Sermon – February 7, 2016

Exodus 34:29-35

Luke 9:28-36

Today we wrap up the season of Epiphany and on Wednesday we have  Ash Wednesday – we enter the season of Lent.

And every year on this last Sunday of  Epiphany we have the story that we call the Transfiguration.  When Jesus takes three of his inner sanctum of disciples with him as he climbs a mountain and he glows with radiance and the glory of God comes upon him and we hear a  voice  declare that Jesus is the Beloved… the Son of God… listen to him. 

It is a story we cannot explain, or fully comprehend.  It is a big story, one that is not exhausted on one or a hundred or a thousand readings.  It is a story to return to many times, a story to feed the soul.  And our souls desperately need feeding or else they shrivel and we perish.

One of the themes in today’s reading is “glory”.

Glory…. is that a word you use? For me it seems to be a word that has an old fashioned ring about it, as in “the glory of the British empire”, or people of my parents generation using it as a expression of mild amazement, as in “Glory, who would have thought it!” or if used in a contemporary setting seems to often have sporting conations, like when Cathy Freeman covered herself in glory at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.  But it is little in use in everyday language.  Perhaps in nature, as in a glorious sunset.

What words would you use to convey glory?

But there is in the Bible a constant theme that the glory of God breaks into our world.  Now, because it is the glory of God, you can’t just casually stroll into the presence of it at your own timing.  And you certainly can’t talk about it in everyday language and hope you have in any way captured or conveyed God’s glory.

No, you need to call upon rarefied language, words strain to carry the weight of profound and deep experiences that touch the depths of our being.  So whenever these ancient writers wished to convey something of God’s glory expect to read of pillars of  dazzling light, choirs of angelic beings, visions of angels, cherubim and seraphim, and bushes that burn but are not consumed and thundering voices coming out of clouds.

And today we have much of that sort of language because today’s story wants to convey something of the glory of God that is revealed in Jesus Christ.  A story of the transfiguration, the changing in appearance of Jesus as he shone with the pure light of God.

As we sit with, and in, this story we know as the Transfiguration we are pulled into a world we infrequently visit.  An unfamiliar yet strangely compelling land of glory and wonder.  In the Celtic tradition they know there are such places on earth where the distance between the glory of God and the everyday world becomes lessened.  These locations are called thin places.  In the bible mountains are frequently such a place. Anyone willing to expend the time and energy and commitment to figuratively climb the high mountain to enter this land, and to simply sit will experience strange and transforming things.  Of course to do so you would have to stop running around, doing things, being busy, perhaps even deep down finding the busyness can be a secretly gratifying distraction from going inward. 

Reminds me of the guy who was often the greeter at Brunswick when I was there who sometimes asks people how they are, and when the reply comes, as it so often does, “oh busy” Barry gently follows up with, “I did not ask what you have been doing but how you are”.

If we stay with Jesus on this mountain but allow ourselves to become quiet and stilled for a decent length of time at first we would perhaps find ourselves anxiously babbling like Peter and his bizarre offer to build three booths for Jesus and the other heroes of the faith, not knowing or understanding what is happening to us.  Perhaps the prattling is a sign of being overcome with the purity of the eternal, what in the old language was called, “the fear of the Lord”. Perhaps a less noble explanation of Peter’s prattling was that it is simply fear of losing control. 

And why does our lectionary choose this story of the glory of Christ to be both the climax of epiphany and the doorway into Lent. Well, it takes us to the heat of the Christian faith.  This is perhaps the most stunning insight of the earliest Christians.  There is one other way they learnt to talk about the glory of God.  A place no-one would have anticipated purity and holiness to reside.  A location despised and rejected by all honourable and religious people.  What they learnt to say is that the glory of God is found not just the in religious traditions, and the worship in the temple, and the glorious sunset, and the birth of a baby, but within the tortured body of a criminal upon an ugly wooden cross. Not because God revels in suffering and bloodshed, far from it, but because here we see the cost to God of loving each of us, here in the death of this one we see the response of humanity that we cannot make consistently, here is the faithfulness without counting the cost and the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus.  For this outsider, as Jesus has become,  is today once again revealed as the Son of God. That insight is also present in today’s story with its talk of Jesus departure.

And so today’s story of glory is our last gospel reading before we again enter Lent with its confronting challenge to take up the cross and follow Jesus. It is only on that road to Jerusalem and inevitable crucifixion that both the glory of transfiguration and the glory of the lowly way are mingled so they become one way, one path.  As Jesus says to his friends, it is only those who have walked this path who have learnt to speak of what true glory is. It is hard enough to talk of these things later but pre-crucifixion it is too easy to bask in the applause and recognition of the world. 

Today is the last Sunday in this season of Epiphany, which is all about the unveiling, or the revealing of the glory of God seen in Jesus of Nazareth.  Next Sunday we move into Lent with its confronting cry of whoever will follow Jesus, let them take up their cross and walk with him along the lonely road to crucifixion.

In Lent we head towards another scene on a hill when Jesus has as companions  not Moses and Elijah, two eminent and revered authority figures of his nation’s religion, but two anonymous criminals.  On that day when the glory of God is revealed in the cross, not dazzling light, but total darkness descends.  Yet the glory of God must have also present that day for when a Roman officers sees he declares,
“Surely he is the Son of God”.

Sermon – January 31, 2016

Bible Readings

Jeremiah 1:4 – 10

Luke 4:21 – 30

Jeremiah was a young man with a fair bit of angst about him.   He had a stormy, tumultuous relationship with God.  A love/hate relationship you could say.  He felt called to be a prophet, to proclaim the word of God to his generation. We read of his call in today’s bible passage.  It was unfortunately Jeremiah’s lot to have a  message of woe and destruction. God’s judgement is upon the decadence within the land.  Later sections of the book of Jeremiah contain words of forgiveness and restoration but that comes further down the track.  And of course no-one wanted to hear it the earlier messages of judgement, but Jeremiah could not stop declaring it.   

The prophet took no pleasure in his words of judgment and in fact he thinks of his words as warnings – a call and an opportunity to change.  Jeremiah thinks at one stage he will just keep his mouth shut. He says he tried but the world of the Lord burns his bones from trying to keep it in. And so Jeremiah is in a huge bind and he lays the blame for his dilemma squarely at the door of God who calls him to be a prophet to the nation.

And so it is for Jesus of Nazareth.  Two young men both called to a prophetic ministry.  Both called to the hardest task of all – prophetic ministry amongst your own people.  Both carrying the burden of call and the excruciating dilemma of the cost.

Young man, well youngish, with a prophetic message.  And not a popular one it seems.

Here is the local boy made good, come back to his own people, his home synagogue.  And the interesting thing is Jesus seems, according to this text, to go out of his way to pick a fight; to provoke those who are locals and parochial – you see they never express any of the sentiments Jesus accuses them of.  But Jesus seems to have unearthed this mentality, this mind set that perhaps the people were barely conscious of themselves.   Like Stan Grant and his recent exposing of the inherent racism that plays out as an undercurrent in Australian history in such legal figments as Terra Nulls and the denial of statehood to Aboriginal people for most of Australia’s history.  But it is not just a distant history we are talking of here.  Grant made the shocking point that an Aboriginal kid is more likely to go to prison than finish secondary school. There is a cost to this prophetic role for Stan Grant, Jeremiah and Jesus. in so doing each becomes the Outsider.  We seem the dramatic way events turned for Jesus from the well regarded and approving words of the townsfolk to what happens in this week’s reading when they run him out of town – manhandle him it seems and drag him to the edge of the cliff overlooking the town – as if preparing to hurl him off. 

(Just an aside, I came across this bizarre quote during the week “When we assumed office four years ago we stood on the edge of the precipice. Since then, we have taken a giant leap forward”. As quoted by Prime Minister Tony Blair during a White House Toast on 5th February 1998.)

Jesus’ justice manifesto is not new, nothing original – it is all quoted from an ancient prophet, Isaiah, hundreds of years earlier, about 700 years earlier.  Jesus has nothing to work with but the prophetic and law tradition of Israel.

The radical, confronting, challenging thing is Jesus message is not so much the program of justice making and compassion . The “today” this has been fulfilled in your hearing is the radical new thing. Today.  It seems not to even be dependent upon their response, their agreement.  Just fulfilled in their hearing.  Like Jesus picks up this ancient sacred scroll and throws it at them, and hits them on the collective head and stuns them into attention to his contemporary words of commentary upon the ancient words.

Today is the time of fulfilment, today is the chosen time of God to be found, active.  Today is God’s chosen theatre of activity. Here and now.

There are two ways of measuring time.  First what I call clock time.  Only us oldies wear watches nowadays but it is time as measured by that second hand running around in a circle.  60 seconds to the minute, 60 minutes to the hour.  In that allocation of time we are all equals.  No matter who you are, what you are doing 60 seconds to the minute and 60 minutes to the hour and 24 hours in the day.  Doesn’t matter if you are waiting execution in a prison minutes from dying or giving birth in the maternity ward over at Sunshine Hospital.  60 seconds to the minute, 60 minutes to the hour.  Does not matter if you are going on a date with your new boy or girlfriend, or celebrating your 53 rd wedding anniversary as Penaia and Maisie are doing today.  60 seconds to the minute.  That is time measured by watches.  It is called Chronos.

But in the Bible there is another sort of time and it is more often talked about. It is the decisive moment.  It is the time God breaks into our lives.  It is the moment of decision, the time of commitment, the occasion of decisive action.  We call this sort of time “Kairos”.  The time when God or the Reign of God draws near and you are called upon to respond.  It is that sense of time being fulfilled that Jesus is on about in today’s gospel.

Oh yes, God has been active in the past, but what has that to do with you and me?  Only to confirm once again that God will be present and active Today.  God is stirring.  We do not gather in the name of or in the presence of a false dead God, but the living God of the living saints.  Of the living, today God of the prophets whether known as Isaiah or Jeremiah, or Mandela or King or Romero. If we do not believe that is true today then lets pack it in and all spend our Sunday mornings like 90% of Australia’s population – in bed, having a leisurely brunch, walking the dog – all attractive options indeed.

Barak Obama is coming to the end of 8 years of American Presidency.  At the beginning of his term to understand more of what he was about I read a book of his life and reflections called  The Audacity of Hope.  A little like a manifesto of what he was on about; in that sense a little  like the words Jesus read out in last week’s gospel, The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…

Obama  writes of his political hero Abraham Lincoln.  A conviction politician if ever there was one; yet Obama also points out that Lincoln could also be terribly pragmatic. He would negotiate, test and bargain, appoint and sack various generals, stretch the limits of the Constitution

On this matter of “Today” as the call to action for the time has come, the kairos of God he writes,

“I like to believe that for Lincoln, it was never a matter of abandoning conviction for the sake of expediency.  Rather it was a matter of maintaining within himself the balance between two contradictory ideas – that we must talk and reach for common understandings, precisely because all of us are imperfect and can never act with the certainty that God is on our side; and yet at times we must act nonetheless, as if we were  certain, protected from error only by providence… (Reminds me of Luther’s comment –Since we know we are going to sin, for this is inevitable despite our best intentions at least let us sin boldly)

The other point Lincoln makes and that Obama picked up is that we should pursue our own  truths only if we acknowledge and have already factored in the chilling thought that there may be a price to pay.” P. 98

An aside on the comment about having God on our side – there is a story of the woman who buttonholed Lincoln after a meeting and said “Mr Lincoln be assured God is on our side” and he replied, “Well for me the far more important question is am I on God’s side”?

On this occasion Jesus avoids the terrible price to pay – for now.  Jesus moves on, beyond the reach of the congregation, beyond the constraints of small town prejudice, of inner city political correctness, of liberal, trendy soft inclusiveness to the suffering, sacrificial, tough love of the gospel of crucifixion and resurrection.  He moves through them, to another crowd, another sermon, another hope, always in front, always elusive, always free.  By now we have learnt it could not be any other way with our Lord and Saviour.

Sermon – January 24, 2016

I will try to regularly post sermons here from time to time … see I am already cutting myself some slack!  I realise a printed sermon is but a pale shadow of the preached in the midst of the gathered community experience but maybe someone will have an idle moment or have a sick day and … who knows?  And apologies in advance to anyone who recognizes their own words or thoughts in any of these sermons.  My only defence is that I am sure you pinched it off someone!

I virtually always use the lectionary.


Bible Readings for January 24, 2016

Luke 4:14 – 21,

1 Corinthians 12:12 – 31

We are still in the season of epiphany – those who have been here over the past few weeks will recall me saying that epiphany is all about the the revealing of Jesus, disclosing who he is, showing forth the glory of the Lord.  It is about that most modern of preoccupations…identity.  It is about asking, “Who is this one”?

It is a vital question, not just for the obvious category of teenagers grappling with this issue, but also your more mature person, as I read recently in the Toronto Sun.  The paper reports that a tourist group traveling by bus in Iceland made a pit stop near the canyon park. The woman in question went inside to freshen up and change her clothes at the rest stop, and when she came back “her busmates didn’t recognize her.”

Word spread among the group of a missing passenger, and the woman didn’t recognize the description of herself. Next thing you know, a 50-person search party was canvassing the area, and the coast guard was mobilizing to deploy a search party of its own.

About 3am, some genius in the group finally figured out that the missing woman was actually in the search party, albeit in different clothes, and the search was called off.

No word on what kind of wardrobe was involved in this woman’s “freshening up.” But her sense of self-image must be way out of whack to join a search party until 3am without even suspecting for a minute that the woman in the description bore some resemblance to herself.

Jesus has gone back to the home town of Nazareth.  A pretty nondescript town that apart from this mention is pretty much unknown either in or outside the Bible.  Probably an agricultural village of around 500 – 2000 people just off a major trade route that ran between Egypt and Asia.  One of those places the young people invariably move away from to study, marry, get a job.  Very few move to these towns. Putting those snippets together you would be thinking locally of ….????

The local boy stands and reads from the scriptures (I’m paraphrasing slightly )

God’s Spirit is on me;
God has chosen me to preach the Message of good news to the poor,
Sent me to announce pardon to prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind,
To set the burdened and battered free, to announce, “This is God’s year (God’s time, God’s Kairos) to act!”

The words Jesus quoted in today’s Bible reading are from the prophet Isaiah who lived around 700 years before Jesus.  That makes them around 2700 years old.

The thing is they are still being fulfilled.  I never tire of saying that the way we are to read the Bible is as if it is far more interested in what is happening today than what happened 2000 years ago.And what our faith teaches us is that being Christian, being part of the church, means being the people who are commissioned to be focussed upon bringing this vision to reality. 

The apostle Paul picks up this idea of being Christian means having a role to play, a task to fulfil up with his body language.

The body of Christ is one of Paul’s images for what it means to be the church, the community gathered into being by the Spirit, around the resurrected Jesus. Christ’s identity, the revealing of Christ, is through the Body of Christ – i.e. the church. It is not Paul’s only image, but it is one of his favourites.  I wonder what it was in a living, organic image of a body that appealed to Paul? He does give us some strong indications.

Paul tells us we are the Body of Christ, both in our strengths and in our weakness, in our vulnerabilities and frailty and shame. And supremely in today’s reading, in our differences.  Paul puts the spotlight in today’s passage about being the body of Christ upon the differences in spiritual gifts.  And he does it very strongly with a “unity in diversity” theme. Our differences as the body of Christ are not obstacles to overcome, but gifts to delight in, that enrich us and enable us to be who we are. But what I have learned over the years is people find it hard to name their strengths, or in today’s terms, our spiritual gifts.   Whenever I have done the exercise of asking people to write down  their strengths or what they like about themselves down one side of the paper and what they do not like about themselves, or their work area in their lives down the other side of the paper the side with the strengths is  always light on.  So with spiritual gifts – it’s like we have been unable to identify them, or we have thought to do so is boastful and arrogant.  “What me? Gifted by the Spirit!” we too often shudder, as if these were gifts we had earned or bestowed upon ourselves.

Paul’s view of the Church is a place gifted variously by God and as a place where we address difference. But we have to be very careful with this thing that we are charged with creating space for people with difference as the body of Christ.  That easily becomes patronizing.  Let me tell you the day I learnt most about that. One of my profound experiences of church was sitting at a task group meeting dealing with inclusion of people with disabilities.  The token person with a disability was a feisty woman in a wheelchair.  It turned out she was more than a token.  When the conversation went along those lines of the creation of space for the disabled to be part of the church– she finally snapped and glaring at us she exclaimed, “What are you people on about?  You do not have to work at including disabled people as part of the church.  We already are.  The only question is when you people are going to wake up to this and start treating us as what we are and how Christ treats us”.  Kind of changed the slant of the rest of the meeting as I recall.

Now there is a pretty bland version of that we sometimes settle for in the church, or even in the more liberal minded parts of our society.  For some people it means little more than a bunch of like minded people that can reflect back to you how you think of yourself and you can retreat to when you need a little ego bolstering.

Paul takes it to a whole new level when he speaks of community as a non voluntary thing.  Paul’s points seems to be that the more differences are held within a body the stronger, more enriched and more complete is that body.  Yeah, you are not in this community cos you looked at the people and their habits and practices and decided you share something and would like to join.  Now, Paul says, Christ is a single body with many parts, and all of us, whether Jews or Gentiles, slaves or free, (that is all the things that would hopelessly divide us if this were merely a bunch of likeminded people) have been baptised into the one body by the same spirit.  The rather startling conclusion we must come to is I reckon you could almost say if there was not someone in this church you did not look like, did not share much in common, then what is our unity based upon? Is it anything more than common interests or values?  And there are Christian communities like that. 

Nathan Nettleton makes a good point when he says that Paul’s argument, on the other hand, is not a pragmatic or self-interested one. The reason we are to value and dignify everyone equally is not because it will be beneficial, though it might be, but because of who Jesus is and what Jesus is doing. The first line of our reading gave a strong hint about this. It says, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with ….” the Church? No, it doesn’t say that. It says “so it is with Christ”. It doesn’t even say “with the body of Christ.” It just says “so it is with Christ”. We are to be a unified body in which all members are valued and treated with honour and dignity, not merely because it works better, but because we are called to be a reflection of Jesus Christ and that is what he is like and what he is on about.

The quickest most powerful way to overcome prejudice is to spend time having a conversation or a coffee, or even better and profoundly Christian, eating a meal so looking into the eye of someone who is different, whether, koori, mental illness or disability, gay, refugee, unemployed, the addicted, the depressed, the homeless.  Or a white middle aged, middle class male.  It all depends doesn’t it?

Paul sees this being “the body of Christ” as the defining relationship of not just our spirituality, but our humanity.  We are baptised into Christ and this bunch of people, flaws and all, is the body of Christ. The only entry requirement for the body of Christ is to profess Jesus is Lord and beyond that we are stuck with each other.

What if it is more than a cliché, an easy rolling off the tongue expressions, the body of Christ?  What if those Catholics at Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception (does not sound like us does it?) are part of us and we of them, what if the same could be said of the Holy Apostles Anglicans down on Anderson St and the Presbyterians  and the Weslyean Methodists, and the Sudanese and the Chin and the Potter’s House? Enjoy church in sunshine North with 1800 people attending a Sunday? To my shame the only church leader I have met in 5 months here at Sunshine Uniting is Colin from the Salvos who I met at the interfaith group and we had a coffee together. So I have to do something about that because what if together we literally are to think of ourselves as the resurrected body of Christ.  Maybe we all have a piece of the puzzle, a gift that belongs to the body.