Thursday, 24 November 2016

Wake up!

A Sermon on Romans 13:11-14

Wake up.
Wake up from your slumber.

Wake up from your dreaming.
Wake up to yourself.
Wake up to reality.
Just, wake up.

Paul’s injunction to the Christians in Rome is grounded in the notion of a disconnection between their experience of existence and the reality of God’s love for them and life for them.  He tells them that they are asleep.

Wake up.

The notion that somehow people are asleep or disconnected from reality is a constant theme for novelists and film makers.

As a teenager one of my favourite series of books was by the author Stephen Donaldson and was called The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever.

The main character in these books very name and title indicate a contradiction Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever.  In him covenant, promise and faith, are contrasted with unbelief and doubt.  The character is transported to another world, a fantastical place, which he assumes is a dream.  Being a dream his behaviour involves a libertine disregard for the world in which he finds himself and its people.  Everything is there for his benefit – but it is not reality, it is a dream.

Wake up.

Is this us too? Living as though we are in a dream, in an altered reality.  Taking advantage of each other and the creation as we seek to gratify our desires?

Wake up, cries Paul. You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep

Do we understand the reality of this world?  Do we understand our relationship with God in Christ? Do we understand our responsibility to each other and to God’s creation?

The selfishness of the character Thomas Covenant in the novels, the desire for self-gratification, may very well be a reflection of our hedonistic culture in which the most important question we seem to ask one another is, “Are you happy?”

Wake up, cries Paul.

Put on Christ and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

It’s not just about you.  Life doesn’t revolves just around you and what you want.

As we begin our journey through Advent, our preparation for the return of Christ our King, the challenge for us is to enter more deeply into our faith.  To wake up and put on Christ.

Yet how difficult is this?  Most of us have come to see that Advent is about preparing ourselves for the Christmas onslaught: gift buying, menu making, event attending, and list achieving preparation.

This week on the morning ABC radio program a reporter was asking people whether they were ready for Christmas.  But his question was driven by one motive: “have you saved money for Christmas?”.  Are you ready to go on the spending binge?

This week I have been reading a book about the Anthropocene, the new definition of the geological era in which we live.  We are living in a time that humans are so impacting the shape of life on the planet that scientists have named this geological era in which we live the Anthropocene.

In one of the essays Michael Northcott says, “In the post-Christian culture of capitalist consumerism Christmas has morphed from the festival of the Incarnation of light in cosmic darkness into a fossil-fuelled festival of consumption where neon lights and LCD screens displace candles and incense.”

No longer does our culture celebrate the Incarnation of the light we worship at the altar of mammon – money, growth, progress, consumption and wealth. 

To return to Paul’s letter to the Romans the question might very well be asked of us, “Have we as modern Christians turned Christmas into a time when we satisfy the desires of the flesh, as opposed to celebrate the light of Christ coming into the world?”

What are we preparing for?  What must we wake up from?

Advent is about preparing for Christ’s coming again. Christ’s return not simply the birth of Jesus.  The birth of Jesus that we celebrate is on the Roman holiday of Sol Invictus, the sun god.  The date was chosen by the Romans to preserve their ancient festival of the turning of the season. Even the date of our celebration of Jesus’ birth is an act of syncretism.  Encultured into Roman festivals, encultured into Christendom, enculturated into consumerism Christmas struggles to have meaning in terms of God’s love made flesh in Christ Jesus.

For every year I have been involved in preaching I have found this period of the year a deeply challenging time.  My very first Christmas sermon began with the words ‘bah humbug’, although I may just as well have used Pauls’ words, “wake up”.

What might we do to shake ourselves from this slumber?  What might we do to turn again to God as we prepare for the coming of Christ?

Let me suggest four things that come to us from today’s readings.

Firstly, worship God!  In Psalm 122 the Psalmist says “I was glad when the said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’”  I was glad to go to worship.  Here there is an attitude of heart to bring to God in our worship.

In a conversation last week a friend who rarely attends church anymore spoke of how boring church can be.  And, I must admit I agreed.

As a Christian I have worshipped in traditional, contemporary, evangelical and Charismatic services.  I have worshipped in high liturgy and café church and contemplative and worship that felt like a rock concert.  In all of these settings I could find myself saying, as my friend said to me this week, it’s boring.

Even the liveliest of services can feel boring but the gladness of heart in the opportunity to worship God transcends the style of worship and our personal experience as we bring our hearts in gladness to God.

It is not about gratifying my particular preferences in worship style it is about engaging in the life of worship: be glad to gather with the community.  Recognise it for the privilege and opportunity it is to worship God.

Wake up and be glad!

Second, seek contentment and moderation in your lifestyle.  In an era of instant gratification when we can buy the next item at the press of button without even leaving our house we need to learn again to be patient, to train ourselves to the art of restraint.  Do not seek for more than you need.

Our whole culture is built on teaching you and training you and tempting you to covet.  We are sold the line that our consumption is good for the economy.

David Bentley Hart in his book titled God says, “Late modern society is principally concerned with purchasing things, in ever greater abundance and variety, and so has to strive to fabricate an ever greater number of desires to gratify… Our sacred writ is advertising, our piety is shopping, our highest devotion is private choice.” 

At Christmas time the gluttony of consumption of goods and foods is exposed.  How does this really prepare us for the coming of Jesus?

Wake up and exercise some restraint.

Third, be conscious of others, make your life about others.

In Psalm 122 the psalmist implores the listeners:

For the sake of my relatives and friends
I will say, ‘Peace be within you.’
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
I will seek your good.

Life is give an outward focus.  Rather than asking what is in it for me we are called to think about what it is we might be offering others.

This should not become another expression of simply gratifying of the flesh of our loved ones by giving them what they do not needs but a deeper reflection of the giving that seeks the good of God.

For the sake of your relatives and friends, for the house of the Lord, and for your neighbour who could be either friend or foe.

Wake up and think of others.

And fourthly, seek peace.

The Psalm declares, “Peace be within you.”  Whilst Isaiah would have us beat our swords into ploughshares – weapons of destruction into sustainers of life.

Peace is both the inner eternal peace with ourselves and God as well as peace between human beings as well, an absence of war.

The concept of shalom, peace, has deep layers of meaning one of which we celebrate when we share in communion: God’s forgiveness, God’s offering of forgiveness to us.  When we share the peace in our worship we are acknowledging to one another that we are all reconciled to God and to each other and that this peace that we are sharing is God’s desire for the whole world: the reconciliation of all things in Christ.

From the peace we encounter in our relationship with God should flow an outpouring of our peace with others in the world.

Wake up for blessed are the peacemakers.

The advent of our God is nigh, Jesus is coming.  No one can know the time.  So we are called to prepare ourselves, to be ready, to be attentive.  Transformed by God’s unconditional love and forgiveness let us hear God’s word of hope to us in Christ and let us prepare through Advent:

For you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light; let us live honourably as in the day, let us put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.


Wake up.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Christ the King: Too Political?!

I have been accused of being too political in my preaching at times and it has been said to me that preaching has no place engaging with politics.

Yet that accusation in itself is a political statement and on this day which is traditionally known as Christ the King our readings make it very clear that our faith has a political edge.

In Paul’s letter to the Colossians Paul makes the grand claim that in Christ “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile all things to himself, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace through the blood of the cross.”

This claim of God over all things is one that is hard to wrap our heads around but I have little doubt for the ancient community who were under the rule of the Roman Empire they heard this statement as one of hope. 

The Emperor and his claims to divinity, and the power and might of his Empire, were trumped by the maker and sustainer of all things who walked among us in Jesus.  God was bigger than the ruling power of Rome.

In these words, which add a cosmic dimension to Jesus’ presence in the world, we hear a clear echo of John 1: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.  He was in beginning with God, all things have come into being through him and without him not one thing has come into being.  What has come into being in him was light.  And that light was the light of the world.”

This cosmic claim concerning Jesus Christ had clear political implications.  The citizenship and the first loyalty of the early Christian community was determined by their baptism not by the Emperor.

Paul says to the Colossians that, God “has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.” 

To be transferred into another kingdom, a coming kingdom, a rule and reign of God, not determined by place and time but by allegiance to God set the early Christian community over against the Roman Empire.

God is the God of all things and in Christ God was reconciling all things to himself.  There is no place in this universe, there is no time in history, there is no political system that does not sit under Christ’s reign.  This is clearly a political claim as much as it is a claim over our human existence.

Just as this set early Christians up to be in conflict with the Empire, and subsequently led to the persecution of Christians because they would not acknowledge the Emperor as a God, so too it sets up a conflict for each one of us with the society in which we live.

Where does our citizenship lie?  This is a politically charged question and to say otherwise is naïve and more than that it is to deny the sovereign rule of God over our lives. God has transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.

I have spoken before to you of my personal sense of homelessness as an Australian.  Through my study of history and the transient nature of my upbringing I came to have a deep sense of unease.  This unease was grounded in the reality that as an Anglo-Australian I belonged to a history of a people who had disregard for the sovereignty of the first peoples of this land, and mind you of many other lands as well.

Yet this homelessness was not restricted to my Australian heritage but to that Anglo heritage that stretches back through the centuries of conflict between the Scots and the English, and between the Saxons and the Normans, and between the Normans and Celts, and so on and so forth.  With so much talk of nationalism in recent years and what it means to be Australian I am continually driven to find my identity, and my political identity in Christ.

Being Australian is a mixed blessing – we live in one of the best places and times amongst some of the most prosperous people ever, but we should never ignore that others have paid a deep and terrible price for our prosperity even if we are not personally aware of this.

Being transferred by baptism into the kingdom of the beloved Son sets a new political context for my life which must and can only transcend the relatively recent historical concept of the nation state.  It must and can only transcend our party political system – beyond Labor or Liberal or Green or Family First or One Nation.  None of these is truly reflective of the kingdom of the beloved Son.  Despite the fact we may wish it were so and that we might even identify glimpses of that kingdom in some of their policies.  The reality is that all governments fall short and we are citizens, as Jesus says, of a kingdom that is not of this world.

Our citizenship in this kingdom is shaped by the life of Christ and the Spirit of God at work within us.

It is a citizenship that connects us to the work of God in Christ which is to reconcile all things to himself.  All things on heaven and on earth.

The values of this kingdom are exemplified first and foremost in Jesus’ words from the cross, “Forgive them Father, for they do not know what they are doing.”  Forgiveness and mercy and love and grace.  The preacher and scholar Scott Hoezee says of this kingdom, “forgiveness is the coin of this realm.”

To be a citizen of the kingdom of the beloved Son is to know that God forgives, that you are forgiven, and that I am forgiven, and that God’s deepest desire is to share this forgiveness in order that all things might be reconciled to God in Christ.

This is a hard teaching to accept and it is even harder to live.  When we see those gathered around the cross the executioners, the onlookers, the dicers, the scoffers, the mourners, the thief who scoffed and the thief who appealed for mercy, and the Centurion who declared Jesus’ divinity we are left wondering what does Jesus prayer mean.  Who does not know what they are doing? Who is forgiven?

Apart from the one thief no future of reconciliation is made known – but for that one we know and share his hope: “today you will be with me in paradise.”

The judgement of this world and the political power that takes away life, cannot triumph in Jesus’ kingdom for he is Lord of both the living and the dead.

It is this hope that fills us baptised people, as people transferred into the kingdom of the beloved Son and causes us to rethink how we live and to whom our loyalties lie.

God has made a sovereign claim over our lives and because of this all of the segregation and separation of nation from nation, tribe from tribe, language from language are dissipated as on the day of Pentecost.  This is the politics of God and we are called to be citizens first and foremost of that coming kingdom which is shaped by Jesus Christ, who is our Saviour, our Lord and our King!

15He is the image of the invisible God,
the firstborn of all creation;
16for in him all things in heaven
and on earth were created,
things visible and invisible,
whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—
all things have been created through him and for him.
17He himself is before all things,
and in him all things hold together.
18He is the head of the body, the church;
 he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead,
so that he might come to have first place in everything.
19For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,
20and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things,
whether on earth or in heaven,

by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Friday, 11 November 2016

Drinking with joy from the wells of salvation

In the past I might have suggested that the disciples looked upon the stones of the temple like a bunch of wide eyed country bumpkins.  I might have pointed out their naivety and incredulity but if I had done this it would have been inaccurate.

As first century Jews I have little doubt that the disciples would have travelled to Jerusalem and the temple on a regular basis to celebrate the great festivals of their faith: the Passover; Tabernacles, the Day of Atonement; maybe the festival of Weeks or First Fruits.  The temple was physically and symbolically the centre piece of their faith.  God dwelt in the Temple, behind a great curtain, in a place known as the Holy of Holies.

Whether this particular scene ever actually occurred has been questioned.  Most scholars suggest that Luke wrote his gospel somewhere between the years 75 and 85.  We know that the Emperor Nero despatched his General Vespian to Jerusalem in the year 70 and Vespian destroyed the Temple.

It could be that the disciple’s wide-eyed wonder is a reminder for Luke’s audience of the splendour of the Temple and that Jesus’ prophetic words are included as a further affirmation of his identity as the Messiah.  In much ancient writing whether something actually happened or not is secondary to the core message that the writer is trying to convey.

Regardless of what we can and cannot prove about the event, and how accurately it portrays an interaction Jesus may have had with his disciples, there is a message of hope in the face of adversity for early Christians. A message of hope that we can hear as pertinent to us as well.  Faith in God transcends, and possibly even supersedes, the physicality of the beautiful stones of the Temple and endurance in the face of suffering leads to life.

Whilst the Temple stood at heart of the Jewish religion, by the time Jesus and his disciples were wandering the dusty streets of Jerusalem there was that great and foreboding occupying power: the Roman Empire and its Emperors who styled themselves as gods.

Surrounding the walls of the Temple the might of Rome crowded in and as the story goes eventual crashed down on the Jewish people and their Temple in the year 70.

Jesus’ words gave his disciples and no doubt the members of Luke’s community some comfort in the fact that God and God’s concern for them was not in any way limited to the physical presence of the Temple.  Destroying the central symbol of their faith did not and could to destroy God.  More than that, even though suffering might come and was part of their experience, Jesus promise was that on the other side of that suffering Jesus’ followers would find life!  Neither the culture that intruded on their Holy Space nor the destruction of the Temple, as heartbreaking as these things may have been, were of ultimate importance.

Just as this story gave hope to the early community of Christians that Luke write it for so too it is a story that has given the church hope and can continue to give us hope now.   The church exists, in a multitude of locations across the globe surrounded by and embedded within cultures that are often antagonistic towards it.

Sometimes those cultures are intruding in upon us and shaping our life as followers of Jesus more than any of us would like to admit.  Just as the Roman Empire loomed large around the Temple. Cultures through history and across the world loom large around us.

Almost 17 centuries ago when the Emperor Constantine became a Christian, rather than simply looming large around the Temple the Empire walked in the door of the church, and the relationship between the Church and the prevailing political culture changed significantly.  Only in recent decades has the Church, begun to really disentangle itself, ourselves, from the political systems and regimes of the European era of Christendom.

In some ways some of the beautiful stones of our faith are being knocked down as we rediscover what it means to follow Jesus through a time of great tumult and change.

It was interesting this week to reflect on this as the US election unfolded and as Donald Trump was elected.  I read a range of quite disturbing articles about the possibilities of what kind of ideology this man will bring to one of the most powerful positions in the world and the potential for great harm. 

A colleague quoted from the Luke reading on Facebook suggesting the fertile ground for preaching to be made from connections between the mid-to-late 1st century and the early 21st century:

"There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven"

We must always be wary of reading ourselves too closely into prophetic words within the scriptures but there can be no doubt there is a sense of destabilisation in world politics at the moment.

With this in mind I responded to his words that I was being drawn to preaching on Isaiah 12 - "With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation."

There are significant and warranted global concerns around the Trump victory so as we look into the well of salvation how do we do what Jesus says in Luke, “Endure so that we will gain our lives,” at the same time as hearing the hopeful words of Isaiah, "With joy drawing water from the wells of salvation."

This paradoxical tension has always been an aspect of our faith enduring in the face of difficult times, whilst also finding joy and hope in our faith.

So, as I looked to the future this week, I was struck by a new thing that I learnt from my friend Father Anastasios from the Greek Orthodox Church.  Father Anastasios is always wearing long black robes and this week I asked him what they symbolised.  He said that the black robes are a sign that he is one of the living dead, he has died to this world.

He told me that the balance to this symbol of death in, his black robes, are the ornate and beautiful robes that he wears when he leads worship.  These robes symbolise his new relationship with God in Christ: new life sharing in the coming kingdom.

Maybe we as Christians we need to recover something of the dying to this life a bit more seriously, wearing the black robes, as we seek to find the joy and draw from the wells of salvation.

The endurance that Jesus’ speaks of suggests a discipline is required if we are to live our risen life now.  And the hope, for me, is that as we pursue living the risen life more earnestly we will discover joy as we draw the water from the wells of salvation.

I suspect many people who voted, for either Trump or Clinton, thought that they were voting for their salvation, by which I mean that they were voting for a better life for themselves. 

We live in a society that has elevated individual rights and an assumption about personal entitlement to an unhealthy level.  We are consummate consumers – this is our culture looming large into our faith and life.

But the prophecy of Isaiah and I believe the coming of Jesus whilst having a personal element ultimately aims at a corporate salvation.  Isaiah declares that God is about to create new heavens and a new earth.  In his letter to the Colossians Paul says of Jesus that he is reconciling all things to himself.

So, here are a five thoughts for you to ponder as we hear the sounds of the crumbling stones of our Temple of faith, ways that we might both endure to gain our lives and draw from the wells of salvation.  These five points are based in four sentences from our readings today:

The first trust: to have faith in God’s grace no matter what is happening.  Isaiah declares, “I will trust, and will not be afraid.”  Deepen your relationship with God through prayer, spiritual reading and spiritual direction.

Second, hope: “Be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating.”  Participate in the life of the worshipping community.  Not simply by coming on a Sunday but by building relationships with the people here.  Care for one another, encourage one another, uphold one another in prayer.

Third, gratefulness: “Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name.”  Contemplate with gratitude what you do have and considering carefully how to live more simply in an age of consumption.  Say grace when you share a meal, give thanks for what you do have rather than lament for what you do not have.

Fourth, share the faith: Isaiah instructs that the people “make known God’s deeds.”  This is about a deep conviction that what we believe and experience in God’s love is for everyone.  Jesus sent the disciples to make disciples of all nations.  Share your faith

And finally, generosity and justice: “Do not be weary in doing what is right.” The scriptures are constantly expressing concern for the widow, and the orphan.  We might extrapolate and extend that to the disenfranchised, the refugee, the sick, the suffering, the poor, the persecuted, the mourning and the list could go on.  To do what is right is to see the problems of the world and of people’s lives and respond in love and generosity.

Drinking joyfully at the well of salvation gives us refreshment in our faith and as we enter into the spiritual disciples of prayer, worship, community, faith sharing and service we are prepared for our endurance and discover what it means to live, to really live.


At the centre of our faith is not a building, not an institution, but a person – the person of Jesus who is, as Paul says the pioneer and perfector of our faith.  We do not save ourselves but rather we drink at the wells of salvation.  In the challenging days of this age, as with every age that has gone before, whatever is happening, whatever we are encountering or experiencing trust in God and with joy and endurance follow Jesus who lead us into life.   

Friday, 4 November 2016

God is a God of the Living

My suspicion is that, like me, most of you want to know that after you die that there is more to life after death than your personal existence.  Your hope is that it is life after death with others, with the people you have loved in this life.  It is as much about reunion as it is about not wanting to think that you might come to an end.

The thing is that life after death was not a part of what the Sadducees believed.  When you died you died and you returned to the dust from which you were made.  As Jesus comes closer to the final confrontation with the Temple authorities I suspect the Sadducees ask Jesus this question to make a mockery of the notion of resurrection.  They also want find out whether Jesus agrees with them or with the scribes, who believed in resurrection.

Jesus’ response to the question, as is often the case, contains layers of meaning which uncover some bigger concepts. Firstly, Jesus points to an intimacy of relationship with one another that transcends any covenantal or biological relationships that we have with one another in this life.  More than that, Jesus answer indicates our relationship with God is not bound by life and death and, the implication is, nor are the relationships that we have.

To understand this a little better requires delving into the complex question that the Sadducees ask and highlighting a few pertinent issues.

The story that the Sadducees describe, with seven brothers successively dying and, as they do so, passing the wife of the first brother on.  This reflects a particular understanding of women, of marriage and of perpetuating one’s existence.

In the ancient world a woman, or a girl, was recognised as belonging to a man, either a father or a husband.  The law about marrying the wife of a deceased brother when no child had been produced is, in part, about the protection of a woman.  The brother almost inherits her as his responsibility.  Yet, the issue of childlessness in the question is important as well, and needs a bit of exploration.

For the Sadducees and for earlier Jews, who did not have a belief in resurrection, a man perpetuated his existence through his sons.  I suspect this is one of the reasons that the genealogies in the scriptures, as boring as they may sound to us, are so important.  They represent the ongoing life of the individuals, in the genealogy, through the next generation.

So, here are two important things to note.  Women are the property of men to be passed on to be protected like assets.  And, children produced through marriage create the opportunity for an ongoing existence beyond death, even when there is no resurrection.

The question that the Sadducees are asking is quite nuanced because the situation they are describing involve the transfer of a covenantal relationship as a way of creating the opportunity for an ongoing existence without resurrection.  That is to say the aim of the brothers continuing this process of marrying this woman is about giving the first brother a chance of ongoing existence by  producing an heir.

If, however, resurrection occurs, the question the Sadducees want to know is, ‘who owns the woman now?’

All of this sounds a bit strange to us because we do not view women or the covenant of marriage in this way anymore.  This form of Biblical marriage described in this passage is not one that we hold on to.

So, what does Jesus do with this complex question? How does he answer the question concerning women, marriage, death and resurrection?

There are two parts to Jesus answer and both confront the Sadducees and possibly even confound the Scribes as well.

In the first part his answer Jesus says, “Those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.”  The covenant of marriage is located as an aspect of life in this world. After we die, if we live in the resurrection, marriage is no longer required.

I do not think Jesus is devaluing marriage in this life or the relationships that we forge in this way.  Rather, it is my feeling that Jesus is saying that, in the resurrection life there is no need to protect women through marriage nor to produce heirs to perpetuate your existence.  If this is the case then the covenant of marriage ceases to carry its original intent.  Marriage is obsolete.

Why?  The intimacy of relationships in the resurrected life, with God and with each other, somehow transcends both the biological and covenantal ties we make during our limited earthly span.

When we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “your kingdom come on earth now as in heaven,” we express a desire to begin to enter into the realm of those relationships now.  Jesus himself, when he is told his mother and brothers are outside, indicates that those around him are his mother and brothers.  We also know that there is a long history in the church of baptised people calling each other brother and sister.  It has especially been a feature of monastic communities and of the Anabaptist communities.

This is not to say we are not going to see our loved ones but rather I think indicates a new and transformed intimacy with them.  Of course, none of us have been beyond the boundary of death to understand or encounter any of this.  This is all a matter of faith.  Yet Jesus words appear to indicate that the need for marriage disappears in resurrection life even though the relationship might continue in a richer and more divine way.

Which brings me to Jesus second point.  Jesus takes his audience back to the story of the burning bush and indicates that God “is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”  

For to God all of them are alive!

Jesus’ assertion is that God relates to those who have died as if they are alive.  Death does not diminish the relationship that God has with them, anymore than our earthly existence could diminish God’s relationship with us.  There is no barrier between life and death for God.

Many people across the world celebrated the breaking down of the barriers between life and death this week.  Halloween, All Souls Day, All Saints Day, and the Day of the Dead all express the translucence of the barrier between the living and the dead.   This week Lucy took a picture to school of my mother who died nearly four years ago to share with her Spanish class as they learnt about the Day of Dead.

These celebrations, which are found all around the world, within and beyond the Christian religion, do more than simply remember the dead but recognise an ongoing presence and relationship with them.

Part of the Christian teaching about death is that if we die in Christ we will also rise with him.  Our life and are death are hidden in Christ, as we are joined with him through the power of the Holy Spirit.  The union that we have we Jesus extends into a unity we have with one another, living and dead.  Paul describes the cloud of witness, or communion of saints, that gather around us as we traverse our way through life, and as we celebrate our life in Christ together.

There is a sense whenever we gather and enter into this space of worship we surrounded by those whom we love and whose lives, like ours, were hidden in Christ.  The Orthodox symbolise this beautifully in the architecture of their buildings.  If you have the opportunity to go into somewhere like St Georges at West End I highly recommend it.

What you would see is this.  In the centre of the domed ceiling is an icon of Jesus, a painting. Jesus descending to be with his people.  Surrounding Jesus are his disciples, then as you move down the walls Saints.  The presence of Christ and the communion of saints is visually represented in the imagery of the church building.

Given this reflection on God being God of the living and relating to those who have gone before and their presence with, this us has come to feel strongest for me as we share in communion, Christ’s eternal feast, sharing bread and wine.  From the very earliest days the church has held to an understanding the Jesus is with us when we gather and that Jesus is present in the elements of bread and wine.  Though I may be physically presiding it is my conviction that Jesus is our host.

A few years back a woman in one of my congregations said she could still hear her husband singing and had a sense of his presence as she worshipped.  For me there was no questioning of this experience it was an expression and witness of precisely what I have been talking about.  The communion of saints gathered.

Whilst I have not had such a strong experience of what that person described I have contemplated on this idea that alongside me in worship, but especially at the Eucharistic feast, is my mother, my grandparents, loved members of congregations I have been part of, the Wesley brothers, Luther, Calvin, Augustine, John Chrysostom, the disciples and so on.  The cloud of witnesses gather with us.  For God is the God of the living.

Jesus answer to the Sadducees tricky conundrum leads us into a challenging place of mystery.  God’s relationship with us transcends any intimacy that we can know or express.  In the life to come as we become more like Jesus, that is to say more like God, the intimacy of our relationships with each other will also be expanded into new realms.  Yet, as we await the fullness of the intimacy, in this life our own relationships, including marriage and children, help us to understand God’s love better.  Finally, in our concern about those who have already died we can find comfort in the knowledge that God relates to all as if they are still alive.

Hope in resurrection life is not a private hope, for resurrection life without those whom we love might be viewed as somewhat pointless.  Jesus response indicates life goes on after death and that relationships are transformed in the nearer presence of God.  As we consider this possibility today take a moment to consider and give thanks for those whom you have loved and lost that are with us today in Christ: the communion of saints.

Thursday, 27 October 2016

Tending Sycamore Trees


Where are the Sycamore trees?  Where are the opportunities for people to climb up and see Jesus?  Where in the world do you go to see Jesus now?  Will you see Jesus driving passed this church?  Will you see Jesus if you come into this church?  Will you see Jesus in the people that are here?

Maybe, but a church doesn’t seem like a Sycamore tree on the side of a road.  A Church doesn’t seem like the starting point for getting to know Jesus like Zacchaeus did.

Where are the Sycamore trees?  Where do people go to climb up and see Jesus?  Are there Sycamore trees in St Lucia?  Is there somewhere to climb up a tree at UQ? At Cromwell? At Kings? At Grace? At Raymont?  Is there a Sycamore tree in the shopping centre?  Or in AVEO?  Over the road at the school?  Or at Briki?  Where can a person climb up to see Jesus?  Where will a person climb up to see Jesus? 

God stirred in the heart of a short, less than popular, tax collector, to climb a tree so that he could see Jesus.  In the gospel of John Jesus says to his followers, “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me.”  God is already at work in Zacchaeus.  God is drawing him in even though he does not yet understand it.

I think that it is highly doubtful that Zacchaeus really understood what was so special about Jesus.  We have no idea where he had heard the rumours.  All we know was that he did not want to miss out.  He wanted to see Jesus.  It is my thought that the stirrings in Zacchaeus’ heart are the stirrings of a man who is searching for meaning and purpose.  They are the stirrings of a man who has a sense there is more to life than he is experiencing and seeing.  I seriously don’t think that when he grabs hold of the branch of the Sycamore tree that he really knew what he would find.  But he knew he had to grab a hold of that branch and start his climb.  He was exploring.

All around us I believe God is stirring in people’s hearts.  I believe God is causing people to ruminate, to think, to contemplate, to cogitate, to ponder the meaning of life and to search for answers.  Like Zacchaeus I suspect that many people who have these questions within them do not even know what they are looking for, maybe they haven’t even worked out where a Sycamore tree is so that they can climb up to get a better view.  But God is stirring within them and they are searching.  Where are the Sycamore trees for them to climb?  Can we help them find the tree?  Can we give them a hand to reach the lower branches?

Zacchaeus experience, the experience of this short, less than popular, tax collector is where he is because the crowd won’t let him in.  It is because the crowd is ignoring him.  They are too busy trying to make themselves closer to Jesus and turning their backs on Zacchaeus.  Are we also blind to the people in whom God is stirring?  Are we so focussed on Jesus ourselves and our place nearby the roadway that we have turned our backs to their questions and searching?  Can we not see them and give them space or at least help them into the tree?

In defiance of his rejection and his lot in life Zacchaeus grasps those branches, he uses hands more suited to bookwork to clamber and climb up until he can see over the heads of the crowd.  He really does not want to miss out. He wants to see Jesus.

And here is the amazing thing.  Here is the astounding thing.  Here is the astonishing thing. 

Zacchaeus climbed the tree to see Jesus, but it is Jesus who sees Zacchaeus and calls his name. It is Jesus who sees Zacchaeus and calls his name. Jesus sees Zacchaeus and calls his name.

Here is grace.  Here is love.  Here is mercy.  Jesus sees and names the short, less than popular, tax collector Zacchaeus – this rich man, this despised man, this fringe dweller.

Jesus sees him and names.  More than anything this is what all of us want in life to know that we are not alone, that we, that you and I, are seen and that we are known, that we are not anonymous, but that we have a name.

In Luke’s gospel this is such a powerful story.  A balance to the story of the rich man and Lazarus that I preached on a couple of weeks ago.  In that story it was the rich man who remained anonymous but now Zacchaeus is named, no longer is the rich man left anonymous.  This story is a counterpoint to the encounter that Jesus has with the rich young ruler whom Jesus tells to sell all he has and give it to the poor.  Zacchaeus is the camel going through the needles eye, because as Jesus declared, “With God, all things are possible.” 

“With God, all things are possible.” And in Zacchaeus the possibility becomes reality not because of Zacchaeus response, not because Zacchaeus climbed the tree, but because God stirred in his heart and because Jesus saw him and named him.  Here is grace. Here is love.  Here is mercy.  God at work.

I have often heard the response of Zacchaeus emphasised in sermons.  The encounter with Jesus has changed him and his response has direct consequences for the choices he makes in life.  There are financial consequences in his decision to respond to his encounter with Jesus. 

We only get a glimpse here of Zacchaeus response and I have seen it questioned whether he actually follows through, or is he just boasting about what he will do.  Either way there can be no doubt that in Jesus interaction with Zacchaeus there is new hope for relationships to begin to unfold in his life and the lives of those with whom he shared community.  Responding to an encounter with Jesu changes us.

For me there is a reversal in this story of the way we often approach the notion of sharing our faith.  It would seem that in helping people to climb the Sycamore trees to see Jesus our prayer is that reverse is happening that Jesus will see and name them just as you and I believe we are seen and are known by name.

Which brings me back to the question “Where are the Sycamore trees?” Where do people go to climb up and see Jesus?  And what is our role in all of this.

Today we will commission Hayley to the work of Chaplaincy and to the work of Pastoral Assistant in the congregation. As I contemplated the work that she is involved with at Cromwell I had a strong sense that she will be tending the Sycamore trees.  She will be helping people to climb up with their questions about life and its meaning and growing up and purpose.  All the questions of hope and of failure and of passion and of anticipation and of dread that young adults feel.  And maybe occasionally Jesus will be looking from within Hayley and through Hayley see and name people in their questions and so affirm that they are loved by God and that they too can have hope.

But more than that I have a sense that her work is our work wherever we go day by day and if we are too tired and too busy to be doing the labour of tending the Sycamore trees that we might rest in God’s love and pray for the work she does and that others do to help people explore their questions of meaning that have been stirred up in them by God.


Where are the Sycamore trees? Where do people go to climb up and see Jesus? Do they even know that that’s who or what they are trying to see?  I wonder what it would mean to understand ourselves to be people who tend the Sycamore trees.  Who nurture the possibilities of people climbing into the branches?  Of even helping them up so that they might be seen by Jesus.  That they might be named by Jesus.  And having encountered the grace, love and mercy of God be transformed by that encounter just as you and I are continually transformed by that relationship.