Sermon: Australia Day Commemoration 25th January 2015

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 7am, 8am and 10am

Readings:   Jeremiah 29:4-14  Psalm 145:1-9   1 Thessalonians 5:12-24     John 8:31-36

Terra Australis (Latin for South Land) was a hypothetical continent first posited in antiquity and which appeared on maps between the 15th and 18th centuries. Austria is the land of the east. Australia is the land of the south.

Although the landmass was drawn onto maps, Terra Australis was not based on any actual surveying of such a landmass but rather based on the hypothesis that continents in the Northern Hemisphere should be balanced by land in the south. This theory of balancing land has been documented as soon as the 5th century on maps by Macrobius, who uses the term Australis on his maps.

In the early 1800s Matthew Flinders had popularized the naming of Australia after Terra Australis, giving his rationale that there was “no probability” of finding any significant landmass anywhere more south than Australia.

Terra Australis was one of several names applied to the continent of Australia, after its European discovery. Other names for the hypothetical landmass have included Terra Australis Ignota, Terra Australis Incognita (“The unknown land of the South”) or Terra Australis Nondum Cognita (“The Southern Land Not Yet Known”), Brasiliae Australis, Magallanica or Magellanica (“the land of Magellan”), La Australia del Espíritu Santo (Spanish: “the southern land of the Holy Spirit”), and La grande isle de Java (French: “the great island of Java”).

Australia as we know it today, was established by an unwilling group of prisoners, military men and their families, an unlikely clergyman and the original inhabitants. The convicts and their minders were sent to a strange land, into exile, not unlike the Jews who were taken into captivity in Babylon where they lost all that was familiar to them and by so doing so discovered themselves. The prophet Jeremiah seeks to console the people and encourages them by suggesting ways in which they could come to terms with their exile. That teaching still holds today for us because in many ways as the first European settlers discovered, we are still strangers and sojourners in a strange land. How then are we to live in Australia in peace how do we discover our true identity as a nation?

The Bible modifies our common understandings of the way things are or should be, especially about peace. There are many ways in which they correspond to what we would expect and to our human need for peace and wellbeing. To find one’s peace in enemy territory is not expected. The peace for Israel is to be found in sub­mission and acceptance of foreign domination in exile in Babylon.

If the components sound right, the place sounds wrong, but that is the point about the Lord’s peace. There are often ways in which peace will not fit what we expect or want and there are lines of connection to the peace Christ gives that is not as the world gives. It is real, but it may come by way of a cross or exile.

Yet the vision is still one of peace; the blessing the Lord offers to exiles is the possibility of good and wellbeing in the midst of judgment and punishment. We expect one or the other. Biblical stories are often more complex and realistic than our own imaginations. The punishment of transportation was real for both prisoner and gaoler. The vast majority of those who went into exile did not return home. In the midst of exile, there is the possibility of life, even as Jeremiah claimed that in the midst of foreign domination there was the possibility of survival.

Jeremiah called for the people to “multiply and not decrease” in exile recalling God’s blessing as expressed in Genesis. The blessing of God is often away from the place where we expect it. It may be down in Egypt and lead to slavery: it may come in Babylon in the midst of foreign exile: it may even be in the Great South Land of the Holy Spirit. Blessing, peace and life are possible outside the expected. In Babylon and in Australia, the people are offered these gifts in the midst of judgment and punish­ment.

On Australia Day it is hard to contemplate the call to accept domination, to make one’s peace while deported, to settle in and live normal lives on enemy territory. We are not Judean exiles, but there may be an underlying challenge to some of our thinking in hearing about their story, if in no other way than making us think about the possible modes of judgment and survival for either the church or the nation in our own time.

Exile might turn out to be our lot even in our everyday lives. If it does, at least we know there was a time when God’s people were sent into exile and called to live there, to find their wellbeing by carrying on their lives in a hostile, foreign territory and they survived. The convicts, their guards and the Aborigines survived to become the wonderful nation of which we are now a part.

One of the tasks of settling into exile is to seek the good in what is happening. It is a call to find one’s wellbeing in seeking blessing in unfortunate situations. How does one live in captivity? Apparently, part of living in captivity is tying oneself to the wellbeing of the captors and the new environment. Jesus suggested that praying for those who persecute us is a part of the way the kingdom of God is established on earth. For Israel, such praying began in Babylon.

In this reading, we encounter one of many instances of the paradox of divine activity in Scripture. The saving work of God is what God has “planned” and proposed. That is the whole point of these verses and the transportation of the convicts to Australia. The text is explicit about the length of time and the Lord’s shaping of this history: “I know the plans I have for you.

At the same time, it is equally true that what happens is very much shaped and affected by human acts, human decision, human words. Such is the case with regard to the divine plan for judgment, for the Lord has spoken often through the prophet to call the people to turn from their sinful ways so that judgment might be averted, that the plan and intention of God might be changed. The future deliverance is also shaped and affected by human words and actions as the prayers of the people go up to God and are heard.

What God intends to do is signifi­cantly affected by what human beings do. Therefore, the Lord who intends to bring the people home calls upon them to pray for just that thing to happen so that God may listen and respond. Human freedom and divine will, or, if you will, divine freedom and human will. One end of that polar­ity is not subordinated to the other.

God’s will and freedom do not run rampant over human words and deeds, good or bad, nor does human thinking so control what happens that God is unable to effect the divine purposes. What happens occurs within that tension, so we count on God to be God and pray to God in order to bring that about. Out of the decision of the British government to send convicts to New South Wales, a great nation has sprung up under the guidance of God.

Paul pursues further the idea of peace in difficult situations; “Give thanks in all circumstances”. Most of us would want to adjust Paul’s words to qualify his direction. Perhaps the convicts in their time and we in ours would have liked Paul to say “in some circumstances” or “in some things”. That would be more acceptable for our own practical tastes, more suitable for our own set of realities, but in every circumstance? That has to be one of the most adventurous lines of thinking ever embarked on the rough waters of reason and it seems to human understanding destined for shipwreck and more exile.

He means “all”. Has Paul asked people to do the impossible? Can a person face a fresh set of abuses every day and give thanks? Can a person rise above the scars left by years of abuse at the hands of another person and give thanks? Can the children abused in institutions or churches or families give thanks, being one so abused I can say yes!

Worship of God is the context for all of life, not just the part we devote to God during our time in church. In the words of the theologian, Karl Rahner, “Everyday life must become itself our prayer”. If all of life is worship for those who seek to do God’s will, then thanks and peace are the inevitable products. In all circumstances we give thanks for Australia even though the going can at times be very rough. Whether good or bad be our lot, a life of worship seeking to please and honour God and doing God’s will means perpetual thanksgiving and the gift of the peace that passes understanding.

Life’s depths, not solely its surfaces, must gain our attention. Paul Tillich, another theologian, speaks of the “depth of existence” as the “ground of our historical life … the ultimate depth of history”. Tillich’s words are not a call for living near the shallow waters of life, where thoughts are restricted to appearances near the shore. Yet, most of us live near shallow waters and we judge our lives by visible, surface and indeed superficial things, that is, the occasional good things or bad things that happen to us.

Our nation is and we are challenged to move to a depth in which there are weightier truths that make it possible for us to give perpetual thanks. From the depths of our history, from which we get a comprehensive frame for life, we can defy circumstances, without ever glibly dismissing them. From the depths of life, a life “hidden with Christ in God”, we can take the onetime cross of shame and declare it to be God’s choice over that which conventionally brings honour. From the depths of life, as the early Australians’ discovered, can come the understanding that in apparent darkness is light and good does come. God is not a distant God but a God who struggles with humans in life so that in spite of all, good will result. In spite of our earlier struggles and those that confront us at the present and in the future, God has blessed us with our wonderful country.

 

Advance Australia Fair![1]

 

 

[1] This sermon composed using The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol’s VI and XI, 2001 and 2002, Abingdon Press, Nashville, http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/BEpAdvent3.htm by William Loader, and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terra_Australis

The Reverend John Cornish

Sermon: 2nd Sunday after Epiphany (B) – 18th January 2015

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 7am, 8am and 10am

Readings: 1 Samuel 3:1-10  Psalm 139: 1-5, 12-18  1 Corinthians 6:12-20  John1: 43-51

Divine revelation is everywhere. In one way or another, God influences each creature and each moment. God provides each moment of life with a vision and the energy to seek the highest good for itself and its environment. God touches each life with possibility, energy and vision. Each moment reflects a dynamic process of relationship between God and each one of us.

Today’s readings describe the many faces of revelation. God’s presence and activity is both intimate and all inclusive. The heavens declare the glory of God and God’s glory is also revealed through the chanting of toddlers, nocturnal whispers, beating hearts, and adult inspirations. God is as equally present in our DNA as in our souls. All things exist because of God’s energy and inspiration coursing through them.

There are no God-forsaken places or persons. This spiritual insight leads to interpersonal and ethical responses: we are challenged to experience, honour, and support God’s movements in all creation. While this may complicate our decisions, it opens us to a world of wonder and beauty. Despite our turning from God, God is always turning toward us. There is hope for transformation in the most dire situations and most despicable people.

The call of Samuel reminds us that children as well as adults can be God’s messengers to the world. God is moving through boys and girls listening while playing at the back of the church. Samuel is both an unlikely and likely candidate for divine inspiration. He is a child and hardly expected to hear the voice of God and yet he does. Yet, from the beginning of his life, he was a child of promise as his mother dedicated him to God and her fidelity to her promise may have opened unexpected ways of God’s presence in his life.

In the call and response, the care that others, our parents, children and friends, have for us; their vision of our possibilities, enables God to be more present in their and our lives. In seeing and honouring God’s presence in our children; and that means all children; we awaken energies of growth and inspiration within them and ourselves.

The call of Samuel reminds us that divine inspiration requires a community to be fully understood. It takes time for Samuel to discover that this voice, a dream, a whisper, an inner inclination, comes from God. After all, God’s voice comes through the many voices of our lives. It takes a process of discernment to discover which of the voices in our lives is most authentic to our vocation as God’s loving and beloved children. Samuel seeks the guidance of Eli.

We all need mentors who, in gentle and non-overbearing ways, call forth our ability to hear God’s voice and movements in our lives. Samuel’s call in not just personal or individual, it is in the context of his life. Our callings, accordingly, draw us deeper into our own experiences and yet lure us toward care for the larger community. The journey of revelation is always both inward and outward, and needs a community of discernment to mature and find direction. Our salvation is just not for our own benefit but for all the lives that we touch.

Young Samuel receives a divine call to become a spiritual leader. This call is not out of nowhere but emerges for his mother’s prayers for a child and her willingness to dedicate Samuel to God’s work. A helper at the Temple, Samuel grows up in the God centred environment and although revelations are scarce growing up in the Temple precincts encourages reflections on the Holy One. Perhaps, the coming together of his mother’s prayers, the environment, Eli’s guidance and Samuel’s attentiveness intensified the divine vision for this young boy.

God “speaks” and Samuel stops to listen and then responds. Our attentiveness to God heightens God’s presence in our lives. Remember what it says in Matthew 7:7: “‘Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” Samuel’s encounter with God reminds us that each moment can be an epiphany, a revealing of God’s vision, often hidden by the busyness of our lives. We need simply to pause and notice and open the door to God’s movement.

Psalm 139 speaks of the revelatory power of being known. The Psalmist’s declaration of God’s intimate knowledge opens a world of possibility for him and for God. God searches and knows us. Each moment is lovingly embraced by God’s awareness of us. God embraces our lives moment by moment, taking them into God’s own life in their joy and sorrow. God’s vision for us is concretely related to our lives in all their complexity. In fact, in the God-us connection, sometimes we call upon God and God responds. God’s vision shapes our lives, but in the course of our lifespan our lives often call upon God for strength and guidance in our own particular situation.

Each person’s life is in a divine environment. We live and move and have our being in relationship to God. God’s care and character determine God’s presence, action and awareness of us. God is not out to get us or use divine knowledge to punish us. God fully knows us and fully loves us. This inspires both wonder and gratitude. More than that, God’s love leads to creating us as awesome and full of wonder from the moment of our conception.

Divine activity sustains all things. Divine knowledge embraces all things. Divine presence supports all things. It is a Psalm of wonder and gratitude, of insight and inspiration, which has profound implications for how we view others and us. We are wonderfully made, we are beautiful, and so is every other child of God, even if they do not know it.

The Gospel reading from John 1 presents one description of the calling of the disciples. Jesus astounds Nathanael by his intimate knowledge of his activities. Both Philip and Nathanael decide to leave their comfort zones and “follow” Jesus. The very act of following ushers them into a new and amazing world. Attending to God’s vision enhances God’s movements in our lives and makes it possible for Nathanael and Philip to see “heaven opened up and the angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man”.

The gospel story presents Jesus’ call to Philip and Nathaniel. While the details of Jesus’ call are sparse, the scripture points out that God calls people in everyday life. Adults can open the doors of perception, experience divinity and come to God in child-like spirits.  John’s gospel describes a community in which our experiences of call and vocational inspiration inspire us to invite others to be part of the Jesus’ movement. There is no compulsion, no special formula here, just invitation. “Come and see.” For those who respond, the heavens open up, new horizons emerge and our lives are forever transformed.

The call of God goes forth everywhere. God invites us to adventure; to see God everywhere, to experience God in our daily lives and welcome revelation whenever and wherever it occurs. We are to be discerning and ask questions of others and ourselves when we have had mystical experiences. In the questioning, inspired by a sense of holiness in all moments and all creatures, we will discover God’s voice amid the voices, and God’s pathways amid the pathways we travel individually and as communities.

In relation to verse 51; “And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man’”, it is important to notice that the New Testament is dependant upon and grows out of the Old Testament. In Daniel 7:13 we read, “As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him.” And, in Genesis 28:12, in the account of Jacob’s dream, “And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.” Jesus then is the focal point of where the earthly and the heavenly, divine and human, temporal and eternal meet.

Our readings remind us to acknowledge the universality of divine revelation. Divine “universality” invites us to experience God in expected and unexpected places and be prepared to bring our experiences to the world in life-changing ways.[1]

 

[1] This sermon composed using material prepared by Bruce Epperly found at http://processandfaith.org/resources/lectionary-commentary/yearb/2012-01-15/second-sunday-after-epiphany http://processandfaith.org/resources/lectionary-commentary/yearb/2015-01-18/second-sunday-after-epiphany

and The New Interpreter’s Bible, Abingdon Press, Nashville, Vol XI, 1995

The Reverend John Cornish

 

Sermon: The Epiphany of our Lord (B) – 4th January 2015

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 7am, 8am and 10am

Readings:  Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

Today is Epiphany Sunday. Epiphany these days simply means a revelation, a new understanding, a new insight. We thought we knew a person, and then we saw a whole new side of them, something that surprised us, something that really moved us, and so we had an epiphany.

We all have had an epiphany sometime during our lives. We might have had several of them. They don’t have to be specially religious, rather, they have to be specially moving, or encouraging or life-changing, something we won’t forget, something we will look back to, something we can appreciate because of the new understanding it brings.

This is the aim of counselling according to the humanist Carl Rogers. Through working through the issues of life the client comes to a better understanding of themselves and their world, and this new understanding can come dramatically so it is experienced as an epiphany, a life-changing event, a life-enhancing event which helps the client face whatever it is they need to deal with day-by-day.

But what about the Church’s Epiphany. What are we celebrating here? Epiphany can mean an appearance or a manifestation. Literally it is the idea of light shining all around. So you enter a dark room and you can fumble about until you strike a match and light a candle which lets the light flood into the room.

In the Eastern Church Epiphany was a celebration of the birth of Jesus. It was used to describe the appearing of God in the world. Some ancient kings insisted they be worshipped as Gods and so they used the word in their title. That’s why we have ancient kings with names like Antiochus Epiphanies. But it can be tricky if you want to associate Epiphany with the birth of Jesus because that can sound a lot like Christmas itself.

The Western Church took on the feast of the Epiphany but it was associated with the visit of the Magi, the three kings. Here the message is the appearance of God in the world to these kings. It contains the idea of announcing to the wider world the birth of this king, this Son of God.

And of course, the story of these three kings, even though we are not given a number, we just have these three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, have become the stuff of legend, appearing on Christmas cards year after year. It is hard to imagine a nativity scene without these wise men appearing somewhere.

But we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss these men. What is fascinating about this story is that these men lift the story of the birth of Jesus onto a whole new level.

What do we have otherwise without these three Magi? We have Mary and Joseph, of very humble origins, we have some shepherds in the fields, we have Simeon and Anna making their announcements. But these are all the little people, the poor, the powerless, the outcasts. These are people who have no say in the affairs of state. These people will never have any power. If they were all we had for the Christmas story, then the whole story could be a very private affair amongst the poor and the marginalised in Jewish society.

But the story of the Magi lifts us out of that and places the story of the birth of Jesus on a whole new level.

First we can ask just who are these Magi? They are obviously significant scholars of the day. They were astronomers and astrologers in an age where no distinction was made. It was commonly believed the events on earth were either determined or influenced by what happened in the skies. It was believed the skies were a source of information regarding important events on earth. These men would have been highly educated in the movement of the planets, and would have studied them daily.

Because they were able to devote themselves to full-time research these three would have been very rich men and by definition they would have come from a royal background. They are rich enough that they can afford to travel the world in the search of the new king they believed had been born.

Also, we can note that these men came from the East. Places east of Israel such as around Babylon were famous as centres of learning. It was the Babylonians that taught the Greeks and gave them a head-start in the development of their academies. To describe these Magi as men from the East is a way of verifying their academic credentials. These are not only learned men, they are the best of the best. These are three important men, who, because of what they have seen in the skies believe a king of great significance has been born and they wanted to honour him.

Their travels led them to Israel so it was natural for them to go straight to Herod’s palace. Where else would you find a King? So what we have in effect is a summit meeting of heads of government as they entered Herod’s palace. And the significance of this is event is not lost on Herod. They had seen in the heavens the birth of a great king and these important men had come to pay him homage. Herod must have taken them at their word. Here was a pronouncement of a new King of the Jews coming from an impeccable source. No wonder Herod was frightened. His grip on power was weak and he was now an old man. He no longer had the vigour and wit that he had once relied on. No wonder he so quickly came to the conclusion that he must kill this child.

The chief priests and the scribes could tell Herod and the Magi the end of their quest must lie in Bethlehem and so they set off. And by the stars they came to the house where this special family was now staying.

Now, no doubt you have heard sermons which draw all sorts of conclusions about the three gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh and their significance. At least we can say these gifts were very expensive, they were the kind of gifts that you would give a king. The frankincense and the myrrh alone would have been worth their weight in gold. Also, we can note this would be the easiest way to transport very expensive gifts over a long distance. But they also have all the characteristics of royalty. These Magi have a true understanding of the significance of this birth, of the significance of this baby. This is not just any king of the Jews. This is the one everyone had been waiting for.

This moment was the epiphany for these Magi. They had had their revelation of truth. They had seen something that had changed their lives forever, something they would never forget. And by their actions their epiphany is acted out for us in their visiting of the baby Jesus.

But there is another Bible passage that contains a good understanding of the Epiphany but I think it is rarely used. We find it in John 1. Speaking of Jesus John writes, “In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it. The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.”

This is the message of the Epiphany for our day because as we look around our world we don’t have much trouble finding the darkness. The darkness is always with us. Of course, we have the well-known trouble spots in the middle east. We have the battles with Ebola in Africa. We hear of terrible stories of the stealing of children from orphanages. We know these things and we should respond to fight against them.

But the darkness is also much closer to home. We still have the high rates of domestic violence in Australia. One Australian woman still dies every day because of it. We still have high rates of intergenerational unemployment, and it impacts most amongst children and young school leavers who can’t get a job because their have neither the training nor the experience.

It is all so very heart-warming when we see people being given a Christmas dinner because they can’t afford their own. But they will be back next year and the year after because their problems of unemployment never go away. That darkness never leaves them.

But the darkness is even closer when it enters our own hearts as we think of the hopes and dreams we had that will never be realised, when we find so much of our lives lived as a compromise, when the gap between what we hoped for, what we dreamed of and what we achieve becomes ever wider and so much of each day becomes an exercise in making do and we find the cold grip of darkness enter our hearts.

Like Job, the mountain of suffering and disappointment can grow so large it can almost crush us. And yet, it was when he was at his lowest, Job had his epiphany, and uttered those wonderful words, “I know that my redeemer lives.”

That is the magic of Epiphany, when everything seems hopeless, when disappointment overwhelms us, when the emptiness and the loneliness become too much, we discover at the centre of Christmas is the beating heart of the love of God who wants to get so involved with us, so close to us that he does the impossible, he becomes flesh and blood so that in every way he can say he understands us, that he is with us, that he loves us. The Epiphany is the gift of God to us, it is that wonderful understanding, that great “ah ha” moment, that everything we read of what was done at that first Christmas was done for you. It is all – for you.

 

The Reverend Ross Weaver