Wednesday 8 May 2024

The Ascension grounds us in this life

 The Ascension

Why do you stand looking up at the skies?

Acts I:II

It wasn’t just wind, chasing

thin gunmetal clouds

across the loud sky;

it wasn’t the feeling that one might ascend

on that excited air,

rising like a trumpet note.


And it wasn’t just my sister’s water breaking,

her crying out,

the downward draw of blood and bone…


It was all of that,

the mud and new grass

pushing up through melting snow,

the lilac in bud

by my front door, bent low

by last week’s ice storm.


Now the new mother, that leaky vessel,

begins to nurse her child,

beginning the long good-bye.


+ Kathleen Norris

In this short poem, Kathleen Norris grounds us again in the meaning and purpose of Jesus’ ministry, “your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” Too often Christians are caught with those first disciples “looking up at the skies”. We long too deeply for what is to come. But the poem challenges us that being born again is about being born again in this life, in this earthly existence.

The images of birth, the budding lilac, the storm, and the nursing of a child are about the earthy and messy mystery and wonder of our human lives. They remind us of our being in this world for which Christ died. And whilst Norris says birth is the “beginning the long good-bye” it is also the start of our journey in a creation which God loves so much. A creation that God redeems and chooses to be fully present in through Christ and in the Spirit.

Our lives may be hidden in the ascended Christ, but our lives are lived in this world as participants and signposts in the coming kingdom of God now. N.T, Wright reflects on this in his book Surprised by Hope. He says, “Jesus's resurrection is the beginning of God's new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonise earth with the life of heaven. That, after all, is what the Lord's Prayer is about.” The ascension then is also not about looking up but living with confidence that our lives are hidden in Christ’s ascended life so that we can live flourishing and faithful lives now.

Monday 29 April 2024

Love is not the easy thing

1 John 4:7-16

I was around 15 years old at the time. I was the son of a Uniting Church Minister, and he was preaching. I was sitting in the balcony of the church with a few of the other young people. It was small country town where everybody knew everybody. 

As dad was preaching, I heard him say these words, “A young man came up to me the other day, I won’t tell you his name because it would embarrass him, and he said ‘dad’” … At this moment numerous members of the congregation glanced back to me in the balcony. it had to be me my brother was away at boarding school in Sydney.

In that moment I knew the betrayal not simply of my father but the betrayal of the church. It was a betrayal my father experienced many times himself in ministry.  Such to the point that when I came to give my father a letter to candidate for ministry my mother who was here simply said, “You should know better.”

“You should know better.” Clearly, I didn’t, but I did come into ministry with my eyes wide open to the failings of the church and its people.

Just this week I was teaching a Year 10 religion class and I shared with them the Compass episode entitled “For the Love of God: How the church is better and worse than you ever imagined.” It covers the Crusades and association of Jesus with violence and then moves into the roubles in Ireland during the late Twentieth century before moving on to the message and ministry of Martin Luther King Junior.

In teaching this lesson I made the comment that taken at face value, based on the history of the church and its current failings, you would not want to touch the church with a 10-foot pole. Part of why I am saying all of this is to recognise difficulties are nothing new for us as Christian people. Division, mistakes and failings are par of the Christian life.

Yet here we are. Here I am. Here you are. But, why? 

I think that the first letter of John gives us a clue. “We love because God first loved us.” Or maybe we stay “because God first loved us.” It is God’s love which holds us fast beyond the failings of us as individuals and as an institution. The God who comes to us in Jesus.

So, in this moment, on this day, in the midst of your personal life journey and your journey as a congregation my question is how you understand and find love now. What does it look like? What does it feel like? What does it sound like? What does it taste like? Because it is precisely in times of trouble that we need to draw on love and to recover its meaning. 

But as U2 sang in their wisdom in the song Walk on “love is not the easy thing.” 

Love is not the easy thing.

  • Not when we have encountered suffering.
  • Not when we have encountered betrayal.
  • Not when there has been a break down in trust.
  • Not when we are dealing with grief.
  • Not when we say the injustices of the world around.
  • Not when we feel as though we are walking through the alley of the shadow.
  • No, love is not the easy thing.

And as Christians we know this for it is seeing Christ on the cross that we see and know God’s love. As we sing in the old hymn “When I survey the wondrous cross”:

  • See from his head, his hands, his feet,
  • Sorrow and love flow mingled down;
  • Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
  • Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

But what does it mean for us to love one another having encountered this love of God. Firstly, we should know that love is far more than an emotion.

Working in an educational setting I’ve often encountered the quote by Maya Angelou, the American writer, poet, and activist. 

She said, 'I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.' There may be some truth in her words but what is done for us and what is said matter, and these things matter because they lead us to how we feel.

So, as we contemplate our human expressions of love and how we are feeling now it is worth reflecting on our human expression of how we love one another.  

Back in 1992, a few years before I was giving my dad the letter to say I wanted to candidate for ministry, Gary Chapman wrote this great little book called The Five Languages of Love

In the book Chapman spoke about how we as human beings express and receive love with one another. He spoke about these five ways we give and receive love:

  • Words of affirmation
  • Acts of service 
  • Receiving gifts
  • Quality time, and 
  • Physical touch

Whilst I don’t think Chapman’s work is grounded in empirical research, I would suggest that there is something valuable here for us to reflect on because his work helps us understand why love is not the easy things.

You see if you gave me a gift thinking I would understand that you love me but what I needed to hear was words of affirmation that told me I was doing a good job then the actions and words are lost in translation. If I gave you a hug and then moved on but what your really needed was quality time then you maybe, left wondering why I didn’t care. Even the basics of understanding how we can love one another are not an easy thing. The requires us to listen deeply and take notice of each other and consider how we connect to another person’s need to feel loved and include.

In our attempts at loving one another and finding the right way to do this I was reminded of the words from Philippians:

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset of Christ Jesus.”

No, love is not the easy thing. And rebuilding that sense of love which involves trust and hope and new life after encountering confusion is hard work. But for me it is the work of resurrection.  It is the work of understanding love. It is not the easy thing but it is the work of a resurrection people.

During Lent I read daily devotions from a book called On Earth as in Heaven. It is quotes from the works of N.T. Wright compiled by his son Oliver. In one of his reflections Wright acknowledges lent as a time to weed the garden and maybe even to do some serious digging to root things out. 

Then he goes on to say, “Easter is the time to sow news seeds and to plant out a few cuttings.” To be able to do this requires us to have hope. Hope in the signs of new life and resurrection because how often to we lean on the words, “God’s mercies are new every morning, great is thy faithfulness.”

Hope doesn’t lead us to complacency though. It leads us to action. I saw an add on TV for an interview with Jane Goodall which is coming up. At aged 90 she is still working, and it is hope that drives her to do so.  I did a little googling, and she has lots of quotes about hope. This one comes from here book aptly titles The Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for Trying Times.

“Hope is often misunderstood. People tend to think that it is simply passive wishful thinking: I hope something will happen but I’m not going to do anything about it. This is indeed the opposite of real hope, which requires action and engagement.”

(Jane Goodall, The Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for Trying Times.)

In the midst of all the mistakes that we make as people in the church, whether personal or institutional, we nurture a hope in things not seen. This is faith. We tend the seedlings of new life, we plant new cuttings, we reach out to one another tentatively trying to find the way of love because God first loved us. We draw strength from the Holy Spirit, and we lean into our relationship with Jesus in whom we abide and who abides us for in him we know that we are loved.

It is said that Karl Barth, possibly the greatest Protestant thinker of the twentieth century, when asked what was the most import theological truth that he knew said these well-known words:

“Jesus loves me this I know, and the Bible tells me so.”

Many of you will have heard about the different words used for love used in the Scriptures. Love is communicated through four Greek words which are eros, storge, philia, and agape. They are characterized as romantic love, family love, brotherly love, and unconditional love. One of my mentors Professor James Haire once said to me that whenever we read the word agape in the Greek we should read it as “Jesus dying on the cross”.

Love is God’s action towards us and whilst we may seek to express agape in our community our stumbling attempts usually look more like erosstorge, or philia. But that’s O.K. because in these feel expressions we encounter love and seek to love one another because God loved us.

To return to my religion lesson with Year 10 this week one of the students asked me the difference between Christian and Catholic. Having spent nearly 12 years on the national dialogues between the Roman Catholic and Uniting Church in Australia I could have said many things. But I would begin b reflecting Catholics are Christians and denominations area sign of our unfaithfulness to the teaching to love one another. But I would also reflect on the reality that I learnt many things and one of them from Bishop Michael Putney, who I counted as a friend and mentor.

He has a wonderful expression which connects to N.T. Wright’s concept that we plant seeds and cuttings. 

Bishop Putney used to say that when “When Peace breaks out we see the kingdom of God.” I would go to say that when pace breaks out, we encounter hope, and we act to proclaim God’s love. When 

There are days that I am still that 15 year old boy in the balcony grappling with the failures and betrayal of the church of people I thought loved me. There are days that I reflect on my mother’s words “You should know better”.  But somehow the Holy Spirit has held me in, and I have seen signs of new life – seedlings springing forth and cuttings being planted. I have found hope in things not seen and when I am struggling, I often think of the last conversation that I had with my father who reminded me “it’s not you who finds God it is God who finds you.” Maybe this is love, that God finds us.

Or, as John wrote, “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.”

Take a moment to contemplate what love looks like now for you and what God is saying to you today.

Thursday 28 March 2024

An Easter Poem


In an interview on the occasion of being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Maya Angelo expressed her faith and doubt in this way:


“I’m always amazed when people walk up to me and say, ‘I’m a Christian.’ I think, ‘Already? You already got it?’ I’m working at it, which means that I try to be as kind and fair and generous and respectful and courteous to every human being.”

Angelo's words inspired me to write this poem. 

I’m working at it.


My faith is


I’m not there,


It may sound,


I’m on a journey

With faith

and with doubt


I heard the news, that

The tomb was



Mary stayed close

She encountered

Her name

Being spoken

With love and hope


Renewing her life

A mysterious gift

Of his implausible





I’m not there yet

I’m working at it

I’m a work in progress


Trying to believe, and

Trying to live

As if it matters

That Jesus rose


I am trying,

as I live,

to live with



Being fair

Giving generously


To live



Courteous to

Each and every

human being that I encounter


And as I do so


Longing also

to hear

my name spoken


To have my life

Renewed by the

Mysterious gift

Of his implausible



He is risen.




I’m not there yet

I’m working at it

I’m trying to live

With courage

And with hope.

Thursday 22 June 2023

God heard the voice of the boy

Prepared for Redland City Uniting Church Trinity Wellington Point 25.06.2023

Readings: Matthew 10:24-39, Genesis 21:8-21

It would have been easy for me to choose the readings associated with the anniversary of the Uniting Church this weekend. The anniversary took place on the 22nd of June. We are now 46 years old.  However, the familiar words of Jesus’ prayer about unity found in John 17, whilst challenging, could also be used to continue the domestication of our faith. You see, what we often do with the scriptures and our faith is that we make them comfortable, we keep them certain, we like to keep things predictable and so make ourselves feel good about who we already are.

But the Basis of Union itself drives us beyond our comfort zone and any sense of self-righteousness. Thus, we should always remember, with humility, that the union in 1977 also caused a further schism in the church, as many within the Congregational Union of Australia and the Presbyterian Church of Australia chose not to join us in our witness. The discomfort we might feel at this is recognised within the very first paragraph of the Basis by the Uniting Churches. It declared of those coming into union that “they acknowledge that none of them has responded to God's love with a full obedience” and later that the church is “a pilgrim people” that will need to express our faith in “fresh words and deeds” and finally that “God will constantly correct that which is erroneous in its life”. In this the Basis echoed the great dictum of the reformation, ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda (the church reformed, always reforming).  

This tension, of the church always needing reform, places us soundly in the Reformed tradition which leans on Paul’s comments about us all being sinners who fall short of the glory of God. However, this view of humans before God also sits in tension with the Methodist tradition which reflected something of the natural theology that understands human beings as made in the image of God and the concept of the work of the Holy Spirit through which, as Charles Wesley put it, we are changed from glory into glory. I have often been somewhat amazed that the contrasting and even conflicting theologies of the three churches was able to come together into this Uniting Church. But maybe in bringing these disparate ideas together the church reflects the true messiness and limitations of our relationship with God as fallible and flawed human beings.  It is the kind of messiness that we encountered in the readings today. 

In particular, the story of Hagar and Ishmael drew me in, and it struck me just how difficult the stories of the Old Testament can be. This story should disturb us deeply in our faith. Graham J. Adams in his essay “Ephphatha! DARE to be Opened!” declares “The Bible is both a butterfly and a hurricane!” (Cited in Scripture and Resistance: Theology in an Age of Empire ed. Jione Havea, p.17) He goes on to say, that as a butterfly “the Bible is always signalling to us that the apparently ‘dead’ appearance of words on a page, like a chrysalis, is not the end of the interpretive story, but instead, because “the spirit blows where she wills”, it comes to life, in ever new ways, surprising us, enlivening us, enthralling us, but also disturbing or unsettling us.” (Adams, p.17) And like a hurricane, the Bible is disruptive, “The newness disrupts our preconceptions, causes problems for us in our desire to superimpose order onto a disordered world.” (Adams, p.17) This imagery reminds us to not get too comfortable in our pews and not too comfortable in thinking that we have arrived in our faith. 

I recall a congregation in which I ministered that the wooden pews were decidedly uncomfortable and maybe that is a metaphor for how we should encounter preaching. If you walk from the church this morning and say to me nice sermon I sometimes wonder if my preaching has failed because when Jesus preached to the converted, they tried to throw him off the nearest cliff. The gospel is a two-edge sword which I think means we are meant to find and encounter hope and God’s love on the one hand but on the other to be confronted by deep and difficulty realities of our human existence. 

Hymn Love Divine 

This has been a long introduction to explain my choice to use the common lectionary readings set down for today. The story of the casting out of Hagar and Ishmael takes us into disturbing and unsettled waters to confront our assumptions and reset our faith journeys. It is a story that reflects the messiness of human existence and the messiness of our human relationships with God. The temptation could be to make the story simple. To simply say that God is faithful to Hagar and Ishmael so the behaviour and disruption to family and community caused by Sarah’s influence over Abraham is O.K.. It’s O.K. to cast out Hagar and Ishmael. But is it really? 

I need to acknowledge that I read this piece of scripture through the lens of a person who is a part of a dominant culture which has conquered and colonised, a culture that has invaded and instituted, a culture which has disrupted and displaced others.  My Anglo background aligns my history with an imperial past which should be challenged and questioned. But if I were to read this through the lens through the oppressed not the oppressor, I wonder how the story may be transformed. Maybe in reading it through such a lens I would begin to ask whether European Christianity has acted more like Sarah and Abraham, casting aside those who might challenge our position and place in the world. I might begin to ask who has Christianity cast aside. 

Or maybe a bit more confrontingly, who have we said are not welcome in our midst as congregations and then justified it with “it’s OK” because God allows Sarah and Abraham to cast aside Hagar as somehow a threat or even worse as worthless. 

The messiness of the whole incident with Sarah and Hagar is made more disturbing when we remember Sarah encouraged Abraham to conceive a child through her servant girl Hagar to create an heir. This was because Sarah thought she was barren. When Hagar becomes pregnant Hagar is portrayed as looking down on Sarah. Nonetheless, both Hagar and her son, Ishmael effectively became part of Abraham’s family. In the ancient world Ishmael would have been seen as Abraham’s heir by the community and by the family. 

The story that we heard today takes place quite a few years later, after Sarah herself miraculously becomes pregnant and bears her son Isaac.  This story takes place when Isaac is weaned which, in the ancient world, was probably around 3 years of age.  By this time his older half-brother Ishmael is predicted to have been in his late teens, maybe even as old as 17. We are told that Sarah observes Ishmael playing with her son Isaac, except here the translation is kind.  In other translations the word used is laughing, although some commentators suggest that it is harsher than this – Ishmael is laughing at or mocking Isaac. Maybe this was an assertion of Ishmael’s authority and status over Isaac, an authority that Abraham could still confer to Ishmael over and above Isaac.  Sarah is, we might think, naturally concerned. 

As the Biblical scholar Westermann points out, Sarah is jealous for her son’s future – she is being loyal to family. In his words, she has a “ruthless maternal concern for her son’s future.” (Word v.2 p.82) Often, when I have asked people what the most important thing in life is, the answer has come back as family. Sarah’s commitment to family and her group has consequences because it excludes others. Adams, in the article I mentioned earlier says this, “religious communities are often defined more obviously by loyalties to family, class, ethnicity, nation, or like mindedness, or by common addictions to the harm we do (to the earth power to those whom we exploit, to our own human dignity).” (Abrams in Havea, p.20) whilst we often like to use the word community in a positive and inclusive sense there is another darker side of community which is often defined by who we exclude. I would argue, despite the justifications given, the example of Sarah should not be an example we would follow. 

Nonetheless, Abraham does cast out Hagar and Ishmael. He gives them bread and water and sends them into the desert, possibly knowing that their chance of survival was slim at best. Just as imagining Ishmael as a 17-year-old playing with the 3-year-old Isaac shifts the story in my mind so too does it shift at this point too. Ishmael is on the cusp of being a man when his mother puts him under a bush and walks off unwilling to watch him die. Like many other aspects of the story this one is unsettling – she abandons him to die alone because she cannot watch it. She settles down a bowshot away looking up to heaven cries out. 

At this point, I think the story takes a most interesting turn. Throughout the whole story Ishmael has had no voice and no control over what is occurring but here in this moment we're told that God hears him. God heard the voice of the boy! Ironically, it is not the boy that God then speaks to, rather it is to his mother and God guides her through an Angel to a well of water which saves their life. Moreover, God promises to make a great nation of Ishmael, a promise that is no different than the promise made to Isaac. 

Regardless of everything else that has happened, God's faithfulness to Abraham through Ishmael will be realised. God is faithful to those whom others would have cast out. God is faithful to the one that the community rejects. God is faithful to all humanity even when we do not see it. A colleague recently challenged me with the idea that at Pentecost the Holy Spirit was only poured out on the believers and that it is only Christian people that receive the Holy Spirit. After contemplating this idea for a while, I returned to the Acts reading in which we are reminded that the words of the prophet is that the spirit will be poured out on all flesh. God's concern is for all people whom God has made. 

In his essay Adams says this, “the God of the Bible is, in fact, the God who hears the cries of the oppressed and outsiders, the God of empathetic solidarity - with Hebrew slaves, midwives, widows, orphans, and aliens; Moabite refugees, foreign commanders, and widows; Assyrian Messiahs and Roman centurions; lepers, tax collectors, and prostitutes; children and all kinds of ‘little ones’; the poor, bereaved, and meek; the doubters, deniers, and crucified.” (Adams in Havea, p.18)

God hears the voice of those who do not have one. God hears the voice of those whom we would cast out. God hears the voice of the voiceless. And God pours out God spirit on all flesh. The imagery of the story and the promise of unity found within the scripture discombobulate us, it shakes us out of our reverie, and it challenges us with what it means to be God's people. The good news is the just as the Old Testament reconfigures our understanding of family and community, of religions and its institutions, so too does Jesus. 

Jesus’ words that we heard today are just as unsettling: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Whilst I cannot take the time to preach a whole other sermon on this passage, I would share a precis from a previous sermon I preached on this passage.  Earlier in Matthew when Jesus was told his mother and brothers were outside, he responds, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” 

Jesus’ view of the idea of family here is not to diminish it but to augment it.  Family is not defined by biological ties but is defined by the growing relationship he had with those outside his own family – his disciples. 

The restriction of who could be part of the family changed. The goal post was shifted.  The fact that he defines the disciples as mother and brothers reminds us of how important Jesus views family to be, yet at the same through his words Jesus elevates others into his family. Whereas Sarah sought to exclude Jesus seeks to include and as we know to include others who society and community often rejected. 

To reimagine Adams words, possibly a little controversially, “the God of the Bible is, in fact, the God who hears the cries of the oppressed and outsiders, the God of empathetic solidarity” – with First Nations peoples, Yugambeh and Quandamooka, and all of with First Nations peoples across the globe who experience European invasion; with modern slaves who work in sweat shops and mines, and child labourers who produce the things which we consume; with the poor, the unemployed, the lonely, and the forgotten; with those whose journey to find their own identity in their gender and sexuality is more complex than we can begin to imagine; with refugees from climate and from wars who find themselves in inhospitable countries; and from any who would be sent out like Hagar and Ishmael into the desert.” These are the people whom God hears and sends Jesus into the world to bring the peace of God which surpasses all our understanding. 

So, as we celebrate 46 years of the Uniting Church, 46 years of being fallible and frail humans before a gracious God I am led to ask. What does it mean for us to be the Uniting Church when we know God as a God who includes the outcasts and the dispossessed? How does this transform our understanding of what it means to be Redland City Uniting Church? How does this transform our understanding about what it means to be the South Moreton Presbytery or the Queensland Synod or the Uniting Church in Australia? How does it challenge what it means to be faithful to following the way of Jesus who invites us and challenges us not to elevate those who are like us above others and in so doing be like Sarah, who put her family first? What does it mean for us to elevate others who are not us, who are not like us into our family and into our midst? 

The words of the Statement to the Nation made in 1977 ring in my ears: 

We affirm our eagerness to uphold basic Christian values and principles, such as the importance of every human being, the need for integrity in public life, the proclamation of truth and justice, the rights for each citizen to participate in decision-making in the community, religious liberty and personal dignity, and a concern for the welfare of the whole human race.

We will challenge values which emphasise acquisitiveness and greed in disregard of the needs of others and which encourage a higher standard of living for the privileged in the face of the daily widening gap between the rich and poor.

We are concerned with the basic human rights of future generations and will urge the wise use of energy, the protection of the environment and the replenishment of the earth’s resources for their use and enjoyment. (UCA Statement to the Nation 1977)

Thursday 1 June 2023

Pentecost meets Reconciliation Week

The importance of the commemoration of the day of Pentecost, recorded in Acts 2, overlapping with Reconciliation Week is poignant because they remind us both of giving space for a voice to be heard, but also being granted the gift of hearing and understanding. Having a voice needs to be matched by a people with the capacity to listen with open ears and open hearts.

The day of Pentecost and the giving of the Holy Spirit both transcends cultures and affirms them. People speak in their own dialect from within  their own culture but outsiders understand them as if they are speaking their own language. I believe the event invites us to consider who we are and where we belong in the same way that thinking about our personal connection to country does when First Nations people welcome us to their country. I have learnt this from many of the First Nations people I have worked with and who have taught me over the years. Despite carrying the trauma and hurts of the past they make a choice to still extend a welcome. This is a welcome filled with grace and even an act of reconciliation in itself as they convey their deep sense of connection to country.

 However, through these people I have come to realise country isn’t Gosforf where I was born, not New South Wales where I grew up. My sense of country isn’t Australia, a place that some of my ancestors came as colonising invaders. It isn’t Scotland where my ancestors fought on both sides of the battle of Culloden in 1746, nor for that matter is it England with whom some of the traitorous lowland Scots sided. It is certainly not France from which the first Lockard’s came with the invading Normans into Briton.

Whilst all these places have shaped who I am and my culture, my sense of country is not a place but, rather, is a way of being. My country, my home, my way of being is in Jesus Christ. I believe this sense of country has come to me through the gift of the Holy Spirit, the same Holy Spirit which united people on the Day of Pentecost 2000 years ago, and who has worked in this land for thousands of years. A Spirit which I believe dwells in each one of us and invites us to contemplate the invitation to unity and community in Christ. A place where our uniqueness is valued as individuals but where we also find deep sense of belong to God and to each other.

May we continue to give space to hear each others voices and may we have the grace to listen and learn from one anther with response when that space has been made.