Wednesday, 29 September 2021

All the world's a stage

Job 1:1; 2:1-10, Mark 10:2-16

The Kingdom of heaven is like a young child who has a big box of dress up outfits. Who comes out each day dressed as a different character to play its part in the day based on how it's feeling or what the child thinks the household might need.

As I contemplated the difficult readings set down for this Sunday, both in Job and in Mark, the phrase which stood out to me, as possibly the easiest to preach on, was this one: “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”  There is an innocence that is being suggested in the faith of a child, an innocence that we are all encouraged to learn from.

Yet Jesus is speaking to adults and as I thought about young children the image of a child playing dress-ups day by day stood out.  We start our acting career early, but the reality is that as we go through life our acting career continues. 

     We play the part of a school student in a uniform. 

    We play the part of an athlete as we participate in sport. 

    We play the part of a dutiful son or daughter to our parents, or maybe the rebellious one!

    We play the part of an employee sometimes dressed in a uniform for the job that we work. 

    We play the part of being a faithful husband or wife or a loyal friend. 

    We play the part of being a parent and then possibly even grandparent or great grandparent.

    And dare I say, we play the part of being a Christian.

It is as Shakespeare observed in his play “As you like it:

     “All the world’s a stage,

    And all the men and women merely players;

    They have their exits and their entrances;

    And one man in his time plays many parts.”

 Each person plays many parts through their life as they navigate life's complexities and seek to live a “good” life.  So, the innocence of the child, playing dress-ups and becoming different characters, helps form us for our daily existence.  And our childlike play prepares us for the kinds of complexities that we have struck in today's readings.

Today's sermon then is a preparation for you to go from this place to play-act your part and enter the world that is a stage.  There are three phases in this preparation.  The first phase is to understand the theatre of our existence and the stage on which we will tread the boards. The second phase is to consider the prompts and the cues that we will receive from side stage as we enter each act.  In the third phase, I will consider our freedom to improvise as we respond to those prompts. And finally, with these three phases of formation and preparation completed we will prepare ourselves to go from here as God's people into the world.

The first phase of our preparation and our formation is to consider the theatre of our existence.  To do this I take us back to the book of Job and the central character. He was a man from the land of Uz.  It has long fascinated me that Job is from this faraway land called Uz. In reading various commentaries about where this land of Uz actually is, there appears to be some agreement that wherever it is, it is not Israel.  Now there is a possibility that Job was a Jewish man living in the diaspora, but scholars seem to agree that by locating Job in this fictitious and faraway land the author was expanding our understanding of Job’s story as transcending the history of the Israelites.  The theatre of our existence is the cosmos created by God. The cosmos which unfolds in the stories of Genesis which transcends the limitations of our ethnicity, our politics, our religion, our race, and our gender.  It is a place in which we encounter blessings and a place in which we encounter suffering.

Thus, Job’s Story has implications for all people and for all time. This is the world in which we as characters will tread the boards. The stage itself has been set.  Below us, supporting us, is the story of Jesus Christ.  The very first words of Mark's gospel are this, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God.” The story of Jesus Christ is the story of God's grace and God's love en-fleshed and living among us.  The book of John begins with these words “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”   Paul in his letter to the Colossians wrote this, “For in him [that is to say Jesus] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and 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.”  Again, Paul writing to the Romans said this, “but God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” This is the stage on which we walk in the theatre of our existence - God's unconditional grace and love in and through Jesus.

This is vital for us to understand because the reality is that we all make mistakes as we walk on this stage. Not one of us lives a perfect life. In fact, far from it.  Kathryn Schulz Says this of human beings:

     A whole lot of us go through life assuming that we are basically right, basically all the time, about         basically everything: about our political and intellectual convictions, our religious and moral beliefs,     our assessment of other people, our memories, our grasp of facts. As absurd as it sounds, when we         stop to think about it, our steady state seems to be one of unconsciously assuming that we are very         close to omniscient. (Schulz Wrongology)

I have much empathy for what Schulz is saying here. It is difficult for us to really know whether or not many of our decisions are right or wrong. So, what most of us assume is that we're right, most, if not all time. When we gather for worship, in the presence of God, prompted by the Holy Spiri,t we reflect on this reality when we say a prayer of confession. This prayer helps keep us humble and listening for the prompts from side stage as we act out our lives.

The prompts from side stage may come to us as the inspiration of the Holy Spirit or through the influence of the Scriptures.  When we gather for worship, we listen to words read from the Bible as prompts for us.  As I said at the beginning today's readings contain complex and difficult messages.  This means that the prompts we receive may not always be as clear cut and helpful for us as we might hope.  In the book of Job, we encounter a discussion around the origin of suffering and notions of determinism.  Job infers that what happens to us in life all comes from God, “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?”  In his commentary, David Hester says of Job, “The book of Job is God's word in its most enigmatic form, carried in an ancient tale and poetic dialogue, that raises questions yet shelters answers.”  Thus, the prompts we receive cause us to pause and consider how we are viewing our lives, God, and the world around us.  But the answers are not necessarily in plain sight.

The same is true of the reading in Mark.  Many Christians these days interpret Jesus’ words about marriage to support the concept of the 1950s idea of the nuclear family.  To view what Jesus was saying, when the Pharisees were testing him about divorce, is take the conversation out of its context and impose our modern concepts of marriage on them.  In Jesus’ time women were viewed as the property of men. Without a family structure to support her a woman may have been isolated or even ostracized.  Primarily Jesus seems to be trying to protect women against being hung out to dry by men.  The difficulty in listening to the ancient prompts is often that we bring our own layers of expectation to them without considering their context.  Even people in Jesus’ time struggled with his words.  In Mark 4, Jesus says to his disciples:

To you has been given the secret of the Kingdom of God,

but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that

they may indeed look, but not perceive

and may indeed listen, but not understand:

so that they may not turn and again be forgiven.”

We, as Jesus disciples, may also feel that we have been given the secret of the kingdom of heaven.  However, when we consider this, we should remember the context of the conversation Jesus was having.  It was precisely because the disciples as “insiders” did not understand Jesus’ parables that he said this.  In fact, throughout Mark’s gospels the disciples constantly get it wrong whilst outsiders recognise Jesus’ identity.  Ultimately, it is left to a Roman centurion at the end of Mark’s gospel to echo the words from Mark 1:1 when he declares as Jesus dies “Truly this Man was the Son of God.”


There is a reminder here to remain humble in our acting out of our part and listening to the prompts that we receive.  Pride and hubris can blind us to the mystery of faith, the boards beneath our feet that support us is Christ’s unconditional love, not the self-righteousness of how we interpret our part or interpret the complex prompts we are given.  This should also mean that we take a step back before we judge anyone else and their interpretation of life.

This brings us to the third phase of the refection our adaptation to the theatre, stage and prompts.  Shannon Craigo-Snell suggests that as actors playing our part as Christians the Scriptures acts like a script.  She says, “Scripture, like script, is both complete and incomplete.”  In other words, it still requires our interpretation.  She is asking, how should we live treading the boards of God’s grace as we interpret the script?  But what if there is actually no script!

In his book on Christian Ethics Samuel Wells pushes beyond Craigo-Snell suggesting that as actors it is more like the craft of improvisation.  We listen humbly to the prompts from the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit, and we walk onto the stage of Christ’s grace, in the theatre of our existence, in a cosmos and creation which is full of both joy and suffering.  You could say we are set free to live an improvised life with Christ.  We are set free from the mistakes we will inevitably make, our missteps and misinterpretations, and we are set free to celebrate the good, to seek out signs of God’s peace breaking into the world, to speak out for justice, and to advocate for those who are oppressed.

This brings me back full circle to the children playing dress up day by day.  There is an innocence of children at play, experimenting with life and how to live it.  There are costumes and props to choose from and ideas that they copy from other people to help them interpret their playfulness.  Sometimes they make mistakes, sometimes it gets silly, sometimes its serious or sad or celebratory.  There are usually boundaries to their playfulness, to keep them safe, and then there are boundaries which they create for themselves, limits beyond which even they are not prepared to go.  How similar is our daily life as Christians to this?

The stage of grace on which we walk with humility gives us freedom to be the best versions of who we can be.  As inspired by the prompts of scriptures, of the Holy Spirit, of each other we improvise our being Christians against the backdrop of a constantly changing and complex context.  The safety net of God’s grace is below us and the love of Spirit prompts us to live in freedom, free from our constant mistakes, and free to live gratefully towards the God who gave us our part for if all the world is a stage, then the theatre is and can only be, God’s.


Schulz, Kathryn. Being wrong: Adventures in the margin of error. Granta Books, 2011.

Wells, Samuel. Improvisation: The drama of Christian ethics. Baker Academic, 2018.

Sunday, 5 September 2021

Mark 7 The Limitlessness of God's Grace and Wideness of God's Mercy

There is a limitlessness to God's grace and a wideness to God's mercy that we as human beings cannot contain.  It is this limitlessness to God's grace and wideness to God's mercy which allows each one of you and us as a community to gather on this day. And, it is precisely this grace and mercy of God that gives us hope for all people everywhere.  We gained that hope again today as we heard the story from Mark’s gospel, a story which is one of the most complex and difficult within Mark’s gospel.

This morning I want to explore with you this limitlessness to God's grace and wideness to God's mercy by addressing three aspects of the reading.  firstly, the difficulty of the language that we encounter in Jesus words which drive us to see the bigger picture of who Jesus was.  Secondly, the nature of the two healings that take place. and finally, the response of Jesus followers to these events.  In each of these three we will encounter the scriptures interpreting our lives and hopefully God speaking into our existence through the power of the Holy Spirit with a word of grace and mercy for us today.

So turning to my first point, Jesus language is difficult in his passage.  I have preached on this passage on numerous occasions, and I have always stumbled on the point of Jesus language in relationship to the Syrophoenician woman, whom Jesus essentially calls a dog.  Regardless of the previous ways in which I have dealt with this issue as a chaplain working in an all-girls school in the 21st century and in the context of the vigorous public debate that we have had over the last 18 months about the treatment of women in Australian society this particular issue feels even more poignant as I mention today.

Working with girls and young women it would be very easy for them to stumble on what Jesus does here and rather than read on label Jesus as a misogynist and potentially a racist as well.  Through a modern lens of interpretation Jesus’ words are highly uncomfortable for us.  He is speaking of a woman of another culture and of another religion in a way that we would deem disparaging.  So, it is important in this respect to not limit our understanding of who Jesus is to this particularly interaction.

In addition to this problem, another issue that can arise from such an interpretation of Jesus’ words would be a misunderstanding that somehow Jesus was actually distinguishing women as somehow this are or people of another race as somehow lesser.  A cursory glance at the history of Christianity would tell us that there have been Christians and are still Christians who behave in manners that are sexist and are racist.

There are many ways and that I could address this particular issue but today I would begin by pushing us back to Mark chapter 4. In Mark 4 versus 10 to 12 Jesus says this:

“To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that

‘they may indeed look, but not perceive,
    and may indeed listen, but not understand;
so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’”

Mark's gospel is an enigma and within it we encounter many mysteries including the one which is why Jesus speaks this way at this particular time.  It is difficult for us to contextualise that moment 2000 years ago but it is pertinent for us to look at Jesus comment in light of the whole of Mark's gospel.  Jesus has followers who are women, there are encounters in Mark's gospel with people who sit outside the Jewish faith, it is women who are the witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection.  Far from excluding or demeaning women and outsiders Jesus’ behaviour breaks down social religious and racial barriers that were almost incomprehensible to the people of Jesus time.

Such was Jesus’ behaviour that Paul would later write that in Christ there is no male or female.  Such was Jesus’ behaviour that Paul would become a missionary to the gentiles.  There is a limitlessness to God's grace and a wideness to God's mercy that we as human beings cannot contain and that we certainly cannot limit to one encounter that Jesus has.  ultimately, Jesus responds to the woman's cries, and he grants healing to the daughter. this brings me to my second point which is to speak about the two healings.

There is a limitlessness to God's grace and a wideness to God's mercy that we encounter in the healing of the girl with demons and the healing of the man he was deaf and had a speech impediment. 

Let us firstly consider the healing of the girl.  It is important for us to understand a number of things about this girl. She was not Jewish, she was of a different religion, she probably did not know anything about who Jesus was. She was not present in the room, and there is no evidence or suggestion that she repented of anything nor that after the healing she became a follower of Jesus.  Despite all of this she is healed when her mother makes the appeal to Jesus.  The girl experience is salvation.  Let me say that bit again the girl experiences salvation.

One of the things was that we easily lose sight of as we look back at these ancient stories is it salvation was often understood as a transformation in the lived experience of the person encountering the healing.  So often when we speak of salvation as modern Christians, we tend to think about what's going to happen after we die. But in the ancient world salvation was very much understood about bringing a person back into the community to live a full life.  By casting the demon out Jesus saves her.

The second healing story is very similar.  The man who could not hear and who had difficulty articulating was brought to Jesus by others.  Given that the man had no capacity to hear and had limited capacity to speak it is more than likely he had no understanding who Jesus was.  How much his the who brought the man understood about who Jesus was is left again I would you use the word an enigma, a mystery.  Jesus saves this man as well.  He says, “Ephphatha”, which means “be opened”, and immediately the man is able to hear and speak again.  The consequences of this healing were salvation for this man.  Through this action this man was able to re-enter society and participate in being part of the community again, he was given life in all its fullness.

For both the young girl and the man there was a limitlessness to God's grace and a wideness to God's mercy as Jesus saved them and gave them the capacity to participate in the life of the world again.  We can only speculate that the transformation in this life might have also had implications about their transformation for the next life.  However, we should not interpret that they ever proclaimed and confessed Jesus as Lord as we do because the way we do that is completely transformed by the 2000 years that have passed. The story gives to us hope that Jesus does have a deep concern for people in this life, in the midst of their personal struggles.

This brings me to the third aspect of the story that is pertinent to address when considering the limitlessness of God's grace and wideness of God's mercy.  The second last line in the story that we read today raises significant questions about our behaviour as Jesus followers. let me remind you of what it says, “Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it.” Jesus says to his followers I don't want you to tell this story at the more that he told them not to do it the more they did it. In other words, Jesus followers do precisely what he says for them not to do to the point at which Mark wrote the story down years later. And, here we are, nearly 2000 years later still talking about a story that Jesus told us not to share.  The situation is more than a little ironic.

If we go back to Mark four, the passage I quoted earlier, I'm going to remind you again of something that it said Jesus said to the disciples his followers, “to you has been given the secret of the Kingdom of heaven.”  Jesus followers are given an immense privileged insight into who Jesus was and what he was doing.  However, the context of Jesus saying this to disciples was a moment in which they did not understand one of the parables that Jesus had told.  The whole of Mark operates like one long parable weather disciples who are insiders and are given the insights from Jesus himself continually, almost predictably, muck things up.

What this does is affirm the limitlessness of God's grace and wideness of God's mercy because the spite their erroneous ways Jesus continues to encourage those disciples, his followers, to continue on their journey with him.  And more than that, he entrusts to them the message of the good news of the Kingdom of God to carry forward after his death.  This is grace and mercy enacted within Jesus’ followers right down to the present day.

As people who follow Jesus now, as his disciples in this the 21st century, we know but there are moments in which we all fail Jesus.  We know that there are moments in which we do precisely the opposite thing which Jesus commands us.  And I'm not just talking about not sharing this story that we're sharing.  Let me just dwell on Jesus teaching to love one another as I have loved you.  We are sitting in a church called the uniting church because the church in history has failed to be one.  We have denominations many of whom do not love one another.  Unlike Jesus even within congregations we find so many things to have conflict about.  I have been in ministry for 22 years, I am the son of a minister, and in not one congregation have I ever seen people loving one another perfectly there is always conflict.  Whether it is about the colour of the paint that you're going to paint the hall or how you interpret the scriptures we as human beings are really good at not loving one another and not being gracious and merciful to one another.

Yet, there is a limitlessness to God's grace and a wideness to God's mercy. Simply seen in the fact that we're sitting here drawn together by the power of the Holy Spirit to be worshipping God and today to gather around the table where Jesus as our host will serve us as he served his disciples in the Last Supper. What an astounding story of grace and mercy in which our lives are embedded.

So, I'm going to say it again: There is a limitlessness to God's grace and a wideness to God's mercy that we as human beings cannot domesticate.  As people cry out for healing and for hope it is not for us to limit who God may choose to save in this life or in the next.  Jesus’ healing reached the Syrophoenician woman's daughter and the man bought to Jesus who could not hear and could not speak properly.  In the power of the Holy Spirit and in faith and hope I would say to you that Jesus is present with us as he was with his followers 2000 years ago even when they did precisely the opposite thing he asked them to do. and finally, the wideness of God's mercy and that limitlessness of God's grace challenge us to see beyond a single story about Jesus to understand that the boundaries of gender and religion and race crossed by Jesus should cause us to consider again what it means for us to love one another.

Hear this good news There is a limitlessness to God's grace and a wideness to God's mercy that we as human beings cannot contain and may you receive the gift of the release from your demons and may you this day be opened by the miracle of God's presence in your life.

I invite you to take a moment to contemplate all that has been said and consider what might God be seen to you this day.

And under God we ascribe all the glory honour and power. now and forever. Amen.


Tuesday, 20 July 2021

A Message in 3 Gifts

 Ephesians 1:3-14, Mark 6:30-34,53-56

For those of you whom I teach you will be used to a return to term ritual in which I invite you to share something from your holidays as we first call the roll.  It provides a moment of reconnection not just as your teacher but with one another as a class well.  No doubt, for staff and for students alike, the next few days will provide moments of such reconnection as we return from our time off.

There is a beautiful moment in the Bible passage from Mark's gospel in which the disciples returned to Jesus after being out working among the people teaching and healing.  We are told that the apostles, which literally means the ones who were sent, gather around Jesus, and shared their stories. 

In contrast to us, the disciples though were returning from their labours and even in that moment we are told that they were so busy that “They had no leisure even to eat.”  This phrase is another reminder of the busyness of our term life when students come to my classes after first or second break and ask for permission to eat during class because they had a meeting during the break.  Jesus recognises the busyness of the disciples and as we follow through the short story that we have heard from Mark I believe there are three key ideas contained in the story for us.

On the first weekend of our holidays the Uniting Church in Australia celebrated its anniversary and so today as we reflect together on the reading from Mark, I want to offer the message in the form of three gifts.  I'm going to invite students to come and unwrap these gifts as we explore each one.

(1. Clock/Celtic Cross 2. This book will make you Smarter/Bible 3. Medical Kit/El Salvador Cross)

Part 1 - The Gift of Time

Let’s unwrap the first gift.

The first gift contained within the passage is the gift of time.  Jesus says to the disciples who were so busy, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”  As a school community most of us have just received a similar gift, the gift of time.  And, for many of us too, this was a much-needed break.  But I want to explore the gift of time that Jesus was offering the disciples and to connect it with the idea of holidays.

You see the word holiday has its origins in the phrase holy day.  It stems from a time that the only holidays that were granted to people were days that were considered holy. This included the Sabbath, which is Saturday.  On the blog Rest and Work it says this, “After six days of creation, God looks upon the works of his hands and pronounces it “very good” (Gen 1:31). But it is not until the seventh day that God calls something, “holy,” the day of rest that he interjects into the time and space of creation. The day of rest receives the attribution of holiness, which is the very essence of God’s character.” The story of creation in the Bible is not a scientific explanation of the origin of all things rather it teaches us how to be in the world and one of the things it teaches us is that resting in God’s holiness is important because in this we encounter and are shaped by the character of God.

For Christians Sunday, the first day of the week, is the day that we remember the resurrection of Jesus and is consider it the first day of the new creation.  For Christians it is the day of rest.  It is a reminder of the beginning of the eternal Sabbath promised for the whole creation where we can rest in God’s holiness together eternally. Whilst this ancient idea may have been lost on most of us one of the implications of holidays becomes how we conceive of the time into which we are entering. 

In the Greek language, that the Bible was written in, there are two words that are used in association with time.  The first is chronos. Chronos essentially refers to the ticking of the clock, the sequential passing of time.  Whereas the second word, kairos, has a different connotation.  Kairos infers the opportune time, the right time, maybe even the time for encounter.

When Jesus offers that the disciples come away to a deserted place what I believe he is offering them is not simply chronos but kairos.  This time of encounter had already begun in his process of reconnecting with them and them sharing stories. But in the invitation to come away from the crowd Jesus was inviting the disciples to come with him to rest in God's presence.

So, one of the questions this raises for us is whether your holiday was simply experiencing time as chronos or whether you made space for kairos.  Experiencing time as chronos means that time is something that needs to be filled up, that time is something that causes us to be restless, or that as time passes we experience boredom.  So it is, that we scurry about trying to keep ourselves occupied - bingeing the latest Netflix, or Stan, or Amazon, or Disney series.  Our fingers race across our phones searching for content in Instagram, or Tik Tok, or messages from friends that will satisfy our restless hearts and minds.  Yet, the research shows us that we feel disconnected and lonely as we search for meaning by filling our lives as if there is only chronos.  Is this really a holiday? Do we really come away feeling rejuvenated and renewed in our sense of purpose and meaning in life?

Sometimes it is the ancient wisdom that can help us.  Pope Gregory I, sometimes referred to as Gregory the Great reminds us, “We make idols of our concepts, but Wisdom is born of wonder.”  When we spend our fleeting and fragile lives simply filling up time as chronos, with distractions, there appears to be little space for wonder which is why the concept of taking notice in our wellbeing framework is so important because it is about moving from chronos into kairos.  Almost two centuries earlier the great teacher of the church St Augustine said, “God is always trying to give good things to us, but our hands are too full to receive them.” (St. Augustine, City of God)

We fill up our time just as we fill up our hands.  As full as our time may be, we remain restless.  Augustine also said in his book Confessions, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”  Kairos is the time when we take notice, we take notice of God, we take notice of God’s presence in and around us and we lean into the invitation of Jesus to come away, to transform our holidays, or at least moments within them into holy days.  To enter the kairos moment which is also beyond time - eternal.  Looking at the Celtic Cross in the gift we see the circle which represents eternity. 

In her song the Well the singer JJ Heller reflects on the Well of Jesus’ presence of the source of life in contrast to the pursuit of her own desires.  For me going to the Well of Jesus’ presence is her acknowledgement of being in a karios moment with God rather than simply living life in chronos.  I invite you to listen to the song now as a kairos moment, a time to connect with God.

Song for Reflection You are the Well that never runs dry 

Part 2 – The gift of a Teacher

It is somewhat ironic that whilst Jesus offers to his disciples the gift of time to rest in God's presence the crowd follows them.  It is a telling moment that we see the character of Jesus reflecting the character of God when on encountering the crowd we are told, “He had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.”

So, this is the second gift that we are given. (Unwrap the gift) These books represent the gift of a teacher.  Returning into our context here at school and contemplating the term ahead it might be difficult for us to sometimes see our teachers as a gift but a gift they are.  The gift of Jesus as our teacher is represented by the Bible which I will return to in a moment. Whilst, the gift of our education system, is represented by this book of mine entitled This book will make you smarter.  I will leave it up to you to judge whether me owning this book is actually reflected in who I am.

Whatever you may think about my knowledge and wisdom let me quote from Carlo Rovelli who writes in the book about “The uselessness of certainty.”  He says this:


There is a widely held notion that does plenty of damage: the notion of ‘scientifically proved.’  Nearly an oxymoron.  The very foundation of science is to keep the door open to doubt. Precisely because we keep questioning everything, especially our own premises, we are always ready to improve our knowledge. Therefore, a good scientist is never ‘certain.’ 

It may surprise some of you to know that Rovelli is a physicist who works in France at the Centre de Physique Théoretique.

What Rovelli is critiquing is what is known as scientism within our community, an assumption that science is about certainty.  James Tartaglia and Tracy Llanera in their article ‘Can we outgrow the problem of nihilism?’ on the ABC Religion and Ethics Website say this, the philosopher, “Heidegger warned how the culture of scientism, and of our obsession with manipulating reality, can obstruct the way the world might relate to human beings. Adopting a scientistic way of life, according to Heidegger, stifles our ability to listen to the voice of Being and kills off possibilities of wonder.”

As teachers and learners, we are constantly being challenged to have a growth mindset and to keep learning: to wonder and be in awe.  To be curious and agile as we reflect on what teachings we encounter.  When Jesus sees the crowd, he sees them as sheep without a shepherd.  This reality is more so given the scientism, consumerism, and individualism of our era.  Jesus is still looking upon us with compassion. 

Richard Kearny in his recent article ‘God after the loss of God: What comes after atheism?’ introduces us a new word, anatheism.  By which he means “returning to God after God.”  He goes on to suggest, “anatheism contains a moment of atheism within itself, as it does a moment of theism.”  To put it more simply anatheism suggests that we have moments of believing in God and moments of rejecting belief in God, sometimes at one and the same time, but in which we are caught up in mystery and wonder and not certainty.  A space in which we might still be prepared to listen for God speaking to us through Jesus.

If Jesus is our true shepherd, then Jesus’ teaching is not simply a teaching about who God is but who we are in the midst of our seeking and searching for meaning and purpose.  The psychologist Martin Seligman in his PERMA model of wellbeing outlines five aspects leading to wellbeing acknowledging that one of these is having meaning. 

Further, studies have shown that those who receive the gift of faith and, for example, sit at the feet of Jesus as their teacher, have better outcomes for their wellbeing.  I believe approaching Jesus as our teacher is also about receiving the gift of teaching that comes through others and is connected to every aspect of our learning.  Alongside the scientist Rovelli I would encourage you to enter into having a lack of certainty or to receive the gift of doubt that the disciples Thomas encountered. This is a way of having a growth mindset and being prepared to learn from Jesus our true teacher about God, ourselves, and this creation in which we live.  Therefore. I included the Bible in this gift as a primary source in which we listen for Jesus speaking to us.

As we continue to reflect on this gift of a teacher, I have chosen a second song for contemplation released just 10 days ago.  A song which I believe has elements of anatheism, something being lost and re-found and then re-shared.  It is by the South African singer Matthew Mole and has implicit Christian themes within it.  As an artist Mole does not throw his faith in people’s faces but it is certainly there.  As you watch it, view the song with curiosity, as a parable exploring the possibility of God’s presence which is with you, even when you may be missing it.

Song for Reflection I’m with you

Part 3 – The gift of Healing

Unwrap last gift.

The last gift is the gift of healing.  After Jesus teaches, he and the disciples move off into the surrounding villages and everywhere they go people are bought for healing.  The healing provided by Jesus is a sign of God's care and concern for us and for all people.  Symbols within the gift of healing are the symbols of a medical kit and of the El Salvador cross.

Healing has many layers and expressions.  There is the healing of our sinfulness.  Healing of our souls as we are drawn back into relationship with God.  Healing of our bodies and our minds which stands over against the entropy of our existence. 

Unlike the first two gifts this gift of healing is one which is more complex in our relationship with God.  Recent weeks have reminded us of the ongoing pandemic that continues to unfold around us.  The devastation and heartbreak that has been wrought upon the world community is deep and abiding.  When we turned to God with our prayers for healing and for hope it is like the people who long ago carried people on their mats into Jesus’ presence.  They brough them to Jesus in the hope that even touching the hem of his robe might restore people to wholeness in their life.

Rather speak more about God’s gift of healing we are going to pray for the world and its people.  We will pray for this country Australia and for our community. We pray for each other and the ones whom we love.  We will come in faith and hope that we might reach out to touch Jesus’ robe.

Tuesday, 1 June 2021

Loved by God: A life in ministry

A sermon preached at the funeral of Rev Bill Lockhart by Rev Peter Lockhart.

Before I preach, I would like to share little story I tell about why I am a minister.  About 37 years ago give or take I was sitting in church and dad was preaching.  Now dad had a predilection in his preaching to tell personal stories about people.

During the sermon, he said this, “a young man came up to me the other day. I'm not going to tell you his name because it would embarrass him, and he said dad.” At which point the entire congregation turned to look at me. This is because at that point in our lives Ian was still at boarding school and I was the only son around.  

So, my motivation for being ministry stems from the idea that one day I'll be preaching and I'll say, “I saw an old man the other day but I won't tell you his name because it would embarrass him and he said to me ‘son.’”

Dad this one is for you.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight our Lord our strength and our redeemer. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

“Love one another as I have loved you.” 

As soon as we started talking about dad's funeral, I think it was Judy and Sue who suggested the reading about loving one another or loving our neighbour as ourselves.  And it was Judy who said, we should sing A new commandment.  The notion of loving one another was central to dad’s understanding of what it meant to be a minister.  I would concur that a core teaching of Christianity is loving one another as God has loved us.  Jesus’ teaching is a simple and as complex as that. I want to look at its simplicity, then contemplate its complexity.

The concept of loving one another was expressed in many ways through Dad's ministry.  During the week I was in contact with one of dad's contemporaries from the New South Wales Synod the importance of dad's pastoral ministry.   Dad had a great sense of care and concern for the people in his congregation.  He sought to love them.  This was reflected in a piece of advice he once gave me about pastoral care.  Thinking about his time in the country he said, “if you can't talk to a farmer about his sheep, why would you think you can talk to him about God.”  Dad understood a basic principle of loving others was to be engaged with who they were and what mattered to them.

His love of his time in the country was also reflected in his commitment to the development of the Rural Ministry Unit in NSW.  I met Simon Hansford, the now Moderator of the NSW Synod, a few years back who expressed how inspirational dad had been within the rural ministry network and to him personally.  He saw dad as something of a legend.   

His pastoral ministry and serving of others were not something just for his congregations.  In his early years, dad worked in the mission in the Kings Cross area, and he was influenced by the social gospel.  He had a deep commitment to seeking the good of the community that he was part of.  The other night when we were going through some of dad's things there were references to his involvement in the Lions Club, in the Rotary Club and in school P and C's. 

At Kyogle, which he indicated was possibly his favourite place as a minister, he was involved with the brass band committee, although he was not a trained musician. He helped develop a school music programme and became a bandleader, although he was not a trained musician. And he worked with the local youth community support scheme which supported especially young people who were at risk.  To love others meant to bring transformation to their lives. 

As I look back there was almost a naïve hopefulness in dad's engagement with this idea that living out the gospel was about loving others and changing the community.  But there were moments where I believe the Holy Spirit worked through him and God’s love was encountered in deep and meaningful ways for people in his congregations and the communities he was a part of. 

‘Love one another as I have loved you’ it is a simple and as complex as that.

The complexity of what it means to love one another was also part of dad's ministry because loving others can be hard work and being loved by others can be even harder.  The difficulties dad encountered in ministry and the flaws in dad’s own character shaped my understanding of God and the church.  This was so much the case that when I shared with mum and dad that I was candidating for ministry mum exclaimed “You should know better. You know what its been like.”  Nevertheless, here I am and the stole I am wearing today was dad’s.   I feel somewhat like Elisha to dad’s Elijah, who handed on his mantle before he ascended into heaven.

Now I do not want to dwell too much in the negative experiences that dad had and that I observed of his time in the church.  However, by simply skating across the imperfections of life some we can contemplate the complexity of what it means to love one another.

As a person dad did have a bit of a temper. He was far from perfect . But it is the encounters in ministry and the church that I would briefly highlight.  There are just a few stories that I want to share.  Firstly, my recollection of a group within the congregation at one of dad's placements that broke away from the congregation and prayed that dad would leave town.  In another situation, a group of ministers within a Presbytery excluded dad because he was a former Presbyterian, and they were predominantly Methodist in background.  More than that they had all been an Emmaus walk together and so dad was treated as if he were not in the know.  We were supposed to be a Uniting Church but his experience in this Presbytery was anything but uniting. 

The difficulties that he had around the time that he had a stress breakdown in Bundaberg also stand out in my memory.  This was after tensions in relationships with colleagues and a range of conflicts that had built up over time. The Synod's support of dad through this time was questionable.

As much as he strived for changing the community sometimes the work did not necessarily bear the fruit he might have wished for.  It also, again, created tension with congregation members.  Even within the church, or maybe especially within the church, he did not always find that loving one another as Christ has loved us was present.            

This all brings me to say, I was with an older man the other day and I won't tell you his name because it would embarrass him, and I was explaining to him some of the challenges of my own placement in the school. Within the course of the conversation, I said “Dad, I think I am finally finding where God is in the school.”  Without batting an eyelid, this old man, said to me “Son, it's not about you finding God, it's about God finding you.”

In the same way that dad gave me this piece of advice, it was our last significant conversation, my response to his ministry, seeking to love one another I would remind him, it's not about us loving God or even each other, it's about how much God loves us.  When we get our loving of one another wrong it does not mean God's love for us ceases rather it continues and deepens as we encounter grace and forgiveness.  This is the hope of the Christian faith that becomes flesh in Jesus – in him God is love.  And our lives are hidden in his.

To conclude, another short story about why I am a minister.  As a teenager I noticed that dad always seemed to manage a post lunch nap, a siesta.   I thought to myself who would not want a job where you can come home and have a nap after lunch.  Sadly, my placement at the school has interrupted this aspect of ministry, but the importance of the Sabbath rest has not been lost on me.  In Jesus' resurrection we see the beginning of a new creation.  It is the eternal Sabbath rest in which we enjoy God's presence.  It is my view, my hope and my prayer, that dad now, with mum, has entered his post life, after lunch nap, the eternal Sabbath rest in God's presence, his final siesta.         

To echo dad’s final words at the end of many of his sermons “And now unto him be all the glory, honour, and power now and forever. Amen”

Saturday, 2 January 2021

The Beginning

John 1:1-18, Ephesians 1:3-14

A sermon Prepared for Cleveland Uniting Church.

I wonder if you might take a moment with me to ponder, to contemplate, to savour these words from John’s Gospel and listen for Jesus speaking to you, In the beginning.

 In the beginning…

What is it the beginning of? And when does the beginning even begin? What is God saying to you and me about beginnings today? And, what about the beginning that we find ourselves in right in this moment? In this moment now you and I are at the beginning of the rest of our lives.

This week we have begun a new year. In the beginning of 2021.  Living in the transition between 2020 and 2021 the beginning of Charles Dickens great novel A Tale of Two Cities feels somehow appropriate:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”

The opening words of stories whether fictional or non-fictional entice us and draw us in to consider the point at which find ourselves in the midst of human history, to consider who we are, and to contemplate where we are going.  To think about our story.

The opening salvo of John’s gospel is no different.  The idea that there is a beginning, that there can even be a new a beginning, creates an atmosphere of hope for us amid the joys and sorrows of our human journey. 

John’s gospel speaks of a new beginning in the midpoint of creation as he echoes the words of Genesis Chapter one verses one and two.  “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” (Genesis 1:1-2)

John re-frames this beginning of creation in the light of Jesus coming and presence in the world.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life…” your life and my life included!

Today as we listen for that eternal Word of God speaking to each of one us, I want to juxtapose this concept of beginnings in the Bible with the beginnings of a number of other stories as we explore together the open-endedness of time, the continuity of God’s creativity, the magnitude of grace and the hope of the destination or the end of all things in Christ.

So, to start with, this new beginning of Jesus’ presence in the world raises significant questions for us about time and the idea that we are always at the beginning.  Graham Greene opens his novel The End of the Affair with these insightful words, “A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.”

Spiritually, scientifically, and theologically I would take this a step beyond Greene’s words because time itself is created and not linear.  So, the act of creation by God was not a moment locked in the past but is a continual dynamic unfolding of God’s creative and gracious relationship with the whole cosmos.  God is always creating the creation and the Word of God is present in it all.

In the first words of his book To Change the World James Davison Hunter reminds us of the dynamic nature of the creative act when he says, “Out of nothing, ‘God created the heavens and the earth’ (Gen 1:1).  This was the beginning, the primordial act, the culmination of which was the creation of human life itself, not only in manifest beauty and delight but also in its potentialities. The goodness of creation, then, was anything but inert. It was dynamic, vibrant, and full of latent promise.” (p.1)

The vibrancy of and dynamism of God’s creative act is captured in the timeless words of Lamentations in which the poet declares, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” (3:22-23)

The newness of God’s mercies is a reminder that each moment in which we live is being created.  The creation story is always unfolding.  And the eternal Word, who is Jesus, is always present in the new beginning of each moment.  Paul reminds us that Jesus presence in the world opens up the possibility of each of us becoming a new creation.  In 2 Corinthians 5:17 Paul says, “The old has passed away. Behold, the new has come! Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he [or she] is a new creation.”

If we are each at the beginning of a new creative act, if God’s mercies are new every morning, then this very moment in which we exist is pregnant with the possibilities of what God might do in and through our lives and in the world around us. 

As Christians we do not worship on the sabbath but on the day of resurrection, which is the first day of the week. It is the eighth day!  Each time we come to worship on a Sunday we are reminded that we are living from, in and towards the new creation in which Christ is present and coming to us in the constancy of the new beginnings of our lives.

I think George Orwell in the opening words of his dystopian novel 1984 challenges us to think outside the box to be people who might consider viewing all that has gone before differently.  He writes, “It was a cold bright day in April, and all the clocks were striking thirteen.”  The symbolism of the clocks striking thirteen creates a tension between the truth of what has gone before and what the possibilities of what lies ahead of us. 

More than that how we think about the past is as much of a mystery as is the future. L.P. Hartley opens the novel The Go-Between with these words, “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.” The past can feel distant and strange as we think about what has gone before. 

In his book Homo Deus the historian Noah Yuval Harari suggests that the past is almost like a bad dream. The opening of his book reads, “At the dawn of the third millennium, humanity wakes up, stretching its limbs and rubbing its eyes. Remnants of some awful nightmare are still drifting across its mind. ‘There was something with barbed wire, and huge mushroom clouds.  Oh, well, it was just a bad dream.’ Going to the bathroom, humanity washes its face, examines its wrinkles in the mirror, makes a cup of coffee and opens the diary. ‘Let’s see what’s on the agenda today.’” 

Whatever we might think of our own past or the history of our community the coming of Jesus into the world transforms those events and creates new possibilities grounded in forgiveness and renewal.  “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth.” 

The incarnation, and the hailing of the incarnate Son of which we sing, are a stark reminder that our created lives are important.  Salvation is more than pie in the sky when you die, it is also about encountering the eternal Word creating each moment of eternity in our lives now.  God cares about us, no matter how small and insignificant we think our lives might be.

In his wonderful science fiction novel Douglas Adams explores the infinite smallness of human beings in the first words of his book The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy:

“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.” 

Despite however small we might think we are and whether we primitively still think digital watches, or the latest technology, is a pretty neat idea God in Christ invites us to share in his very life, in the divine existence.  John wrote that “all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.”  This is the gift and grace of God beyond our control as we are born from above and drawn into the constancy of the new beginning of Christ’s life with us, or as Paul writes it later to the Colossians “Our lives are hidden in Christ.” (3:3) 

Like the people long ago it is easy for us to get distracted and miss the miracle of God’s loving presence in our life.  As John says, “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.”  Sometimes, we do not know Christ’s presence even when it is closer to us than breathing.  We miss it and we distract ourselves so easily with our own idols and preoccupations.  Norman Maclean notes our predilection for substituting other things for God in the first words of his novel A River runs through it. He writes, “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing.” 

Regardless of our own preoccupations whether it be fly-fishing, playing the stock market, gardening, golf, or googling Jesus comes to us constantly offering a new beginning, a new creative act so that we might live well in this life with God and with each other.  Of course, life is not perfect in fact far from it.  And, we must constantly look at the world around us through a critical eye. 

One of the books that has deeply influenced my life is Humanism: The Wreck of Western Culture written by the sociologist John Carrol.  He begins with these confronting words:


We live amidst the ruins of the great, five-hundred-year epoch of Humanism. Around us is that ‘colossal wreck.’ Our culture is a flat expanse of rubble. It hardly offers shelter from mild a cosmic breeze, never mind one of those icy gales that regularly return to rip us out of the cosy intimacy of our daily lives and confront us with oblivion. Is it surprising that we are run down? We are desperate, yet we don’t care much anymore. We are timid, yet we cannot be shocked. We are inert underneath our busyness. We are destitute in our plenty. We are homeless in our homes (p. 1).

Living in the new beginning of Christ’s presence makes us aware of the disruption of what is and what could be.  It is little wonder then that the opening words of U2’s song Heaven on Earth are replete with longing: 

    Heaven on earth

    We need it now

    I'm sick of all of this

    Hanging around

Every time we pray the Lord’s prayer, every time we say “on earth as it is in heaven”, we are expressing our longing for the collapsing of the beginning and ending of all things into the present moment in which we live.  The eternal Word, Jesus, is according Revelations 22:13 alpha and the omega, the first and the last.  He is our origin, and he is our destination. He is the destination of the whole creation expressed by Paul in our reading from Ephesians today.

Yet this longing has a fulfilment and hope in mind.  With all wisdom and insight, he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

Way back in the fourth century the Bishop of the Nile Delta Sarapion of Thmuis prayed "Lord! We entreat you, make us truly alive."  I wonder whether to be truly alive means to live in the beginning of the moment we are being created in which Christ is truly present and more than that to live in the moment of the gathering up of all things in Christ, encountering earth as it is in heaven.

So, here we are at the ending of the sermon but I wonder if you might take a moment again with me to ponder, to contemplate, to savour these words from John’s Gospel and listen for Jesus speaking to you, In the beginning.

In the silence, I invite you to think about the one thing that God has laid on your heart amid these frail human words this day.  What are the words God is placing on your heart at the beginning of the next part of your story?