Saturday, 30 August 2014

In Jesus own strange way.

A sermon based on Matthew 16:21-28

So who is Jesus?
What was he like?
Why would we choose to follow him?
Why should you and why should I?

4 weeks ago we began this journey peeking in to the heart of our faith.
What does it mean to follow Jesus?
What does it mean here in Australia, in Brisbane within the Uniting Church?

Like travellers on the road to Emmaus
We walk shoulder to shoulder, companions in the road
We have sought to listen to Jesus and to his teaching

And now, on this day, we look back again after these 4 weeks:

Who is Jesus? 
Who is this man who lived 2 millennia ago?
Who is he who comes to be present with us now?
Who is this one coming to meet us from that promised future for which we hope?
Who is Jesus?

On this day as we ask again we are transported back through history
We stand in a moment of hope-filled anticipation with the disciples.

Peter has just declared who he believes Jesus is:
You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.

Standing in this occupied territory, in this ancient dusty land,
This fallible and fickle man makes a claim about Jesus.
This man - this one that he is standing with -

He is the chosen one
In him is the hope of the world.

But, and this is a big but,
The distance between what Peter thinks this might mean
and what Jesus himself is about is a vast gulf.

Jesus looks into the eyes of Peter,
He looks into the eyes of his disciples
He looks at them with all of that hope shining there:
Hope that their lives could be better,
Hope that the Roman Empire might be thrust aside,
Hope that the promised land would be returned,
Hope that the world could be a better place.

Reflected in their eyes are hopes as well
Hope that our lives could be better,
Hope that you and I could feel more comfortable in our own bodies,
Hope that those we love may have a more full and fulfilled life,
Hope that the complex dangers of the world might be resolved.

With the shining eyes of hope we stand with the disciples
We stand like trusting children staring expectant
Listening for Jesus next words
Yet, what he says
The words that tumble from his lips
Do nothing short of destroying the very surety and hope
That Jesus has already given

The whiff of the divine lingers in our senses
But filled with hope in our hearts, we hear that

"Jesus began to show his disciples
that he must go to Jerusalem
and undergo great suffering
at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes,
and be killed... And be killed... And be killed...

and on the third day be raised."

Jesus words are so disturbing,
so disconcerting, so devastating, so death-filled
That Peter drags him aside
He begins to set him straight. 
Jesus you've got it wrong!
You are mistaken,
You cannot, you must not,
You are forbidden this future.

But Jesus has not got it wrong
Regardless of the expectations of the disciples
Despite how we might think about who Jesus is
This is what God is doing in him.

Jesus ministry will culminate in his death and resurrection,
His ministry says so much to us
but in this moment 2 things speak to you, and you, and you and I this day:

First, that our own experiences of death are not the last word,
The resurrection comes. 

Second, it says to us that Christ lives on -
This One, this Jesus is still leading us.

This is hope a beyond comprehension:
A hope captured
A hope written
A hope expressed in these words

"The Uniting Church acknowledges
that the Church
Is able to live and endure
through the changes of history
Only, [only] because its Lord comes,
[He comes] addresses, and deals with people
in and through the news of his completed work.

Christ who is present
when he is preached among people
[among you and you and you and I]
Is the Word of God who acquits the guilty,
who gives life to the dead, and
who brings into being what otherwise could not exist.

Through human witness in word and action,
and in the power of the Holy Spirit,
Christ reaches out:
to command attention and awaken faith;
he calls people into the fellowship of his sufferings,
to be the disciples of a crucified Lord;
In his own strange way
Christ constitutes, rules and renews them as his Church...
constitutes, rules and renews us as his Church.

So, at this moment of hopefulness and confidence in Jesus identity
Jesus himself reveals to his disciples
the strange way the God will transform the world in him and through him.

Who is Jesus?
He is the risen crucified one!

Jesus lifts the disciples eyes and ours to another possibility, another future:
a future which sees beyond the present experiences and encounters of life.
A future which we now trust goes beyond generations,
beyond our very mortal life, beyond death and into new life.

A hope that comes to us from a future we cannot see not fully comprehend.

Can we really understand what it means to speak of a world where death and mourning are no more, where peace and love our language and life?

As we look into our own experience of life,
let alone the experience of the world at the moment
it is hard to hold on to hope. 
It is in our faith in a crucified and risen Lord
that we can view life in this world with real hope.

This is why Jesus goes on to invite the disciples to continue to follow him.
To keep handing on a hope they do not fully comprehend,
to hand on a hope they cannot domesticate,

to hand on hope that surpasses their very lives.

The promise of God in Jesus is new life:
This is who Jesus is
So, may you take hold of that promise
That person, that relationship 
And may you follow Jesus
All the days of your life.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

On a dusty hill in Caesarea Philippi.

Peter Lockhart
A sermon based on Matthew 16:13-20

See for a moment a group of dusty travellers on a Middle Eastern road, dressed in robes and sandals, wearing turbans on their heads to protect them from the sun and wind, they are trudging into the ancient region of Caesarea Philippi.

These are a group of men filled with hope.  They have seen miracles and heard teaching that has change their worlds.  They are simple men, ordinary people, fishermen, tax collectors and sinners who have captured a vision that maybe; just maybe, God’s intention is love and not judgement, healing and not retribution, forgiveness and not punishment.

Their leader has crossed boundaries of race and class and gender and caste.  He has even healed those whom he had called dogs. 

This ragtag group ascend a hill and come to a point that can see clearly for miles around: to the north and the south and the east and the west.

What can they see and what do they know of the lands they survey?  Imagine for a moment looking through their eyes: looking with eyes that can see beyond the horizons of space and time - look with them.

They look south and they see the Holy City Jerusalem an occupied territory overrun by Romans and a place of constant dispute and warfare.  They see Jews and Muslims and Christians fighting over a land which each claims as Holy in an exclusive and combative way.  They hear in the distance the sounds of rockets fired by Hamas and missiles raining down from the Israeli army.  How can a land of such bloodshed by a Holy place?  Is that what God desires from any religion?

They look to the west through Lebanon and across the Mediterranean Sea and they feel the presence of the centre of the empire looming large: Rome!  The Empire is reaching its tentacles into all the parts of the world that they know.  Since then, it has been an example for kings and empire builders through the ages, an example that conquering others is the way to establish peace – the pax Romana: an idea grounded in conquering and spilled blood.

Turning to the north they see through Turkey, the great seat of the Ottoman Empire and trading centre.  It was the home of the Orthodox Patriarchs, a reminder of the conglomerate that is the church.  And, looking further, beyond the black sea there is Ukraine another disputed territory of our time.  The world continues to lament the downing of a Malaysian passenger plane filled with a cargo of innocent lives.  Meanwhile, the combatant’s fire relentlessly hoping that their next bullet will make their lives better but the same question must be asked again and again, “Does another shot fired in anger ever make the world a better place?”

And now they turn to the east looking across the deserts and plains.  The see into Syria and witness a flood of refugees coming from a worn torn country as a country collapses into ruin.  Camps filled with the flotsam and jetsam of humanity desperately cling to their lives after their country descend into chaos. And, beyond Syria, there is Iraq where ISIS and ISIL now revert to the most barbarous behaviours to justify their religious claims for autonomy and privilege. Will the conflict ever end?

If these dusty tired men of ancient times could see all of history unfolding, all around the world would they be as deeply disheartened and disillusioned with humanity as I am.  Yet I remember that in the moment in which they lived they experienced life as a conquered and subjugated people – the cruelty of Rome was the peace they knew. 

Why hope?  Why go on?  In an enemy territory confronted by the complexity of politics and religion and power they stand on this hill and their master turns to them and asks:

“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” “Who do you say that I am?”

One of them, a leader for the others, dares to answer with words which echo through the ages:

“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

This man Jesus, a Jew by birth, claimed by Christians as God’s Son, honoured by Muslims as a prophet, recognised by historians as a man of great compassion and teaching makes this exclusive claim. A claim which rather than meant to divide was meant to open out the reality that the sectarianism and violence of our world and our decisions and our mistakes as human beings are not the end in sight for God.

The story goes on that instead of responding to violence with violence this ‘Son of God’, this ‘Messiah’, submits himself to death, even death on across, and he promises that when he is raised up all will be raised up with him.

It is these words which I have little doubt that inspired Paul to later write it was God’s will “through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”

The hope for these tired men standing in this dusty hell of humanity, staring out into the tragedy of human history, is that the One whom they are standing with is going make everything different; that in him God will reconcile the world with its Creator and we as human beings will learn to love one another.  We hope in things we cannot see and that even those who walked on the road with him could not see, but let us continue to hope and to expose ourselves to God's love which conquers hate and refuse to respond to violence with more violence.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Jesus: the Canaanite Woman.

So, this Canaanite woman comes to Jesus and she has this daughter who is demon possessed.

And she cries out for mercy, she cries in hope.  She cries almost hysterically, on behalf of her daughter, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.”

The agony of her cry expresses the depth of her concern for her own flesh and blood.

Now, for many of us listening to the story nearly 2000 years on the idea of being demon possessed is obscure and maybe even nonsensical.

What was the child’s problem?  Some may in fact speculate along the lines of a spiritual warfare, literally a demon, others might consider that she had a mental illness or other intellectual or physical impairment.  In the end it is hard for us to say, but I do not think any would question that the child was in a desperate state.

Her mother’s plea though seems to fall on deaf ears and I think somewhat surprisingly for us Jesus answer is silence.

Even worse the disciple’s answer is to ask Jesus to send her away, they want to exclude her and banish her problems from their presence.

Nonetheless, this would have been quite a reasonable response for Jesus to make, to understand why means understanding who the Canaanites were.

There is a story in Genesis found just after Noah has saved his family and the animals on the ark.  Noah gets drunk and shames himself by collapsing naked in his tent.  His son Ham comes across his dad prostrate on the floor of his tent. 

Rather than simply covering him up Ham ducks outside and informs his two brothers about his Father’s state.  They enter the tent and without looking at Noah’s nakedness cover him up.

Now it is a bit of an obscure story but it is important for this encounter.  Because what Noah does in response to hearing how Ham had dealt with his nakedness is to curse Ham’s son Canaan.

Canaan was to be the lowest of slaves and the history of the Old Testament bears this curse out.  The Canaanites were scorned by the Israelites.

This is why when Jesus answers the disciples request his words seem harsh and uncompromising.  He addresses the disciples saying, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

But the woman humbles herself throwing herself on her knees before him she begs and Jesus responds once again in words which would not be surprising for any Jewish reader of the story.

“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  Jesus calls the Canaanite woman a dog.

By abasing herself even further the woman owns the slur of being called a lowly dog and asks for the scraps from the table.

And here is the amazing part of the story Jesus changes his mind and acknowledging her faith and her persistence declares that the daughter has been healed.

It is an amazing story of God’s grace and for Matthew it was a pointed story.

Matthew wrote his gospel around 50 years after Jesus had died and ascended into heaven.  By this time in the history of early Christianity a clear split was emerging between the followers of Jesus and the temple authorities.

Some Jews had become followers of Jesus but many had not, where the Christian community was really beginning grow was in converts outside the Jewish people.

In this there appears to be at least some level of agenda going on in Matthew’s writing.  He is demonstrating how in Jesus God had begun reaching out to people outside the inner circle of the chosen people.  In fact Jesus was reaching across the boundaries into people whom had traditionally been understood as cursed.

Why is this important to us?  Simply inasmuch as it reminds us of God’s concern for we who are not of Jewish heritage and for those of us within the church who might want to behave as if God’s love has any exclusivity about it.

But what happens when we push our understanding deeper in this story and begin to unpack some of the symbolism of what is going in the characters in the story.

Obviously in the story Jesus is clearly understood as unique in his authority over the situation that is occurring, the demon possession.  God has authority over all things under heaven and earth.

But what if we see the woman in the story symbolically?  What if she actually represents Jesus presence in the world?

Jesus comes into the world pleading on the world’s behalf for the healing of the world and its people?  He reaches out and lifts people from the predicaments that have interrupted their existence: teaching, healing, casting out demons, bringing hope.

Like the woman Jesus intercedes for we who are demon possessed.

Now I use that phrase quite liberally, not literally.  For if demon possession is about those things which rob us of our humanity and of our lives then we as people experience that.  We are like the daughter and we need help.

I think about the week that has passed and I have engaged in personal stories of pain and illness and immersed in global situations that are staggering. 

What drives people to the brink of violence and inhumanity?  How do we come to a situation that in a world where there is so much violence unfolding in the Middle East - Iraq and Syria and Gaza?  

At what point did we as people who understand and have a heritage of being dispossessed and being strangers in a strange land come to treat other refugees with such inhumanity?  How do we deal with situations of personal pain and illness and conflict in our lives?

The cursed woman is Jesus who begs for mercy and for healing for us.

The healing of the girl is utter grace.  She does nothing to deserve it.  She does nothing to earn it.  It is not her faith.  It is not her belief.  The woman pleads and God acts and she is healed.  This is the deepest expression of our Christian hope.  That God will help us.  This may seem confusing at times when we cry out to God for healing for ourselves or for others and the answer appears to be silence.

Yet is not Jesus also in the child? Jesus who shares our human existence and suffers the depravation of dignity and darkness of Calvary – dying alongside us, as one us: the one curse and hanging on a cross.  The worst that can happen to any of us, the demon of death, God in Jesus experiences! 

And, here is the good news –our hope, healing occurs.  Resurrection! Life beyond death! Hope beyond the realms of our thinking and possibilities.  The demon of death is defeated.  The demons we may experience in life and in the spectre of death are not the final word of our existence – the resurrection of Jesus is!

This is the message of grace that we as the church celebrate and we are drawn into living again as God’s people, no longer cursed by demons we are drawn like the disciples into following Jesus and as his followers we participate in his mission and his ministry as a celebration of that self giving love for us.

We become the woman with Jesus, we cry out for others who are experiences demons in their lives.  We cry for justice, for peace, for healing.  It is a fundamental aspect of our gathering together in worship to do this.  We intercede for those who long for healing and hope – we pray against the hopeless and helplessness we feel and we like the woman persist for the sake of the daughters and our sons of all peoples.

But here too we are reminded of the Spirit poured out on the disciples long ago and on us now that empowers us not simply to be recipients of that unconditional grace and healing but bearers of it in the world.  Here we are reminded that we have within our grasped the means by which we can change the lives of others. 

To use our wealth generously in helping others, to reach out to the suffer ones, to give of our time, to live sustainable.  To witness in word and action that the grace we have found is available for all others and even when we are suffering and afflicted by the demons that beset us in our lives to hold on to the resurrection hope – that death is not the final word.

The good news is that Jesus reaches out and heals a girl, a girl who had not done anything in and of herself to pursue that healing.  She receives the gift of a new chance and new life and is restored to her mother and her community.

This is our story, it is my story and it is your story, that Jesus has reached into our lives which just such a grace.  So receive this good news and live it so that others might rejoice and share in the hope we have.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Jesus holds back the 'deep'.

The reading from Matthew 14 which tells the story of Jesus walking across the water is more than an assertion about Jesus capacity to do miracles but is one which symbolises God's commitment to care for the very fabric of the creation.

It would be easy, looking at the reading at face value, to get caught up in thinking that the story revolves simply around Jesus doing something pretty fantastic, which he does.  Jesus walks across the water and calms the storm.  But as with most of the things that are recorded in the Bible Matthew is not simply telling us about Jesus aquatic acrobatic abilities, he his trying to tell us much more and it is those things that I want to concentrate on today.

First off, I want us to think about the images of the sea and the storm.  The sea, which we might think of as the waters or the deep have strong connotations in the Bible.  If you were to think of the sea as ‘the deep’ it might bring to mind images of looking into dark and stormy waters.  What lies below is unknown, threatening, and maybe even a little chaotic.  This is the sea which Jesus is walking on the deep threatening waters that lie below.

Turning our thoughts to the very first story in the Bible, in Genesis, we hear that in the beginning when God created the earth God drew back the waters from the waters.  This is highly symbolic language.  The waters represent the nothingness of uncreation.  The waters also represent the chaos which threatens to break through into the order of God’s creation.  The story tells us how God made a space between the waters above and the waters below and that it was in this space, the ‘in between space’, that God makes all things.

So, in the Old Testament we are given an image of God drawing back the waters and holding back these waters, the waters above and the waters below, which threaten to undo the creation.  The Bible goes on to remind us of the destructive powers of these waters in the great flood of Noah, the waters wipe the slate clean so things can start again.

Now in Jesus walking on the waters, over the deep, Jesus demonstrates his power over this forces which threaten life and creation itself.  The disciples in the boat are exposed to this threat but Jesus is on top of it and Jesus words “It is I” echo words spoken by God long before “I am who I am”.  Jesus lordship over the creation and over that which threatens to undo life is affirmed.

To skip ahead to the calming of the storm, the imagery of the storm is connected with the same threat.  The storm is the waters above breaking into creation: threatening life and limb, threatening to unmake what God has made.  Jesus calming of the storm once again is an affirmation of Jesus power, God’s power, holding back the threat to creation and upholding the existence of all things. 

The story of Jesus walking on the water conveys much more potent messages than Jesus can do a cool miracle.  There are message about Jesus identity as divine, there are messages about how God holds back the deep and the waters to sustain creation and all life. 

Yet whilst this power of God to uphold the creation is present the disciples are still cowering in the boat.   The combination of sea and storm could be their undoing.  Buying in to the imagery of the story, as Matthew tells it, the predicament of the disciples is a parable which speaks to all of us in the midst of life.

The deep, the waters, the storm are around us and even within us.  The waters represent all of those things which confront us with our mortality and threaten our undoing.  What is the deep for you and for I?

Maybe it is terrorism and the uncertainty that people feel in our modern world for their safety.  Maybe it is the pain of broken relationships, a rift between husband and wife that has become irreconcilable, or between parent and child who have become estranged.  Maybe it is the disease within us, slowly unmaking our bodies, destroying our health, our minds, slowing us down.  Maybe it is the despair and hopelessness that so many people feel.  Maybe it is the despair we feel when we see images of war and violence on our screens and in the news.  The deep, the waters, the storm, threaten our existence and like the disciples we might find ourselves hunkering down in the bottom of the boat.

Yet the promise of the good news is that all is not lost, for see coming across the waves and through the storm comes Jesus to bring hope.  Here is another significant image of the story; that it is Jesus who comes to those in despair at the time of their greatest need.  When hope seems to be running out the door and fear and trembling are all that is left Jesus comes with those words, “Take heart it is I do not be afraid.” “Do not be afraid.”

Jesus words are words of healing and of hope for those of us who find ourselves threatened by the stormy seas of life.  In the boat the disciple Peter wants confirmation of Jesus identity and sets out to test his faith.  Jesus’ beckons Peter out on to the waters and we see that Peter at first focussed on Jesus is able to walk on the waters towards Jesus.  But then seeing the threat around him begins to sink, he loses focus, and as Jesus indicates his faithlessness betrays him.  But even in this moment of failure Peter is able to look and cry out “Lord save me” and Jesus immediately reached out his hand and catches him.

There is an immediacy in Jesus response to Peter’s need that gives us hope and here we might catch the overtones of what Paul wrote to the Romans, “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” 

This is a promise of healing and hope to us all. It is a promise that is born out in Matthew’s retelling of the story when we move from Jesus disembarking from the boat and people flocking to him to be healed.  Reaching out and simply touching the hem of his garment brings healing to people’s lives.  When the Lord comes near lives are changed.

Now the mystery of life and of faith tells us that there are times when we like Peter reach out and are healed, but we also know that we all die, that in our crying to Jesus “save me” we still experience the depths of pain that life can bring.  But as we also know the Scriptures reassures us that death is not the final word; that the deep and the waters, will not overcome.  Jesus in his death gives himself over to the waters and the deep; he surrenders to the death which is the very antithesis of God and life.  Our greatest hope is found in knowing that Jesus rises from the grave and defeats death to walk over the waters once again.

On this day remember the promises of God to sustain life and not let the creation be destroyed.  Remember that those who call upon the Lord will be saved.  Remember that Jesus brings healing and hope to peoples lives now.  Remember that Jesus has travelled the paths of the dead to return again as our hope and our salvation.  The deep of uncreation has been defeated: life goes on!

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Caring in the face of tragedy.

Matthew 14:13-21

I wonder when it is that you feel you need some time alone. 

What is it that means that you feel that you need to take some time out? 

Often I feel like this when I am encountering difficulties; I have been overloaded with responsibilities; work is a bit too much; or maybe I have heard bad news. 

Maybe, you are the same. Maybe there are times that life all seems a bit much and you need some space.  You just want to stop!

The story from Matthew’s gospel begins with the words, “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.”

Of course we know that despite his efforts to go off and be alone a crowd turns up and Jesus responds to their needs: they need healing and they need hope.

But if you are like me you might be stuck back at the beginning of the reading.

What had Jesus heard?  Why did he withdraw? Why did Jesus need some time alone?

What Jesus had heard was that his cousin John had been beheaded by Herod.  The story is depraved.  It was Herod’s birthday party and he already had John in a cell somewhere.  In the midst of the party his niece danced before the assembled group and so impressed was his uncle that he promised to give the girl anything she wanted.

Prompted by Herodias, her mother, the girl asks for John’s head on a platter.

The bloodied birthday feast of Herod is the news Jesus has received – his cousin the victim of politics and passion.

What was Jesus seeking in the solace: maybe, to mourn and to cry for his cousin who had baptised him? To despair at the barbarity of the act? To seek meaning and maybe resolve and strength for his own purpose as he continued his ministry?  Maybe simply to try to make sense of what had happened? To reconnect with God, to pray?

I have little doubt that Jesus withdrew for many if not all of these reasons.

Just as we seek to withdraw from the bad news that comes to haunt us in our lives in this world:

It could be personal news:
The news of the terminal illness of a family member.
The news of the death of a friend.  We had a funeral this week in the church where hundreds gathered to mourn.
News of abuse, loss, loneliness, and the long litany of heartache that can overwhelm us.

It could be national or international news:
News of children held in detention.
News of children being killed in the Gaza strip.
News from Syria and other places around the world where violence has become integral to the way of life. The news of Christians being persecuted and even crucified by ISIS in Iraq.

Maybe it is personal news and maybe it is the big issues, whatever it is these things can weigh heavily on hearts and our souls.  Take a moment to think about the week that has passed on the moments of worry and heartbreak that you have felt. (silence)

But as we know Jesus does not get the space to reflect, his withdrawal to be alone ends up with thousands coming after him.  People, who like him in his moment of sadness and like you and I, are seeking help – they need healing and hope, they need teaching and understanding.

He sees their need, he has compassion and he feeds them through his healing and his words.  Despite his own breaking heart Jesus, God with us, goes on reaching out to others because the world goes on: life continues!

To me this is the beginning of the miracle.  That Jesus, God with us, transcends his own breaking heart to help and hold others in his love. What come next with the bread and fish may seem a wonderful sign of his power to do miracles but it his heart of love at the outset that stands out.

For me this is the good news that whilst God might look upon the terror and tragedies of our lives and feel such loss within himself he continues to reach out as life goes on for everyone else in the midst of their trials and tribulations.

In the miracle of the feeding the disciples offer bread and fish but I wonder whether it is the small offerings that we give that can be transformed into moments of beautiful hope, a glimpse of grace, of God’s kingdom comes near:

When a meal is cooked for a grieving family.
When a coffin is painted by grandchildren and family members to find hope in the moment of goodbyes.
When a smile is given, or time generously spent.
When simple asking someone the question, ‘Are you OK?’
When some Iraqi Muslims identify as Christians and so share in protest against their persecution.
When there is cease fire in the Gaza strip so the dead can be buried and aid brought to those who suffer.
When Christians gather to pray for asylum seeker children and protest against their incarceration.
When people step aside and worship God and are transformed to live renewed again by their faith in the days ahead.

Like the small offerings of bread and fish these offerings are signs of God’s love in the face of the news gone bad and God takes this offering and turns so many into signs of the love of God in our midst.

Jesus continues to have compassion, God does not stop caring for us even though his very heart breaks at the news he receives.  And more, God provides abundantly in the face of the terror. 

As we find ourselves in moments of struggle and despair let us find hope in remembering Jesus willingness to reach out despite the depths of his own pain and like the disciples may we too help offer what little we have to the work he is doing: bread and fish, hope and love.