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.

sermon Christ the King (Reign of Christ)

Today is the final Sunday of the Church liturgical year – next week we arrive for worship and it will be the first of the 4 weeks in Advent.  The Church in a move designed to pick up and present to us the whole year of worship and prayer and singing and scripture reading – the church designates this final Sunday of the year as Christ the King Sunday.  Or as it is increasingly being called, “Reign of Christ”.

In our lectionary the last Sunday of the year strikes pretty much the same note as we will commence the new year – anticipation and expectation.  As I am fond of saying you may by now be picking up – Christianity is far more future oriented than past oriented.  It was born in an outpouring of barely containable anticipation of the return of Christ and has only taken on the role of genteel preserver of a revered past when it has lost its vision and urgency of the coming of the Lord of Creation who challenges every worldly pretender to authority.

There is no scriptural order to establish this day and to be honest I just can’t see Jesus urging his followers to establish a Christ the King Sunday to honour him. The one time he was directly asked if he was a king – when bound and brought before Pilate he refused to accept that title.   It is actually a far more recent invention of the Roman Catholic Church –it only dates from 1925 as Europe attempted to arise from the wreckage of WW1 and the church rightly suspected its power to be a political king or queen maker was rapidly drawing to a close.  You choose for yourself if you opt for the more cynical version of the story that Pope Pius was desperately attempting to cling to some imperial power for the church in inventing this festival where the church could retain the privelege of  naming at least one King, or was it simply what it declares at face value – the theological truth that Jesus Christ is the one who shall reign for ever and ever.

Either way it remains an open question whether the church either in 1925 or today has fully grasped the audacity of what it was doing in calling its members to the very same declaration that got Jesus executed by the state as a subversive.

Let us be clear on this – Jesus did not get himself executed for feeding people, or healing the sick, not for walking on water or telling parables.  The sign on his cross listing the charge against him was quite specific; it read, “Jesus of Nazareth – King of the Jews”.

One of the many things this story tells us is that Jesus was not brought down by atheism and anarchy. He was brought down by law and order allied with religion, which is always a deadly mix. Beware of those who claim to know the mind of God and who are prepared to use force, if necessary, to make others conform. Beware of those who cannot tell God’s will from their own. Temple police are always a bad sign. When chaplains start wearing guns and hanging out at the sheriff’s office, watch out. Someone is about to have no king but Caesar

Issue for us on a Sunday such as Christ the King, or reign of Christ, is we are not yet Christian.   By that I mean we do not allow Christ to shape our words, images, symbols, and then use that Christian language to critique the world.

Scripture largely unknown in Australia… Pointless is a game show with a twist.  100 members of the public are asked to answer questions in various categories.  For instance words that end in “aer” or Australian Prim Ministers, or Olympic swimmers etc. Contestants have to give a correct answer but the most obscure of the 100 answers.  And the aim is to get a “pointless” answer – that is so obscure none of the 100 people thought of it.  I was astonished to see “New Testament” books was a recent category.  And there were lots of pointless answers!  Understandably the 4 gospels got the most nominations – followed bizarrely by the book of Revelation.  You can look up the full list by googling Pointless.

What this means when we do not know the story of Jesus is  we get an image of Kings or Queens, or Presidents, or power or whatever… and say Oh  that is what a king looks like and how they act.  And then along comes the bible or the church and says Christ is a King, and already having this idea in our heads we say, “oh yeah we know about that, we know what a king is like, so Christ must be one of those”.  The gospel of John says precisely the opposite to what most people would hear when the church says, “Christ the King”. And if you have picked up during this sermon that I am pretty ambivalent about this day and its designation of Christ the King, my only justification is that  I got it from John’s gospel which is hugely ambivalent about presenting Jesus in any way shape or form as a King.  There is massive irony going on here as this bound and mocked lone pretender to kingship is arrayed before his earthly ruler who has power of life and death over him.  John’s gospel is quite clear that you cannot link in the one phrase Christ and King without putting in a massive disclaimer.

Reading online in preparation for this week and ad breaks into the article.  Was an ad for State Liberal Party (but that irrelevant) Get back in  control.  Matthew Guy

Point is the question about what authority, rule, power, is.

Let’s not take for granted what we went through yesterday – being able to choose our leader. Both winning and losing candidates usually mention that fact that the people have spoken, and we live a democracy.  Let’s never gloss over the possibility of being able to say to our leader – well we have grown a bit weary of you, you’ve had a good run, time for someone else now.   I think even Jesus would have been aghast at the thought of a people being able to do that.

Let’s not take all that for granted.

When John’s gospel puts Jesus and kingship together there is so much irony to the extent it would be far more accurate to call Christ the anti-King, in the same way some figures are anti-heroes.  They challenge, overturn and subvert all we have ever known learnt about heroes or kings from other places.  For instance the later church dressed Jesus up in the finery of kingly garb of crowns and gowns and scepters, mostly forgetting that this “king” had only the clothes he stood in and told his followers when out on his business to not even worry about the extra shirt.

So if this is what kingship, Lordship, leadership is about then every king, PM and leader will have to be assessed by how they measure up to this Jesus.  If Jesus is King or ruler then kings and rulers and lords and leaders must be different to what we see around us.  Love your enemies and do good to those who persecute you.   If Jesus is Lord then Barack Obama, Donald Trump Malcolm Turnbull, Tony Abbot, Bill Shorten, Sco Mo, Therese May, Putin, nor the Queen, nor Australia itself, nor families, nor the economy is Lord.

His strength revealed in weakness he is our saviour because he did not save himself.