Here is my sermon I preached on Sunday, just before the New Year and New Decade. New challenges for us all!
The reading used was –
Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.”Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”
I had a sermon prepared for today, I thought quite a good one, and then I went to the movies on Friday night. I came home and wrote this one instead.
The movie was called Jo Jo Rabbit, a satire on Germany during world war two, told through the eyes of a 10 year old German boy, who wanted to be a Nazi. It was uncomfortable in parts, because it uses humour to show the complete ridiculousness of the war, of Hitler, of the propaganda about the Jews, and the horror of brainwashing young minds in order to control a population. Us and them is the name of the game, but in the end no one wins, least of all the average person.
The movie ends up being an extremely powerful statement about how history can repeat itself or not, how the influence of those around us can change how we see and understand things, and how the sacrifices of some allow others to live. Jo Jo Rabbit, the main character has a mother who is working for the resistance, and is hiding a Jewish girl, while Jo Jo is in the Nazi youth. He comes to understand through meeting the girl that things are not quite as they seem, and power corrupts. In the end, and I don’t want to spoil it, it is a tale of hope.
Today is almost New Year’s Eve, a time when we are beginning to think about 2020. Christmas is over, both the secular festival and the celebration of Jesus birth. It is a time when real reflection can occur. What is this new day, this new way of living Jesus is announcing. It is time to focus on the repercussions of his birth and life, not just its joy, for us and the world.
To do this it seems that stories help, stories that give us a sense, of where we have been, what is the current reality, and what is the future. I saw Nev the other day and he gave me a draft of his ultimate sermon. Now he has written a number of penultimate sermons but this is the first time that it may be his last. He gave it to me to read, which I took as an honour.
It is vintage Nev, and in the end he summarises the Christian faith in a way I think he has been talking about for some time. I don’t think he will mind me referring to it as it fits beautifully in a sermon given close to the new year.
It’s about past present and future, being one reality, based on a quote he loves from Albert Einstein. While Einstein was talking about physics, Nev applies it to the Christian faith. The distinction between them is just an illusion for Nev, for we are influenced by the past, live in the present and are being pulled or pushed into the future by a God who is leading us forward in hope.
In the movie, past, present and future are to be found. The past, the history of the German people, the history of the Jewish people, the remnants of the previous world war have all conspired to produce a hidden animosity, which is preyed apon and exaggerated until it becomes deadly. Jews with horns, Jew’s who conspire with the devil is the food that JoJo feeds on.
Then the reality of the current time hits. He befriends the hidden girl and his views become changed. He sees the sacrifice of his mother and others to protect them both. People who give their lives so that others may live. He finds out that the reality sometimes doesn’t match the rhetoric. And then there is the future, as Jo Jo survives the war, with a new vision of what it is to be a human being, influenced by all that has gone before. Hope rises from the ashes of the death and destruction.
A very powerful movie. As some movies are.
Today we have a very powerful scripture reading. Matthew is the only gospel to recount this story, and we hear the awful slaughter of the innocents as a sudden pause in our Christmas reverie. The writer of Matthew uses the story of Moses and other Old Testament prophesises to place Jesus within the history of Israel, the past, but also to show what the future may be like to people who question the system and those with power. What challenging it really means. We hear the cries of Rachel as the cries of the mothers in Jesus time. The current reality for those living then. But as the reading ends, we have Jesus and his family return to Nazareth, to begin the life we know, the life from which our hope in God arises.
Again Past, present and future, in one reading. A very powerful reading.
So today we have a scripture reading and a secular film, I love that, the sacred and the secular bringing a hidden truth to us.
So what to do with it. Well I would like us to examine our own lives, and that by focussing on our past, present and future, our faith and God’s call may become more real.
So let’s begin with the past, and for us as individuals it has a lot to do with our memories, full of joys, experiences and sometimes regrets. And it’s the regrets that are the most harmful.
The past holds many ghosts that can ultimately influence the rest of our lives if we are not careful. Regret for things done and not done, said and unsaid, and pride which prevents us accepting our faults, can break a spirit and destroy the love for ourselves and for others that makes us whole. This is why forgiveness is so central to the gospel and to Jesus ministry. Because without forgiveness the past keeps repeating itself until the flicker of renewal is diminished.
It has taken me a while to realise the link between the God we worship, who sometimes can feel a bit distant and the forgiveness we feel as part of the human race. For me God is the creative spirit that drives all of life, found within all of life, and in acts of forgiveness this spirit is truly reflected. Forgiveness for us, for others, and for communities is the essence of God. Forgiveness allows healing, it allows for a new start, it allows people to suddenly belong on the same team, to see each other as brothers and sisters instead of enemies. It allows relationships to develop and redevelop and the oppressive burden of guilt to flow away. We forgive not merely to fulfil some higher law of morality, we do it for ourselves. Quite often the only person to benefit from the forgiveness is the person doing the forgiving.
There is no greater sign of the creator God than the renewal that comes from forgiveness.
So as we approach the coming new year, it is essential for us all to allow Gods spirit to reach into our hearts, and through forgiveness, into our actions. Think of something we have held onto that we regret and yet keep revisiting, or something someone else had done which we find difficult to let go of. Let us close our eyes and see that event or action as a distinct entity, place it in a box and push it to one side. And when we leave church today, let us leave the box behind. Just one thing, because from small things, great things grow.
What about the present. The here and now. We, as followers of Jesus also have to focus on what we can and must do today to affect the lives of others, to better the lives of others.
The Christmas stories we have heard this past week confirm what we know of this Jesus, the man, the human one. He came for the poor, the dispossessed and the marginalised. Those are the ones who could see the light. Jesus’ life focussed on seeking justice and equity and compassion for all. Love was and is the key. He was not greeted by kings or the religious elite for they held the power. And when you threaten the people with power, there are consequences and they are bad. We heard it in the reading from Matthew and I saw it in the film I mentioned.
So the story of Jesus as a light that shines the love of God into the world for everyone, but particularly the poor and marginalised, continues long after Christmas.
And it’s challenging!
Yet even in our time people have taken up the challenge.
Like those who work for social justice and the rights of those poor and disposed and homeless in our society, people like my friend Dr Lisa Wood who spoke at our December forum last week, those calling for action on climate change here and around the world, including ordinary firefighters and children, and who sacrifice much to do it. Like our man Nev, who has been a peace activist, and agitator his whole life and still is at 90. Like the countless others who dance or have danced to a different tune in our world.
Yet I can already hear you saying, I can’t be those people, I can’t be Lisa, or Nev, I can’t be Jesus. Because I often say it to myself. But the reality is, you and I can make a difference. We can make choices about how we live in our time and place. And make a difference.
And we can start small, because from small things big things grow.
So I would like you to close your eyes again, think of something that you may be able to do or help with, or volunteer for in the new year, that will reflect your faith in God’s ever present love for all. It may be something you are already doing but that you will re commit to. Something that is attainable, that you will be able to sustain and maybe develop over time. Something that is done for others. But I also want you to see yourself explain why, for if we can’t explain why we respond to the gospel of love with love, then the message may not get through.
And finally the future. I believe our future could be one of cynicism and despair without a connection to God, the God of the universe and of you and me.
I think one of the great gifts of Christianity is that it gives hope. Not the pie in the sky when we die type of hope, but earthy and concrete. If we truly believe that God’s creative love is working in the world, everywhere, then we will live and act with hope. Particularly in a world as it exists today, with so much pain and grief. God is the one seen, heard, and experienced in the human Jesus, who calls us to a higher, deeper level and a different reality. It is God who will have the last say, as we and our world are reconciled to the creative spirt found in all of life.
Yet Jesus rarely spoke of an end time when all things would magically turn around, when the evil would be punished and the good rewarded. He spoke often, however, of living God’s kingdom into being, of being challenged by his message and letting the kingdom break into our world and our society. For we are called to enter the process with God. Christmas celebrates not just the birth of a baby, but the ongoing influence of Jesus life and teachings long after the 1stcentury. By us.
The question is, do we really believe this, for our actions will speak as to whether we live with hope or succumb to the widely held belief that nothing will change, so let’s do nothing. For to live with Christ is to live as though the ultimate victory of life and love has already been won.
As Dorothy McRae McMahan writes,
“This involves living “as if something is already in place. You live with justice, even if justice is not yet brought in. You claim the ground for it by the way you live, but you do not see yourself as a single agent for change, just one who demonstrates a change that will one day be visible and in place for all people. It gives us a sense that we are participating in a great and long term effort to make real something that was always meant to be and always will be”.
So as the new year approaches it is our call to live hopefully, trying to respond to the needs around us, while at the same time remembering that the divine presence is never limited by our human capacities for evil. God is present in the world, in each one of one, always has been and always will be. It is us who go missing.
So I would like you to close your eyes one final time and make a commitment to make time for God in the new year, for the inward journey, for without that hope will dry up amidst the miseries and frustrations of life. A place of quiet so that we may listen to the whisper of God, a place for silence so into that space the spirit may touch us. A place where Jesus worlds and teaching become real. What it may mean is dropping something that we would like to do but can’t, a challenge I know. But these are choices we make.
Both in the scripture reading and in the movie, past, present and future coalesce into one kaleidoscope of meaning.
When we apply these principles to ourselves, we see and know a faith in which no one is beyond forgiveness, including us, a faith that urges and cajoles us to act with love and compassion and to do so trusting that no matter how terrible and awful the situation seems, there is always hope that Gods spirit will have the final say, that the creative love of God will endure. That from a burnt out forest a flower will blossom. From the darkness a light will appear.
As Nev says,
“Faith enables us to see it, love puts us on the road and hope keeps us there. Jo Jo Rabbit represented a future for the German people, Jesus represents a future for us and the world.
This is the message to take into 2020.
I wish you all a very happy new year
While I received a beautiful Christmas gift in the form of the speech by Ester Sadiki who you just heard, I often feel caught between two worlds at Christmas time. The secular world with its tinsel, and gifts and family and the religious world, which wants to proclaim Christmas as a holy and sacred time.
Yet now with so much pain and anguish happening around us, both here in our own community but also in the eastern states where fires are destroying lives and homes, how do we make sense and find joy in the moment, whichever group we are in.
What to say and what to do?
Well, while Christmas was not celebrated fully until the 18thcentury and for early Christians only from the 4thcentury, after adopting a pagan festival called, Sol Invictus, I feel at this moment we all need Christmas, secular and sacred. Or more correctly what the birth stories of Jesus of Nazareth bring to us.
For they transmit some very deep and universal truths, not just for those who lived 2000 years ago, but for us today. They say so much about how we are to live in the world and with each other, and about God if we sit still long enough to listen. And so much about a man who brings this God alive to us, even in the 21stcentury.
But we need to really understand the stories and not take them at face value, for they are not meant to be literal. I want to suggest that these stories are so much more than a set of facts, which we regurgitate every year and then forget. Or worse still discount as being unbelievable.
I have spent many a Christmas day sermon talking about the birth stories of Jesus, how they only appear in 2 of the 4 gospels, how they reflect in miniature the world Jesus lived in, how they were written a long time after his death and how they have different accounts, representing both the time they were written and who they were written for.
They are not history, but rather the birth stories are myths, beautiful and powerful,
As Keith Rowe says, myths are the mirrors in which we see what we might become. They represent a way of human knowing that can be placed alongside scientific knowledge as two complementary pathways into life’s truth. They don’t have to be literally true to be true!
They give us insights we don’t see until we really see!
While both gospel accounts are full of earthly things, and some mystical things who is the child at the centre? The Gospel of Matthew describes him as Emmanuel, God with us. Jesus is at the centre of the story, the character extraordinaire. A revelation to us about where God is to be found and who God is
This is the essence of the stories. A universal message.
For even in our cynical, secular world, it seems to echo a strange and beautiful and evocative call. Where is God? Tell us about your God.
As Keith Rowe suggests,
“There are no facts upon which we can say for certain that God is with us or that God even is, but over the centuries those who have taken the stories of the birth of Jesus and the life of Jesus into their hearts and imaginations have been changed. And maybe they have glimpsed this God”.
Not a God in the sky, not a God who intervenes in human affairs every now and again, but a presence hidden in the fragrant muck and misery and marvel of the world, as Frederick Buechner would say. A presence found in all of life, from the smallest molecule of the universe to the complicated but beautiful creatures we have become. A presence found in Jesus.
The reading today from the Gospel of John speaks of this. We hear what the early Christians heard. Jesus has come into the world to reveal God’s light and life.
So the birth stories are not really about a baby at all but about a man, called Jesus and about his life in God and in the world.
They are about finding God in a human Jesus, who lived and died in 1stcentury Judea, but who more than anyone since has shown a new way to live with one another. A way of love, grounded in the earthy world that he knew and in the indwelling spirit of God that guided him. A kingdom of love, compassion, forgiveness and deep joy irrespective of race, religion, class, gender and age. Where everyone was to be included and no one went without. A kingdom of justice.
The stories of the poor shepherds who were the first to hear of the birth, of a defenceless baby, of parents who were refugees, of a smelly stable, and animals and women and foreigners and angels reflect Jesus’s life and teachings in miniature. An inclusive life. One that so challenged the authorities of the day, the Roman Empire, but also some of the religious leaders that he was ultimately killed. Instead of power and violence and injustice and exclusion, hallmarks particularly of the Empire, we get a Jesus who was a man for others. He taught and demonstrated that to find meaning in life one must learn to live for others. It is a message that resonates with the lives of all human beings everywhere, not just those in the 1stcentury.
So what do we do with Christmas in 2019? What do we do with the message the birth stories represent. That Jesus represents.
The Church and the world are at a crossroads today. We are at a Kairos moment, a crisis hour, when new possibilities need to emerge out of the old. It marks a time to take back the voice and way of Jesus, and gather together as one. Because as we have seen this past year, we have dictators who rule with power and fear, we have governments who protect the rich at the expense of the poor, we have huge wealth hoarded by a few, and we have massive poverty in many countries and unending wars in others. We have religion being used to kill and enslave people, rather than making them free. We have earths creation in crisis, burning uncontrollably, And we have people seeking protection from the horrors of war or this terror being locked up in prisons Many of us ask, where is the humanity, where is the love and compassion. Where is the hope?
I believe our hope lies in the message of Jesus. And the God we meet in him. Not some otherworldly God confined to the outer reaches of our reality but the life force that surges through all living things, that drives us to be better than we are, more loving, more compassionate and more forgiving. Our hope lies in people touching and connecting to God’s spirit in ways that make a difference to everyone. And by doing so, living the way of Jesus in the world.
People I have seen this week, this month, this year. Who battle fires, while their own homes burn, who care for the homeless and those without food and shelter, who care for the sick and dying in our hospitals, who donate money and time for others, even those they haven’t met, and those who try to change the status quo by advocating, protesting and generally being annoying to our politicians. Let’s continue to pester them!
But even small acts of kindness and compassion make a difference, and I have experienced these as well this week. From the person who offered me a drink, a beer first, but after I declined a glass of cold water, and a seat on their balcony when our car broke down in their driveway, to the mechanic who opened up the garage when on holidays so that we could get our car home to Perth, these acts of kindness made a difference to us.
Whether people are from a church or not, whether sacred or secular, today our hope lies in the transformation possible in the everyday moments of life by ordinary people. Moments that reveal God as ever present. Our hope is about commitment, not wishful thinking or false promises.
As Martin Luther King has said, “hope comes in many forms, mostly not supernatural. Rather in the shape of people, people helping people. God is found in the midst of this action, not separate from it.”
This is the promise and the provocative challenge of Jesus.
So today let us not push Christmas aside but celebrate the Christmas season, all of us, with renewed vigour, giving ourselves space to be warmed by the light and love of God. For God is still here, working within all of creation and in you and me and in all people everywhere, in our precarious and complicated world.
The only gift required is ourselves.
It has been a very sad time lately, death seems to be stalking my church congregation and everywhere I turn the darkness of loss and grief has appeared. Not only for those within the congregation but also outside amongst my friend’s families.
I realise that in the last few years I have had to think about death quite a bit! Now I know it’s a mystery but when you are a pastor at a church, even part time, perhaps one has to have some thoughts on the matter. And I do. Although my thoughts were a bit muddled until I read a blog I wrote after my mother died a few years ago. Little did I realise that what I wrote then would help me now.
So maybe revisiting it might help you to….
It has been some time since I wrote a blog. In some ways it seems a life time. This year has been full of ups and downs culminating in the death of my mother in October, Shirley, at the age of 87. She lived a full and active life, which in the last year had more downs than ups.
Death seems to have bypassed me these past years. My father died many years ago when I was only 12, and since then, while I have lost relatives who were older, and one beautiful friend who was only 38, it has been quiet.
Yet I feel as though the unrealised burden of loss is getting heavier, as many of my congregation are aging, have significant health concerns and increasingly losing independence. A few have already died. Beautiful, faithful and loving people. And it is not just my congregation but my friends, similar in age to me, who are facing life threatening illnesses and long months of treatment. Ah!!!
But I am realistic as well. It is not that I think that we will all live forever, but that those that journey with you, and who are the closest to you, will be the hardest to say goodbye to. I also understand that we are biological creatures, with a limited shelf life. In fact I am often amazed that we live so long, when at any moment our dividing cells may make a mistake, producing a cancer cell, or that our wonderfully well balanced systems will fall out of balance, leading to illness and infirmity. And which no amount of modern medicine can stop, even with all the advances.
No, it is more than this, it is how I am to understand life, and then to understand death. I went to a funeral the other week, funnily enough in the same chapel where the service of my mother was held. We said goodbye to a lovely man who had had dementia for some time. In some ways the family had already said goodbye to him some years before, but no matter the circumstances it is still a wrench.
In the service the celebrant spoke about the mystery of death, the mystery of God and how the two may met. But the most important thing she said was that the loss and grief felt by those attending was due to the life this man had led, here, in this time and place and with these people. The love and loyalty and forgiveness and compassion they received from him and in turn gave to him were the things they would remember, deep in their hearts. These are the things that live on in this world, in those that remain after a person dies.
We celebrate our connections, deep, deep connections, and maybe mourn the things we said or didn’t say, when we say goodbye to someone we love. For me I grieve that I did not speak to mum more about her life, and take her to the movies more often, which she really enjoyed doing.
But a little bit of my heart will be hers, just as a little bit of my heart belongs to all those who have shaped and influenced me and have travelled with me in this life. As Frederick Buechner would say, “as we move around here knee deep in the fragrant muck and misery and marvel of the world”.
Yet what happens when I too head off into the sunset, and those that hold the memories of the past have also gone. What happens then. Who will remember the love then?
Well I think there are two things to consider.
The influences we have with people throughout life can be because they constitute our closest relationships, and what we do with and for them matters. But we may also have met people along the way, someone who we have sometimes inadvertently touched with our love or kindness. Either way, down the generations, the person may not be remembered but the act will be. Love and care and compassion goes on and on, because it is life giving, even if a name, our name, is lost along the way.
But I can’t help but think that there is more. I know many people would dismiss this notion of a spiritual heart, a place within my deepest self where I sense and feel a divine presence, a mysterious connection to all that is and all that is to come, but it has always seemed real to me. Call it God if you like, but regardless of what it is called, maybe there is a memory of me and you kept there as well.
This is not about what I have done or not done, about a heaven or a hell, or in fact anything at all tied with the doctrines of the church. It has to do with life, all of life, from the universe and its stars down to the very molecules and atoms that make up who we are. In all of it I find this spiritual or divine presence. So I have this inkling that not all is as it seems, not all can be measured and located in time and space. And it has to do with the whole of creation, not just us.
So, yes, I believe in God, a creative and infinite driving impulse to life and love found within everything, even if we ourselves are finite. Even if we ourselves and our bodies, finally run out of steam! God is the source of all there is, so maybe some hidden part of me or all of us, is never lost but remains within the heart of this source. Maybe some part of my essence will meet this eternal presence outside of what we know. So much of who we are and what life is remains a mystery so I leave room to be surprised.
Actually, it is a comforting thought that carries me along, as I strive to somehow to be a life giving presence in this world!!!
And for the times when I have to say goodbye.
I have been thinking about mentors lately, after seeing a book by Russell Brand, titled “Mentors, How to Help and be Helped”. You may wonder what Russell Brand has to say on the matter, but he is a deep thinker, and has been through much in his own life. In the book he explores the idea of mentoring and shares what he’s learned from the guidance of his own helpers, heroes and mentors.
It made me start to think of my own life and who has influenced and inspired me.
I have been lucky, for I have had incredible mentors that have helped to shape who I am and what I have achieved.
Funnily enough they are mostly all men, and I am not sure that’s because my father died when I was young and was hardly a mentor when he was alive! Or maybe it’s because I have always worked in a male dominated area?
Anyway, when I think back I can name three who were very influential, either in my science journey, my faith journey or for life in general.
Let me reflect on them a little bit.
My first mentor was at UWA, when I was just a young physical education student, wondering whether I would teach or do something else. Brian offered me a teaching role in his anatomy course when I was a budding second year student, led me down the path of a Masters in the Anatomy and Human Biology Department, and a lifelong love of human biology. He was my supervisor for my research, but more than that gave me the confidence and opportunity to thrive in that environment, in his quiet gentle way. I am still teaching at UWA, on a casual basis and still love it.
My second came after I decided that I had been at the Uni far too long and had to get a real job. Ed was the head of a department at RPH that I joined as a research assistant and then as a scientific officer, involving research for scoliosis assessment, the spinal injured and in gait analysis and orthopaedics. He was visionary, supportive and fun, dynamic and enthusiastic, and never doubted that his staff could do the job. My time with him enabled me to flourish and try new things, while always having his support. I stayed on and off for many years, yet ultimately I moved on to other areas and another department, and he moved on to be higher up in admin. Yet I never forgot his guidance in those early days.
Currently I am back in that same department writing up some research, which shows how things can go in a circle sometimes.
The final mentor I would like to mention, is from a completely different area. When I was involved in anatomy teaching and preparing specimens for the classes, I started to explore the issue of God and faith. Easy to do when you are chopping up dead people! This led me to a progressive liberal church in Wembley Downs which had as its spiritual leader, a minister who was involved in the peace movement and in in social justice. He saw faith as something you lived out rather than just believed and was open, inclusive, welcoming and provocative with his ideas about Christianity. My type of minister as I never grasped or accepted much of the traditional Christian doctrine of the church.
Over the years Nev has been extremely generous with his knowledge, resources, time and has supported me as I initially came and went from the church, then came and stayed, started doing a few services and am now employed by the church as a pastor 2 days a week. Along with his beautiful wife Marg, they have been my friends for over 30 years, confidantes and people who I could share my faith journey with.
Along the way Nev generously taught me the art of taking baptisms, weddings, funerals, communion, in fact everything that goes along with being the church in the community. He has encouraged me to stand beside him as we took them together, then has stepped out the way as I take over the bulk of the service. He has guided me in the ways of the faith, without becoming a cog in the church machinery, allowing me to be free to be who I am and with what I believe.
More than anything, Nev has been my mentor in helping me grow a faith I can live in and with, without forgoing my love of science and my joy of research. He preached that a full life is a life lived as a whole person, integrating all aspects of ourselves. They must all go together for us to be healthy and well. A great message.
I reflect particularly on Nev, as I am still in close contact with him, and because this past week, I have had to lead both a funeral and a wedding for his family.
He stood beside me on both occasions and as I reflected on his influence on my life, I felt both love and gratitude for the man who is now 90, and maybe slowing down just a bit! I know it is my turn to take up the reigns, but in a way that honours and respect him.
In our modern, fast paced society, where many contacts are electronic, I believe we all need mentors, especially when we are young. People who support and encourage us and help us to become individuals in our own right. Who help us to develop our gifts and talents so that we can in turn become leaders. It inspires me to continue to teach and work with young people, whether that be at the university or in and out of the church or even in my own extended family and friends. I hope I can be a mentor to others, in some small way, that reflects the mentoring that I have had.
Thanks Brian, Ed, and Nev. Good job!
This morning we had a joint service with our Church of Christ neighbours. When it’s at our church I usually lead the service and the minister from the Church of Christ preaches. Normally thats okay, but today I had a real urge to preach!!! Funny I know. While I didn’t, and the minister did a fine job, the reading was one of those that smacks the listener between the eyes, even in the 21st century. Because it was about money and how we become so entranced by it we don’t see those without it, suffering. So I am going to put a sermon I wrote a few years ago on the blog, because we in the west, with our comfortable lives, will always find it a challenge to really see the other in our midst. I did use the poem referenced in the sermon, “Mending Wall” by Robert Frost as an opening to the service.
Luke 16:19-31 The Rich Man and Lazarus
A few weeks ago Matt and I went down to Dunsborough for an extended family weekend away. My cousin Robyn had acquired a beautiful house down there and wanted to catch up with the rest of the family. You can imagine how enjoyable it was, walking down to the shops, relaxing in a very comfortable setting, watching the footy on a mega huge television. It was luxury. So much so that when I went out walking with my brother and sister one morning I suggested, half as a joke, that if I was to return to this earth I wanted to come back as a rich person. As soon as I said it, I realised that I knew I didn’t believe it, but it just shows that we can all be blinded by the delights of possessions and money. My very sensible and socialist brother put me in my place, by reminding me that I was rich in so many other ways. But it is hard to resist the subliminal messages we all get every day. Messages that encourage and cajole us into believing that life would be better and more fulfilling if only we had a bigger house, a more expensive car, a bigger television or better more exotic holidays. Better for whom, that is the question.
We have been seduced by the idea that greed is good. Good for us and good for others. That somehow it will trickle down and help all those in society without us having to do anything. As Walter Wink, in an article for Sojournersmagazine, suggests we have been systematically trained in greed from birth. Consumerism is our middle name. Just look what we get put into our letter boxes every day: piles of magazines wanting us to buy more things. He suggests our economic system is greedy on our behalf, a giant machine of production. We have made economic growth the primary social god passing off the problem of poverty as an outstanding debt to be paid off by further economic growth. Even though by now we should have learned the increased productivity does not in fact resolve inequalities of the distribution of wealth. We in fact know that money ends up the hands of a few, who will then do anything to keep it.
We may think money is neutral, a commodity without any meaning other than being used in transactions. How wrong can we be. As individuals and as a society money rules all. Our economic and political system allows money to play favourites. The more money you have the more powerful you are. I discovered this the other day listening to an account of the Koch brothers in America, who are part of the right wing Tea Party by a social researcher called Lee Fang. I had not heard of the Tea Party until a week ago, and now suddenly everywhere I look there are articles on them.
Fang reported that the billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch are the wealthiest and perhaps most effective, opponents of President Obama’s progressive agenda. They have been looming in the background of every major domestic policy dispute this year in the states. Ranked as the ninth richest men in America, the Koch brothers sit at the helm of Koch industries, a massive privately owned conglomerate of manufacturing, oil, gas and timber interests. They are best known for their wealth as well as for their generous contributions to the arts, cancer research and the Smithsonian institute. But David and Charles are also responsible for a vicious attack campaign aimed directly at obstructing and killing progressive reform. Over the years millions of dollars of Koch money has flowed to various right wing think tanks, front groups and publications. They formed a group called Americans for Prosperity in 1984 which in turn helped form the Tea Party protests, based on the Boston Tea Party and driven by extreme right wing groups. They have bankrolled campaigns against health care reform, pollution controls and for climate change denial to name a few.
Money is not neutral, it provides luxury, security and power and the people who have it have the greatest power to manipulate those in society to keep it. The trickle down effect is a myth; the more we have the less others have and the more we have the more we want. It makes us, our society and our world divided, fearful and less compassionate and as we have seen politicians play on it all.
But all this talk raises a very salient point, one that is central to the expression of our faith in the world. Money has become another god and economics a type of religion. So how we respond to it shows whose side we are on. For if we are really on the side of Jesus then we all have changes to make.
For Jesus wasted no time in the New Testament declaring himself on the side of the poor. There are numerous places where it is very clear, what is at stake. Siding with the poor was the mark of being one of his disciples in a time when the Roman Empire ruled and when the poor suffered at the hands of landowners, bankers, creditors and even priests.
As Walter Wink says, Jesus identified the world’s great idol as mammon, by which he meant money or property in general. He saw it as a power no longer under human control and no longer in the service of human needs. The chief manifestation of the God mammon is accumulated wealth.
Today we heard one of the many parables he used to make it very plain what he thought about it and what he believed God required of us. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is like all the parables, on the one hand an exaggerated story and on the other quite subtle. Many scholars believe it originated as a folk story which Jesus himself adapted, although most would say verses 27-31 are additions by Luke. The rich man feasted sumptuously every day, as most of us do, while poor Lazarus was lucky to beat the dogs to the garbage. When Lazarus dies we discover him safe in the bosom of Abraham at a banquet table, while the rich man cries out in torment from hell. But there is more to the story. As David Buttrick, in his book on Parables points out, the rich man has no name, while Lazarus’s name means ‘God has helped’. Interestingly by the time of Jesus beggars were seen as sinners being punished for their sins. Lazarus lies outside the wall, but just near the gate to the rich man’s estate. He is too weak to beg but lies hoping for table scraps from the rich man. The contrast between the two is carefully drawn. Then the tables are reversed. Lazarus who hoped for scraps now feasts in the afterlife. The rich man dies, is buried, and ends up in Hades. Once he partied every day, now he cries out for a drop of water. Still the rich man is arrogant and refuses to address Lazarus directly. He sees Lazarus as a low class slave and asks Abraham to order Lazarus to moisten his lips.
This parable hits us between the eyes. Poor and rich are extremes and Luke uses it in a not too subtle attack on the rich. But money is not neutral. It has social meaning and to have an abundance while others are starving is, as Buttrick suggests, impossible to condone. So perhaps this is the message we need to hear.
Brandon Scott has used the poem I read earlier from Robert Frost, The Mending Wall when looking at this parable. The rich man could have walked through his gate and served the poor man but he chose not to and even in the afterlife he doesn’t acknowledge Lazarus as a fellow human being. As a result the wall that separated the two in life becomes a chasm.
We build fences to protect ourselves from hearing the cry of the poor, watching them from the comfort of our lounge rooms or dream that if we spend more then the benefits will trickle down to those less fortunate. But as we have heard walls become permanent chasms unable to be breached. Human carelessness hardens. A great statement comes from David Buttrick about what happens. Yet in the parable all the rich man had to do is to go out and connect to the poor, and seek a common destiny. All he had to do was recognise what lay before him. That he didn’t, condemned him forever. We are the rich man and the poor are at our gates now, and our common destiny and survival is in our hands.
So what do we do to go through the opening? Well, it is not enough for us to continue with a lifestyle of the west, justifying our position by being generous, although that helps. As Wink suggests, we cannot just treat people well, raise our families, live in nice homes and work hard, and give money away when we are part of the institutionalised greed that leads to injustice. For as we accumulate more and more, we build a wall back up between those of us that have and those that are the have nots. A wall once built, as we have heard is hard to tear it down. We have to change our lifestyle, to see that what we desire affects others just as much as what we do. Not easy but essential. In recognising this dilemma Walter Wink acknowledges that, ‘Our personal transformation will not change the system, but it is the indispensable prerequisite to systemic change. We can alter our own patterns of consumption, less fuel, less junk food, less litter, less detergent, less beef; more recycling, more conservation, longer use of clothes and products, rejection of style fads and the mania for newness. Our very values can change: we can slough off the spell of bigness, the love of luxury, the bogus security of owning things.’ The myth that consumerism will solve everything. And in the process help the environment.
But there is more. We can also find ways to hold politicians and global companies responsible to the general public, and defeat those who are working against the public interest. The power of the internet to find out this information and then engage with groups who are questioning the activities of some of these corporations is with us all. I know because it took me about 30 minutes to find out about the Koch brothers and about groups exposing their methods to the public and coordinating opposition to them.
Finally, it is time to overhaul our national theology of wealth which Wink identifies, and the heresy that we are rich because we are righteous and righteous because we are rich. We are rich because the system perpetuates it, the rich get richer and the poor poorer unless we do something about it. The church is called to waken those within it to the wall that is building between the have and the have nots and tear it down.
As Wink concludes no one really knows how to construct a perfect economic system in the West which greedy people will not subvert to their own gain. But we, as people of faith, are free to risk moving toward a way that is more equitable and just, knowing we are grounded in a God whose love is for all people. It is this love we find in Jesus and whose way we follow. So while we can be countercultural with our money and how we use it, it is with our lifestyle we can truly reflect the call of Jesus and the need of our fellow brothers and sister. Changing the system starts with us. Scary but true.
As a footnote, it is interesting the one of the Koch brothers, David, died recently, and so was in the news. No matter how much money we have, we all die in the end! It’s how we live the matters!
We had a Naming ceremony for Thea, a beautiful granddaughter of a couple from our congregation. This is the sermon I preached after the ceremony.
“What’s in a Name?”
As most of you know I spend some of my time teaching first year university students anatomy and human biology. I have 4 classes and 18 students in each class, so there are a lot of names to remember. And I am not very good at remembering names! I try hard, and have a few strategies, but usually it takes the whole semester to get most of them. It’s not that I don’t know the students belong to me and while I usually explain at the beginning of term that age wearies the memory a bit, I know that is not really enough.
Knowing someone’s name and being able to use it when talking to them is actually very important. When I call a student by name I can see it makes a difference. It tells them they are of worth, of value, that they have something to contribute and I respect them as an individual who is neither better nor worse than me. For people who are struggling with the course, the material, and if they are good enough to be there, it helps reassure them that they belong, they are included.
But a name is more than that. It gives us an identity. We are Karen or Jane or Tom or Melissa. We are a person in our own right, with a history, with passions and ideas and with commitments. We had a naming service today for Thea, to mark her as a person who will become an independent adult in the future, loved and cared for. But a person in her own right.
Christianity has had its share of dead ends, even today, but a constant from Jesus and from the original letters of Paul is that it is an inclusive religion. Everyone is of value, everyone is to be included in the great banquet of life, everyone is of worth. Everyone is a vessel holding the divine spark, the divine light and love, even my young, slightly crazy students. When we love others like ourselves we give a nod to that reality. When we fight for others rights and the just sharing of resources we give a nod to that reality. When we share our money and our time with others we give a nod to that reality.
Two of the readings we heard today, reflect this inclusive message. The first, from Psalm 139:7-12 is my favourite, a spoken reality from before Jesus was even thought of. The psalmist is expressing their deep understanding that there is nowhere we can go from God because God is a reality within us, always.
Where can I hide from thee, if I go to the ends of the earth you are there, if I sink into the biggest abyss you are there, closer than by own breath. God is found deep within each of us, a spark of life that is not restricted to those with the most wealth possessions, power or intellect. We are all God’s children and this God never leaves, goes on holiday or somehow decides we really aren’t worthy enough. Early Christians knew this and tried to act in the world in which they lived as though it was true.
But what if we lived at a time when we were a non-person. In Jesus time, there were many non-people, women and slaves in particular, who were seen as chattels to be bought and sold rather than a real people. In our past indigenous people were until the 1960s counted with the flora and fauna, with no voice and often no name. A terrible blight on Australia’s history.
The second reading we had today was from Paul’s letter to Philemon(1:1-20). I also love this short letter, an authentic Pauline letter, because it says so much about how we are to live today. Most of you might remember that Paul is in jail for upsetting the authorities, but sends a letter to his friend Philemon, a Christian convert about Philemon’s slave, Onesimus. Onesimus has escaped and run to Paul for protection. Paul is writing to Philemon asking him to let Onesimus go free, become a free man, and welcome him as a brother, for in the faith in which Paul stands, there is no difference been slave and free, between male and female, between Jew or Gentile because all are one in Christ Jesus. All are one in God’s spirit.
Paul is asking Philemon to do something very radical. In ancient times, it was okay to have slaves, and rarely were they acknowledged as anything but a useful commodity. They had no voice other than their master’s voice. Paul is asking Philemon to go against the norms and culture of the day, and risk a lot for his faith!
This story is a homecoming similar to the prodigal son. As Paul saw it, Philemon had a legal right to slaves but not a moral or spiritual one. Onesimus is not just a slave but a young man, with a name and identity. He is worthy for who he is as a child of God, rather than someone’s workhorse. As a follower of Jesus, the inclusive Jesus, Paul is asking Philemon to relinquish his power over someone rather than continue to dominate and exploit them. To free Onesimus from subordination, to free him of the burden of debt, to free him from the burden of shame, to pardon him and welcome him with open arms as an equal, as a beloved brother was a pretty big move in the 1stcentury.
Yet it appears that Philemon in fact did just that. We presume, for the letter was preserved, that Onesimus was freed and welcomed as though he was Paul! And the whole community celebrated a renewed relationship of mutual love. What a homecoming!
It paints a picture, today. of how radical this call is for us. To think of this inclusive love, this inclusive society when we are the dominant culture of the first world and hold all the power is very challenging. How do we give voices and free those who we have enslaved to sustain our lifestyles. How might we free them, both here and elsewhere?
Again I say pretty radical stuff.
But I don’t want to finish here. I want to go back to the source for Paul, which was Jesus. The radical message of Jesus, has led to the radical message of Paul. Jesus came and shook up those who had forgotten that his call, God’s call was an inclusive call, an inclusive reality, particularly those from the Jewish tradition that he was immersed in. They, instead, were imposing rules and laws about who was in and who was out of Gods kingdom. Much like we do today.
Cherry will read a passage from Luke’s gospel (4:14-30) which demonstrates this. Although the whole of the New Testament is littered with Jesus’s radical message.
Jesus Rejected at Nazareth
16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read,17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”[a]
20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him.21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked.
23 Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’”
24 “Truly I tell you,”he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown.25 I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land.26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon.27 And there were many in Israel with leprosy[b]in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”
28 All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this.29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff.30 But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.
In this reading Jesus is preaching in the synagogue of his home town of Nazareth, announcing to his community and to his family who he is. He stands up in the synagogue, reads from the scriptures, and suggests he is going to bring in a different way of being by what he says. Jesus was his name and he has come to change the world.
He does it as a young man who had grown up in this town, and the people thought that they knew him. Oh yes, he’s the son of Joseph and Mary, the carpenters son. Little did they realise what was coming! He is announcing something totally unexpected to those who thought they knew him.
Initially the listeners were well pleased as he had taken a reading from Isaiah. But as he continued, by using two stories from the Hebrew Scriptures, ones they would have known, he infuriates them. The point of the two extra stories is that both the widow mentioned and Naaman the Syrian were NOT Jews. Not part of the “chosen people” who the prophets, Eliza and Elisha go and help. What!, they are outsiders, the listeners would have cried. Jesus was suggesting, very strongly, that God chooses to touch and bless those on the outside of the Jewish tradition as well as those inside. And the task of those who are called to serve God, is to follow God, and to go to those outside the boundaries, outside the fold.
Jesus is widening Gods spirit, Gods love to include everyone, not just Jews and is calling his community to stop being so exclusive. And they were not happy. He barely got out alive!
Jesus was a baby then a boy, with a tradition and parents who loved him. But there came a time for him to forge his own way, to reveal the passions and commitment and path he would follow. This is a turning point. Jesus was choosing his own way, a spirit driven way that included love and justice for all. An inclusive message picked up and lived by Paul and many who have followed Jesus. And suddenly he wasn’t welcome!
So we can hear in this small story how it takes commitment to see the world in this way. Its challenging, and a bit scary.
But as Thea starts her journey or for all of us whose journey has been going for some time, the message is the same. It’s about choosing life, for everyone. It is about loving and being loved, fully and completely. It’s about the message that all people including ourselves are of worth, God’s divine spark. It is about making a commitment to this way of seeing the world, and not being swayed by those who seek to divide us, to belittle us, who tell us we need more possessions, power or money to be loved, or that others have to suffer in order for us to be happy.
We have heard it today in each of our reading, from different times. Now we face our time.
I pray that each one of us sees in the Jesus message the message of inclusion and love and justice, and we head out to make a difference in the world. Whether we are 6 months or 86!
For this is the way to fullness of life.
This is a small post about something I rather not talk about, but maybe we all should!
The other day I was invited to join a group who meets after church, to discuss Progressive Christianity (this will be tackled in a future blog). The meeting went for about an hour, and there was about 15 people who attended. We were all sitting in a circle, and after initially introducing ourselves, I went on to share my journey from a person who was very critical of anything Christian to someone who combines being a scientist/researcher and a part time Pastor in the Uniting Church.
But this blog is not about any of that. There was someone who was videoing the discussion, and recently I had a look at the recordings. What! I’m not thin and beautiful! But that’s how I thought I looked.
It was a deep shock to examine the footage and see this slightly overweight, middle aged women, with a squeaky voice and hair all over the place in the seat that I should have been in. I have never been one to like photos of myself or even listen to myself after I have presented a paper or sermon, so the video was a reality check!
Clearly I would much rather have my made up vision of myself instead of what I saw on the screen.
Maybe that’s a problem for many of us. I want to be something that I’m not, and will probably never be (perhaps when I was 10 yrs old!). Accepting ourselves, with all our faults and imperfections is part of being human. When we deny who we really are, and pretend to be something else, we can get ourselves tied up in knots. We are swayed by everything the comes along, in the hope we will match up to this perfect person we have in our mind. And then we are disappointed over and over again, when it is not really us. Or worse still, we become self loathing of the wonder and marvel we are, because whatever characteristics we have are not the right ones.
Loving ourselves is as much the faith journey as loving others. For we cannot love others until we embrace the absolute marvel we all are! The universal spirit is just that, universally in all of creation including every one of us. I believe we are all windows to the divine.
There is nothing I can do about my voice (thanks mum) and I probably could lose a few pounds, but that look is my look! I am who I am, and you are who you are, and embracing ourselves is the start of a wholeness that brings healing and joy.