Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Reconciling Ishmael and Isaac

Whenever I open up the Old Testament and consider preaching about it I must admit I always do so with a sense of trepidation.  The stories are so often gritty and unsavoury and confusing and more often than not need an M rating, if not an R rating.

The sordid story of the relationship between Sarah and Abraham and Hagar is a prime example.

Sarah and Abraham are getting on in years.  Sarah is well past a child bearing age and the decision is made, with Sarah’s encouragement, to use the slave girl Hagar as a surrogate.

Hagar, as we know from today’s reading, conceives and bears a son called Ishmael but somewhat to everyone’s surprise Sarah then bears a son Isaac.

Despite the original encouragement to use Hagar it is clear that the tension and jealousy boil over resulting in the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael from the community.

Within the story, from our perspective, we have many strange ideas and ethical decisions being made that certainly can add to our confusion about how we are to live. 

There is the presence of slaves, the use of a girl as a surrogate, the miraculous birth of another child, derision by Hagar and jealousy from Sarah, vacillation from Abraham, rejection and exclusion.

As much as it might be easy to see God choosing Isaac over Ishmael, Sarah over Hagar, it is important to listen carefully to what occurs and consider what grace might mean in this context and how that might challenge we who live now.
In desperation, Hagar discards her son under a tree, not wanting to witness his death.  Yet, God intervenes as he hears Ishmael.  The name Ishmael literally means “God hears” and the name had been understood to connect with the concept that God has heard and fulfilled a promise.

Ishmael is saved, as is his mother, and we hear that a new future is made for them.

Despite, God choosing Isaac for a particular future, establishing God’s people Israel.  Ishmael is also given a future and a people will be established through him.  It is important to understand that there are many claims made around Ishmael, in particular he is seen, not only as a significant prophet by Muslims, but an ancestor of Muhammad. 

Abraham had been promised to be the father of many nations and so in the line of Ishmael we see a promise of God being fulfilled in a different way.

Now, whilst it may be that Paul in his letter to the Galatians associates the early Christians with Isaac and that Hagar and her son were driven out as slaves there can be no denial that God listened to Ishmael and that in Ishmael God’s promise to make Abraham the father of many nations is fulfilled.

This reality indicates a number of things to us.  God has a concern for people in their lives – he does not desire the death of Hagar and Ishmael, he desires for them a life and a future.  God listens to people whether they are part of the so called chosen community or not.  The presence of other nations, even other religions, other than Israel does not appear to worry the Creator.  In fact, if anything quite the opposite appears to affirm the fulfilment of the promise that Abraham will be the father to many nations.

As followers, of Jesus Christ, who believe that God’s grace is unconditional and that we are recipients and witnesses to this grace it would seem to mean that this raises serious questions as to how we might respond to this story by how we treat others.

Firstly, to say that the behaviour of both Sarah and Abraham is far from perfect and assumptions we make about those who live as God’s people being better than others should always be taken with more than a little scepticism.  Sarah’s jealousy and Abraham’s questioning plot a course for the dehumanising manipulation and treatment of others.

Whilst Abraham and Sarah may have driven Hagar and Ishmael out God does not desert them and so if we believe in the reconciliation of all things in Christ does this not involve welcoming those that may have been driven out back in?  How can the line of Ishmael and Isaac be reconciled?

In practical terms, this raises serious questions for us as Australians in terms of our treatment of refugees and asylum seekers.  And, as Christians, in the way in which we engage with people not just of Islam but of other faiths generally.

The story reminds us that God listens and God cares and despite the anomalies we might find in the story and in the fragmented world in which live hope can be found for those who are considered outsiders or exiles as much as for those consider insiders or chosen ones.

In this our faith is humbling and challenging.  How do move beyond our fears and jealousies, the desire to protect our inheritance, and live re-presenting such a gracious God to others, especially those who are rejected and disowned and suffering and fleeing and seeking hope?

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

The Trinity: A sermon

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.’ 

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, to borrow the language of John Zizioulas.

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 JürgenMoltman describes Jesus death as an entirely Trinitarian event 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 he 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 we assume is completely opposed to 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 u even hell!

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 simply and only 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 in three and three in one who loves us.

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Pentecost: Baptism, Lawn Mowing & Hope

This morning is a time of celebration, a time of renewal, a time of hope.  A time of hope in which we face the struggles we share as individuals and the struggles we face as a human race and we say there is more to life than this: there is God.

We do this by remembering the pouring out of the Holy Spirit which draws us home into relationship with God; we do this by remembering our own baptisms and as we baptise Wesley; and we do this by breaking bread and drinking from the cup of Christ.  In the act of our remembering God we believe and hope that God will transform us.

One of the most fundamental questions we can ask is, 'what is the purpose of my life?'  Today, in the context of our remembering we hear an answer to this question which as people who follow Jesus defines the purpose of our lives.  We who are baptised into the community of faith live out our baptisms: this is our purpose to be disciples of Jesus.

So how does this look?  In the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians he writes,

4Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; 6and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. 7To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

The gifts that we are given are for the building up of the whole, they are for the common good.  I want to show you an example of what it has meant for one person to live out their baptism here in this congregation.

I want to invite Vic to come and join me on this chair at the front. 

A couple of weeks ago I received a letter of resignation from Vic from the lawn mowing roster.  He was the only one left on it.  To give you an idea of the extent of this service Vic has been on the lawn roster in this church for around 50 years.  This is basically from when he and Jean moved up from Melbourne.

Vic has served in many other ways in the congregation.  He has been a Sunday school teacher and boys club teacher, he has been on the Property Management Committee, he has been an Elder and on Church Council.  Yet, his faithfulness to keeping our yard tidy has spanned more years than I have been breathing.

I'm not sure this is what Paul had in mind when he wrote to the Corinthians about a variety of gifts and services but I have no doubt that Vic has understood this is what it means to live out his baptism and in this it is precisely what Paul was writing about.

When I asked Vic about why he kept doing it for so long, at first, he joked that he was too dopey to get off the roster.  But I know Vic better than this so I pressed him a little further.  It has long been Vic's opinion that the worst witness a congregation can give to the local community is to have an untidy property.

For Vic, keeping the property tidy has always been about witness.  As a disciple of Christ, he has been living out his baptism to ensure that this congregation has a good reputation in the community and always looks welcoming and loved for those who come here.

We were discussing Vic's long and loving service to the congregation the other night at Bible Study and it lead us into a conversation about our rosters in the congregation.  Why do we have them? Why do we do them?  What purpose do they serve?

Very quickly John reflected into the conversation that the rosters are an expression of our love.  To push his comment a bit further I would suggest it is an expression of our love for God, our love for one another, and our love for others.  In this, it should and can become an expression of our hospitality as God’s people as we use our gifts for the common good, building up the whole!

Participating in these rosters can reflect our baptism, yet in our life as a congregation they are only one side of the story. I suggested the other evening at Bible Study that in the shifting sands of culture that maybe as we face the future new and different rosters will be needed.  Rosters which encourage us to think more deeply about the world and community around us.

I'd like to invite Naa to come and bring Wesley to the front and sit on this other chair.

This morning we will baptise Wesley.  The world and life into which Wesley is being baptised is, in so many ways, vastly different to the world that Vic was baptised into.

This is not simply because Wesley is being baptised in Australia and will go home and grow up in Ghana but because in the last 80 years the world has got a whole lot smaller and the big issues we face as humanity and also as the church are shared internationally.

So, the question for us this morning is what challenges lie ahead for Wesley as he, encouraged by Naa and Franklin, learns what it means to be a disciple of Jesus and to live out his baptism.

If we consider for a moment the world that Vic was born into.  He was born as the world headed into depression and he grew up during a time of war.  It was a time when the church in Australia and the Western world in general was pretty strong.  But the advances in technology from the time of his birth to now are absolutely mind blowing – transport, science, communication, education, health care, standards of living almost unrecognisable.

In this year that Wesley has come to us we face a sense of being a global community like no other time in history.  Religious sectarianism is strong, as is the growth of atheism.  As a global community we face the changing of the climate, sea level rises, world food shortages and wars fought over access to water and arable land.  Millions of refugees traverse the globe fleeing conflict whilst in wealthy countries the standard of living continues to rise as do the technological advances.

For Wesley to live as a witness to Christ’s love and hope in this world it will be different than it was for Vic.  Maybe, just maybe, he might mow a church lawn but maybe, just maybe, more will be asked of him as he discerns gifts of understanding and wisdom in the face a the great issues of his time.

The pouring of God’s Holy Spirit indicates that God is aware of the changing context of our lives as humanity.  The Spirit is dynamic and renewing and refreshing and leads us to new insights and new hope.   The Spirit inspires us with new gifts pertinent to our era.

Maybe church rosters will develop new emphases which not only create a place of welcome but a responsibility to be apostles: which means those who are sent out to share the good news. 

This morning is a time of celebration, a time of renewal, a time of hope.  A time of hope in which we face the struggles we share as individuals and the struggles we face as a human race and we say there is more to life than this: there is God.

We do this by remembering the pouring out of the Holy Spirit which draws us home into relationship with God; we do this by remembering our own baptisms and as we baptise Wesley; and we do this by breaking bread and drinking from the cup of Christ.  In the act of our remembering God we believe and hope that God transforms us and lead us to live out our baptisms as disciples, being living signs of the hope that we have for the whole world.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

When and Then!

A reflection on Acts 2:1-21 by Peter Lockhart

When And Then

For each when there is a then...

The word 'when' seems so innocent and innocuous but it is the precursor to marvellous, magical, mischievous, malign, morose and mournful events.

In the passage:

When the day of Pentecost had come...
When they heard the sound, they came on the run...

What 'when' is in my life and in yours?

When will I be more attentive to God?
When will I experience God inside the room not outside?
When will I love more deeply?
When will I die?
When will I rise again?
When will I arrive?
When will I be more disciplined with my time?
When will I give more of myself to my wife and children?
When will I respond to those who suffer in a personal and committed way?

But 'when' is not just about me and my 'when' but about all people - those inside the room, those who ran to the room, and even those who do not run and see - the ambivalent and absent ones.

When will others know God as a God of love, peace and mercy?
When will God's presence in other religions be revealed and understood?
When will the Nigerian girls go home?
When will asylum seekers be released?
When will they be welcomed?
When will suffering end for those who are ill?
When will the pain stop for those who mourn?
When will the song of the birds and wonder of creation remind us of God's goodness?
When will communities learn to live openly as well as exclusively in their uniqueness with translucent, transparent, transforming walls which build other communities as well as value their diversity?
When will the hungry be fed?
When will the leaders of nations have greater wisdom?

Yet within the passage for each when there is a then...

'Then, like a wildfire, the Holy Spirit spread through the ranks...'
'Then... they were thunderstruck...'

The 'then' does not always 'solve' the 'when' but it gives us hope that 'then' something will be different, it encourages us that something else is coming. Or, maybe more accurately that someone else is coming.

God will act! Even though, as Jesus says, no one knows the time, the time is still coming.  This is our reassurance and hope that 'when' is not ignored and there will be a 'then', a time when the kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven.

When? Then!