Monthly Archives: September 2015

27 September – Watch your tongue

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Sunday 26

James 3:1-12
Psalm 124
Mark 9:38-50

To raise a child is to become acutely aware that we are made by the world around us. With rewards for certain behaviour and punishments for other behaviour we are taught the rules by which our particular shared world is ordered: how people are to relate to each other, who can relate to whom, and when. We learn where the boundaries are, what we might expect of others and what they might expect of us. For most of us, most of the time, this set of expectations shapes what is “normal”. And, for the most part, these normal expectations form the basis for what we call morals. A moral person observes the social mores of his community – the customary expectations of a society. It is our expectation of the observance of these mores which binds us together.

This is important for understanding what James writes of the power of “the tongue”. Consider how many ways we have of commenting upon how people might misuse their tongue: “mind your tongue”; “button your lip”; suffering from “foot-in-mouth disease”, “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all,” as well as a few more less polite ones. Our very familiarity with such sayings about our speech indicates how often we note that people’s mouths get in the way of smooth human relations. We recognize, then, quite apart from any religious input, the wisdom of James here: “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire…”

But, at the risk of seeming to be asking a silly question, in what sense is it wrong to speak critically of others? What are we actually doing, apart from the obvious failure to “Do to others as you would have them do to you”? Moral instruction such as James gives here is very often simply a heavy lid we try to place on our natural, if not always desirable, inclinations. Speaking “nicely” to and of each other is just another such lid, and when that lid is thrown off we accuse the speaker of breaking the rules.

But the irony is that criticising others, while it might break rules about being civil, is at the same time an application of social mores. Critique of others is not simply another moral failure but results from a judgement about how we think the world should be ordered, how people ought to behave. To speak ill of another is to measure her against some kind of standard – presumably a standard against which I, of course, measure up well. She is the one who has transgressed, who has failed to do the right thing in my eyes: failed to wear the right clothes, failed to have the right mobile phone, failed to vote correctly, to have the right skin colour, failed to have helped when I thought she should have.

In speaking ill of each other we are not simply being “mean”; we are declaring what is normal and what is to be rightly expected, and we declare who is, therefore, not normal, who has ostracised themselves. The safe ones are the ones who do the “right” thing, whatever we think that is. “Right” will not necessarily be the same in a classroom as it is within a criminal cartel, but in either case the people involved know what is expected of them and know about the tongue-lashing – or bullet in the back of head! – which can arise from transgression.

Schoolyard bitchiness and workplace bullying and even more moderate gossip are, then, not just about victimisation, not just about the strong and the weak, not just simply mean-spiritedness. They are about defining boundaries of behaviour or character and applying those boundaries to punish by exclusion. The critic is the one who knows the rules and sees where there has been a transgression; the critic is the righteous one.

And so “the tongue” of which James writes here is not wild and random; it is precise. It has its destructive effect not because it is wantonly untameable but because the engine behind it is a self-righteous heart which sees and knows exactly what is wrong.

Simply holding your tongue, then, is not going to get to the heart of the matter, for that heart concerns not what we believe about the other person but what we believe about ourselves. It is because we have adjudged ourselves righteous that we can judge others otherwise. The moral injunction to say nothing if you can’t say anything nice may put a heavy lid on destructive talk and, so , give a semblance of peace and harmony, but it will not change that self-righteous centre.

The way of peace begins with peace. And so a gentle tongue requires a gentled heart. A gentled heart springs from a humility taught by God’s mercy.

Mercy is the unexpected willingness to relax the rules which make it possible to be part of human community. A lack of mercy is a trait in those who do not know themselves to be the recipients of mercy. Mercy given, if it truly is mercy and not just a hidden manipulation for our own interests, springs from the experience of mercy received.

Our talk about each other is to be speech which reflects the knowledge that we, too, are under consideration by others: someone else is judging, or has judged us – be it God or the person you’re sitting next to.

Our talk is to be speech which knows that, were we to be held account for our adherence even to our own personal moral code, we too would be found to fall short.

Our talk is to be speech which reflects that we have been given what we could not produce for ourselves: a standing, a righteousness before God, which is not deserved.

And so our tongues cannot to be driven by self-righteousness; for these are tongues onto which are placed the bread and the wine, the signs of a righteousness which comes not from within but from without.

Grace, forgiveness, mercy – for those who are wrong or just different – these are to be the grammar of our speech, if we are to lift each other up rather than keep each other down, if there is to be an “us” which will finally be life-giving and not life-denying.

All of this is because this is the way in which God speaks to us. So, watch your tongue, for Christ’s sake, and for the sake of those around you. Amen.

UCA President’s Syrian Refugee Appeal

The UCA National, Stuart McMillan, has launched an appeal for Syrian Refugees; the letter is here.

Lin Hatfield Dodds, the National Director of UnitingCare Australia, has circulated the following information in response to the offers of assistance for the refugees to be taken up by Australia:


  1. There will be no “allocation” of people. The new intake of Syrian refugees will come to Australia to be permanently settled. As such, they will settle where they choose.
  2. Until we are able to find the persecuted groups that the Australian Government has prioritised, assess them, stablise them, and work with them, we do not know where they will wish to settle.
  3. We do know that refugees more often than not choose to start off life in a new country near people they know, or at least, people from their own country and culture.
  4. We know that around 70% of the Syrian refugees resettled in Australia to date live in Sydney.
  5. The new intake of refugees will not be going into people’s homes. It would be really good to get this message out. They will be coming under the Settlement scheme and are thus entitled to housing and supports as they settle. As importantly, these are people who are coming to Australia directly out of the crisis situation. They will be severely traumatised. Our UnitingCare agencies will play a key role in this mobilisation of professional services.
  6. What we will need from UCA members is people to welcome our incoming traumatised, resilient and hopeful friends into their lives as friends and into their communities. This must be a long run and genuine welcoming to really integrate people into Australian life.
  7. In addition to this group of 12,000 in the spotlight, there are around 20,000 asylum seekers in Melbourne and 10,000 in Sydney (and I presume large numbers elsewhere) who have no status. This means that they are not allowed to work. They are not eligible for housing assistance, or unemployment benefits. They cannot access Medicare. They live supported by amazing Australians from churches and other movements. It is this population that we might consider welcoming into our homes and donating goods and money to. We are looking to hold a roundtable with the Catholic church to explore leveraging the current outpouring of practical love in ways that will improve the lives of those many invisible people who struggle to live in Australia having fled crisis in their own countries of origin.
  8. Finally, timing. We may receive some Syrian permanent settling refugees before Christmas. That’s the hope and plan. Or we may not. These processes take time. The Government has established a national taskforce (that I sit on) which itself has established a suite of expert working groups who are getting on with the very focussed job of preparation. I will communicate every step of the way with you.

Thank you for your love in action for sisters and brothers from across the world who are fleeing the unimaginable.

Grace and peace


Launch of LitBits!

LitBits Logo - 2 WITH S“LitBits” are a new liturgical educational aid for congregations. We have started to develop and use them at Mark the Evangelist, and imagine than others might find them helpful as well! LitBits are text snippets intended to be inserted into a pew sheet in the midst of the liturgy itself or as part of your pew sheet’s “notices” section. For more information, see here.

LitBit Commentary – Rowan Williams on Confession

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“Belief in Christ involves (if our discussion has been on the right lines thus far) a vision of the entire human world as a network of oppression and privation, in which no one is wholly free from the responsibility of making victims: so that penitent awareness is indispensably part of reconstructed humanity.”

Rowan Williams, Being Christian, p.55


How to use LitBit Features and Commentaries.

20 September – The wise way

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Sunday 25

James 3:13-4:8
Psalm 1
Mark 9:30-37

T.S. Eliot once wrote of

…The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to GOD.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Bring us farther from GOD and nearer to the Dust. (The Rock)

…“the wisdom we have lost in knowledge.”

James writes of such wisdom in our reading this morning. Wisdom is often thought to be a supercharged version of knowledge, or the accumulation of knowledge and so something which comes with time and age. On this understanding, wisdom is a natural thing which comes with experience.

There is, of course, some truth in this. Anyone not learning from life is not paying enough attention. And yet Eliot observes in his poem:

…The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Bring us farther from GOD and nearer to the Dust.


Time might yield knowledge, but not necessarily wisdom; it can be that there is “Life we have lost in living.”

For James – and likely also for Eliot – wisdom is not so much the result of having learnt many things or the experience which comes with the passage of a lot of time but the result of having learned only one thing.

“Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom… do not be boastful and false to the truth… the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.” (James 3.13-17)

The “one thing” which is wisdom is living peaceably, with gentleness, mercy and humility. Such wisdom is as much a possibility for those who’ve lived only a short time, as it is for their grandparents.

It is easy to impress with great knowledge, or with rhetorical skill, or with political shrewdness, or with artistic talent, or with technical ability – any one of which might be construed as a kind of wisdom.

But James’ point is that wisdom does not impress so much as quite simply effect healing and wholeness between God and people. Or, to invert this, where healing and wholeness – reconciliation – between people occurs, wisdom is present and active.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

We gather today after worship for the first of perhaps 5 or 6 such meetings over the next year or so to think together about the mission of this congregation, and this in connection with the resources we have. What is the place of wisdom in this adventure?

We are intending to pay quite a lot of money for expertise to assist us – providing perhaps “knowledge” in Eliot’s discrimination between information, knowledge and wisdom. There are, doubtless, also a few “experts” sitting in our pews possessing perhaps knowledge, perhaps even a kind of wisdom, about these things, although not necessarily always as James has described it.

The thing about expertise, however, and the kind of wisdom which comes from experience, is that it is either neutral or risks binding the future with the past. Numbers and graphs tell us how things are but not what to do about them. Wisdom springing from experience can remind us of what happened in the past, but this cannot be allowed to bind our hands for the future. Expertise and experienced opinion will only get us so far in matters of God’s reign: As Eliot puts it,

All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death.

But the alternative is not – perhaps is never – to invoke the pious “What Would Jesus Do?” in this situation. For the gospel is not that Jesus was wise, even if by most measures he was. It is not that he was wise in the sense of clever, and so knew how to calm and pacify. Rather, the gospel is that Jesus is the wisdom of God, in James’ terms. Jesus is the means of peace, humility, gentleness. We fall into religious sentimentality if we reduce our understanding of Jesus to adjectives: that he was wise or humble or gentle or merciful, and that we should be too.

The gospel, however, is not sentimental; Jesus – Christ crucified – is wisdom (the noun) and through Jesus God verbs us into humility and mercy. With God, wisdom is not a laudable thing we might have or acquire but the very means of creation. Godly wisdom creates gentleness and humility.

“Who is wise and understanding among you?” James asks. He answers, the one who brings peace, gentleness, mercy.

But how is this actually possible when it comes to real, communal life with its struggles and tussles? How is it possible to engage in this way when extraordinarily important things are at stake in a community? As we discuss what we must over the next year or so, are we not really talking about Truth, and Salvation, and Judgement and Vocation into Mission? What is the place of gentleness and mercy when Everything hangs in the balance? What is the place of humility and peace when it is obvious – at least to me and those who agree with me – that everyone else just doesn’t get it and is running blind and heading for catastrophe?

It is a matter of whether we imagine ourselves to be preparing for mission, or engaged in mission in the very decision-making process itself.

We all know, I suspect, that if we lost it all – our property and our cash reserves – the congregation would still be church. Or we think we know this because it is only theoretical until it happens. But the point is that, for each of us, we are entering now into the possibility that some dimension which has been important to us about Mark the Evangelist and its parent communities might be lost.

And our problem, as we begin to negotiate all of this, is that we have to decide together what that loss will be. This is what threatens to make it difficult.

If the Synod got stroppy and just took it all away, we would have a common enemy and, sitting together in this space, we would be bound together by the logic that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Or, if by an act of God – so called! – the whole plant were wiped from the face of the earth and our insurance policy was found to have lapsed, we would have in common the affliction of circumstance, and be bound by the need to encourage and comfort each other.

But we have to decide – to cut­ (de-caedere: to cut off) – which is very different. In deciding, we take on responsibility. In taking on responsibility, we can be called to account. Common enemies and common affliction bind us together as they change our situation; taking decisions within a community about the future of the community has the potential to divide. (We have seen this this week: there is no such thing as a bloodless coup! In a coup there is no gentleness, no mercy, no peace, even as it seems the “wise” thing to do).

Some of you will be put out because we did decide to retain the tower for the Kingdom, or because we did not. Some because we maintained Hotham Mission in its current form, or did not. Some because we stayed on site, or moved to a rental property. This is how broad our thinking will be.

This is what James’ teaching on gentle wisdom requires of us in relation to what lies ahead: decide now what your response to the congregation’s final decision will be. Not decide what option we should take up, but decide how you will respond to the community’s decision, knowing that it might not be the “wise” one in your view.

How is this possible? How is it possible to decide now before you even know what the outcome will be?

This is only possible if the specific shape of the outcome does not finally matter, if the wisdom which will be active among us is not that in 9 or 12 or 36 months’ time we got the best solution, but that we grew closer together, that different experiences and expectations and desires and needs did not divide us from each other but bound us more closely.

To decide now how you will receive our final decision is only possible if Paul is right: that in all of this there is neither temple nor tent, mission nor worship, justice nor righteousness, for all are one in Christ Jesus (cf. Galatians 3.28).

This is to say, more bluntly, that God probably doesn’t much care what we decide. I imagine God to be very curious about what we will do, but whatever the decision God’s response will be the same: I can work with that. Luther remarked once that this God can shoot a crooked arrow and ride a lame horse. We are the arrow; our balance sheets are the horse.

None of this is to say that there is not hard work to be done, that we should not gather the information, convert it into knowledge and apply the wisdom of experience and insight as part of the whole process. And neither is it the case that the process itself is all that matters; it is only that the process and the goal must cohere. Some future reconciling mission is only achievable by reconciling means.

Which brings me back to something said earlier, now said more directly: we are not entering into a preparation for mission; we will be engaged in mission in the very decision-making process itself. This is our mission as much as anything else – to do the work which just happens to fall us here and now in such a way that gentleness and mercy and peace are both the means and the end.

In fact, we enact this each week as we gather around the table. There can be no sharing there week after week if it all falls apart in the meetings, and at the end. For as we put out our hands for bread and cup we declare that we are bound together because my friend Jesus is also the friend of my enemy.

And so God says to us through James: humble yourselves, that God may lift you up; let go, that you might find yourself held, whatever it seems you might be falling into. Let God’s wise way become your way, as he draws near to you, creating gentleness, humility and mercy.

By God’s grace, may that peaceable wisdom not be found by us to have been in vain, but rather to be bearing good fruit among all God’s people. Amen.

LitBit Commentary – James Torrance on Prayer

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We can only pray ‘in the name of Christ’ because Christ has already, in our name, offered up our desires to God and continues to offer them.  In our name, he lived a life agreeable to the will of God, in our name vicariously confessed our sins and submitted to the verdict of guilty for us, and in our name gave thanks to God.  We pray ‘in the name of Christ’, because of what Christ has done and is doing today in our name, on our behalf.
James Torrance, Worship, Community and the triune God of Grace, p. 35


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LitBit Commentary – Timothy Radcliffe on the Eucharist 1

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The Eucharist is a mystery not because it is mysterious, but because it is a sign of God’s secret purpose, which is to unite all things in Christ.  In the Eucharist we celebrate that the mess of human history, with its violence and sin, its wars and genocides, is somehow, in ways that we cannot now understand, on its way to the kingdom.  It is God’s will that we be gathered into unity, reconciled with each other.  And so we begin the Eucharist asking the forgiveness of our brothers and sisters, the angels and the saints, the whole vast community of the kingdom.  It is a sign that we are willing to be gathered into God’s peace with the rest of creation.

Timothy Radcliffe, Why Go to Church? p.19


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13 September – Be merciful, as God is merciful

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Sunday 24

James 2:1-13
Psalm 19
Mark 8:27-38

James asks: “Do you really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, if you show partiality in your treatment of people, on the basis of their wealth and status?” Clearly he thinks not – as would most of us. But it is important to understand why.

The typical “religious” reason is that, since all religion is “really” about the Golden Rule, we must love one another as ourselves in order to be “religious”. Showing partiality on account of something as trivial as wealth is clearly not the type of thing most of us would enjoy if it happened to us. We cannot, then, be truly religious if we discriminate in this way, and so we clearly cannot believe in Jesus if we show such this kind of partiality.

The religious logic is clear, or the moral logic, if religion is reduced in this way to mere morality. And this would be fine for understanding James here if his logic were merely religious or moral, but it in fact it isn’t. James is thinking out of what he believes God has done in Jesus, and not out of general religious ideas. The link he draws is between good works and believing in Jesus (and not between good works and believing per se). Why should faith in Christ make a difference to how we behave, rather than any other moral motivation we might have?

We see James’ Christian logic becoming clearer when he starts to talk about judgement: to discriminate on the basis of something like wealth, he says, is “to become judges with evil thoughts”. The emphasis falls here on the word “judges”. The problem is not the failure to love or serve, but that this arises from the willingness to judge – the willingness to evaluate another person’s worth. (This is different from the way in which we sometimes have to judge another person’s actions, whether in our legal system or just in our normal relations which each other.) James is concerned with the judgement which presumes, but we will need to backtrack a bit before coming to this.

To show partiality, James says to us, is to fail to love, and this is to sin. This much is clear enough to most of us. Yet he pushes it further than most of us would like to admit: to sin or fail at this one point of the law is quite simply to have failed the whole law.

He illustrates this with the example of murder and adultery. In terms of keeping the law, we have no higher standing before God if we are guilty of judging one another than if we are guilty of murder or adultery. To fail to fulfil the law by judging another as unworthy of our help is the same as failing to fulfil it elsewhere.

We might then rightly cry out, “Who can possibly be righteous?”, if the smaller transgression is as serious as the greatest. And when we religious creatures have to answer our own question with “no-one can be righteous”, the pessimism is really too much to bear: we are forced to self-justification.

And this brings us back to the judgement which presumes. It is this self-justification which is the basis of our presumption to judge of the worth of others, and so the basis of our discrimination and partiality. The basis for judging others as unworthy is that we have judged ourselves, and found ourselves differently worthy – indeed, we have found ourselves close enough to righteous to dare to claim to be just that.

It is here that we fail the test of belief in Jesus. To believe in Jesus is not to have a religious or moral idea which just happens to be Jesus-flavoured. To believe in Jesus is to trust that I am not what I actually look like to those who might try to measure my worthiness – I am not even what I look like to myself. And this is the case whether I look very impressive, or whether I look very plain. There is more to me than I can say or see, and this more is that I am embraced by mercy. The good news of the gospel is that, as one of those who fails to keep the Golden Rule – what James calls the “royal law” – I have nevertheless received mercy, are receiving mercy.

Mercy does not exclude judgement; it just changes the outcome. Mercy recognises that a benefit is not deserved, and yet gives it anyway. James argues that we who have received mercy in Christ are to be merciful to others. While we might judge, while we might seek to determine who deserves what, the act of mercy sets those judgements aside and gives without regard to what is deserved, and who is worthy.

Mercy, then, implies that we are not to love merely according to the Golden Rule – as we would ourselves be loved – but that we are to love as indeed we have been loved, if indeed we claim to have received God’s mercy. As we gather each week around the eucharistic table, we make an enacted prayer for mercy. The table is not merely a fellowship space at which all are welcome but a table for the bringing together of the penitent. The real change which takes place is not that the bread and the wine become body and blood, but that body and blood spilled and broken by us become, by God’s mercy, body and blood for us. “Amen” we say, to the declaration this is the body, the blood – Amen, Yes: what is Christ’s I receive as my own.

To return to James’ ethical expectation: we say, usually too glibly, that we meet Christ (or God) in the person we serve (cf. Matthew 25.31-46): we are serving Christ (how good of us!) But in fact this only occurs when we also experience ourselves in the meeting with the other, for we do not discover God without discovering ourselves. What is important in our knowledge of God is knowing ourselves according to God’s knowledge of us.

And so, perhaps we are not so much to see God in the other as to be as God to them, seeing ourselves in them, as recipients of God’s mercy, just as those others might now be recipients of our mercy. James calls us to speak and act as those who are to be judged by “the law of liberty”. The “law of liberty” is the call to serve others because it is in serving we discover how God has experienced and served us, and so had mercy on us also. In serving others, God’s experience of us becomes more fully our own experience.

This is salvation: not faith “and” work (or without work, as James emphasises!), but faith through work – mercy received and enacted in the same moment.

As they seek to respond to God’s righteous command for mercy and justice without discrimination, may all God’s people discover in that response the mercy that he has had upon us, and find new freedom to walk humbly alongside him. Amen.

Mark the Evangelist Update – September 12 2015


the latest MtE news update:

  1. On Sunday September 20 there will be a congregation discussion following worship (this replaces the previously planned Sunday Conversation). This will be an introduction of the Mark the Evangelist Futures Project (MTEFP), which is the process we will be going through to make a decision regarding our utilisation of the various capital resources we have for mission (including questions of the renovation of Union Memorial Church). The MTEFP is a major exercise which will engage us for the next 6-8 months. Further details about the September 20 meeting have been posted directly to congregational members. We expect to begin after a brief morning tea, and for the introduction and discussion to run between 1.5 and 2 hours (and so to include a light bring-to-share lunch).
  2. The most recent Synod e-Newsletter is here.
    Dr John Langmore will be presenting the next in the Church of all Nation’s series of Spring Conversations: Both Sides of War. His topic will be: Community Action for Peace. All are welcome at the CAN Church Space (180 Palmerston Street Carlton) for conversation and a light dinner on Monday 14 September between 5:30 and 7:30 pm.
  4. The VicTas Synod of the UCA has recently launched its Safe Church Policy; see here for more information.
  5. The Assembly of the UCA has called for immediate sanctuary in Australia of refugees from Syria and Iraq; see the press release here.


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