Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Do you Understand?

“Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

We live in an era where the number of voices that want to claim authority of our lives is as staggering as the media through which they use to speak to us.

Voices heard and seen:

Broadcasting on Radio & Television
Blogging, Facebooking, Tweeting, Podcasting
Paperbacks, hardbacks, newspapers, Magazines
eBooks, eZines, chat groups
and the list goes on

To locate and listen to Jesus voices in this cacophony can be a difficult task and one
that takes commitment and discernment.

Whose voices shall we listen to as Christians?  The vitriolic atheist, the passive progressive, the fervent fundamentalist, the mediating moderate, the skeptical scientist!

The diversity and complexity that surrounds us can be daunting and confusing and we can be left pining for a simple faith, a faith built on an encounter with God that we have had in our own lives.

Yet naivety in our approach to faith and simplistic reading of scriptures or listening to the voices around us can lead us on pathways away from the God that we have encountered in the coming of Jesus into our lives.

Yes, experiences of faith are moments of revelation given to us by God, and they are given that we might know and therefore seek the kingdom of heaven.

But what this kingdom of heaven actually is may seem a little obscure.  Jesus himself speaks in parables – mustard seeds, yeast, fields, pearls and nets.

Yet at the end of listening to Jesus telling these stories the disciples collectively respond to Jesus question “Have you understood all of this?” with a resounding “Yes”.

I have to say given the way story of Jesus, the disciples and their behaviour, in Matthew’s gospel continues I am not entirely convinced that the disciples “Yes” is as convincing as it sounds. 

Nevertheless, Jesus goes on from the disciples’ response to get them to consider their roles as scribes.

Now a scribe was a leader and teacher within the Jewish community.  In the book of Sirach, which is one of the apocryphal writings, not found in the protestant Bible, a scribe is described in this way, “He memorizes the sayings of famous men and is a skilled interpreter of parables. He studies the hidden meaning of proverbs and is able to discuss the obscure points of parables.”

The memorizing and understanding of scribes involved an engagement with history, with what had gone before.  They knew how things had been explained in the past.

Jesus as a teacher, acting as a scribe himself, points out that a scribe of the kingdom of heaven, is “like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

This takes me back to where I started about how we might discern amidst the complexity of voices around us whose voice to listen to.

Ultimately, I believe that the voice we are to listen to is Jesus voice, but which voice is actually Jesus’ voice and how do we listen to it and who is this Jesus anyway.

Personally, listening to Jesus voice involves a life or prayer and reading the scriptures but also a commitment to listening to those scholars who are able to clearly and rationally articulate what was new about Jesus and how it related to the old.  It is also about listening to scholars both new and old, within and even beyond the church.

In the Uniting Church in Australia, The Basis of Union points us to scholarly interpreters in every age yet also grounds these scholars in a particular tradition.  A tradition of understanding elucidated at the time of the reformation and preserved in the creeds of the ancient church.

What was new about Jesus is found in the tradition which has been handed on to us – the understanding that Jesus was unique in his relationship with God and was himself God.  This unique revelation of God found in the person and work of Jesus, often referred to as the incarnation, is the point in history in and through which reconciles humanity and all things to himself.

The Basis of Union of the Uniting Church in Australia which describes the essence of the Christian faith captures these thoughts about Jesus when it quotes scripture and says, In Jesus Christ "God was reconciling the world to himself" (2 Corinthians 5:19 RSV). In love for the world, God gave the Son to take away the world's sin.”

So, the kingdom of heaven is fundamentally about the reconciling work of God that occurs in and through Jesus.  He is the mustard seed from which the tree of our faith grows, he is yeast that makes the dough of our lives rise, he is treasure in the field and the pearl to be sought for when we encounter Jesus we encounter the kingdom of heaven.

One of the issues the church and each us face in this complex and diverse world in which we live is whether we believe this message of hope and good news and how we respond to it.

As I personally sift through the options that are being touted I continually return to those scholars of excellence who are able to read the tradition in which we stand, that is to say the old, taking into account contemporary scholarship, that is to say the new. 

For me these are the scribes of the kingdom of heaven of our day and whilst I believe none see entirely clearly they offer a witness to Jesus Christ as the one in and through whom we are reconciled with God.

The Basis of Union whilst a product of the mid to late 20th century I believe continues to express for us a way in which to understand and respond to the good news of Jesus Christ as the church.

This is what it says about who we are together as the church:

The Church as the fellowship of the Holy Spirit confesses Jesus as Lord over its own life; it also confesses that Jesus is Head over all things, the beginning of a new creation, of a new humanity. God in Christ has given to all people in the Church the Holy Spirit as a pledge and foretaste of that coming reconciliation and renewal which is the end in view for the whole creation. The Church's call is to serve that end: to be a fellowship of reconciliation, a body within which the diverse gifts of its members are used for the building up of the whole, an instrument through which Christ may work and bear witness to himself. The Church lives between the time of Christ's death and resurrection and the final consummation of all things which Christ will bring; the Church is a pilgrim people, always on the way towards a promised goal; here the Church does not have a continuing city but seeks one to come. On the way Christ feeds the Church with Word and Sacraments, and it has the gift of the Spirit in order that it may not lose the way.

If you and I are seeking the kingdom of heaven, and so seeking Jesus, and are living as the church then the question for all of us, “Are we being a fellowship of reconciliation?” And, “are we using our gifts for the building up of the whole?” Is Christ bearing witness through us?

This is not just about what we do for ourselves as a community but how we too live as yeast and seed in the world around us because Christ is witnessing through us, through our very lives.

Jesus finished his parables by asking the disciples “Do you understand all this?”  Maybe they did, maybe the problem was not their understanding but their commitment to what it meant for them in how they were to live.  Maybe this is an issue for us as well.

Yet maybe, just maybe, there is in the confusing generation in which we live an issue of understanding, an issue of accepting and following and believing. 

Yet the good news, proclaimed by Paul to the Romans, is this: that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ! The kingdom of heaven like the mustard seed, or yeast, will grow and you and I who encounter it will seek it, for in seeking it we will live as the witnesses to and participants in the kingdom of heaven which has come near.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Loved deeply.

By Peter Lockhart based on Psalm 139

I want you invite you to think for a moment about the people that you know. 

Who do you think knows you the best of all?                                

It may be your best friend.  It may be a sister or brother.   
Maybe it’s your spouse.  Or maybe it’s one of your parents.

Think about that person for a moment.

How long have they known you?
What secrets do you share with them?
What secrets do you keep from them?
How will do you think they really know you?
Do they know everything?

I know when I think about the most intimate relationships that I have there are still things that the other person does not know about me.  Things that they do not see about, feelings I have that I do not share.  Thoughts that I keep to myself. The same is true for all of us.  No one knows us or anyone else perfectly.

Yet, these intimate friendships are so important to us because we feel that when others know us, and more importantly love us, it affirms our very existence.

In Psalm 139 we hear a strange and mysterious message that God knows us in a way that no other person does or can.  We hear that God is acquainted with all of our ways, God sees through the barriers we construct and the personas with put on.

God knows us.  And it is an incredibly intimate knowledge.

The word in Hebrew for know that is used here is the same word that is used in Genesis 4 when we read that Adam knew Eve and conceived and bore a son.

God knows you and I intimately, personally, lovingly and in being known by God in this way there is a wonderful affirmation for each one of us that we matter in our life and that we matter in our existence.

For many people this notion that God knows us so thoroughly can be more than a little confronting, for we know ourselves and the darkness we hide from others, and the dark thoughts that beset our minds. 

Yet, the promise of the Psalm is that “even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.” 

God sees beyond the darkness that we might perceive within ourselves and others, and in God’s knowing of us in this intensely intimate and personal way God continues to love us.

Despite this intensity of the intimacy describe in the words of the Psalmist there is a paradox, an irony even, and this Psalmist knows this too well:

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
It is so high that I cannot attain it.

The experience of the intensity of God’s knowing of us is beyond the Psalmist, so high he cannot attain it.  To return to the story that we heard from Genesis at the beginning of the service, this conundrum is express in Jacob’s words:

You were in this place, but I never knew.

I sometimes wonder whether it is our inability to connect with this God who knows us so well that is the cause of so much pain and anguish in the world.  Feeling disconnected from the intimacy of God’s embrace we become anxious about our own identity and anxious about the world and the people around us.

In this state of feeling anonymous our anxiety causes us to turn away from God and so also each other.

The message of Jesus presence in the world comes to us as God’s way of reaffirming us and confirms the fact God knows us so well.  Through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus God goes beyond the darkness we experience and perpetuate and draws into the intimacy of God’s own life through the power of the Holy Spirit.

In his letter to the Romans Paul meditates on this reality reminding the early Christians, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.”

Of course like the Psalmist there is a grounded realism in Paul’s meditation as he too declares:

Now hope that is seen is not hope.
For who hopes for what is seen?
But if we hope for what we do not see,
we wait for it with patience.

As Christian people we hope for what we do not see: the perfection not simply of our personal relationship with God in which we discover and experience the full weight of God’s love, but that very same renewal for all things and all people.

In this matter we need to be reminded that our relationship with God is intensely personal but it is not private.  The intimacy God has with each of us God desires and has with all people and all things.

So it is that Paul describes the creation groaning in longing for the fulfilment of God’s loving promises and we too groan as we wait: our hearts break as we wait.

Our hearts break as we hear of children killed in the conflict between Palestine and Israel.
Our hearts break as we see the images of the airplane wreckage in the Ukraine.
Our hearts break as we read about the millions of Syrian refugees.
Our hearts break as we wonder about asylum seekers and their children in limbo on the high seas.
Our hearts break as we hear of the breakdown of relationships and the terrible blight of family violence in our Australian culture.
And our hearts break as we hear bad news again and again and again and we groan with longing for the promises of God to be fulfilled.

It is more than a little difficult to be patient in the face of such disasters.  The Psalms are always gritty and honest and in Psalm 139 we hear the Psalmist cry out in frustration:

O that you would kill the wicked, O God, and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me

It can be more than a little difficult to be a people of hope and love, yet this is what we are called to be.  We are reminded week by week in this place the intensely personal and intimate way God knows us and loves all things.  It is in these reminders that we can long to be transformed into people who do not want to respond to violence with violence but with love.

The reality though is this: we hope in what we cannot see, and even in what we do not fully experience for ourselves: that God knows us, that loves us so deeply, that in Christ God has renewed all things and that through the Spirit we have been drawn into God’s life together.

Know and believe this good news: you are known intimately and you are loved deeply.  Amen.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Shouldering Life: A Baptism Sermon

Message: Shouldering Life
(Romans 8:, Matt 13:1-9)

May the words of my mouth
and the meditations of our hearts
be acceptable in your sight O lord
Our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

This morning I want to share a story with you.

It is a story about a family: a family that in many ways is not unlike your family.  There were parents, and there were children, and there were other relatives as well.  There were grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins.

Like any family it was a family that had its ups and downs.  Sometimes there were fights and even disappoints, and sometimes there were great joys and happiness.

One day, into this family a child was born: a little boy came crying into the world.  He was a gift, for life itself comes to us as a mysterious gift.

Now this child, this infant boy, took this gift of life upon his shoulders. It was a gift he would carry throughout his whole life.

And so, like you and I grow and come to be aware of the world around us, so the little boy grew and came to be aware of the world around him.

And as he grew and carried this gift of life on his shoulders he came to understand simple yet challenging lessons.

He learnt that there were times that he had to share.

And he learnt that sometimes other members of his family seemed more important to his parents than him.  Generally speaking, parents don’t deliberately play favourites, yet often this is how we end up feeling.

So, there were times the boy felt jealous or angry or sad, just as there were times he felt happy and loved.

And, all of these experiences of life, the good and the bad became a part of the life that he carried on his shoulders, the life that he bore.

Growing up for any of us is not an easy thing and there times the boy was very good and there were times he was not, he got in trouble and learnt there were consequences to actions.  So, he learnt how to live this life he was carrying as he grew towards adulthood.

Approaching the end of school decisions had to be made: more education; a gap year; or, to work straight away?  Was there a right path and wrong one for him to take?  Or was there simply the journey he was on?

We all want to think that there is particular purpose and place for us and we hope we make good decisions, the right ones, but how do we know?  What is the test? Personal happiness? Wealth?  Or something else?  Is there a bigger picture?

The boy grew into a man and he trained and he found work, a career, a direction to travel and he learnt about being accountable with his responsibilities and with his money, and with the many temptations that he encountered.  And sometimes he was good and sometimes he made some decisions that he would regret, so he carried all of these things about life on his shoulders.

He met a young woman and there was a romance and there was love and more responsibilities came upon the man as he grew even older: helping provide for his family and his children, and trying to be an example for them and for others in the way that he lived.

It’s really no more or less than any of us do: we work, we meet our responsibilities to others, we try to live well and we carry the life we are given on our shoulders.

And the man grew older and found teenagers were difficult and sometime he lost his temper and sometimes he grew bored with all of the responsibilities he had, so much so that at times he forgot how this life that he was carrying on his shoulders was a gift. 

For there were many times that he his life felt full of things and became a very heavy burden.

And the man grew older, and he knew the joy of his children finding partners and he rejoiced at the birth of his own grandchildren and he carefully shouldered these joyful memories into the life that he was carrying.

Like those of you who have retired, he confronted the conundrum of time unfolding before him far too quickly.  He wondered about what life would mean without work, as did his spouse for they were simply not used to being around each other that much.

Yet taking it all on his shoulders and bearing his life somehow he adjusted to this new phase of life and as he approached his later years his body did not work the same, nor his mind, and this lead to frustration and even disappointment. Yet, somehow, the man knew that the gift of life that he shouldered as a tiny baby had been a full one.

And as he looked back and thought about how well he had done and at times just how poorly he had done he wondered how his life would be measured: how it would be viewed: how he would be judged.

Whatever others might say about this one life, this life shouldered and carried by this old man, the one who gave him the gift of life in the beginning also bore the burden with him.

And the graciousness of the gift giver is to look with eyes filled with love upon the life of this old man, this child of God, who looks back. There is no condemnation from the gift giver, there is none, nothing, not a bit – for the gift giver has taken the joys and pains, and the good decisions and the bad, and has said I love you with an everlasting love.

And such is the love of the gift-giver that this gracious gift of life and love is flung about like so many seeds from the hand of sower planting with indiscriminate and reckless abandon, the good news which comes to all of us!  You are not condemned! You are mine and you loved!


Today is a joyous day we share in the baptism of Umaola and I want to share with before the family comes forward the meaning of Umaola’s name.  The name was given to Unga and Catherine from a friend of the family and it is a completely unique name as far as we know.

Uma means shoulders and Ola means life.  So his name means to carry life.  Yet on this day we remember that he will not carry alone for in baptism God shares in his life and ours through Jesus who is our friend and companion on the journey.