Sermon: The Third Sunday in Advent (A) – 15th December 2013

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 7am, 8am, 10am and 6pm

Readings: Isaiah 35:1-10; The Magnificat; James 5:7-10 ; Matthew 11:2-11

Advent invites us to imagine “impossible” futures for our world, and then open ourselves to their power of the Spirit to lure us forward.  Advent invites, and it also judges.  Advent asks, “Where are we going in our personal lives?  How far are we from the vision imagined by Isaiah, Mary, John the Baptist, and Jesus?”  Spiritual teachers speak of the examination of conscience and this examination is at the heart of Advent.  We are a long way from Isaiah’s vision, but the spiritual arc of history challenges us to continue our pilgrimages toward God’s realm.

The metaphor of a highway through a desert that is in bloom is an exuberant way to describe the heart-lifting experience of opening oneself fully to God’s creative, transforming power.  A desert is usually thought of as trackless, or with barely discernible routes.  A highway is a broad thoroughfare that invites travel, incites curiosity about what lies ahead and implies companions along the way.  A desert in bloom is a landscape of beauty and wonder that welcomes travellers.  With words like gladness, rejoicing, joy, abundance and singing, the prophet declares the pathway of God, the “Holy Way”, as endorsed by Creation itself.

Although this passage is a poem of return of the exiles, is it any surprise that early Jesus followers would associate these verses, with the advent of Jesus?  In a world famous for the mastery of Roman roads, one can almost imagine these early followers picturing Jesus as striding down this highway, a living link from the prophetic vision of the past to the pressing need for its renewal in the present.  They would see this “Holy Way” of God, in contrast to the Appian Way of Rome, as a declaration of the right road to take.  They found in Jesus a way to affirm the peace of God over the peace of Rome achieved by violence.

The desert shall bloom, the weak will become strong, the lame will dance and the frightened will become bold.  God’s plan for us is aimed toward wholeness and redemption.  The adventures of ideas of a transformed world reflect God’s vision for nature and humankind.

How shall we respond to Isaiah’s amazing vision?  Is it just a picture in words alone?  Will God somehow bring about this new age of Peace?  Are our efforts essential to realizing the realm of Peace in our world?  However we look at this passage, it is an ideal that shapes history, leaving us with a holy discontent, and an inspiration to creative transformation, first, of ourselves and then the world around us.  In contrast to world-destroying apocalyptic writings, Isaiah’s vision emerges from our world, imaging what a transformed world could be like.  Isaiah seeks a restored world, continuous with the past, but revealing new energies and possibilities, and a new human orientation.

Mary’s song places God on the side of the vulnerable and oppressed.  God’s justice will be done and the poor will be uplifted, the wounded healed, and the wicked punished.  The creator of heaven and earth is biased toward justice.  In the beginning, God brought forth order from primordial chaos.  Throughout history, God continues to bring about new forms of order, confronting the disorder of injustice with the powerful vision of a just and orderly society.  Order is not static in the song’s vision but the foundation of creaturely creativity and adventure: a new heaven and a new earth.

The Advent readings connect divine order on the intimate and the inclusiveness of the cosmos: humanity and nature are synchronized as a result of God’s dynamic call, eliciting innovative responses from human partnership.  Mary’s song imagines a divine reign radically different from any religion past or present.  There is no coercion or domination, but invitation and transformation.  Freedom and creativity are preserved and aligned with the greater good of all creation.

The song exalts God’s preferential care for the poor and dispossessed.  It unites the microcosm with the macrocosm: what God is doing in her life reflects God’s aim for history.  Mary shows the way similar to John the Baptist.  She discovers herself as a bearer of a new age to come.  Her humble and risky situation mirrors the challenges the vulnerable and poor are facing.  God’s work in her life reveals God’s intention to lift up the forgotten and desperate.  God is praised for God’s justice and care for the “unimportant” and not the exercise of brute and coercive power.

The message of both John and Jesus is a call to live according to the way of God and not the way of empire.  The way of God is described over and over again by the prophets: take care of society’s most vulnerable; limit the gap between rich and poor do not use power to further the narrow self-interest of yourself and your friends; do not accumulate wealth at the expense of the poor.  So when John’s disciples question Jesus, he answers in language they both understand: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed.  This is the way of God, definitely not the way of empire.  Nor is this news as reported by political tricksters as it is the good news that can be seen and heard by anyone who is paying attention.

The question put to Jesus is this: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”  By implication, the question is also put to us: is this the one we are to follow or can we prolong business as usual for a while longer while we wait for someone else to come?  If Jesus reveals God by his unswerving fidelity to God’s way of being in the world, then do we not reveal the same when we act in fidelity to Jesus?

The incarnation of God in the world is always already happening, but we can act in ways that bring more light to the strangers in our midst, to our neighbours, our friends and family members, and to ourselves.

John is looking for signs of the Way.  Jesus responds in terms of action there are no creeds or self-referential Messianic statements.  Take a look he says.  Here’s what’s going on.  Jesus has inaugurated a healing community that potentially encompasses the whole creation.  Jesus is embodying Isaiah’s dream and Mary’s praise.  Healing abounds: cells and souls are transformed.  God is doing a new thing that transforms minds, bodies, spirits and relationships, and God wants us to become part of a divine holistic healing adventure.

The passage ends with what, at first glance, appears to be a diminishment of John the Baptist; “the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he”.  This should be read as similar in tone to John 14:12, when Jesus asserts that those who follow him will be able to do greater things than he.  Jesus is affirming our role in the realm of God.  We are to be agents in God’s realm of healing.  We are God’s creative partners in healing the earth.  We are to claim our own energy and power in relationship to God’s loving vision.  Open to God’s vision, we can do great things that heal the world.

Advent presents us with an invitation to partnership, grounded in a holy unrest.  God’s aims for history and our personal lives are always somewhat at odds with the concreteness of our lives and social structures.  Their dissonance invites us to imagine and then embody God’s vision of a new heaven and a new Earth.  We are prone to hopelessness, as reflected in our complacency regarding the growing gap of wealthy and poor and the threats to the Earth through global climate change.  Still, Advent’s horizon of hope inspires us to join a healing pilgrimage, with no certain destination, but with the companionship of God.[1]



[1] This sermon based upon material written by B Epperly and J Slettom

found at www.processandfaith.org.

 

Sermon: The Second Sunday in Advent (A) – 8th December 2013

St Aidan’s Anglican Church West Epping 8.30am

Readings: Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-21; Romans 15:4-13 ; Matthew 3:1-12

“Advent is the beginning of the end of all in us that is not yet Christ,” wrote Thomas Merton.  It is the time Christians set aside for spiritual preparation for the birth of Christ celebrated at Christmas.  Even as Christmas has become more secular, the Advent season still brings joy and the observance of ancient customs.  Christian families find quiet moments lighting candles in the Advent wreath; children use Advent calendars to count the days until Christmas arrives.

Advent is also a pilgrimage.  A time of sacred travel.  It is a way that we answer “the holy longing”.  During Advent, we will leave the place of our birth to journey to the birthplace of another.  It is an invitation to be born again.

“There is great virtue in practicing patience in small things, until the habit of Advent returns to us.”  The disciplines of Advent are ones that teach us to do small things greatly, to do few things but do them well, to love in particular, rather than in general.  This habit of small successes generates creativity, a sense of well-being, a generosity of spirit rooted in satisfaction.  It generates hope.

Christians engaged in social transformation often get discouraged.  We are acutely aware of the evils of the world.  At times, we despair or allow our anger at injustice to be the source of energy in our lives.  Sometimes we actually create despair and depression in our lives when we only fight losing battles.  It is mandatory that we commit ourselves to disciplines that generate hope.

Having fun is not the same as having hope, but they are related.  Dipping in the deep refreshing pool of joy and contentment is one reminder that the world and everything in it, good and bad, belongs to God.  It is our work to live each day as it comes along, receiving our daily bread, doing good, offering hospitality, choosing compassion and forgiveness, serving the “least of these,” singing, praying, and, when night comes, giving our bodies and souls over to sleep.

We light the Advent candles to remind us that things are not always as they seem, and that hope springs forward at the sound of its name.  In William Blake’s poem “Jerusalem”, he wrote:

“I give you the end of a gold string.

Only wind it into a ball,

It will lead you in at Heaven’s gate

built in Jerusalem’s wall.”

The followers of The Way in the first century wove together a “gold string” that reached back to the creation of light in the Genesis story and forward to this very Advent.  There is a golden thread that sews us together as students of Jesus.  Paul calls this thread the “grace of apostleship”.  It is passed, hand to hand, from one generation to the next.  Like young children being guided on a field trip through the big world, we are given a rope and told to hold on.  We know that the rope reaches all the way back to the teacher, the anchor, the shepherd.

Advent is a time to marvel at the golden thread and to make sure that we have not become separated from it.  If, by chance, you have become separated from it, do not be afraid: Jesus extends the end of the string to you again.

The challenge in Advent is less about the future or the past, but about keeping our eyes wide open to where and what God is up to now.  When Advent focuses solely on Christ’s first coming we turn our faith into something that happened back there.  When we focus on his ultimate coming in God’s future we turn the faith into something otherworldly and out there.  In both cases, we risk failing to see Christ’s saving work in our lives right now.

In a classic Advent text from Isaiah, appropriated by the church very early on as a prophetic witness to Jesus being, Great David’s greater Son.  A shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse, and his reign will be glorious.

Israel’s greatest king was David.  After David’s son, Solomon’s reign, things deteriorated.  After one hundred and fifty years of faithless kings and political turmoil, Isaiah reminds the people of God’s promise, saying that though Jerusalem and its king may suffer punishment for sin, God’s chosen city will never be utterly destroyed, nor the Davidic dynasty fall.  The vision Isaiah sketches here is not intended to be a utopian dream about God’s ultimate future.  This is a promise about a king to reign among God’s people now and the quality of life that would come from such a reign.  True, the words about wolf and lamb, leopard and kid, living together in peace and the lion eating straw push the vision out onto the future that is signalled by the words, “On that day reminds us that this promise is as much about now as a future then.  The Spirit-filled Messiah who brings righteousness and justice to bear in the day-to-day lives of his people is named Jesus, and has been living into his messianic reign in the lives of his followers for two thousand years.  When members of his community have embraced his reign, the future becomes present; equity, justice, righteousness and faithfulness emerge.  When the church has not embraced that future present, the old patterns of abuse of privilege and power remain.  The question is are we seeking equity, justice, righteousness and faithfulness, or simply the privilege of belonging to the king?

John’s call for repentance is simply a warning to the people who have long looked for the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy that the Day of the Lord is about to break in with its judgment on those who have abandoned God’s ways.  They want to be washed outwardly but not inwardly.  For all of their piety, for all of their religious observance, for all of their public display of faith, the issues of equity, justice, righteousness and faithfulness, the social implication of God’s reign, were missing in them and they seemed not the least bit concerned about it.  They were, after all, children of Abraham and Abraham’s children who were instructed to be a blessing to all the peoples of the earth.  Can we look the other way in matters of justice, mercy, righteousness and faithfulness and simply claim our relationship to Jesus?  Even now, says John, God’s judgment is unfolding against any one, no matter how pious, no matter how religious, who fails to produce the fruit of the kingdom.

John’s point is simply this: the reign of God is breaking into life and he is simply preparing the way with a baptism of water as a sign of preparation for its coming.  The coming one is so powerful, so anointed with God’s Holy Spirit, so full of God’s presence, that John is not even worthy to carry his sandals.  His baptism will be different from John’s.  It will not be a sign of something we have done.  It will be God’s act immersing us in God’s Spirit and fire.

That is the fundamental difference between John’s baptism and Jesus’ baptism.  John’s baptism was a sign of decisions the people coming to him had made.  It could be done repeatedly as a continuing sign of their repentance.  Those baptized by John were responding to his fearful warning, the coming of God’s reign was a fearful thing.  There was good reason to repent.

The Coming One’s baptism would be different: it would bring with it the results it symbolized.  It would fill the recipient with God’s Spirit, with God’s presence and power and bring with it fire that accomplished God’s judgment.  Christian baptism is first and foremost what God does.  God is filling us with God’s Spirit and Fire.

The Spirit and fire of Jesus’ baptism is God’s presence to touch, awaken and claim us.  God unites us to Christ and empowers us with the Spirit.  We receive God’s presence to judge and destroy those things coming between God, and us and coming between us and our being God’s people.  The Spirit and fire is God’s power to make us into a community that welcomes one another as Christ has welcomed us, a community that is seeking equity, justice, and righteousness as marks of its faithfulness.  The Spirit and fire of God hold us in the transforming presence of Jesus Christ so that we not only trust him as our saviour, but also find power to follow him faithfully in life as Lord.

The reign of David’s Greater Son has come in Jesus Christ.  What John was not ready for was the fact that God’s fire could cleanse and preserve without destroying.  John expected the coming one to be the fierce judge, cutting down trees that did not bear fruit, throwing them into the fire and sweeping the threshing floor clear of wheat to be stored in the granary before burning the chaff with an unquenchable fire.  However, Jesus comes as one who welcomes and forgives sinners, accepts and dines with them, announces God’s love, desire and intention for them and calls them to respond to God’s presence in him.

The One Isaiah proclaims has come and continues to reign in those who welcome him, those who trust him, those who entrust themselves to him.  These he leads into faithfulness.  This is not a future promise.  This is the future present, a promise that is being fulfilled, day in and day out as you and I open ourselves to Christ’s presence in our lives.

The Father sends the Spirit through the Son, to touch us and to awaken us to the fact that we are His, whether Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, and that we and ours belong to God in Jesus Christ.  In so doing, God’s fire emerges within us to consume those things that seek to separate us from God and God’s love and begins to purify and preserve us, tempering us for lives of discipleship.

Water, Spirit and Fire; in baptism they make us the Lord’s, enabling us to love and serve Jesus Christ in this world, living in hope; a hope, says Paul, that fills us with the joy and peace of believing.

Let God glisten in your life.  Let God sweeten your days.  Hold on to your golden string, as your Advent journey is a continuation of your life’s string from God.  “Only wind it into a ball”, my friend, and “it will lead you in at Heaven’s gate”.[i]



[i] This sermon composed using material from http://www.mapc.com/worship/sermons/2007/12/09/water-spirit-and-fire

The Rev. Dr. Fred R. Anderson and, www.sojo.org/index.cfm?action=resources.sermon_prep_subscription, Rose Marie Berger

Sermon: The Feast of Christ the King 2013 – 24th November 2013 – Martin Davies

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

Readings: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Song of Zechariah; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43

It is wonderful to be here again at S Alban’s, where Julianne and I experienced great warmth of welcome and hospitality, in the all-too-short time that we were able to be part of this community of faith.  Julianne is sorry not to be here today, as she is in the diocese of Machakos in Kenya on an ABM visit.  Thank you Fr John for inviting me to preach at today’s liturgy.

——–

The title of today’s feast, of Christ the King, may lead us to think also of earthly kings and rulers.  In biblical and other religious and secular histories, it was common to locate the events and people being described, within the reign of the emperor or king at the time.

So for example, if I were to describe myself in this way – which to our ears now seems somewhat odd – I would say that I was born in the second year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II.  I might also want to locate myself even more specifically within a particular religious, civil, and geographical context, and in a particular era.  So I could add, that I was born during the pontificate of Pope Pius XII, during the arch-episcopate of Geoffrey Fisher of Canterbury, and the episcopates of Edward Joyce and Alwyn Warren, respectively Roman Catholic and Anglican bishops of Christchurch NZ.  At that time, in that land across the water, Lord Norrie was Governor General, and Sidney Holland Prime Minister.

The Feast of Christ the King is a very different type of celebration than that of an earthly civil or religious ruler.  Today is also sometimes known as the feast of Christ the Universal King.  While there have been rulers who aspired to universal power, once that sort of language is used, we can no longer relate it to our ordinary experience of temporal rulers, unless they are power-crazed maniacs.

To get a better understanding of Christ as King, let us go back to today’s Gospel reading.  Have you ever considered, that even in their taunting, the leaders, the soldiers and the criminal in today’s gospel are made to acclaim Jesus as the Christ of God, the Chosen One, the King of the Jews.  Likewise, the repetition of the word saved  –  he saved others  …  let him save himself  …  save yourself  …  save yourself and us as well  –  acknowledges even in scorn, what we proclaim in faith; that Christ is our Saviour.  By this twist of irony, S Luke transforms the cross into a throne of victory, the accusation of crime into an act of faith, and mockery into confession.

The inscription placed above the crucified Christ was intended by Pilate to provoke the Jews.  Both the soldiers and the leaders mocked Jesus; and it was one of those crucified with him who took Jesus seriously, with his prayer Remember me, when you come into your kingdom.

In a meditation, the twelfth-century Cistercian S Bernard of Clairvaux asks that Christ will remove the stumbling-blocks within himself, so that Christ may come to reign in Bernard.  He says

Greed comes along and claims its throne in me; arrogance would dominate me; pride would be my king.  Comfort and pleasure say: We shall reign!  Ambition, detraction, envy, anger fight within me for supremacy, and seem to have me entirely in their power.  But I resist insofar as I can; I struggle against them insofar as I receive your help.

The lesson for us from S Bernard, is that Christ’s kingdom is not a place, but is a people who give their hearts lovingly to him, by shaping their lives according to the Gospel.  It is possible to live with Christ within us, if we open our lives, our hearts and our very being, to the grace of God.

Today’s gospel invites us to ask what and where are the signs and places and events of Christ’s way – Christ’s reign – among us?  Christ’s reign in our lives and in the Church won’t appear as if by magic.  It requires our cooperation, our willingness to host it, to bring it about.  In the same way that Jesus’ birth could not have taken place through Mary without her cooperation, so too, Christ cannot live in us without our wholehearted assent.  The reign of Christ is, surely, a new creation.  It is, as S Matthew’s gospel spells out for us, a world in which the sick and poor are visited, the hungry are fed and the thirsty quenched.

The great Russian Orthodox theologian Fr Alexander Schmemann, called the liturgy the journey of the Church into the dimension of the kingdom.  In other words, liturgy sets out to cooperate in recreating the world in God’s terms.  Therefore what we say and do in the actions and words of the Eucharist, we have to translate into how we are and what we are, after we have said as we are leaving, that We go in the name of Christ. (For the Life of the World)

In a word, if the reign of Christ is to be in us, and is to be evident in us, we have to become the bread of the Eucharist.  Like that bread, we have to be offered, blessed, broken and shared for the life of the world.  And we need to be mindful that we share the bread of the Eucharist in an unsharing world.  We then need to discern what we can do to change that.  We may not be able to influence world economics, but we can assess whether our personal attitudes and actions are consistent with sharing for the life of those around us, or whether we are closed off and remain within ourselves.  The Eucharist with its bread – and us – being offered, blessed, broken and shared, and with its wine poured out for the life of the world, is the model of how we are to be, in the reign of God.

To paraphrase the great S Teresa of Avila, for the reign of Christ to be in us and among us, we must be Christ’s eyes and ears, being attentive in our seeing and hearing; we must be his hands and feet, going where he would go and blessing where he would bless; we must be Christ’s mouth now, speaking his words and speaking for those who have no-one to speak for them.

We have heard of this throughout the year of the proclamation of S Luke’s Gospel.  Luke gives us a picture that is well summarized in the wonderful canticles of his Gospel, of Magnificat, Nunc Dimittis, and as we heard this morning, in the Benedictus.  Listen to those urgent and welcoming Benedictus words and phrases: holiness and justice; living in God’s presence; making known salvation; forgiveness of sins; guiding into the way of peace.  These themes echo all the way from the justice and righteousness we heard in today’s reading from Jeremiah.  I like the sound of this kingdom more and more.

It is a kingdom that should be very contagious.  I have a book at home with the title, The Contagion of Jesus: Doing Theology as if it Mattered (Sebastian Moore OSB).  Although the book itself is a wonderful collection of essays, more than anything it is the title itself that catches my attention.  Put aside our common linking of contagious with winter ‘flu and with disease, and imagine for a moment a happy contagion where the life, the reign, the kingdom of Christ is so irresistible, that we truly live the kingdom within us and around us, as if it mattered, as if our life depended on it.

When we put together what we can begin to see in the Benedictus, of the shape of the reign of God that Christ came to bring, and put these words alongside the beautiful Colossian Christ-hymn which we heard today, we do indeed see a vision of Christ as Universal King which far exceeds the rule or the powers of any earthly ruler, or any comparison with them.

He is the image of the invisible God,

the firstborn of all creation;

for in him all things in heaven and on earth

were created,

… in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,

and through him God was pleased to reconcile

to himself all things…

 

Sermon: The Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost (C) – 13th October 2013

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

Readings: Jeremiah 29:1,4-7; Psalm 66:1-11; 2 Timothy 2:(1-7) 8-15; Luke 17:11-19

Some years ago I woman I worked with, a single lady, fell seriously ill. She was off work for many weeks. She was very weak and confined to her bed. What made things more difficult was the fact she lived alone. Yet very early into this illness the man next door visited with his wife. He noted how ill she was and he promised he and all his family would nurse her and feed her and care for her until she was well again. And he and his family kept their promise. She enjoyed the best of care and all the rest she needed until she was restored to health and able to return to work. She wanted to pay them for their generosity but they wouldn’t take a cent. They said they were doing their duty as neighbours.

The point of this story is, this family was Muslim. Up until her sickness my friend had been war of this family. She had rarely spoken to them. She had felt uncomfortable whenever she saw them in the street. And they had responded to all of this xenophobia with love. I tell this story because it is so similar to the type of stories Luke gives us about Jesus. It is only Luke that tells us the story of the Good Samaritan. The Jews held the Samaritans in contempt. They avoided contact with Samaritans if they could because they were regarded as unclean. The crowds would have regarded Jesus behaviour as perverse to dare to tell a story where the hero was a Samaritan and perverse for Luke to bother to record that parable. It is not mentioned in any other gospel.

Yet it was characteristic of Jesus’ behaviour. He tells stories about Samaritans, he heals Samaritans and in John 4 much of that chapter records Jesus having a long conversation with a Samaritan woman. There were two social taboos in the one event. First she was a woman and then she was a Samaritan. No wonder the disciples were shocked. What was Jesus doing? What is Luke doing by recording this healing in chapter 17?

It helps if we remember from chapter 1 that Luke is addressing his gospel to a man named Theophilus. With a name like that we can be sure he wasn’t Jewish. He was probably Greek. And this was Luke’s aim. He was writing his gospel for the wider world so he includes stories about non-Jews, stories that illustrate that the ministry of Jesus was to go beyond Israel, that the blessing of Jesus were to overflow into the wider world.

But look at that name Theophilus. It may be there was no such person. Rather, it could be a literary device. The name means “lover of God” and perhaps Luke has addressed his gospel to all lovers of God from anywhere around the world. So he is at pains to make it clear that this message of Jesus cannot be contained within Israel. Rather, it is a message for all people. The good news about Jesus is a universal message for all of the world. So of all the healings Jesus must have performed Luke makes sure he tells us about this one.

Leprosy was a generic word that covered a range of skin diseases from the ancient world. Some of them you could recover from. But you won’t recover from Leprosy. In those days lepers were forced to live as social outcasts, depending upon whatever food was left out for them for their survival. It was a miserable existence where only death gave relief. So as Jesus looked at these ten men he probably couldn’t have imagined a more pathetic sight.

But see what these men do. They stand at a distance. They know they cannot come near to Jesus. They can’t approach him. And so they shout out their prayer. And it is striking in its simplicity, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” It sums up the longing of their hearts. But they are saying more than just “Help!” They are calling for mercy. And mercy itself is a key theme in the gospel of Luke.

Throughout Luke’s gospel there is a debate concerning how to relate to God. What is the best form of worship? What does God expect from us? The Pharisees had a very clear answer. They believed that God expected them to obey the law. So the essence of their worship was obedience to the law. But sadly, over time their law-keeping had become corrupted. It had lost any sense of true worship. It became a system whereby they could justify themselves.

But Jesus calls upon a more ancient tradition from the Old Testament. True worship is expressed when we call upon God for mercy and where we show mercy to our neighbour. It is this same mercy that led Jesus to heal on the Sabbath. One can break the law of God if one is fulfilling the requirement of showing mercy. Showing mercy clearly has precedence over keeping the law. And calling upon God for mercy is simply another way of showing faith in God. Asking for mercy is an acknowledgment of who God is and our inability to rescue ourselves. Asking for mercy is a demonstration of our need for God.

Throughout Israel’s history, Israel is condemned for its failure to call upon God for help, to call upon him for his mercy, and in that act – demonstrating their faith in God. Yet these lepers, stripped of everything we value in life, family, home, community, wealth and health, bring their simple petition to Jesus. And its all summed up beautifully in that simple phrase, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”

Yet that simple phrase contains such profound depth. These lepers were well aware of their condition, they understood their deep need for rescue and they recognised Jesus as the master, the one who could show them mercy, the one who could be the answer to their prayers. So these lepers are an example to us for right worship – that we get that creator/creature relationship sorted out.

But Luke’s story goes further than that because we have the return of the one leper, who comes back praising God and thanking Jesus for his healing. This shows us the dynamic of our interaction with God. It is not just about reconciliation though that would certainly be enough. It is also about celebration because of what God has done. Its just like the parable of the prodigal Son. Jesus includes in that story not just the return of the Son but also the celebration because of what had happened – this son was dead but now he is alive. He was lost but now he is found. And then as well – the fact that this man was a Samaritan – a leprous Samaritan – you couldn’t sink any lower in that society. Yet Jesus uses him to teach the Jews about right worship. It would be hard for Jesus to be any more offensive.

But in the end we have to ask what about us? What impact should this event have upon us? Why is Luke telling us this story? Jesus healed many people. Why choose this story to be passed on for generations. Luke tells us more than the fact that Jesus was a great healer. There is more to this story. We need to consider this healing as a metaphor. In the end this story is about us and it is about hope.

When you think about it, you couldn’t get further away from God in a Jewish world than a leprous Samaritan. They would have been considered outside the orbit of God’s blessing. Even worse, their condition would have been regarded as evidence of their rejection by God, that their condition was evidence of the judgment of God – only likened to those recently who claimed that AIDS was God’s judgment on a corrupt world.

Yet it is this Samaritan who was not only healed but who is commended for his faith. As well, he is a reminder to us that for a whole range of reasons we can drift far away from God. For so many reasons we can find ourselves in a place where we feel a long way from the blessings of God. Yet the message of this Samaritan is that it is never hopeless. Like the good shepherd he is, Jesus is always seeking us out, always calling us back, always restoring and refreshing and forgiving us. Jesus’ mission is not just to make these lepers better, but to make everything better.

We can only just imagine the joy that must have filled this man’s heart as he realised he was at last free of that dreadful disease. We can only just imagine the way thanksgiving must have risen in his heart, as the words of thanks tumbled from his lips. But in that healing we have a clear picture of the gospel message. Jesus not only preached good news, he was good news to a suffering world and that good news continues from generation to generation. So we are never without hope, never without forgiveness, never without joy as that same transforming love goes to work in our own lives, that love that will never leave us when we have the wisdom to turn to him and say like those poor lepers, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”

Sermon: The Festival of Saint Francis of Assisi (C) – 6th October 2013

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

Readings: Genesis 2:4b-9a, 19-22 Psalm 148 1 Peter 2:1-5 Matthew 6:25-33

“All creatures of our God and King, lift up your voice and let us sing Alleluya, Alleluya! Thou burning sun with golden beam, Thou silvers moon with softer gleam: O praise him, O praise him, Alleluya, Alleluya, Alleluya!”

“Make me a channel of your peace. Where there is hatred let me bring your love; where there is injury your pardon, Lord; and where there is doubt true faith in you.”

“Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.”

“If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.”

“While you are preaching peace with your lips, be careful to have it even more fully in your heart.”

These are words ascribed to Saint Francis of Assisi, whose life and contribution we remember today. The first few lines are from the first and second hymn this morning. Francis is especially remembered for his commitment to the Gospel and God’s providence, to peace and to driving a proper understanding of the beauty and value of God’s creation. This morning’s readings dwell upon some of the concepts that may have influenced his theology.

The accounts of creation found in Genesis are placed at the beginning of the Bible even before the accounts of Israel coming into being. Such a placing in the Bible shows the universal activity of God. God’s creative activity not only brought the world into being but also engaged in the lives of individuals and peoples long before Israel came into being. God was at work creating before Israel understood what this activity was all about.

God’s actions in the world are of more importance than what humans understand that God has done. Israel eventually catches up with what God has long been about. How humanity understands God’s action in the world comes after God has acted.

Human beings in all times and places have experienced, even if they have not known it, God’s creative acts before and alongside God’s saving acts. We receive our lives and all our natural gifts from God apart from our knowledge of God. God’s salvation takes place within the world and within individual lives, which have been brought into being and sustained by God’s care.

The placing of Genesis at the beginning of the Bible demonstrates that God’s purpose in redemption does not finally centre on Israel. God as Creator has a purpose that spans the world. God’s salvation shown by and offered through Jesus is universal.

The reading from Matthew concerns how then we creatures of the Creator are to live. The instruction “do not be anxious” is not only directed to rich people; those inclined to the self-satisfaction and arrogance because of their wealth. Poor people can idolise what they do not have and become anxious. Jesus contrasts the life of a believer with that of the non-believers. His challenge to trust in God’s providence does not exclude working and having property. The words are directed to people who were involved with sowing, reaping, storing in barns, toiling and spinning, but who are called to see that their life is not based upon such things. Such people are called to see that their life is not based upon these things. Such persons are not called upon to become birds or lilies, but to consider God’s providence for all creation, including birds, lilies and human beings.

Francis was born in 1182, the son of a wealthy cloth merchant. He died on 4 October 1226. His early years were frivolous, but an experience of sickness and another of military service were instrumental in leading him to reflect on the purpose of life. One day, in the church of San Damiano, outside of Assisi, he seemed to hear Christ saying to him, “Francis, repair my falling house”. He took the words literally, and sold a bale of silk from his father’s warehouse to pay for repairs to the church of San Damiano. His father was outraged and there was a public confrontation at which his father disinherited and disowned him, and he in turn renounced his father’s wealth. One account says that he not only handed his father his purse, but also took off his expensive clothes, laid them at his father’s feet, and walked away naked. He declared himself “wedded to Lady Poverty”, renounced all material possessions and devoted himself to serving the poor.

In his day the most dreaded of all diseases was something known as leprosy. It is probably not the same as either the modern or the Biblical disease of that name. Lepers were kept at a distance and regarded with fear and disgust. Francis cared for them, fed them, bathed their sores and kissed them. Since he could not pay for repairs to the Church of San Damiano, he undertook to repair it by his own labours. He moved in with the priest and begged stones lying useless in fields, shaping them for use in repairing the church. He got his meals, not by asking for money so that he might live at the expense of others, but by scrounging crusts and discarded vegetable from trash-bins and by working as a day labourer, insisting on being paid in bread, milk, eggs, or vegetables rather than in money. Soon a few companions joined him.

Dante in his Paradiso has Saint Aquinas say of him:

“Let me tell you of a youth whose aristocratic father disowned Him because of his love for a beautiful lady. She had been married before, to Christ, and was so faithful a spouse to Him that, while Mary only stood at the foot of the Cross, she leaped up to be with Him on the Cross. These two of whom I speak are Francis and the Lady Poverty. As they walked along together, the sight of their mutual love drew men’s hearts after them. Bernard saw them and ran after them, kicking off his shoes to run faster to so great a peace. Giles and Sylvester saw them, kicked off their shoes and ran to join them …”

After three years, in 1210, the Pope authorized the forming of the Order of Friars Minor, commonly called the Franciscans. “Friar” means “brother” as in “fraternity”, and “minor” means “lesser” or “younger”. These titles could be taken to mean that to be that a Franciscan, upon meeting another Christian, is to believe “I am your brother in Christ, and your younger brother at that, bound to defer to you and to give you precedence over myself”.

Francis and his companions took literally the words of Christ when he sent his disciples out to preach recorded in Matthew chapter 10:

“Preach as you go, saying, “The kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” … You have received the Gospel without payment, give it to others as freely. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, no spare garment nor sandals, nor staff.

They would have no money, and no property, individually or collectively. Their task was to preach, “using words if necessary”, but declaring by word and action the love of God in Christ. It has been suggested that he it was who set up the first Christmas manger scene, to bring home to human hearts and imaginations as well as to their intellects the Good News of God made human for our salvation.

In 1219, Francis went to the Holy Land to preach to the Muslims. He was given a pass through the enemy lines, and spoke to the Sultan, Melek-al-Kamil. Francis proclaimed the Gospel to the Sultan, who replied that he had his own beliefs, and that Muslims were as firmly convinced of the truth of Islam as Francis was of the truth of Christianity. Francis proposed that a fire be built, and that he and a Muslim volunteer would walk side by side into the fire to show whose faith was stronger. The Sultan said he was not sure that a Muslim volunteer could be found. Francis then offered to walk into the fire alone. The Sultan who was deeply impressed but remained unconverted. Francis proposed an armistice between the two warring sides, and drew up terms for one; the Sultan agreed, but, to Francis’s deep disappointment, the Christian leaders would not. Francis returned to Italy, but a permanent result was that the Franciscans were given custody of the Christian shrines then in Muslim hands and animosity between Christians and Muslims remains strong today.

From the first known letter from Francis to all Christians:

“O how happy and blessed are those who love the Lord and do as The Lord himself said in the gospel: You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart and your whole soul, and your neighbour as yourself. Therefore, let us love God and adore him with pure heart and mind. This is his particular desire when he says: True worshipers adore the Father in spirit and truth. For all who adore him must do so in the spirit of truth. Let us also direct to him our praises and prayers, saying: “Our Father, who are in heaven”, since we must always pray and never grow slack.

Furthermore, let us produce worthy fruits of penance. Let us also love our neighbours as ourselves. Let us have charity and humility. Let us give alms because these cleanse our souls from the stains of sin. Men lose all the material things they leave behind in this world, but they carry with them the reward of their charity and the alms they give. For these they will receive from the Lord the reward and recompense they deserve. We must not be wise and prudent according to the flesh. Rather we must be simple, humble and pure. We should never desire to be over others. Instead, we ought to be servants who are submissive to every human being for God’s sake. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on all who live in this way and persevere in it to the end. He will permanently dwell in them. They will be the Father’s children who do his work. They are the spouses, brothers and mothers of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Remember the words from Matthew’s Gospel this morning;

“But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”1

 

 

 

1 This sermon produced using The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volumes I and VII, Abingdon Press Nashville, and material fromwww.http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bio/

Sermon: The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (C) – 22nd September 2013

St Aidan’s Anglican Church West Epping 8:30 am

Readings: Jeremiah 8:18-9:1; Psalm 79:1-9; 1 Timothy 2:1-10; Luke 16:1-13

Honesty is the best policy, we say. We disapprove of dishonesty and corruption, whether it is in government, commerce or in personal relationships. And we would expect Jesus to disapprove of such things.

But in the story we just heard from Jesus, he seems to commend a man for his dishonesty. How can that be? What was Jesus getting at?

Jesus’ story is about a rich man who has a manager, a financial administrator. The boss finds out that he has been cooking the books. He’s been lining his pockets with money that rightly belonged to the boss. Of course the boss fires him. “Put your accounts together and hand them in. You’re out!”

Now the manager is in a real spot. No one’s going to trust him to manage their property. He’s not cut out to be a labourer, and the thought of begging doesn’t exactly appeal to him. How can this man get out of the hole he is in?

Then he has a brilliant idea. Nowadays when someone is fired, they are accompanied to their desk, watched as they pick up their things, and escorted out of the building. But this man has a bit of time before he hands in the books. He quickly gets together with some of the boss’s biggest debtors. “You owe $10000? No you don’t. I’m going to make it $5000.”

“You owe $20000? Not any more. I’m going to take it down to $16000. And don’t forget who made it all possible.” It’s all about how to win friends and influence people. By the time the man hands in the books, he has a whole collection of people in his debt. They’ll look after him in the future as he has looked after them.

Of course there is a small problem. The boss has already been cheated. How will he react to this trick? Amazingly he praises the man. Hecommends this man who has robbed him yet again.

How come? It is not that he is pleased with what the manager has done. But he has to admit that he has really been outsmarted. It’s more along the lines of “what a cunning devil this man is!” It’s too late to undo what he has done, and even having him arrested is not going to get him money back.

It seems that Jesus himself is commending the man for what seems to be a dishonest series of actions. But why is he commending the man? Not for his dishonesty: we are not encouraged to be dishonest like this man. But there are things to be learned from him.

Here is a man in a tight spot, and what does he do? Does he stand still and do nothing, like a kangaroo dazzled by a car’s headlights, almost waiting to be hit? No, this man acts. He is decisive. He is determined. The writing is on the wall, but he is going to find a way out. He’s a bit like those heroes of the old Saturday afternoon serials at the movies: at the end of the episode disaster seems unavoidable, but at the beginning of the next episode, they’ve found a way of escape. And so, when the situation seems hopeless, this man sets himself up with friends for the future, even though he has been fired. We can’t approve of his actions, but we must admire his effective way of handling the crisis.

It’s a strange parable, isn’t it? And as we look at the teaching of Jesus which follows it, we see that it really points in two different directions. There is an immediate issue, and then there is a broader issue which flows out of the story.

The immediate issue is that Jesus wants us to see the importance of responding seriously to an urgent situation. Here is a guilty man who does whatever it takes to avoid the consequences of his guilt.

And who are the people who find themselves in that situation today? Of course we all are: we all are guilty before God. We can’t escape the reality that we all fall short of his righteous demands: but is there a way out? Of course we know there is. Not some dishonest act like the man in the parable, but a sacrificial act which has been done for us. Jesus calls us to

come to him, acknowledging our guilt and failure, and to receive God’s mercy and forgiveness.

We depend on Jesus who died and rose to bring us forgiveness and salvation and hope, and through him we are graciously given a secure place in his eternal kingdom of life and love. Jesus’ call to us is that we must not take the Gospel for granted, but that we respond in active faith and hold fast to him who is our Saviour and eternal King.

But in the following verses Jesus also calls us to get a true perspective on money and possessions. Yes, he wants us to learn positively from the man’s determination to find a way out of a disaster. But he also wants us to see what is wrong with the man’s outlook on money and possessions.

Firstly Jesus calls us to be generous. “Make friends for yourself with the wealth you have”, he says. Of course wealth and dishonesty are so often aligned. But Jesus’ point is different. Use wealth not to make yourself popular or comfortable or powerful: that’s what so many people do. Use your wealth so that you will be welcomed into God’s kingdom by those who have been blessed by your generous actions. Jesus is telling us to use our wealth God’s way. He calls us not only to be honest, but generous. It’s not that being generous gets us brownie points so that we earn for ourselves a place in heaven: rather that our generosity brings blessing to others, and pleasure to God.

Treasure in heaven ultimately is of far more value than earthly treasure. Jesus wants us to share in his kingdom with people who have been blessed through our generosity: our help in a difficult time, our contribution to the outreach and ministry of the church, our gifts to assist people in need. Money is not filthy in itself. It can be used for evil, or for good. Let us be generous in doing good with it.

Secondly Jesus calls us to be faithful. Ultimately the things we possess do not belong to us independently: they all come from God.

The scriptures encourage us to see ourselves as stewards of what we have: we are responsible to God for what we do with our lives, our time, our possessions, our money. The man in the parable was generous, but with someone else’s money! How trustworthy are we in the way we use all that God has provided for us? Not that we need to be uptight about every cent, or to agonize about every little financial outlay. But we need to see ourselves as responsible in the way we use our money.

In the early days of our marriage, when I had been working for only one year, and Sarah was still a student, we used to try to account for every cent we spent. We kept a little accounting book, and everything we spent got written down. At the end of the week, if our sums didn’t add up, we got pretty uptight.

We’re much more relaxed now: sometimes we wonder whether we are too relaxed. But we try to ensure that we give away a clear proportion of our income to the work of God’s church and for people in need. That’s part of the way that we – like so many Christians – seek to acknowledge that ultimately everything we have we owe to God, and we are ultimately answerable to him. May we all seek to be faithful so that we serve God in the way we use our money and possessions. Be faithful.

And then Jesus calls us to be devoted. He asks us who really comes first in our lives: God or possessions? God or things? He emphasizes that we cannot serve both God and money.

And in our society today we need that reminder. One of the sad things about the recent election campaign is that the major parties pandered to our selfishness. People were encouraged to think basically about their hip pocket. The value or otherwise of the carbon tax was not discussed: simply that we don’t like paying taxes. Saving taxpayers’ money was important: but making Australia a better place or helping people in need or making a positive contribution to a struggling world seemed irrelevant. And so we now have a huge reduction in desperately needed foreign aid, even though we are an extremely wealthy country, and a structural change which will ensure that the priority in giving aid is meant to focus on what works for our country, not how our aid benefits those most in need.

Jesus warns that the desire to have money and possessions, the quest for security and comfort, can enslave us, dominate us. And so he challenges us: who or what really comes first in our lives? What really matters to us?

Let us learn from this dishonest manager, but let us not follow his example. Let us be generous with what we have. Let us be faithful to God in the way we use our possessions, given to us by our Creator. And let us be devoted to our Lord, not allowing money and things to take first place. Money is a useful tool, but a dangerous master. Let’s keep our priorities right, and use our money to serve God, to serve our neighbour, and not just to serve ourselves.

Amen.

Paul Weaver