Thursday, 23 June 2011

An Ironic Meeting: Psalm 122 & John 17

Peter Lockhart

There is a sense of irony for me in the marrying of Psalm 122 with Jesus prayer of John 17 in the readings selected for the anniversary of the Uniting Church this week.

In John 17 Jesus is praying with his disciples in the upper room. They had travelled to Jerusalem for the Passover festival. That very night he had washed the disciple’s feet, he had declared his knowledge of his betrayal and in the reading that we heard he prays for the disciples and also incidentally for us. These are the last scenes before Jesus is taken to Jerusalem where he will be put on trial, tortured and ultimately killed.

Psalm 122 is one of the Psalms of ascent. It was sung by pilgrims travelling to Jerusalem for the religious festivals. “I was glad when the said to me, ‘let us go to the house of the Lord!’” The pilgrims had a sense of anticipation in singing this particular song, a song which looks forward to going to meet with God. For if you remember you will know that the Jewish people believed that God dwelt within the holy of holies in the temple.

Maybe you can pick up that same sense of irony. Jesus was on a journey towards Jerusalem, at the time of a one of the great festivals, yet his journey was more of a collision course with the powers of the Jewish Council and the Roman authorities. He knew he had been betrayed and most likely knew that he was going to his death. How difficult it would have been for him to sing the Psalm on his pilgrimage: “I was glad when the said to me, ‘let us go to the house of the Lord!’”

Yet despite the trepidation that he may have been feeling Jesus prayer in John 17 charts a future course and hope for his disciples in their unity within God and with one another.

“As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

In these words Jesus prays that our very own lives will be united in his life and the life of the one whom he calls Father. The disciples are drawn into God’s inner life on the eve of the crucifixion of God in Jesus. It is in this connection of the disciples lives, and so too ours in Jesus’ life, that we are baptised and so share in Jesus life, death and then his resurrection.

This is the promise and hope of God for humanity and the whole creation that Jesus carries our lives through death and in to new life.

The resurrection of Jesus proclaims the hope of a new creation, of new possibilities, of new life beyond death and decay.

Yet at the point in time when Jesus is praying this road still lies ahead.

How is it then that we might associate the Psalm of the pilgrim which looks forward with hope to meeting God with Jesus’ prayer mere hours before everything unravels?

Maybe the words which open Psalms 120 and 121 give us an insight to how we might answer this question.

Psalm 120 begins with the words “In my distress I cry to the Lord, that he might answer me, ‘Deliver me O Lord, from lying lips and a deceitful tongue?”

And then in Psalm 121 “I life my eyes to hills – from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth.”

If we understand that context of looking forward to going to the house of Lord is not simply about having a feel good and warm and fuzzy spiritual experience but encountering God in the midst of the distress and the lies and the deceit then maybe we can begin to understand. It is only from Lord who made heaven and earth that our help comes!

Jesus entry into Jerusalem contains the trust and faith of one who relies on God, his faith is human faith in God par excellence. In his prayer of John 17 he joins us to his own faith so that we might journey with him.

This is the story of our salvation as in and through Jesus God draws us home, into God’s own life. It is a journey which entails the almost unspeakable horror of Jesus last hours and death, a horrific death which as human beings we can only admit with shame has been shared by the millions of people tortured and brutally killed through the millennia. Jesus identifies with the worst of possible ends for us.

Yet hope springs forth on the day of resurrection as Jesus rises from the grave and so God says to the world there is more to your existence than the banality and brutality with which your practice your living.

This is a difficult story for us to hear but on the day of Stella’s baptism it is a vital story for us to hear. For baptism is about once again proclaiming that God’s will for Stella and for all people is to be joined in to Jesus life, death and yes also his resurrection. That God’s promise is that the stories of our lives whilst important are subsumed into a story of new life and of the promise of a future yet unseen.

As we baptise we remember that we are citizens of a coming kingdom, that we have an allegiance to a crucified and risen Lord, and that our hope is in him.

The question for all of us concerning Stella and our own lives is what is the story that dominates how we live? For each one of us our lives are shaped by lessons and myths that we have picked up along the way, some knowingly and others unconsciously.

The lessons the myths that we learn determine how we live and how we teach others to live, and this includes our children.

In Jesus own life his actions caused him to come into conflict with the social, political, economic and religious powers of his time. No less do I believe that if Jesus was here today would the same occur.

Would not Jesus challenge the rampant consumerism that rules our lives in the West?
Would not Jesus question the insipid expression of our faith which reduces relationship with God to a personal lifestyle choice?
Would not Jesus confront the moralising which excludes?
Would not Jesus demand that our allegiance be to God and not any particular political party?

As people drawn in to Jesus life through baptism we are called to be his people and following where he lead proclaim the good news and hope of God over against the powers and principalities that delude us in this world.

In this baptism for me shares in the trepidation of the upper room – lives drawn into unity with God’s life and each other’s life set on a course which will travel through life into death. But just as the disciples discovered in their lives can and will brings us into conflict with the world around us.

Baptism is not a naming ceremony, it should never be done because we want our kids to get into the right school, it does not give kids any opportunity for advancement in this world, it certainly should not be done to get the grandparents off our back. Baptism is a declaration of God’s love and draws a child and a family closer into the heart of God and the community of faith to face the difficult road of life that lies ahead with the hope of resurrection held firmly in our hearts.

There are many stories that can shape the pilgrimage of our lives yet the radical and subversive conviction that we share is that their one story that over arches all others. It is the story of Jesus Christ to whom our lives and the future of all things are joined.

There may be troubles ahead, the world is facing big problems, but just as Jesus continued to pray with hope in the upper room so too we can look forward with hope and maybe even share the words of the Psalmist:

“I was glad when the said to me, ‘let us go to the house of the Lord!’”

Because our “help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth”.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

God Tests the Covenant

by Peter Lockhart

I am not preaching on the lectionary this week but here is my sermon from 2007 on the story of Abraham and Isaac Gen 22:1-14.

I said to someone the other day that if I allow the Old Testament passage to be read in today’s service then I must also preach on it. This is simply because of the challenging and disturbing nature of the story. I would also say that this sermon comes with an M rating – for a mature audience, for the story in itself should carry such a label.

The story of God’s testing of Abraham is one which raises all sorts of questions and has been much meditated upon and written about in the history of Biblical studies. The idea that God would test a man by asking him to sacrifice his son is utterly distasteful. It is a horrific tale so far beyond comprehension that at face value it can cause a person to ask, ‘Is this really the kind of God I want to be associated with?’ A God who asks for infanticide!

But digging deeper into the narrative that has already unfolded for Abraham the extent of what he is ask to do goes far beyond this. Abraham was an elderly man and in ancient times the future and hope of a person was intricately tied to having children, particularly sons. Abraham and Sarah had waited so long, and eventually had used a surrogate, one of their servants Hagar, to produce the heir Ishmael whom Abraham had loved as his son.

Then in the midst of human impossibility for Sarah, Sarah conceived and bore Isaac, even though she was in her eighties and had laughed at God’s promise for the provision of this child. With a true son to be the heir of Abraham and Isaac, Sarah told Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away. Abraham questioned God on this matter and found reassurance that God would deal well with Ishmael and make a nation from him. And so Abraham sent his first born son away confident in God’s promise that his name and his nation would rise through Isaac.

This sets more starkly in its context the test which God brings to Abraham. It is not simply the request to kill his son, which is abhorrent enough in itself, but the request to kill the son long waited for to fulfil the faithfulness of God to Abraham and Sarah and who was also promised to provide a future and a hope for them and the world.

The question is no longer simply how could God ask a man to kill his own son but how could God command Abraham to do something which seemed to so contradict what God had already done: his faithfulness in providing Isaac.

For listeners to the story and readers of the scripture the story opens with the revelation that this is to be a test for Abraham. Maybe in being told this the blow of what is asked is softened. We might reasonably imagine that God whilst asking this horrific thing does not really intend for Abraham to carry out the act. Yet what we need to understand is that Abraham does not know this is a test he bears the full emotional force of this divine command and his faithfulness to God, his trust is astounding.

One of the reasons Abraham’s faith here is so astounding is that on other occasions when God had made such grave decisions Abraham had questioned God. When God sought to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, veritable dens of iniquity, Abraham had pleaded on their behalf. When Sarah told Abraham that Hagar and Ishmael were to be sent away Abraham was deeply distressed and questioned God.

But here, now, in this story, when asked to kill his son we are told, “So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac.” No questioning, no pleading on Isaac’s behalf; just a mechanical going through the motions. Could it be that he was simply numb with the shock and horror of what he was to do? Or could it be that in the face of previous impossibilities Abraham placed his trust in God to create another possibility so that his blood line could survive?

The Rabbis called this story the binding of Isaac. What do we do with it? How can we reconcile this image of God with the God of love whom we wish to proclaim? For even if we think that God was never really going to let the act be carried out how can we countenance such terrible games played with the lives of mortals?

Whilst Abraham’s faith is upheld in the letter to the Hebrews, do we really want to have such a blind mechanical faith that when we hear God’s voice we are obedient to the point of acting in such terrible ways? For me this makes us no different to those Christians who have placed bombs in abortion clinics or the terrorists who strap explosives to themselves and walk into crowded market places. How do we discern God’s voice and differentiate it from other voices we may hear? The voice that many a murderer has claimed has spoken to them – go into this place, or that, and kill in my name! Is our faith so blind, so unquestioning, so obedient that it cannot discern the inherent evil in such actions?

These are disturbing questions, questions that cut us to the core and this very story has been enough for people to reject God and the Biblical witness because of these kinds of issues.

Yet for me the Bible does contain the witness of God’s love for the world, the coming of Jesus, the story of the covenant and if I am to accept the stories of faith it tells then I must, you must, be able to give an account for the inclusion of the difficult passages of scripture just as much as we want to hold on to the sentimental passages that fill us with warm and fuzzy feelings.

For me to think again on this passage means taking a different perspective, to ask is there something that I am not seeing in the story? Is there something more at stake in the request of faithfulness by Abraham? What really hangs in the balance? Is there a different perspective?

We know what hangs in the balance for Abraham – his son, Isaac, so with this in mind we have to look from the perspective of the other stakeholder in the test: God! What does God risk in this encounter? What do we learn about God?

In asking this unseemly act of Abraham God puts at risk the very covenant he has entered into with Abraham, a covenant that began many years early when he asked Abraham to leave his father’s house. The Old Testament scholar Terrence Fretheim reverses the questions for us, he asks:

“Is this not only a test of Abraham’s faith in God, but also of God’s faith in Abraham?” Fretheim assumes this is the case as he asserts, “God places the shape of God’s own future in Abraham’s hands, in the sense that Abraham’s response will affect the next move that God makes… Something is at stake for God in this matter”

What is at stake for God is the covenant relationship and the possibility that what God has invested in by entering into covenant with Abraham will fail. If anything the trust that Abraham exhibits that God can work this situation out ups the ante for God. The scripture poses the question can God really be trusted or will God require the infanticide that Abraham has been commanded to commit?

When Abraham says in response to Isaac’s question about where the sacrifice is Abraham declares his trust and his hope that God will provide a lamb. Just as there is a lot riding on the outcome for Abraham so too God is placed in the position of being tested – “can this God really be trusted”, maybe even “should we love this God”?

As the story unfolds we see that God can be trusted… a lamb is provided and Isaac is spared. In the end we find that God’s trust in Abraham was warranted and vice-versa, Abraham’s faith in God was reasonable even in the face of the bizarre command that Abraham received.

There are many lessons we might ponder for ourselves from this story not least of which is how we approach our understanding of difficult passages. There are also many questions left hanging.

I want to finish by raising just two issues one to do with the nature of human freedom and the other to do with the nature of God.

In this story what Abraham will do appear to be unknown by God, Abraham has genuine freedom to act as he will and what he does will have consequences. Whilst in other parts of the Bible we might have a sense of God predetermining things this story indicates that God entrusts to human beings the freedom to respond, or not, the commands God gives. God is no puppeteer pulling all the strings as it were. If Abraham did not have a choice, or if the all knowing God knew what Abraham would do then the test was a furphy, there was no real test just an expected outcome. This raises questions for me in terms of human freedom and God’s knowing which are a little too difficult for me to explore at this point, suffice it to say that we have freedom in our choices and maybe the possibilities of our choices are unknown not simply to us but to God.

This is a vital principle to bring out in the second issue which is the willingness of God to be vulnerable in the context of the freedom of human response. Ultimately this vulnerability is exposed in the story of Jesus of Nazareth in whom we believe God was fully present yet at the same time was fully human. Jesus resistance of temptation and choice to walk all the way to the cross involves real choice, a real risk it could have gone otherwise. If this was not the case then it was all a charade.

Ultimately God’s choice of vulnerability leads to a response of rejection and condemnation – Jesus is betrayed, deserted, condemned and hung on the tree by human hands. Whilst Abraham stayed the course and followed the command when God becomes fully vulnerable in being one of us human beings reject God.

The grace present in the story of Jesus life, death and resurrection though is that whilst humanity rejects this God who is so freely vulnerable God’s choice is to renew the covenant and in Jesus bear that rejection so that we might remain with God in that promised relationship.

There are times that confronted by the complexity of life and the complexity of the Biblical message we might rather turn away. As I contemplated the story of Abraham and Isaac this week I wondered how could any of us believe in a God who would ask such a thing of a father. And, I must be honest that this was a very personal response to the concept of killing a son. Yet as I have struggled with the passage and the questions it raises maybe the question I might now rather ask is, “How can I not be willing to be faithful to this God who would be so willingly vulnerable to those he created by giving them, us, so much freedom?”

I do not think we have covered everything in this story by a long shot but maybe, just maybe, despite its macabre and horrific nature we have found some reason for its presence and for our own faith to continue.

Friday, 17 June 2011

And God said

Peter Lockhart

Whenever any of us are confronted by an issue or a question about our lives we are influenced in our decisions making and our direction by the voices around us.

There are many voices around us, friends and family, people on the radio and TV, blogs and websites, and books that we read. And there are the voices within us: the voice of our own memories and our conscience.

One of the voices that we have an option to seek to listen to is the voice of God as it comes to us through the scriptures but it is not an easy voice to hear or understand.

This morning we heard read the story of creation from the book of Genesis, the very first book of the Bible. This story is a somewhat controversial story for many reasons and has become a stumbling for many in their willingness to accept and listen to the voice of God as it speaks to us through the scriptures.

This morning I want to just pick up one phrase from the story to begin to explore the difficulties of reading the Bible.

In Genesis 3 we read, “And God said.”

These may seem fairly innocuous words but they are repeated 10 times in the chapter. Whoever wrote this story wanted us to know that God was speaking because he kept making the point, “And God said.”

Now for the moment I am not overly concerned with what God said simply the claim that God spoke at the moment of creation.

I remember years ago being troubled by this whole story of creation and the notion that the story is supposed to convey what God said at the moment of creation.

In terms of logic and reasonable thinking this claim borders on the nonsensical.

It’s a bit like that question “if a tree falls in the forest does anyone here it”

“If God spoke at the dawning of creation does anyone hear it”

Of course I can romanticise the answer and suggest something along the lines that the echoes of God’s voice continue to resound in every moment of our existence and the wonder of creation.

But this kind of romanticising of the voice of God does not deal with the claim that is being made by the storyteller, to know exactly what God says.

Based in the knowledge that there was no one there to hear what God said and neither can we present any scientific or historical proof of God’s words it would be easy to dismiss the voice of the scriptures as being important in shaping my life because the claims are not scientifically or historically true.

But, and this is a vital but, I don’t believe that the point of the story is to claim that this actually what happened but rather to say something about the nature of God and what the creation is in relationship to God.

So the truth of the story lays not in some historical claim but in the truth the reveal about God.

Each phrase, each word, recorded by the author carries weight as it unfolds before us who God is and what God is like and through the discovery of the meaning of the words so we may even hear God’s voice speaking to us.

If we approach the scripture in this way the question might then be not whether it is historically true but what does it tell us about God that God speaks? “And God said.”

Here are just a few quick observations.

First off, in affirming that God speaks the scriptures tell us that God chooses to communicate with humanity in a way in which human beings can relate to and understand. Moreover, it would seem to me that there is no logical necessity for God to speak, so in God speaking God make this choice for relationship: a choice to love what God is making.

Second, that when God speaks there is authority and power in his words. Without going too much into the content of God’s words what occurs in the story is that when God speaks there is a consistency between what God says and what occurs. “Let there be light”, and there was light!

Now I could say more on this but I wanted to make a fundamental point here about how we read the Bible and whether or not the voice of God is worth listening to in the course of our existence.

If we try to ask is the Bible “true” in a logical or forensic scientific sense then we come into having problems in the first few verses but if we listen for the theological truth of the scriptures what we encounter is that the God we believe in speaks and God speaks because of God’s choice to love and God speaks with authority.

This is good news for all of us and the whole creation.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Trinity Sunday: An old sermon!

Peter Lockhart

An sermon from 2007 Year A Trinity Sunday... what to do this week?

Today the lectionary gives to us a gift from the church – today is Trinity Sunday. The reason that I say that it is a gift from the church is that the concept of the Trinity does not come to us directly from Scripture because the Bible does not use this language, this word Trinity, to describe God. Rather, in reflecting on the depth of God’s revelation to us in Jesus Christ the early church in its struggle to articulate the truth of God’s existence adopted this language of describing God as Trinity.

This comes to us as gift in the context of the struggle of humanity to know its creator and to understand the creation. In his book The Mind of God the eminent mathematician and physicist Paul Davies declared ‘While we assume there is a design behind the physical reality, science can’t really tell us anything about the designer, the nature of God, or God’s relationship with human beings.’ (end quote)

To seek to understand God and to listen for the story of God does not mean turning away from scientific inquiry and reason but marrying it with the revelation of this very creator in our midst. For, to borrow a phrase from another physicist and theologian John Polkinghorn, to describe God as trinity is not a case of doing some ‘speculative mystical arithmetic’ but is grounded in the very narrative of the revelation of God found in the scriptures.

Jesus’ claims concerning himself and his relation with God and the Holy Spirit give rise for us to speak of God in this way.

John asserts Jesus to be the eternal word of God.

Jesus claimed that he was in the Father and the Father was in him and that those who had seen him had seen the Father.

The promise of the Holy Spirit is the promise of the Spirit sent from the Father, the same Spirit that was seen descending on Jesus at his baptism.

And, Jesus command to go and baptise in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit further makes this description of God appropriate.

Here in these passages and others we encounter God not simply as some monad but that God in Godself is a community of existence – a communion of being.

If we listen to the very first story found in the scriptures this truth of God’s very nature as existing as a communion is found as we hear that we are created in God’s image:

“Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness:

So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.”

Here we find that to be made in God’s image is to be made male and female – not male or female, but both together – a community. To be in the image of God is to be one, yet one with distinct entities. The fullness of being human in the image of God is being humans together, just as God is one yet three.

This helps us to make sense of the statement that God is love. To love involves both a lover and an object of that love. If God in God’s very self is love then that love is a love expressed in the mutuality of existence of the Father, the Son and the Spirit.

This gives to us the context of our own existence created to love and be loved by God and by each other – to do less than this would be to deny the reality of our being created in God’s image and thereby to deny what it means to be truly human.

Yet the narrative that unfolds in the pages of the scriptures is that this exactly what human beings do: rather than live in the communion of love whereby we exist as one for each other we as human beings continually seek our personal end, our personal gain.

The story of Adam and Eve is not some isolated event in prehistory but is each of our own stories – we deny the reality of our existence and seek more as if what we have already been given is not enough. And when we are questioned about this we try to blame someone else.

But God’s love for us is so deep that he gives to us himself, his son, the incarnation – Jesus with us to live for us. Here the work of God as Trinity becomes clearer and even yet more confronting. Jesus fully human and fully divine shares our human existence living in communion with God and the creation.

The culmination of Jesus share in our existence as well as our estrangement from God and each other is found in the cross and resurrection. The theologian Jürgen Moltman describes Jesus death as an entirely Trinitarian in which Jesus human cry of abandonment, ‘My God, my God why have you forsaken me?’ is matched by the desolation of God the Father as mourns the estrangement of humanity in the death of his only son.

Here we begin to have an insight into the concern of God at our suffering and of God’s will that this not be the last word for the cross without the resurrection leaves us without much hope. The Spirit descends into the realm of dead to – a place complete oppose and devoid of God’s existence to meet Jesus there and bring him to new life.

To contemplate this is to understand that even in the place of death to which Jesus descends, a place of complete separation from God Jesus is retrieved. The Eastern Orthodox churches speak of the days between Jesus death and resurrection as the time of his descent into hell. There is no place in this life or in our death that God has not been and that God cannot reach us.

This God, who is love, loves us to this point of self sacrificial giving so that we might be with God eternally. The sending of the Holy Spirit to us makes us one with Jesus in his action for us and in the church we are made to be a sign of hope for the world as humans existing as human beings created in God’s image are meant to – as community.

The church is meant to be God’s people living in respect to how we were created and were recreated to live, but it does not take a genius to see that we do not live this way as the church, even though this is the church we believe that God calls us to be. Like those who lived before Jesus death and resurrection our fall into temptation, to live as if we are not in created God’s image and so to seek something other, is continually there.

The rampant individualism of the post enlightenment world, both modernism and post modernism, have so impacted on the belief of the western church that for so many our faith is private or personal matter. Evangelists continually emphasize our personal relationship with Jesus as being the central reality of faith, but unless we understand that as persons we are not drawn into a one on one faith experience but into the community of God’s existence which includes not only other people but the fullness of creation then we have turned away from the truth of the gospel.

To be Christian means to be the church – for the church is the body of Christ, it is the Church in the power of the Spirit. Bound together by God’s love and into God’s existence together we celebrate our risen Lord.

This understanding of the church came up in my lecturing on Thursday when I was quoting a passage from John Calvin’s Institutes written in 1559.

“For when we believe the Church, it is in order that we may be firmly persuaded that we are its members. In this way our salvation rests on a foundation so firm and sure, that though the whole fabric of the world were to give way, it could not be destroyed.”

Half of the students reacted to this understanding of the church expressing that whilst the ideal and imagery is great it had not been their experience of the church. Many had been hurt and burnt within the community of the faithful – a reality for most of us.

Yet within the arms of the church that we believe, the church that God has made through the power of the Spirit, our hope is that we do share in the Trinitarian life of God and we become fully human.

Calvin, being the realist he was, declared:

"But in order to embrace the unity of the Church in this manner, it is not necessary, as I have observed, to see it with our eyes, or feel it with our hands. Nay, rather from its being placed in faith, we are reminded that our thoughts are to dwell upon it, as much when it escapes our perception as when it openly appears."

Being church is as much a matter of faith and an expression of God’s Trinitarian life as our hope in the promise of Jesus that we will find our way home in him.

The depths of the mystery of our faith stand alongside the mystery and wonder that is seen in the creation by the physicists and biologist and ecologists. Our unity with God who is Father, Son and Spirit, our unity with each other, our unity with all living things humbles us and gives to us place in this world, in our lives and with our God.

Giving thanks for this mystery we can echo the wonder of the great Albert Einstein:

One cannot but be in awe when one contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvellous structure of reality. It is enough if one merely tries to comprehend a little of this mystery each day. Never lose a holy curiosity.

So with him and millions before us and millions to come let us pass into silence before the mystery of the Trinity and seek the face of the one who loves us.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Psalm 8 Dominion over the sea

Peter Lockhart

I had a request to put up the rest of the sermon about "Care for the Creation" which I posted the end of a couple of days ago here . The sermon was based on Psalm 8, which is the Psalm set down for Trinity Sunday.In Psalm 8 we read about our responsibility as human beings.

The Psalmist declares:

“You have given them dominion over the works of your hands.”

This week as I contemplated this concept of human dominion I was drawn into reflecting on the question, “So, how is that working out for us?” or maybe it is better put: “How is our exercise of dominion going?”

This question was focussed for me after reading a blog by Byron Smith entitled, “And the sea was no more.”

Attached to the article on the blog was a video by Jeremy Jackson a Marine ecologist who painted a grim picture for the future of our oceans.

As human beings we are having a huge impact on the marine environment, an impact on a global scale. This seems to affirm the notion that we do have dominion over “the fish of the sea, and whatever passes along the paths of the seas”

Of course I am not one to use one Marine Ecologist’s view on a topic found on a random blog so I did some further reading and reflecting. After confirming some of what Jeremy had to say I came to one of those kind of moments where you just go “oh no”.

If we just consider how we as human beings are dealing with the marine environment, there are some concerning issues!

The first issue is that of overfishing. In some parts of the world we have fished the marine landscape to the point exhaustion – since the 1980s world fish stocks have been in rapid decline and as we have sought new and ingenious ways of catching the fish the impact has been getting worse.

Long line fishing with millions of hooks and drag netting have horrendous side effects.

In some places the ocean floors have been absolutely devastated, disrupting the whole marine environment. The scientists simply do not know how long the recovery of these ecosystems might take.

If we add to this issue of overfishing the impact of the pollution of the world’s oceans the situation gets just that little bit more scary.

Of course most of you will have heard the news about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico emanating from the Deepwater Horizons rig. It was an accident to be sure, but no less driven by our hunger for fossil fuels.

The impact of the pollution is astounding and the toxic impact on the whole Gulf of Mexico will be felt for decades to come.

This is but a small sample of the toxins we are feeding into the water, in Queensland there have been issues with the nitrogen run off from farms and debates and disputes about the control of the use of fertilizers and so on.

Then there is just the everyday rubbish that finds its way into the sea – especially plastics.

In my reading I discovered something called the Great pacific Garbage patch. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is caused by the flow of ocean currents which seem to circle towards a point in the northern centre of the Pacific.

Here at the centre of this gyre is an area somewhat larger than the size of Texas with 3.5 million tonnes of trash floating just below the ocean surface.

Then add to these two issues the possibility of global warming and in particular the warming of the ocean temperatures the equilibrium of the marine environment is in dire straits. Jeremy Jackson suggested somewhere in the next 20-50 years it is plausible to argue that we will no longer be able to eat fish coming from our seas.

So to return to my question at the beginning, “So how are we going with the dominion over seas thing?”

I find it kind of bizarre this whole issue given that many of us claim to see God’s glory reflected in nature. I wonder how many of you would claim to have experienced God by the sea, for example. One would think if we see God’s glory in nature then we would respond to God’s glory by caring for it and celebrating our place as a little lower than the angels by living generously and wisely as people in this wonderful world God has created.

500 years ago John Calvin wrote about this very thing saying: “But although the Lord represents both himself and his everlasting kingdom in the mirror of his works with very great clarity, such is our stupidity that we grow increasingly dull toward such manifest testimonies, and they flow away without profiting us.”

Even if we do see something of God’s glory reflected in nature, Calvin goes on to say, “After we rashly grasp the conception of some sort of divinity, straightway we fall back into the ravings or evil imaginings of our flesh, and corrupt by our vanity the pure truth of God.”

Reading another blog the biblical scholar Daniel Deffenbaugh writes in response to the state of the environment:

"It is in a situation like this that I can be thankful for my Reformed roots – extending all the way back to Augustine, and finally to Paul – reminding me that, when I look at the heavens and the work of God's fingers, and then consider what human beings have done to it all, I cannot help but disagree with the Psalmist's hopeful anthropology: we are, in fact, a lot lower than God. We're not even close to how we were originally created. This being the case, I am then led to ask, and with some trepidation, why God would even want to be mindful of us."

The dying oceans and the disappearing stars seem to match the increasing clamour of competing voices which seek to drown out the good news of Jesus Christ and the revelation of God’s love for the world.

The whole situation draws us to reflect on Paul’s letter to the Romans not simply the snippet we read today but from Romans 8 as well

22We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; 23and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Friday, 10 June 2011

Pentecost: Sermon Preview

Peter Lockhart

A sermon based on Acts 2:1-21

The Holy Spirit descends and breathes into the disciples, and those listening, an amazing ability.

They are given the ability to speak and listen and understand languages other than the one that they speak.

At its base level I believe that this description of the day of Pentecost is a reversal of the confusion set upon human beings at the tower Babel, a story found in the book of Genesis Chapter 11.

In summary the story of the tower of Babel goes like this.

“Up until this point in the Bible, the whole world had one language - one common speech for all people. The people of the earth became skilled in construction and decided to build a city with a tower that would reach to heaven. By building the tower they wanted to make a name for themselves and also prevent their city from being scattered.

God came to see their city and the tower they were building. He perceived their intentions, and in His infinite wisdom, He knew this "stairway to heaven" would only lead the people away from God. He noted the powerful force within their unity of purpose. As a result, God confused their language, causing them to speak different languages so they would not understand each other. By doing this, God thwarted their plans. He also scattered the people of the city all over the face of the earth.”

In one sense then I see the Day of Pentecost as a reversal of this story. It is a sign that human beings are reconciled again to God. A reconciliation that is understood to occur by the disciples through what Jesus does. So whilst understanding comes through shared communication it is not the shared communication that draws human being back towards God and each other.

So, and this is a big so, whilst shared understanding is given as a sign of reconciliation with God, the reversal of the Tower of Babel, onlookers of the event fail to understand it, even though they can see and hear in their own language, “they must be filled with new wine!” In other words, “they are drunk!”

One of our greatest problems as humanity is our inability to understand one another, even when we speak the same language. You only have to observe politicians and the issues that humanity is confronting to understand this.

What I find particularly disturbing is our inability to hear those who may be speaking a word of prophecy amongst us. During the week I heard a report about the death threats being levelled at climate scientists in Australia.

These scientists are speaking the same language as those listening: but is the problem that people don’t want to listen? Is it because people cannot see beyond the meal on their table and the roof over their head?

The hopeful, yet naive, notion that J.F.K propounded in the 1960s was :

“Our problems are man-made, therefore they may be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings.”

When we as human beings fail to listen, to really listen, even when we are given a common language, how can we place so much faith in ourselves?

The Spirit was poured out to give an opportunity to witness to God’s reconciliation in Jesus Christ. The shared language on that day was a sign of what God was doing, but what is clear to me is that even with a common language we as human beings are still confused and more often than not even selfish bunch, we are all at sea.

The witness of the disciples was that it was because of God’s love expressed in Jesus Christ that we have become reconciled to God and one another and it is only when we find some unity in this proclamation that it can make any sense. It is this which becomes our hope, not the amazing gifts we may have to share with one another, but the God who through the Spirit and in Christ is present at work in and through us giving us hope even when we are misunderstood and sneered at as drunkards.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Care for the creation

Peter Lockhart

I've just been watching a video of a lecture by Jeremy Jackson found on Byron Smith's blog, here. After preaching on the destruction on the oceans last year this was how I finished my sermon.

As we wait and we witness our own folly as God’s stewards we are reassured by God’s gracious word to us from Paul’s letter to the Romans, “We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

It is the peace with God that can inspire us to consider again our place as witnesses to the future we hope in by the way we live as citizens of the coming kingdom now.

Maybe this is what John Calvin was on about when he wrote: “The custody of the garden was given in charge to Adam, to show that we possess the things which God has committed to our hands, on the condition, that being content with frugal and moderate use of them, we should take care of what shall remain... Moreover, that this economy and this diligence, with respect to those good things which God has given us to enjoy, may flourish among us; let everyone regard himself as the steward of God in all things which he possesses. Then he will neither conduct himself dissolutely, nor corrupt by abuse those things which God requires to be preserved.”
(John Calvin: Commentary on Genesis 2:15)

Despite our inability to respond to the wonder of creation appropriately, despite our destructive interpretation of 'dominion', despite our hurt of nature and each other the empty tomb reminds us that God chooses to love us and forgive us and invites us to a future yet to be fully understood or seen: a future in which God promises not simply to save human beings but renew the whole creation.

God’s grace comes and echoes in our lives like the distant crashing of waves against the shore, a comforting sound as the Spirit moves within us and draws into God’s life and God’s future. When we taste of the bread and wine our hope is that one day the renewal of the whole creation will occur and we will be blessed as we see the reflection of God’s glory and live as God’s people.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Pentecost: Living right to the end of life!

Peter Lockhart
The following was used as a devotional reflection in a retirement complex.

The pouring out of the Holy Spirit described in the book of Acts is an amazing thing: the sound of a rushing wind; tongues of fire; the ability to hear other languages and understand. So perplexing is the behaviour of those gathered that they are accused of as being drunk.

The Holy Spirit comes in power to give the disciples the strength and support to move forward in faith sharing the good news of Jesus with other people. This is a story of hope and purpose and direction in life.

And when we speak of the Holy Spirit we usually use words which describe life and movement.

The Holy Spirit is poured out, it is rushing wind, tongues of fire, bringer of gifts, giver of life, guide, comforter, inspirer and so on.

Tomorrow I am conducting a funeral and it has caused me to pause and think about how we understand this story of the coming of the Spirit and its place in our lives as we get older.

I suppose I can’t really speak from personal experience too deeply yet but I think one thing that maybe some think when they hear about the pouring out of the Holy Spirit is that it just sounds tiring.

The Holy Spirit comes to give life and movement but as you get older life and movement are just that little bit harder.

I imagine it’s far easier to speak of dance of the Holy Spirit if you don’t have arthritis or you don’t have a bung knee or a gammy leg.

I imagine it’s far easier to speak of the Holy Spirit as guide if you’re not stuck without a licence anymore or you’re not living in a retirement village or nursing home.

Yet it could also be far easier when we begin to think this way to write ourselves off as if there is nothing left to contribute and life has just become a waiting game, waiting for the only thing left, which we don’t really want to think about too much: death.

But when I read the story from the book of Acts I am always struck by the phrase “your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams”. Your old men shall dream dreams!

This is no less important than the young men who have visions. To take this point a little further, I would argue that the Spirit comes with different gifts for our age and stage in life. Your old men will dream dreams is an example contained within a prophecy.

I want to share a story I heard yesterday about a man who has terminal cancer. After being discharged from hospital he went home but when he got there he went straight to bed and was refusing to come out.

A young woman, a social worker, went and encouraged him step by step to reengage with life. To move out of waiting for death into living what he had left. The first step was simple to get up and to have a shower.

Step by step the man reengaged in living as best he could and gradually he became involved in supporting other people with cancer. He got involved so fully that last year he ran a Cancer Council Morning Tea in his home.

Not only was he living but he was living for others.

The vision of the young woman to help the man rediscover life turned into a dream for the man, a dream which became fulfilling not only for him but for others.

The Holy Spirit brings new life, helps us discover new gifts and passions and within the context of community young and old, male and female, rich and poor God empowers us to witness to Jesus who promised to send the Spirit to help us live our lives and live them abundantly, right to the end. Amen.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Ascension Day: Sky Gazing

Peter Lockhart

The image of the disciples, standing around staring into the sky like a bunch of stunned mullet, after Jesus ascension is a strong one.

Jesus had died! Jesus was risen! But Jesus is gone again!

The sky gazing disciples, having once again missed the mark with their question about the restoration of Israel, are in the quagmire of asking, "What do we do now?"

The answer to this question of "What now? What next?" is helped along the way by the appearance of 2 men who ask the disciples what they are looking up at the sky. In their words we hear the reassurance that although Jesus has gone, Jesus will come back, in his own time, so off with you now and be about the task Jesus has left you with, become witnesses!

The rest of the book of Acts is the unfolding of what the disciples did next as the Holy Spirit was poured out on them and as they grew into the apostles Jesus had sent them to be.

There are times when I think many of us are still standing with mouths agape looking at the sky waiting for Jesus to come back, for Jesus to do something more. As followers of Jesus and as people sent into the world to witness to God's love revealed in Jesus I think we need to hear that same question "What are you doing standing here staring into the sky?"

It is the question which gives us the nudge to act and so not to simply wait for Jesus to do something else but in faith to go forward as witnesses to our risen and ascended Lord.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Ascension Day: The importance of names

I was blest on the morning of Ascension Day to attend Morning Prayer and to hear the passage of the ascension read from Acts as a living word from God. It is not always that we hear the scriptures read in such a way but occasionally the words are said with such deliberate love that the simply live for us.

What struck me was the way in which our worship leader, Gerda, named the list of disciples. Each name given the dignity of presence as the reader paused after each one, a moment to savour these people to whom Jesus had appeared and who went away to devote themselves in prayer.

Peter, and John, and James,
and Andrew, Philip and Thomas,
Bartholomew and Matthew,
James son of Alphaeus,
and Simon the Zealot,
and Judas son of James.

It may be that we don’t know these people but the recording of their names and their careful articulation in love continues the witness to Jesus, with which they were entrusted.

As I revelled in their faith the livingness of the scriptures continued in my mind to include the names of those with whom I worshipped and who had inspired me in the faith.

Faithful people like the ones who shared in the Morning Worship: Gerda, Mano, Lynne, Alan & Merle, Jason, Yvonne, Stephen, Harley.

And faithful friends and mentors who have and who continue to witness to Jesus love for me: my Dad, Sandra, Terry, Bob & Grace, David, Gordon & Geoff, Don & Pam, Alan, John, Andrew, Murray & Wendi, Ray, Shirley, Michael.

And people of Faith through the ages whom my contact has been only through texts and stories handed down: Halik, Zizioulas, McGrath, Moltmann, Bonhoeffer & Barth, Calvin & Luther & Zwingli, Gregory of Nazianzus.

Maybe at times we fail to name the influences because we might miss someone out. Maybe we are afraid of the intimacy of declaring our need of others. Maybe we are afraid of pirvacy laws and confidentialites. And maybe at times we simply forget to name those, whose witness shapes and support us, and remind us of the Jesus who ascended in mystery and for whose promised return we wait together in anticipation.

The way Gerda read the names reminded me of how tied our identity is to our own names and how it is important for our names to be said. Yet not only that, but that in hearing each others names in the context of the bigger story of God's love and of Jesus Christ, our faith is affirmed and the witness with which we have been entrusted is shared.

The Blessing of Retreat

by Peter Lockhart

There may be all sorts of images that come to mind when people speak about 'retreats'. In my 13 years in ministry I have always attended the Presbytery Retreats and as I reflect about it here are a few reasons why.

1. The opportunity to share in daily Eucharistic worship.
2. Rising for morning prayer shared with close friend and colleagues
3. Meeting and getting to know my colleagues in ministry in the Presbytery whom I don't yet know so well
4. Experiencing the support of my colleagues in ministry
5. Being reminded of a variety of spiritual disciplines and resources for them
6. Refuelling through relaxing and enjoying the company of friends in ministry
7. Being challenged with new ideas
8. Remembering God's love: for me, for others, for the world

'Retreat' is like taking a deep breath in before throwing myself in to the fray once more. I would always recommend such opportunities for refreshment and renewal whether it be a church camp, "A day apart", a weekly prayer gathering or home group, or even worship on Sunday. It is from these places of encounter with God that we are inspired for our encounters with God and others in the world in our daily lives.