged to engage those who are related to the original inhabitants of this land.  

What an alternative!

Here we may join the great choir of creation to sing together at Jesus’ meal, trusting that his will be the final victory.

As we experiment with this new imagination, let us gather at his table, people of every culture, every colour and creed.

May we be drawn onto the path of those first defenceless disciples, saints, martyrs, learning to trust their non-violent discipleship, and becoming prophets of a world made new; a world inhabited by a community of peace.

And by that, you (!), become a sign of the new future offered by Christ Jesus, the slaughtered Lamb.

And to that, let all say AMEN!.

PENTECOST 21A    2nd November 2014                                                                          
Joshua 3:7-17
Psalm 107:1-7,33-37
1 Thessalonians 2:9-13
Matthew 23:1-12
I know that many of you watch “Escape to the Country” on TV so I wonder how many of you saw the segment recently which showed a shepherdess and the mobile hut she used as her home during lambing season. Besides tending her sheep, she leads people on bare-foot rambles through lush green pastures, sprinkled with wildflowers. She said removing shoes enabled people to get in touch with their roots again through skin contact with the earth. As I watched it, I was envious of the people being able to go barefoot knowing that this woman would only lead them on safe ground as she trod before them. There was no path as we understand paths because paths have been trodden down and would have made it harder for their feet to connect with the earth.
The couple who had come to walk that day were seasoned ramblers, one being the leader of groups and the other with the goal in life to have walked all the paths in a given area. They had come well prepared for their usual style of walking with thick socks and special, substantial boots designed to keep them safe from harm. They had to shed all this protection and the burden it was to them, to step out in barefooted trust to follow the shepherd.
Recently I was asked to write a reflection on the 23rd Psalm that says, “The Lord is my shepherd,” from the point of view of an abused woman. I wish I had seen this clip before I wrote it.
Being bare foot has long symbolised freedom for me. Earlier in the year we saw God inviting Moses at the Burning Bush, to take off his shoes. That marked the beginning of a new relationship between Moses and God which led the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. Now we are up to the part where Moses life had ended. He had seen the new land but died before entering it. When he glimpsed the promised future for his people, Moses’ life work was complete.
There had been no suggestion through that time that the Israelite people needed to shed their shoes but now they had arrived at the point of entry to this new land and life, we see again that freedom is symbolised in the skin of someone’s feet making contact with the earth. Joshua was told that when the soles of the priest’s touched the water of the Jordan, the people were able to cross safely. We can see these two stories of bare feet touching the earth as bookends to the story of the Exodus or we can see them as both marking the beginning of separate chapters in the life of the Israelites.
When someone we love dies, it is the end of a chapter in our lives. Depending on how close we were to the person, varying amounts of our life dies with them. Grief is one of the ways in which God invites us to take off our shoes and spend some time with God before facing the new land we are entering, possibly as with the Israelites, without the person we have most relied upon. It can be terrifying and it is good to think that God invites and encourages us in gentle steps.
In the Uniting Leader’s Book, Order of worship for funeral services it says that “While death is the end of the human body, it marks a new beginning in our relationship with God.” With the Christian conviction of life after death, the stories we know from Scripture and church teaching we may assume that these words refer to the person who has died. After all, much focus has been put through the centuries on life after death, of heaven being a place of endless praise and joy and no more tears. Hope in life after death has been the main consolation the church has offered to those in grief. When this has been talked about it was referring to life after death for the one who has died. It has also been used as a reason for not doing something about slavery and other forms of suppression, justifying these practices by saying people will get their reward of a good life after death.
But what about life after death for the one who is continuing to survive? I can tell you from experience that it is those who go on living come also into a new relationship with God as they find themselves in a holy space where they can reconnect with the ground of their being which is God. The presence of death can invite or sometimes force us, back to bare basics in order to reconnect with the elements of our existence. Then there can be life after death for those who survive.
The process of grief is like the journey for the Israelites. It requires letting go of much of what made you who you were in the former land. Often for widows it means the loss of home, friends and many belongings as well as their husband. There is also loss of identity as you realise you are not who you were before. There is inevitably a time of wandering in the wilderness, wishing things were different, times of regret, hunger, thirst and bewilderment. Certainly there are times when you wonder if you will even come out of this desolate place. Occasionally there are glimpses of better things as when Caleb brought the giant bunches of grapes to encourage them [numbers 13:23]. Unfortunately, many were unable to grasp this vision of hope.
The words, “Earth to earth, Dust to dust in the committal part of the funeral service,” can be seen as an invitation for those surviving to stay connected, protected and grounded in the Holy space God has prepared them for the way ahead. It is a way we, like Moses, are reluctant to travel. If we were given a choice, we would never have gone down this path.
The pillar of cloud which accompanied the Israelites by day which symbolised God’s presence with them is also a good analogy for those in grief. For months, even years, our minds can be clouded and our way ahead unclear. We can use the image of the fire by night to remind us when we can’t sleep for weeping or from loneliness that God is with us even when it feels as if we are deserted.
The story of this journey reminds us too, that it is OK to get angry with God and to express our anger to God. A number of times the people were angry and complained, but God stayed with them and continued to support them and eventually they reached the place where they could safely cross over on dry land to their new life, leaving behind the one who was a significant part of their life, maybe who they had relied upon and thought they could not live without. Significantly bereaved people often feel naked and very vulnerable and need to be compassionately led into the place of new possibilities.
In many ways, the journey from Egypt to the Promised Land was a significant grief event for the Hebrew people. They had to leave the security of the life they knew. Although they had little in Egypt, they had a certainty which was reassuring. The journey to the new place was hard, tedious, long, and not very interesting. They grieved for the life they had known and found it hard to grasp Moses’ vision for the future. All they could see were the difficulties that faced them daily in this dry, barren environment in which they found themselves. They wished they could just go back to the way things were.
Depending on how significant our loss was with the death of someone we close to, who maybe provided us with security and a reason to live, we may feel as if we are wandering in a wilderness. We know from the story that even though it sometimes felt like God had abandoned them, God never did. After one or more significant deaths, we may wander in the wilderness for a number of years. It may feel like we are getting nowhere, that in our grief we are going round and round in circles, but with God’s help, we are circling closer to the new place where we can thrive beyond all expectations.
In the Gospel reading for today [Matthew 23:], Jesus had seen that by their actions, those who were supposed to be leading the people were in fact restricting them, imprisoning them in unfair laws, limiting their movement by laying heavy burdens of unnecessary requirements on them. The Church has placed burdens on people in the way it has interpreted and taught the Bible and rules it has made.
For some years some in the church have been shedding some of the burdens placed on them by past expectations and understandings of Scripture. Many old perceptions have died or have been left behind as people have been freed to understand things in new ways or have come to know the historical Jesus better. At the same time there has been much wandering in the wilderness. We have been burdened with the upkeep of grand buildings sometimes built as a display of wealth and skills rather than to the praise of God.
Many laments for congregations that have been lost.
There is debate about whether sudden death is less painful than anticipated death. Is it better for death to come suddenly or for it to take months or years. I do not know. I think it is good to have time for good-byes.
Paul worked hard to avoid being a burden to the people he cared about. We can put burdens on people who are grieving by telling them they should be behaving in a certain way, according to a certain pattern. We can burden them with guilt by asking if they had done something differently might their loved one still be alive. We can burden them by putting our understandings of God, Christ and the Bible on them by saying things like, “God took him,” or “His work on earth was finished.” These kind of things aren’t always the comfort that is intended.

Can we make the path easier for others by acting with compassion and love, n helping to rid them of burdens

Pentecost 20A   26th October 2014
Deuteronomy 34:1-12
Psalm 90:1-6,13-17
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Matthew 22:34-46
A few weeks ago, Kath was examining a packet of biscuits. “These lemon wafers that you like so much are made in Israel,” she said to her daughter. “Well, I shall never eat another one,” her daughter said. “I hate what the Israelis’ are doing to the Palestinians and need to protest some way. How can people who have been so appallingly treated themselves become such bullies? How can they think this is how God would expect them to behave? Why do they think they have the right to take over the land as they are continuing to do?”
Today’s reading from Hebrew Scripture with Moses overlooking the Promised Land, presents us with an enormous dilemma. It can give us feelings of pride, relief, importance, gratitude for what God was doing for the people of Israel in bringing them to this Promised Place. God had provided a wonderful leader for them in Moses. No doubt the people were overjoyed to have at last arrived. But what of the people who were already living there, who already saw this land as their own?
It has ever been thus, that people have invaded the territory of other tribes and nations with little thought for the original inhabitants. Probably all have thought they had the blessing of their gods in doing this. Over three thousand years later, the Israelis are still justifying their blockade of Gaza and their continuing take-over of Palestinian land on this passage of Scripture. Rightly or wrongly, they think they are entitled to the land. Whether or not they are, they have no entitlement to treat others with the disdain with which they treat the Palestinians. Our God is love and justice and everything in the Bible must be judged according to the criteria, “Is this love and is it just for all concerned?” If it is not, we can ask, “Is it of God?” Would God use God’s power to ethnically cleanse an area so his favourites could have it?
What do the indigenous people of this area and this land think about this passage from Deuteronomy? Are there ways in which we are still behaving as though we have the God-given right to this land that others do not because we were here before them of because God led us here or gave it to us because we believe in Him and others do not?
Since the two commandments Jesus quoted about loving the Lord our God and loving our neighbours and ourselves, in the New Testament reading from Matthew, are ones from earlier in the Bible than the story of Moses,[Leviticus 19:18] many would say they carried quite a bit of weight. So were the people moving into the Promised and loving their neighbour?
The writer Dorothee Soelle is seen as a Feminist theologian. That means she studies how people see God and the Scriptures from a woman’s point of view. In her book Mysticism and Resistance, she writes, “I am neither professionally anchored nor personally at home in the two institutions of religion, the church and academic theology. It is the mystical element that will not let go of me… I can simply say that what I live, understand and make known is the love FOR God. And this seems to be in little demand in either the Church or academic theology.
At best, what Protestant theology and preaching articulate in what they designate as “gospel” can be summed up as follows: God loves, protects, renews and saves us. One rarely hears that this process can be truly experienced only when such love, like every genuine love, is mutual. That humans love, protect, renew and save God sounds to most people like megalomania or madness. But the madness of this love is exactly what mystics live on.”
A Pharisaic lawyer who wanted to test Jesus had asked him, “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and the greatest.   And the second is like it. “You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” In other words absolutely anything of value revolves around these two statements. We are called to critique all other teaching and understanding by these two. They become the ultimate standard for Christian living.  “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” the guideline given to children in our culture, is grossly inadequate for this as it can be done and often is, in the absence of love.
Several things arise from this. The first is that Dorothee says that genuine love is mutual. It could be argued that complete love is by its nature, is mutual but much love which is none the less real, can be one sided. We can love people who do not love us. We are told we love because God first loved us [1John 4:19] meaning that we only know how to love by allowing ourselves to experience God’s love for us. This may come to us in varying amounts of completeness according to how our parents and those who care for us from conception are able to love us.
Parents who themselves have not been loved struggle to love. And when a child is unwanted or the parents are under pressure from debts, illness, unemployment, homelessness or grief, for example, they may find it much harder to love the child and so it becomes more difficult for the child to love. Perhaps the Israelis have trouble loving the Palestinians because they don’t know God’s love and have not experienced it from their Christian neighbours through the centuries.
The thing that may seem extraordinary to many of us is that children are born mystics, somehow already in touch with God’s love. If given the opportunity, many children can talk of ways in which they have experienced God’s love. Unfortunately their reports are often dismissed as fanciful and so they give up on telling others but they may still recognise such experiences and the completion of love with God. This is what we are talking about when we speak of Spirituality. Because the Church has been so remiss in acknowledging experiences of God, many people seek it outside of the Church in other religious practices and even in secular retreats. Love for God is all about experiences and feelings, both of which have been trivialised or declared to be irrelevant in the institutional church.
What might it mean for us to be commanded to love. It may mean seeing love in a new light. Love is more complicated and more ethereal and yet also more practical than most things we are commanded to do or not to do. Love is a feeling and feelings are not always responsive to commands. But love is also actions and attitudes. This is what loving God with all our heart, soul and mind are all about. We are to love with all of our being, not half- heartedly or mindlessly. We are called to live love in a soul-full way.
Experience of God’s love and loving God is what mystics and mysticism are all about. When Protestantism chose to go with faith and God as revealed in Scripture it blocked people’s celebration of relationship with God. “The repulsion of experience, as well as the fear of engaging it, represents a kind of spiritual suicide that at the turn of this century continues to cause the church membership to decline.”[p18] Dorothee Soelle continues, “Every religion has its mystical component, but only in a form that is manageable and capable of keeping the fire under control”. “Mystics are quite ordinary people who are amazed at God’s mutuality. God is there for all creatures and everyone.” They experience amazement, self- discovery and immense joy.
In this they find they are able to love God, others and themselves in remarkable ways.
This is important because this is what is at the basis of all true resistance to injustice. It is this which fans the flame of sacred love which fires the will to seek freedom and rights for all who are oppressed and abused.   If you take away their holy rage and their madness, the prophetesses of Delphi and the priestesses of Dodona accomplish little.
The Muslim mystic, Rabl’a said, “To love God, not because of powerful institutions, or even because God commands it, but to do so in an act of unencumbered freedom, is the very source of mystical relationship.”
There is a gulf between theology [rational knowledge of God] and mysticism [experience of God]. Another Muslim mystic and martyr  from the 10ce[922ce] called Mansur al-Hallaj taught passionate, overflowing love as the heart of the divine being instead of blind imitation and obedience. Such love is the mystery of creation. He said, “Whoever seeks God runs ahead of God’s revelations, but whomever God seeks has revelations overtaking his running.” This is what God does for children and explains their experiences of God.
John of the Cross wrote that God does not reserve the calling to contemplation to particular souls. On the contrary, God hopes all will embrace it.
We heard last week that Moses asked God to let him know God more and we heard God’s response in giving him a vision of God’s goodness. How well do we know God’s goodness? Meister Eckhart, a Christian mystic put it we have “not been created for small things.” Contemplating this is both exciting and daunting.

We are invited into a mutual relationship of love with God and then when we have been loved, we will be equipped for the sometimes enormously difficult task of loving our neighbours and ourselves.

Pentecost 19A   19th October 2014
Exodus 33:12-23
Psalm 99
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Matthew 22:15-20
Sandra longed to go back to work. Her children were now in Primary School and her days more manageable. It wasn’t only about money. She wanted new challenges as well. But her husband was reluctant to agree to such a move. She finally persuaded him and six months later he said, “I am getting to know you in a whole new way. You are a much more interesting person now. I wish I had sent you back to work earlier.
More than fifty years ago, a wise person said to me, “If you don’t like someone, try getting to know them better. You may not like them any better, but you will understand them more.”
Getting to know and discovering new things about the other is one of the joys of life and enriches relationships. Moses wanted to know God better and every now and then he took time out from his busy job of leading the people of Israel to spend time alone with God. After Paul had begun a new relationship with Christ on the road to Damascus he is believed to have spent up to ten years in the desert of Arabia getting to know him better before he embarked on his great missionary journeys. Over and over in his writings we see that Paul enjoyed his relationship with Christ and was forever giving thanks for it. Jesus also modelled the behaviour of taking time alone with God, time out from his busy life of teaching, healing and helping.
The Christian Church, following Jesus’ example, has implied that the main way for us to know God is as Father. This has been a problem for many people and it also limits God who is so much more than Father. There are different ways of knowing God. Adam and Eve knew God as a companion who walked with them in the evenings. Jacob knew God as someone to strive with, Moses began to know God in a new way at the burning bush. Paul knew Jesus as the Wisdom of God [1Corinthians 1:24] and one of the saints knew God as a baby and another as a frail elderly woman. 
We can all know God more, not just know more about God but have a different and deepening relationship with God. Sometimes we can choose this, deciding as Moses did, to tell God that he wanted to know God more and then asking for a specific revelation of God. It is not something I had thought to do when my life was OK. But things changed suddenly when my husband died.
On the night of his death, I looked in a chain reference bible to see what Scripture had to say about widows. Most references were God telling people to care for widows or reprimanding them for failing to care for widows. However, one passage stood out. Isaiah 54:4-6 talks about God being a husband to widows. I tried to block this from my mind. It didn’t seem right to me. I liked the images of people being told to take care of widows and orphans. They were a comfort so I concentrated on them.  Several months later, we had a visiting preacher who spoke about the promises of God and in particular the one about God being a husband to widows and deserted women. I was angry. I wanted a proper husband, one with flesh and bones who would take care of the farm etc., not some abstract, distant husband figure.
The verse haunted me and a couple of months later I asked a group of women at church about it. A gracious elderly widow said, “My dear, God has been husband to me for thirty years since Ray died.” Another said she had no idea about it but she would pray about it and let me know. The next week she said that she believed that how I saw God would make no difference to God’s love for me. But it would make a difference to my relationship with God. It would require a more mature relationship than that of Father and child. When Jesus called God Father, he was an adult and so the father/son relationship modelled by Jesus was an adult to adult relationship, something which we often fail to convey.
In accepting the image of God as husband it was a relief to let go of the Father image for God as my father had been violent and abusive. Using Parent or Mother God was no easier as my mum had not wanted me and we also had an abusive relationship.
I was half hearted in my commitment to God as husband. It wasn’t like Catholic Nuns who become brides of Christ and vow poverty, chastity and humility. For years I lived in hope of finding another husband even though I knew there are many more single women than there are eligible single men. I felt that to fully commit would wipe all chances of ever marrying again. It was a comfort to think of God as husband when I became overwrought about being on my own in difficult situations.
A few years before Ed’s death, my mother- in -law had commented that her husband was her best friend. While I had no doubt this was true for her, it was something that had never occurred to me. My parents didn’t have many friends and discouraged us from having friends. We weren’t allowed to have friends come to our house. Mum said it was all she could do to look after us without having to look after other people’s children as well. One of my favourite hymns is, “What a friend we have in Jesus.” I realised that I while I loved the idea of Jesus being my friend I was again unsure of the implications of me being Jesus’ friend. Not surprisingly, I feel I don’t do friendship well. I have not been good at maintaining friendships with my nomadic lifestyle although I crave them. I have wondered what coming to know Christ as friend would mean and would like to explore this more.
The image of Christ as brother is sometimes suggested. But I have not had a brother and don’t know how to relate to brothers so don’t find this image helpful in knowing God more.
Over the last few months it has become clearer that I am returning to the area of concern that had meant most to me before going into ministry, advocating for and working with surviving victims of abuse and violence. This has commenced with being invited to work on rituals for healing for these people and looking into how the way we see God permits and encourages abusive behaviour.
At present I am coming to know God as sister. It was totally unexpected but I understand sister in ways that I do not know the other ways of knowing God. I cannot find words to tell you what a blessing this has been. I can be a sister. I have four birth sisters, three sisters-in law and through the years many others have been added to us including two cousins and other women who don’t have sisters of their own. Since we acknowledged the abuse in our family my sisters have become closer and more supportive of each other. I can trust that Sister God, who I call Sophie Grace, understands souls wounded by abuse and am looking forward to getting to know her better.
When I spoke with someone about seeing God as Sister, she wanted to know how that fitted with our Father, Son and Holy Spirit image. I do not know and I may never know. A woman once asked God why God had not sent his daughter to show us God. God seemed to reply that God’s daughter had come a million times but nobody had recognised her because she was a woman. The more I know God the more I realise how little I can ever know God who is Mystery beyond all knowledge. What I do know is that seeing God as Friend and Sister along with the goodness of God shown to Moses, gives me strength and encouragement to keep going with the daunting task of working with survivors.
For a number of years I have believed that God will suggest a way of relating that is beneficial to the stage we are at on our journey. God invites us into deeper relationship which implies deeper knowing. God wasn’t angry with Moses when he pointed out that God knew him but he didn’t know God and asked to see God’s glory. At the same time, God protected Moses from coming into knowledge that was too great for him to bear and would have killed him. God shielded him with rock and hand and Moses saw God’s goodness. It would be interesting for us to know what part God’s goodness plays in God’s glory.
It was painful my first year in Theological College as I came to know things about the Bible that came close to killing my faith. It was a struggle to come to terms with new knowledge. At the same time I was coming to know God in new and encouraging ways.
In the reading from Matthew, [22:15-20], the Pharisees, in trying to trick Jesus into incriminating himself, asked him about paying taxes. Most of you have heard Jesus’ answer many times in your lives. “Give to the Emperor the things that belong to the Emperor and to God the things that are God’s”.[Matthew 22:21] While our taxes belong to the Government, worship belongs to God, and not to anyone or anything else. It is all too easy for us to get trapped into worshipping something else or someone else. There is a great variety of things to tempt us, from sporting teams and entertainment celebrities to wealth and achievement. Many of us attend worship services regularly without giving much thought to the purpose and meaning of these events. We may come from habit, a sense of duty, because we enjoy the singing, to see our friends and not often think that their purpose is to help us know God better. I’m not at all sure God needs our worship. I don’t think God is diminished when we fail to worship but I think we are lessened when we do not.
Many of us worry about our children and grandchildren, how they can get to know God when they rarely attend worship services. Worship arises from a sense of wonder and awe, from seeing the glory of God in everything other. While we can only invite them to “come to worship” and leave it up to them, we can also instil in them a sense of wonder and awe at the incredible intricacy of all creation, from nano-particles to the vastness of the cosmos.
Twice recently I have heard people talking about the work of worship. It is something for all people to be part of. Neither time though, were they meaning that each person who comes to a service is to take place in leading the worship. They were talking about consciously engaging with what is being offered, loitering with intent in the worship space was the way one person put it. It is about presenting an opportunity to glimpse a different aspect of God in the safety of the rock as Moses did.
I can understand why Moses wanted to know God more. As he said, God knew him and relationship is about mutuality. It is always a bit disconcerting to talk with someone who obviously knows who I am but I have no idea who they are. They may have called me by name, and instead of concentrating on the conversation, I may be wracking my brain, trying to think of their name. I am searching for a clue as to who they are and wondering where we may have met. Usually it is someone I have met in a different place and this may become the key to unlocking recognition of the person.
After six months in a new placement, Fred said at an Elders meeting, “I hardly know you people yet and know little about you.” The unexpected reply he received was, “Why would you want to know us?” “So I can care for you better”, Fred replied.
There is a paradox in this knowing business. The less we actually know about any person or thing, the more we may think we know and the more we know, the more we realise how little we know. Yet there is a point where we can know more than we want to about ourselves and others because that knowing is too much for us to bear. We condemn the uncaring nature of the Church leaders who didn’t respond to the knowledge of abuse. Perhaps we could ask why they were unable to respond with justice and compassion in situations where justice and compassion where clearly called for. What had happened in their lives that we might not know about to lead them to deny help where help was needed?
I was recently reminded that meditation and worship are where we seek to know the Transcendent God while mission is about following the Immanent God. There is joy in knowing Christ… God gives us the honour of a deepening knowledge and relationship. We can give to God a willingness to consider what God would like us to know. It is from such deepening relationship that we are better able to give to God a willingness to follow the Way of Christ, inspired by joy and compassion.

PENTECOST 18A   12th October 2014
Exodus 32:1-14                                                                                                              Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23                                                                                         Philippians 4:1-9                                                                                                   Matthew 22:1-14
When we had Dr Lauren Rickards to speak on Justice Sunday, several people commented on how wonderful it is that young people these days get such great opportunities to develop to their potential. It is to the advantage of us all, not to waste the potential imbedded in humans. It is a shame that many in previous generations didn’t get opportunities to develop to their potential.  Sometimes opportunities were there and people failed to recognise or accept them and at other times, because of the attitude of others, people were not allowed to.
For several weeks now, we have been hearing parables from Matthew’s gospel that Jesus told to illustrate how many people invited into relationship with God misunderstood the invitation, or didn’t hear it because they had their own agenda  according to how they saw God. Because of this missed opportunity they missed the mark. They failed to reach their potential and so failed to have life in all its fullness.
First there was the story about the man who had been forgiven his debts but then didn’t forgive the one indebted to him. He had failed to understand the great gift of God he had received in forgiveness. This brings up questions for us such as “What am I in God’s debt for and what has God given me that I have failed to recognise as of great value? And, “What has God given to others in our community that we have failed to recognise, or having recognised, failed to encourage in that person?” We are indebted to God for who we are and to the community in using our gifts wisely and for everyone’s advantage. This is our responsibility.
Next we had the parable about the workers in the vineyard who were jealous when those who had done less work had received the same pay. Like the older son in the Prodigal Son, they failed to grasp the privilege they had of being first. They had been chosen first. They hadn’t realised the privilege of having a means of earning a living. From the second creation story and the doctrine of original sin, working for a living has been made to seem like a punishment and something to be avoided if we possibly can, when it is a good for us to have this responsibility which helps us develop as mature people.
The next week it was the story about the two sons who were asked to go to work in the vineyard. One said he would go, but did not go. I’m sure he intended to do the right thing just as we intend to do good but then something else gets in the way! What is that saying about the road to hell being paved with good intentions? The other said he wouldn’t go, but then changed his mind and went. Again it is a story about taking responsibility for our words and actions.
Then we had the parable about the landowner who set up a vineyard and leased it to tenants. They refused to pay the agreed rent for the property. Not only that, but they beat up those who came to collect the rent and finally killed the owner’s son. There assumptions about the consequences of this action were completely wrong. It is interesting that Jesus asked those listening what they thought should happen to the tenants who had behaved badly. Because they had failed in their responsibility to the landowner, the listeners thought they should be harshly punished. Jesus then commented that the stone the builders rejected had become the cornerstone. Both the tenants and the listeners had failed to think through to the conclusion from their actions, had wasted their own futures and discarded what was of ultimate importance.
Now we come where Jesus was telling them a story about a king and a wedding feast that the invited guests were too busy to attend. Again, they were so caught up in their own concerns that they didn’t realise what they were turning down.
All of these stories were about the religious authorities of the day, their relationship with God and their failure to recognise God’s generosity towards them and to recognise the responsibilities they had as recipients of these gifts. We can argue that it was Jewish religious leaders who had failed to help people into closer relationship with God. This would have led to their lives being more complete. By taking responsibility for ourselves and the development of the skills and abilities in all people, we enrich the entire community.
We may think it is not like that for us, that we don’t put limits on ourselves and others but history shows us that Christian religious authorities have behaved in similar ways often using their interpretation of Scripture to limit expectations.
Again we come to the point that the way we see God influences the way we see ourselves and others and the way we see ourselves and others influences the way we see God. We have the reading from Exodus to give us a glimpse of the way they saw God when they made the gold idol because they had become impatient with God. For the religious officials in Jesus time, the Temple and its pageantry had become an idol. It was more important than people and they were so taken up with it and forcing people to live by their laws, that they couldn’t hear God’s invitation for them to come to celebrate.
Through the centuries, religious officials have sometimes come to see themselves as all important keepers of wisdom and have therefore seen others as having less knowledge and less ability. They have thought that God would only communicate through the religious ones. In Scripture and especially with the prophets, we see that God usually communicates through unexpected people, not those we would expect to hear the word of God from. The religious authorities have often been concerned that they would lose control if all people were educated. Civil and religious society have mirrored each other and often overlapped in their disdain for large parts of the population. They have seen many as not worthy of education or living wages and conditions. Perhaps they were afraid of what they stood to lose if others became stronger, wiser and more able.
It is good that through the last two hundred years or so, some of both the religious and civil authorities have come to see that, given equal opportunities, many people can develop their gifts for the benefit of the entire community and in doing so, they are freed from the confines of previous expectations. It is good that in the last fifty years or so we have come to see young people more in line with a Hebrew Blessing. We see a bright future were they are able to achieve. They have faith in them and believe they are able. And sometimes we make it possible for this to happen with benefits for all.
We can do this by contemplating our relationship with God, others and ourselves. Over and over God had been trying to establish a relationship of respect, responsibility and friendship. The life of Jesus wasn’t so much about saving us from our sins by dying as it was about freeing us to experience life in all its fullness by helping every person to reach their God- given potential. Jesus showed us possibilities that the poor people of his day and a good bit of the time since, would never have dreamt of.
Part of facilitating this is to contemplate the guidelines that are available to help us. Commandments, rules and guidelines, rights and responsibilities, can all be different ways of speaking about the same or similar things. Like creation stories, there are a number of lists of guidelines for living in our Bible including the whole book of Proverbs.
Last week we had what the Jewish people call the Ten Words and what we call the Ten Commandments from the Hebrew Scripture. We heard that they are guidelines for living not absolutes to be obeyed at all costs. When asked what the greatest commandment was, Jesus quoted two from Hebrew Scripture, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart mind, soul and strength” and “Love your neighbour as yourself.” We heard how Paul said that knowing Christ surpassed all of the laws he had tried to live by. This week we have some more guidelines for living God’s Way that have come from this experience of Paul. It would be interesting to explore why we take Moses’ guidelines so seriously and almost ignore those of Paul who is arguably the Moses of the New Testament.
Paul wrote to the Philippians [4:4], telling them twice to always be full of joy. It is surprising and saddening to notice how many people who claim to have lived as “good Christians” have little joy in in their lives, perhaps because their experiences and their relationship with God have been restricted by misguided expectations.
Then Paul tells us to be known for our gentleness, kindness, consideration or good sense, according to what translation you are reading, and to let this be obvious. Paul then reminds us that Christ is always near. Next we are told not to worry about anything but to let our prayers be known to God with thanksgiving. One version says, “Let your prayers be shot through with gratitude.” [New Jerusalem Bible Phil 4:6]  Giving thanks to God was a big deal for Paul. It comes up about 24 times in his writing. Next, he reassured his readers that the incomprehensible peace of God will keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
The final guidelines are to think about things that are true, honourable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent or worthy of praise. This is a really good list to judge our actions by. We can use this list to question any doubts we may have about our actions in light of the Words from the Old Testament. Encouragingly Paul urges them to keep on doing what they have learned and then blesses them.  
Some of the most successful revolutions occur because grass-root people realise that the way they are living and being treated by others is not right. Leader arise from within the oppressed because these people have reflected on what is happening and have decided it is not just therefore something must be done about it.. They draw the attention of others to the potential that has been overlooked. They are responding to God’s inner call to life, to celebrate and enjoy all life offers.

We are invited to the wedding feast. This is a great privilege, a time to celebrate, a time to get to know the host better. Are we too busy, too preoccupied or just not interested? Accept the invitation that you too, may be always full of joy and free to live and love by the words, the guidelines of Jesus and Paul.

PENTECOST 17A   5th October 2014
Exodus 20:1-4,7-9,12-20                                                                                        Psalm 19                                                                                                             Philippians 3:4b-14                                                                                                       Matthew 21:33-46
Over and over Sandra, an aged care nurse, heard people nearing death say things like, “I have led a good life.” “I have done what is right.”  “I have lived by the golden rule, you know, the one that says do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Sometimes it was a kind of boast, sometimes a statement of fact but more often it seemed to be a plea for reassurance. The people may have few regrets but deep down they can be wondering if this is all there is to life. The implication for some is that they hope they will be acceptable if there is a judgement day. 
There are many people in the church who would say the same thing. They have spent their lives doing the right thing and maybe thought that they “should be alright when they face their Maker”. Some have read their Bibles diligently and kept the commandments, trying very hard to practice what they have learnt and always doing what is right. But they have had no passion in their lives and little joy and peace. They have lived from a sense of duty. While Christians say there is more to it than that, many are unsure about what the more is. People actually say from time to time, usually in quite a sad way, “There must be more to life than this!”
It is to people such as these that Paul was speaking in the reading from Philippians 3. In all the worldly ways, Paul qualified as a righteous person, blameless under the law. Paul had grown up in the vineyard of Jesus’ parable. He had benefitted from all that implied. He was born into a good family which carefully followed the religious laws. He was of the right race, the right tribe, the right religion. To all intents and purposes, Paul had been brought up in the sheltered monoculture of a walled vineyard. What more could there be to life! Surely this is how God intended people to behave.
It is certainly what the people in the vineyard had come to think. They so valued all that they had produced in the way of religious dressings that they were not about to part with even a small part of it as tribute to the owner and provider. What they had produced had become more important to them; the buildings, the dogma, the creeds, the fancy paraphernalia their feelings of self-righteousness and above all, their embellishment of the guidelines God had given them to live by. When the stories of the life and teaching of Jesus reached Paul and made a claim on him, as they must have done for him to have reacted so violently against them, Paul rejected them wholeheartedly. They were like the messengers from the landlord who had come to collect what had been agreed upon with the tenants of the vineyard. Paul even saw it as his duty to reject the teachings of Jesus, and persecute those who dared follow that man. To mix metaphors, Jesus was also the stone Paul rejected.
Then one day when he was on his way to do this, Paul met Jesus personally. Those who have themselves had an encounter with Jesus have no trouble with the story that on the road to Damascus Paul had an encounter with the Risen Christ that changed his life. There was something about the way Jesus greeted Paul that instead of fighting to kill him as the tenants had done to the owner of the vineyard, he recognised the legitimacy of Jesus’ claim. Paul’s relationship with God through Jesus flourished and his ideas about life and people changed completely.
He came to realise that all of his former diligence and obedience, all that he lived by and loved was an illusion. You can almost hear the exuberance in Paul’s voice as he talked about the surpassing value of knowing Jesus Christ. In getting to know Christ, Paul had suffered the loss of all the things which his former life had revolved around. He didn’t regret this. Instead he said they all counted as nothing once he knew Christ. [Phil 3:7]
The very things that he had rejected in the person of Jesus became the cornerstone of his new life. Jesus, who had been the last person who Paul wanted to have anything to do with, became first in his life.
Most of us were brought up in the era when obedience was next to Godliness and sang. “Trust and obey for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.” We now realise this is the stuff of cults. It is not God’s way. If demanded, unquestioning obedience can lead to resentment or subservience not happiness. It can be used by people in power to manipulate and abuse those under them. This is not good for either person. As with many things, there is a time for obedience and a time to refrain from obeying and it is a benefit to have considered the possible times when one might not want to obey before we are placed in a situation which calls for a decision.
Part of following God’s Way is to be reflective, to ponder our thoughts and actions, asking frequently, “Am I taking this too far or am I not taking it far enough?” For Jesus, the needs of people always came before the Law. Mercy trumped justice where there may have been conflict. The fruit of the Spirit, love, joy peace patients, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control are to be evident in our honouring of the Commandments which were never meant to be obeyed absolutely. They are guidelines for behaviour. We have a choice whether to follow them or not. Perhaps with the exception of the first commandment, we are called to consider our responses, not just to take the easy way of saying, “This issue has already been decided for me. I don’t have to think about it.” Mindless following of orders is soul destroying. God trusts us to make decisions and has faith in us that we will do the right thing in the situation. Sometimes we have the extra support of praying about the situation and asking others advice.
At other times there is little time to do this and we are called to an immediate response. When we are faced with major decisions it is good to have thought about the implications beforehand. Increasingly because of modern technology, people are being asked to make decisions for themselves which formerly were not an issue. We may be asked about turning off a life support machine or terminating a less viable pregnancy and wonder if this falls under “Thou shall not kill” or if it is about letting nature take its course.
While at first glance, honouring our fathers and mothers seems a good thing, it has problems when our parents do not honour us and are violent and neglectful towards us. The final commandment is a problem now in the way it implies women are men’s possessions. The neighbour’s wife is listed with his house, livestock and other belongings not as a person in her own right. This is how women were still seen when I got married. We would hope, in view of the way Jesus treated women that this is no longer occurring.
It is always sad to come across people, as I occasionally do, who say they have kept the commandments. It seems they are trying to prove to me that they are good Christians. They certainly take life seriously.  They comment on how much they have done to try to be who they think God wants them to be. Some are proud of their achievements in this way. Others seem a little baffled by how unsatisfying this boast is. It is as if they are questioning what else they needed to do to experience life in all its fullness.
Yes, they have been good, but they haven’t experienced the joy of knowing love. They don’t seem to understand the quality of God’s love. God loves us whether we do things or not. God may be disappointed when we don’t do things we could or should, but this does not stop God loving us. Such is God’s love.
God gave the commandments because God loved us and wanted to make it easier for us to know the better way to behave and live. God did not give the commandments in order to love and bless those who obeyed and eliminate those who didn’t from God’s blessing list. The giving of these guidelines was like placing the fence around the vineyard to give boundaries and offer some protection. They form part of the agreement between the landowner and the tenants.
Much damage has been done through the years by the church insisting on obedience, especially things like “Wives obey your husbands” and children honour your father and mother. It has turned a blind eye and deaf ears to the cries of those abused.
The Church has not honoured the agreement it had with the owner of the vineyard and now it seems that the rejected ones are becoming the cornerstones of the spiritual life of many people who were seeking more than the church was willing to hand over.
I spoke a couple of weeks ago about what it was like to be rejected when applying for jobs and therefore being unemployed. I wonder how many of you have suffered rejection. People and things are rejected because they are not considered good enough. Rejection can take many forms and is always painful. We can miss out on being selected for the sports team. We can miss out on getting the place we were hoping for at University.  We can be rejected by our parents because we aren’t what they were hoping for or are too much like them. We can be rejected by our partners when we fail to live up to their expectations. We can be rejected by others in society because we don’t dress well enough, or talk properly or have the right manners or connections. We can be rejected because we don’t come up to the standards expected in our community and others are ashamed of us. All this is very depressing.
The Good News is that those rejected become the most important to God. The ones who thought they were important to God because they thought they were favourites of God, have and will miss out. It is the outsiders who will come into the joy of close spiritual relationship with God. Again we come to the point that what God wants from us is not fancy worship services and absolute obedience but justice, compassion and humility.
This week I heard a Jewish quote from their New Year service which says that compassion brings liberation to both the oppressed and the oppressor. Paul was not free when he felt duty- bound to destroy the followers of Jesus. Jesus had compassion on him and freed him from these self -imposed ties

When we have experienced the compassionate love of God through Jesus Christ we too, will be able to say with Paul, that the value of knowing Christ surpasses absolutely all else and we will live with compassion.

PENTECOST 16A    28th September
Exodus 17:1-7
Psalm 78: 1-6,12-16
Philippians 2:1-13
Matthew 21:23-32
Our lives are critically dependent on water. Anyone who has been away from home with children on a hot day and have run out of water; anyone who has lived through fourteen years of drought; anyone dependent on underground or river water or rain for livestock, crops or manufacturing could sympathise with the Israelite people. Hebrew Scripture in Exodus 17, tells us that the people were fearful for their lives. They had no water. Their leader had failed to find it for them. They expected him to provide all they needed and he had not. Their attitude irritated Moses and he was impatient with them.
The story goes on to tell us that Moses, in despair and frustration, cried to God who immediately told him how to find water and the crisis was averted.
Psalm 78:15,16 is praising God for this event, saying,                              “God split rocks open in the wilderness,                                                                     and gave them drink abundantly from the deep.                                                      He made streams come out of the rock,                                                                 and caused waters to flow down like rivers.”
How wonderful that was. All you had to do was ask and what you need would be supplied. But that is too simplistic. Life isn’t generally like that.
Today in the September series on creation has been designated ‘River Sunday’ when we can give thanks for flowing rivers of water and all they do to enhance our lives. We think about our responsibility in caring for rivers and in the careful use and allocation of the water they carry. We can also think of the influences of climate change on the rivers we depend on. Some will bring less water and some are predicted to flood more often.
To ensure there is a reasonable supply of useable water, we need to take responsibility for slowing climate change as much as possible. We who believe in God we call Creator will worship God by committing ourselves to taking the best possible care of all creation for the benefit of all creation.
Andrew Hamilton wrote in an article for Eureka,
“World environment Day this year was celebrated in the shadow of policies crossing in the mail. As the United States President took steps to deal with carbon emissions, the Australian Prime Minister walked away from them. Beneath the complex political considerations in these responses to the natural environment stir deep passions. Disputes about the environment and climate change are not simply about facts but touch something deeper, almost religious in character.”
He went on to point out that our attitudes to climate change are deeply intertwined with other passionately held attitudes such as Government spending on the disadvantaged, the response to crime and to asylum seekers.
For religious people, the way we see God influences the way we see ourselves and others and the way we see ourselves and others influences the way we see God. Included in the term ‘other’ is all that is other to us as individuals and it covers all of creation, not just humans or animals. Both the story from Exodus and the Psalm set for today see God as being immediately able to provide good drinking water when it was needed. All the people had to do was turn to God and there was water.
But many who have farmed in Southern Australia know that it is not as simple as that. Thousands of hours of prayer have not produced a single drop of rain in times of drought. Many have learnt to their cost that God can’t or doesn’t produce water on demand most of the time. We have the responsibility to take care of the resources available to us.
Perhaps because I was raised in South Australia I have heard from infancy, the value of clean, drinkable water. South Australia is said to be the driest state in the driest Continent in the world. The only real river in South Australia is the Murray. Early white settlers learned how dry the land is in tragic ways. But it was not long before they also learned that they like Moses, could get water from rock, only here, the rock was underground and required drilling to release the water. So thousands of bores were sunk into this plentiful supply and enormous quantities ran like the rivers spoken of in the Psalm. [78:16].
A hundred years on, it was realised that it is not an endless supply of water and to conserve what remained, those holes needed to be capped. The Government provided money to assist land owners to do this. Now the government funding has been withdrawn by politicians who show by their attitude to mining that the environment as something to be used with little thought for the long term implications of this.
We don’t know if this attitude comes from the way they see God, but we do know how they see others. We have been told this by a range of their policies, in words and actions, that they see people as needing to take care of themselves even if they are physically, psychologically, intellectually, financially and educationally unable to do so.
The reading from Matthew tells of Jesus being challenged by those in power about the validity of his teaching and his authority to teach. This is a scenario we have seen played out many times since the issue of climate change was first raised. Over and over the people in power, the people who have stood to lose most if new ways were implemented, have sought to discredit the prophetic voice and have challenged the authority of those who have spoken out.
Matthew went on to Jesus telling a story about the two sons. Both were asked to do something. One said he wouldn’t go to work in the vineyard, but later changed his mind and went and the other said he would go and later changed his mind and did not go. Twice Jesus asked those listening about this. First he asked, “What do you think?” in other words, he was asking how his listeners saw this situation. Then he asked, “which of the two did the will of his father?” Which of them did what was right?
What does this story mean to you? In light of Climate Change issues, we can see this story as the way the Australian people have behaved with the issue of climate change. First many people were reluctant to move towards taking responsible action towards adjusting for climate change. They had classic grief reactions in that they were shocked and denied what they were hearing. But later they came to believe that what they were hearing and experiencing were real and so were willing to do what was asked of them for the best possible outcome.
Now, under new leadership, they are behaving like the son who said he would do what his father wanted and then did not. The government of Australia has going back on the promise to do something about emissions which speed Global warning.
The reading from Philippians [2:1-13] urges us to ‘do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit and let each look not to your own interests but to the interests of others’, sound guidelines for dealing with all ecological issues.

As Christians, we have an obligation to care for God’s creation and keep it safe into the future. But doing things because we are obliged is never a good reason. Our reasons, to be successful, needs to come from a deep passionate understanding of all things other, the whole of Creation and the mystery we respect as God.

PENTECOST 15A    21st September
Exodus 16:2-15
Psalm 105:1-6,37-45
Philippians 1:21-30
Matthew 20:1-16
Recently they were talking on the radio about the prison system in the USA. It was pointed out that since the nineteen seventies sentences have become longer and more severe. In spite of this, the crime rate had gone up. Researchers believe this is largely due to the lack of employment opportunities for less skilled worked as the rise in crime coincided with the closure of manufacturing industries. It has been the same in Australia.
Unemployed people are among the most stigmatised in our communities. The media loves a good dole bludger story and for many people such stories every few months feed their prejudices. Politicians also get good value from stoking these prejudices and every campaign has promises to crack down on those receiving disability allowances. Anyone who has ever been forced to survive on such money knows how difficult it is and that very few would choose to receive such funding if they could possibly be employed and earn more. 
Ministers can also find themselves less than fully employed. In 2003, Jan had 11 conversations or job interviews in about four months and found it increasingly difficult to front such situations so that in the end, she settled for part time casual work for several years. For each conversation Jan was only one of two or three but for the interviews she was up to one of thirty applicants. With one exception, she was told that she had been runner up on each occasion. Twice they chose the married man with young children and once a woman half her age. Another time it was a man who had been a Presbytery minister and another was a woman with a Social Work degree specialising in care of the elderly as well as her degree in theology. It can be very disheartening when you are unwanted and there is little else you can do to earn a living.
People told her, “You must be doing something wrong”, or “You must be too picky”. Jan had been asking herself, “What did I do wrong”, and “What can I do better next time so I’ll be the chosen one?” This isn't helped by others who think you are not trying hard enough. When there aren’t enough places for everyone, there are always going to be some who miss out.
If we have always been fully employed, we may have no idea of what it is like for those unable to earn a living. There aren't many unemployed who come to church. Could this be because we in some way shame them? My first placement was in an area with 25% of the people who could work, unemployed. This was mainly because work in the mines had been mechanised, requiring ninety percent less people. Most of these people had not wanted their children to have to work in the mines with the terrible, dangerous conditions, but they would have rather worked in such conditions than have had no work. It is degrading simply to be labelled ‘unemployed’. The brightest of their children left the area as soon as they finished school for further education and never returned. Professional people didn’t want to come and with a shortage of professionals, others didn’t want to come either. People don’t want even to holiday in areas of high unemployment.
In another place, I became friends with a woman in her mid - fifties who had been retrenched when the place where she worked was relocated. She had been a single parent after her husband had walked out some years earlier. After he had gambled away their home they had lived in rental accommodation. She lived literally hand to mouth existence. She bought most of her clothes from Op Shops and had to save for six months to buy a new pair of good shoes. It was sobering to watch her struggle to comply with the requirements of the Government to apply for jobs and attend interviews along with dozens of others for a single position. It was frustrating for employers to be obliged to see so many they had to turn away.
On TV they showed film from the thirties of day labourers lined up waiting to be employed on the docks. They commented how only the youngest and fittest were chosen so that every day there were many who weren’t chosen and presumably there were some who were rarely chosen just because they were older or of frailer build, or because the one doing the selection just didn’t like the look of them, perhaps because they had a disability.
Jesus must have been well aware of situations like this when he told the story we just heard, likening the kingdom of heaven to a landowner who went out to hire labourers. We may presume that he went out again and again because there was more work than those already hired could do. But the story doesn’t say that. It says “Going out at the third hour, he saw more men standing idly in the market place” so he hired them. He repeated this generous gesture three times more during the day, so giving many more the opportunity to have some work that day. But employment isn’t all about having something to do. It is also about the dignity of being employed.
The land owner didn’t only give the men something to do; he paid them enough so that their families could eat. The kingdom of heaven is a place where everyone can earn a living wage.
We have tended to spiritualise this story by saying it was not about actual labour and labourers but about those who committed their lives to Christ early or later. In this way we have avoided taking responsibility for ensuring the dignity of all through meaningful occupation.
Those who had been fully employed for the day were irritated by being paid less per hour that those who only had to work for an hour or so. They grumbled about things being unfair. Those of us who have been fully employed find it irritating that those with smaller amounts of work might “get it easier than us.” Have you ever noticed that we never complain of things being unfair if they are to our advantage, only when we feel disadvantaged?
Are the working conditions of those who produce our food, our clothes, our cars and household items fair? God cares about fairness and the kingdom of heaven works towards fairer conditions in which people can find dignity and purpose.
We are called to emulate the behaviour of God in Christ and in this story the landowner represents God. The landowner spoke about his right to be generous with what is his. Perhaps we also have a responsibility to be generous with what we have especially if by doing so we can go a small way to addressing the imbalance of injustice.
In the reading set from the Hebrew Scriptures, we hear of the people being given the dignity of gathering their food each day even though they were travelling and could not work in other ways. In the reading from the epistle Paul wrote to the Philippians [1:22] he commented, “If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labour for me.” It is good if all who live in the flesh have fruitful labour according to their abilities. We can ask questions like, “Is fruitful referring to the money we make or could it be about job satisfaction?” In our culture we reward those who have laboured with retirement. Some have made enough money so that they no longer need to work to earn a living. Others are granted a pensions to provide for their needs. Is this lack of meaningful employment actually rewarding or a way of stripping the elderly of dignity, responsibility, self-worth?
Of course with decreasing physical strength it is unreasonable to expect older people to labour for the full day but there are many Baby Boomer retirees who are languishing, filling their days with less meaningful activities because they are unaware of the satisfaction that can be gained from voluntary work within our communities. People within the church are probably aware of such possibilities but many others do not know of the enjoyment they could receive from part time or occasional work in areas as diverse as fostering children and weeding nature reserves.
 Instead of promoting retirement as a reward for work completed, perhaps we could better promote it as a transition time to different forms of labour. Who knows, in the last hour of our life’s day, we might just earn as great a reward for our labours as we done in the rest of our working day. When people are unemployed, underemployed or exploited in employment, the whole community is poorer and suffers accordlingly.
When looking at a text we can ask where is God in this story? How does God see the people? How do we see the people? What is the social justice issue being highlighted here? What is the Good News?
The social justice issue in today’s readings is the right to have employment, the right to earn a living wage and all that flows from being given the dignity to provide, the satisfaction of a job well done, the joy of creating. The Good News is that the Kingdom of heaven knows there is injustice, does something to correct the injustice and educates others in recognising injustice.

What is it that we most often grumble about? How often when we are grumbling does “It’s not fair!” come into it? It’s not fair that we have worked all day and they only had to work for one hour. It’s not fair that they are in effect getting paid for one hour’s work what we got paid for the entire day. Perhaps the latecomers had been sitting all day grumbling that they hadn’t been chosen and wondering how they were going to buy any food for their families for that day.

PENTECOST 14A    14th September 2014
Exodus 14:19:31
Psalm 114 or Exodus 15:1b-11,20-21
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35
In his famous discourse on love, Paul said, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” When Jan was a child, the story of the Israelites escape from Egypt was one of her favourites as was the song, “I will sing unto the Lord for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and rider thrown into the sea.”
Now, as a senior citizen, the reaction of the people to the drowning of the Egyptians seems to over- ride their praise for safe delivery from their slave-masters. At this time when so much is being said about the deaths of young soldiers in the First World War, how can we gloat over the destruction of the Egyptian army and the death of so many men, she asked? Their deaths would have been devastating for most of their families and it is likely that most of them had no choice in being in the army and pursuing the Israelites.
This story comes after the stories of how Pharaoh was persuaded to let the people go by God causing many horrible things to happen, culminating in the death of all the first born sons of the Egyptians. Is this how a God of compassion and love would behave? Sometimes I have an overwhelming desire to try to save God from the Bible and some of the ways in which has influenced our thinking and justified our tactics in war for centuries.
This story is linked in the Lectionary with the Gospel reading begins “Lord, if a member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive him?” It follows on immediately from last week’s reading about going to tell another member of the church when he has sinned against you and binding and loosing things on earth and in heaven.
Realistically, how rigidly are we expected to adhere to the guidelines here? Forgiving has been held up as the ultimate display of Christian love towards another and an ideal to aspire to. But as adults we know that things are rarely as straight forward as Scripture seems. Many women’s lives have been hell and some have been murdered because they have forgiven violent partners over and over. So what is our responsibility in forgiving?
It was the second service for that Sunday morning, necessary because different classes of prisoners had to be kept separate. One lot had to be back in their compound before the other could be safely brought across to the chapel. Jan had been a chaplain in this facility for 650 men for a couple of years.
This was an easier service. The men chose the hymns themselves and one played for the singing. These were mostly professional men, some with a church background, as different from the last lot as chalk and cheese.
Jan cannot remember what the subject of the sermon was, or what the readings were that morning. With the preaching over, she relaxed a bit. Sermon writing isn’t easy for her. Even after many years, it is still a struggle. What is unsaid will remain unsaid at least until next week, maybe forever. What has been said, which perhaps shouldn’t have been, will have to be addressed later.
That morning, they were on to a last bracket of choruses, one of which was new to Jan. The men were singing with great gusto. Most had looks of ecstasy on their faces, their hands were raised and they were swaying in the characteristic charismatic way. They were belting out the words, “I am forgiven. My sins are washed away. I am reborn. I am washed clean.”
Suddenly Jan felt dizzy and thought she was going to be sick. She grabbed the lectern for support. She was mystified by this reaction to what she was seeing and hearing. Jan wanted to yell at the men, “NO, NO, It’s not like that. Stop! Don’t sing another word. You don’t know what you are saying!”
Then, immediately, she was concerned about my reaction. What was going on? There was nothing wrong with the words they were saying. They were doctrinally correct. They were what she believed. Trembling and confused, she finished the service and left the prison as quickly as possible.
In something of a daze, she drove the forty kilometres to the home of a neighbouring minister. Thank goodness he had invited her to lunch with his family that day. She needed to talk with someone about what was going on. He listened to me and then said, “Could it be the way they were singing, rather than what they were singing, that upset you so much?”
He was right. These men had a right to be praising God for being forgiven, but they were doing it in a way that showed no understanding of just what they had been forgiven for. They showed no understanding of the impact their crimes had had on their victims, or of the enormous gift forgiveness is to us. Their body language was boastful and lacking in humility. This incident made Jan aware of her own lack of understanding of the impact of some of her sins, of many issues around doing wrong and being forgiven. The men were all convicted sex offenders and Jan’s strong reaction was probably, in part, because she is a survivor of child sexual abuse.
The men at that service are not alone in not understanding forgiveness. As Christians, we say that we believe we ARE forgiven. But do we understand that fully? To live in the fullness of that forgiveness, it is necessary to take several steps. The first is to acknowledge what we have done. How many of us have had a small child, caught red-handed doing something wrong tell us, “I didn’t do it”? They may then blame someone else. As adults we do this in more subtle ways.
The next step is to admit that what we did was wrong. What we did may not have been illegal, but that doesn’t necessarily make it right, according to God’s Law. When we do admit that it was wrong, we may try to excuse ourselves by saying nobody got hurt, or it really didn’t matter. Some people say things which hurt and then try to cover it up by saying, “I was only joking,” when it was no joke to those who heard. When we do wrong, it is not enough to say, “Sorry”. It was found that over ninety per cent of criminals who said sorry didn’t mean it as they then went on to say, “But it wasn’t my fault!” So taking responsibility for our actions or lack of them is important in maturing in life.
Part of taking responsibility is working to repair the damage done. This can only be properly undertaken when we realise the extent of the hurt we have caused to the other person and to our relationship with them. We cannot expect others to forgive us until we have demonstrated that we understand how much we have hurt them. In our courts we now have a place for victim impact statements. Perhaps we could extend this practice to our own lives, though it would be hard to let others tell us how we have hurt them.
This is a step that the Church needs to take if we are to be healed and have reconciliation with those who have been traumatised by abusive behaviour of any kind by any member of the Church.
We are forgiven but it is not something to boast about. Maybe God doesn’t punish us like our legal system might, but we are still responsible for the damaged relationship which comes from our wrongdoing. We are to do all we can to restore that relationship while respecting the one whom we have injured. It may be that we have caused so much damage that the relationship can never be restored. Then it is important for us to respect the injured one’s space and refrain from bothering them. It may be that later they will want to renew our relationship. 
Forgiveness is a gift from God to us so we can have a good relationship with God. The woman in the Gospel story in Luke 7:36f understood forgiveness, as she acted like a servant in washing Jesus’ feet. Her body language was humble, her actions gentle and those of a servant.
As God generously forgives us, so we can be generous in our forgiveness. It is our gift to those who have hurt us and one of the Fruit of the Spirit is generosity. Forgiveness is healing to those who are able to forgive. It is not all there is. God has so much more, more than we can ever think or dream of, for us.
It is sad that sinning has come to have such emphasis in Christianity, as if this is all God cares about. If we see things this way, it limits both God and us and that is a shame.
In his book, “The Stranger House”, Reginald Hill [p. 462] writes, “He died in flames like a Viking, with his most precious belongings around him, as Odin himself ordained. No forgiveness necessary in that belief system. A man is judged by his best, not his worst, and a hero’s welcome awaits heroes.”
Do we think our God judges us by our best or by our worst and how might this influence the way we see ourselves, others and God? God knows we do wrong, make wrong choices and are sinned against. That is why we are forgiven and have guidelines to forgive others.
In our legal system, we allow judges to decide on punishment. We give them the responsibility of deciding what is fair, given circumstances surrounding the commitment of the crime. Frequently, on high profile cases, the media reports many people protesting that the punishment was not severe enough. Over and over, people call for tougher sentencing.
Recently a report was released which covered ten years and showed that people were much less likely to re-offend if they didn’t go to prison but were given community service punishment. As could have been expected, many people protested this finding. For many years there has been research showing that harsh punishment does not work in rehabilitating people.
We come from an unforgiving culture which is surprising, given we have been a Christian community for centuries. It probably indicates that we haven’t understood God’s forgiveness of ourselves. We speak of God’s justice and mercy. For us it is almost impossible to balance these two, but nothing is impossible for God. When we are being merciful for one, we seem to be being less than just for the other. And when we are providing justice, it may require being less than merciful. But this depends on how we perceive justice. Justice and mercy are intimately linked with forgiveness.
In a different gospel story, Jesus explains that we are judged by the good that we do or don’t do, not by the bad that we have done as we have often been led to believe.
One of the biggest problems some people have is in forgiving themselves. This is especially a problem for mothers. We may expect to be perfect mothers and when we are not, we can be very hard on ourselves. This may impact on our families and communities. When we aren’t at peace with ourselves, we can’t be at peace with others. Forgiving ourselves is about being gentle with ourselves.
Could we dare to behave like that, knowing that the way we see ourselves influences the way we see God and others?

Pentecost 14A           2. Based on Romans 14:1-12
During a crime program on TV, they were having trouble identifying the young woman who had been murdered.  They were about at the point of despair, when someone found a gold chain with a cross on it that must have belonged to the victim.
The person in charge of the investigation was pleased.  This will be a real help in identifying her, he exclaimed. The people standing round him looked puzzled. All crosses are different, he added as an explanation to all the puzzled faces around him.
Tom protested to the television that all crosses looked much of a muchness. Then he remembered  the variety he had seen and he began to think that perhaps the detective was right. There are dozens of different shaped crosses. There are even names for different crosses. The one we are most familiar with is called a Latin cross. Because we are so familiar with it, we may assume that it is the right shape for the cross on which Jesus died. However, nobody knows exactly what that one looked like. We only presume that this shape is a stylised version of what it actually looked like. The Greek cross is similar to the Latin cross but has four arms of equal length.  They each have a trefoil, to remind people of the Trinity.
Those of us who use this shape cross may be in a minority among Christians. Where I was in the UK, by far the most predominant cross was the Celtic cross. It is always adorned with designs from the Celtic tradition which serve to remind people of their part in the crucifixion. It also has a circle around the central part of the cross linking it with all creation. Celtic Christianity is a very down to earth faith, totally entwined in every-day life.
Another cross is the Jerusalem Cross. They are often made of olive wood, as a reminded of Jesus and the Mount of Olives and have small crosses radiating out from the centre point to remind people of the writers if the four Gospels. It is a much fancier design than we are used to. As with the Celtic cross, each part of it represents something significant to those who use it.
An Orthodox cross has three bars across the centre. The lower one is on an angle and represents a foot rest and the smaller, upper one, is for the sign which was put above Christs head.
Some of you may remember how the Ankh Cross became popular among hippies. There was considerable protesting from some parts of the church against this so called pagan symbol. It is true that it originated as the combination of two hieroglyphics. The circle is the symbol of eternity and the cross, the symbol of life.
The T shaped cross is believed by some to be the shaped of the cross used for the crucifixion. It is also thought that the crosses that the Israelites marked their doors with on the eve of the Passover were these ones. It was adopted by Coptic Christians who trace their roots to St Mark.
One of the earliest cross symbols was in the form of an anchor. This allowed the basic cross shape to be hidden from those who wanted to persecute Christians, while allowing Christians to communicate with one another.
Many crosses have sides of equal length, like this Maltese cross. The Canterbury cross is similar but more ornate. This style of cross was used widely in the Crusades. The cross used on the badge of Methodism in England is like this. The cross of St Andrew is diagonal and so are the crosses of St Patrick, St George, St Alban and St Osmund and come in the colours of white, red, gold, and blue.
The Patriarchal Cross is like stripes of rank in the army. The further up the Church hierarchy you are, the more cross bars you have on your cross. As you may have noticed, things were added in preliterate times, to the basic cross shape, to help people better understand the relationship between what God had done for us on the cross and our lives as a whole.
We may think that our unadorned cross is the best because it is unencumbered with things added or with links with pagan pasts, but in pre Christian times, the Latin cross represented the staff of Apollo. An upside down version of it is known as Saint Peters Cross. The version that has three steps at its base, often seen on communion tables, is called the Calvary Cross. The steps represent faith, hope and love.
Part of our responsibility as the Church is to encourage you to think ecumenically, to remember that you are part of a world-wide church that has many different forms of expression. This can be seen in the multiplicity of shapes for crosses which mean so much to so many people.  The detective was not far from the truth when he said that all crosses are different.
It is not just crosses that vary throughout the world.
Those of us who live together in the church will be familiar with the way we see the varying streams of faith and their practices. When we see the differences in the way people worship God, we may feel judged by each other, whether we literally are of not. Or we may well judge others according to how similar their expression of Christianity is to ours.  
If other congregations sings choruses and emotional hymns, hold up their hands in spontaneous prayer and in response to songs, speak in tongues and would not countenance alcohol, then how do we view them? Some of you will wish some of those things WERE part of our services. Others will be glad they are not. Some congregations have sermons and services that last hours. Others have no sermons at all, or only have a short homily. How do we see those who are almost totally different in worship from us?
If OUR worship is the right way, then how does God view those who have an organ playing Bach, would never know a chorus or the more recent songs coming from some parts of the church? How does God see those who use formal written liturgy and share wine with their meals? Who is worshipping in Spirit and in truth?  
When I was at college, I had the privilege of attending several worship services quite different from ours. Among others, we went to a synagogue and an orthodox service. It was humbling and awesome at the same time.
Maybe the real question is, What does it mean to worship in spirit and in truth? Is it about God who reads the heart and soul and can tell the difference, even when we cant? Maybe God hardly notices the differences if we are authentically trying to walk the way of faith. Christian believing and living takes on many forms. These depend on culture, temperament, nationality, age, education and life experiences. 
Paul saw Christians wasting precious energy quarrelling over opinions, passing judgement and despising those who were different. It seems to be part of our human nature to behave this way. Even with all our sophistication we tend to still be fearful and condemning of those who are different and friendly only with those who share our views.
Those who belong to the new community of Christ, the new expression of living together as children of God, know there is another possibility. It is the road of compassion, tolerance, generosity, forgiveness and hospitality. It is living life beyond antagonism, grudges, revenge, quarrels and competition.   These things lead to unhappiness and a constricted life.
The alternative grows from the love of God made known and embodied in the life of Jesus. We will still lapse into life denying behaviours and attitudes from time to time. But we know that there is a deeper and more generous way of life where difference is robbed of its power to divide and diminish.  A new way of being church, of being Christian, is waiting to be born.
Being Christian is about being willing to accept change and that which is different. Certainly, it seems from our reading from Romans, that God is far more accommodating than we are. God understands where we are in our faith at any time and makes allowances for that.  It is interesting to note the variety of ways in which people express their faith as shown in this passage. When I was going through this, this morning, the image of patchwork came to mind. The worship of each congregation is like a piece of patchwork they have created from what was available to them at the time of making.
However, even the best made quilts wear out with use and when a new one is made it will be different because different things are available for use. It will also be different because the maker will be seeing things differently now, having learnt new things since the last time. The new product will be no less beautiful than the previous one and may be even more beautiful.
The women of Northumberland worked together every year to create new proggy rugs for their families. The practice of doing this together and annually meant that they came up with some incredibly beautiful results. Patch workers among us would not dream of thinking that the first quilt they made was the best and so never attempt another. Often they can hardly wait to finish one so that they can start on another. We see from Pauls letter to the Romans that a variety of form of  worship are acceptable to God.  What matters is not the perfect nature of the finished product, but the sincerity with which it is worked on.
In effect, the old style of worship, that had an ordained minister as the central feature, is wearing out.  There are less and less ministers available. Pauls writing gives us permission to commence work together on a new creation, new forms of worship that are not so dependent on the centrality of a sermon.  With the help of God, the possibilities of patchwork services of great beauty are exciting to anticipate.  They are indeed as endless as the variety of crosses.

 At this time when so much is being said about the deaths of young soldiers in the First World War, how can we gloat over the destruction of the Egyptian army and the death of so many men, she asked? Their deaths would have been devastating for most of their families and it is likely that most of them had no choice in being in the army and pursuing the Israelites.
This story comes after the stories of how Pharaoh was persuaded to let the people go by God causing many horrible things to happen, culminating in the death of all the first born sons of the Egyptians. Is this how a God of compassion and love would behave? Sometimes I have an overwhelming desire to try to save God from the Bible and some of the ways in which has influenced our thinking and justified our tactics in war for centuries.
This story is linked in the Lectionary with the Gospel reading begins “Lord, if a member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive him?” It follows on immediately from last week’s reading about going to tell another member of the church when he has sinned against you and binding and loosing things on earth and in heaven.
We come from a largely unforgiving culture which is surprising, given we have been a Christian community for centuries. It probably indicates that we haven’t understood God’s forgiveness of ourselves. We speak of God’s justice and mercy. For us it is almost impossible to balance these two, but nothing is impossible for God. When we are being merciful for one, we seem to be being less than just for the other. And when we are providing justice, it may require being less than merciful. But this depends on how we perceive justice. Justice and mercy are intimately linked with forgiveness.

Pentecost 12A   31st August 2014
Exodus 3:1-15
Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 16:21-28
I should declare, at the outset, that I am biased when it comes to talking about taking off shoes. It is probably true to say that I have spent more of my life with shoes off than shoes on. The first thing I always do when I get home is take off my shoes. And, the last thing I do before going out is put them on.  I have unusually shaped feet and it is difficult to get shoes to fit. Even the shoe shop that boasts, “I’ve never met a foot I couldn’t fit”, had trouble with mine.
An invitation to take off my shoes means freedom to me. Shoes are only to be worn as a last resort. I can remember adults shouting at me when I was a child, “Put some shoes on!” so there is possibly nothing more welcoming anyone could say than, “Take your shoes off”.
It came as a surprise to hear people reading the story of Moses’ meeting with God and using an angry voice as if God was saying, “Take off your shoes, you stupid man. Don’t you recognise Holy Ground when you see it!” Maybe they were remembering a parent saying, “How many times do I have to tell you to take your shoes off when you come inside.  I’ve just washed that floor” or “You’re getting mud on the carpet!” Some even use a demanding tone for God like, “I order you to take off your shoes! Do what I tell you!”
Our life experiences have an impact on the way we see ourselves and others and the way we see God. For instance, I see God as saying these words in a welcoming way; “Relax and make yourself at home”. God could be speaking in a playful way, implying, “Take off your shoes and give your toes a wiggle in the sand”. Or God could be caring, like saying, “Your shoes must be killing you. Feel free to take them off.”
Maybe some think that God was outraged by Moses’ curiosity and was saying, “How dare you approach ME with your shoes on!”
It is just as plausible that God was reassuring Moses, “This is safe ground. You don’t need shoes for protection here. I invite you to make yourself comfortable”. God may have been inviting Moses to retreat, come away from his everyday life to spent some time with God.
Our interpretations may rest on our understanding of the word ‘holy’. At the time the Hebrew Scriptures were written, ‘holy’ meant simply ‘other’ or ‘different from’. We can reasonably assume that the ground where Moses had been caring for the sheep was stony and would have been rough to walk on. Other ground, on the other hand, may be bare-foot-friendly. These days we link ‘holy’ with ‘purity’ which gives a different reason for removal of shoes. When I lived in an area with many dogs and no campaign to keep the streets clean, I learned quickly the need to take off shoes, before stepping inside, for purity reasons.
Depending on how we see God, one or another of these, or even a different interpretation may seem closest to what we think was actually going on in this exchange. This either reinforces what we always thought or challenges us to see in a new way.
It is not only challenging how we see God. It also relates to what shoes mean in our society. Our family went for a day trip to Melbourne and one of the places we planned to visit was the War Memorial. We were refused permission to enter because the three- year-old with us had no shoes. In the rush to get away that morning, no-one had noticed that her shoes were not on her feet. The man on the door said it was disrespectful for even a child to want to enter barefoot. The Shrine is a sacred place and we must be shod to enter it, he told us. This is interesting because Christianity is one of the few religions of the world which doesn’t require people to remove their shoes when they enter a sacred place. For most people round the world, removing shoes shows respect.
Has our attitude to bare feet come about because, in our culture, we see shoes as status and fashion symbols? We have expressions such as ‘well shod’ and ‘down at heel’ which indicate what shoes might say to us. We hear stories of Imelda Marcos and her shoes and how celebrities also have hundreds of pairs. It is not only the teenagers in the family who must have the latest fashions in shoes, even though they may be causing harm to one’s feet and throwing the rest of the body out of kilter.
In England I met people who were so poor during the Depression, they had gone to school barefoot, even in winter. When I heard their stories, it was always school that was mentioned, never church. Did this mean that they had shoes they could wear to church or that they never tried to go to church because, being barefoot, they were unwelcome?
God’s call to “Take off your shoes” may be an invitation to reconnect with creation. While shoes act as protection for us, they also cut us off from our roots. This can have dire consequences for both ourselves and nature. Modern life puts ever more layers between the earth and us. Concrete, bitumen, even gravel, lawn and floors all come between us. When we walk it is on paved areas, and cars, buses and trains disconnect us further from the earth. Only three or four generations ago, many of our forebears lived in houses with at least some dirt floors. Our feet have become soft. We could well take on board the saying, “Toughen up, Princess!” in regard to our feet. Bare feet go hand-in-hand with humility. Washing people’s feet is an act of humility and the disciples needed to humble themselves to allow Jesus to wash their feet. It is hard to be haughty with bare feet.
The text we heard comes from the beginning of the story of God rescuing the Hebrew people from Egypt and leading them to the Promised Land.  As if to stress this point, we hear again of bare feet at the end of that story. To enter the Promised Land, the people need to cross the River Jordan. Joshua 3:13 says, “When the soles of the feet of the priests who bear the Ark of the Lord, the Lord of all the earth, rest in the water of the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan flowing from above will be cut off, they shall stand in a single heap”. This was to allow the people a safe crossing to the Promised Land.
The invitation to Moses to remove his shoes was the beginning of a totally unexpected new life for him.  As we read this, what might it mean for us? Could it be that there is an important connection between our soles and our souls?  Could this be why mud runs, such as Tough Mudder, are becoming so popular?
Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote
Earth’s crammed with heaven                                                                     and every bush afire with God;                                                                    but only he who sees takes off his shoes;                                                   the rest sit around it and pluck blackberries.

What might have happened if Moses had failed to notice the burning bush or noticing it had thought that it wasn’t important? Things might have turned out very differently for the Hebrew people. The burning bush was God’s way of attracting Moses attention to an important issue; one that he had run away from many years earlier. He knew of the conditions for his people in Egypt. He had killed a man in trying to defend another.
In the Gospel reading, Jesus tried to tell the disciples what was going to happen to him at the hands of the religious authorities of his time, but they weren’t interested. They heard his words alright, but they failed to grasp what Jesus was saying in those words. Impulsive Peter tried to tell him he didn’t know what he was talking about and became a stumbling block for Jesus. This exchange possibly occurred because of the way Peter saw Jesus. Not long before this, Jesus had asked Peter “Who do you say that I am?” Peter had replied, “The Messiah”. Jesus had seemed pleased with this answer, but soon it became apparent that Peter’s idea of Messiah was different from Jesus’. Peter’s messiah would be a victorious military leader. Jesus knew that the road he was travelling would lead to death. Jesus told Peter not to tell anyone what he thought.
In saying that they must take up their crosses, Jesus was saying that they must become radicalised as Moses and he had become for this is the only way to bring justice. The cross was the form of execution used for political dissidents, radicals working for reform, for justice, for freedom for the oppressed. The cross Jesus carried was speaking against the practices of the institutionalised religion which caused such suffering among poor.
Where and how is God seeking to capture our attention and engage us to make a positive difference? Are we in danger of becoming a stumbling block by defending outmoded ideas in our religious practices making it harder for others by refusing to accept what they are trying to tell us? Are we ready to take off our shoes and engage with the work to which we are called?

PENTECOST 11A   24th August 2014
Exodus 1:8-2:10
Psalm 124
Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20
There are several big questions that people ask about life and the universe. Jesus’ question “Who do you say that I am?” is one of these fundamental questions that are in the hearts and minds of humans. Yet it goes largely unspoken. The question comes from our inmost core and the answers we get influence our entire lives. Almost from conception humans need to know that they are precious, wanted and loved to have any chance of developing to anything like their potential.
Usually the answers we receive speak only to a small part of our being, but they still matter, especially when we get the same or similar answers over and over again. Notice your thoughts and feelings when I say to you, you are all sinners. This is something you have heard countless times in prayers and hymns and creeds. You may also have been told you are a naughty boy, or a wicked girl or that you will never amount to much.
Now notice your thoughts and feelings when I tell you that you are loved and are precious children of God, you are kind and thoughtful or you have beautiful eyes. The interesting thing is that we are more likely to believe the negative things we are told. And of course, there’s all the nonverbal communication that influences our lives, the hugs and pats on the back, the ignoring and the violent behaviour directed towards us. Researchers tell us that it takes many times more positive things to overcome one negative response.
Who we say people are is reflected in our approach to them and our relationship with them. Ed was a husband, father, son, chair of the school council, elder and Sunday School teacher, a farmer and a football coach and he said, “People only ever want to take to me about football or sport. It’s like they think I don’t know and aren’t interested in anything else. I wish they would see me as more than that.” Jenny was an incomer to the district and saw Mona as a doddery old thing with whom Jenny sometimes became frustrated and impatient. Then Mona died and at the funeral Jenny heard who others said Mona was. Among other things, they said she had been an Australian champion horse rider and was held in high esteem for her contribution to dressage and community charity work.  Jenny realised she had been too quick to say who she thought Mona was.
People say that the poor don’t drive cars, that indigenous inhabitants of Australia are not worth bothering about; that Muslims are terrorists; that all unemployed are dole bludgers and the elderly are a burden on society, that if you are rich you are to be admired, that if you are a top sportsman, you are worthy of idolisation etc… Often these opinions are conveyed in non-verbal ways. Jesus’ question calls us to reflect on who we say we are and who we say others are. It also challenges us to consider who we say God is.
If people asked us “Who do you say that I am?” how might they react to our stereotypical answers? In the reading from Hebrew Scripture, we heard that the new Pharaoh said the Israelites were a threat. Previously Pharaohs had said they were welcome members of society.  Things changed radically for them when the Pharaoh said this about them. Having labelled them a threat, he then felt compelled to eliminate the threat by ordering the midwives to kill boy babies. Midwives say by the very nature of their work, that all babies are important, welcome members of the community. 
I wonder how many of you watched the programme, Call the Midwife? It gave me a new appreciation of the service provided by these women. It would take a special person to do this work, one with incredible patience and understanding because giving birth is such an individual thing. It can be fast or slow, difficult or easy. Many things can go wrong and the life of both the mother and child or children if it is a multiple birth, can be in danger. It is a tribute to their skills through the centuries that humanity has survived.
On the whole, midwives are probably the most unsung heroes ever. In most cultures they would have received little pay for being on call 24/7. They have not been of high status in communities. Their role has largely been taken over by obstetricians in our culture, though there is a return to having a midwife instead of a doctor for the birth by some. When June thanked the Sri Lankan doctor for saving her child after a difficult delivery, tears trickled down his face as he said, “You have no idea how hard it is for all of us when we lose a baby.” She had to admit that she had only thought of the loss from a parent’s view. It must have been distressing, even unthinkable, for the midwives who had committed their lives to assisting with the bringing of new life, to be ordered by the Pharaoh to end the lives of the boy babies.
The reading from Hebrew Scripture today features six women and is probably unique in expressing who the writer would say women are. I certainly can’t think of another passage like it in the Bible. There would have been many more midwives among the Hebrew people but only two are named here. The women in today’s story worked in pairs to achieve justice and save the life of a child who was to play a significant part in preventing the genocide proposed by the Pharaoh.
It is significant the only two midwives Shiphrah and Puah are named. Coming into the story also are the Jewish woman of the tribe of Levi, who gave birth to the child and her daughter and the daughter of the Pharaoh and her maid. With the possible exception of the maid, each of these women risked their lives to save the baby. By their actions they were saying to this child, “We say you are valuable, worth risking our lives for.”
We presume that Moses would have been told the story of the circumstances of his birth, that people would have told him he was special because the midwives had refuse to kill him and his mother had disobeyed the order to drown him in the Nile. It is possible that these positive answers to the question gave him confidence and encouragement for the difficult work God asked him to undertake.
There is a sense in which it is good if we can assume that every person we interact with is wondering “Who do you say that I am?” We can’t always be all things to all people as the apostle Paul tried to be, but we can be more sensitive to how our behaviour and language impacts on others. When we listen attentively to the other, we show we value them.
The ultimate one to ask this question of, is God. Who does God say that I am? Maybe a precious child. Jesus told his followers that he called them friends. One of our favourite hymns is “What a friend we have in Jesus.” Is Jesus saying back, “What a friend I have in you”?
Just after asking this question, Jesus to his listeners, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you lose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Might the answer we give to those who ask us, who do you say that I am? bind or loose them?  Sometimes children are told they are nuisances or pests or even worse. Sometimes reasonable requests are ignored there-by disrespecting the person who has asked and lowering their self- esteem. These replies can become self-fulfilling  prophesies.
We had a lecturer who drummed into us that, contrary to popular belief, we don’t learn by experience. If we did, people would not make the same mistake more than once. We only learn from reflecting on our experiences. What might the consequences of our answers be for our communities? What answer has the church given when people have come to us and said that they have been abused within the church. In every interaction and every relationship we are answering this question for others.
I have been struggling with this writing and so I decided to take a break and watch something I had recorded from TV and not yet seen. By coincidence, when I turned the recorder on, the programme it was indicating was “Who do you think you are?” It was the one where Adam Goodes found that he had ancestry with two different indigenous groups in South Australia. The people were saying to him, this is who we say you are and we are saying, you are one of us. One elder welcomed him warmly to the country of his ancestors by painting his face with several different colours of ochre. Another sang to his ancestors to let them know they were there talking about them. It was obviously a very moving experience for Adam and had a profound effect on him.
The midwives didn’t harm the boy babies because they accepted who God said these children were and rejected who Pharaoh said they were.  The Pharaoh was seen by the Egyptians as a god and there would have been pressure on the Hebrew people to say he was god also. In defying the Pharaoh’s orders they were making a religious statement as well as a political one.
Do we take notice of who God says people are, or are we more inclined to listen to the words of politicians and the so called “Shock Jocks” who like various people to be seen as a threat so they can become our saviours and we will worship them and their opinions?

PENTECOST 10A   17th August 2014
Genesis 45:1-15
Psalm 133
Romans 11:1,2a,29-32
Matthew 15:[10-20]21-28
There’s an old hymn in which one of the verses says, “But we make God’s love too narrow by false limits of our own and we magnify God’s strictness with a zeal God will not own.” You are probably familiar with it. They are words we may need to remind ourselves of every now and then as many of us have a tendency to do both of those things. We also have a tendency to do this with faith. We have tended to think of faith as only our faith in God, but faith is much bigger than this. The section of Matthew’s Gospel which we are reading at present is about faith.  
First we heard the story of Jesus not being able to do any mighty deeds in his home town because of the people’s lack of faith in him.  Then three weeks ago, we heard how Jesus had been having a stressful time with news of the death of John the Baptist. He wanted to be by himself but when the crowds got wind of where he was going, they walked around the lake and were already waiting when he arrived. How his heart must have sunk when he saw them. But he took pity on them and tended to their needs, curing those who were ill. When evening came the disciples suggested the people be sent away to find food for themselves.  Jesus said to the disciples, “They do not need to go away; you give them something to eat.” This is an extraordinary thing to say. Was Jesus just kidding or did he truly believe they could do it?
We have heard the story many times in our lives. You know the disciples reply. “We only have five loaves and two fish.” In other words, “We don’t have what it takes to do it.” Maybe it would have been more truthful for them to have said, “Our understanding of ourselves and our faith in ourselves isn’t sufficient for us to grasp the vision you have of us being able to feed all these people.”
Perhaps somewhat exasperatedly, Jesus said for them to give him what they had and there was more than enough for everyone. We don’t know how this happened. I’m sure that anyone who has been in charge of catering for a large crowd would love to know. But it wasn’t a miracle in the sense that God did it for Jesus. It happened because Jesus believed it could and gave it a go.
The next week was about Peter who caught a glimpse of Jesus doing something extraordinary, walking on water, and wanted to try it too.  Jesus must have had faith in Peter’s ability to do it as he encouraged him by inviting him to “Come”. We have thought that Peter sank because he lost faith in Jesus, but this is not consistent with the story. When he sank, Peter called to Jesus to rescue him. If he had lost faith in Jesus, surely he would have tried to get back to the boat under his own steam, or he would have called to those in the boat to save him, not Jesus.  He lost faith in HIMSELF and began to doubt his ability when he noticed the things around that threatened him.
Peter took his eyes off Jesus and quite literally got cold feet, something that many of us have experienced. Jesus rescued him and brought him back to safety. We are told that immediately Peter called for his help, Jesus put out his hand to hold Peter. Then he said, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”      
Whether you chose to take the story of Jesus walking on the water literally, or understand it as a myth, doesn’t matter for the purposes of this exercise. It is a wonderful story which captures our imagination and can teach us a wonderful truth.
Then we have the story about the Canaanite woman. The Canaanite people had not made the Hebrew people welcome when they had come to their land centuries before. Jesus probably felt justified in ignoring this impertinent Canaanite woman who would not take the hint that he didn’t want anything to do with her and didn’t care about her daughter. Was she blind that she did not take the hint of his unspoken reply to her begging for his help? The emphatic nature of Jesus’ ignoring of her is shown in the text, “Jesus did not answer her at all.” Her persistence upset the disciples and they pleaded with Jesus to send her away. They saw her as a nuisance. Jesus seems to have answered them while still ignoring her when they pleaded with him to send her away. It was like he was pretending that she was not there or that she did not matter to him at all.
Jesus, in line with his community understanding of hundreds of years of conflict with the Canaanite people, had a right on two counts, her gender and her nationality, to ignore this woman who dared to ask for his help. To this point in his ministry, he had believed he was sent “only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”. But she was not easily intimidated. Her daughter meant more to her than her dignity. We are told she came and knelt before Jesus, a uniform gesture of pleading. His remark about not taking the food of children and throwing it to dogs was rude and a serious put-down. We have generally looked at Jesus through the rose-coloured spectacles of post resurrection theology and forgotten that he was a man of his time and culture.
She was having none of this and boldly answered back with as good as she had received. Jesus was amazed at her response to his sarcastic remark. He said, “Great is your faith!” Most of us have been taught that it was her faith in Jesus that caused Jesus to respond. But there is a distinct possibility that he was referring to her faith in the justice of her cause and in the right for her daughter to be made well. She didn’t care about the ancient feuds. She believed that God’s mercy was being shown through Jesus’ work and she wanted some for her daughter. Her faith in herself, that she could make a difference to her daughter’s life by persisting, not only helped her daughter but also helped Jesus to a wider understanding of his ministry. Through her faith, Jesus saw that it was not his place to exclude anyone from God’s care.
Only three verses after this, there is another story of Jesus wanting to feed a large crowd and the disciples saying, “Where are we to get enough bread in the desert to feed so great a crowd?” This time Jesus had seven loaves and a few fish to work with and everyone got fed and there were baskets full of left overs.
Five verses further on, the disciples had gone to the other side of the lake and when they got there, they realised they had no bread. Perhaps it was with some frustration that Jesus admonished them. “You of little faith, why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive? Don’t you remember….”Perhaps the disciples’ lack of faith in themselves was the most frustrating thing for Jesus.
One of the favourite passages of Scripture is 1Corinthians 13 which finishes with, “Now faith, hope and love abide, these three, and the greatest of these is love.”  There is no disputing that love is the greatest, but that does not negate the other two. They are almost as important. In some ways of looking at it, they form part of love. To love someone requires that you have faith in them and hope for them. Jesus told us that the greatest commandment is to Love the Lord our God with hearts, minds, souls, and strength and to love our neighbours as ourselves. [Matthew 22:37,39] This is also applicable to faith. We are to have faith in the Lord our God and in our neighbours as in ourselves.
The central tenet of our faith is belief in the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We also have other important trinities. In the two passages I have just spoken about we have God, others, and ourselves, as one trinity and faith, hope and love as another. When things are linked together like this, they have a special relationship to one another. 
We are wonderful and precious creations of God, made in God’s image but we frequently fail to give God glory by lacking faith in ourselves and others. We want God to do things for us which we CAN only do for ourselves.  Jesus could not walk on the water for Peter.  Peter had to do it for himself.  Jesus encouraged him and as long as Peter had his eyes on Jesus, he had the courage to keep going. But when he shifted his focus from Jesus and the task to possible problems, he panicked and sank.
When we have little faith in ourselves, we may fail to encourage others to have faith in themselves, too.  We may lack faith in our abilities and gifts, our intellectual capacity, our physical stamina and our emotions.  Similarly, we can sometimes lack faith in these things in others.
This having faith business is NOT about being unrealistic, or taking unnecessary risks.  This is why it is important to look to God for guidance in our thoughts and actions for ourselves and in relation to others. There is a fine line between encouraging someone and pushing them. It has to do with encouraging being THEIR idea and pushing being ours. It was Peter’s idea to have a go.  Jesus encouraged him by calling him, but did not push him out of the boat.
It is good for us to encourage others in their faith, but it is not right for us to be hard on them when they fail.  Many people have been badly hurt when their prayers have not been answered and well-meaning friends have said it was because they did not have enough faith.
The disciples needed to have faith in themselves if they were to do God’s work after Jesus had gone.
Are you aware of an injustice or illness or anything else that you believe could be righted? Do you have enough faith in your judgment to argue persistently till something is done about it? Might being a faith-full follower of Christ mean having faith in others and ourselves as well as God?

PENTECOST 9A   10th August 2014
Genesis 37:1-4,12 W-28
Psalm 105:1-6,16-22,45b
Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14:22-33
For weeks now, the Lectionary readings from the Hebrew Scripture have been talking about parents favouring one of their children. We have seen one disaster after another come from the relationship chaos that has resulted between the siblings when parents have a favourite child.
Tom was the middle child in a family of five. He was clearly his mother’s favourite. His brothers and sisters saw him as the privileged one who got most of the attention they craved and sometimes they resented him. He saw himself as less than privileged. From his point of view, the older two had each other and were good friends and the younger two also had each other but he was left alone, in between. He felt the others left him out when he longed to be part of their lives and he even resented it a little and envied their independence.
When one child is clearly the favourite, that child may become arrogant, seeing themselves as superior to their siblings. They may also feel insecure in the position and feel they need to keep putting their siblings down to keep themselves in the favoured position. In effect, they may think they need to earn the right continuously to retain the place in the parent’s affection. They may develop manipulative behaviour to this end. Also, there is the possibility of the parent manipulating the child into being their favourite and demanding unreasonable loyalty. The child may be the favourite because she or he fulfils a need of the parent. A dysfunctional family develops with the jealous behaviour of the other children making them less attractive to the parent and alienating them from their sibling.
Joseph was Jacob’s favourite. Jacob made that clear by giving him special clothing and special responsibilities. But joseph apparently felt insecure. He was said to have got the position by being a child of Jacob’s old age. Perhaps his unease came because he felt that his father could easily transfer his affections to Rueben who was younger still and so child of his father’s even older age. Anyway, Joseph told tales on his brothers to make them seem less likable in his father’s eyes. Not only this, he rubbed salt into the wounds of his brothers by telling them about a dream he had in which they clearly recognised his superiority by bowing down to him. His brothers were up to twenty years older than this upstart teenager and you might have thought that as mature adults, his behaviour should not have bothered them.
Perhaps we get a clue to Joseph’s ambiguous feelings at being favourite from the story. He had gone to look for his brothers as his father had told him. But they weren’t where he was expecting them to be. Was he disappointed? Could he have been looking forward to spending some time with them. Perhaps in spite of it all, he found being favourite oppressive and wanted a relationship with more than just his father. When he got to where he was expecting to find his brothers, they were not there. Instead he found a man who asked him, “What are you seeking?”
Joseph found that his brothers had moved on. The gap between them had widened. They were further away from him than he had realised as was evident by their reaction when he finally caught up to them. Their relationship had become so strained that some of them wanted to kill him. They just wanted him out of their lives. This was confusing when he wanted to make connection with them, albeit for his own advantage.
It is not always easy to let go of reminders of past hurt. John, in his forties, spoke of how difficult he found it when his position as youngest child and therefore special was taken from him when he was twelve by the arrival of the baby daughter his mother had always hoped for. And June learned that old hurts can resurface when in her late fifties she moved back into her parents’ home for a few months. She felt pressured and unhappy. As she reflected on this one day she realised that she had reverted to behaving like she had as a teenager now she was again living with her parents. The jealousy she had felt as a child towards one of her sisters threatened to overwhelm her each time either of the parents spoke about their other daughter or when they said anything critical about June or her family. She felt she had been cheated out of her father’s affection by this sister. He had chosen the other. She didn’t understand why she so desperately wanted his attention and love and she didn’t know what she could do to make him choose her.
Throughout the Bible there are references to those who are chosen by God. They are the ones the Scripture is about. Those who aren’t chosen fall by the wayside. If their stories get told elsewhere, not many of us have heard them. The Hebrew people as a nation were chosen by God. But is being chosen by God equivalent to being God’s favourite? Or might it mean something different? Being chosen does not signify that you are favourite. Being favourite may let you feel more special for a while but it puts extra pressures on your relationships. Being chosen does not come with extra privileges. It may well come with extra responsibilities.
The people at church had told Kay that she was special to God. It was obvious, they said, that God had something special for her. She was driving along a country road one day, I suspect with a smug smile on her face, thinking, “I am special to God!” A voice said unexpectedly, “You are no more special to me than anyone else.” Before she had time to be offended, the voice went on, “because everyone is special to me.”
Being a nation where more people believe that the Bible should be taken literally, it should come as no surprise to us that the USA has Israel as its favourite child. Nor in what we know about how being a favourite distorts our self- image and disrupts our relationships with others should we be surprised by Israel’s chaotic relationship with and behaviour towards its neighbours.
The present conflict shows the spoilt child being indulged yet again by the parent as it bullies and beats up the smaller kid next door. Our Prime Minister said that the Palestinians want to deny existence to Israel. That would not be surprising if the reports of continuing settlement in Palestinian areas by Jewish people are correct. But the viciousness of the fighting, [one might even call it a David and Goliath struggle except that we know Goliath is going to win!] seems to say that it is the Israelis who want the Palestinians to cease to exist.
It is people in authority who create chaos by playing favourites. Remember the song from our youth about wanting to be teacher’s pet and how others felt about the person who was the teacher’s pet?
Being chosen by God is not the same as being God’s pet. Many Christians have these two things confused and believe that Christians have taken over from Jewish people as God’s favourites. They may still see Jews as God’s chosen, but think we are the favourites because we accepted Jesus.
Some theologians believe we are all God’s chosen people. Others think that some are chosen and some are not, but whatever, it is God’s doing and has nothing to do with our merit or what we deserve or with God playing favourites. It is referred to as predestination or double predestination. Much trouble could be prevented in the world if we could come to know we are all special to God, that God wants the best for each one of us, whether we see ourselves as chosen or not.
When Joseph couldn’t find is brothers, he met a man who asked him, “What are you seeking?” Jesus asked of people who came to him for help and healing this question. It is a good question to ask ourselves many times in life, especially in relationships. What are we seeking in relationship with our partner, our children, our friends, our congregation, St Andrew’s even with our God? Do we want an adult to adult relationship or are we seeking to be petted or to make a pet of the other? Neither of these forms of relationship is fair and just. They don’t allow the person to be themselves. They can be stifling and prevent life in all its fullness. Are we envious of the close relationships of others? Why might this be? Is there someone we are seeking to be in closer relationship with?
We rarely think of this passage from Genesis apart from the rest of the story of Joseph’s life. Sometimes we have been given the impression that God engineered the trouble between the brothers as a way of getting Joseph the Egypt so he could later save his family. Others see the story more in line with the verse from Romans 8:28 “All things work together for good”, believing God was able to use the situation in which Joseph found himself. A verse in the psalm set for today,[Psalm 105:19] says that until the time came for Joseph to do what was needed to rescue his family, the word of God kept testing him and this included imprisonment under false charges. This could have been to see if he had the faith to do what was needed.
Romans 10:12 reminds us “There is no distinction between Jew and Greek. The same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on his name.” We know too, that God is generous with those who don’t call on God’s name, sending rain on the just and the unjust. In this way, God favours all of us. All are special in God’s sight and when we know this, we are less likely to take part in the forms of sibling rivalry that are part of or families, our communities, our countries and our faith. God loves each one of us and wants us to have the faith in ourselves to believe that and work for life in all its fullness for everybody.

Joseph had ambiguous feelings at being favourite. He had gone to look for his brothers as his father had told him. But they weren’t where he was expecting them to be. Was he disappointed? Could he have been looking forward to spending some time with them. Perhaps in spite of it all, he found being favourite oppressive and wanted a relationship with more than just his father. When he got to where he was expecting to find his brothers, they were not there. Instead he found a man who asked him, “What are you seeking?”
Joseph found that his brothers had moved on. The gap between them had widened. They were further away from him than he had realised as was evident by their reaction when he finally caught up to them. Their relationship had become so strained that some of them wanted to kill him. They just wanted him out of their lives. This was confusing when he wanted to make connection with them, albeit for his own advantage.
Could the present conflict between Israeli and Palestine go back to the Jewish people believing they are God’s favourite and the Palestinians their less favoured brothers? Is being chosen the same as being favourite?

People comment that they hope that they will leave the world a better place than it was when they came to it. How would YOU like to make things a little better in this world?  What would you most like to leave for future generations?  Have you faith in yourself that you could make a positive difference; that you could help bring in the Kingdom of God?
Daphnie spoke about her call to be a Lay Preacher.  She spoke of the encouragement she had received from a workmate and a friend, when she had nearly given up.  Her friend kept urging her to “Go for it” when she was wavering in her decision and when the study was hard and new ideas even harder. Without her friend’s faith in Daph, she might not have made it.
The gospel reading was about Jesus inviting Peter, at Peter’s request, to walk on the water. Peter was one of Jesus’ chosen ones. Jesus called Peter and had faith that Peter could do this and encouraged him to do so. We have sometimes thought that Peter sank because he lost faith in Jesus, but this is not consistent with the story. When he sank, Peter called to Jesus to rescue him. If he had lost faith in Jesus, surely he would have tried to get back to the boat under his own steam, or he would have called to those in the boat to save him, not Jesus.  He lost faith in HIMSELF when he took his eyes off Jesus.
Peter literally got cold feet, something that many of us have experienced. Jesus brought him back to safety.
We are told that as soon as Peter called for his help, Jesus put out his hand to hold Peter. Then he said, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”      
One of the favourite passages of Scripture is 1Corinthians 13 which finishes with, “Now faith, hope and love abide, these three, and the greatest of these is love.”  There is no disputing that love is the greatest, but that does not negate the other two. They are almost as important. In some ways of looking at it, they form part of love. To love someone requires that you have faith in them and hope for them. Jesus told us that the greatest commandment is to Love the Lord our God with hearts, minds, souls, and strength and to love our neighbours as ourselves. [Matthew 22:37,39] This is also applicable to faith. We are to have faith in the Lord our God and in our neighbours as in ourselves.
The central tenet of our faith is belief in the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We also have other important trinities. In the two passages I have just spoken about, we have God, others, and ourselves, as one trinity and faith, hope and love as another. When things are linked together like this, they have a special relationship to one another. 
Whether you chose to take the story of Jesus walking on the water literally, or understand it as a myth, doesn’t matter for the purposes of this exercise. It is a wonderful story which captures our imagination and teaches us a wonderful truth.
The good news from today’s gospel reading is that you can do what Christ calls you to do when you keep your eyes on Christ and have faith in yourself! Don’t let distractions beat you. We limit the value of faith far too much when we only speak of us having faith in God. Jesus showed us that God has faith in us. This story immediately follows on from where Jesus showed his faith in the disciples by telling them to feed the five thousand people.
When we look through the Gospels, we see a number of times when Jesus spoke of people having little faith, and others where he commended them for their faith.  When he said such things as, “Your faith has made you well”, there is often an indication that the person has taken a considerable risk to approach Jesus for healing. They must have had faith in themselves, something that we call confidence, that they deserve healing, a better life, or that those they cared for could have a better life, to have had the strength to approach Jesus.
This is particularly evident in the case of the woman who touched his garment.  She, and the others, had faith that they themselves were worthy of healing as well as faith that Jesus cared for them and could help them. They kept their eyes on Jesus and so were not overwhelmed by the difficulties of their chosen task.  We know in the case of the woman that there were substantial things working against her, but she kept going and was healed.
We are wonderful and precious creations of God, made in God’s image but we frequently fail to give God glory by lacking faith in ourselves and others. We want God to do things for us which we CAN only do for ourselves.  Jesus could not walk on the water for Peter.  Peter had to do it for himself.  Jesus encouraged him and as long as Peter had his eyes on Jesus, he had the courage to keep going. But when he shifted his focus from Jesus to the wind, he panicked and began to sink.
When we have little faith in ourselves, we may fail to encourage others to have faith in themselves, too.  We may lack faith in our abilities and gifts, our intellectual capacity, our physical stamina and our emotions.  Similarly, we can sometimes lack faith in these things in others.
This having faith business is NOT about being unrealistic, or taking unnecessary risks.  This is why it is important to look to God for guidance in our thoughts and actions for ourselves and in relation to others. There is a fine line between encouraging someone and pushing them. It has to do with encouraging being THEIR idea and pushing being ours. It was Peter’s idea to have a go.  Jesus encouraged him, but did not push him, out of the boat.
Another difficult part of having faith, is keeping our eyes on God.  This is a lot easier said than done and I‘m sure Christ understands our difficulty with it.  I have wished at times that I could glue my eyes on Christ, so that I would not be so easily distracted by storms around.  It is not easy to retain faith, in God, in others or in ourselves with the wind roaring in our ears and knocking us about. 
Many people, especially the young, are incredibly worried about the state of the world and they feel helpless to do anything.  They begin to sink in waves of despair. This is a factor contributing to high rates of suicide in our community.  They need our encouragement, for faith in God, in others and in themselves, from our faith in them.
It is good for us to encourage others in their faith, but it is not right for us to be hard on them when they fail.  Many people have been badly hurt when their prayers have not been answered and well-meaning friends have said it was because they did not have enough faith. Jesus showed compassion towards Peter by extending his hand to save him. He did not take it as an opportunity to tell Peter he had the choice of sinking or swimming.
What would today’s equivalent of walking on water look like for us as a congregation? Obviously Jesus was not trying to do a “magic” thing for its own sake, or trying to make himself look special and different.  Peter had caught a glimpse of a new possibility and they excited him. He wanted to have a go, but was tentative and so he asked Jesus. He did not just jump into it. This was a wise step and one that we ignore at our peril. Jesus invited Peter to join him and Peter nearly made it. The other disciples apparently didn’t see the opportunity or lacked the faith to have a go.
Memories of this story, going back to my childhood, all seem to have been told in a way which condemns Peter for his lack of faith, seeing Jesus as angry with him. This is consistent with us seeing God as harsh and judgemental. It could be that Jesus was sad, disappointed for Peter or even frustrated. It is possible, even probable, that Jesus was speaking with compassion. Peter only began to sink when he became afraid of the strength of the wind. It is also possible that Jesus spoke to Peter in a teasing manner.
It would be interesting and challenging for each congregation, to think about what would be equivalent to walking on water. What winds cause this congregation to fear and lose faith? Can we recapture the glimpse we had of something that excited us and look to Jesus for encouragement to try it?  One wonders if most of us would want to stay in the boat as most of the disciples did.
We could also ask the question of ourselves as individuals.  For some of us it could mean facing up to a situation which has troubled us for some time, for others, the courage to raise issues of faith and ethics or politics in communities which would be highly critical of such a move. 
The underlying call is for the courage and confidence to do what we could not imagine ourselves doing in the following of Christ.  This requires faith in ourselves and encouragement from others in demonstration of their faith in us.
Where are we glimpsing Christ through the mist now?  Does it excite us?  Deep down, would you like to have a go?  Well, you know what to do, ask God and watch for the response!

PENTECOST 8A   3rd August
Genesis 32:22-31
Psalm 17:1-7,15
Romans 9:1-5
Matthew 14:13-21
John is an encourager. He notices people’s strengths and builds their belief in their own abilities. He has a vision that he can make a difference to people’s lives by helping them to get the best out of their gifts and talents. He encourages people to see others in this way, building each other up. Sometimes this is quite a challenge. Some have become so discouraged that they no longer trust themselves or others and are reluctant to have a go. Some fear failure or ridicule. Some are lazy and would rather let others do it for them. Sometimes people laugh at John and his “Come on, don’t let it beat you. You can do it!” approach, but it gets results. The football team he coached improved greatly and won the Grand Final twice.
We don’t often hear the word ‘encourage’ in our Scripture. In the New Revised Standard Version, encourage and its associated words of encouraging and encouragement only appear 41 times. The words “strengthen” and “strengthening” are there more than twice as many times and the idea of God being our strength or of God strengthening us may be more familiar to you. In many places the concepts are interchangeable. What do we mean when we say “God is our strength?” Many of us are acutely aware of our weaknesses but have trouble naming our strengths, abilities and the gifts with which we have been blessed.
And yet to get the best from and for our communities and to experience life in all its fullness, we are called to make use of all the resources available. It’s OK to use these resources because they are renewable. They are not used up nor wasted when we dare to “have a go”. On the contrary, we are more likely to lose them when we don’t use them.
In Jesus we see a man who used all he had to help and heal others. We tend to dismiss much of his example by saying things like, “Well, he was the Son of God.” In doing this, we deny our belief that he was “Truly human” and not altogether different from us.
Jesus had been having a busy and stressful time. Sometimes we forget how human he was! He had visited his home town where the people took offense at his teaching simply because they knew his parents, brothers and sisters. They didn’t believe in him. They had no faith in his abilities and this indicates that they didn’t think much of themselves either. How could someone who they knew, who had grown up in their community be wise and do the kind of things Jesus did. In thinking this way, and discounting Jesus, they were putting themselves down as well. It must have been discouraging for Jesus. We are told he couldn’t do much for them because of their lack of faith in themselves as well as Jesus.
Being discouraged is tiring and it would be understandable if Jesus was feeling weary. Then the news of John the Baptiser’s death was brought to him and he was told of the circumstances around the death. It is not surprising that Jesus wanted to get away from it all for a while. Maybe he was scared for his life. Maybe he was frustrated by the responses of people, or lack of them. Maybe he felt the need for some quality time with God to rebuild his faith in his mission. Anyway, he set out to have some time alone across the lake.
He went by himself but when the crowds got wind of where he was going, they walked around the lake and were already waiting when he arrived. How his heart must have sunk when he saw them. But he took pity on them and tended to their needs, curing those who were ill. When evening came the disciples suggested the people be sent away to find food for themselves. But Jesus said to the disciples, “They do not need to go away; you give them something to eat.” This is an extraordinary thing to say. What could Jesus have been thinking? Maybe he was so tired he was losing it.
We have heard the story so many times in our lives. You know the disciples reply. “We only have five loaves and two fish.” In other words, “We don’t have what it takes to do what you ask or expect of us.” Maybe it would have been more truthful for them to have said, “Our understanding of ourselves and our faith in ourselves isn’t sufficient for us to grasp the vision you have of us being able to feed all these people.”
Perhaps somewhat exasperatedly, Jesus said for them to give him the five loaves and two fish and there was more than enough for everyone. We don’t know how this happened. I’m sure that anyone who has been in charge of catering for a large crowd would love to know. But it wasn’t by magic and it wasn’t a miracle in the sense that God did it for Jesus. It happened because Jesus believed it could and gave it a go. It is highly unlikely Jesus would have told the disciples to give the people something to eat if he hadn’t believed that they could feed the crowd.
Many of you have heard the saying, probably many times in your childhood, “You don’t know what you can do until you try.” The trouble is that we usually don’t try unless we are in a desperate situation where we have no other option. Fear of failure is one of the major fears we experience in life.  Jacob was in a desperate situation when he was attacked as he slept alone that night. We aren’t told why he stayed on the other side of the river from his family and all his possessions, but it was probably because he thought he would be safer. The next day, he would be forced to face his brother who he had wronged many years ago and he was afraid of that meeting. He anticipated trouble which he deserved. Maybe he wanted some time out to prepare himself for the meeting. Maybe he wanted time to pray.
Instead of being safe though, he found he had to spend the night fighting for his life. He had to keep going or he was likely to die. He found he had been wrestling with God and he was richly blessed as a result. The idea of wrestling with God isn’t something many of us have thought about. It may seem disrespectful, ludicrous, an impossibility but we can be encouraged by seeing that Jacob was blessed by it. He found strength and stamina he hadn’t realised were in him.
 Jill was working as a prison chaplain when an officer was taken hostage by two of the lads. She was called in just after midnight to relieve another chaplain. What greeted her was the most horrific situation she had ever found herself in and it seemed to get worse instead of better as the night went on. About 4am she was beginning to despair, having lost faith in her ability and training. She cried out within herself, “I can’t do this. Nothing in life has prepared me for this.” She was surprised by a small voice which said, “On the contrary, everything in life has prepared you for this. You have all your life’s experiences and abilities to call on. You can do it” She could see that this was so and trusting this, was able to do what she was called to do not only till she was relieved at 8am but in the weeks and months of follow-up that was required.
There have been a number of occasions since where this has enabled her, remembering she has a life time of skills, experience and learning plus the gifts and encouragement of God to not give up or pull out or not even try.
What might the story have been like if the disciples had taken Jesus’ challenge? They were not alone when they thought they didn’t have enough of what it takes to do what Jesus told them to do. Moses argued that he was unsuitable, Isaiah that he was unclean, Jeremiah that he was too young. No doubt many of us have argued in a similar fashion when God has challenged us to do something.

Remember, it was the disciples who brought the need of the people to Jesus’ attention. Whose needs have you been bringing to God’s attention in your prayers? Is it possible that God is saying to you, “I have faith in you that you can do something about this situation, this need, this hunger.” This can be scary. We often feel we don’t have enough, or that we are too old, or we are too insignificant to do anything that would make a difference. But if we dare to give it a go, we may be amazed to find ourselves richly blessed.

Here are two different messages for this week. The first is new and the second slightly older [from last time these readings were in the Lectionary] As usual you are free to use any or none of the thoughts expressed. Romans 8:28 and 38,39 have sustained me many times in the years since my husband died. But having four sisters [no brothers!] I find the sons references and the treatment of women challenging. It is not sufficient to say it was different back then. It is still hasn’t changed for the majority of women in the world

PENTECOST 7A   27TH July 2014
Genesis 29:15-28
Psalm 105:1-11, 45b or Psalm 128
Romans 8:26-39
Matthew 13:31-33,44-52
Kathryn was at a fundraising dinner for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. The guest speaker had been talking about the grief of losing a child in such a way. The man sitting to Kathryn’s right leaned over and whispered, “We grieve for the children we never had.” She knew the man and his wife quite well, but had never thought that they might be suffering in this way. She had had children easily and they had grown into childhood uneventfully. It hadn’t occurred to her that others might grieve when this didn’t happen.
Now, some years later, comments have been added in this area of her thinking. A man whose wife was going through the forth cycle of invitro-fertilisation said, “Every time it fails, it is like losing another child. Our hopes are shattered again and our finances are more stretched.” A couple pointed out, “Adoption is not always the answer. There are age limitations and other considerations, many hoops to jump through.”
All of these people were praying for a child and had many others praying for them also that they will be blessed with a child or children. The first couple did adopt, but neither of their sons has had children and now it is a struggle for them when others talk about their grandchildren. It is more painful when Bible texts mention the blessing of seeing grandchildren.  For weeks now, the Lectionary readings have contained stories of infertile people whom God has blessed with a son or sons even when they have waited for many years, a child or children have eventuated. But for so many good, faithful, prayerful people, this never happens and it is painful over and over to have these stories told as examples of God’s faithfulness when they feel so alienated from others in their inability to be blessed with a child. The norm within most church communities is couples who have children and grandchildren even if those children have little to do with the church.
The second point about these stories is; is there a single verse of Scripture that has someone praying or longing for a daughter? Is there a story where a couple were blessed with many daughters? All the people we have heard about in recent weeks are blessed with sons.
For many years I have been wondering why women are so hated and so poorly treated in most cultures in the world. In recent years, we have had stories about Afghani, Indian, African Hindu and Islamic women being appallingly treated. We know that in Australian about twice as many women as men have experienced sexual abuse and yet, in the Royal Commission on Abuse, more men have come forward as victims than women. Why might this be? And given that other forms of abuse occur frequently in conjunction with sexual abuse and that abuse has occurred in other places than institutions, why is the Royal Commission limited to looking at sexual abuse in institutions?
The Royal Commission has already made it clear, and in truth, we already knew, that the Church has been corrupted by abuse almost since its beginning. This is not to deny that it has done many great and good things. Each one of us is part of the holy catholic, meaning universal church and so each of us is affected by the corruption in the Church. Perhaps also surprisingly, each of us bears some responsibility for it. This point was made in devotions at the recent Church Council meeting. We are called to be Christ-like and Jesus mission was to bring healing and wholeness for all people. Each of us has the responsibility to ask what we can do to bring life in all its fullness to those whose lives have been damages, limited or enslaved by the teachings of the Church.
Is it time for us in the Church, to go back to basics and to carefully examine the examples we are using to teach people about God and who we say God is and how we say God is? Does it assist the better treatment of women to know that three thousand five hundred years ago they were exchanged for 14 years wages and then just used to produce as many sons as possible? Did you notice that there was only one week between when Jacob was tricked into marrying Leah till when he was allowed to marry Rachel? How would Leah have felt about that?  What would the atmosphere be in which those boys were raised when their father doted on one wife and apparently tolerated the other because she was useful to him? And what of the maid who was forced to take over the role of producing sons when the first wife no longer could do it?
The Seasons of the Spirit material for this week tells us that the important thing is that God keeps God’s promises. This is the Good News from these readings. It is the overall picture that matters, that we are to cling to. It says, “It may be a struggle this week not to read this story solely through a modern lens. In Biblical times, polygamy was common and women didn’t always have a voice.” Some might think the last phrase an understatement! According to this, the important thing is the big picture, that through the generations and centuries, God’s will is done and it doesn’t much matter how some people are treated, how many are sacrificed, along the way.
The Seasons of the Spirit material goes on to say, “A the same time, however, this story can open us into modern parallels. Where might there be spaces where women do not have a voice today? Where is there deception” Where is God’s promise being revealed today?”
We could begin answering the first question of where do women not have a voice today by saying, “In church, in the Scripture reading and interpretations given, in the world as a whole and still to some extent in our community and workplaces.” I know things are much better than they were, but we still have a long way to go. When I was in placement as a student, the minister said there was a woman who always took over the church meetings.
They were having a meeting the next Sunday afternoon to look at the future mission of the church. He wanted me to see what she was like so he asked me to draw a plan of where everyone sat and note every time someone spoke. There were twenty women and ten men present. 80% of the speaking was done by men. All except one of the men spoke. Only half a dozen of the women spoke. The woman who had been labelled a problem attempted to speak three times and each time she was interrupted, cut off. Also the twice her husband tried to speak, he was also cut off.
At the end of the meeting, the minister said, “See what I mean. See what a nuisance she is.” When I pointed out the results of my finding to him he thought I had sabotaged it and made me lead the next meeting so he could keep tabs. To his surprise, they were very like mine.
The way we see God, others and ourselves is through the lenses of our culture, how we have been taught to see. Someone once asked God why God had sent a son, not a daughter to show God to us. God’s reply seemed to be that God’s daughter has come a million times only no one has ever recognised her because she was a woman.
In the Gospel reading set for today, we have a number of small illustrations of the kingdom of heaven. The final one in Mat 13:52 says, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” Have we in the church been guilty of just going along with the old and been too reluctant to use the new? Could this be why some many of the younger generations no longer have time for the church? We are too attached to the old?
The Good News is that this passage suggests there is new available for our use, new ways of seeing and valuing every person, daughters and women as well as sons and men. People without children as well as those with them are blessed by God in different ways. We have the assurance in Romans that all things work together for good and that nothing can separate us for the love of God which is ours in Christ Jesus. We can encourage our scribes to bring out the new for us to embrace as part of the kingdom of heaven for us all.

Michael was 15 when his much loved Pa died suddenly. Michael was devastated. He was the oldest grandchild of a farming family. He had seen Pa and spent time with him, almost every day of his life. Mike’s father worked the farm with his father. In summer they were in the same tennis team and in winter Pa was always there at football. On Sundays’ they worshipped at the same church. So Pa’s death came as an unexpected blow. He was only 66.
17th of July 1988 was National Bible Sunday. Michael was now eighteen and it was three days before the third anniversary of Pa’s death. The minister asked the congregation to say their favourite Bible verse. Michael said Romans 8:28, “For we know that all things work together for good for those who love the Lord and are called according to God’s purpose.” He explained that someone had written these words in a card his family had received when Pa died and they had been a comfort to him when he had been struggling with the loss of Pa.
Michael later told how those words had gone round and round in his head for the rest of that day.
The next morning, he was going around the sheep with his dad.  They were out in a back paddock when his father suddenly grabbed his chest and said, “Get me to hospital.” It was a little over 50ks to the hospital, made longer by the numerous gates Michael had to open and close before they reached the road. Mike could see that his dad was in real trouble so he stopped at a farm house close to the road to ring for an ambulance. There was only an elderly man at home and he wasn’t about to let an agitated young man he did not know, into his house. He finally did and after Mike had made the phone call, the old man followed him back to his car. He took one look at Ed lying in the front seat and said to Mike, “He’s dead, mate!” Mike replied, “I know, but I’ve got to keep going.”
He met the ambulance at the outskirts of the town about 2ks from the hospital, but it was too late. Michael later told how as soon as his father said to get him to the hospital, the verse from the previous day sprang into his head again, “We know that all thing work together for good for those who love the Lord.” It kept him going through the police enquiry, the formal identifying of his father’s body and through the rough times in the weeks and months that followed.
Michael had always thought that he, too, would be a farmer. He was doing “on farm” training through TAFE. But the way the will was written, the debt on the farm, the rise in interest rates and fall in the price of wool, meant that Mike lost not only his father but also the rest of his life as he had seen it.
He ended up becoming a diesel mechanic in the city, marrying and having two children. Then in 2011 his life was again turned upside down. On Tuesday 15th February, someone at work noticed that his wife Kate was looking a bit yellow. A look in a mirror confirmed this. She was lucky enough to get in to see a doctor after work and he took blood tests for hepatitis in its many forms. On the Thursday, she was no better and so they admitted her to hospital. The blood tests for Hepatitis A,B, and C, came back negative so they could not give her any treatment.  Apparently, giving the wrong treatment would be worse than having no treatment. She was kept under observation.  On Monday, test results came back which showed that Kate had auto immune hepatitis and the doctors immediately began treatment. They explained that, even with treatment, she would probably deteriorate to the point where she would need a liver transplant, but that could be months away.
This didn’t particularly worry Michael or Kate as they had a family friend who had a liver transplant 15y ago and was really well. But Kate did not respond to the treatment.  By Tuesday evening they had decided that she would need a transplant reasonably soon. On Wednesday she was transferred to the hospital where liver transplants are done in SA to build her up for this major op.
Thursday morning her condition deteriorated and she was put into an induced coma. By Thursday afternoon she was on the top of the transplant list.  Fortunately, she had the blood type which meant she could take any liver.  The doctors explained that the first liver to become available in Australia or New Zealand would go to Kate.  They said she was a good prospect.  She was relatively young [37] She was otherwise in good health and she had children who needed her.  Jack was 14 and Millie 11.
Early on Saturday morning the hospital rang to say that a liver had been found and that the operation was going ahead. It was expected to take ten hours. Half way through the doctor rang to tell Mike it was going well.  Around 9pm the op was finished and the family saw her in recovery. The doctors seemed apprehensive and Kate returned to theatre. The family went home and when they returned in the morning they had the unenviable task of switching off the life support system.
Kate’s body had had a catastrophic reaction to the new liver, they said.  She had multiple organ failure, swelling of the brain, only machines keeping her going for the family to say goodbye.
It seemed incredibly unfair. Poor Mike who was fatherless at 18 had been widowed at 41!  He who knew only too well what it was like to lose a parent now had children in the same position. Many people had been praying for Kate’s recovery. Why was the outcome so bad? Michael is chair of the church council in a congregation of about 80. Where did “We know that all things work together for good,” fit into his life now?  Those who knew were afraid to ask. Then he told someone, “I am hanging on to it with every fibre of my being.” 
“All things work together for good for those who love the Lord,” is only the beginning of this famous passage from Romans. The end of the chapter is also  significant for Michael. “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth nor anything in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”
When I rang Michael and asked him if I could tell his story, he emailed me a piece that he had written for his church paper. This is what he says, “I have been asked about my faith and how I feel after what has happened. Here are my thoughts…
“It has been a rather surreal experience that we have been and continue to go through. Sometimes being able to have an open and honest conversation has been of assistance, not only to me but also for the kids.  I believe in a loving and caring God, not a vengeful one, who would not want what has happened. I believe that it is God who gives us the strength and support to get through a situation such as this one. This support comes from both within us and from those around us who share our faith. It is a very loving and caring community that we have and it is from this that we are able to draw our strength. Those who know me well, know that I lost my father at the age of 18 and I believe that the support I received then has helped me to grow in my faith and be able to cope better now.
I believe that we are all on a learning journey, and as we travel, God is there with us always, when we are in good spirits as well as when we are struggling.  It is this ability to draw on the strength of God that helps us to not only survive, but to grow on our journey, through the best and worst of times.  We are not individuals in this.  We cannot get through this life on our own. It is the fact that we can share our grief, our sorrow and ultimately the joint strength we receive through our God that makes us strong, both as a group and as individuals.
I feel for those friends of ours, not only mine and Kate’s but all of ours, who cannot draw on the strength of our faith in God because they cannot understand what we have through the love of our God. These are the people who question why God could let such things happen. I say to them that in my understanding, God is as “cut up” about this as we all are.  Through the love God has for us, we are able to not only be stronger but to show God’s love to the world, especially in situations like this.”
In the psalm we read earlier, one of the blessing is, “May you see your grandchildren.” This is one of the reasons why we believe that it is not God’s will that people die young. The Hebrew Scriptures see long life is seen as a blessing. Grandparents are a blessing, especially in these times when there is so much stress on parents.  Grandparents can model for children the unconditional love that God has for us all.
Jesus said, “I have come that you might have life, life in all its fullness.” I believe that God would have us all live our three score years and ten, or more, if that is what we are blessed with.  God doesn’t “takes people” in the sense of causing them to die, before this time.  It is not part of God’s love to leave children without a parent and it is harmful to a child’s faith to be told, “Dad or Mum has gone to be with Jesus” when the child desperately wants them to be with them.
These two verses, “We know that ALL things work together for good” and “Nothing can separate us from the love of God which is ours in Christ Jesus” are incredibly important anchors for our faith, especially when everything seems to be against our understanding of being blessed by God.
May they be the stronghold of your families. May you see your grandchildren and more important, may you live long enough for your grandchildren to spend rewarding time with you.
Pentecost 6A   20th July 2014

Genesis 28:10-19a
Psalm 139:1-12,23,24.
Romans 8:12-25
Matthew 13:24-30,36-43

The Gospel reading for today is appropriate for this time of the year when weeds are growing rapidly. Or is it? Jesus gave us something to think about when he said that to weed out the bad would cause damage to the good.  For those of us who have been brought up to believe that weeding is an honourable duty, an absolute necessity and that a weed free garden is a virtue, such a statement seems almost sacrilegious, if not insane.  Surely the sensible thing to do is to get rid of weeds as soon as possible. They rob the soil, smother the legitimate plants and harbor pests. 

Unfortunately, the dangers inherent in weeding were brought home to Judy when she grabbed a handful of weeds and pulled with enthusiasm, only to find that she had also pulled out a small bush. She had only made a special trip to a nursery a couple of days before to get some replacement Lechanultia plants and now she would have to go again. She had the Lechanultia flowering beautifully for many months. Then the man living at the back offered to spray her garden to get rid of the ivy which had invaded her place from next door.  He said the seeds from the weeds blew into his place. The ivy was growing through both of their fences. Judy was pleased to let him do this. It would save her weeks of work. Unfortunately some of the spray reached the leschenaultia and a couple of other small plants nearby and they died before the ivy, leaving Judy devastated.

Several times in the past, I have hoed off plants when weeding and as a young person and hoping to please my father, I dug out what I thought was a huge marshmallow weed, only to be told after I had finished, that it had been a prize hollyhock.

In spite of the damage we do, it goes against our grain to let the weeds flourish. Many of us actually get quite a sense of satisfaction from ripping them out.  It DOES look good when the weeds are all gone and everything is neat and in order!  There is no denying this. Only our Wise God knows the damage we can do to the other plants when we rip out those WE don’t want.   Someone helped me to see weeds in a different way when they said, “Weeds are valuable plants growing where WE don’t want them.”

Johnny, one of the football team had a very specialized job as a farmer. He was allocated just a few kilogrammes of seed by researchers who had sometimes spent many years and much money in developing new cultivars. Johnny’s job was to grow more seed to be passed on to others who were certified pasture seed producers. These in turn sold uncontaminated seed to farmers and graziers. Ed had been listening with enthusiasm as Johnny talked about the benefits of the plants which would come from this year’s seed as Ed was next down the chain in production. Great care was taken all along the supply chain to prevent contamination. Machinery was cleaned fanatically and it and the paddocks were inspected by government inspectors to ensure no unwanted seed or plants existed.

A few days after the tiny plants began emerging from the soil, that year, it was devastating to realize two different types of plants were growing, all mixed together. The experts from the Department of Agriculture were brought in. The scratched their heads but could come up with no solution. It took them a while to identify the rogue plants. Police began investigating how this sabotage could possibly have happened. Then chemists were brought in to see if they could recommend a weedicide to get rid of the unwanted plants.

They tried this on a small patch and it killed everything so that idea was discarded. It was decided to let the paddock grow on in the hope that in the end, something would be salvageable. As the weeks went by, the weeds were identified as chicory and with some relief, it was realized that chicory grows tall whereas the clover was low growing. They would be able to harvest the chicory first and then recover the clover seed. As luck would have it, chicory seed was in short supply world-wide and so it ended that they made more money from it then they did from the clover. The weed turned out to be more valuable than the plants.

It comes as a surprise to us to hear that we may do better with those we don’t want in our midst than we would do if we tried to get rid of them.  Those we regard as mere weeds in society may be important companion plants in God’s gracious judgement, as precious as wheat.  It is made quite clear in the story that we are not in the position to judge the insiders from the outsiders, those who belong and those who do not, those who have a worth and those who are worthless, a fact that we are reminded of in the story of Jacob. It is not good to assume we are the wheat and the others are the weeds. God may see it differently.

The reading which we heard from Genesis tells of a dream which Jacob had. It conveyed to him God’s blessing. It is a story I have loved since childhood. God piled blessings on him, reassuring Jacob of God’s care and protection. It warms our hearts to hear it. There is a Negro Spiritual “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder” that some of you may know and have enjoyed singing. 

It is easy to forget that this man, Jacob, was a conniving swindler.  By middle class standards of morality, we would be horrified to have him in our congregation.  So what was God doing blessing him? He was not even reformed by the blessing. Having previously cheated his brother of his birth right, he went on after to cheat his father in law, big time.

We say, sometimes offhandedly, “God moves in a mysterious way”, and surely one thing that is a complete mystery to us is the people God has chosen through the centuries to be leaders.  So many of them are ones we would have weeded out. At the very least we would have omitted some of their sordid details from scripture. We may think our Holy Bible could also do with some weeding of the not so holy parts.

We can read of Noah, the hero of the Ark, being naked and drunk, Abraham scheming and using Sarah to protect himself, Sarah nagging about Hagar, Moses and David murdering, Solomon’s  harem of a thousand women, Paul’s bigotry and the disciple’s cowardice. And this is not all of them by any means.  Evil deeds flourish in the Bible as well as good news.

What IS the good news in the Gospel here? Could it be that we are released from the task of “weeding out” that which is undesirable, the people who WE feel are the equivalent of weeds among us?  Would we be happy to be relieved of this job? We often complain that it has to be done but, I don’t know about you, but I really don’t mind a bit of weeding.  I get a sense of satisfaction from doing it. I am proud of the job I have done, when I am finished. It is some of my quota of exercise and if I don’t do it, I will need to find something else to replace it. I have used weeding to burn off energy when I have been angry.  This is probably why good plants have been damaged from my efforts.

Perhaps we can use such energy for all sorts of other things. If we were to direct it to doing positive good, encouraging fragile growth towards things of love, justice and compassion, then evil in life would not get much of a chance to grow, anyway.

Sometimes it feels a risk to let all things grow together, but then I am coming more and more to believe God likes risks.  Why else did God choose Noah, Abraham, Sarah Jacob, Moses David, etc. It seems as important for us to denounce such people and turn them away from our circles as it is for us to keep the weeds under control in our gardens.  How do you allow those whom you believe to be wrong to grow along side you and those whom you love? 

When my older son was fourteen, we were asked to take a fifteen year old boy who had been in trouble with the police, into our home. The request felt like we had been asked to transplant a weed into our crop. It took us so long to decide that by the time we said yes, they had found somewhere else for him.

Maybe the parable is mostly about concentrating on doing the will of God in our own lives, and building society around us, rather than concentrating on what others are doing or not doing. It could be about us growing to our full potential wherever we find ourselves. And about encouraging others to also grow to their full potential and not ourselves judging who is worthy and who is not.

The reading set for today from Romans speaks about the whole of creation groaning as it waits for redemption. If Paul and the people of his time were aware of the groaning of the earth, how much more should we be aware of it?  For centuries we have been guilty of mindlessly trying to rid ourselves of those who don’t fit our neat gardens, trying to alter things to suit ourselves.

We are just beginning to appreciate the benefits of diversity in bioculture and becoming aware of the dangers of monoculture. Today, in the Uniting Church around Australia, multiculturalism is being celebrated. May we, too, give thanks for diversity, enjoy being part of it and encourage others to be true to themselves as they grow around us. May God bless you all as Jacob was blessed by God’s words, “Know that I am with you and will keep you safe wherever you go.” In line with the parable, Christ has added to this, “Relax, and leave the weeding to me!”

PENTECOST 5A   13th July 2014
Genesis 25:19-34
Psalm 119:105-110
Romans 8:1-11
Matthew 13:1-9,18-23
As she sat down for tea one evening with her daughter’s family, Barbara’s younger granddaughter said to her father, mother and Barbara, “Guess what we worked out today!” When they said they couldn’t, she went on, “I’m Dad’s favourite. John is Mum’s favourite and Ebony is Nan’s favourite.” Barbara glanced around the table and everyone seemed pleased with this assessment of things. Later her daughter commented that it was good they all thought they were someone’s favourite.
Barbara certainly agreed with that. She have never felt she was anyone’s favourite. As the fourth child in a large family, the odds were stacked against all being favourites and she also felt she came about fourth on her husband’s list after his family, the farm and football. Nearly twenty years into their marriage he said he had realised that the Bible said a man should leave his father and mother and cling to his wife and that he had never done this. He promised to try to do so in the future.
Researchers found that almost all parents have favourites. When asked, they generally said this wasn’t so but when asked who the favourite was, neighbours and other family members consistently named one child. Perhaps this is at the core of all sibling rivalry. We would all like our parents’ attention and recognise the unfairness of one being more favoured.
The story of Esau and Jacob, more than just the part about who was favourite, is troubling in these days when we are encouraged to also look at Biblical stories from the point of view of the underling. Jacob is obviously the one who is more favoured by God, but many may identify more with Esau. Like him, Joan was less attractive than her sister who was frequently described as “a pretty little girl” while Joan was the “tomboy”. Like the descriptions of Esau and Jacob, these assessments were too simplistic. Nothing is ever that black and white.
In one set of the resources for today is an explanation of this kind of story- telling. It says, “Many of the great stories in Hebrew Scripture have these binary elements which contrast two people and usually label one good and the other bad. They establish the tension in the brothers’ relationship, beginning with the fact that they are non-identical twins. … Humans are prone to this form of thinking, comparing people in an either/or way. Vivid contrasts engage the audience… But acting on such rigid thinking can obscure real life and the range of possibilities between extreme opposites.”
Much evil comes from stressing the differences between people, especially as we usually link one with good and the other with bad, or one with right and the other with wrong or one with normal and the other with abnormal. It would seem to be better if we could appreciate the similarities between people rather than stressing their differences. But even in doing this we must also beware of the possibility of falling into the binary trap again with similarities being good and differences being a problem. It is possible for us to appreciate both. Or to realise that everything and everyone is on a continuum with parts of each. Similarities may bring us together, hence the expression, “We have these things in common”. They maybe a hindrance if what is similar is something we don’t like about ourselves. Differences can add richness to relationships unless we feel threatened by them.
The problems in binary thinking can be well illustrated in the Gospel reading set for today of the Sower and the ground the seed falls on. The question has been, “Which of the surfaces does your life represent?” The more likely scenario is that we are all of them at different times and in different ways. Most of us have some part that has been trampled to a hard surface like on the path and seed that falls on this area doesn’t stand a chance as it is snatched away. Sometimes and some of the seeds fall when we are experiencing a rocky patch in our lives. We may receive them with joy as a comfort and sign of life in a bleak patch but soon they die away. Some comes to us when we are too busy to see the wood for the trees or are ploughing through dense undergrowth and struggling to survive ourselves. And sometimes more by good luck than good management, some comes when we are able to receive and nurture it.
We are not either/or people.  We are more than that and because of this we may have difficulty with Bible stories which seem too simplistic or which we give too simplistic explanations for. Many of the interpretations we have heard over the years have been unjust and we may wonder why people have elevated one person to near sainthood while condemning the other which really does not seem to be God’s way.
Surely Jacob’s lack of hospitality in not offering his famished brother something to eat was at least as much a sin as Esau’s sale of his birthright? And Jacob was being manipulative in putting the birthright as a condition for giving a hungry person some of the available food. It seems probable that Jacob had always been jealous of Esau for being born first and had plotted for the first opportunity to get it from Esau. This story is a contrast to the way their grandfather Abraham behaved when three strangers came to his tent and he made them welcome by instructing Sarah to make a meal for them.
Another point in this is that consistently throughout Scripture, God has chosen other than the first born son to act for him and receive the honour. It is a human thing that makes such a fuss about this birthright.
It is perhaps interesting that while we tend to see so much of life in black and white or either/or terms, we tend to grade sins in degrees. It was done in the time of Esau and Jacob and it is still done today. White collar crime is not seen as nearly as bad as street crimes. The bad things done by more highly educated people are not judged as harshly as those done by poorer, less well educated people. We even have the term “criminal class” which certainly doesn’t refer to those who are better off.
And going back to Esau and Jacob, their descriptions match the stereotype images of working class and upper class. We would turn up our noses at a hairy man working as a chef and are unlikely to trust him as a professional person. We would pity someone like Jacob if he was forced to hard manual labour.  From the references to Esau’s skin colour we are reminded of the fact that a highly disproportionate number of coloured people are imprisoned in Australia, UK and USA. They are judged and punished more harshly for their wrong doings than are fair skinned people.
Both these stories challenge us to think more deeply about our understandings and not to just accept things at “face value.” Indeed this story of the two brothers, may even be the origin of that expression. If, like Isaac and Rebekah we find ourselves playing favourites, it is important to reflect on why we prefer one to the other or others and what are the implications for our relationships because of this. Rebekah’s favouritism of Jacob led her to encourage his deception of his father, her husband. Goodness knows what it did for her relationship, if she had one, with her other son!
We had an uncle who greeted us with, “How is my favourite niece today?” We knew he said it to each one of his nieces. That didn’t matter. It always brought a smile to our face. We would protest that it is not possible for us to like all people and that is true, but it is possible for us to like most people a little better and to at least treat then in a similar way. I believe cognitive therapy is about acting in certain preferred ways until they become part of how we behave. This would encourage us to act kindly to some we find difficult and in time it may no longer be difficult.
God who loves each one of us as if there were only one to love will help us. The Fruit of the Spirit within us, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control will assist us to not play favourites. Then the seeds of our relationships will flourish, and bear fruit, and the harvest of love and joy will be great.

PENTECOST 4A    6th July 2014
Genesis 24:34-38,42-49,56-67
Psalm 45:10-17 or Song of Solomon 2:8-13
Romans 7:15-25a
Matthew 11:16-19,25-30
Feeling frustrated is frustrating. It is an indication that our expectations have been thwarted. We cannot get where we want to go or do what we want to do.
Someone said, “Expectation is the mother of all frustration.” It is true that we become frustrated when we cannot achieve what we had hoped or expected to. Confucius said, “When it is obvious goals can’t be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the steps.” And with similar sentiment, Michael Jordan said, “If you are trying to achieve there will be road blocks. But obstacles don’t have to stop you. If you run into a wall don’t give up. Figure out how to climb over it or work around it.”
 I’m not sure that I agree completely with them. Realistically, there are times when we do need to reassess our aims and expectations, when circumstances or we have changed so much that we are never going to make it and our frustration may then lead to feelings of resentment, cynicism and helplessness.
With frustration we may lose hope. Behind frustration is fear associated with the anticipated loss of our vision. Depending on the circumstances and the depth of commitment to the goal, we may laugh or cry in response to the frustration. Other feelings such as anger and sorrow, uncertainty and confusion can be part of it. Frustration is an emotion and emotions are part of how we are and how we are created. Of themselves, feelings are neither good nor bad. It is how we respond to them that matters. They are signals to us that we have emotional involvement in what is happening. Emotional responses call for reflection, for questioning, “What is going on for me in this situation?” and “Why am I feeling like this or so strongly about this?” Then we are more able to find an appropriate response and course of action.
Both of the New Testament readings set for today begin with people speaking in a way that sounds as though they are frustrated. In the Gospel of Mathew, it was Jesus who ask, ‘But to what shall I compare this generation?” and in the reading from Romans, Paul said that he didn’t understand why he acted the way he did. He was frustrated with himself.
Jesus had been having a frustrating time as his followers failed to get what he was on about. Increasingly the disciples are shown as not having understood his message, not grasped his vision of God’s way of justice. They had started following him with enthusiasm but when he didn’t behave as they had hoped a messiah would, they seem to have lost interest. And, it wasn’t only the disciples it was the rest of the population including the civil and religious authorities who failed to recognise the presence of God in his actions. They were frustrated with him also.
Jesus was not behaving as they wanted. His question, “What is it that you are looking for?” showed he was feeling trapped in a “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” scenario with John the Baptiser and himself. In other words, he was asking them what their expectations were.  John had lived an austere life style and they disapproved of that and now they appeared to be complaining that Jesus went too far in the other direction, eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners. The last sentence in this paragraph has Jesus saying, “Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”
Remember that the Gospel of Matthew was written about fifty years after the death of Jesus and it was written for Jewish Christians who understood the concept of the Wisdom of God. Several decades earlier, in his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul had called Jesus, “The Wisdom of God”. We can never know for sure if the words in Matthew were the actual words of Jesus, that he was likening himself to the Wisdom of God. This may be the words of the gospel writer. It may be that the statement, “Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds” was a way of saying, “You will see in the end, that my actions were the right ones that infants will recognise this while those who think of themselves as wise and intelligent will not.”
Kay was driving home from the Church council meeting. She was frustrated with herself. “When will I ever learn not to interrupt others when they are speaking?” she asked. “I know it is rude. I know it is unfair not to let them have their say, but I get so excited about that the point I want to make that before I realise it, I have blurted it out over the top of someone else. But I am also frustrated with them when they don’t see what to me is an obvious point. Perhaps I should not attend meetings; perhaps it would be better if I resigned.”
Andrew had been trying to get into the A grade football team. He had not missed a training all year. He had assisted in the club rooms. He had gone for a run after work every night to increase his endurance and had the best possible diet but when a vacancy came up, it was Luke who got the spot. “I don’t know what else I can do. Perhaps I should try a different sport.” Peter had been overlooked again for promotion in spite of having upgraded his skills. It was disappointing as well. He had really thought he had a chance this time. “I don’t know what more I can “, he moaned.
Most of us will recognise the frustration expressed by Paul in the Romans reading. Small amounts of frustration are part of everyday life when we forget to get the coffee while we are at the shop or forget where we have put our glasses, or when a sister contradicts everything we say, or the same person is late for the meeting and we are left wondering whether to start or wait, yet again, for them; or a car pulls into the gap in front of us and slowing down to avoid hitting the car means we miss the lights.
We can even become frustrated with ourselves for feeling frustrated with others. The good that we would do in being patient and understanding of them, we are not doing. Instead, yet again, we are doing what we don’t want to do and making sarcastic remarks or giving them a cold shoulder or worse. Our frustration mounts up and up. We are disappointed with ourselves. This is not how a Christian should behave. Our expectation was that we would act kindly, be understanding and accept generously the differences in people. But …   in practise it is not so easy.
We may also feel frustrated that we are unable to live up to the expectations others have of us and we have of ourselves; “My mother-in- law makes comments about how untidy my house is. I would like to be a good, tidy mother but I sometimes don’t have the energy or time to do anything about it.”
Emotions, feelings, however you think about them, are part of how we are created in the image of God and so are good. Our culture labels some emotions as negative but they serve a purpose for us. They alert us to the need to reflect on why we are feeling this way. It is how we respond to them that shows ourselves and others how we are living God’s way. It is important for us to develop an awareness of how we are feeling and recognise how others may be feeling, so we can consider an appropriate response. It may be that righteous anger is an okay way to go if it leads to a reasonable outcome. Maybe the cause of our frustration is injustice that we can do something about.
Maybe it would be better if we adapted our expectations, our goals, our timelines, our strengths and weaknesses and our motives. Maybe we can be more encouraging in helping others reach their goals and so suffer less frustration. Maybe we expect too much of others and ourselves. Or maybe we can do it a bit differently.
And maybe it was to people that have loaded themselves with such expectations and have the expectations of others weighing them down, that Jesus was speaking when he said, “Come to me all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest.” It is an incredible invitation. So many people are weary. We are tired of war and tired of our politicians being nasty to each other and tired of rich people stealing from the poor and frustrated with new technology. When I was preparing this I Googled frustration and a web site showing frustration with computers, laptops and other IT equipment had had over nine million hits. It was a relief to know I am not alone in this predicament. There are so many expectations placed on people.
Jesus said his yoke was easy and his burden light and that in him we would find rest for our souls. Surely this is Good News with capital letters! Emotions can become a heavy burden and we can become so weary from carrying them that we are unable to work out how to get on with life. They weigh us down. But Paul reasoned it through and brings us the good news that we are not condemned to live weary and weighed down. He talked about his frustration and ended what he was saying by thanking God who rescued him from the dilemma in which he found himself. God living in him enabled him to know what God considered good, what is God’s law. This didn’t prevent him in his natural behaviour from still getting it wrong from time to time. But it did lessen the frustration he felt with himself. He went on to point out that God does not condemn us because the law of the Spirit of God in Christ Jesus gives us life.
Frustrations can stifle our relationships and the readings for today from Hebrew Scripture are about God’s loving care and the joy of good relationships. You may like to read them yourselves sometime.

There is just one other thing to ponder this week. We are made in the image of God and at various times Scripture implies that God feels love, joy, anger and jealousy. Does God become frustrated with us when God’s expectations and hopes for us are not realised? And how might God in Love respond to this frustration?

PENTECOST 3A    29th June 2014
Genesis 22:1-14
Psalm 13
Romans 6:12-23
Matthew 10:40-42
Welcome, welcome, welcome. In the first two verses of the reading from Matthew, we have six welcomes. It would seem that being made welcome was important to Jesus. So how do we go about welcoming Jesus? On the surface to be welcoming seems to be a simple thing but it is not always easy to get right. It can be exciting and daunting when we believe we may be entertaining angels unawares by being welcoming. But it can be threatening when who or what we are asked or expected to welcome is unknown or threatening to us. Or if we have been there all along, we may not realise there are people waiting to be made welcome.
Fran had moved into a flat next to the church and so it was the obvious place to go to worship. For three months she went every Sunday. The only person who spoke to her was Ann who she knew from elsewhere and who occasionally worshiped there. For weeks she had not been feeling welcome. It was like she was invisible to the others. She mentioned this to Ann. Then she began wondering if there were others who might not be feeling welcome. She wondered if it was time she approached them instead of waiting for someone else to welcome her. On the next Sunday over morning tea, she looked around and noticed there were several people sitting alone and soon she had gathered them into lively conversation. Still no one else spoke to them.
A few weeks later the church was having a consultation to determine its future mission. The person leading the consultation asked them how they would describe themselves as a congregation. Someone said, “We are a friendly, welcoming bunch” and there were nods and murmurs of agreement. Fran said nothing and Ann spoke up. “Fran,” she said, “Would you like to tell us of your experience in coming here?”
Somewhat embarrassed, Fran rose to her feet. She didn’t want people to think she was complaining, after all the cup of tea had always been welcome. But then she thought of the others she had noticed sitting alone against the wall while the room was filled with noisy chatter and so she spoke as Ann had suggested. There was a stunned silence as the people realised they were welcoming of people they knew and were friends with but had barely even noticed the others who came.
Getting this welcoming business right can be a bit tricky. At another congregation, Betty had been appointed the official greeter to welcome people to the service. She took this seriously and when people arrived, she wanted them to feel welcome so she provided them with the name-tags she kept for them. As soon as someone new arrived she swooped in to welcome them and provide them with a name tag. Sally, commented after she had attended the service when visiting her dad, that she felt she could not get in to worship unless she had been branded. Some months later, when she was visiting again, she intentionally walked in behind another group of people and slipped past Betty’s over- zealous arms. A minute later, Betty slid into the pew beside her, pen and label in hand, apologising as she did for missing Sally at the door.
Welcoming requires sensitivity on the part of the welcomer, that some aren’t overlooked while others are overwhelmed.
Welcoming isn’t just about people. It can be about welcoming thoughts which come to us. Sometimes we try to suppress them and it is like trying to hold a balloon under water. The moment we relax our guard, they pop back to the surface again. Sometimes we may be too enthusiastic in welcoming them and act on them in haste. Are we able to welcome questions about Jesus, the one who sent him and our faith as there are more questions than we have answers?
For many centuries the Church spoke only of the Christ of faith which emphasises the divinity of Jesus. Then in the nineteenth century, there began a quest for the historical Jesus to find out as much as possible about Jesus the man. When I was studying, we were told that the best scholarship put Mark’s Gospel as the oldest and that it was written about 50CE. More recent research says it was most likely written about 70CE, putting it further from the earthly life of Jesus and more influence by the faith of the people telling the stories. The other three Gospels are believed to have been written ten to thirty years later. When we do welcome Jesus into our lives, is the image we have as close as is possible to the historical Jesus or is it more about the Christ of faith developed since the resurrection?
Do new prefer to welcome the glorious figure of Christ enthroned with God in Heaven or are we more inclined to welcome what we can know of Jesus the man who walked the dusty roads of Galilee, preaching, teaching and healing? What does this say about the image we welcome of the one who sent Jesus? Can we welcome both with unbiased minds and allow them to be themselves in our life? Can we accept the gifts they bring or do they come loaded with our baggage?
Can we allow those we welcome to be themselves or do we want them to conform to our expectations. When we lived on the farm, we had many people to stay. Frequently the men would not shave for a few of the days they were there. They saw shaving as a chore and felt pleased to be able to relax and not do it every day. Most of the time I saw this as a complement but occasionally I felt a bit insulted as a voice inside me said, “Don’t we matter as much as your city friends?” and I was not welcoming of this behaviour.
Was Abraham expected to welcome God’s test, that he offer Isaac as a sacrifice? Did it take some time for him to agree to embrace this strange directive? It would seem from Abraham’s reply when Isaac asked him where the lamb was, that God would provide the lamb that he was not expecting to have to go through with killing Isaac. [v8] He didn’t say that God HAD provided the lamb, meaning Isaac. Does God test us in these ways or might this reading in itself be a test of how we see God? Might this be a welcome way of examining our reactions to the trials which come in life, not necessarily sent by God, but test our faith never-the-less?
Can we, like the writer of Psalm 13, welcome thoughts and feelings of desertion, grief and loneliness and acknowledge them before God? For more than a hundred years until recently, such thoughts and feeling were not made welcome and many people suffered because of this. The psalm follows a model used frequently in Hebrew Scripture in which the person gives a realistic picture of the agony and torment they are experiencing and then is able to see more clearly and remember God’s faithfulness. This week the radio was on. I wasn’t concentrating well until I heard a man say, “By expressing melancholy, we gain control of it and can then move on.” This seems to be another way of saying that when we accept it, we can then face acknowledging it and not let it get the better of us.
This is true of our societies. To become healthier, it is necessary for us all to welcome hearing of the pain and distress of others so we can help bear their burdens. If we are to give more than a cup of cold water to those in need, we need to welcome their cries as signs of injustice and not be blind or deaf to them.
Jesus spoke of welcoming prophets and they have been some of the most unwelcome people in society through the centuries. It is the role of prophets to point out to people how they have strayed from God’s way and to call them back into relationship with God. Most people who are comfortable where they are, simply do not want to hear that they are on the wrong path and ignore the prophets or try to discredit or destroy them. Do we welcome the news about climate change and what we need to do to halt it? Do we welcome news about how our government is treating the strangers who come to our shores looking for help. Are we willing to welcome more people to share our land? Do we welcome the news that the Muslim people of Bendigo wish to build a place where they can worship the God of Abraham?
As Jesus implies, welcoming has implications. Welcoming Jesus means you are also welcoming the one who sent Jesus. Welcoming prophets and righteous people will bring the appropriate reward. A favourite hymn these days is “I the Lord of sea and sky.” It is usually sung lustily, especially the chorus where the words say, “I will go Lord, if you need me. I will hold your people in my heart.” In other worlds, we are saying that we will welcome God’s people into the most intimate part of our lives and love them. But God’s people, perhaps surprisingly, can be prickly and hard to welcome, sometimes ungrateful for our efforts. Are we prepared to go on welcoming them into our homes and hearts?
Sometimes when we are unwelcoming of thoughts like doubts, they seem to multiple on our doorsteps to trip us up when we are least expecting it. Soon you will be welcoming a new minister. Have you ever noticed the clause in the induction service which asks the people of the congregation if they will welcome the minister into their home.
 God is welcoming of us into close relationship. Jesus welcomed sinners and drunkards. When we able to be welcoming to all who come, even with a glass of water, we will be truly rewarded, even if it may be in the most surprising ways.

Pentecost 2A   22nd June 2014
Genesis 21:8-21 or Jeremiah 20:7-13
Psalm 86:1-10,16,17
Romans 6:1b-11
Matthew 10:24-39
Many of us are struggling with the relatively recent phenomenon of young people living together before they are married. Some of these couples plan never to marry while others are waiting until they can “afford” to do so, often in lavish style. In the eighteen years I have been doing weddings, only one couple who came for marriage were not living together. Several couples had been together for more than ten years and when I asked them why they were marrying now, they said they wanted to have children and they believed they should be married to do this. But this didn’t worry others. Several couples had several and most had a couple of children.
It is so different from the way we were brought up when to have behaved like that would have been said to be ‘living in sin’ and so much effort was put into preventing young ones from engaging in sexual behaviour before marriage. There was much disgrace and shame in becoming pregnant “out of wedlock” and children born as a result of such liaisons generally had a terrible life as they, too, were shamed. Prevention was taken to the extreme causing young people to become devious and dishonest in attempts to be together.
A woman in her fifties from a European background said recently that she had never been alone with her partner until after they were married. Their courtship had all been done in the presence of a chaperone. Now her soon to be married daughter had been living with a man for three years. Was this an indication that we are living in a Godless society?
Another woman tells how when she was in her late teens and early twenties, she lived 800 kilometres from home to study. When she returned home on holidays she had a curfew of midnight and her father would hide in the rose bushes along the front fence to spy and try to catch her out “behaving inappropriately”. He could not see that he needed to trust her as most of the time she had to take responsibility for herself. She was disappointed that he always seemed to expect the worst of her and seemed constantly alert to could punish her. Not surprisingly, this was how the woman saw God whom we call Father. God had no faith in her and all that mattered was her sins.
There are sayings about the forbidden fruit tasting the sweetest and we know that when we tell someone that on no account are they to think about something it is almost impossible for them not to think about it. Many things deemed to be sinful including sex before marriage fall into this category. For many, the main reason to get married was to legally and safely engage in sexual behaviour and it almost became an obsession for some. Now, when it is no big deal, many are not more promiscuous and do take their relationships responsibly.
When did sin become so important to Christians? When did we think that all that mattered to God was whether we were pure according to certain moral standards? When did we get the impression that God only loved us when we were obedient to certain sets of laws?
From the beginning of the Hebrew Scripture, we are presented with the conflicting understandings of God. One understanding is of a distant, fearsome God who we must obey or suffer the consequent punishment. The other is an ever-present God of grace who wants the best for each person and encourages love and life. In Genesis 1, the story is of God as love though this story doesn’t use that word. It is a creation story where God saw everything as good and humans as very good. Then immediately following, is the story of Adam and Eve which sees God as demanding people toe the line and being punished for not doing this. Through much of our history, this has been the main creation story our children have been taught so that they knew the importance of being obedient. The fear of the Lord was put into many children so much so that they dreaded contact with God. From the beginning, there is a tension between the two theologies.
In his book, The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg names these two concepts of God as “Supernatural Theism” and “Panentheism”. Recently there have been several programmes on TV which have talked about these ideas. Supernatural Theism is largely the Roman style of Christianity. It is hierarchical, monarchical and has God out there, separated from the world. This God is seen as a person-like being who is law giver and judge and relationship is expressed in legal language with talk of our disobedience. This God puts requirements on us. We are told that if we believe, we will be saved.
This theology is reflected in the hierarchical format of the Church and in its laws and demands on people. It is controlling and often gives the impression that the further down the ladder you are, the further away from God and therefore the less blessed you are.
With Panentheism, God is Spirit encompassing everything that is, the entire cosmos. This is more like Celtic Christianity. It is God of Love in whom we live and move and have our being. In other words, God is right here with us and can never leave us or abandon us. We are invited into relationship with God and transformed by that relationship into more compassionate, more loving people. This God accepts that we do the wrong thing, make wrong choices and encourages not to be consumed by our failures.
When Jesus said he came to sinners, not the righteous, he was saying he came to those whom society considered the lowest and often beyond help. It was not because they did more bad things than those in better circumstances, but because they were treated unjustly and mercilessly. For the God we see in Jesus, social justice is the practical expression of love.
Occasionally, and in some parts of the Church, the emphasis has been on God as love, but most of the time the Church has stressed the image of a God of judgement, a ‘holy’ God who rejected ‘sinners’. The trouble is that through the years, both the word ‘holy’ and the word ‘sinner’ have changed their meanings to fit more with ideas of a judgemental God. In early Old Testament times, the word “holy” simple meant “other”. God was other than us so God was holy. Over the years it developed the “purity” overlay. And in Jesus time, sinners were poor people who could not comply with the Temple regulations because of their work or poverty.
When Jesus said he had come to save these people, it was likely that he was saving them from the burden of debt and shame placed on them by the civil and religious authorities. He didn’t have to save them from the wrath of God. God already loved them and understood the circumstances in their lives which were so difficult. Jesus stressed this in the words from Matthew 10:29-31 “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs on your head are all counted. So do not be afraid: you are of more value than many sparrows.”
 The first Bible reading set for today is about Abraham, Sarah and Hagar, Ishmael and Isaac. The action of Abraham sleeping with Hagar was not as big a problem as the fact that in doing so Abraham was indicating that he had lost faith in God who had promised him heirs through Sara. And in the reading we see Abraham again failing by not standing up for Hagar who he had used, and Ishmael his son.
Throughout our Scriptures, there is a tension between purity and justice and it is the overemphasis on purity that has put so much emphasis on sin and sinfulness within Christianity. Things that were not deemed to be sinful have been relabelled as part of the control of the Church over society. In a recent programme on SBS, they said that before the thirteenth century in England, ordinary folk could marry just by the couple agreeing to be married in front of a witness.
Then there was conflict between the Church and the aristocrats and in order to gain more control, the Church brought in the rules of marriage that survived till now. The Church was both able to make money and gain control by doing this and labelling it sinful to do otherwise. There was always money to be made in calling things sinful as people had to pay to have their sins forgiven and for masses to be said for the forgiveness of the souls of those who hadn’t paid enough in life.
Since the reformation, we haven’t made people pay with money for their sins but we have sometimes made them pay with their lives, so shaming them that they could not bear to go on living, or ostracising them from parts of society and condemning them to miserable lives.
I am ambivalent about the wisdom of cohabitation and I think we went through a phase when divorce was too easy, but…. I have heard so many stories of lives of absolute misery because people understood it was a sin to divorce or desert a marriage however abusive it was. When we hear such stories it seems that a trial marriage might not be such a bad thing.
Towards the end of his life, Paul told the Corinthians that they were dead to sin. We died to sin when we were baptised. And just as Christ was raised after his death, we too, have been raised to walk in new life. Our resurrection life is like that of Christ. We are no longer slaves to sin. We are free from sin. We have been freed from sin to live with Christ. The death Jesus died, he died to sin, once and for all and now the life he lives is to God. So we must consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Jesus Christ. [Romans 6:5-11] But do we or are we trapped into thinking of ourselves primarily as sinners and that this is all that matters to God?
We are already saved from sin. It is no longer an issue in our lives. We are not wretched sinners as the writer of the hymn “Amazing Grace” would have us believe. We are no longer slaves to the Law. We are free to live and move and have our being in God in relationship with God of love, justice and grace. We are free to consider for ourselves how our decisions will impact others and whether therefore we should behave one way or another. We have a more mature relationship with God who has faith in us to do what is good for everyone concerned. In doing so, we become less judgemental of others and ourselves.

Trinity Sunday   15th June 2014
Genesis 1:1-2:4a
Psalm 8
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Matthew 28:16-20
Through the centuries many wise and some not so wise, people have tried to define and explain what is meant when we say we worship one God who is three. In an early example of crowd sourcing, several hundred men were brought together in the fourth century, to collectively decide on a definition that would satisfy the Roman emperor. They came up with what we now say as “God in three persons.” But the word we interpret as “persons” had a different meaning back then so we are not much wiser.
Does it matter that we don’t have a simple explanation? There are many, many things we are in constant touch with that don’t have simple explanations and that we just accept for what they are. We don’t have to understand how our smart phones work to make good use of them. We don’t have to understand exactly what happened on Easter morning to know that Christ lives. So it may be foolish to try to understand the Trinity that we most often label Father, Son and Holy Spirit, since we have confusing statements such as John 4:24 which says that “God is Spirit”.
One of the fundamental arguments for the Trinitarian nature of God is at the very beginning of our Scripture in Genesis 1:26,27. We have the words, “Then God said, “Let US make humankind in OUR image, according to OUR likeness….. in the image of God [he] created them; male and female [he] created them.” We are reminded that in Hebrew Scripture, the Spirit of God and the Wisdom of God are feminine. It would seem that the Trinitarian God is totally masculine and totally feminine at the same time as this is what humanity as a whole is like. But do we see this part of the Triune nature of God?
For many hundreds of years, God has been portrayed as male. People often just use the pronoun “He” for God as in the once popular song, “He can turn the tide and calm the angry sea.” This is a strange habit since many of these people would have been taught that it is rude to refer to people by a pronoun. We had a teacher who, when we used pronouns in this way, would say, “He’s the cat’s father, she’s the cat’s mother,” so it seems to be an offensive way of referring to God.
Images have been used such as clover leaves where the three segments are likely to be identical, or of a person as a daughter, partner and mother, in an effort to understand to the mystery of the Trinity. Rather than trying to explain the unexplainable, let’s look at what it might mean for humanity to be made in the image of this mystery. We give the Trinity many different names such as Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, Father, Son and Holy Spirit and Gift-giver, life-bringer and lover-sharer or as someone said recently with a wry smile, Mother, Daughter and Spirit .
What is the image we have of humanity and how does it compare or contrast with the image we hold of the God in whose image humanity was created? Throughout history, in the hundred thousand years or so that there have been humans, in which billions of humans have been born, no two have ever been absolutely identical. Even the most identical of identical twins have their differences. What does this say about the creator God? We expect people to be like us, not too different. If they are of the same race, socio-economic background, even family, we expect to be similar and, of course we are in many ways, but not all, by any means. As a consequence, we may subconsciously think that God is like us and when people began to challenge this idea, many of us were horrified. When images of a black Christ and of a pregnant, female Christ were first shown they created great outrage. People protested that Jesus was a man. But the Christ of faith is quite different in many significant ways from the historical Jesus. His image began to be altered early in the history of the Church, according to how different people saw God.
So what does this mean for what we can learn about ourselves who were made in the image of this complex God? Might the diversity shown among people have something to say to us about the nature of a Triune God?
Two things I brought back from the UK were the expression, “There’s nought so queer as folk” and the number of people we would call eccentric. In Australia, I could only name one or two who had been labelled eccentric but they seemed to be all over the place in England. I was impressed by how tolerant others were of them. People used the expression, “There’s nought so queer as folk” when people behaved in a different manner or expressed a different opinion from what was expected and accepted as “usual” for that particular setting and from those particular folk.” It was not saying that the behaviour or idea was wrong, just that it was unexpected. There might be some eyebrows raised, but generally it was accepted with no argument or attempt to change the person. The people I was with seemed more tolerant of difference in people than we sometimes are.
One of the things said about the Trinitarian nature of God is that it models community and community is a coming together in the diversity of how we were created and who we are. There are many ways in which we are different such as height, body shape, hair and skin colour, tolerance, health, understanding and intelligence even within one race. We have complex differences in our personalities as we are along the continuum from extremely extrovert to extremely introvert. We have quite different food preferences. Maggie Beer said, “The world is divided into coriander lovers and coriander haters.” And of course, we have different tastes in music and the football teams we support.
It is interesting that in Gen 1 none of these things were mentioned. The wording is that people were created male and female in the likeness of God. It does not say they were created men and women. Nor does it say they were created either male or female.
From scientific studies, we are now aware that all men and women have both male and female hormones in varying amounts in their bodies. As a consequence of this and the culture into which we were born and socialised, we are all somewhere along a continuum from very masculine to extremely feminine. None of us is exclusively one or the other even when outward appearances would tell us otherwise. Recent research into why schizophrenia affects males more than females has surprisingly shown that testosterone, a male hormone, is converted into oestrogen in the brains of people of both genders whether they have this disease or not. This finding eliminated testosterone as a contributing factor to the disease.
The differences between male and female are not as great as the writers of books like “Men are from Mars and women from Venus” say and many people would wish for. They are not as great as differences between people of the same gender. Plenty of girls have been labelled “Tomboy” and winced when they heard their sisters being spoken of as “real girls”. Many boys are shamed when they would rather not take part in the rough and tumble that is often expected of them in preparation to be so called “real men”.  The differences between us lie elsewhere. I have always been uncomfortable when the tenderness of God has been used to indicate feminine qualities of God because the most tender person I ever knew was a man. Those who have not fitted neatly into one or other of our gender images have been shamed and otherwise given a hard time in our society. But in other communities, transgender people have been honoured and deemed to be wise. They have been the healers and shamans who have been seen to be more in touch with God.
Can the idea of being created in the image of a Triune God who is both male and female have anything to say to us about transgender and homosexual people who have always been part of humanity but who have often not been treated humanely?  A woman who had been an Anglican Church organist for seventy-five years, commented on this when we were discussing what was being said in the newspapers about the Uniting Church when the sexuality debate was raging. There had been some nasty things in the press and she said, “I don’t know what is wrong with you Uniting Church people. We have always had homosexual priests and no one made a fuss about it.”
Accepting such differences as part of the diversity of creation is not to accept abusive behaviour. Many mistakenly confuse homosexuality and transsexuality with abusive behaviour. Research shows that there are no more abuser in these groups than there are in the general population and since there are ten times as many heterosexual people, that means there are ten times the number of heterosexual abusers.
With all the publicity that the Royal Commission into Institutional Childhood Sexual Abuse has received we could be forgiven for having the wrong impression of who abusers are and somehow we need to work as a community to help the many more people who have been abused elsewhere not as children and more than just sexually. If each person has been created in the complex image of a complex God, they are precious to God and to be honoured by us in all the complexity of their being.
Of course there are many other ways in which we are different one from another. We can celebrate these differences and the benefits we gain as a whole from them or we can be like Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady when he asks, “Why can’t a woman be more like a man, why can’t she be more like me?”
There is wisdom and richness in diversity. Maybe the greatest gift to us in the image of God as Trinity is that it normalizes diversity for us. Humanity as a whole is made in the image of God. To imply that any one part of humanity is more God- like than any other part is failing God, others and ourselves. Life in all its fullness is about embracing and celebrating diversity of creation and especially among humans. When we can do this, we will truly be worshipping the mystery which is Triune God.

Pentecost A   8th June 2014
Acts 2:1-21 or Numbers 11:24-30
Psalm 104:24-34,35b
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13 or Acts 2:1-21
John 20:19-23 or John 7:37-39
Poor old Moses was having a hard time of it. Whether life was meant to be easy or not, his certainly wasn’t right now. The people he was supposed to be leading to a new and better life were hungry, thirsty, tired, and grieving for their old way of life, uncertain of what the future held. There is no doubt they were having a hard time and were in turn giving Moses an even more difficult time. It was not as if their life in Egypt had been a bed of roses where they had been slaves. There had been times when they had longed to be free but never in a million years had they thought that this was what freedom would be. They had become disillusioned.
It was not what Moses had signed up for either. The journey had been longer and harder than he had imagined and he was disheartened. Moses said to God, “I am not able to carry these people alone, for they are too heavy for me. If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once.” Numbers 11:14,15a. An amazing thing in this story is that when Moses told God how he was feeling, God immediately responded with help for him.
God instructed Moses to gather together seventy elders that God would empower through the Spirit to assist Moses in bearing the burden of the people. Moses must have been feeling a huge weight for God to enable seventy to help him. When the Spirit came to them they immediately began prophesying, that is, pointing out how the people had strayed from the Way of God and what they needed to do to return to this Way. This would have been a wonderful reassurance for Moses that God was with them and cared for them. When Jacob brought his family to Egypt to save their lives in a time of famine, he didn’t realise that they would end up as slaves of that country. But God in faithfulness was bringing them to freedom even though that was hard to see in the middle of a desert.
We have more choice of Scripture readings for today than we have on any other day of the year, though the reading from Acts 2 gets a guernsey twice. Is this, too, a sign of the generous care of God for us?
We have John’s version of the imparting of the Holy Spirit as well as that from Acts, two quite different stories. Which one are we to believe? John’s version where Jesus breathed o those gathered and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit” has been largely overlooked in favour of the more spectacular story from Acts with its great wind and flames and speaking in many languages. It is possible that it happened both ways.  We can only speculate about it. We can never know for sure.  A number of times when there are two or more versions of something in our Scripture, we have chosen to stress one and ignore the other and by doing so, we often miss what the second telling has for us. We may fail to hear God’s voice in the neglected story and that is a loss for us.
Something happened back there after the crucifixion of Jesus. If not, we wouldn’t be here for this service of worship today, but how important is it for us to know exactly what it was? It is more important to say we have the witness of two thousand years to assure us that the Holy Spirit is present in our lives, encouraging us to preach and teach, help and heal.
In the early years of Christianity, the leaders did not see that we would become slaves to the system we call Church. The institutional church is a far cry from the church envisioned at Pentecost. Ever since Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, lay people and to a lesser extent, clergy, have been slaves to the imperial power that we call Church. This Church is in many ways different from the church which was spoken of as the body of Christ in the New Testament.
Control has been maintained in the name of Orthodoxy. There has been a certainty to belief and forms of worship that provides a feeling of security in that people know their place in the scheme of things. People may not be allowed to think for themselves but there is some comfort in not having to take the responsibility of thinking for ourselves. For many hundred years, most people have known their position in society and accepted it as God given, either with pride or meekness.
In every generation, there have been people who have not accepted this, people who have understood this is not God’s Way. These were prophets without honour in their home churches. God desires for people to be free to live and grow as responsible, thinking beings. God will not let people live in slavery forever.
We may protest that the branch of the church to which we belong is more egalitarian than other parts but it has been a long way from allowing or encouraging lay people to be free in their relationships with God. We still give much more credit to clergy, especially male clergy even though they may be the ones keeping us imprisoned in the status quo.
Today is the Day of Pentecost when we celebrate that God poured out God’s Spirit on all people, sons and daughters young and old. We have been given three stories of this happening, one from Numbers, one from John and one from Acts. Common to these stories is that there is no mention in any of them of clergy or priests. It appears to have been ordinary lay people who received God’s Spirit, the people in the pews or even those outside of the church.
What is the significance of this for you today? I am coming to believe that the formation of the Uniting Church was like the Exodus, releasing people from the bondage of the old church to travel to the Promised Land that is sometimes called the Emerging Church. This idea is imbedded in the Uniting Church statement that we are a Pilgrim people. But the journey has not been what people were hoping for when we left our old homes. It has been longer and drier, with only occasional relief. People have become quarrelsome, wondering if things were not better before.
Perhaps there have been times when we have forgotten that it is God who is leading us on this journey. Over and over I have heard people complaining that they are hungry and thirsty for the old practices. Some that used to sustain them are no longer available and they long for the certainty they once had that particular hymns would be sung and communion would be celebrated as it always had been. It is not so much that many of us have moved but that the world has moved on round us.
As in what led to the story we have for this Pentecost Day from Numbers, many of our clergy are feeling like Moses, that the load is too heavy to carry. Countless times I have heard congregations say they expect their minister to revive the church to its glory days. We have times when we wonder why God called us to lead in such a situation. It has become too much to bear. We wish that it would somehow end. At the same time we fear it will end in premature death, along with the people we are supposed to be leading. We too, are failing. Almost in despair we cry out to God that the load is too heavy.
In the story from Numbers, God told Moses to get seventy elders to help him and then God’s Spirit came to these people. Did you notice that with the Spirit they began to speak. The same thing happened in Acts. When the Spirit came, the people began to speak in ways that enabled everyone present to understand the Good News of the love of God.
I have come to believe more and more that the future of the Way of God in our communities is to be in the hands of lay people gifted for this task by the Spirit of God. You have received gifts of faith, hope and love, wisdom, knowledge, teaching, healing, prophecy, speaking in different languages and interpreting such languages. Through-out our Scriptures, clergy have only played a supporting role. We gifted them with the main role when this may never have been God’s Way. For centuries it has been acceptable and even encouraged, that lay people take God’s love to people outside of the church as medical and educational missionary and interpreters of Scripture but we haven’t encouraged this in our own communities.
In the last few weeks, several people have said to me how they don’t get a chance within the church to tell the stories of their relationship with God. I have heard many older folk say that they believe faith is a private matter and while there is some merit to this idea, it means that younger people don’t get a chance to hear of God’s faithfulness through our generations and we don’t acknowledge things as the work of the Spirit as often as we could. Stories from two thousand years or more ago have some interest for us, but it is evidence that God is here with us today and that God’s Spirit is working in our lives that people hunger and thirst for.
In our Presbytery we have a pool of lay leaders God has equipped with the gifts of the Spirit listed in 1 Corinthians 12. There are many wise ones and those who speak with justice, mercy and healing. Some of the most valuable are those who care and encourage in local areas. They are gifted to speak a language their neighbours understand.
When I first read the story in Numbers and saw God telling Moses to get seventy helpers, I thought “It certainly must have been a heavy load if it requires seventy to help.” But then thoughts of the abundance of God’s provision and the readiness of God to help if only we remember to ask came to mind. Sometime later, it was the encouragement that would be provided to each individual to know there were many others, which seemed to be the important point.
What is the significance of the seventy in Numbers all prophesying? Why might this be the only mentioned Gift of the Spirit they received?
You, lay person In a remote area, or in a city congregation, who have not dared speak, be reassured by these stories, one from over three thousand years ago and the others from two thousand years ago, that you . The Spirit is stirring the hearts of many to speak in ways which others understand so more can reach the Promised Land of God’s Way and so have life in all its fullness.

Easter 7A   1st June 2014
Acts 1-14
Psalm 68:1-10,32-35
1 Peter 4:12-14,5:6-11
John 17:1-11
Recently there was a programme on SBS, “The Secrets of the Manor House.” In it they explained the hierarchy of Victorian and Edwardian England and how the wealthy aristocracy and industrialists lived such incredibly different lives from the poorest people in the country. They talked about how out of touch they were with what was going on around them and so how unprepared for the war that they got themselves into in 1914. They told how these people had power over the country through the House of Lords, even when the only people who could vote for members of the House of Commons were men who owned land. They held glorious week long house parties with opulent dinners and balls when many of their employees were starving and freezing. These people lived lives of power and glory.
These two things, power and glory, stand out from the readings for today. In Acts, Jesus told his followers they would receive power when the Holy Spirit came to them and many times Jesus used versions of the word ‘glory’ in his prayer in the John reading. What do these two words, “power” and “glory” mean to us when we use them in relation to the Church and to God? Do they have similar or different meanings for us from when they were used to describe the British aristocracy with whom many of our forefathers were familiar? In our Protestant tradition, we have added the words to the end of the prayer we call the “Lord’s Prayer” when we say, “For thine be the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever, Amen. They are not there in the Bible [Matthew 6:9-13] and are not said in the Catholic tradition. When and why did we add them? Was it when our position in life was understood to be appointed by God, when the oldest son in the aristocracy inherited the land, the second went into the military and the third son from the manor house automatically went into the church with a guaranteed income and parish for life?
Many of our hymns also feature these words. The Battle Hymn of the Republic must be in the top twenty all-time favourite hymns, with its chorus of “Glory, glory hallelujah Glory, glory hallelujah Glory, glory hallelujah, our God is marching on”. There is no doubt that there is something in its words and music and that of other militaristic, triumphalist hymns such as Onward Christian Soldiers, that stir one’s spirit and help one to feel powerful and part of something both grand and powerful. Many have thought that this is what the Church is about. These songs in and of themselves have been credited with bringing glory to God and power to the Church.  But is this really what was intended, what Jesus was praying for just prior to his execution in the words we have just heard? 
Early in Hebrew Scripture [Exodus 33:17f] ,the Lord said to Moses, “I will do the very thing that you have asked.” Moses said, “Show me your glory.” And God said, “I will make my goodness pass before you.” It would appear that God at least, saw glory as God’s goodness, and surely, if anyone knew about glory, it would be God. I wonder how the glory of God being God’s essential goodness sits with you. Is it something you have heard taught?
In the reading from Acts, we heard the only story we have of Jesus leaving earth. None of the Gospels has anything to say about this, though the book of Acts follows on from the Gospel of Luke. The method of Jesus’ leaving is similar to how Elijah was taken up, but somewhat less dramatic as it was a tornado that took Elijah [2Kings 2]. It may have been reminiscent of  the Transfiguration[Matthew 17, Mark 9] but if Luke knew that story, he didn’t include it in his Gospel. It is perhaps not surprising that the apostles just stood there, looking up towards heaven. One would expect that they were awe struck by what they had witnessed. But the words used to describe it are ordinary. There was no chariot of fire as there had been for Elijah. There were no trumpets, or signs of opulence, just two men in white robes who urged them to move on with their lives.
Life is constantly calling on us to move on from our losses, to move on away from those we thought we could never live without.  Jesus knew this would not be easy for them and before he left, he spoke encouragingly to them, assuring them that they would receive power when the Holy Spirit came to them.
John’s version of the imparting of the Holy Spirit, where he says Jesus breathed on his followers and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” on the night of the resurrection, seems kinder than Luke’s. In some ways it makes more sense to have given them the Spirit, who is also called the Comforter, before Jesus left than making them wait some days after.
Before all this, they asked Jesus a question. “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus replied that it was not for them to know when that time would be. Throughout the two thousand years that have elapsed since that day, people in one way or another have been asking that question. Many have presumed that they know the answer and have made predictions about the return of Jesus and the establishment of the Kingdom of God. Either God’s kingdom is nothing like what we expect or it has not yet happened. The treat or the promise of Christ’s coming has been used as a form of power over people through the centuries.
Any of you who have begun a journey with children will have experienced the, “Are we there yet?” phenomenon. It seems to be genetically programmed into us to want to get to the end of our travelling as soon as possible. We want to arrive. We long to be there, wherever there may be. In our minds, moving is only to get you from one place to another in the quickest possible time.  It is not generally about enjoying the adventures along the way. But if we are able to put the arrival on hold and engage with the journey, we can find it more satisfying.
People who keep wondering about when Jesus will return are a bit like children who continually want to arrive without going through the journey.
Jesus told his followers that they would receive power when the Holy Spirit came. What image springs to your mind associating God with power?  It could be the power of God’s love. But for many generations it has likely been military power, the power of armies and war and conquerors and ruling might. One doesn’t need to watch many programmes on TV to quickly know the power of Kings and it is generally not the power of love. A recent series on Queen Victoria was quite disillusioning. The term that we use for Jesus, “Lord”, comes from a Latin word meaning Commander in Chief, a military term. The Jewish people were looking for a Messiah who would be a military leader to save them from Roman occupation and rule. Guerrilla warfare had been waged for a couple of hundred years before the birth of Jesus.
In the British feudal tradition, lords had great power over the lives of many people [and still do]. In Ireland it was the lords who decided who starved during the potato famine. In Scotland, it was the lords using their power, who cleared the highlands of people to make more room for their livestock and hunting. Lords had power in parliament to veto bills of which they disapproved that came from the Commons. The lords had the power to command the army, leading people into needless wars for their own glory. This couldn’t be further from the power given by God’s Spirit which is to bring justice and mercy and for healing and helping, for building up the community.
Likewise, the glory of God has nothing to do with wealth, opulence, riches gained at the expense of others or the froth and bubble glory of celebrities, trophies and red carpets. The glory of God is in God’s essential goodness and love. It has more to do with humility than self-glorification. It is the power to do good, not harm. Jesus glorified God by demonstrating God’s goodness in the way he lived and behaved. When he asked God to glorify him, it is likely he was asking for the strength to keep going through the ordeal ahead of him.
The power and glory of God are vastly different from the power and glory of the world and it is easy for us to lose sight of this when we are surrounded and seduced by the propaganda of materialism and might. We Protestants have been accused of being head people who think too much about religious matters rather than feeling them and becoming wholeheartedly involved in glorifying God.
But sometimes we haven’t thought enough. We have accepted largely without question, what we have been told through the words of hymns and Biblical teaching.

We have been given power through the Holy Spirit to discern God’s glorious goodness and where we can carry that into the community to help bring the Way of God to fruition. Trust the disturbing thoughts and feelings of this power to lead you in glorifying God.

Easter 6A   25th May 2014
Acts 17:22-31
Psalm 66:8-20
1Peter 3:13-22
John 14:15-21 
There is an ad on TV where a small boy becomes separated from his mother in a shopping mall. He looks distressed and begins to cry. The caption reads, “If he is this upset at losing her for a few minutes, image what it would be like for him to lose her for life.”
Bill and Jean always looked forward to the Easter tennis tournaments. Rosy and Ivan came to stay and they played singles against each other and paired up for doubles and mixed doubles. As Bill and Jean lived 50 kms from the town where the tournament was held, it was a rush to get there each morning and a long way home. It had been particularly difficult when their two children were small, but now at eight and seven years of age, they largely took care of themselves during the day. They were happy with the other children in the playground adjacent to the courts, or down in the shallow creek that ran along the back and only came looking for their parents when they were hungry or thirsty.
Jean was recovering from a cold and she and Rosy had finished for the day by about 4pm, so they told the men they were heading home to have the evening meal ready for them when they arrived. Nearly three hours later, the men arrived home and they realised nobody had the children. They were just beginning to panic when the phone rang and a small voice said to Jean who had answered it, “Mummy, we can’t find you. Where are you?” The children had been playing and then realised that all was quiet. It was beginning to get dark and there was no one to be seen at the deserted courts.
They seemed to have handled the situation very sensibly, remembering that their grandparents were staying in the caravan park further up the hill. Fortunately their grandparents were there when they arrived and were able to keep them safe till their parents collected them.
That was forty years ago, but those two still from time to time say, “Remember when our parents forgot us?” or if they want them to feel really bad they may say accusingly, “You abandoned us.” And their parents do still feel a little guilty for their lack of care even though they know they are only human and humans do sometimes forget even people and things that are important to them.
If an incident that lasted under three hours can have such an impact on a life of nearly fifty years, is it any wonder that God goes to such lengths to assure us that we are never forgotten or abandoned by God even if we may think we are? The people of Israel felt that God had forgotten them but God’s reply in Isaiah 49:15,16 reminds us that even if a woman forgets the child she has given birth to, God will never forget us because God has carved us on the palm of God’s hand. We sometimes write reminders to ourselves on the backs of our hands. A nurse once told me that they wrote things they needed to remember on their palms because they could see them but others would not. Maybe God carved the people on the palm because they are more protected there. Some people have tattoos as permanent reminders of those they love.
The reading from Acts reminds us that in God we live and move and have our being. If this is so, it is impossible for God to abandon us. English poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning puts it this way,
 “Earth’s crammed with heaven and every common bush afire with God; but only those who see take off their shoes; the rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.” Seeing, in this sense, must be one of the greatest blessings a person can have. Blackberries are very tasty and inviting and it isn’t easy to see the bigger picture. In many ways, we are conditioned to focus on the blackberries rather than the bush. Our materialistic culture encourages us to see what is in this for us instead of seeing the fruit as a sign that the bush is aflame with God, that earth is crammed with heaven.
Blackberries would be of immediate advantage to us as pleasing food, but life is more than that. We have tended to look at creation, at nature for what it can give to us rather than at the broader picture of what it is and what it represents. We desire to feed ourselves for today rather than considering the long term benefits of humbly respecting the bush that produces them.
Sometimes we have behaved in a similar way with Jesus. We have seen him for what we can get from him in the forgiveness of our sins, and acceptability to a judgemental God, rather than looking at the broader context of God encouraging us to a new way of seeing and a new way of being. It is about us being in Christ and Christ being in us and us all being in God. This is a bit like baking a cake with the flour and sugar and eggs all being mixed, churned up together to make a new creation.
The writer of John said, in talking with his followers, that Jesus said, “I will ask the Father and he will give you another advocate.” Mary had always thought of the Father as being very strict and that the advocate was needed to plead for mercy with the Father, to speak on her behalf as she as a sinner, couldn’t speak for herself. Her image of God was that God was above and beyond anything she could imagine and so holy that he could have nothing to do with someone as bad, as impure, as she was. So the Advocate was to come between God and her to soften any blow God might want to give her. But as she heard this passage read, she wondered the battle was not with God but with things in her every-day life. What if the Advocate was to be there for her in the struggles she faced with the world and life in general?
She looked up the word advocate in the thesaurus and it said, “Supporter, encourager, helper, believer, backer and campaigner”.  She realised that these were all things that Jesus had been for people in his life. These were how Jesus brought healing, justice and life in all its fullness. But Jesus had not been advocating on the people’s behalf with God. Sometimes it is easy to forget God is Love and loves justice and mercy. The encouragement and support we need is in trusting this. Jesus had been advocating for the people with the civil and religious authorities and was now encouraging them to see that they would have this on-going support and encouragement.
It isn’t always easy to see that God is with us, that earth’s crammed with heaven and every common bush aflame with God. Some people are blessed with extraordinary events which help them to understand this. Some years ago, when Fred was still a student, he was taking the 9am service at a suburban church on Pentecost Day. It was a showery winter’s morning. The church building ran East-West and the eastern wall had blocks of coloured glass in the windows. As he was about to commence the sermon, the sun broke through the clouds and streamed through the glass. Suddenly it appeared as though tongues of fire were dancing about 20 cm above the heads of the people sitting there. It all seemed very gentle, like a blessing on these faithful people. There was no wind. Nor did any of the people say anything. From where they were, they couldn’t see it. But it was a life-changing moment for Fred, a thin moment when it is easy to believe earth is crammed with heaven.
But for others it is not easy. Many go through life without experiencing or recognising such a moment. For these, the encouragement, support, help of the Holy Spirit is needed in continuing to believe God is always there for us, that earth is crammed with heaven.
For many it is easier to believe life on earth is hell. Often it feels more as though we are going through a living hell. We cannot even imagine fiery bushes, it is such a struggle to get enough blackberries to sustain us physically. We wish we had enough energy and time to sit around enjoying the delights of life and to see God in creation. For many the worries and cares of life are crushing the life out of them. They are weighed down by grief, need and debts unaware of how the Spirit cares.
There is a question which is sometimes asked when people admit to struggling to find God. This question is probably well intended but it  inevitably adds to the burdens of the person of whom it is asked. The question is, “If God feels far away, guess who has moved?” The question is designed to defend God but it can blame us and cause us to feel guilty or ashamed. The truth is that there are times when God not only seems far away but seems to have disappeared altogether. The saints call this time “The Dark Night of the soul.” These are the times to trust God’s past faithfulness. We can almost despair, but Jesus urged his followers not to let their hearts be troubled when this happens. This isn’t easy but if we can overcome our fears, we will know the peace God offers.
These are times when all we can do is cling to the words of Jesus, “I will not leave you orphaned.” [John 14:18] and of Paul, “In God we live and move and have our being,” [Act 17:28] and other words like those of Paul writing to the Romans when he assured the people that nothing could separate them from the love of God” [Romans 8:39]
In recent times, thousands of people have been comforted in times when it felt as though God had abandoned them by the writing, “Footsteps” which says that in difficult times, God carries us and that is why there is only one set of footprints. The word, “repent” originally just meant “to turn” and when we turn we see things differently, we have a different point of view. We have been gifted with the presence of God in whom we live and move and have our being. Let’s take off our shoes in awe, humility and acknowledgement that earth is crammed with heaven, everywhere is holy ground, precious to God, for us to respect. We are never forgotten nor abandoned by God who is Love.

Easter 5A   18th May 2014
Acts 7:55-60
Psalm 31:1-5, 15,16
1Peter 2:2-10
John 14:1-14
Joan was a new teacher at the multicultural school and had been enjoying the challenge. But as the months passed, she found herself becoming frustrated.  She had gone to some trouble to set up groups where she could get to know her pupils better and they could come to know her and of her concerns and care for them. They seemed to like the idea and said they would be part of such groups but they didn’t come. In other ways, too, they would say one thing, do another and then lie about why they had not come. It was reasonably easy for Joan to know they were not being truthful and she expressed her frustration to another teacher, Linda, who had been there for many years.
Linda knew what Joan was talking about and explained. “It is the honour society.” She said. “These young people come from an honour and shame culture. It is easier for them to tell lies than to think they are shamed in some way. Their instinct seems to be to protect themselves, to save face, at all costs to avoid shame.
Joan had heard of shame cultures but knew little about them. Of course she knew the word shame, but had not thought much about it. As a child she had been told on several occasions, “You aught to be ashamed of yourself” when she had done something wrong.
Much of our Christian culture is based on guilt rather than shame and much of the Church’s culture is based on relieving guilt. But shame plays a much greater part in our societies than we may acknowledge.
Guilt says, “I recognise I have done something wrong, something bad.” Feelings of guilt are relieved by forgiveness, atonement and penance; God’s forgiveness and that of others and our-self. Shame says, “There is something fundamentally wrong with me or even, “I am bad”! If I wasn’t, I would not be in the position I now find myself.” Feelings of shame are not easily relieved or removed. Guilt tends to be peripheral. Shame goes to the core of things. The concept of original sin links into shame. It says we are fundamentally wrong. We have let the side down. We are failures! This is toxic shame which engenders hopelessness.
Psychiatrist, Judy Lewis Herman said “Shame is an acutely self-conscious state in which the self is ‘split’, imaging self in the eyes of others. By contrast, in guilt the self is unified.”
With shame, a person is diminished; their body tone lessens, their eyes and head are cast down and they may turn red with embarrassment. The shame response is instinctual, with people all round the world reacting in the same way. Babies as young as a few hours exhibit this reaction when their mothers fail to smile or a stranger frowns at them. Guilt is thought to be a learned response. Contempt for the shamed one or for one-self is the main response to experiencing shame and is frequently seen in children who have been abused. Guilt is more associated with blame. When we are shamed, we may try to hide, or at least hide who we think we are, from others. We may feel inadequate.
Toxic shame this is not all there is to shame. Like other feelings and emotions, shame is part of who we are as humans. We need some degree of shame to function within our families and societies. We are all probably aware of the scorn poured on some-one who behaves in a shameless way. Shame may be linked with modesty and humility.  
Like all feelings, shame is a reflex reaction to a situation. It is how we behave with the feeling, how we react to it that matters. We have a choice to take on board what others are saying or implying about us or rejecting it.
People may try to hide feelings of shame with a false sense of pride. In excessive pride, person is “puffed up,” pretending to be bigger than warranted. Or people may take on shame that is not warranted, because of the expressed opinion of someone else, such as when an adult tells a child that they will never amount to anything, or because of their social status or the guilt of someone close to them.
Societies often maintain control by one of three methods. Honour/shame based communities control by ostracising the one who is deemed to bring shame, the one who has ‘dis-honoured’. Fear based societies control by retribution and guilt based ones by punishment. All three methods overlap. In the reading from Acts, Stephen was stoned because the people feared the consequence of his message and because he was guilty of stepping outside the acceptable religious boundaries of some of his hearers. They were afraid of the implications of his new teaching. Stoning was a method of execution designed to shame the person. As such, people caught in adultery were stoned.
It is not surprising that the writer of Psalm 31 pleaded with God “Do not ever let me be put to shame.” It is humiliating and shameful to be shamed. God of Love doesn’t treat us like that. Bullies often do, or at least try, to shame others!
There are many victims of bullies in our families, communities, schools and workplaces who would plead for God to deliver and speedily rescue them and keep them safe from such treatment. It is painfully degrading to suffer in this way.
Listen to some other words from Psalm 31 and see if you can identify with them. “I am in distress; my eye wastes away from grief, my body and soul also. For my life is spent in sorrow and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my misery and my bones waste away. I am the scorn of all my adversaries, a horror to my neighbours an object of dread to my acquaintances” And so it goes on.
We expect that there are links between the readings set in the Lectionary for each week, but many times these are not immediately obvious. The gospel reading for this week is one that is frequently used at funerals for bringing comfort to the bereaved beginning as it does with Jesus saying, “Do not let your hearts be troubled”. It could be that this is another place in our Scripture where the message has been distorted by the insertion of chapters and verses which were not in the original manuscripts. They place artificial divisions in the story.  The last verse in chapter 13, and so in the verse immediately before our Gospel reading today Jesus said to Peter, “Very truly I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.”
Peter had been proud to think that he was willing to lay down his life for Jesus. So it is likely that his first response to the sound of the cock crowing was feelings of shame. He would have felt that he had let himself and Jesus down. He was not the person he thought himself to be. So maybe Jesus’ remark, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God and believe also in me,” were directed at comforting and reassuring Peter after the event. Perhaps the words which followed, “In my father’s house there are many dwelling places,” were the reassuring words that the writer of the Psalm and others who knew shame, wished to hear. Could they be the words of comfort and reassurance the Psalmist was longing for when he pleaded to be hidden in God’s fortress, a place of safety for this life rather than for after death.
The words attributed to Jesus, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life,” have been used to claim exclusivity of access to God for Christians and in this way have been used to shame non-believers. It is possible that these are meant for those to whom Jesus was talking at that time rather than for the whole of humanity for all time. Jesus could have been saying to his followers, “I am your best bet for seeing God.” Many find it hard to believe they were ever intended to condemn the millions who have died never having heard of Jesus, nor the ones who having heard, have difficulty in believing. God is infinitely merciful and it is not for us to make judgements and shame people in the way these words have been used.
Jesus pointed out that he lived in God and God lived in him and this enabled God to work through him. Jesus offered his followers the hope that they could do similar things to what Jesus had done and in the future to do even more.
This seems to have been slow in coming. But over the last one to two hundred years, the rate of progress in healing, helping and feeding people has been remarkable. We still have a long way to go in many areas of social justice that Jesus attacked and we need to be vigilant that we don’t lose gains we have made for equality and freedom and the bringing of life in all its fullness to all.
The last two verses in the Gospel reading could be a complete sermon in themselves. “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” [John 14:13,14] They would have been a comfort to the writer of the Psalm when he pleaded with God not to let him be put to shame
The writer of the epistle set for today was reassuring all who had known the shame of rejection. He was encouraging and inviting them to come to find out for themselves that God is good and welcoming. He was reminding those to whom he was writing that they were precious in God’s sight. In fact he repeats that they are precious several times! Surely this is one of the best things a person who has been shamed can hear, that they are precious in God’s sight.
Perhaps for a while, we could change from assuring people that their sins are forgiven and encourage people to know that they are made in the image of God, that God does not shame us, that we are so precious to God that God loves each one of us as though there is only one to love.
Don’t let your hearts be troubled and don’t let them be afraid. God has plenty of room for us all!

Easter 4A   11th May 2014
Acts 2:42-47
Psalm 23
1 Peter 2:19-25
John 10:1-10
Our initial assessment of others influences whether we want to get to know them. It depends on whether we like or dislike what we see. A wise person once said that if we don’t like someone we should try to get to know them better even though we may not want to. Knowing them better helps us to understand them and their behaviour. We may find there is more to the person than what we dislike. Or we may find that what we dislike in them is a reflection of something we dislike in ourselves or of something we wish we were but haven’t achieved.
We would like to think that people will get to know us before they decide whether they like us or not. It can be disappointing when people make judgements about us without really knowing us.
The way we see people affects our relationship with them and is influenced by our relationship with them. Any one person can be seen in many different ways. A woman may be a daughter, partner, sister, mother, grandmother, aunt, neighbour, employer or employee, and friend. She can be seen as loving, gentle, kind, generous, hard, mean, careful, astute, tyrannical etc. She can be a sportswoman, a good cook, a great mother, a handy needlewoman, a musician, an encouraging partner, a supportive friend, a loyal worker and much more.
Even when the woman we are thinking about is our mother, the way we see her will vary as we grow and mature. Our perceptions must vary for the relationship to remain dynamic. We would be upset to think others still saw us as we were when we were children. It is necessary for Joan to see her mother, approaching her hundredth birthday differently now. We would think it silly if she still saw her mum as she did when she was a teen-ager. It is expected that she would see her as more frail and in need of support than she was as an active ninety- year-old. Joan sees her mum differently from how she saw her just five years ago when her mother was still able to drive and get out to community events and for shopping.
If we can see a person in multiple ways, how much greater is our possible vision of God? In Hosea 5:4, God lamented that the people do not know God. There are many times in Hebrew Scripture when God has done things to help people know God better. Jesus said when we had seen him we had seen God [John 14:9]. Brother Pinto said that if the way we see God now is the same as we saw God five years ago, then we are worshipping an idol. In dynamic relationships, the way we see the other is always growing and changing.
The way we see God influences the way we see ourselves and others. The way we see ourselves and others influences the way we see God. The way we think God sees us influences our response to God and our behaviour towards ourselves and others.
Two of the readings set for today are about the way we see God and therefore the way we may see ourselves and others. The writer of the Psalm said, “The Lord is my shepherd”. This is probably the best known psalm in our culture. In John 10:7,  Jesus said, “I am the gate for the sheep.” The other two readings show how we act as a result of how we see God.
The image of God as shepherd has been romanticised more and more as folk have become urbanised. Any illustrations we see, such as in stained glass windows or on bereavement cards are unrealistic. Being a shepherd in the Jewish culture meant you were classified as a sinner. You were unable to attend Temple worship without ritual cleansing because being a shepherd was dirty work. Shepherds were in the lowest socio-economic grouping. Those who read or heard this psalm when it was first written, would have known these things.
Most people who love this Psalm have never seen a shepherd or handled sheep. It is probably popular because of what is offered to the reader or hearer in the rest of the words. It says that the writer believes God will look after him and provide for him generously. The writer sees God as offering rest, relaxation and restoration, protection, comfort, support and esteem, reassurance, hope and contentment.
It is interesting that the writer linked this extensive list with the care a shepherd offers the sheep. We get words like “pastor” and “pastoral care” from this image. It is good to be taken care of when we need care. It is not so good if we rely on such care when we could be taking care of ourselves and others.
We could equally see the things listed as being offered by a Mother to her children, or by anyone who cares. It is what the image represents that is more important than the image itself.
As with the image of shepherd, it is important we examine what any given image of God implies about God, us and others.
We are also familiar with Jesus saying, “I am the good shepherd.” a statement which for those familiar with the twenty third Psalm would have been seen as a claim to be God, or at least, one with God. It does not shock us who have heard little but the divinity of Jesus. It fits well with the rest of John’s Gospel which was the last written and in which Jesus is most divine.
We are less familiar with the statement four verses earlier, “I am the gate for the sheep.” What are we to make of the sentence following, “All who came before me are thieves and bandits”? We know not all of them were as there were some reputable prophets.
Altogether this is a confusing passage. Does the gate decide who is in and who is kept out? That is the work of the gatekeeper. But Jesus didn’t say he was the gatekeeper. The gate keeper only lets in the shepherd. Thieves mightn’t come in by the gate but, they get in any way. 
The term, “Gate Keeper” has become derogatory for one who assumes the responsibility of deciding who is allowed to belong and who must be kept out. It is unfortunate that many organisations, including churches, have gatekeepers, not necessarily modelled on Jesus. It is often a self-imposed role and it can make it very difficult for new people to join the group or congregation, or for some to get access to certain people or positions. Is this why when we sing “Jesus the Lord said, “I am the bread,” or “I am the light,” we don’t sing, “Jesus the Lord said, ’I am the gate?”
The songwriter has changed the image by using the word “door” and linking it with the poor, implying that the fold is a haven for the poor. This is a good image for us to contemplate, but slightly different from the intentions in the Gospel of John. For centuries we have used images such as this one and the one later in John [14:6] “I am the Way”, to claim exclusivity and exclude others from any possible relationship with God.
The images we have or God influence our behaviour, our understanding of ourselves, how we think and feel about others. It is a beneficial spiritual exercise to explore images for God, how we use them and the impact they have on us and others.
After Jesus’ resurrection, his followers saw him differently. In the reading from Acts 2 which is set for today we are told of the response of the people to the signs and wonders being done by the apostles. “They sold possessions and goods and distributed the proceeds to any in need. Daily they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all people.” When they did this, they were expecting that they world was going to end in that generation, that Jesus was going to return and take them to heaven.
Over the centuries many people have attempted to follow Jesus in this way of sharing their possessions. These are high ideals but most times these communities have only lasted for a few years. Many developed into cults that, like those after the resurrection, expected the return of Jesus to be about to happen.
Living in community is how they saw themselves as followers of Christ. Others who felt called to follow Jesus of Nazareth were more inclined to a simple life, not necessarily in community, taking the slogan, “Live  simply that others may simply live.”
The image of “The Lord is my shepherd” may imply we are sheep to be led and fed and kept safely in a shed. But life in all its fullness that Jesus spoke about is more than that. When Jesus said, “I am the Gate’, He wasn’t implying that we live in a gated community, safe and secure from the poor of the world.
Images of God are not statements that this is all God is. God is so much more than we can ever imagine. On this Mother’s Day, you may like to reflect on the Wisdom of God and the Spirit of God which in Hebrew Scripture are always feminine. In Isaiah 54:5 is the image of God being a husband to widows and deserted women. In Hosea God is likened to a mother.
We are invited to ponder how we see God and how that impacts on the way we live and behave towards God, others and ourselves.

Easter 2Aa   27th April 2014
Acts 2:14a, 22-32
Psalm 16
1 Peter 1:3-9
John 20:19-31
I have never quite known what to do with a side salad. I like salads and I prefer to eat meat and salads together, simultaneously. When salads are presented in a separate bowl, can one tip the salad on to the meat plate, is one supposed to eat the meat first and then the salad or is it etiquette to take some meat from the plate and some salad from the bowl before putting it in one’s mouth?    
I once asked a restaurant owner for advice on this. She said you could do what felt right for you but I really didn’t trust that she knew as she is my youngest sister and we all know how hard it is to give our younger siblings credit for knowing more about something than we do!
There are almost as many ways of eating food as there are people. We have our own likes and dislikes. Some only eat raw, organically grown, vegetarian food. Some love casseroles and stews and get comfort from them. Some would only eat them if they were starving and nothing else was available. Some are only able to eat food which has been pulverised and presented in a semi liquid form. Some like food sweet, others savoury, some bland, others spicy. Many of us are now eating food that we didn’t know existed when we were younger. When I was working as an industrial chaplain I visited the staff of an Aged Care Facility about the time they were feeding the residents. For many, the food was blitzed so it was impossible to tell what it was by looking at it. It was put on to the plate with an ice-cream scoop so that there would be four or five domes of murky coloured food. Often the carer would then mix it all together before giving it to the person so that the taste would also be unrecognisable. Although the food was given like this to make it easier to swallow and digest, I thought this method of feeding almost amounted to elder abuse.
There are constant campaigns to encourage us to eat healthier. Sometimes they promote certain foods. A few years ago, it was the food pyramid. Now it is five vegetables and two pieces of fruit a day. It is more likely they will be encouraging us to avoid certain things or too much of those things. Then there are the many diets we are advised to follow which will bring astounding results. And then there are fast and convenience foods with which we can nourish our bodies, or not.
Our society has in many ways, become obsessed with food for our bodies. At the same time, we have become less interested in food for our souls and spirits. Very few seem to care that many are morbidly obese spiritually from binging on materialism. Or are anorexic, starving for the knowledge that they matter to a higher power. Or have their arteries clogged with the latest junk media. One of the ideas of previous generations was that the sermon should provide spiritual food. People would say things like, “You have given us something to chew on or chew over,” or “I like enough in the sermon to keep me fed till next Sunday.”
There is no doubt that the words of Scripture are food for thought, but it may be cooked in different ways which will alter its nutrition. What are we being fed and how is it being presented to us? Do we get to try all parts of the great smorgasbord or are we meat and three veg people; do we prefer what our mother church gave us to trying something new? Paul complained about those who still wanted to be fed milk when they should have matured to meat.
Many times we have not been given options for different spiritual food. Probably every person here is familiar with the version of Jesus’s resurrection and subsequent happenings. You all know about Jesus appearing to the disciples in the locked room and how Thomas has been condemned for doubting the story that the others told him. But have you ever chewed this over, looked for the differences which make this story unique and asked why so many have been led to prefer Luke’s recipe?
Why has the Church forever made such a feast of the story which says that Jesus was taken up to heaven where he remains and that forty days later, in a spectacular event, that we call Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came to the disciples? This story says that when the time is right, Christ will come again in a great blaze of glory, completely different from how it was for his first coming.
Why have we been starved of the Good News in John’s story, that Jesus rose, went to the Father, returned to the earth and himself gifted the Holy Spirit to his followers? This unspectacular story has been left, largely untouched, on the table, perhaps because of the implications for us of Christ actually being here, with us. Are we capable of digesting the idea that Christ might be the starving child or the refugee, or the crippled, old man or as I heard on the radio recently, the obese young woman?
In Luke’s grand version, Christ is in Heaven distant from us and is still to come again. In John’s version, Christ is here with us, consistent with the words at the end of Matthew’s Gospel [Mat 28:20] where Jesus told them, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
To be honest, I came to a point where I had had a gut full of the rich food that is presented as God in some glorious heaven, apart from us. It was stuffing my ego. It is a kind of aspirational theology. Some of the illustrations of have seen of people imagining heaven have made me feel sick. Grand palaces, thrones, gold and gemstones sound more like hell than heaven to me. I would prefer trees or a rose and some violets.
The way we think of God influences the way we think of ourselves and others and the way we think of ourselves and others influences the way we think of God. In other words, the stories and images with which we have been fed and the ones we have chosen to taste for ourselves, determine how spiritually healthy we are. Have we had a balanced diet of both the Transcendent and Immanent God, the Christ in Heaven and the Jesus of Nazareth? The answer is often “NO.”
Denominations which have descended from the Roman Church have had a much greater emphasis on the triumphalist images of King and thrones and riches in glory. This is not surprising when it comes from the culture of the Roman Empire with its image of Caesar as Lord being supplanted by Jesus is Lord when Christianity became the state religion. This was continued when the Church of England had the ruling monarch as head of the Church. Even though Methodism did away with many of the trappings of the monarchy image, such as ornate buildings and ecclesial garb, it retained the use of images consistent with this way of seeing God. In effect it removed the spices and served a blander version of the same food for much of the time.
The buildings where early Protestants worshipped, often called chapels, were simple. But over time they became grander, reverting back to more closely resemble traditional church buildings. The furniture they contain reflects the hierarchical nature of the Transcendent image of God, as is shown in the throne like nature of the minister’s chair and the slightly less ornate elder’s chairs compared with the pews of the laity.
What really happened on the day of the resurrection? We will never know, but what John tells us is that Jesus told Mary not to touch him as he had not yet ascended to the Father. In the evening he showed himself to the disciples and breathed on them and said “Received the Holy Spirit.” It probably was a momentous occasion for them. The issue of touching or not touching isn’t mentioned for that night, but a week later, he had no problems in being touched.  Thomas was not there and not surprisingly, had trouble believing what the others told him. A week later, Jesus came to Thomas and offered his body to be touched as proof of who he was. So we know for sure that by that day he had ascended to the Father and returned to earth whatever this means.
We don’t know whether this all literally happened as the writer of John said, or as the writer of Luke/Acts said, or in some other way, or even if it never really happened. What matters is which story feeds your soul and why? Do you prefer feasting on the idea of the humility of Christ with us, of God here present or is the idea of Jesus seated at the right hand of God in heaven more to your taste and why? Have you dared try the other, more basic, down to earth one?
A few weeks ago we had the people of Israel asking Moses in the desert, “Is God among us or not?” Today we still have this question. Whether God in Christ is here or there or in both places is not as important as the way we behave when we only think about him being there and expect that one day he will come again in great glory. It could be said to be the spiritual equivalent to living on desserts. For fifteen hundred years, the church has eaten mainly cake and we are surprised that the church is