Monday, 26 May 2014

Sharing the hope that is within you with gentleness and reverence

In the first letter of Peter he encourages followers of Jesus “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.”

This phrase had a particularly meaning in the context in which it was written to the burgeoning early Christians in the hostile environment in which the found themselves but it means something to us as well and raises some pretty significant questions.

In particular, what is the hope that is within you? And, when you can identify what that hope is how you share it in gentleness and reverence?

Take a moment to contemplate what you hoe for as a follower of Jesus.  

Like last week when we discussed the idea of fear, as seen in the fear wheel, there would be a great diversity in how we understanding:

We hope in life after death.
We hope for life in all its fullness.
We hope in the forgiveness of sins.
We hope our loved ones who have died are with God.
We hope for meaning and purpose in life.
We hope to encounter God more fully.
We hope to find answers to our spiritual and life questions.
We hope for the best for our children.
We hope for justice for all peoples.
We hope for a shorter sermon...
And the list can go on.

Whatever our hopes might be finding a way to meaningfully convey them when we are asked about our faith is what Peter is asking us to do and to do it with gentleness and reverence.

One of the most powerful yet gentle ways we can share the hope within us is to learn to tell our stories as stories which encapsulate our walk with God.

Each of us has many stories and for each of us they are different but I thought I would share just one story from my life which helps explains the hope within me.

Growing up we moved around a lot.  By the time I was 30 I had lived in over a dozen places and the longest I had been anywhere was 5 years.  This had a big impact especially through my early teenage years.  I can remember moving the year after a turned 12 and making the promise that I would not make friends anymore because it was too upsetting when I had to move.

In the mater teens at Uni I had a real sense of dislocation and homelessness.  It was during these years I came to understand the relationship between aboriginal people and the land.  They did not have any sense of land ownership but rather a sense that they belonged to the land.  This further deepened my sense of being lost.  In some ways I think I was a bit like the people of the Exodus, a nomad and homeless people.

It was in my mid 20s I made the decision to become a minister and one of the first things that was done after I put name forward was I was asked to preach.  I still have strong memories of ascending the three steps into the pulpit at St Andrews in Bundaberg. 3 steps – in the name of the father & the Son and The Holy Spirit.  As I preached on that day, despite preaching a sermon which I later thought of utterly heretical Pelagianism, I had an overwhelming sense of being home.

Home was not a place, home is the promised relationship with God.  Whether we are dispossessed people or the dispossessors, whether we are transient or fixed in our location, our true home is with God.  This understanding of our true home reconciled in God with one another has changed how I view people and myself and God.  And most importantly it has helped me understand that I am not so much like the people of the Exodus in the Old Testament but I am part of a new creation yet to come in all its fullness.

The sense of dislocation is not such a negative in my life but has been converted to a sense of hopeful anticipation.  This is just one story from my life but one I have certainly reflected on and theologised.

Telling stories of our lives which connect them to our faith is one thing, doing so with reverence is another.  What kind of reverence and how is it for?  Reverence for our listener and the value of their story, reverence for ourselves and the importance of our own lives and reverence for God and the story of God’s life shared with us in Jesus.

What is the hope that is within you? Can you find the stories from your life that help you explain that hope in terms of your relationship with God? 

How to speak about God in a foreign place

When Paul goes to the Areopgaus he is entering what was really unknown territory.  Whilst converting people to Judaism was not unheard of in general the people of God understood themselves to be Jews by birth.  Something which I have found remains true today.

Paul finds himself in a different country, addressing people from a different ethnic background and with a different world view.  As much as the world view of our era is different from Athens I believe many of us find ourselves in a foreign place, those who have travelled from overseas to join us and those who have lived through the radical changes in Western culture over the last 6-70 years.

This week I read some reflections by the resident of the Uniting Church in Australia contemplating how much the context of the Uniting Church has changed since it began in 1977, nearly 40 years ago.  It was an article full of hope but also tinged with truth the way we understood who we were as church 40 years ago and how we lived that out is no longer who we are. 

For me the best analogy is to think we have all become missionaries in a foreign land.  I want you just to think across the span of your life and reflect on the significant social and technological changes that have occurred.  Consider what the big issues are now and think about what they were when you were younger.

Who would like to share?

(Some of my thoughts: music, television, movies, mobile technology, end of Cold War, climate issues, overpopulation, sexual revolution, more people live alone, loss of nuclear family, accessibility to travel, transience in work)

So the world we live in has changed and it has changed significantly: we are struggling to keep up!  What can we do? How can we, like Paul, share our message meaningfully?

One of the keys to what Paul does is he shares the message he has not from where he is and what he knows but from people are and what they know.  He has taken time to observe and to listen to the culture.

His opening words reflect that he has seen what is happening in Athens and how the people live and how they express themselves. Whilst he may be critical of their idolatry he applauds their commitment in faith.  What can we applaud in the culture around us?  It is worth occasionally stopping and affirming the achievements of our culture and society as much as we might need to critique it!

Paul uses references in his speech to two significant sources of thinking for the Greek people quoting from a poem by Epimenides, a philosopher poet who lived around 700 years before Jesus, as well as from another poem called Phaenomena by Aratus who lived about 300 years before Jesus.  Paul’s knowledge of these philosophers and their work gave him a strong point of connection and by quoting them in the way he did he affirms what he has already inferred that god was already in their midst at work.  He even goes as far as to suggest the Greeks are already worshipping God albeit ignorantly, saying ‘What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you!’

In this strange and new culture in which we find ourselves embedded the lesson of Paul is to listen and observe and learn and to then to name that God is already at work!   Often I hear evangelists quoting bits of the scripture at people but maybe, just maybe, instead of quoting scripture we need to find other points of connection.

In quoting Epimenides and Aratus Paul was appealing to reason and even the ancient scientific view.  The poem Phaenomena describes the movement of the stars and the relationship this has to the seasons and agriculture.

Where can we hear echoes of the divine presence in the culture of our time in movies and music, in philosophy and the sciences, in the news and in the daily lives of people?  Paul proclaimed the good news that despite his perception of the idolatry and waywardness of the Greeks God was still at work and that God had even been speaking to them through their great thinkers and leaders.

This is good news that we can share too, God is already work and not limited to the Christian community nor only speaks through the scriptures but by the power of the Holy Spirit is present with all peoples – maybe our task is simple to discern and name that presence.

From Beroea to Athens and Beyond

Paul’s trip to Athens reported by Luke in Acts 17 is part of Paul’s second missionary journey.  His journey had already met with mixed responses but prior to coming to Athens he had been in a place called Beroea and had predominantly shared his message with the Jewish community.  The contrast between his proclamation and encounter in Beroea an Athens could not have been more different.

At Beroea Paul met with a Jewish community and as a Jew and as a teacher of the law by background he was in familiar territory.  Now whilst some of the Jewish communities had not received Paul’s message well it appears in Beroea the case was different.  The people listened and appeared to welcome his message.

In verses 11 and 12 of chapter 17 we read:

“These Jews were more receptive than those in Thessalonica, for they welcomed the message very eagerly and examined the scriptures every day to see whether these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, including not a few Greek women and men of high standing.”

In Athens, however, Paul was encountering a very different community in a city replete with Temples, shrines and statues of gods.  Whilst he did speak with the Jewish community in Athens Paul also spoke to many gentiles as well.  These were people who did not share the monotheistic Jewish mindset and had little understanding of anything much of what Paul had to say.  His debates with some of the philosophers led to him being taken to the Areopagus to address the community and explain his ideas.  It was a foreign place.

At the last meeting of the Queensland Synod Dr Aaron Ghiloni presented one of the Bible Studies and despite my jetlag I was struck by his tagline “We’re not in Beroea anymore!” and we are definitely not!

By suggesting we are not Beroea anymore I believe Aaron was telling us as church that the situation we find ourselves in now is more akin to the Athenian Areopagus than to the Beroean synagogue.  We are a in a strange place.  People do not speak about God in the way they have in the past, despite the claim that our county is based on Christian values we have no state religion, and for many the stories of the scriptures and of our faith are simply unknown.

Yet in some ways the situation we find ourselves in now is even more complex and difficult than the place Paul found himself in Athens.  At least in Athens Paul was able to point at the city and say, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.”  This is certainly not true of our Australian culture and even though there is great interest in spirituality it is viewed as a completely private matter and in general people who are searching don’t often think they will find it in the church.

On the front cover of the most recent issue of the magazine The NewScientist were the words “World Without God” and inside a most telling article entitled “God not-botherers: Religious apathy reigns”.  The article is focussed on the United Kingdom and I would like to share a few words from the article:

Just under half of British adults profess no religious affiliation; Christians of all denominations are in a minority. That drift away from religion is an interesting phenomenon. The UK isn't becoming a country of committed atheists. Most of the unaffiliated neither accept nor reject religion: they simply don't care about it. In that respect, the UK looks a lot like much of the developed world.

Let me just say again that most people simply don’t care about it.  Whilst this is a study of the UK it is entirely pertinent to our Australia context which is probably even more so a place where people simply don’t care about god and religion as long as you keep it yourself.

As Aaron said at the Synod we are certainly not in Beroea anymore and I would suggest to you neither are we in Athens.

It may be the case that Paul’s identification of the Athenians as religious and devout is of little use to us if we are to engage in witnessing to God’s love in this 21st century Australian culture.  And, even more troubling for us as Christians, is that the things that we have trusted as central in the expression of our faith may now be impediments for us as we think about inviting others into a relationship with God.

As we look around this congregation and other local congregations both the more traditional and the more contemporary expressions we are a tiny segment of our community and based on census figures the whole church is continuing to shrink in size.  It is easy to forget how much the world has changed around us when we primarily interact within this space with others who are of a like mind.  Yet, when we really think about we know the world has moved on and that as followers of Jesus we are now in a very strange place.

Listening to Paul address the Athenians whilst we have no correlation in terms of the devout practices of those ancient peoples there are two things which I believe can continue to give us hope and be good news for us.  The first is that Areopagus as the place where the world of ideas meets is now far broader and more far-reaching than a hill in the middle of the city: it is called the internet and is a public space of sharing.  This week 100s of people have visited the websites associated with this congregation.  All of us can access the Areopagus of our time!

The second is that we still have a message to share, the same message that Paul shared.  The good news the Jesus came and lived and died and rose again and that this gives us hope.

Friday, 16 May 2014

Spinning the Wheel of Fear

Each morning we get out of bed and we turn to face the world and as we do so we spin the wheel of fear.  There are so many things that we fear some of which are major and tangible fears; some of which are less tangible but still ever so real. We fear simple things and we fear complex things.  We fear things that should be within our control and we fear the unknown and out of control.  We fear for others and we fear for ourselves. And we all know that we share in this problem of fear: advertises use it, politicians use it, journalists use it, our friends use it and yes even our family uses it.

In preparation for today we constructed this “wheel of fear” with the range things which may impact us on any and even all of our days, you might want to take a closer look after the service but let me share a few of the topics which might have played on our fears this week.  “Failure” “The Budget Crisis” “Our Personal Health” “The Challenge of Moving House” “Girls held hostage in Nigeria”  “The Melting of the Antarctic” “Naplan” “The Future of our Children” and “Embarrassment”.

It is in the midst of all of these fears that we face that we find ourselves here this morning listening to strange and ancient stories to imbue in us a sense of courage and hope in response to this fear laden world.

In Psalm 31 we hear the cry of the Psalmist - “save me”. When the Psalmist called out to God with these words he was not asking to go to heaven when he died, the salvation he sought was there in that moment in his life.  In the face of the challenges that confronted him the Psalmist felt trapped by an invisible net  and sought refuge in God “save me” he cried, not later, not after I die, “save me” “save me now”.

When we consider the fears and troubles we face these same words are not far from our lips either “same me” “save us”, and “save us now”.  We too can feel trapped in our existence tied to the everyday drudgery and confusion and challenges of our earthly existence.  We feel ensnared by the invisible net of the forces of the world around us and, the limitations and frailties of our own bodies.  Like the Psalmist of old we long for the refuge and hope of an interventionist God and so we too cry out “Save me”.

As Christians, many of us would hear Jesus words from John 14:14 as words both of hope and confusion.  “If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”  Jesus encourages us to cry out to be saved from the things we fear and the things which ensnare us but in our crying out things seem to so rarely go as we would like.

As I reflect on my years as a Christian and especially in ministry again and again the problem of how God answers or doe s not answer our prayers comes up.  We cry out “save me”: change my life, give me hope, show me the way, heal me.  We cry out “save the one I love”:  help them through this dark time, stop the pain, defeat the death.  We cry out “save us”: end the drought, stop the rain, bring peace to world and food to the hungry.  And we cry out and we cry out and we cry out... be our refuge, O God.

Just as when the Psalmist cried out ‘save me” there is ‘immediacy’ to our prayers too, we don’t want to wait for the coming kingdom, we don’t want to wait until tomorrow, we are not just worried about what is going to happen when we die  – we need refuge and we need it now.  We need it for ourselves and we long for it for others!

There are no easy answers to the ambiguity of unanswered prayer.  Sometimes it is explained by saying things like: maybe our timing is out and we have to be patient or maybe we are praying for the wrong things and sometimes maybe our prayers lack enough faith.  Yet all of our answers seem a little inadequate when Jesus promises to answer anything we ask in his name.

In response to Thomas’ confusion about where Jesus was going and how to follow him there Jesus makes this claim “I am the way, the truth and the life.”  Thomas had pinned his hopes on Jesus and Jesus reassurance is that through his actions Jesus will remake Thomas in his relationship with God and lead him home.  Jesus’ words are a complex answer to Thomas question, to his prayer as it were.

In these weeks after Easter we have heard the story of Thomas doubts about Jesus resurrection and then his encounter with Jesus seeing his hands and his side and proclaiming the memorable words “My Lord and my God!”

Within the midst of the confusion and doubts of all of the disciples, not just Thomas, Jesus was God at work in their midst recreating God’s relationship not just with the disciples but all peoples in all times and for the whole world.

This is why in the first letter of Peter we hear the good news that we have received mercy, we have received mercy already in what God has done in Jesus.  The experience and immediacy of salvation is present to us even in the midst of the fears that we face but this is not something we neither comprehend nor apprehend naturally but comes to us as a gift and through our growth in faith.

In that same letter Peter says, “Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation!”

Growing into salvation is not about saving ourselves but having received the gift of mercy learning to live in the context of that gift.  For me, it reminds me of my years as a teenager growing into my body.

At the end of Year 9 when I had just turned 15 I was the second shortest person in my grade at school, there was only one girl shorter.  By the middle of grade 11 less than 2 years later there was one boy taller than me.  I grew very quickly through these years and there were many changes going on for me – my body was all limbs that didn’t seem to coordinate themselves that well - I had to grow into my body.  At times it was awkward and somewhat uncomfortable.

When I hear the phrase “grow into salvation” there is a connection with this idea of growing into my body.  I needed to get used to it and wrap my head around it and how it operated.  Growing into salvation is about living out something we have already been given – a new body, a renewed relationship with God and each other through Jesus.  It can feel awkward, we can feel like we do not understand it, and our experience of it can feel disconnected, especially when we feel God is not answering the pressing concerns about which we pray.

Yet, as we consider the history of the faith and its people and we look at the example of Stephen facing his death, we also see that in the face of a very real and fearful event, Stephen did not discount God’s presence and even more surprisingly God’s love and mercy which was to be extend to his persecutors. Stephen’s fears about his death were realised but he faced them not thinking that God did not answer his prayers but that God was just as present with his persecutors as God was with him.  This is a truly humbling and even perplexing witness to the unconditionally nature of God’s love.

This growth into salvation occurs as we as living stones support one another in our faith and relationship with God and the world around us, as was described earlier in the service.  We support each other through our fears and into the knowledge of God’s mercy which we have received.

Each day we get up: we spin the wheel of fear; we struggle to pray prayers we may have been praying for years; we long for spiritual milk; we long for courage and hope to live lives of faith; we long to know God’s refuge. 

The good news is Jesus promise “I am the way the truth and the life” has been realised, we have been saved by God’s presence in the world.  What this means for each of us as we cry out “save me” from our personal fears and troubles may remain somewhat obscure to us but the knowledge of Jesus own journey through the valley of the shadow death can give us hope and courage that whatever we face “God is with us”.

Take a moment to consider God’s presence with you this day.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Whose voice?

Preached at the Commemoration of Kings College UQ.

On this night as we gather and commemorate Kings College and we hear this ancient and somewhat strange tale about a shepherd and his sheep it raises for you and I the question whose voice are we responding to?

Kings College was established by the Methodist Church and continues to this day to have a relationship with the Uniting Church in Australia.  Contained within the Constitution is the following commitment:

“To afford residence, pastoral care, fellowship and Christian understanding of life in accordance with the teachings of The Uniting Church in Australia.”

What I believe this means is that somewhere at the heart of Kings College is a desire to help students and staff to continue to listen to the shepherd’s voice, to Jesus, as we try to understand how to live a Christian life in this complex world in which we find ourselves. 

But what does that Christian life look like and how is it shared here at Kings?

As I prepared to preach this evening I read the centenary memoir of Kings College, called “Men and Masters”.   I have to confess that I found myself somewhat bemused by what may have been understood as the Christian life in years gone by.

In its early years the rules of Kings included: no alcohol on the property; no dancing on the property; and, no sport on a Sunday.

I suspect that for many Kingsmen and people generally the Christian life has been reduced to moralising about what people shouldn't do: a list of rules!  More than that as the years passed poor understandings of the faith and its relationship with this scientific world in which live alongside a growing secularism have led to even greater misunderstanding about the Christian life.

The Christian life is not simply a set of morals.  It is not a list of do’s and don’ts!  No, rather it is about a
relationship: a relationship with God based in love and grace, a relationship in which we hear a voice calling to us and we respond in thanksgiving.

This relationship is typified by the relationship between the shepherd and his sheep.  A relationship expressed in the 23rd Psalm which we sung earlier in the service and in our gospel reading. 

A few years back a congregation member told me a great story that helped have a far better me understanding of the story.

He had been sent to the Middle East during the Second World War and was sitting by an oasis away from the front line.  It was a hot day and, as he sat and watched, shepherds came over the hills with their flocks of sheep.  Each shepherd brought a small flock, no more than 20-30 sheep in any of the flocks, and they came to the oasis to let the sheep drink.

Now, as the sheep came to get their water they mingled together while the shepherds gathered and chatted off to one side.  Now my friend, who was sharing the story, was puzzled.

He was a man from the land.  He had worked with sheep and he saw no markings on the different flocks, no brand.  How was it that the shepherds would identify their sheep?  How did they not mix them up?

After a while one of the shepherds broke away from the conversation and started to move away from the oasis.  As he left the shepherd called out and as he called his flock, and only his flock, responded.  The sheep knew their shepherd’s voice; each shepherd had his own call and when the shepherd called the sheep responded.

When Jesus paints this image of himself as the shepherd his listeners in the ancient world clearly understood this relationship of sheep following their shepherd’s voice.  The Christian life is about listening for that shepherd’s voice, for Jesus voice.

In the reading Jesus also indicates that he is the gate for the sheep.  This is another strange image to our modern ears.  Yet, in the ancient Middle East it was often the practice that sheep would be herded into a pen at night which had no gate – the shepherd would take his place sleeping in the gap – literally becoming the gate to protect and care for the sheep.

The voice of Jesus is the voice of one who would lead us to stills waters and green pastures, places we can be fed and grow.  And it is also the voice of one who protects us and keeps us in his care.

I have little doubt that the founders of Kings College desired that this would be a place that people would learn to listen for Jesus voice, a voice which teaches us and transcends the clamour of other voices which compete for our attention.

It is vital for us to remember this in our commemoration of Kings College tonight because to elevate in anyway being a Kingsman above the call of the shepherd’s voice means that we have strayed from the intent of what is at the core of Kings, we have become lost sheep.

Now whilst there are many things which I could suggest about what it means to listen for Jesus voice.  Tonight I want to share just one.

Listening for Jesus voice in this context of Kings is about understanding that there is bigger picture out there and that Kings is just part of it.  At the ANZAC day service I attended here I was speaking with a member of the King’s College Council.  When he found out that I had attended Cromwell his automatic reply was to say that we are a broad church.  Being a good Kingsman from a Christian perspective is about seeing beyond being a Kingsman!

If we read a little further into the tenth chapter of John we would hear Jesus say:  “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

As we develop communities, whether they are a churches or a residential college or even companies, political parties or nations, guided by the concept of the Christian life we should always do so knowing that there is a bigger vision, a vision which opens out to encompass others and that we share a common, created humanity.

Miroslav Volf the Free Church theologian in his seminal work “After our Likeness” suggests that one of the identifying marks of the true church is how it exists towards others.  This vision of the Christian life should be one that influences the development of places like this where a strong sense of community but at the same time it is a community that reaches beyond itself.

This basic principle of the Christian life, this inclusiveness and vision of our shared humanity in this shared creation, has never been more vital for our world. 

As human beings despite reminders like ANZAC Day and the similar celebrations around the world wars persist; despite our understanding of inequity corporations continue to exploit the cheap labour markets of other nations so we can have cheap clothes and electrical items and coffee and the list goes on; despite our prosperity as Australians we have reduced our international aid commitment and closed our borders to many asylum seekers who need our help; despite scientific evidence about anthropogenic climate change we have treated science as a belief system and have failed to respond adequately.  Here I am just beginning to scratch the surface of the global issues we face.

Political solutions to these complex problems may be in the hands of many us here and spiritually the starting point to living the Christian life in response to these issues is to listen for Jesus voice, our shepherd, who reminds us that the pastures of the world are his and we share them in common with all other people. 

Whilst there are many other things to be said about the Christian life on this night as we commemorate Kings College, and reflect on what it might mean to be a good Kingsman, I would encourage you to consider whose voice you will listen to.

As strange as the ancient story may be for some of you, as odd as it might seem to enter into a relationship with God, to honour the founders of Kings College and to be true to their commitment means seeing beyond this community and into that great community of humanity whom our shepherd Jesus call us to serve.