Sermon: Good Friday – 3rd April 2015

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 9.30 am

Arthur Miller, the great American writer, wrote a play, Death of a Salesman. In it is the central character Willie Loman- an unattractive, travelling salesman. He’s 60- he’s worked for a long time-he’s struggled to pay the mortgage, improve his home- yet she has grown apart from his two sons, and he despairs at the apparent hopelessness in his life. He has been unfaithful to his wife-yet she can see him with clear and loving eyes and she says in wonderfully poignant words:

 He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he is a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He is not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.

 There’s a world of difference between Willie Loman, and Jesus of Nazareth of course. But is there? Surely if we have understood anything about Jesus, we have seen that in the way he hands himself over, in the way he empties himself and takes the form of a slave, he shows us not only something about God, but something about us: that Jesus shares with us our common humanity. When Jesus disarms his betrayers and deniers and welcomes them as guests at the Supper, and hands himself over, it is precisely to the Willie Lomans of this world that he extends his hospitality.

So, just as last night at the Supper, so on this day, “attention must be paid” to this singular human being, And as we pay attention, it becomes apparent that far, far more important than even his miracles of healing, and his teaching, is what the Gospels, each in their own way, depict as the decisive movement where he moves from action to passion, where he ”hands himself over”, where he ceases, of his own will, and as a matter of great inner strength, to be a subject, and places himself into the hands of others as an object simply to be done unto – and all of this reaching its climax in the Garden of Gethsamane. What is decisive, as we pay attention to this man, is his entry into his passion: that he was exposed simply as an object, and treated in whatever way others chose.

It is at this point surely, that we realize the old story has completely collapsed. The one in whom we had set our hopes: the one who could have offered a prayerful, narrowly religious way forward: the one who could have compromised or negotiated for the greater good: the one who could have rallied all our cries for change and walked a revolutionary path: this one eschews all these options, and allows himself to be handed over. The old story with all its certainties and assurances is in tatters: all our hopes are dashed: he has relinquished all power and has bound himself to vulnerability. Here, the prophet who critiques Israel from within, declares in and with his own body, a stunning reversal of all the ways we want to think about ourselves and about God.

In Gethsamane, he takes possession of this drama: here, at his most vulnerable, at his weakest, he offers us an altogether new way of being human. The disciples would take time to come to see this, take time to put things together, just as we so often do. For this new way of being human, this new form of community does not need to find its identity through violence or exclusion: it does not need to expel any one: it does not need an enemy ”out there”, it does not demand a “them” in relation to “us”.

Jesus in handing himself over shows us that violence never achieves the communion or peace we crave. Jesus occupies the space of the victim to show us that we need never do this again. He didn’t die because God wanted or needed a victim: he died because we want and need victims. Here, in this singular movement from action to passion, Jesus absorbs, and does not pass on, violence, envy or abuse.

What Jesus does is bring to an end a whole way of being religious. In his body, he draws attention to a reality that the sacrificial system has always pointed towards, and has never achieved: communion with God. What he did is the culmination of a long and gradual process, a prophetic process of withdrawal from all forms of sacred violence. Jesus allowed himself to be handed over in full awareness of its consequences: he did not wish to be the victim: there was no death wish in him. In full awareness of what he was doing, and its consequences, he offered this entirely new way of being Israel: of being human: of being a light to the world.

Sacrifice: understood as making something happen, as making a difference in God’s attitude towards us, as somehow persuading God to change his mind about us: this way of approaching God is forever finished with what Jesus did. His is no sacrifice, in this sense, but rather the end of an entire sacrificial system: what Jesus did, is sacrificial, if we understand it to be a handing over, not making anything happen so much as revealing and affirming what has always been the case: namely that we are already one: we are already in communion, both with God and with each other: that we are already forgiven. As Julian of Norwich would say: God can’t forgive, because there has never been a time when God hasn’t forgiven! So we pay attention to this man: we let go of the old story of certainty and triumph, the old story that constantly needed a victim, that fed on competition and rivalry and exclusion: and like him, we find the courage to hand ourselves over, not in resignation or despair, but in vulnerable, non-violent self-giving love.

This kingdom-prophet wanted not just his band of followers to embrace his vision: he wanted the authorities, those in power to do the same. And he did this because of his overarching sense of vocation: called by God to show something of God, and God’s glory: to show what is utterly distinctive about God: that God, out of love, hands God-self over: that God is nothing other than self-giving, self-emptying love, both in the act of creation and in the person of Jesus.

God, like any creative artist, hands over his very self, and waits upon what is created. This vulnerable “suffering”, this passion, gives over to the other the power of both being and meaning. Jesus enacts this self-giving in his very passion: this is nothing less than unconditional love, love without strings, love that offers everything to the other, love that is without limit, love that is precarious, love that risks all for the other’s sake, love that gives to the object of our loving a certain power over us, love that hands over the issue and outcome and response. When I love you like this, the response you make is not in my control: that is love’s risk. “If you love you get crucified: if you don’t, you’re dead already”.

“Attention, attention, must finally be paid to such a person”. For here we can say with Julian of Norwich: “Love was his meaning. Who showed it you? Love. What did he show you? Love. Why did he show you? Love. Hold onto this and you will know and understand love more and more”.

And so we wait: just as God waits, just as Jesus waited. Having given all: all he could do for the cause of the kingdom, to win the nation to discipleship, to bring his close followers with him: having handed himself over in Gethsemane he shows himself to have risked all, to spare himself nothing: and the consequence of this is that he is handed over to death. And so we wait. This time between Good Friday and Easter Day is the most poignant of days: our liturgies fail us, just as our old stories have failed us: we are reduced to waiting , a place of great grace if we can bear it: where we are stripped of illusion and false hopes, where we can wake up to the reality of our real needs and true values: where we can begin, if we dare, to let a “small shy truth” speak into our bewildered hearts; a “small shy truth” that offers the possibility of meaning, the meaning that is found in the only absolute there is, namely Love: a love that will require our hearts to break and be enlarged, our minds admit to their inadequacies and yet sense a wider horizon, ourselves be touched by a mystery beyond our understanding and our words, but which might just possibly be all we need to know and do.

Reverend Philip Carter

 

Sermon: Maundy Thursday – 2nd April 2015

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 7.45 pm

Tobias Wolf, an American novelist, wrote a book called Old School, and in it he describes a boy who wins a prize for a short story that he has not written himself: he took it from a magazine. Eventually he is found out and disgraced: yet as you read the book you are left with the impression that he has in fact done nothing dishonourable. And this is because the story is so exactly his story: the story is the one story that makes sense of his life: it is precisely the story he has been yearning to write and to live: this is the story of all that he is and longs to be, the story that he has to, of course, claim as his own.

The story that we tell, from this Thursday evening through to Sunday morning- the story we tell every year at this time- is of course the story of Jesus….but we tell it, again and again, because we have sensed, albeit tentatively, that this is our story as well: because we have been touched by the fact that this story throws light on our stories, that this story makes sense and provides meaning for our lives: that this story enlarges our horizons and brings us both the courage and the hope to become more fully alive and more fully human.

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.

 On this bitter-sweet night, this young Kingdom-prophet , who has been grasped by a vocation to speak directly into the very heart of Israel, to speak a word of love: to an Israel who, according to Jesus had lost its way, who had failed to live up to its vocation, who had sought its identity through exclusion and vlolence, and who , through corruption and injustice, had collaborated with Roman imperial control: this prophet of the reign of God now offers Israel another, alternative agenda, another story, an interpretation of a tradition that challenged entrenched attitudes, that looked outward rather than inward, that championed a universal way of being human over a particular way of being religious, that would include rather than exclude, and called Israel into a new vocation to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth.

So on this night Jesus called his twelve disciples to Supper, and whilethey were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me”.

 On this night: the story that had sustained them until now collapses: Judas is to betray Jesus: Peter is on the brink of denial: and the other disciples will flee in fear. The community of followers, which Jesus has nurtured along the way, falters in the face of what threatens, and is about to disintegrate. And what those two disciples said on the road to Emmaus, after the resurrection: “We had hoped….” pretty much says it all for us too: for just like them, some of us still search for ways through, or out: through compromise, bargaining and negotiation: some of us still think the answer lies in being religious in a particular way, simply saying our prayers and not getting caught up in the dirty business of politics and social justice; and some of us think revolution and even violence is the only answer.

But Jesus “loves us to the end”: he takes a loaf of bread, and anticipates through ritual and symbol the way forward, by moving from action to passion, by handing himself over, and disarming his betrayers: frustrating them, in the sense that “their job is done for them by their victim”. It’s not that he passively accepts or resigns himself: he transforms this moment, this moment of betrayal, denial and desertion, into a moment of grace: “you will hand me over’, he says, but “I will grasp this infidelity and make it my gift to you”.

His imaginative vision was of a new, reconstituted Israel, forgiven and freed, where exile was forever ended: here Jesus offers himself as the new Temple, a new community centred on him. His subversive agenda was a call to follow him, and become his companions in the alternative kingdom-story he was now enacting, defeating evil by absorbing it and not passing it on, letting it do its worst in him. He would be the centre of an entirely new story: he would be the reality to which the whole now outdated sacrificial system had pointed.

So into this place where the old story had collapsed: where the community had disintegrated, Jesus plays out in ritual and with symbol…. a community where the worst betrayal or denial can never again be the last word: where meaning is still possible, where the power of truth triumphs, and where hope comes to birth: the lived truth, the conviction, that even when things don’t turn out well, or as we expected, this self-giving love alone makes sense, this alone endures.

And all this spells freedom, the forgiveness that tells us that we are still, and always invited as guests at this meal in spite of our failures and weakness, betrayals and denials. This is our new story, which we can begin to learn to live from the inside out, just as he did. He relinquished power in the face of impending violence, desertion and denial: he hands himself over and at the same time transforms the evil we inflict on each other, and forever turns betrayal into gift, and betrayers into guests: and in all this he shows us the way, not of certainty but possibility, not of clinging but yearning, not of defensiveness, but of freedom.

So on the verge of our own story collapsing, our sense of meaning and community disintegrating, Jesus anticipates our loss: as he took bread he said: “This is my body given for you” – drawing us inwards, into a new community, “you in me, and I you”. It’s as if Jesus is saying to us: “Do not forget, but remember: when you do this, even in the worst of times, I will be with you, in the closest of all possible ways: you in me, and I in you”. Here Jesus turns the Jewish understanding of holiness upside down: this man who let himself be touched by women, who kissed a leper, who ate with prostitutes and sinners: offers us a completely new way of being human, crossing boundaries, transcending our split mentality of what is pure and impure, the boundaries between male and female, Jew and Gentile, and offering a new way forward, where we can give up what separates and divides, and discover a larger vocation, an inclusive community, a universal way of being human. “This is my body given for you”.

Then – when the cup is poured out for many – you will be called and drawn outwards, outwards towards the other, whoever and wherever she is. In John’s gospel, this meal is characterized by the foot washing: overturning the fantasy that God’s power is just like ours. Our sense of who we are is built on division, between them and us: built on rivalry and fear and exclusion: “but it will not be so with you”: for “if you want to be first of all, you must be the slave of all, for the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve”. “If I have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet”. Here our eyes are opened: all is gift. The other is not an obstacle to our coming-to-be, but the very means for our coming-to-be. Here, as we break bread together, and share a cup of wine, our vocation is realized: we are already home, we are already one and in communion, and at the same time, called to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth. In his famous parable about the sheep and the goats, Jesus suggests that judgement will be determined not in terms of belonging to this or that group, or believing this or that dogma, but only in terms of our relationship towards victims: to those who hunger, thirst, are naked, sick or imprisoned.

On this night, Jesus anticipates the worst that will happen, not only to him, but to his followers: and at the same time, opens up the transformative power of self-giving, self-emptying love. By handing himself over, by moving from action to passion, Jesus offers us a new story: his story, is to be our story: his handing over, our handing over: his death, our death: his life, our life. He invites us to live his story: to live it from the inside and make it our own: and to live it knowing that nothing can ever stop his gracious hospitality, his eternal gift to us. This bread, which is his body, his life, is the promise of his presence with us always: this bread, which is the bread of the kingdom, energizing and galvanizing us to be, in our own way, bread for the world.

Reverend Philip Carter

 

Sermon: The Fifth Sunday in Lent (B) Choral Evensong – 22nd March 2015

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 6pm

Readings: Psalm 143; Isaiah 63:1-16;  Luke 23:26-49

No one likes to be reminded of his or her worst moments; times when we hurt someone else, when we stole something, when we denied everything we believe, or when we betrayed a friend. Luke’s passion narrative is filled with such painful memories. It continually confronts us with the underside of human sinfulness and its awful consequences. The innocent suffer (Jesus, the women, and their children), and terrible as were the events of the day of Jesus’ crucifixion, greater suffering lay ahead.

The lament over tragic violence and suffering is an important element of Luke’s passion narrative. God could not spare Jesus from the cross, and Jesus could not spare Jerusalem the destruction that lay ahead. Instead, Jesus joined with the women who were wailing for him, lamenting their suffering.

Here is a moving aspect of the meaning of Jesus’ death. Jesus had warned the crowds and his disciples of what was coming; both for him and for Jerusalem. He had called for repentance and wept for the city. When his pleas were not heeded, however, he joined himself to the plight of those who suffer the ravages of violence, dying with criminals on a cross.

We may rail against God for the tragedy, suffering, and loss that we experience, but God did not turn away from our plight or miraculously deliver Jesus from his suffering. Knowing that he could not stop the judgment that Israel (indeed, humanity) had brought upon itself, Jesus went to the cross lamenting that although he was about to die he could not deliver Jerusalem from its fate.

Jesus’ lament, like the passion narrative itself, is a call for us to see that our only hope is to trust in God’s faithfulness. Apart from repentance and commitment to the kingdom of God there is no hope for an end to violence and suffering. The suffering of the innocent, the death of Jesus and the suffering of the women and the children is an indictment of the institutions and means of human vindictiveness and a call to turn from our sinful inclinations and accept the new order of God’s mercy. In many instances people cry out where is God in all this tragedy, but what they should be asking where is humanity in this horror, such as the inhumanity shown in the massacres in the Middle East conflicts. Otherwise, “if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”

The inscription above Jesus: “This is the king of the Jews.” So filled with pathos is the death of Jesus that one must respond with either derision or confession. Luke’s account of the crucifixion itself contains no meaningless details. Every element of the story serves to declare Jesus’ identity as the Messiah, the significance of his death for the salvation of the world, or the fulfilment of Scripture in the events of this scene.

The role of Jesus as the focus of the passion narratives is as inherently right as it is restrained. We are spared graphic accounts of Jesus’ agony and the details of his appearance. Instead, Luke makes the point that the death of Jesus is important not because of how much he suffered but because of who he was and how his death was connected to both his life and the redemptive acts of God in the history of Israel. For this reason, the allusions to Scripture and to scenes earlier in the Gospel convey the themes by which we can make sense of the event.” “ Without themes, there would be no way to deal with event.

We can scarcely do better when interpreting the crucifixion of Jesus in to portray Jesus as the Christ, God’s chosen one, whose death fulfilled the Scriptures and brought salvation to the lost.

With bitter irony, Jesus is one who brings good news to the poor, but at his death the people watch, the soldiers’ mock, and one of the criminals beside him blasphemes. God’s vindication of Jesus through the resurrection will mean God’s validation of Jesus’ message. In the interim, however, Jesus is, as Isaiah predicted, “numbered with the transgressors” and bears “the sin of many”.

Luke does not defend any particular theory of the atonement. The traditional theories generally fall into one of the following categories: sacrifice, ransom or moral influence. Luke never calls Jesus “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” those are John’s words. It is in Mark’s account that Jesus says, “the Son of Man came … to give his life a ransom for many”. At most, Luke reports the two disciples on the road to Emmaus report, “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel”.

No proof text says enough in these matters, but the absence of even such references as one finds in the other Gospels underscores the extent to which Luke relies on the account of Jesus’ death to carry the message of its significance. How one chooses to explain it, after all, is quite secondary to the confession that Jesus is the Christ, our Saviour.

Sometime during the seventh or ninth century, Celtic Christian, St. Angus, came to Balquidder, a beautiful valley surrounded by forested hills in the Scottish highlands. Moved by its beauty, he said it was “a thin place”. It was a place where the separation between heaven and earth was very thin, so he built a church there that has survived to this day. .

The death of Jesus is “a thin place”. Indeed, the heavens become dark, and on earth the veil in the Temple is rent in twain. So thin is the separation that Jesus talks to God from the cross, and those who hear his prayers are moved to confession and contrition. The one who was hailed by a chorus of angels at his birth and was designated by an angel visitor as the Son of God commits his spirit to God as he dies. The holy one dies a common criminal’s death and speaks of Paradise to the criminal beside him.

Each of the Gospels presents the death of Jesus in a different way, as is evident from the observation that only the cry of dereliction appears in two Gospels (Matthew and Mark). Six “words” of Jesus from the cross appear in the other three Gospels, and none in more than one Gospel. Mark depicts Jesus dying in agony and abandonment. In Mark we see the depth of Jesus’ suffering. Matthew follows Mark closely but adds a description of the opening of the tombs and the resurrection of the saints. In Matthew we see that the death of Jesus leads to life for all who trust in God. John portrays the cross as ironic exaltation. Jesus is “lifted up” in mock coronation as the King of the Jews as he returns to the Father. The giver of living water thirsts as he dies. In John we see the Logos completing his mission of revelation and the Lamb of God taking away the sin of the world.

The divergent colours that the evangelists use to paint the crucifixion scene call us to read each one individually and appreciatively. In Luke we stand with the crowd of the people watching while Jesus is crucified by those who taunt him with mocked pleas that he saves himself and others. Jesus’ death, therefore, confirms who he has been throughout his ministry. The authorities pronounce him innocent. The taunts derisively hail him as the Messiah, God ‘s chosen one, and the King of the Jews, but Jesus prays for forgiveness for those who have rejected and crucified him.

He assures the penitent criminal of blessing in Paradise and dies with the prayer of one who trusts God even in death. Jesus has faithfully undertaken the work of redemption, lifting up the lowly and preaching good news to the poor and it has cost him   his life. Ironically, though, his death also signals the inevitability   of the completion of the other side of the redemption of the humble, judgment upon the proud and bringing down “the powerful from their thrones”.

The people leave place called “The Skull” beating their breasts. How terrible that God has sent “the Saviour” and we rejected him and crucified him on a hill outside the city. At his death, even a hardened soldier was moved to confess that he was just. If we have rejected the Saviour, God ‘s only son, what hope is there? What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them upon his return?

Perhaps it is good not to dispel the darkness of the death of Jesus too quickly. We naturally move on to wonder at the love of God revealed in the death of Jesus or to translate it’s meaning into sacrificial terms or to press on to the resurrection. However, part of the power of the gospel is that it calls us to tarry at the cross and then return home beating our breasts with those whose hopes seemed to have died there. Only by witnessing the darkness of his death and the despair of the loss of hope can we fully appreciate the joy of the resurrection.

God’s purposes for Jesus, the Saviour, however, will not be defeated by the power of darkness. Jesus came “to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death”. Therefore, those who see the light in the darkness can join those at the cross who confessed Jesus, beat their breasts in grief and contrition, and then went away to serve as witnesses that they had been at the “thin place” where the design of the God of the heavens was revealed on earth.

Through the centuries, human beings have looked for “thin places” in many ways. Some have climbed mountaintops; others have meticulously observed cultic rituals; some search religious lore’s; and others look within through prayer and meditation. Where is God to be found in human experience? Where can we see God revealed through the veil that surrounds us? Who would have thought that “The Skull” would be the “thin place”?

At such a place we can only confess our wretched unworthiness of such love as this.[1]

 

The Reverend John Cornish

 

[1] This sermon based upon material found in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX, Abingdon Press, Nashville1995

 

 

Sermon: The Fifth Sunday in Lent (B) – 22nd March 2015

St Aidan’s Anglican Church West Epping  8.30am

Readings:     Jeremiah 31:31-34;  Psalm 119:9-16;  Hebrews 5:5-16;   John12:20-33;

In John’s account of Jesus’ ministry up to today’s reading has been in Galilee, though John tells us he has been to Jerusalem twice before. Today’s reading has him there for the festival of Passover. It will be his last. As we head toward his last three days and the celebration of the Christian Passover, we have the opportunity to reflect on Jesus, what he thinks, knows and does (the choices he makes and why) as he moves deeper into his reason for being. He is heading home.

Until now, when Jesus is called upon for special action, or when he escapes various threats, John explains it by telling us that Jesus’ “hour had not yet come”. But on this return to Jerusalem, Jesus has just raised Lazarus from the dead, and many of the Jews believe in him. Many, not all; some go to the Pharisees to report on what Jesus has done. The Pharisees, rather than be awed, are threatened and report it to the chief priests. Together, these religious leaders convene the ruling religious council and decide that Jesus must be destroyed and Lazarus with him. Otherwise, the whole world will soon believe in Jesus, and Rome will come and destroy not only their temple, but also them as a people.

Now, as if in fulfilment of the council’s fears, two Greeks come asking to see Jesus. Are they proselytes, converts to Judaism, or simply nameless “God-fearers?” A number of Gentiles living among Jews were drawn to their ethics and traditions. Called God-fearers, they honoured Torah, tried to keep its precepts but for whatever personal reasons, did not convert. There were many such Greeks in the Galilean district from which Jesus, Phillip and Andrew came. They have come to Jerusalem for Passover, and approach Phillip, who has a Greek name, saying, “Sir, we would see Jesus”. When Jesus hears of it, he responds, “The hour has come for the son of man to be glorified”.

How does Jesus know that? How long has he known that? Over and over again the New Testament tells us that Jesus was just like you and me. In other words, no matter what we mean when we call him God’s Son, he had emptied himself of any divine attribute to become fully human. As it says in Hebrews, just before our reading, he was “in every respect … tested as we are, yet without sin.”

Without sin: what does that mean? Sin is something that separates us from being aware of God’s presence. It keeps God obscure and veiled. Jesus, however, was determined to allow nothing to do that. From the moment he first became aware of the presence of the One he called “Father”, Jesus was steadfast to the relationship, allowing nothing to separate him from his Father.

Second, sin is a matter of falling short of the mark of who we were created to be. Somewhere in his thirst for God, it began to dawn on Jesus that his heavenly Father was calling him to do and be more than he or anyone around him had ever imagined: his reason for being. He would not allow himself to fall short of that.

His reason for being, how did he know that? Because he nurtured the dimension of the divine in his life, in prayer and in studying the Scriptures, he came to know whom he was and what it was he was to do.

How do you and I know who we are? How was it you became you? Better still, what are the things shaping you in your own becoming? What are the input, the forces and choices that impinge upon your growth? This faith community, or your family; scripture or the Sydney Morning Herald, prayer or conversations with those you think have succeeded, or someone as equally confused?

Have the decisions all been your own, or do you find them being made around you by forces, some joyfully serendipitous, some sadly disappointing, but often beyond your control? For Jesus it emerged out of his intimate prayer life with the one he called Abba. Out of that, Jesus realized he was being called to take upon himself a role that the ancient prophecies described sometimes as work reserved for God alone, and, at other times, as the work of God’s special servant.

Jesus had wrestled with his calling for God only knows how long. Now, somehow, he knew he was to be the one through whom God’s act to renew Israel, and through Israel the whole world, would take place. God’s new covenant with Israel, promised by Jeremiah, would emerge because of him. But that said, we should not think he had an easy passage through life, much less to Jerusalem because of his conviction. We must put away those childhood notions that he knew every moment what was coming next, that because of his divine dispensation he was different, that he did not suffer pain or doubt. He was just like you and me if it were not so we are not saved.

Our reading from Hebrew’s today tells us that as his vocation became more and more clear to him, he “offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death … “ He objected, he wrestled, he tried to leave it behind. He struggled with his vocation the way you and I struggle with our calls to be sisters and brothers of Christ, daughters and sons of God. He objected to the calling as you and I do. And because of his reverence for God, he was heard. But it did not change his reason for being; it did not save him from the cross. Hebrews says, “Although He was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered”.

What an extraordinary assertion! It is the only place in all of scripture that gives us any insight into how Jesus came to know who he was, through his suffering with it. Suffering can teach us many things, and comes in many ways. He suffered the rejection of the religious community. He suffered the rejection of his family; remember, they thought he was mad. And there must have been moments in his life, especially as the scope of his vocation became clearer, when he had to consider the possibility that he was mad. He learned through suffering: not the physical suffering that had yet to come, but the suffering he went through as he tried to remain true to his Father.

We should also note that even Jesus had things to learn on his way to becoming who he really was, if he was to do what he had been sent to do. He did not come with an instruction manual other than the one you and I have, scripture. He had to sort it out, as you and I try to sort it out for ourselves.

But by the time the Greeks arrive he knows “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit”. His life will not bear the fruit for which he was born into this world without his death. God has said “No!”

God says “No!” to his beloved son and we complain about the times God says “No!” to us! Knowing what it is he is called to do and who is doing the calling, he says, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life”. The word “hate” does not mean despise. It simply means realizing that his life is no more his own than yours or mine are our own because they belong to the One who brought us into this world. So, what should he say, “Father, save me from this hour?”

It is for this reason that he has come, “Father, glorify your name.”

We are told that everyone else around him simply heard a clap of thunder, though some thought it might have been an angel. He heard his Father say, “I have glorified it … ” the affirmation of his choice. He is doing what he was born to do. “And, I will glorify it again”, God’s confirmation that it is time to come home. The world is about to experience the beginning of God’s judgment. The rebellious one who rules it, who promises power, success, riches and fame to those who fall down to serve him, and who brings suffering, pain, hardship and death to those who resist, is about to be driven out.

It will be a paradoxical moment. At first it will appear that evil has won. It will look like anything but victory, a crucified Messiah. But because he steadfastly refused to fall short of the mark for which he was born, because he was faithful unto death, he awakened in that tomb on the other side of this life. But more than that, he is again filled with such divine life and power that now that he has been lifted up, he has become the source of salvation and life for all who follow him. He has power to save now, power to give new life now, power to enable us to discover our reason for being in God’s world now.

Not one of us is an accident; each of us is here for God’s good reason. What is it? He has the power to turn us toward home ourselves now, as part of his new creation people. What is your reason for being? How does it serve God’s purposes?

Jesus is in his home, preparing a place for us. He is designated by his Father to bring an end to all that tries to separate us from God, and is empowered to bring all who truly want to, to come home, just as he is home.

Isn’t it time for us to turn toward home?

 

The Reverend John Cornish

 

Sermon: The First Sunday in Lent (B) – 22nd February 2015

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

Readings:   Genesis 9:8-17;  Psalm 25:1-10;  1 Peter 3:18-22;  Mark 1:9-15

the Spirit … drove [Jesus] out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.[1]

Temptation. Ever a key Lenten theme. And every Lent I’m driven crazy by memories from my Presbyterian Sunday School days of that hoary old hymn, ‘Yield not to temptation’. “Yield not!” it exhorted us, “for yielding is sin!” We were to shun evil companions, bad language and taking the Lord’s name in vain, and “look ever to Jesus, who would carry us through”. We Sunday School kids were pretty ignorant of the passions, dark or otherwise, of which we sang but, as we grew, we picked up scraps of knowledge about temptation, most of it vaguely about ‘not doing things’, and all of it wrapped in dark fear-of-God language about sin.

As a grown-up, I became an Anglican and discovered Lent, and two new things: guilt and the troublesome thought that it was not a question of ‘when am I tempted’ but ‘when am I not’!

If I gave up alcohol it was too easy to claim dedicated ‘fast-free’ feast days—which, by the way, include Sunday! OR there’d be a crisis and I’d rationalise some excuse for comfort. As an ex-smoker I’m very good at rationalisations. The greatest success I’ve achieved was giving up smoking twenty-five years ago last Tuesday–at 1123pm–and I’m extremely proud of that success. So—‘damned if I did and damned if I didn’t’. Guilt over yielding to temptation and guilt over successfully resisting it. I began to hope my failure at Lenten discipline didn’t mean I was worse than anyone else but that I was just the same as everyone else. So I rationalised … wasn’t it just that human nature is faulty and self-serving as well as well-intentioned and capable of great good? Such easy comfort. I could slide into ill discipline, avoid the challenge of resisting temptation and call Lenten fasting merely a medieval hangover. Relieved, I could espouse Oscar Wilde’s appealing cynicism: the only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.[2]

But as I learned more about faith and personal responsibility, I realised all that was a cop-out. Temptation, Lent, and fasting had to be explored. I soon learned that early Christians might have fasted for forty hours between Good Friday and Easter but forty days of self-denial and prayer were unknown until very much later. So how had Lent, a word not in the Bible, and its forty days of fasting, come about?

Very early Christians had lived in white-hot expectation of the parousia, the second coming of Jesus. Who didn’t come as they expected. So they waited … and waited. And as they waited, they wove stories of what would be when he did return. They hung up crosses and painted murals and devised many ways of expressing their hopes and dreams, of saying who they thought God was. Eventually, expectation of an early second coming faded and they devoted themselves to all they had created to comfort themselves as they waited. These comforts eventually threatened to matter more than God; being safe and secure to matter more than being holy; being nice and respectable to matter more than standing up for the powerless whom Jesus had championed.

But God will not be forgotten forever. The word of God through the prophets whispered across the centuries. What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves[3] O my people, what have I done to you?[4] Be appalled, O heavens, at this … for my people have … forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.[5] For those who heard the challenge in these words, comforts created in the perceived absence of God were as ashes. And they lamented with their forebears: ‘With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?’[6]

They thought about the ancient Exodus Hebrews wandering in the wilderness for forty years, suffering for their faithlessness.[7] They thought about faithful Moses prostrate on the stony ground of Mount Sinai for forty days and God delivering the law and the commandments detailing the people’s obligations if they were to be God’s people[8]. They thought about Elijah running away from the task faithfulness demanded, enduring forty days in the wilderness before huddling in that cave where God found him and asked what he thought he was doing.[9] And they thought about Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, and his visions of being lured from God by the seductiveness of greed, glory and power. These stories pierced them for they recognised their own desires, covetousness and faithlessness. And remembered that God was more than the comfort of their crosses and liturgies, their books and their songs. They were confronted by the challenge of ‘God-in-the-wilderness’.

From such understandings Lent evolved. Its origin an old English word meaning ‘spring’. Lent would be forty days without the comforts people could devise, but forty daysdepending only on the grace of God. Forty days to face the challenge of God-in-the-wilderness in their souls, becoming empty and making room for something new. This is the tradition we have inherited. What do we do about it? Like our ancestors we have comforts: alcohol, tobacco, habits, sports, sex. These too can become worthless things and cracked cisterns. Lack of discipline, the most seductive temptation of all, can distort them. Then they don’t lead to God. They don’t create a ‘God Space’ within us, a‘holy of holies’. Just emptiness. We try to fill that emptiness with our comforts but it will remain empty of God’s grace until we face the challenge of ‘God-in-the-wilderness’ and that ancient question: “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?

It’s a difficult challenge. It’s about human weaknesses. Greed … the attraction of acquiring stuff, wallowing in materialistic consumption our get-something-for-nothing world loves so much. Insecurity … the desire for glory, to be noticed. “Look at me!” children cry but we grown-ups are not meant to crave admiration. And the most insidious temptation? Power. The most desirable ‘thing’ and it is so quickly misused. Not just by brute force but the kind of underhand manipulation that says sweetly, “if you really loved me, you’d do what I want”.

Greed, glory and power. Jesus rejected them all for he would neither challenge the power and authority of God nor distrust the God of hope.[10] For Jesus the temptations were to stop praying, to stop caring, and to stop hoping. It is no different for us. When worship is boring and dry, when we disagree with something the church does, when the world’s ridicule of faith seems like personal rejection, the temptation is to give it all away. But Lent is about praying when there doesn’t seem any point and keeping the First Commandment and loving God even if we don’t feel like it. When the world’s suffering is overwhelming, the temptation is to ignore it, call it someone else’s problem, turn away and have another glass of wine. But Lent is about caring –keeping the second commandment and loving our neighbours as ourselves. When life seems an unresolvable mess, the temptation is to despair and lose hope. But Lent’s about hoping — in the promise of the resurrection.

Lent begins with that hope. It will end with reassurance that that hope is real. Between now and Easter morning we must face the fact of our human preference for greed, for glory, and for power, a weakness which feeds our capacity for terrible cruelty. We must face the memory of a dreadful deed for which that cruelty was responsible: the crucifixion of Jesus — and the scene of his last temptation. “If you are the Son of God,” the people jeered, “come down from the cross”.[11]

To that temptation he said no. But that ‘no’, like all his other ‘nos’, translates into a resounding ‘yes’ to God. Jesus accepted the challenge of ‘God-in-the-wilderness’,

faced hidden temptations and made way for God in the ‘Holy of Holies’, in his soul. We are to do the same. For us ‘yield not to temptation’ means remembering to keep praying, to keep caring, to keep hoping, and to keep believing in the promise that on the other side of Calvary is the mystery of the risen Christ. Then the answer to our ancestors’ question — “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? — will be to offer God, with Jesus, a resounding yes’.

 

 The Reverend Elaine Farmer

 

[1] Mark 1:12-13

[2] Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere’s Fan

[3] Jeremiah 2:5

[4] Micah 6:3

[5] Jeremiah 2:12-13

[6] Micah 6:6

[7] Numbers 14:33

[8] Deuteronomy 9:9

[9] l Kings 19:13

[10] See Milton’s ‘Paradise Regained’

[11] Matthew 27:42

Sermon: The First Sunday in Lent (B) – 22nd February 2015

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 7am

Readings:   Genesis 9:8-17;  Psalm 25:1-10;  1 Peter 3:18-22;  Mark 1:9-15

The Old Testament readings for the Sundays in Lent focus on the theme of covenant: the series of covenants God makes with people, and the ways covenants are tested, strained and renewed.

This concluding note to the Flood story tells of the very first covenant, the covenant God made with Noah and his descendants, that is, all humanity, and all land-dwelling creatures.

In this passage God covenants never again to destroy the earth with a flood; and, as a sign and reminder of this covenant, God offers to put the rainbow in the clouds.

The passage tells one part of this covenant story. Covenants always have two parts: there are specific things each party to the covenant must do, in order to make real the relationship the covenant sets forth. In this case, it is God’s part in the covenant not to destroy the earth with a flood; humans, however, must have their part to play as well in order to make the covenant complete. The human side of the covenant is detailed in the verses immediately preceding the reading.

After Noah and his family and the animals leave the ark, Noah builds an altar and makes a thank-offering for surviving the Flood; God then speaks to Noah and sets some basic conditions for life in the renewed earth. The regular cycles of days and seasons will not be interrupted, God promises, and within that stabilized environment Noah’s descendants are blessed to “be fruitful and multiply” and to inhabit the whole earth. The commandment is so important it’s repeated twice, in verses 1 and 7, as both the opening and closing of God’s description of the significance of life in the new earth. In the wake of the Flood, it takes on an meaning as something restorative, something intended to correct the corruption of the antedeluvian humanity.

Together, the two sides of the covenant map out a new dimension of redemptive action for the world: God will from now on deal with sin and corruption, not by destroying it but by transforming it. While humans from now on are called to be agents of such redemptive transformation, co-creating with God the fruits of righteous works even out of the wreckage of corrupted experience. The covenant between God and Noah thus sets the stage for all other covenants of creative transformation for right-relationship and mutual well-being that are to come.

 The passage from 1 Peter serves as a kind of bridge between the Genesis and Mark readings, in that it makes an explicit link between the story of the Flood and the theology of baptism. The covenantal relationship of co-creative transformation that emerges from the Flood is now taken up and extended in the covenant of new life in Christ that is marked and sealed in baptism. The saving power of baptism lies in its role as “an appeal to God for a good conscience,” an active connection to God that brings an intensive and intimate knowledge of God’s aims and intentions for our actions.

Jesus’ passage through the death of the flesh and the “spirits in prison” in the netherworld to resurrection and life in the spirit and heaven is presented here as the model of which Noah’s passage through the destruction of the Flood to the new, life-giving covenant of creative transformation is the original. Both point to the experience of redemptive co-creative relationship with God that is open to the believer in the name of Christ.

 Noah’s Flood and Jesus’ Baptism are roughly in parallel. Noah enters the waters in the ark, spends a time adrift and emerges with a new covenant of transformation. Jesus enters into John’s baptism, spends time in the wilderness and emerges with a new proclamation of the reign of God.

Typically the story of Jesus in the wilderness is used on the First Sunday in Lent to introduce the Lenten fast. But Mark, unlike Matthew and Luke, does not actually say anything about Jesus fasting during the forty days he spends in the wild. Instead, Mark comments that “angels waited on him”. This is a clear echo of the story in 1 Kings 19, in which Elijah is served by an angel who twice brings him bread, and that bread sustains Elijah for forty days and forty nights. The Elijah story itself is an echo of the “bread of angels” in Psalm 78, which sustains the entire Israelite population in its forty-year sojourn in the wilderness.

The suggestion here is not so much that Jesus fasted as that he committed himself entirely to God’s care, like Elijah and the Israelites and Noah before him, God sustained him in some not wholly understandable and yet undeniably factual way.

Similarly, during his forty days Jesus was “with the wild beasts.” Noah was also “with the wild beasts” while the ark was adrift, and by a special providence of God the wild ones did not threaten or attack Noah or his family or attack each other during that entire time.

We are encouraged to consider it a special providence of God that Jesus was safe “with the wild beasts” in his wilderness as well. Mark shows Jesus relying on the provision of God for his sustenance and safety, rather than anxiously attempting to serve himself in these needs; and, given that Mark never specifies how Satan tempts Jesus, as Matthew and Luke do, we may take it that such deep trust in God is in fact what overcomes the Enemy’s testing.

The personal experience of relying on God’s provision for him is what confirms for Jesus the divine words at his Baptism, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”, and what gives Jesus the personal authenticity and authority to call people to “repent” and “believe”the good news that the reign of God is at hand. Jesus’ figurative re-enactment of the Noah story puts him in a position to announce the covenant of redemptive action God made with Noah, extending it now even further with his own proclamation of God’s reign for new life.

New life that comes when we repent and believe the good news of acceptance of God’s love for all.[1]

 

[1] This sermon based upon one by Paul S Namcarrow found at [1]http://processandfaith.org/category/kind-content/resources/lectionary-commentary

 

The Reverend John Cornish

Sermon: Last Sunday after Epiphany (B) – 15th February 2015

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

Readings:       Exodus 24:12-18;  Psalm 2;  2 Peter 1:16-21;  Matthew 17:1-9

I have never had a dramatic conversion experience or an occasion when God spoke to me in an unmistakable manner – like Isaiah’s call in the temple, or Moses’ experience at the burning bush. As a young person, in a more evangelical parish than this, people were always having conversion experiences and demanding to know of others and me “When did you become a Christian” as if to say that there had to be a date and time that I could state as the time I met God.

While I do acknowledge that God does reveal God’s self to many people in very dramatic ways, I for one have not experienced such. God being revealed to me has been a process over the years since my birth. Some revelations are more pronounced than others but no blazing light or booming voice. No mountain top visions of Jesus, Moses and Elijah, just simple movements more in keeping with the concept of the still small voice or as modern translations translate the Hebrew “the sound of sheer silence!”

The American Lutheran writer Marcus Borg who now worships as an Anglican in his book CONVICTIONS – a manifesto for progressive Christians (SPCK, 2014), speaks of a number of what we would call transfiguration experiences which he has experienced during his life. He refers to a personal journey ‘through the doubts and uncertainties’ of his teenage years, before having ‘a series’ of ‘dramatic and unexpected mystical experiences’ which then underpinned his mature sense of faith. The book vividly describes those mystical experiences, which were often marked by a shimmering light suffusing his surrounding environment. Very helpful and exciting for him but not part of my experience.

The Uniting Church minister, Dorothy McRae-McMahon, once told me that when she was the Minister of the Pitt Street Uniting Church, she visited St James King Street for an ecumenical liturgy and as the chalice was lifted up by the then Rector at the end of the consecration prayer, that there appeared a glowing aura around the chalice and in a wonderful manner God spoke to her.

You know that I am always asking for contributions for the Parish Magazine. The task is always ongoing. Articles for the Magazine can be anything about life as everyday life is holy. Last week I asked a person at St Aidan’s if she would write something and I received the response that I have heard many times before. “My life is boring. What would I have to write about that others would find interesting?” I said to her that all our lives are boring to a certain degree but each of our stories and accounts of our encounters with the divine are all different and special whether they be mountain top experiences or mundane day to day life.

Celtic Christianity speaks of “thin places”, spots where the divine and human touch each other in life-transforming ways. However, every place and time reflects God’s presence and purpose in partnership with human creativity and freedom. Every place can be a thin place; every encounter a theophany, or revelation of God, in which God calls us to arise, shine and act, for our light has come.

There is no dualism of God and the world, sacred and secular. No division. Rather, the whole earth is full of God’s glory for those with eyes to see. Life-transforming power is ours when we awaken to what is God’s gift of possibilities and the divine energy actively present to help us make real these possibilities within each moment of our life.

We don’t need to worry about the ways and the means of ascension or transfiguration, nor do we need to worry about the factual account. Such concerns are “modern” questions, grounded in one-dimensional, closed-system thinking of both fundamentalists and rationalists. What are at work here are God’s deeper mysteries; the deeper meaning and reality of events in a multi-dimensional universe. In a universe with forty billion galaxies, each of which may have a billion or more solar systems like our own, there is no need to be humble in our imagination. We can “think big” and know that divine presence, power, and possibility is “more than we can ask or imagine”.

Some moments, however, may more fully reflect God’s intention in the dynamic call and response between God and humanity. However, even here in these life-defining experiences, human response is still needed. Even when we are “moved by the Holy Spirit”, those who are moved experience the Spirit from their own unique vantage point. Still, all places and encounters can reveal something life-transfiguring about God and us.

Transfiguration captures the spirit of Epiphany. The season of Epiphany begins with a world transforming star, guiding the magi from the East, and concludes with glory abounding on a mountaintop. The mood of Epiphany, perhaps more than Christmas, is a time of wonder and glory, radiating from a humble dwelling to encompass the whole earth.

During Epiphany we have been immersed in Jesus’ message. This message focussed on the commonwealth of God that through God’s work was beginning to appear, and on the radical character of the life it was calling into being. We have seen that his message both continued the prophetic tradition of Israel and how it transformed it. We are called to understand we must spread the news that Jesus announced and show how he enacted the fulfilment of that tradition. It was about him that the prophets spoke. He was God’s King: The descendant of David. He inaugurated the Kingdom of God for all humanity. It is still in the process of completion but Jesus is the King now and forever.

The transfiguration reminds us that Jesus is always more than meets the eye. As God’s beloved child, he radiates the light of creation. But, transfiguration challenges us to remember that we can see more than meets the eye. We can receive divine vision, opening us to the holiness of others, all creation, and ourselves.

Whether or not we have an overpowering experience of God or the experience of “the sound of utter silence” we are called us to personal, vocational, congregational and global transfiguration. It all begins with our understanding of God and God’s nature. We are the children of quantum energy. We glimpse wonder in images from the Hubble telescope. Let us see with new eyes and embrace a larger vision; let us go beyond the ecstasy deprivation that leads to consumerism and war making.

Enlivened by divine light shining in every soul and every soul, we can aspire to live by the words of Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

“Earth’s crammed with heaven
and every common bush
afire with God;
And only he who sees,
takes off his shoes –
The rest sit round it
and pluck blackberries.”

On one hand the gospel writers affirmed that we are all children of God. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said that peacemakers would be called “children of God”. To declare Jesus to be God’s son would not necessarily separate Jesus from others who serve God faithfully. Clearly those who heard God speak understood the words involved to be more significant than that.  Jesus is God’s “beloved son” in whom God is well pleased. God’s declaration certainly singles Jesus out as bearing the title in a unique way.  Jesus is not just one among many “sons” of God. Jesus is uniquely beloved, uniquely pleasing to God.

On the other hand, we cannot read back into the words he attributes to God the supernatural ideas of later generations of Christians. Like Moses and Elijah, he is clearly a human being. Like them he is a truly extraordinary human being with an extraordinary message and mission. For most Jews, equality with Moses was virtually unthinkable. Yet, here, in the midst of a vision of Moses, Elijah and Jesus, God singles out for recognition Jesus.

This singling out of Jesus from among all the spiritual giants of Jewish history as the one to whom we should especially listen continues to be appropriate for us today so that we can apprehend God. The story of the Transfiguration is a wonderful example of each moment being influenced by the past, (the presence of Moses and Elijah), and the influenced by God, (“This is my Son, the beloved; listen to him.”)  At each moment Jesus was able to unify the past, with what was heard and understood, to be God’s invitation.

The creative energy Jesus gained allows him to become even more integrated with God’s vision of possibilities for the world. By following the encouragement of God, even when it meant his own death, Jesus gives us a glimpse of the Kingdom of God on earth. Is this an example of creative transformation at work?

Mystifying disputes have too often blocked listening to Jesus’ words over the years, the Gospels reveal Jesus. The church would be renewed if believers once again really listened to him.

In a moment we will sing hymn that speaks beautifully of God’s transfiguring presence in all of creation, “Be still for the presence of the Lord”. It is printed in the Bulletin.

“Be still, for the presence of the Lord, the Holy One, is here.

Come bow before Him now with reverence and fear.

In Him no sin is found, we stand on holy ground;

Be still, for the presence of the Lord, the Holy One, is here.

 

Be still, for the glory of the Lord is shining all around;

He burns with holy fire, with splendour He is crowned.

How awesome is the sight, our radiant King of light!

Be still, for the glory of the Lord is shining all around.

 

Be still, for the power of the Lord is moving in this place;

He comes to cleanse and heal, to minister His grace.

No work too hard for Him, in faith receive from Him;

Be still, for the power of the Lord is moving in this place.”[1]

 

May your thin place and my thin place somehow today reveal to us a little bit more of the God who is love, loves us and is beyond names and shapes.

 

[1] This sermon composed using material found at

http://processandfaith.org/resources/lectionary-commentary/yeara/2014-03-02/last-sunday-after-epiphanytransfiguration written by John B. Cobb, Jr. and,

http://processandfaith.org/resources/lectionary-commentary/yeara/2011-03-06/last-sunday-after-epiphanytransfiguration-sunday http://processandfaith.org/resources/lectionary-commentary/yearb/2009-02-22/transfiguration-sunday-last-sunday-after-epiphany written by Bruce G. Epperly and

http://processandfaith.org/resources/lectionary-commentary/yearb/2003-03-02/last-sunday-after-epiphany written by Keith McPaul

 

The Reverend John Cornish

Sermon: 5th Sunday after Epiphany (B) – 8th February 2015

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

Readings: 1 Isaiah 40:21-31;  Psalm 147;  1 Corinthians 9:16-23;  Mark 1:29-39

Dwight l. Moody was a great American evangelist of the 19th Century. He was once criticized by a lady for his methods of evangelism, as he called people to respond to the Gospel of Christ. Moody replied to her criticism: “I agree with you. I don’t like the way I do it either. Tell me, how do you do it?” The woman replied: “I don’t do it.” Moody responded: “Then I like my way of doing it better than your way of not doing it!”

Evangelism is a word which many people shy away from. Many of us churchgoers feel uncomfortable about evangelism, as of course do many non-churchgoers.

Why is this? We remember aggressive doorknockers wanting to lecture us on religion. Or mass meetings with long addresses and emotional pressure. Or those American preachers who turned out to be the most dreadful hypocrites. Or more locally, the Sydney preachers who seem to say that if you don’t believe exactly what I believe, you’re going to hell! As if people can be frightened into the kingdom of heaven!

Well, I have to say that if that is what evangelism is all about, I’m not too enthusiastic either. In reality, evangelism can take many forms: it might be in large meetings or personal conversation; it can be confrontational or low-key; it can be embarrassing or very natural; it can be done helpfully or very unhelpfully.

What then is evangelism? It is simply communicating the Gospel message: telling people about God’s love and the call of Jesus to trust and follow him. And in our reading this morning from 1 Corinthians 9, Paul makes clear how important he regards the task and the opportunity of evangelism and Christian witness.

Now we might say: “That’s fine for Paul. He was an apostle. I’m just an ordinary Christian: I’m no evangelist.” But as Paul sees it, there is no choice. “Woe to me if I do not proclaim the Gospel”, he says.

And although we may not have the unique call of Paul to be an Apostle and witness to the Gospel, we too are called to bear witness to the love of Jesus. We might not do it the way Paul did, but we are called to bear witness in the way that is appropriate for us.

A few decades ago, people would be rather confused if someone said “I am a Christian.” “Aren’t we all Christians?” they might reply. “You’re just more enthusiastic in your religious practice.”

Have you noticed that this is no longer the case? People can nowadays be distinguished as Christians in a way which was not the case in earlier generations. So people like Kevin Rudd and Scott Morrison, and other parliamentarians became known as Christians: sadly many of us looked at them and wished that they weren’t known as Christians, because their various shortcomings didn’t seem to bring honour to Jesus and the message of Jesus. But people today do seem to recognize that living in Australia and living as a Westerner doesn’t make you a Christian.

Paul certainly made himself known as a Christian and as a messenger of the Gospel of Jesus. He was enthusiastic about the message, keen to make it known.

As a preacher, he had the right to receive practical and financial support from Christians, and especially those who were converted through his ministry. But he put that right aside, and preached and taught at no charge, earning his keep through his work as a tentmaker. He didn’t have to, but he let go of his rights so that people would not misunderstand his motives and so that he would not put pressure on his new converts.

And although we don’t have the special call that Paul received, we are all called to let our light shine so that others will see our good works and give glory to God. And how will they do that? Above all by putting their faith in Jesus and becoming members of his family, the church.

In a world where religion is no longer a private thing, we are all called to bear witness to Jesus. The life we lead, the values we display, the words we speak, the love we show, will bear witness to Jesus: people will either be drawn towards him or away from him as they respond to what they see in us, once they know us to be Christians.

And there will be times when we are able to speak directly about our understanding of the faith, or perhaps to invite people along to church or church events, or to encourage people to go along to a church that is convenient for them.

Paul saw that the Gospel of Jesus breaks down barriers. Of course Jesus was happy to mix with all kinds of people, particularly those who would be on the edge of respectable society. He certainly sought to break down barriers.

When Paul was seeking to point Jewish people to Jesus, he acted in a way which raised as few barriers as possible. As a Jew, he knew their laws and traditions. He knew he was not bound by them, but he also knew that making an issue of being different from other Jews would only raise barriers. And so he fitted in with their customs in every way he could.

On the other hand, when he was dealing with non-Jews, and those who knew nothing of the Old Testament and its laws, he acted quite differently. Not that he acted dishonestly or immorally to fit in with the ways of some Gentiles: he knew what God seeks from those who were followers of Jesus. He still sought always to please God. But he had worked out his principles, and was not going to put up unnecessary barriers between himself and those whom he was seeking to lead to Christ.

Paul says that he became “all things to all people”: he sought to relate to them as far as possible on their terms. He was not going to let unnecessary barriers get in the way of the message of Jesus. Not that he compromised on principles. But he sought to identify with people where they were at, so that he might relate to them and communicate to them with understanding and love. Effective witness seeks to break down barriers. It is concerned with people, not with human rules and standards.

Sometimes in my role as a hospital chaplain I am contacted by enthusiastic people who see the hospital as a wonderful place to go round evangelizing people. They want to get the message of Jesus out, and to get speedy decisions. But they are not interested in people, and they are certainly not interested in listening to patients and understanding them.

I steer these people in another direction. That is not what hospital ministry is about, and indeed it would be an abuse of people and an abuse of the Gospel. Yes, I certainly get opportunities to speak about God’s love to patients who do not see themselves as Christians. But I do it because they want to explore these issues, and are happy for me to share with them. I never have the right to force my faith upon others: least of all in a situation where they cannot easily escape!

Witness is simply about being Christian in a humble but open way. We might have the opportunity to say something which will get people asking questions, and will open up a conversation. But it is not for us to lecture or harass or attack or put people down. Love is still the way. I remember reading the saying of a great saint: “Always bear witness to Jesus: sometimes do it using words!”

Christianity is seen as a distinct faith in today’s society. It is often attacked – sadly often because Christians often deserve to be criticized. But the Gospel of Jesus still tells us of the love of God, of the Son of God, of the forgiveness of God, of the welcome of God, of the hope and purpose God gives us through Christ. The Gospel is still good news.

And as we are called to bear witness and to break down barriers to the Gospel, so our church needs to do the same thing.

We know that the size of our congregations has been dwindling, and that there are many questions about the future of our parish: perhaps not next year, but certainly in the decades ahead. If we are to effectively bear witness to the Gospel and to welcome people to the family of Jesus, we will need to be prepared to ask questions about what we do here.

I imagine most of us love the way we conduct our worship: indeed it will often be the key reason why we belong to the parish. We love our traditions. But we will need to re-examine what we do. Does what we do draw people in or push them away? Are there things we can do to help people feel more welcome and more valued? Paul let go of his rights if he felt they might get in the way, and we will need to be prepared to take the risk of asking uncomfortable questions, even holding lightly to things we value, because we see the need to reach out, especially to the younger community.

Maybe we will conclude that great changes are not necessary, that our traditions help our mission rather than hinder it. Maybe the decision will be that we need to offer something in addition to what we do now. Maybe we will conclude that we do need to make significant changes, and that will be uncomfortable for us who love what we have now. The important thing is that we are concerned to reach out to others with the love of Christ, even if it involves change or discomfort.

It really does matter that we see ourselves as witnesses to the love of God in Christ. We are not members of a closed club, but a community of believers who are serious about bearing witness to the love of God in Christ to all people. Amen.

 

The Reverend Paul Weaver

 

Sermon: 4th Sunday after Epiphany (B) – 1st February 2015

St Aidan’s Anglican Church Epping 8.30am

Readings: Deuteronomy 18:15-20;  Psalm 111; 1  Corinthians 8;  Mark 1:21-28

Human rights are constantly being debated. Particularly as Australian citizens, we believe we have certain rights, certain just expectations from our society and even our government.

Many people would say that the execution of drug smugglers is a cruel and inhuman punishment, which is an infringement of human rights. Many would say that Moslem women do not have the right to go around in public with their faces covered, while others say that they do have that right. I would certainly say that the rights of asylum seekers are being trampled on by Australian policies. And I would also question the claim that people have the right to bear arms without restriction, as many Americans insist, and of course the American Constitution seems to indicate.

The problem is that we live in a world which is not neat and tidy. Many rights we take for granted could also be described as freedoms. Australians have a right to freedom of speech. But is there also a right not to be insulted or lied about? As George Brandis appears to think, do I have the right be a bigot? And if I do, are there any limits to my right to express that bigotry? And I might also ask: who has the right to determine whether what I say is bigotry anyway?

In the real world, our rights and freedoms are not absolute and unlimited. They interlink with the rights and freedoms of others, and the well-being of society. We live in what I regard as a free society: but that freedom in all sorts of ways has its limits. I not only have freedoms and rights, but I also have obligations and responsibilities and appropriate restrictions on what I do and what I say. We are not totally independent people.

One aspect of being made in the image of God is that we are individuals in relationship. We are made to know and love and serve God, and to live in relationship with others, whom we are called to love. And any good relationship involves restrictions and limits on our freedoms, so that we do good and not harm to the other person.

In the church of Corinth, as we heard in our second reading, the question being debated was: “Is it OK for Christians to eat meat offered to idols?” I don’t remember any tense debates at Synod on this particular subject, and I doubt whether many of us have had sleepless nights try to work that one out! Perhaps in some parts of the world, it is an issue which causes concern even today. But in Corinth in Paul’s time it was a real issue which the apostle felt the need to write about in his letter.

In Corinth, much of the meat available in the markets had been sold by the priests of the local pagan temples. Worshippers would offer a beast at the temple as a sacrifice to the god or gods of the temple. Some of it would be burned in honour of the god, some would be eaten at the temple, and the rest would be given to the priests, who sold any meat they didn’t want. It would be difficult and probably expensive to go to the market and buy meat which definitely had not been sacrificed to an idol.

The issue for Christians was: was it wrong to eat meat which had been offered to a false god? Was it spiritually dangerous: for instance, could an evil spirit from the false god get into you? And if I was invited to someone’s feast, would it be wrong to eat the meat being served? Would I have to ask whether it had been offered in pagan worship? Or were Christians required to cut themselves off from social contact or even business gatherings where food might be offered?

In the church of Corinth, there was disagreement on this issue. There were those who said that an idol is nothing. It has no value or significance or power. It can do you no good, but it is also powerless to harm you. So even if something has been offered to an idol, it has no power and brings no threat to the person who eats it. So of course there is no problem at all about eating meat offered to idols.

But there were other members of the church who were very uneasy about all this. Didn’t eating meat that had been offered to idols involve you in some way in pagan worship? And wasn’t idol-worship linked with demons and evil spirits? Mightn’t they have power to harm those who ate?

The first group said that the others were fuddy-duddies, still in spiritual kindergarten, hung up on rules and regulations and unnecessary fears. The second group said that the others were risking spiritual harm and compromising their faith. Who was right?

In responding to this dispute, Paul says that both sides have a point. The eaters are right in saying that there is only one God, and that idols are empty and powerless. And they are right in saying that what we choose to eat is a practical decision, and that what we eat does not in itself affect our relationship with God. These people have worked it out. They’ve got the knowledge and understanding.

But knowledge is not everything. Even sound doctrine is not everything. In fact, says Paul, “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up”. Sadly the church has been slow to take that in.

Doctrinal arguments have turned what should be a community of love into an institution of violence and hatred. We think of the evils of the inquisition, or the war and hatred that accompanied the Reformation and beyond. And we think of the judgementalism and arrogance of those who even today are sure they’ve got the message right, and exclude those who understand things differently. And don’t forget that liberals as well as conservatives can have that failing. Of course, the Pharisees had that problem: it was easier to reject the message of Jesus and condemn him than to consider what he was saying and whether it might be true.

So Paul tells those who feel free on this matter, those who are sure they have got it worked out, that correct doctrine is not the only issue. Love matters.

 His point is this. I might feel perfectly free to eat whatever I choose. But the real question is: how do I act in love? Is my attitude going to help or harm my brothers and sisters in Christ? Will my action be of help to my fellow-Christians, or will it upset and confuse them?

Paul says: “Doctrinally I have no problem with eating anything at all. But if I believe I might cause spiritual confusion or harm to someone who hasn’t reached my understanding, I will abstain. It is more important to seek their welfare that to insist on my freedom, my rights.”

The question is always: how do I act in love? It is not simply: what am I permitted to do?

Paul makes clear that love does not insist on its own rights. In love, we may decide to do things that we would not otherwise do for the sake of others. We may decide to miss out on things we don’t believe are wrong for the sake of others. Our question is not longer “what do the rules permit?”, but “what will benefit the other person?”.

When I was an earnest Youth Fellowship member, there were big debates about whether a good Christian could drink or smoke or wear makeup or go to dances or see adult movies or wear short dresses. I made the sacrifice and never wore short dresses! Some weren’t even sure about going to see movies at all, or watching television. I know that members of different churches came to different answers and different rules on many of these issues. Of course they are all matters of judgement, not absolutes.

For most of us, these burning issues have been resolved – in most cases in terms of freedom rather than strict rules.

But for instance as we know, members of the Salvation Army and many other Christians have chosen to totally abstain from alcohol, largely on the basis of Paul’s principle. For them, drinking might confuse people, or even lead someone to drink, who might end up going down a destructive path.

We may or may not come to that particular decision. But we need to remember that many Christians have decided to abstain from alcohol, not because they are wowsers or legalists, but because they believe that it is a loving thing to do, and may save others from harm. What is important is not that we make full use of our rights and freedoms, but that we seek to act in love.

We are all free to follow Jesus as we believe he leads us. Yes, truth does matter, and we need to humbly hold fast to the central truths of the Gospel. But ultimately love matters. In the decisions we make and the paths we take, let us not simply seek our own agenda and insist on our own rights, but in love, seek the good of others. Amen.

 

The Reverend Paul Weaver

 

 

 

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