sermon August 19, 2018

How would you answer that question the Lord asks of Solomon – what do you ask of God today.

A cluster of references to wisdom in today’s bible readings.

King Solomon asks God for wisdom to rule well rather than for personal riches or power…  Bit like the prayer attributed sometimes to Reinhold Niebuhr “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”.

(Which begs the question do you already have to have some degree of wisdom to know to ask for wisdom?   Does the wise person not already know they are not wise?  Secondly, we have the famous line from Psalm 111 (which in one form or another appears a number of times in scripture) “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” 

from psalm 111 the fear of God is the beginng of wisdom

And  third from Ephesians

Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, Ephesians 5

Our readings today cluster around the theme of Wisdom. 

Think of someone who for you is the picture of a wise person.  Who do you think embodies wisdom.  Could be a character from a book or film, a historical person or someone you know personally.  Lets have a time of sharing about this….

It is interesting that the translators of the New Revised Standard Version have stuck with the old “fear of God” phrase. Do we need to say just one more time that when we say  “ fear of God is the beginning of wisdom”  for fear you are to think Awe, wonder, reverence, yes, a hint of danger is certainly implicit for we are in relationship with purity and holiness and let’s face it we are not all that pure or holy yet.  How shall we be treated?  Shall we be judged harshly or will we be accepted and loved and made more pure and holy?  In Jesus God answers that and when we grasp that Jesus is the wisdom of God – the outcast hung upon a cross; that which is most despised and reviled by worldly wisdom -then we realise that maybe God’s wisdom will look quite different to accepted values and wisdom. 

Next, these passages tell us that Wisdom must be personal and immediate.

You can read books of collected wisdom, read quotes.  But until wisdom walks in your shoes, flows through your blood, inhabits your flesh it will remain someone else’s wisdom and will remain an intellectual amusement.  You have got to live wisdom, not just read it. I think for that reason Wisdom becomes incarnate in our flesh  (just as Jesus became flesh).  Wisdom is personified in scripture; for instance in the first chapter of Proverbs   where she (and wisdom is always a she)moves in the market place, cries out in the street, at the busiest corner she cries out, at the entrance to the city she speaks

There are two (at least) schools of thought on Wisdom and how we come by it. Ike that play The Getting of Widsom.   Some think of Wisdom as a gift – a gift of the Spirit that you can only pray for and passively receive..  Something you can ask God for and God may or may not bestow supernaturally bestow this gift upon you.   Is it a gift of God, and if so is it “supernatural” or should we think of Wisdom as something that can be learned, absorbed, grown into?  Is it the same as what we nowadays call “emotional intelligence”? 

I don’t think the sort of wisdom we are talking about today is “supernatural”; though it is profoundly “spiritual”.

Wisdom is the capacity, the skill, the art, of making the best judgement for future living.

It is the ordinary life lived extraordinarily well.  Using the learnings of the past to guide us into the future.  The suggestion then is that you have already had enough life experience to give you access to wisdom.

To live wisely. 

I bought this photo at the Stewart Lodge art exhibition held in our church.  It is a photo of some graffitit in Stewart St just over the road from Stewart Lodge a large supported residence service in Brunswick.  The graffiti says, “It Doesn’t matter”.  Maybe a funny thing to be hanging on the wall in a minister’s study.   I bought it because it can be taken so many ways.  Some days I look at it and it urges me to move on from something that is nagging me and has a grip on me. Somewhere in my life I may be doing what I referred to last week under the heading of letting the sun go down on your anger.  And we were saying then that everytime you go to bed angry that anger rusts a bit more onto your soul, like a nut rusting onto a bolt and there will come the day you ain’t ever going to get that nut from that bolt.  On that day you no longer have a person who can get angry but an angry person. 

And the really dumb thing is that 95% of the stuff we get all fizzed up about is not worth going to bed angry about.  So it is that some Sun I stand up here and the message is, “Look, let it go, in the scheme of your life does it matter?”  Yet on the other hand  very often the Sunday message is, “Gees, this is your life, you are only going to get one shot at it; make the most of it; it matters”. Wisdom knows what the message for the day is.  I have it on my wall next to a crucifix and Madonna and Child and that puts everything in perspective.  Birth, death, relationships…does what you are preoccupied with today matter or not…. or is it something that is so vital you just must attend to it and immediately?  The Wisdom that comes from above knows such things and is also good at working out the correct timing on such matters

sermon July 8, 2018

July 8, 2018

Mark 6: 1- 13

Those of you who were here last week will recall the gospel reading had 2 stories of faith embedded in each other.  Jairus, with the dying daughter, and the hemorrhaging women, two desperate people who risk their all in one throw of the dice that Jesus may be the healer, and hence savior, they seek. 

Today in contrast, in Jesus’ home town, among his own kin, we come across a story not of faith, but of rejection.  Jesus as stumbling block, a scandal. One of most common verses in scripture the building block that was rejected has become the cornerstone of a brand new world.

Funny experience this going home business.  What memories do you have of going home, maybe moved away for study, work, to get married.  Remember when I moved out for the first time.  Did not move far just a suburb or two into the youth house with 4 of my mates from the local Ashburton Uniting house.  And when I went home for the odd meal it did feel different.  I could see my parents as people, humans, they had their foibles, like anyone and that was OK.  I even started calling them by their first names – sort of radical thing we did in those days!

Hard preaching in front of congregation that contains old friends, family, those you grew up with They know you!   They remember that time you acted like a complete tosser, when you insisted on being right about that topic you actually knew nothing about etc.  And here you are turned up again but this time claiming to be a holy man, if not the Messiah.  Not the Messiah just a naughty boy.  Guy I met from Melb High, You are a minister!  Wow, I thought you would be in jail by now!

One person notes that when the church has a meeting and a well known, perhaps even international speaker people and then afterwards when it comes to the questions time people are virtually queing up to make their points whether or not it has much at all to do with the topic in order to be noted and be seen as having something to say on the same stage as the international celebrity.  However when it is just a local well known speaker the attitude can almost be one of, well who are you to be here addressing us?  Body language is different, tone of voice and deference all different.

Maybe that is part of why Jesus could do no mighty works – not in this environment of disdain and disbelief.

In his spiritual autobiography “Now and Then,” Frederick Buechner writes of his off-the-beaten-path (at least for a seminary-trained, ordained Presbyterian minister) encounter with Agnes Sanford, a Christian healer. “The most vivid image she presented,” writes Buechner, “was of Jesus standing in church services all over Christendom with his hands tied behind his back, unable to do any mighty works because the ministers who led the services either didn’t expect him to do them or didn’t dare ask him to do them . . .”

That’s quite an image: Jesus standing in the church, his hands tied behind his back. Then Buechner added this: “I recognized immediately my own kinship with those ministers.” And as I read, I whispered my confession, “And I recognize my kinship with you.”  What stops you buying the ticket, being in the race, having a go

Being a follower of Jesus ought to prepare us for both stories and experiences.  It seems the rejection in today’s reading is on the basis that the home town folk think Jesus is “one of ours”, too familiar, and hence cannot be the Messiah, savior, healer, of his people. 

Rather than withdraw to call down damnation upon their heads, rather than withdraw to sulk or lick his wounds the response of Jesus is to expand and intensify his mission.

Jesus once again calls to himself those he has already called to be found in his company – his disciples, but this time the calling is in order to send them out.  And in this there is a major principle of discipleship for the church.  The called person will inevitably become the sent person.  There is no being “called into” the presence of Jesus that will not one day, when the Lord’s timing be right, (which it goes without saying may not at all be your timing) becomes also the “sent from” Jesus.  No longer just “Come to me”, now it also includes, “Go from me, go with my authority over evil spirits, authority to heal, proclaim the breaking in of the reign of God, into our world, our lives.  Jesus divides his team up into 6 pairs, as we still today see Mormons and Jehovah Witnesses out and about in our streets.  And they are sent out to travel around the local villages.

This is travel with a mission, with a purpose. In this sense it becomes a metaphor, an image, of the Christian life. Travel in Jesus company is not a holiday, not mere personal development, or sight seeing.   It will involve the challenging, the confronting, just as it will involve the elation of the making present the power of the Kingdom.

We normally say Pentecost is the birth of the church, because of the giving of the Spirit but today readings also has a claim for being recognized as the emergence of the church – and the emergence of the church with a mission focus.

When you travel with purpose, (seen as a metaphor for the spirit filled life of the community) you take with you, steward it, to be the keeper, – the authority of Jesus over evil spirits, oh and don’t be fooled into thinking there are not evil spirits abroad, powers that ensnare, distort, that devastate the good creation of God.  The church has authority to bind and drive out the evil spirits.  We do need to relearn what form and what shape a ministry that binds the spirits may take in 21st century western culture in contrast to 1st century Palestine culture.  The authority remains in the words of Jesus. 

Take with you what you what need for travel – sandals and stick.   But the interesting things you cannot take is what normally would be thought of as those things essential for survival – food, money and bag to put the otherwise missing food and money in.  That is considered excess baggage because the disciple will be dependent upon hospitality once they arrive at their destination. It’s as if the authority of Jesus and the excess baggage seem to be mutually exclusive.  We could have a whole sermon another day on excess baggage – sufficient for today simply to note it can be internal or external, by internal excess baggage I mean stuff like unresolved guilt, chronic low self esteem, our various addictions, preoccupations with status and things. Filling your life so full you can barely stuff another electronic gadget into it. All this projects an image of unbelief and misses the point of the urgency contained in this reading.    I mean, why bother praying for something you need, when you can buy it?

We do not have to see today’s reading as the literal guidelines for the mission of the church.  It was a specific, short term, localized missionary journey.  Jesus was not setting down the blueprint for the life of the church in 2,000years time. But in releasing ourselves from that, the threat to us becomes that we also lose the sense of urgency.  How to keep alive the passion?  And here at Sunshine Uniting we have the immense privilege of not just reading about this, not just hearing of others doing things.  It is all here before us. 

The journalist Tom Friedman once told a story in order to explain why the Middle East peace process seems so frequently stuck. It was a story about a man named Goldberg. Every week when the results of the lottery were announced, Goldberg prayed to God, “God, why don’t I ever win the lottery? What have I done wrong? I’ve been a good man. Why shouldn’t I win?” Again next week the lottery winner was announced and again Goldberg was disappointed and he cried out to God. “What will it take, Lord? I am a righteous man, an honorable man, a hard-working man. Would it be so hard for you, just once, to let me win the lottery?” The clouds parted, the heavens opened and a voice came forth out of the heavens. The voice said, “Goldberg, give me a chance–buy a ticket!”

sermon march 11 2018

Numbers 21:4-9, John 3:14 – 21 Lent 4 March 11, 2018

There is in the Exodus story a tradition that is only too painfully aware that the people of God, who dwelt for generations as slaves in Egypt and who were freed by the mighty power of a compassionate God quickly took to complaining.  Because of the number of times the freed slaves wandering around in the wilderness are said to grumble and murmur it has come to be known as the murmuring tradition.  A phenomenon not unknown in many churches today.

The journey from slavery to freedom and on into the Promised Land was not a long  in kilometres travelled but it was a journey of several generations in  learning the way the freed people of God may form community and live in relationship with each other and the deliverer. Today’s passage is part of Israel’s “on the way” story.  But isn’t that life?  Isn’t life one long “on the way story”?  I mean when have you ever arrived in the Promised Land? And when can you lay down all your struggles, growing, achievements, disappointments, hurts, joys?  The only question is how are you going to live with it all while you are journeying?  With what attitude and what relationship with God, others and yourself.

Israel is now to think of themselves as “People of the Covenant” as we have been reminding ourselves over Lent this year.  The 10 commandments have a crucial role in this we saw last week.  These are now People of the Law, not viewed as a heavy burdensome imposition but the gracious revelation of the values, beliefs, practices of once slaves, who had no say in how they lived and who now are free. Remember I said last week the most helpful lens you can read the 10 Commandments through is, in the phrase of Walter Bruggemann, “Instruction on how not to fall back into slavery”.

But freedom brings its own issues.  Freedom requires mature responsibility; it means living with the consequences of your actions.  Freedom and maturity mean putting an end to the blame game, no longer saying, “It’s not my fault, don’t blame me, he made me do it, she makes me feel……, if only,  when ……  happens all my problems will be over.

Living under slavery the battle lines are clearly drawn and the war is against the external forces that oppress you.  That make it impossible to grow to maturity in bondage.  In freedom there needs to be a shift in mentality.  There will still be battles fought, resistance is still required.  But for maturity to arrive there needs to be a fundamental shift of perspective and the enemy will also be identified as internal. Freedom has its own challenges and temptations.

So clearly when we read this story of the ancient Israelites  we are reading our own spiritual biography.   In freedom Israel still wanted to keep the slave mentality of blaming everyone and everything else.  And in the trek through the wilderness this really weird thing has started to happen.  History is being rewritten. Life back under bondage is beginning to look OK.  I mean gees, we couldn’t make any decisions for ourselves, but who ever remembers going to bed hungry?  We may not have been able to practice our own cultural life, but gees, we never remember wandering around lost in the wilderness.  And what do we eat now?  Manna!  Manna on Monday, Manna on Tuesday, Manna on Wednesday, mana, manna, manna.  The people are saying, “Yes, Eternal God, it is indeed a privilege and an honour to be the chosen people, but why can’t you choose some other people for a change?” 

I lived in Fiji for a year as a student minister and I took a couple of weeks holiday to go to Western Samoa and I vividly recall on the flight that I had the misfortune as I came to see it soon, of sitting next to an American guy (not that his nationality had much to do with this point) who was also going to a new life (like Israel).  His journey was cutting all his ties, burning his bridges and going to start live anew in Western Samoa.  And my strongest memory of him was that he was full of recriminations against everyone and everything for the way his life had gone belly up.  It was ex partners, it was government, and it was the whole rotten world that had conspired against him.  I got off the plane with a headache but an overwhelming sense that he had learnt nothing and he was not going to escape his demons because they did not dwell outside himself.  His life was one long self guided tour of misery! And misery enjoys company, but I did not want to enter that dismal land and if I had to have another plane flight with him I would have been summoning up the snakes.

In this murmuring tradition God’s patience is tested almost beyond endurance by these stiff necked, whinging, faithless covenant people.  This grumbling tradition represents what each of us experience on a daily basis – we turn away from, and scorn, and dump upon, the special covenant relationship we are now in with the Creator. 

And then things take a really weird turn.  God in final exasperation brings into the camp of the Israelites the poisonous snakes (or is it fiery- word can be translated either way).  Well that is one way to shut up the incessant complaints about the food! and when the people are stricken and Moses intercedes, this same God turns to provide the means of healing.

The symbol of the serpent in the cultures which surrounded the Israelites as they moved through the desert and gradually settled into the land was significant in different ways. A serpent could be a symbol of evil power and chaos in some cultures while in others it was a symbol of life, fertility and healing. This was because of the phenomenon of being able to shed its skin and apparently take on new life.  In Num 21:4-9 it encompasses both these extremes – a means of death and a way of healing.

The power of the snake punishes and saves.

Moses beat the metal into a snake and wrapped it around a pole and raised it heavenwards and ran among the people saying, do not look down fearfully at those snakes that threaten you, raise your eyes to the heavens and to this serpent on a pole and in that looking upon it you will be saved.  The rabbis have said it was not that the bronze serpent that had any power to save in itself, but it was the act of raising the eyes to heaven that saves.  Oh they were still bitten it seems, but in that act of raising their eyes as response to the bite, and not looking at the snake they were saved and healed.  Great psychology and great wisdom that says to turn and confront and stare down that which threatens you is an empowering and liberating act.  I am sure counsellors and parents and teachers and youth group leaders have all called upon this wisdom in their counsel of those in their charge.

But the bible contains more than great psychology and in John’s gospel we get a theological analysis.

This is a strange, even bizarre story we read today and one I am sure would have dwelt in the mists of Old Testament obscurity were it not for a single verse in John’s gospel that we read today.  A verse that sees the healing power of Jesus death resurrection, his being “lifted up” as a later type of Moses lifting the serpent up on the pole.

In this passage from John you could take your pick if Jesus is the speaker, or if this is commentary on Jesus words.  Either way the bronze (or fiery)serpent points to  Jesus death on the cross, his being lifted up, a reference to both death on the cross but also the exaltation of resurrection when Jesus was raised to glory  is being presented a type, of what had happened earlier in the wilderness.