Sermon preached at Induction service of The Rev Fiona Bottcher on February 16

Matthew 5:21-37

Many of you would have heard a sermon on the gospel this morning but here at Sunshine we saved it up for this afternoon.  For the rest of you – sorry for the warmed up leftovers.

Fiona, it would be a pretty safe bet that given your choice of a gospel reading for your induction service you would not have selected that one from Matthew.

 Not particularly uplifting.

Angry with a brother or sister – liable to judgement

Insult sister or brother – liable to the council

Say, “You fool” – liable to the hell of fire.

This can’t be our ol’ buddy Jesus, warm and fuzzy.  Much loved of moderates and liberals and progressives. Why has he turned on us, just when we wanted to be his followers and join his team?

And a quiet aside to the blokes… whats that stuff about looking on a woman with lust?  Whats he on about?

Anyone in the clear? 

 Anyone my age may think, rightly, this is going to be a Jimmy Carter moment.  For those too young – Jimmy Carter, President of USA went on late night talk show and confessed to much derision among the cynical, hard nosed press of the States that he, “had committed adultery in his heart”.  Jimmy never had an actual Bill Clinton moment but he was and is a faithful, committed serious Christian and he took the words of Jesus today seriously.

So Guys, hands up if you have never, to quote Jesus in today’s gospel looked on a woman with lust.  

And females, I was going to ask you to take a good look at the fellas with their hands up cos they are the liars among us and to steered well away from.

But because the lectionary has thrown up this reading we have to deal with it.  Problems is too often our way of dealing with it it so say, Oh of course we do not take it literally … and…yeah? you do not take it literally and…. well we ignore it….

In fact we are right to not take this passage literally.   In fact we should should not.  I will tell you why should not 

Story of “frank”… Guy I knew from my time at Brunswick and met up with again in the long term mental health ward at Sunshine hospital.  frank was a young, earnest but tortured Christian. He heard oppressive demeaning mocking voices in his head.  Told him to please God, then sneered at him.  Taunted him if he was a real Christian…. prove it.  Yeah the bit about if your right hand leads you into sin chop it…So one day he did prove he was a real Christian and lay down on the railway track near where he lived in Ascot Vale with his wrist on the track.  Fortunately they got to him fairly quickly and were able to preserve the hand, sowed it back on and last time I saw him, a few years ago he had about 5% use of that hand.

Taken literally every bloke and I suspect the women are adulterers.  But what Jesus is getting at is not that if you see a very attractive person and have a sexual thought  you are a goner; but if you seek out, actively pursue for the purpose of objectivfing this person for your own gratification.  Jesus is not saying that if you ever have a flash of rage you are for all eternity a goner – indeed we all know some anger is worthy and even necessary in the face of injustice.  But the storing up in order to feed off it seething rage we cherish and hold onto rigidly…. that will condemn us.

 Well answer is, having decided we will not take them literally, it frees us; now we are ready to take them seriously. Jesus certainly sound like he wants us to take him and his words seriously. Some people talk of “moderates” as opposed to extremists – as if Jesus was a moderate.  Not the Jesus of today – he is an extremist.  An extremist of the Kingdom/Reign of God which means being a fanatic for love.  As if Jesus could ever be the beige vanilla stand for little but being nice option.  As if they nail people to wooden crosses simply for teaching about being nice to each other.

To back up a little.  We are still in the so called Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus  is gathering a crowd, has a following for his declaration, Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is drawing near”.  The crowd is surging, clamouring for more of this epoch breaking proclamation.  Matthew 5:1 Jesus saw the crowds and went up a hill, where he sat down.  His disciples gathered around him, and he began to teach them…. Followed by beatitudes and then this extended block of teaching for those who have ears to hear and eyes to see.  This is not the teaching for the crowds it seems.  This is not public access – it is for the disciples that gather around.  Those who will take up the cross and follow, those who will walk away from fishing boats and maybe even family. Scorching,  impossible, enraging, exhilarating, tormenting, life giving words.

And a lot of the heat Jesus is copping is over a dispute about how do you live righteously. That is how to live a law abiding life that is pleasing to God.

If we thought Jesus would cut us some slack on the law we need to think again. He seems to be doing just the opposite. Jesus does not reject the law. Far from it; he intensifies it. He does not change the law,  ups the ante and he interiorizes it. That means that life is lived from the inside out and that the quality of our relationships arises from and is determined more by what is going on within us than by what is going on around or outside us.

The problem with the righteousness of the Pharisees and others that Jesus Identifies is that it is a soft option in this discipleship business.  Too easily got around. 

In a narrow legalistic reading of religion you can be righteous, law abiding and self congratulatory simply because you did not kill anyone or have an affair today. You can be a seething cesspool of anger and bitterness but not actually shoot anyone to death and so be righteous.  You can spend all day fixated on a screen displaying lurid porn but not actually have an affair and so be righteous. Hmm, not exactly the sort of response Jesus reckons God is calling us to.  We are never going to crete the new world order with that sort of zealous but lame ethic.  We are never going to bring in the reign of God without changed people.  Changed, transformed from the heart, from the interior passions.  From our motivations and our wills and our minds.  Where grace and forgiveness and love rule supreme.

It was a sobering moment for me when I realised the truth of what Jesus is on about here.  You can be very religious and still not very good.

Or in other words, if you think that religious righteousness is only about avoiding breaking any biblical laws, then your guiding question will be “how bad can I be without breaking any laws?”, whereas Jesus wants you to stop worrying about the wording of the laws and make your guiding question, “how good and loving and just can I possibly be?”

New age, new community, bound in love to the Lord, to each other.  The new ethics of the band of rag tag non-descripts who would shake the foundations and upend the greatest empire the world had seen.

Open Access programs are identified as services “characterised by an “open-door policy where each person is welcomed to access the available services without assessment of need, without obligation to contribute information about themselves or their situation, and generally, without an appointment. Services offered may include meals, showers, clothing, practical advice and support, medical and mental health support, information and advice, all provided in a safe and supportive environment that facilitates connection and support.”   Yarra Yarra – Welcoming Communities Report p. 36.

These sorts of communities while welcoming all are unashamedly faith based and have an awareness that they exist in response to the Good News of the gospel.  While not requiring any religious affiliation people who participate would have an awareness that this the community they belong to is an activity of the church of Jesus Christ and his church.

Fiona your call to be working with people often marginalised, often damaged (aren’t we all), often wracked by feelings of low self esteem or even stronger, self loathing.  People who may never have experienced the healing power of unconditional love and acceptance. Your calling is be in that space as yourself – not with all the answers, not holding up a model of perfection but simply as one who was found and received that life transforming love of God.

Community of hope and reconciliation

Not just words to Fiona but Words any one working with others, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist…. Secular..

“they don’t care what you know until they know that you care”

Martin Luther, 16th century
“This life therefore is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness, not health, but healing, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it, the process is not yet finished, but it is going on, this is not the end, but it is the road. All does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified.”

On Pride – Sermon September 1, 2019

Photo of Chin women in tea rooms during cooking group which also distributes food.  Not only group that shares food and hospitality on our church site during the week.  In fact when I went through them virtually all groups do.

Apart from tea/coffee being available at all times when centre open we have Wednesday fortnightly community meals, Men’s shed where meal and food available, women’s group on Thursday, youth centre 3 times a week where snacks and drinks, Chin cooking group.  Good all this is happening because

Food plays a conspicuous role in the Bible. Jews celebrate liberation from Egypt with the Passover meal. Many of their 613 commandments deal with dietary guidelines. Jesus’s first miracle was to turn water into wine at a wedding party. The gospels speak of the Lord’s Supper,  a material sign that signifies spiritual realities.

           There are stories about feeding the multitudes, eating with dirty utensils, farming, fasting, which foods are ritually clean or unclean and why, whether a believer could eat meat that had been sacrificed to pagan idols and then afterwards sold in the local market, and the poor begging crumbs from the rich.   

           Jesus often ate with fringe people, so much so that his detractors disparaged him as a glutton and a drunkard.  But Jesus also ate with religiously zealous and socially powerful people.

Jesus had a very high view of the importance of meals – and for more than the very practical reason we need sustenance. Rather every time Jesus sits down for a meal with others he is anticipating that this meal can become a foretaste of  the heavenly banquet – these meals are a slice of heaven, a glimpse of life in the reign of God.  It is for that reason Jesus is prepared to become the offensive guest who will not sit silently by and see these meals become the private plaything of the religious and social elite who turn them to their own advantage and further their own status. This excluding of some from the guest list, this jockeying for position and status, all this is an offense against God and a betrayal of the grace of God.  It is no wonder then that in the gospels, and in Luke especially these meals became a  battle ground for Jesus –  in Luke there is not one meal that Jesus attends where it does not turn into conflict..

In today’s gospel reading Jesus gives teaching about seating; Seating  is  important when we go out to the movies, to a concert, to the footy for on these occasions we  pay more to get a better seat so we can all the better see the action. 

Seating arrangements are pretty important.  If you don’t think so then why do most of you, and me, sit in the same seat week by week here at worship. Sometimes I even hear people here at various churches identified by their choice of seat, “You know so and so, tall, wears glasses and sits near the left hand entrance”.   That is mostly saying we humans are creatures of habit and like familiarity and security.

I was at a  wedding reception having pre dinner drinks when something happened that I had not experienced for years and years.  The MC  called us to attention and then proceeded to read out the table numbers and who was sitting at them and invited those guests to go into the dining room and take their seat.  Well you can imagine the growing anxiety and self consciousness, not to mention shame,  of those of us left to the last few tables farthest from the head table,  stuck far down the back of the room wedged between the toilets and the kitchen.  More than one of the guests commented it flicked them back into being a little boy or girl lined up at play time at primary school  picking up sides for a  football or netball game.  I’ll have you, and you, and you, and then you get to the last four or five kids and they become a job lot “rest of you can go on that team”:

 Now we are getting a bit closer to what Jesus was on about in today’s reading.  You see its not about  us seeing the action, but our obsession with being seen at the action.  Its about having the best seats in the dining room as a status symbol.  By now we know Jesus well enough to have a good idea that in giving the instruction in Luke’s gospel he is on about something more than social etiquette and good manners when eating out.  

When we scratch not too far beneath the surface the mad scramble for the status of the higher seats is revealed to actually be about pride. Pride is unmasked as a deep seated insecurity.  Pride is not so much a sense of being number one but a thinly disguised fear that you are not number one.  a deep seated fear of being overlooked.  It is why pride is so easily satirized.

As someone who has worked out of neediness in many areas of my life, let me be clear: very often, acts that look like ego from the outside are actually coming from neediness on the inside. That need to be noticed, to seek approval, to feel accepted and important — that neediness can drive lots of awkward, strange, or even bad behavior.  It can be complicated sometimes.

When I was still a fairly young Christian I recall being impressed by a guy who told us how he empties the rubbish bin that sits in the corner of his office each week to remind him to be humble.  It was only years later I had the thought, “wait a minute you have told us all how humble you are”!?

Have you ever found yourself, like I have on too many occasions, doing a humble act, thinking a humble thought, and then congratulating yourself for being so humble.  Giving a homeless person on the street $5 and then walking away feeling self congratulatory and when your are searingly honest with yourself realising you did not in reality give that homeless person $5 you just bought yourself $5 of good feelings about yourself.

One of the benefits of really understanding our value to God and of growing in our perspective of the world through God’s eyes, is our ability to see scrambling for position as the neediness that it often is. People who are comfortable in their own skin, and who are comfortable in their relationship to God and to God’s world, don’t have to have the approval of others or the seat of importance in order to be okay inside.

There’s a great scene in Stephen King’s memoir On Writing where he describes an incident between himself and his wife Tabitha, who is also an accomplished author in her own right. They were taking a trip, and Stephen was driving. He had asked Tabitha to read over some of his latest work, and … well, let’s King himself tell what happened next:

There are some funny parts in it — at least I thought so — and I kept peeking over at her to see if she was chuckling (or at least smiling). I didn’t think she’d notice, but of course she did. On my eighth or ninth peek (I guess it could have been my fifteenth), she looked up and snapped: “Pay attention to your driving before you crack us up, will you. Stop being so ___ needy!”

Jesus throws out the challenge to deliberately put yourself in the place and with the people that will easily be overlooked. Now that takes conviction and assurance.  Some would call it stupidity and self destruction. Another name for it is humility.

Our society does little to encourage true humility – but despite that we do know and recognize when we are in its presence enough.  Humility is an ease within yourself, a self acceptance that is not threatened by others success and so always driven to have to compete. It is usually accompanied by thankfulness.  It is a sense of being at peace in your own skin and with your own achievements and person.  A sense of your place in the world. 

All this is gift; it is grace; it comes to us from beyond.  And it is only this that frees us from the neurotic obsession with the fear that we be overlooked and will not win the applause of the crowd.

  God’s reign does not work on the same principle that is at the very heart of our way our society works – reciprocosity. That is we give in order to get.  Much of our economy, our social lives, work on this basis. At school and university you will be prepared for a life that works on being seated at head table. God’s kingdom works on grace.  From Jesus it appears that one of the clear evidences of this grace is when we are moved to invite the least in this world with the unspoken request, 

Could you give me the blessing of your inability to pay back.

God’s dinner party has as its guest list all those sitting home on their own on a Sat night – the socially inadequate, the spurned, the neglected, the demon possessed, the self loathing

It is the breaking of the law of reciprocisity and the introduction of grace. That is the only way you will ever find out if you are doing this, giving this, in order that you will get back at least as much if not more.

Sermon August 25, 2019 – Topic “Call”

It happened to me again the other night.  I was at a party, chatting away to a couple of people I had just met.  after about 20 min one of them says, “And what do you Ray?”  At which I take a deep breath and plunge in, “I’m a minister with the Uniting Church”.   Often at this point there is a comment that I personally take as a compliment, “You don’t look like one’.  From there it can go in two directions.  Either the person drops their eyes to the ground, notices their glass is empty and quickly makes for the bar, with the words, “Nice talking, think I’ll get a drink now” – or, and I think this is actually the more common response they say something like, or “I’ve been meaning to ask someone…. or “Gees, how did you end up doing that”.  And then after about 5 minutes of that the conversation will often take another twist.  Personal stories will emerge. I had this minister/youth leader/teacher when I was around 14 years old …..  My mother made me go to SS she had a really strong faith….. My grandfather was a lay preacher and he was a wonderful man…. I stopped going to church when I first heard about priests abusing children…

And I am amazed how often these people and their stories have something in common.   There was a point when their faith went into the deep freeze.  Might have been a specific incident with a SS teacher, youth group leader, abusive priest,  but more often what happened was that the rest of them keep maturing and growing – their intellect, their capacity to make relationships, their knowledge of how the world works.  But not their faith. It was like they walked to a giant fridge, opened the top compartment where the freezer is, took off their faith and dropped it in and have never opened that door since. Realising that science could not support a literal reading of the Genesis creation account or that terrible rotten things  happen to good people in this world.  At that point many people felt they no longer could hear God’s voice in this world. One of the most satisfying parts of my  33 years of ordained ministry is  listening to these stories and maybe gently being able to raise the possibility that faith, all these years later, may still be able to be thawed out and some blood and breath and warmth may be brought their frozen cold faith.  

 Maybe it does not have to always be the way you thought it had to be.  Maybe the 14 year old boy or girl saw it that way, experienced it that way, felt that way, but maybe you as an older person can now look with fresh eyes and understanding at this mysterious thing called faith.  Maybe God is calling afresh to you.   And it is devastating to think some people may, not through their own fault or wilfulness but just through circumstances of their life  may never hear or know the call of God upon their them and their lives.

   The first and great call that is the basis of all other calls – God calls to the universe – and remarkably, each individual’s name is spoken by God.  When God call to the universe it is not just Hey universe, but every person’s name is called, every animal, every fish, every bird (sparrow does not fall to the ground but God knows and cares). Today in the reading from the prophet Jeremiah God says, I knew you from the womb, before you were even born.   In the Creation story God speaks into the numbing desolate outer darkness and light appears. God has something to say.  In the Christian story God has something to say and then the Word is incarnate, made flesh, and Jesus Christ is born.  God has something to say and will not leave us humans alone, but comes seeking, speaking, hoping for restoration oneness and redemption.  And paying the costly price.  There is no other theme of the Bible.

 The Bible loves a good call story – heaps of them – Moses, Abraham, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Amos, Paul –not forgetting the exquisite story of Mary, Jesus mother,  and of course one of the most beloved by SS teachers the world over – call of Samuel the young boy.-  

These call stories are often placed in a very specific historical context. God’s call does not waft around in some vague spiritual otherworldly existence but is rooted and grounded in the daily lives of people. Jeremiah, we are told, received YHWH’s word exactly in the thirteenth year of the reign of king Josiah who ruled over Judah from 640-609 B.C.E. Thus, Jeremiah began his prophetic career in 627 B.C.E. He spoke God’s word, this note says, through the reign of Josiah’s son, Jehoiakim, and right up until the exile of Israel to Babylon in the fifth month of 587 B.C.E., the eleventh year of the reign of the last king of Judah, Zedekiah.

It is good to be familiar with these Biblical call stories but dangerous in the sense that we may be tempted to hold too high these often spectacular accounts of burning bushes that are not consumed, visions of winged creatures in the temple, nocturnal audible voices.  As someone has said they set the bar so high most of us walk around feeling short.

But the Christian gospel is not that we can have spectacular spiritual experiences, but that all of us are the called people.  Each of us is called into the presence of God, is bought at immense price by God and God does not buy junk.  Each and every one of us here today, each person in your household, in this city, in this country, on this globe we call earth, can say “My name is…. and I am a called person”.  I am called into relationship with the Creator of all that is and all that ever will be.

The other sense of this term “call of God” refers to what you do with your life in response to God.  It is a question of vocation – even wider than paid employment, but what excites you, what are you passionate about, where do you see you can make a difference. How to use your God-given gifts.

It is a question of Vocation – may be your paid employment; you are most fortunate then.  May be what gives you that deep satisfaction, what do you believe in; how have you decided how to live.

Call of God – what is our congregation being called to?  What is the way forward?  Reached a critical time.  I do not know what the future will unfold but know that it is essential we focus not upon ourselves, not upon past hurts or slights or perceived insults.  We are charged with nothing less than being the bearers of Christ, the one called to partner with our Lord in bringing in the Kingdom.
A time management expert was doing a demonstration for a classroom full of students. He showed them a large glass jar. Then he put some large rocks in the jar until he couldn’t fit anymore. “Is the jar full?” he asked. “Yes,” said the students. 

No” said the teacher. And he poured some gravel into the jar. When he shook the jar, the gravel settled into the spaces between the larger rocks. “Is it full now?” he asked. The class was pretty smart. They caught on quick. “Probably not,” said one student. 

“Good,” said the teacher. And he poured some sand into the jar, and the sand trickled into the spaces left by the rocks and gravel. “How about now?” he asked. “No,” said the class in unison. 

“Right,” said the teacher. And he poured water into the jar and filled up the remaining space. “What’s the lesson we learn from this?” he asked. 

One of the students raised his hand, “No matter how full your schedule is, if you try hard enough you can always fit more in!” 

“Wrong,” said the teacher. “The point is, you have to put the large rocks in first or you’ll never get them in at all. 

Lets make sure we have the essentials in place and then we can build around upon those things.