Wrestling or feeding

On most Sundays in my late primary school years, the Sunday pattern was very predictable.

We would head off to church at Brighton Presbyterian, duck home via the Ron-de-lai bakery to pick up lunch, and then my brother Bruce and I would be ready for the lunch time TV sports.

There were two possibilities.    In winter, we would watch Sports world, with Rex Mossop on Channel 7
But for much of the year we would tune in to Channel Nine and watch World Championship Wrestling
The names  still come back to me pretty clearly: Killer Karl Kox, Mario Milano, Larry O’Dea, and of course, Andre the Giant who is at least as well known for his role in the Princess Bride movie.

I could remember – though not necessarily perform – all the moves
The Sleeper hold, the Brain buster, the Pile Driver, the full nelson.
I’m sure that Sunday morning routine has helped make me what I am.

So what a sadness in life when I discovered that the wrestling that was happening
Wasn’t always completely and totally real.   Some of it was even choreographed and planned.
Ah, the emotional scars that I must still carry from that bitter disappointment!

Though wrestling isn’t always, planned and choreographed.  Some wrestling is very real.

For years Jacob has been wrestling – supposedly born holding on to the heel of his twin.
fighting in a family where parents played favourites
doing what he could to get himself set up in life, no matter what cost his brother
wrestling with his father in law so he could get the “right bride”
and now ready to meet again – years down the track – with the brother who has promised to kill him

So Jacob plans and schemes to work out how he, or at least his family, can survive.
Jacob sends the family groups ahead and he is left alone.
And in that time, by himself, he ends up in one more wrestling match.
He may have originally thought it was Esau, or a spy from Esau.
But in any event he knew this person was out to make life difficult – so he wrestled.

But we get the story from Jacob’s perspective.
And we have come to know that Jacob wasn’t always entirely clear and open in his thinking.
The story is written to hold Jacob – or Israel as he becomes known – in great light.
He is the one who was so strong that he wrestled with God face to face and survived.

But like all good readers of the Bible, it is worth asking questions back at the story.
Let’s assume that it really was God – or at least an angel – that Jacob was wrestling with somehow.
And let’s ask some questions back.

Do we think that if God – or an angel – were going to give all of their efforts in a wrestling match
that Jacob would have come out the event with a bit of a limp?
And do we think that God’s perspective in life is to try and out muscle us in life’s scheming?
I wonder if the Genesis story about Jacob/Israel is a bit of self-justification.

Jacob’s perspective in life doesn’t seem to have changed from birth:
“I will not let you go until I get a blessing”
He has turned everything in life into a competition/ wrestling match.

When we get to God embodied as human some thousand of years later
Jacob’s attitude to life doesn’t seem to be the attitude we find in Jesus.

Instead of “I will not let you go until I get a blessing”
Jesus speaks to his disciples about the crowds, and says
“Do not send them away until we have blessed them.”

If we take our understanding of the character of God from Jesus,
then maybe the ‘wrestling match’ in Genesis 32 may not be quite what it seems

I somehow wonder if we had the same story told from the perspective of the angel, rather than Jacob,
it may have been more like
“I came to Jacob when he was alone and troubled and facing one of his worst times
and I held him through the darkest of the night.
But no matter how much I held him, he just kept struggling.”

  Or maybe what was happening was that God’s messenger was keeping Jacob safe
and protecting him from himself while he struggled through the dark night of the soul

We have turned struggling in life – and even struggling with God – into an art form.
We have turned struggling with God into a way of being.
I fear that there is at least part of our experience, which projects our insecurities onto God
and assumes that God wants to struggle with us before we get anything.

We can end up quoting that well known Bible verse that “God helps those who help themselves”
without remembering that it actually isn’t a bible quote at all – it is from Aesop’s fables –
Hercules the Waggoner – and it is moralistic, not grace based.
In fact the true quote is that the moral of the story is that “the gods help those who help themselves”
Doesn’t sound to me like a great Christian perspective.

I know someone well who seems to turn everything in life into a struggle
If things are going well, it is because they have been ‘walking in the right path with God’.
If things are not going well, it is because they have strayed from that path.

It must be an absolutely exhausting way of living,
and one which means that they are always having to justify themselves.
Moment by moment, Action by action, day by day.

Matthew tells us of the occasion when Jesus would himself have been in the darkest of times
His cousin, mentor and friend, John the Baptist, has just been killed
and the word is out that Herod is ready to get Jesus too.
And so he retreats a little.   Gets some space.

Thousands of people follow, because as Matthew sets the story – they wanted to be with Jesus.
And Jesus’ perspective is not to wrestle with them, or ignore them
or ask them to justify why they are there,  but simply to look with compassion.
That’s the way that God works

Author Annie Lamott says that God loves you just the way you are
and loves you too much to let you stay that way.
Holding us while we wrestle with God until we may even end up realising that we were wrestling with ourselves
And even as we do the wrestling, asking us to face up to who we are
            name our identity, our past, and maybe even what is making us struggle so much.
And then in the embrace that never fails, blessing us
and nourishing us with more than we could ever imagine was there in the first place.

Maybe it is time for us to let go of part of our struggle
and trust that God is not one to fight with, but one whom we can allow to embrace and feed us.

Posted in Sermons

Guest preacher James Haire

Kosuke Koyama, the Japanese theologian, once told of a car journey with a Hindu friend.  On the road they saw on the road side a billboard proclaiming: “Campaign for Jesus.”  Koyama’s Hindu friend remarked: “I thought Jesus campaigned for you, isn’t that what you should be telling the world?”

This morning I wish to preach on one of the most controversial passages in the New Testament, which forms part of the Lectionary readings for this Sunday. That is, I wish to preach from Matthew 13: 24 – 30 and 36 – 43.   This passage contains the basis for one of the great controversies in the history of Christianity, which created division within all the antecedent churches of the Uniting Church, Presbyterianism, Congregationalism, and Methodism, and also between the members of these churches. It is the issue of predestination.

A number of issues need to be born in mind.   First, the issue of what a parable is.   A parable, as we know from Mark 4:10 – 12, is a story about the nature of God, which radically confronts you and has the effect of changing your whole outlook on life.   In John’s gospel, it is the “I am” sayings of Jesus, like “I am the way the truth and the life” , which confront you and change you.   In Matthew, Mark and Luke, it is the parables.   So this is going to confront us and change us.

Quarrels have often centred on the claim that some people are permanently superior to others through being among God’s so-called “elect”.    Indeed, within one strain of Calvinism, that is the Presbyterian and Congregational traditions, there arose the doctrine of double predestination, that is, that some people were eternally predestined to salvation, while others were eternally predestined to damnation.
 
In our time, a political perversion of that view was one of the main factors that gave justification to apartheid in South Africa, based as it was on a particular strain of Calvinism.

This line of thought in relation to predestination did not begin with Calvin, of course, but can be traced right back to Augustine.   It is vital, however, to understand that both Calvin and Augustine were writing from a different location from that of the New Testament, and that notions of predestination that are most familiar to us actually arose from later interpretations of their teachings.

Let us therefore, go back to the beginnings of Christianity and to the context in which Jesus spoke these words. Maybe by doing so, we can see what precisely Jesus is saying and bring ourselves to a more adequate understanding of what predestination might mean for us today.

I have noted that there is a major difference between the world of Jesus on the one hand, and the worlds of Augustine and Calvin on the other. The difference is this: Jesus is writing to a minority of a minority, that is to his followers who had originated within Judaism, where Judaism itself, in its totality, was still a small minority in the Roman Empire.   So his followers were a minority within a minority.   They were therefore highly vulnerable to abuse, both from the Roman Empire itself, and from within Judaism.   After all they at times were despised within Judaism. On the other hand, Augustine and Calvin lived in a situation where power was on their side.   Augustine lived after the Constantinian Settlement, where Christianity had become the official religion of the largest and most powerful Empire at that time.   Calvin, despite the fact that he faced the political power of Rome, nevertheless lived in the security of the Reformed city of Geneva, where his particular tradition of the Reformation had become the dominant one.   Geneva effectively, in our terms, was virtually a nation-state in itself.

These different contexts in which predestination was understood radically changes the content of the message.

As we will see, predestination is not actually about putting down the weak and the marginalised, but rather defending the weak and marginalised and showing their real value in the eyes of God.

It is to give comfort and succour to those who are oppressed.

It is to provide a levelling of distinctions between Christians and a new identity.   It is to do the kinds of things that our dear departed Ron Wilson was doing in the last years of his life in relation to the Stolen Generations.

The first point is to say that despite our own human views of people’s value, God has a different value based on a radical and egalitarian identity found in Christ.

The second point is that Jesus is speaking for the unity of the Church.
 
Later, in Paul’s writings, we can see that there were tensions between Christians of Jewish descent on the one hand, and Christians of Gentile, or non-Jewish descent, on the other.   This can be seen in the background of the church at Rome.   The first Christians to arrive in Rome, probably around in the 40sCE, were Christians of Jewish descent, who had very considerable economic power.   They had, however, suffered political oppression.   In 49CE, they had been expelled from Rome by the Emperor Claudius along with all other Jews, because of accusations of political and economic manipulation.

There were Gentile Christians, on the other hand, who were larger in number, who were politically correct, as we might say these days, but who were economically very disadvantaged.   They lived on the fringes of the city of Rome and were probably some of those referred to in the house churches greeted by Paul in Romans Chapter 16, where there is a long list of names.   The Jewish Christians believed that the Gentile Christians were inferior unless they observed the purity laws of Israel.   Paul stood against this view.  

Probably what happened in Rome was something like this: the Christians of Jewish descent, had a beautiful church in the centre of the city, which was probably a re-vamped synagogue, and there is some archaeological evidence for this.   The Gentile Christians simply met in their poor homes on the fringes of the city.
 
When Claudius expelled the Jews, including the Christian Jews, from the city in 49CE, probably the Gentile Christians came into look after their nice church in the centre of the city and to use it. Claudius died in 54CE and there was a serious economic downturn at the time of his death.   The Roman authorities encouraged the Jews to return to Rome and to get the economy going again.   Doubtless, then, the wealthy Jewish Christians returned, saw their nice church carefully looked after by the Gentile Christians and said: “Thank you very much for looking after our church.   Now back you go to your fringe dwellings.”

The Gentile Christians, refusing this rebuke, said: “Oh no, you may have the economic power, but we are politically correct and who knows when you may get chucked out again.”

So here we have a diverse early church in Rome, composed of an economically powerful minority who were politically incorrect on the one hand, and, on the other hand, a politically correct majority who were economically challenged.   Here was a perfect cocktail for social chaos.

It is against that projected background that these words of Jesus would have been proclaimed.   The weak are the closest to God’s heart.

At Roslyn, near Edinburgh, there is the famous statue of Reconciliation. It depicts two human beings, one embracing the other.   You cannot see the difference between the two as you walk around the statue, until finally you notice in the hands of the outer of the two, the one embracing the other, has the marks of the nails.   It is Jesus the Reconciler, the One who exalts the least.   Jesus is the one in and through whom the new humanity is created.   We find our identity in and through Christ alone.   That has been preordained since the beginning by God.   And that means that all other human divisions are trivial – transcended even – in the sight of God.   Here is the true doctrine of predestination.  

One of the difficulties at the time of the Reformation was that to counteract the power of Rome, Protestant churches were set up as national churches.   So was have the Protestant Churches of Germany, Switzerland, Holland, Scotland, and so on.

But this is fundamentally problematic when viewed in the light of Jesus’ teaching, for the church must be universal.   There must be no sole identity in the country of origin.   Therefore, the WCC has done for Protestants what the Catholic Church does for Catholics.

Margaret Mead, the American anthropologist, attending the 5th Assembly of the WCC in Nairobi in 1975 and surveying the vast crowd, said: “You people are a sociological impossibility. You have absolutely nothing in common, except your extraordinary conviction that Jesus Christ is the Saviour of the world.”   That is why we are the Uniting Church in Australia, not the Uniting Church of Australia.

These words of Jesus are words of two things: first they are words of encouragement, indeed words which have the potential to create identity for a fearful, marginalised minority, who wondered about their very existence.   Secondly, they are the basis of the only true unity that there can be within the church.

From that we see three things:

1.    That our identity and our very future as individuals are in God’s hands.   Fear for our future as individuals is something quite outside, unnecessary, for our Christian faith.

2.    Our identity as a Uniting Church is ultimately not a denominational identity.   It is an identity of truth and faithfulness in Christ alone. That is what the Basis of Union is all about.

3.    The true worship of God, that is the worship in which we engage ourselves this morning here in Kippax Church, or our worship during the week with our minds, our will, our service, and our enjoyment, and our political interests, and our social concerns, and our moral outrage, is a worship which only can exist through Jesus Christ, for in him we have a new identity. Nothing in life or in death, or beyond death, can separate us from that.

So, predestination, as understood in Jesus’ words, not as understood in particular later interpretations of Augustine or of Calvin, speaks of raising up the oppressed and the minority, and of lowering the proud and the mighty

It gives the whole a new identity to these groups who find their identity in Christ, which points to a true non-discriminatory unity in Christ.   It is about the grace and wonder of God, which cancels out the meanness of humanity.

I began with a Japanese Christian, Kosuke Koyama.   I end with a Scottish Congregational theologian, P T Forsyth, who put it in these words: “For years I thought I was a lover of God: now I know that I am an object of God’s grace.”

That faith is what God creates for us.   May you and I be enabled to live it out in our daily lives.

Posted in Sermons

UCA Anniversary

Both inspired by and in spite of my name, I like to do a little cheffery,
testing out the various properties and tastes of foods, and what makes them as they are

One thing I have relatively recently become aware of is Celery and its various tastes
Did you know,  that the nature and taste of celery is specifically related to nature of light

The way the light shines changes the way that things grow

In one sense, the Sun is the same no matter where we are on earth
         in fact, the Sun itself doesn’t change, depending on where we are
         But our experiences of the sun, and the particular nature of its qualities
         are perceived quite differently here, from Germany, or Geneva,
          or Scotland,  or North America.

         Different things grow, or similar things grow in different ways.

The Sun is the same, but our experiences, perceptions and interpretations change
Or to put it in more theological terms for today
The Son is the same, but our experiences, perceptions and interpretations change.

 The Uniting Church was formed (finally) in 1977.

Initial conversations started around 1900.  Things in the church move slowly
One of the most important foundations in the coming together
was the passage we have read this morning:hat through the unity of believers, the world may realise that Jesus is the son of God.

In the key period leading up to the formation of the Uniting Church, demonstrating unity was linked really closely to institutional unity. That was the way that the light shone.

Its an interesting study that could be had, I think, about the way that we understand unity

And although it is not exclusively generational, I think there is some pretty heavy links.

For people who were adult in the time of the formation and lead into formation of the UCA
unity is often associated with “structuring something so that we can all do it together”

For the church as a whole, this led to the push towards denominational unity:
in our case, the UCA

My guess is if the who thing were pushed along 30-40 years, and the question was now
I think it is possibly unlikely that the UCA would be born:
          institutional unity isn’t as much of a priority for the 2 generations that have come.

Do you want a local example of the same sort of thinking?

From time to time here at Kippax, we hold combined Sunday services.
And do you know who I hear from almost exclusively about how good it is
that we be united by doing this all together
The generations who were adults by the mid to late 70s.
Unity doesn’t always need to be expressed institutionally

But even with the UCA, even with its institutional flavour, the aim was a little different.

The Basis of Union – which has Jesus front, centre, and woven strongly throughout –
is very very clear.   We are built on the foundation of the Risen Christ.

But one of the most important things about the self-understanding of the UCA
is the relationship between Christ and the Church.

The Uniting Church is an expression of a particular understanding of this relationship
It was key at the time of Union – and I hope and believe it is still strong today.

That understanding is that while the risen Christ is the foundation of the Church
Christ does not belong to the church.

We would understand (I hope) that the risen Christ was risen into the world
and not risen into the Church.

The church is a by-product of the resurrection, and not the place of the resurrection.

The Church is an institution formed by Christ’s presence,
         but Christ is actually a wandering alien, not a resident church ruler.

Christ is risen into the world, we are reminded in each of the gospels,
and on his way into history and into the fullness of God’s reign 

The true location of the Church is in the future of God’s coming kingdom
not in the present of the world’s settings.
The Church is a future oriented body – an eschatological being, you might say.

 On Christ’s way into the future of God’s reign,
Christ forms and then leads (maybe drags) the church as his witnesses. 

That is why the Uniting Church states that
In his own strange way, Christ constitutes and rules the church”
We acknowledge that we are a strange being.

But – and here is an absolutely vital part of our self-understanding in the UCA –

If Christ is risen into the world, and forms the Church along the way,
our basic orientation as we seek Christ and seek to be true to Christ,
is an orientation to the world, not to the church.
That is where we look for the presence of God.

We have to be open to others, and to expressions of living beyond the life of the church
NOT because we are a product of any general liberal tolerant tendencies of the 1960s
but actually because of our understanding of Jesus Christ.

Christ is risen into the world, and we are built on the foundation of Christ

That, as just one example,
is why when we are seeking to fund projects beyond the life of Kippax
for the ongoing development of the movement of God,
we will actively consider some that are church based and some that are not.
It is fundamental to who we believe Christ is that we do that.

34 years on, and the Son is still the same
But my guess is that 34 years on, the experience, perception and interpretations of the Son
are not quite the same

So we will, just like the celery, have a different feel or flavour.

But still we remain a pilgrim people,
on the way to the promised end,
fed by Christ through word and sacrament
and living to the eternal glory of God through Jesus Christ

Posted in Sermons

Awesome stories

Im not sure if this is the most inspiring passage for a congregation about Church life
or the most intimidating passage for a congregation about Church life.

Or maybe it is both.

Devotion, teaching, fellowship, awe, wonders, miracles, common ownership.  Wow.

I think the reason it is both inspiring and intimidating is that there is something
that both longs for and admires the great life-affirming signs of true community
and at the same time the concept of his sort of way of living
strikes us as almost cult like, and seems to demand things of us we don’t want to give

So we can sideline the reading as idealised,
            or we can say that it may have described an “is” (or was) but not a “should”
            or we can say that it may have worked in that time, but not in ours.

That way we can hold on to the good feeling and not have the uncomfortable twist.

It is good to remember that the Book of Acts has stories like this
AND it also has stories of greed, infighting, factionalism and exclusivity
and so we shouldn’t be disheartened when we don’t see Acts 2 all the time in church.

Acts pictures what the church truly can be.

In fact what I think Acts 2 does is to open up a window for us to spend time with
and to give us a picture of what the risen Jesus can create in and among his people.

So we should also be able to get a glimpse of that sort of picture here – if we are church 

I see devotion in this place.   I see teaching.  I see fellowship.
I see common sharing.  I even see ‘signs and wonders’. 
I see good standing with the people from outside the church

I wonder, just wonder, whether I see “awe”.  Whether I see amazement.

Was there anything that was ‘awe-some’ for you this week?
Is there anything that was inspiring for you this week?

I thought it was awesome this week when I watched the New Inventors and I saw the story of someone who has dedicated over 15 years of his life to try and make just, equitable and sustainable living a reality in developing countries, in a way that is not limited by gender or by class.

I thought it was awesome this week  when I got an email from someone saying how delighted they wereto be part of a congregation community which was inclusive, which was welcoming, and which allowed them to travel their faith journey at their place and in their way, with their questions and their doubts

I thought it was awesome this week when I saw one of our staff members put themselves
right into the middle of a very difficult and painful situation with a person with severe mental health difficulties and stay with that person right through an emotionally charged period in their life to try and build a better way of living for them.

I thought it was awesome this week when a person whose father died earlier this year
made a connection with one of our groups and was welcomed and befriended, and offered hospitality and care.

I thought it was awesome this week when I had a conversation with someone who had recently had an experience of God’s spirit creating one of those special quiet moments and they felt they just wanted to stay there and live in it for longer.

Do you know what I think makes the community of faith awe-some? It’s the way that God takes what we put in and energises and enlivens it.

In one case it was a person putting in an idea, a training and a stack of time
In one case it was a person putting in their honesty, their questions and their faith
In one case it was a person putting in their training, and their patience
In one case it was some people putting in their welcome and their smiles
In one case it was someone putting in their time and their stillness

And in each case what was put in was transformed into something life giving

The next stage of Kippax’s life lies ahead of it.

And this is the time to be inspired and to be filled with awe.

If you aren’t finding things to be awe-struck about,
then I really just don’t think youre paying attention closely enough
or maybe you are so occupied with things that you are missing the moments.

There is a lovely concept in the Eastern Orthodox tradition
for the deliberateness that is required to bring about a deeply Christian living
either as individuals or as a community of faith.
It is “nepsis” – or loosely translated “vigilence”

To be “neptic” is to be watchful, alert, on guard and attentive
to anything and everything that entails a devotion to the way of Jesus

The danger is that the less we are neptic, the more we become septic!

Can I encourage you – with all that I have – to be neptic, not septic. Can I encourage you to stop and notice the signs of devoted living, of shared lifestyles of good fellowship – even of teaching that has led you somewhere new.

Can I encourage you to consider what it is that you are “putting in”
to the way of Christian living
and can I encourage you to take the tough step of trying even harder to “put in”
when you are a bit grumpy that you aren’t getting enough out of it.

 And when you do notice something, when you are alert to the ‘signs and wonders’
write them down; have a conversation; send an email.

Let’s develop the habit – a Christian practice we may develop –
of aiming to have one time every day
where in some way we share with someone else
one of the great things that we have seen or been involved with
because of the wonders of the spirit of the risen Christ among us,

Posted in Sermons

One foot in front of the other

I was talking with a friend recently
who had been going through a pretty difficult time for a stack of reasons.
And they joked with me that they thought it was
like their brain had shut down a bit and was only half working.

 They were forgetting people’s names, missing appointments for events, losing things they had put down.

For them it lasted quite some time not just through the actual moment of the stress, grief and confusion but a bit of time on the other side of it as well.

And then, slowly, things began to be a bit clearer again.
Slowly.

In Mark, when the disciples are out in the boat,
and the storm is threatening to toss them overboard and overwhelm them
Jesus walks out to them on the water
and at first they don’t recognise who it is.

 In John’s gospel, when Mary goes to the tomb on Easter Sunday
and she is in the midst of both grief and confusion
she see this man standing there, and doesn’t recognise him,
thinking instead that it is the gardener

 In Luke, when Cleopas and the other traveller are heading to Emmaus
they are still quite distraught about what has happened on Good Friday
and the way that their hopes and dreams had been dashed
and in that state, they do not recognise the person who is walking alongside

 Somewhere in the gospel stories, there is the strong suggestion
that we have to work hard to be able to see where God is active.

It seems to be a suggestion that we can miss it.
Maybe we miss it when – for whatever reason – we focus back in
on what is going on with ourselves, our emotions, our disappointments.

Maybe we miss it when – through stress and grief and trauma – our eyes and hearts become blurred.

Have you ever wondered when you heard this story from Luke
why the 2 people were on the road to Emmaus that Sunday?
I wonder if it was their home and they were just heading back there.
I wonder if it was the place to escape to because life was too difficult
I wonder if it was a place of safety because they thought they were in danger
I wonder if it was the place of refreshment – a time out to clear the head
          and get ready for whatever was next
I wonder if it was a place of quiet retreat –
          where they could attempt to make sense of a non-sensical experience

I wonder how many of us are taking a wander down the Emmaus Road today
without even necessarily realising that we’ve started out on the journey.

Maybe only half thinking.   Maybe too sad to think.  Maybe escaping
maybe just plain confused because there is too much going on to process.

 The hessian off this side of the cross is the same hessian we used in Lent
Then it was used as the cross road – inviting us to think
about whether we were going to head off and stay with the place of death
or head off down the path that Lazarus took to new life

Here the hessian – this path of confusion and sadness –
makes its connection with Easter

Just like the Easter experience of last week with Thomas was an experience in the middle of not really being sure about everything the Easter experience of this week is in the middle of grief and sadness and confusion and lost hopes

Easter is a reality

 But it is the stranger in the middle of this confusion that makes the difference
It is the one whom we weren’t expecting who starts to make the connections
It is the one we don’t know well who shows us the presence of the risen Christ.

 Carvaggio sets the scene of his painting and the time of insight  – The time when the two travellers realise that Christ has been with them. But the painting invites us in to the scene
The fruit is there at our chair.  The arms welcome us to the meal.

Welcome in!

William Willamon in one of his writings on this passage also invites us in”

“If you want to experience the resurrection of Jesus Christ in your life,
where you live, just get up in the morning and put one foot in front of the other
and head down the road. Follow the way.
But please, go with a bit of imagination.
Walk with the expectation of the possibility of surprise.”

 My prayer is that as you walk your road to Emmaus with the grounded reality that we share day by day you will go ready for the possibility of surprise and a willingness to experience the presence of the risen Christ.

Posted in Sermons