Friday, 10 February 2017

Choose Life

Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Moses stands as one of the greatest heroes of the Old Testament.  Hidden in the bull rushes as an infant he escapes the persecution of the male children by the Pharaoh.  He ends up being raised by Egyptian royalty.  And, he is favoured by Pharaoh until an incident defending another Israelite causes him to run away.

It is in his exile that Moses encounters God in the burning bush which sets in motion the story of the escape of the Israelites from their Egyptian task masters.  After 40 years in the wilderness he stands at the border of the Prom
ised Land and gives his final instructions.

It is part of these final reflections which we heard today from Deuteronomy. In these final words for the people who have followed him, Moses declares, "Choose life so that you and your descendants may live."

Choose life that you may live.  But what does it mean to choose life? What is the alternative? What is the life that they were meant to be choosing?  What is the life that we are choosing? What is the life that is chosen for us? Choose life? But what is life?

Choosing life then and now could sound very different.

At the beginning of the gritty 1996 movie Trainspotting the central character Renton reflects on the idea of choosing life in a voice over that sounds a little like this:

“Choose a life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a… big television. Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers... Choose... wondering who… you are on a Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit crushing game shows, sticking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away in the end of it all in a home… nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish… brats you spawned to replace yourself, choose your future. Choose life... But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life.  I chose something else.” (Renton)

There is a desperation in Renton’s words, a searching for meaning. In his description of what he thinks it means to choose life the character Renton summarises something of what modern people think life might be:  career, family, entertainment, status, possessions.  What he describes is life as we know it in these modern technological age.  These are the things that seem to have become central to our existence.  But there is a deeper question. Is it really life?  Is this what Moses meant when he said choose life?

What Renton describes may be consistent with our contemporary world and whilst Moses world and his words may feel out of place and out of time they still call us back to attention in what life is.  Choose life that you and your descendants might live?  What does it mean to choose life?  It means choosing God.

Moses says to the people, “If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live.”

Choosing life is living in the light of God’s love. 

But Moses also issues a warning, “But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish.” This is a big conundrum for us for we know the chequered history of Israel and we also the difficulties of finding the meaning and purpose of life in our time.

The desperation of the rant of Renton in Trainspotting reflects a judgement around the hollowness of so many things that we pursue as important in life.  And this is the conundrum.  When we do not hear God and when we are led astray by other gods this occurs without our understanding.

Being led astray implies a level of ignorance about is occurring, a naivety.  We do not know the wrong that we are doing.  No one would choose death over life deliberately.  No one would choose a life that is not life.

Now whilst in Moses time when he speaks about being led astray by other gods he is speaking of the ancient gods, of the statues and idols and temples of the ancient world.  Yet when we hear this challenge in the contemporary Australian context I would say that the other gods are more subtle and hidden.  The things that we bow down to may not be called gods but we imbue them with power and authority in our existence as we pursue them and make sacrifices to them or for them.

The things that lead us astray are the things that we honour by giving our time and our energy to.  We deify inanimate objects and owning things; we deify our children and our families; we deify our careers and our status; we deify celebrities – musicians, artists and actors.  Whatever or whoever we sacrifice our time for can unintentionally become that which we worship.  Many of these things we sacrifice our time for are not inherently bad but when they become all-consuming or get in the road of our relationship with God they become problematic. 

Just the other day I was chatting to some dance school mums waiting on the lawn at the side of the church for their daughters.  The amount of time these ladies spent taking their kids to dance and sport and other commitments was astounding.  When the idea of church and spirituality entered into the conversation though the response was about the busyness of life.  Their lives were so filled with all of the other running around that there was not time for church. 

I understand the busyness of our modern lives, especially with children, but I did say to them that what this indicated was not that there was not enough time for church but that God and spirituality was not a high priority in their life.  It was not that could not find the time it was that in the midst of what they were giving priority to faith was not high on their list.  It is difficult for any parent, for me too, to retain a balance, to not be led astray.  But it is that there is no time for church it is simply that when this becomes the case it indicates what we give the most important to.

Centuries after Moses when Paul wrote to the people in Rome explaining Jesus significance he indicated that all of us fall short of the glory of God, we are all lead astray, we are all perishing.  God’s response to our predicament and our predilection to be led astray is to send Jesus into the world to be both the light and life of the world for us. 

In the beginning of John’s gospel John says of Jesus, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”  In Jesus God’s choice for us who are perishing is life.  This is the heart of the good news when we fail to choose life, when we are lead astray, God in Christ chooses life for us.  Yet, more than this when God chooses life for us in Christ God pours out the Holy Spirit to draw us into that life and open our hearts and minds to God’s presence.

Paul, in the part of his letter to the Corinthians that we read today, reminds the community there that knowledge and understanding of God and growth in faith lies beyond us and in God.  It is God who is the source of our understanding and our faith.  And thus it is to God our attention should be directed.

Many of you know that last year I attended a prayer retreat.   Within one of the prayer sessions the words that dropped into my mind were these ones from Psalm 121, “I look to the hills.  From where will my help come?  My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth.”

Now in ancient times what you found on the tops of hills were temples and shrines to the pantheon of gods of the other Middle Eastern religions and later also the Greco-Roman culture.  The Psalmist, however, did not want to be lead astray. His help was not going to come from any of these other gods, on the hills, and neither, dare I say, from all of the things that we might deify, but from the Lord who made heaven and earth.

In that moment of praying I felt I was being reminded that I too had to give time to pursuing the relationship God has gifted me more intentionally.  To choose life, to choose God.

As I was thinking about this, during the week, I recalled a great quote from Henry David Thoreau’s ‘Walden’

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms...”

And not when I came to die to discover that I had not lived!  How do we put to rout all that is not life? 

God in Christ has chosen life for us.  God in the Spirit reveals this to us.  God in Christ and through the Spirit draws us in to living life in God and life in the world.

There is a validity to seeking time with God alone to centre yourself again on God.  To discover your life in Christ and as you do so to put to rout those things which stand in the road of that relationship with God. For me, this is very much what we are seeking to do in the Sunday night prayer group.  To learn to look to God more intentionally in our lives.  But lest we make our Christian mysticism an idol, some sort of pious prayer marathon, we are also reminded that Jesus’ life was lived for the sake of others.  The times of solitude in prayer and meditation as well as our times in gathered worship are to lead us into loving and serving others not isolating ourselves from others.

We are called to choose life 

As people for whom God has chosen life we have been set free from being those who are perishing to those who are living.  We live as we centre our life on the creator of heaven and earth.  We live as God pours the Spirit into our lives.  We live as we worship God.  We live as we love and serve others.

Moses words still ring true:

"Choose life so that you and your descendants may live."

So I too encourage you choose the life already chosen for you in Christ, choose life.

Saturday, 4 February 2017

You are the salt of the earth

A bit over 2000 years ago Roman soldiers roamed what we know as Europe and the Middle East.  A great army of soldiers.  Working men who needed to be paid. For many payment came in the form of salt.  It was called the salarium argentium.  

Salt was a form of currency and for those of you who have ever been paid a “salary” the origins of this word comes from a time when soldiers were paid in salt.  In the ancient world salt was a thing of value, Romans paid their soldiers with it, Greeks traded it for slaves, and according to Leviticus salt was to be part of any offering ever made to God.  

Salt was valued and salt was valuable and Jesus said to his followers and friends "you, you are the salt of the earth". You! his followers, you! his audience, you! humanity with whom Jesus shares his life.  You are salt! You are valued by God and you are valuable.

This is and should be the starting point for our self-understanding as human beings and as followers of Jesus and children of God.  You are the salt of the earth.  This is not an exclusive claim it is a universal claim that echoes down from the mythology of Genesis.  Adam and Eve were given a unique place within the creation - dominion, stewardship, caretakers with a privileged relationship with the creator.  You are salt.  You are valuable.  Remember this. This is Jesus’ starting point in today’s reading and it should be ours when we think of other people, of other humans.  

Maybe Jesus asserts this so strongly because it is so easy to forget just how valuable we are, just how valuable other people are too.  When people around him doubted themselves, when they felt disempowered by the Roman incursion into their holy city, or challenged by the elites with power who didn't seem to care, challenge by a system which distinguished and discriminated one group from another it is easy to forget you are the salt of the earth – Jesus is saying remember just how valuable you are.

When we feel threatened by our lot in life, when we struggle for meaning, when we lose our sense of self-worth have we forgotten that we too are salt.  When we hear of a terrorist attack in a Canadian mosque, when we see people who are homeless clashing with police in Melbourne, when borders are closed and walls are built do we not wonder if we too have forgotten - these people are salt.

Maybe it is in our amnesia that we lose our saltiness, maybe it is when we see our lives are just about me and I and mine we have lost our saltiness.  When we cease contributing to the good of the whole in preference to the good of me.  What do we do when the saltiness has gone from humanity? What does God do?

Jesus says that when the saltiness is gone the salt only worth trampling under foot but then again God sends Jesus who says to us, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil."  In him God restores our saltiness. In him God reconciles and renews. In him God says to us remember who you are.  Salt that loses its saltiness is worthless, it is only worth trampling into the ground but God in Jesus is salt and light and causes us to be salty again.

You are the salt of earth – you are valued and valuable.  In Jesus our saltiness is restored and we are invited and encouraged and empowered to be salt again.  

The question is, “what does salt do?”  Salt has numerous properties and uses so today I want to simply highlight four: Salt heals.  Salt adds flavour.  Salt fertilises.  Salt preserves. In God’s grace through Jesus we are re-released into being the salt of the earth, bringing healing adding flavour, fertilising and preserving.  Let me just unpack those themes a little further. Healing, flavouring, fertilising and preserving.

So let me start with the notion of salt healing.  In the Roman pantheon of gods the God of healing was called Salus which directly relates to the Roman word for salt – sal.  The word salus was connected with healing and is also connected with the word salvation.

Now salt was used as an antiseptic to clean wounds in the ancient world.  Many of you will have heard the phrase rubbing salt into the wound.  It is usually heard as a negative thing, something that causes pain and any of you who have had salt on an open wound know that it can hurt.  Yet as a child I can remember the healing properties of swimming in the ocean when I had cuts and grazes.  Salt in the wound can hurt but it heals as well. 

In Jesus’ life we hear of many miracles where Jesus brings healing to others and in and through Jesus own life he is antiseptic to our sinfulness, he cleanses and heals us.  This process can at times feel painful as we admit our wrongdoing and are exposed to the cleansing love of God.

If we are to be what we were created to be as the salt of the earth then we too have a role to be healers.  To reach out to those who are hurt physically or mentally and help cleanse and renew people’s lives as we are able.  Not all of us can be doctors or nurses or miracles workers, some of us have special gifts and training in these areas but all of us as salt are about the desire for healing and restoration.  You are the salt of the earth.

Salt adds flavour.  Salt has been a common flavour for foods for thousands of years.  Just a pinch of salt can add so much to a meal.  It can give it life and zest.  I don’t know about you but I always notice how bland porridge is when I forget the pinch of salt.  Through Jesus life we see him engaging in the joy of life and bringing life and joy to others.  He changes water into wine at a wedding.  He shares meals with his friends and with those who were considered outcastes in the community.  In John he says to the disciples that he has come that they might have life abundantly.

Once again you may have heard that someone is the flavour of the month, or the flavour of a party.  If we are to be salt, if we are to add flavour to the life of each other, then I believe this is about encourage others to enjoy life and to live it.  To embrace the moments of joy and celebration and to remember the value of life.

Salt fertilises. It helps growth, it nurtures. Once again in the ancient world we find that salt was used as a fertilising agent.  Fertilisers assist in the growth and Jesus the teacher is always encouraging people to grow in their understanding of God. He is a teacher and sage.  To be salt means engaging in the task of teaching others.  It means taking the opportunity of sharing you faith and nurturing the faith of others.

Too much salt in fertilising or in our cooking can end up being a bad thing so there is an element here of getting the balance right.  When we share our faith and teach others about Jesus too much can be received poorly.  Teaching takes time and patience and opening up ideas over time.  Last time I preached on this passage here we reflected on the idea of being light shiners and glory givers and we contemplate how to bring God into our everyday language a little more often without adding too much.  Nurturing faith, fertilising growth, is not about dumping and downloading our views on others but weighing up carefully how much to share and when.  You are the salt of the earth – nurturing growth.

And lastly, salt preserves.  In Jesus’ time so long ago salt was one of the only things that could preserve fresh food.  It is difficult for us to comprehend life without refrigeration but for millennia salt was the main thing that preserved food and kept it usable.  Turning to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians that we heard this morning Paul makes the claim that when he came among the people he knew nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified, and dare I say risen as well.  This is the message that we preserve.  That God in Christ has drawn us back into God’s life – given us to be what we were always mean to be the salt of the earth.

You are the salt of the earth.  You are valued and you are valuable.  You are healing and you are flavour.  You are fertilisers and you are preservers.

I want to add one more story about the value of salt.  In the middle ages it is said the custom for feats or dinner party was this.  The closer you sat to the salt cellar the more important you are.  Today as we share bread and wine and remember together Jesus love for us remember that God invites close to the salt cellar that as we dine at this table the salt is within reach for such is our value to God.

Being salt is not what brings us salvation but being salt is about living our salvation.  The saltiness has been restored.  The Holy Spirit has been poured out, sprinkled like salt into your life.  Hear this good news and as you live do not hide the lamp of your faith under a bushel but be a light shiner and glory giver because you are indeed the salt of the earth.

Saturday, 28 January 2017

What does the Lord require of you?

Last Saturday I found myself wandering on the streets of Melbourne but not wondering about issues of justice, mercy and humility.  I was on still on holidays relaxing.  Intruding into my leisurely stroll I noticed a large gathering of people blocking the way just up ahead of me.

Police were there in force as a peaceful parade of people, mainly women, marched by.  As I drew closer I could read the signs that a few of the people were carrying.  They held signs like: “Women’s rights are human rights” and “Love trumps hate”.  The protest was part of an international anti-Donald Trump rally on the day of his inauguration.  And the march went on, and on… and on.  Thousands of people.

What is it that draws people into protesting for a cause? 
What is it that inspires people to give up their time to fight for an issue?
What is justice? What is mercy?
And what does it mean to walk humbly with God?

Over two and half thousand years ago a small town prophet named Micah, a name which means ‘who is like God’, was concerned about the people in power and their abuse of that power.  He railed against their lack of concern for the poor and the suffering in the community and he pronounced God’s judgement against their corruption.

In the passage that we read from the book of Micah today the judgement of God is declared against those who have failed to do God’s will: against those who have corrupted the worship and against those who have oppressed and neglected the common people.

In the midst of condemnation Micah asks the people “What does the Lord require of you?” “What does the Lord require of you?”  His answer is at one and the same time very simple and yet very complex. “Do justice”, “love mercy”, and “walk humbly with your God”.

A few years ago I went to a few protest rallies myself.  We went to voice our concern about the offshore processing of refugees and asylum seekers who were coming to Australia.  We went because of our distress about indefinite detention and the incarceration of children.  When I arrived at the rally a friend had prepare posters and she gave me this one to carry.

These pithy sayings from Micah seem accessible and achievable but the reality is that when we begin to really think about what they mean at any depth they are very challenging.  For the people to whom Micah was speaking doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God would have meant significant changes to how they perceived themselves and how they lived their lives. The same is true for us as well.

I am aware that within the Uniting Church there are a range of views on asylum seeker policies.  As much as I have been opposed to Australia’s policy on this issue and I believe this is an outworking of my faith some Christian people disagree with me.  In fact, some of the people who formulated the policy claim to be Christian.  There are complex issues to be explored but our faith calls us to think deeply and act on issues such as this one because all people are God’s creatures.

The theme of how following God’s ways changes our lives is part of all of the readings for today.  In the letter to the Corinthians Paul encourages the people of that community to consider “your own call.”  Whilst in Matthew Jesus speaks about those who are considered blessed.

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
Blessed are those who mourn,
Blessed are the meek
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,

What appears to underlie much of what is being said in all of these readings is that as God’s people our first priority is not setting out for our personal gain but to consider the world through the eyes of those who have less or are discriminated against or are suffering in some way.  When we being to do this one of the implications is that it might mean changing our own lifestyle, making sacrifices – even uncomfortable ones.

This is certainly an issue when it comes to welcoming more asylum seekers into Australia.  As we reflect on the last 50 years of Australian history the influx of people from all of the globe has certainly changed our society.

Is this what the Lord requires of you and me? To think deeply about issues of justice and equity and reconciliation and to walk humbly responding to God’s love for others.

Many of you know by now that at the heart of my preaching and faith is the unconditional love and grace of God.  There is nothing I can do to make God love me.  There is nothing I can do to make God save me.  God’s grace is precisely this unconditional, it is freely given. 

Yet Karl Barth, one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century, summarised the paradox of following Jesus nicely when he said there is a necessary response to unconditional grace.

Having encountered God’s love and grace we are transformed by God’s love to live differently.  When we hear Micah’s question, “What does the Lord require?”  I do not see this as an imperative that I must respond to so that God will love me but an invitation to consider my own call and to look with the eyes of faith on the world.

“Do justice”, “love mercy”, and “walk humbly with your God”.

There was another protest march this week.  Another march that many of my friends and colleagues participated in.  The sorry day or invasion day march.  It acknowledges that the 26th of January is a day of mourning for the first peoples of Australia.  Australia day is an event that for most aboriginal people still bears consequences in their lives and continues to unfold in the discrimination and racism they still experience.

When Micah was challenging the leaders of Israel about their behaviours he was in a completely different context yet if we reflect on what is at the heart of his call – reconciliation, restitution, renewal in the lives and dignity of people these themes run through some of the rhetoric around the change the date movement.

When Micah asked the question “What does the Lord require?” it was a question set in the midst of political corruption and machinations that disadvantaged some will privileging others. 

I believe that part of our call as Christians, as followers of Jesus, is to take the time to engage deeply with the issues of our time by considering the world through the eyes of others.  By looking at it not from the perspective or preserving our way of life or our privileges but looking at life through the eyes of those who feel disadvantaged and dispossessed.

It is an act of foolishness to risk looking at the world this way because, and I believe Micah knew this, it means it might change the way I live and the way I treat others, knowingly or not.

The central story of our faith, as Paul rightly points out, is not simply that God in Jesus took the time to consider and look through human eyes as the world but that God in Jesus experienced the violence of human rejection and death in the crucifixion of Jesus: the foolishness of the cross.

To be followers of Jesus means contemplating deeply the question “What does the Lord require of you?” not as an imposition but as an invitation to look through the eyes of others, and to share in Jesus’ life lived for others.

Being Christian involves us in the great issue of our time.  It engages us in the political and social issues of our day just as it did for Micah, Paul and Jesus.  “What does the Lord require of you?”  I wonder what issues burn within you, what it is you might pick up a placard and march about, who it is that you would go into bat for. 

And if like me you marched holding these words how that might begin to change how you live.

“Do justice”, “love mercy”, and “walk humbly with your God”.

Friday, 6 January 2017

Jesus Baptism, A Voice from the Heavens, & Silence

Suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said.”

And a voice from heaven said?  I wonder if like me you have longed for, deeply desired, or craved tomight be saying something to you through the scriptures or through another person, but God’s very voice.  The words of Matthew’s gospel are tantalising, they taunt us in the silence of our own lives.  A voice from heaven. 
hear a voice from heaven in your own life.  An audible word from God to you, not just a sense that God

As if to further tempt and tantalise us the two readings from the Old Testament tell of God’s speaking. It is in the reading from Isaiah who conveys what the voice of the Lord had told him.  And, it is in the Psalm, no less than seven times, “The voice of the Lord…” is over the waters, is powerful, is full of majesty, breaks the cedars, flashes forth, causes oaks to whirl and strips forests bare.  The voice of the Lord, a voice from heaven.  God’s powerful imposing voice is set before us, yet for many of us, I suspect most of us, the reality is that our experience of God is not the resounding voice but silence.

I am left wondering am I deaf?  Why cannot I hear this powerful and resounding voice?

In the last week a re-read Shusaku Endo’s brilliant novel “Silence”.  Written in 1966 Endo’s novel explores the silence of God in the face of the immeasurable suffering and persecution of Japanese Christians in the 17th Century.  The key character, a Spanish Jesuit priest, cannot fathom God’s silence as he constantly prayers in the face of the brutal persecution and coercion by the Warlord on him to denounce Christ.

What do we do we God’s silence?

Today I deliberately gathered in the round surrounded by the prayers written on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day that we have attached to the walls.  Expressions of our hope and faith in the face of problems that may, for many of us, seem insurmountable.  Will God be silent?  What answers will come?  Will God speak to us and answer these our prayers?

No doubt each of you has experienced God’s apparent silence in your life.  No doubt you to have felt the heart breaking reality of moments of feeling Godforsaken.  Where is the voice we long for? 

Returning to the scriptures and understanding why they were written can help us with this conundrum.  As always, I would note that when we pull a snippet of scripture from the Bible we don’t get a sense of the ebb and flow of the story that the author of a particular book is building.

Matthew opens his gospel by recounting the genealogy of Jesus back through David all the way to Abraham.  This is one of the reasons Matthew is the first of the gospels, despite not being written first.  Through his genealogy Matthew creates the bridge between the Old Testament and Jesus identity.  This was very important for Matthew’s first audience who were predominantly Jewish.  Jesus’ life is traced back through the Davidic line.

Following on from the genealogy Matthew tells us of the appearance of an angel to Joseph. The quotation of the words of the prophet and the birth of Jesus provide a further affirmation of Jesus importance.  There is the genetic connection and there is the prophetic connection.

The next story Matthew tells is somewhat unusual.  It is the story of the wise men from the East and Herod appears to give an importance to Jesus’ identity that breaks the barriers of the Israelite nation and implies Jesus’ coming is relevant to the whole world.

And, then, we come to the baptism of Jesus by John.  This is introduced with an explanation of John’s importance as the forerunner of Jesus and prophecies about their relationship.

Then in the baptism Matthew’s words witness to something that was beyond the common experience.  “And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’” In traditional jargon we might call this a theophany – an appearance of God – and this theophany sits alongside a series of assertions concerning Jesus identity.

So why does Matthew need to build this story about Jesus identity?  What does he retell the story in the way he does? Why does he write it down? What was he hoping to achieve?

I think Matthew is building this argument for his audience about Jesus’ identity because they too have neither seen nor heard Jesus or God’s voice.  Not everyone gets to hear God’s voice.  You and I do not necessarily hear that audible voice of God in our lifetime.  Though we might desire it, seek it, and crave it.  Though we might discipline ourselves to reading the scripture and being in worship and prayer and contemplation.  So often what we experience is silence.

It is helpful to be reminded that the scriptures only ever report a very small number of people that hear God’s voice or have a theophany.  The people of Matthew’s community, so long ago, were relying on his witness to them in the absence of their own opportunity to hear God’s voice.

The same is true for us we rely on the witness of others to sustain us in our faith.

Of course, part of our Christian understanding is that God is present with us and that in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, as well as the out pouring of the Holy Spirit, the opportunity for relationship with God is opened out in a new way.  This may be true but it does not necessarily equate to everybody being doled out a special spiritual experience all of their own. 

Matthew knew this and was encouraging people and nurturing people to hold on to their faith that Jesus was indeed who Matthew claimed he was: “the Messiah, the son of David, the Son of Abraham”, “God is with us” “the Nazorean”, “the Beloved, Son of God”. 

In his witness to Jesus’ identity Matthew is nurturing and encouraging people of faith to follow the teachings and way of Jesus, even if they do not experience or encounter a direct divine revelation all of their own.

This is important for us to reflect deeply on in 2017.  To believe in Jesus. To believe in God.  What a strange and difficult thing to do this is becoming!  The silence of God is palpable and people are responding and turning away from faith.  This week I read statistics that indicate in Australia over the last 20 years belief in God has dropped by just over 20%, down to 55%.  Only 1 in 2 people you meet on the street believe that there is a God.  And among younger people the results show around a third believe in God.

There are significant questions raised for me as we reflect on the readings that speak so strongly about God’s voice when we struggle to hear it for ourselves. What will help us hold on?

In a culture filled with the noise of so many voices: the advertisers enticing us to buy and consume; politicians encouraging us to vote; sceptics challenging our belief; scientists warning us of disasters.  Can we hear God’s voice above this clamour?

It makes me think of Elijah on the mountain top waiting for God to pass as he sat in the cave.  Was God in the fire, or wind, or thunder no God was in the sheer silence!

I think we need to be honest in our faith about the challenge of the silence and how we rely on the witness of others but also to remember that silence may not mean absence, indeed it does not!   Our faith is built on the witness of others.  On the witness of Matthew:

And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Jesus is worth listening to, he is worth following, he is God’s beloved. 

We may find that we do not have the miraculous encounters.  We might find that much of our faith is built on what others have taught us.  The silence of God or the lack of a miracle in my own life does not mean that God is any less real or any less present.  Living the faith involves patience and commitment and perseverance.  We wait in the cave alongside Elijah anticipating that God will pass.  And yes, we may be blessed enough to have a transformative encounter with God, but if we are not we can stay the course and hold our faith as we trust the message that has been handed down to us.

This kind of perseverance and patience is increasingly difficult in a world where everything is instantaneous.  We can have what we want tithe the click of a few buttons.  To be people of faith involves learning to be patient and to live differently in the world.

What do we do as we stand at the beginning of this New Year?  How do we be a community of faith? What is God asking of this little congregation?

At the beginning of the service I suggested that today we reflect on our own baptism and in the baptism service the congregation is invited to say these words:

With God’s help, 
we will live out our baptism
as a loving community in Christ:
nurturing one another in faith,
upholding one another in prayer,
and encouraging one another in service, 
until Christ comes.

Essentially for instructions to help us follow Jesus in our lives and live out our own baptism.

Live as a loving community in Christ – that means caring for each other, and the community we are part of.
Nurture one another in faith – that means being prepared to talk openly about our faith and to commit ourselves to learn more.
Upholding one another in prayer is self-explanatory.
Encourage one another in service means to become each other’s supporters.

As I was preparing for today I read an ancient writing of the church.  Written by Gregory of Nyssa’s around 16000 years ago his “Life of Moses” begins with a description of himself as being like a supporter at a chariot race he calls out in encouragement.

I know some of us here struggle to engage deeply in the mission and ministry of the church.  We are tired, some of us are unwell, and some of us are aging.  But we can support one another and we can sheer on and encourage those who do the work.

In doing these simple things we sustain one another in the silence and presence of God and it would be my prayer that we can learn again to share our faith with people who have fallen away from believing in God at all.

Suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said.”

A voice from heaven.  Do we hear it?  Does it matter?  We have heard the witness and we have believed and we are blessed.

It makes me think of Thomas’ encounter with the risen Christ when Jesus says to him, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  “Blessed are those who have not heard the voice of God and yet have come to believe.”

“Blessed are you who have not heard the voice of God and yet have come to believe.”

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Paul's first words to Rome

If you can drag yourself back 2000 years and imagine that you are in Rome listening, for the very first time, to Paul’s letter to the community there, I imagine you might have wondered something along the lines, “Who the heck does this guy think he is?”

The opening line of his letter betrays an audacity that we can easily miss:

“Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God.”

These words are no simple salutation; no common greeting.  Paul’s claim to be a slave to Christ Jesus and called to be an apostle contain echoes of the claims of the Old Testament prophets and their call to be God’s servants and slaves.  Paul is claiming a heritage and authority that reflects these ancient claims and may very well have astounded his first audience in Rome.

Yet, if those early Christians found Paul’s words surprising, it may have been just as surprising to Paul that nearly 400 years later one of the greatest preachers of the early church John Chrysostom, also known as golden mouth, said of this very letter that he read it twice a week, and sometimes even 3 or 4 times a week.

Further, it may have surprised Paul to know that in the early 1500's Martin Luther would be dwelling on Paul’s letter to the Romans so deeply, as he struggled with his faith and discovered in Paul’s words God’s grace.

And, again, at the beginning of the 20th century, Paul might have been amazed as the Swiss theologian Karl Barth launched his stellar career with his commentary on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans.
Even beyond the walls of the Church Paul’s impact is recognized.  The historian Larry Siedentop argues that the origins of Western liberalism lie in Paul’s concept of the individual. 

And, here now in this small gathering of God’s people at St Lucia we are still reading and contemplating Paul’s words. 

Why?  Well maybe it is as Barth says, at the beginning of his commentary, that “he veritably speaks to all men [and women] of every age”. 

Paul may have never foreseen the impact of his letter to the Christians in Rome and how the influence of his words would spill over into 2000 years of history but maybe it is precisely because he is as he claims, a slave of Christ Jesus, that his words do this.  He recognizes something fundamental about his existence – it is not his own.

The revelation of Christ to Paul on the Damascus road led him to the deep discovery that life was less about who he was as it was about whose he was.  He was God’s and he was God’s in a special way: called to be an apostle.

Now it is my conviction that each one of you is called into a relationship of service with God. In fact I have a sense that all people are called into such a relationship.  Yet, for each one of us the calling to follow and serve Jesus is particular and specific. We are not all meant to be the apostle Paul.  He has a special role at a particular time in history. Paul’s words transcend his time and place in history because they carry an authority that invite us to reflect not about Paul but about the one in whom Paul has grounded his life: Christ Jesus.

It Christ Jesus who is ground zero for the Christian faith because as Barth says in his commentary on Romans:

Jesus Christ our Lord.  This is the Gospel and the meaning of history.  In this name two worlds meet and go apart, two planes intersect, the one known and the other unknown.

In Christ Jesus there is a convergence between our known finite earthly existence and the mystery of God’s eternal existence.  Our earthly existence in all its ambiguity and messiness: life and death; joy and sorrow; good and evil; pleasure and pain; beauty and horror intersects with God’s existence: source of life, origin of being, eternal mystery, love, grace, hope, transcendence and immanence.

Christ Jesus enters history and the life of the world intersects with the life of God in his very person.  This is whom Paul speaks of and like a stone thrown into a pond the ripples of Jesus existence extend out through space and time to touch of all of the creation for all of time, including your life and mine.  And in this God says to us your lives are relevant to me; you are not alone; you are loved.

We heard this amazing good news in the reading from Matthew this morning as Jesus’ birth was described by the gospel writer. 
All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel’,

which means, ‘God is with us.’

God is with us, present with us in history, in the flesh, in Christ Jesus, but more than that through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit is eternally present.  God is with us and so we can say that we are not without God.

This is the good news as we wrestle with conundrums of our lives.  As we confront loneliness and loss, evil and ego, temptation and terror, pain and poverty, suffering and sorrow God is with us, God walks beside in Jesus and has shared the fullness of our human experience.  God is with us and even when we might count ourselves forsaken by God we are not without God.  The intersection of created history with God’s life in Jesus is our source of hope.  

In this discovery of God’s love for us Paul knew whose he was and we can come to know whose we are as well.  Servants of Christ Jesus called into life and called into the love and life of God.

As Paul penned his letter to the Christians in Rome the words of admonishment, of hope, of faith and of grace flowed out into history to teach us about Jesus and who we are as God’s people.  He writes:

To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints:

Paul names the people as God’s beloved, beloved just as Jesus himself was beloved.  Not alone or bereft but accompanied through life by God in Christ Jesus and in this made saints, holy people, not by our own action but by God’s presence with us.  We are drawn beyond the division between the created and Creator into the unity of life with God – all of the prior boundaries are being obliterated.

This is why Paul then goes on to say:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Once again we drag ourselves back through history to understand the importance of Paul’s greeting.  “Grace”, charis, was a common greeting among the Greek speaking world, whilst “Peace”, shalom, was and remains a common greeting among the Jewish people.  Grace and peace represent once again the intersection of different worlds and of different communities. 

Just as in Christ Jesus God overcomes the division between the divine and the created, so to in Christ Jesus God is calling us into our common humanity: transcending cultural and ethnic and socio-economic disparities God calls us into community with one another. 

One of the key reasons for Paul’s letter to the Romans was to deal with the tension that had emerged between followers of Christ with different background.  Through history, we as Christians, and we as humanity, have continued to struggle to find our common identity.  We have not understood the greeting of Paul ‘grace and peace’ is meant to draw us beyond the safe boundaries of our communities into loving one another just as we have been loved.

This is no less a challenge for us as God’s beloved in our time, to recognize whose we are together, and to know that we are companions with all other people through this life.

This is why today, at the table of grace, we are called to remember that God in Christ is our companion on the journey of life.  Companion from its origins literally means ‘with bread’ and reminds us that in the breaking of the bread together with Christ as our host we are indeed God’s companions, God is with us, we are loved, and we are not alone.  The loving companion that we meet here binds us all together as God’s creatures as God overcomes our divisions: grace and peace.

When Paul wrote that letter to that first group of Christians in Rome, he made the claim that his importance was secondary to one to whom he witness:

Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God.

Paul’s letter endures for us as a witness to God’s love for and reminds us that though we may not be an apostle like Paul, or a saint like Francis, or a teacher like Martin Luther, or a healer like Mother Theresa, we, each one of you, is beloved and is called into the service of the God who is with you and within you.  God is with us.  God is with you.  Christ Jesus: this is whose we are and defines who we are and this is indeed the good news.