Monthly Archives: October 2016

16 October – Prayer and work

View or print as a PDF

Pentecost 22

Jeremiah 31:27-34
Psalm 119:97-104
Luke 18:1-8

It is a sad thing that we must admit that the account in our gospel reading this morning of a woman crying out for justice is a thoroughly familiar and contemporary story. It is the same as the cry for acknowledgement and redress from someone who was abused as a child by a person they should have been able to trust. It is the cry of the Palestinian who wants some kind of resolution after decades of deprivation and suffering. It is the cry of any individual who finds that the “one size fits all” of government policy or the expectations of her community in fact does not fit very many, and so she finds herself excluded because of the oversimplification of that kind of approach to needs and rights.

It is a thoroughly familiar story. Perhaps a little less familiar, or a little less comfortable, is what Jesus does with the story. In particular, he draws a comparison between God and the dishonest or lazy or corrupt judge to whom the woman goes for assistance. Jesus is much less squeamish than we are about taking from the good and the bad of the world to give illustration of how God works and so we have to let him do what he does. The lesson which seems to drop out of this, though – in the comparison between God and this judge – something along the lines of the value of persistence in prayer. The woman comes to the judge again and again and again, so that in the end the judge throws up his arms and says “Alright”. This seems to imply that this is how God responds to prayer: we are to pray and to pray and pray until such time as God finally gives us what we want.

This is a very poor understanding of the nature of prayer. It reduces our relationship to God to some kind of equation or formula. If we get the frequency or the persistence or the sincerity or just the sheer need in our prayer just right, God will give us what we want. Prayer becomes then a kind of magical incantation in which we push all the right buttons so that God response to us as we desire.

That is not only a wholly inadequate way of thinking about prayer. Most of us have also discovered that it just doesn’t work. No matter how persistent or faithful or sincere we are, we very rarely, if ever, receive response we seek. Most of us have probably tried this at one stage or another. It doesn’t work. And so we tend to keep prayer on the backburner and pursue justice by other means. We plan a society with just judges and good laws. We set up agencies like Hotham Mission to do the work of justice in the world. But in this process we fall into the same kind of trap as we can with prayer: the assumption that if we just get the formula right we can create a just society, a world in which everyone gets exactly what they deserve and need.

And yet if we reject persistence in prayer in view of evidence that it doesn’t actually seem to work, the evidence about the possibility of creating a just society through working for justice is just as shaky; our efforts at a just society have also not worked. If we were just to mark Jesus’ own words as the beginning of the project of a just society (noting, of course, that it is not since or following from Jesus that such efforts have been made) we would have to say that in 2000 years the very fact that the woman’s story is still familiar and contemporary suggests that, for all of our best efforts, working for justice does not create it. We still haven’t got the formula right. And so still we strive, still we pray.

So what is going on here, or what our text has to say to us this morning about our condition and our situation, and God in relationship to these?

Jesus makes rather a strange remark at the end of this morning’s reading concerning the coming of the Son of Man and whether or not the Son will find faith on earth. What is his point to here? I don’t think he is asking, Will there be people in the churches or synagogues? Will there be people praying, believing in God? “Faith” has, in the scriptures, a variety of meanings. Here I suspect that it means something along the lines of, Will there be people who have seen, who have understood, who have clarity about the nature of the world and our place in it?

Quite apart from the woman’s persistence in the parable is the sheer fact that she cannot generate for herself the justice she desires. As corrupt or lazy or unhelpful as the judge might actually be, she has to go outside her own capacities for the purposes of realising justice. I suspect that it is just this which Jesus indicates in the question about whether the Son of Man will find faith. The apocalyptic world view of the New Testament – the notion that the world is going to come to an end and all things will be set right – was a way of speaking about the incapacity of Israel to set the world right. It had to be God who did it. And, for all of their efforts unto justice – as important as they were – there was a constant looking outside of themselves to God, the just one, the one who would set things right.

Jesus asks, When the Son of Man comes will he find faith on earth? That is, will there be those who have understood, that for all of the prayer and for all of the good works, it is, in the end, God to whom is the kingdom of the power and glory?

None of this is to say that we ought not to be praying. It is to say that our prayers are naming that source of healing – outside of ourselves. We are not trying to twist God’s arm into doing things that God doesn’t want to do. Our prayers are naming that God is the one who will realise in the end the justice we most desperately need and desire.

And it is not to say that we ought not to be working for justice and, in our actions, indicating that the world is actually not right, that there are people who are excluded. But it is to say that, in the end, we are not going to be able to fix it, of which we have 2000 years’ evidence. This is not pessimism; it is just realism about our situation.

So what springs from this parable is that, yes, the question of justice is a pressing one and we have to work as if the answer to that question depended upon us. But at the same time, we ought to be praying because it does not.

So, let us pray, and work.

MtE Update – October 14 2016


the latest MtE Update:

  1. Our next after-worship conversation will feature Hotham Mission, this Sunday October 16.
  2. Information about an upcoming ecumenical forum on constitutional recognition of Australia’s indigenous peoples is here.
  3. The most recent Yarra Yarra Presbytery news (Oct 4) is here.
  4. The most recent Synod news (Oct 6) is here.
  5. The next full congregational meeting regarding our mission and property futures will follow worship on Sunday October 23.

Other things of potential interest:

  1. An opportunity to participate in a CPE course in 2017.

9 October – Hope

View or print as a PDF

Pentecost 21

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
Psalm 66
Luke 17:11-19

Jeremiah preaches to a community which is utterly hopeless. Theirs was an experience which I imagine is beyond the experience of any of us here and probably even beyond our imagining. For those who had been taken into exile in Babylon everything is gone. The kingship of Israel is gone. The nobility is dispersed. The temple has been destroyed and the land has been overrun. The things which have defined God’s relationship to the people of Israel, which have given Israel its identity, are all gone. These people are no mere refugees, as serious a situation as that would be. They are exiles, even captives, in the land of their enemies. Everything is gone and perhaps even God himself: an utterly hopeless situation.

It is into this that Jeremiah speaks with a word of promise. Even though everything has been lost, even though it has come to be marked as the judgement of God, nevertheless a word is spoken which opens up the future once again. God says, I will continue to be with you. To misquote one of Psalms: Yes, you will be able to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land. Settle, find and make a home here; I will still be your God and you will still be my people.

As we read ancient texts like this, one thing we do to understand how the Word then might be a Word to us now is to look for correspondences between that situation and our own. But I have already suggested that the situation of the text is quite beyond our current experience. It is even difficult for us to imagine what would have to happen for us to find ourselves in a situation like that of the Israelites in Jeremiah’s time.

We need to explore a little more over the next couple of weeks what it is that confronts us in our decision-making about our resources and buildings and mission as a congregation into the future. There is no sense in which we are hopeless as we move into this process, certainly not in the way in which those Israelites in Babylon could be said to be hopeless. Even in the unimaginable circumstances that we hear might actually lose everything, we know that there are many nets to catch us were we to fall away from Mark the Evangelist.

But hopelessness has more subtle forms than that experienced by the Israelites in Babylon, and there is a sense in which our process of thinking about our buildings to this date has itself been thoroughly shot through by a kind of hopelessness. What we have done over the last year is calculate and measure and diagramise and reason and debate and argue and then recalculate and re-measure and re-summarise and then sift and refine to get ourselves down to about three or four basic options: “sell everything”, “keep-the-whole-suite” and what is perhaps the medium between these two, retaining this corner with the Hall and the cottage.

I suggest that we have come to this conclusion “hopelessly” in the sense that it has been rather a scientific process, the process of measuring and describing and debating and remeasureing and balancing. We might say that it has almost been an exercise in magic in which we have tried to determine how the world works and to discover what the incantations are we can sing such that we might get the best possible result. Such a process is hopeless in the sense that it is impossible to factor God, and what God might want us to do, into the process of engaging with the facts and the numbers.

This kind of hopelessness is also present in the story of Jeremiah and Judah. It occurs before the exile as the leadership in Jerusalem do their calculations. “We have our temple – that should protect us; we’ve got the kinship, a covenant on the laws; we have our political alliances and we are working very hard playing off one enemy against another”. This is also a fairly hopeless process in the sense that you don’t really need God when you have all these things you own and can do.

What does this mean for us, that we have done all of this work and that is very hard to know where God fits into it all? I think it means that we need to hold very lightly the conclusions which have come out of our process and also our commitment to these conclusions and our sense of what it is which God might actually “want”. One possibility, “Option 1”, involves doing as the Son of Man is said to have done: to go without a place to rest ahead. We could, of course, choose this option and then die of exposure. On the other hand we could go with Options 5 or 6 – restoring the palace only to discover that there is a Sampson in our midst who will bring the whole thing down around our ears and kill us that way.

There is no hope (in a deep theological sense) which we can associate with any of these options. What the people are discovering in Babylon is that, as much as they’ve invested in the kinship of the temple in the land and history and so forth, what it is that God gives them in the end is, in fact, none of those particular shapes of the future but just himself. “I will be your God and you will be my people”, whether in Jerusalem or in Babylon. What is given is a restatement of God’s faithfulness. Have you died, perhaps of exposure? This is a God who raises the dead. Have you been crushed by the temple? This is a God who can build a temple of praise from dumb stones.

So the question is, How do we factor in the hope which is God’s faithfulness as we work through all of calculations and reasonings and projections into the future? We probably have to become God-like as we work through these things. This is to say that we have to enter into a process of promise making, because hope is all about making promises. Hope is about presenting something which is yet to happen as a reality here and now, upon which we can rely and therefore begin to move into the future, not necessarily knowing what shape the future will have other than that the one who promised to be there will, in fact, be there.

Jeremiah said to Israel, For all that has happened, now settle where you are. This God extends beyond the bounds of Palestine. Determine, in a sense even promise, to live among those who have shaped your world in the most undesirable and painful of ways.

For us here and now to hold our determinations a little more lightly than, perhaps, some of us might want to, is to make the same kind of promise, the one to the other. If tomorrow does not take the shape I thought it ought to take because of who I think we are as a church, I will nevertheless settle in that tomorrow and pray for and look for God to cause me and others to flourish out of that tomorrow.

I suspect that our calling here is to promise to live among with those who will decide for the “wrong” thing.

In this way we are seeking to become a sacrament of the mission we actually have in the world around us. For we are given to sit in a world which is very different from us, to engage with that world to discover how God is going to do something with the difference. And if we can’t see how that might work in ourselves as a faith community, it will never work between ourselves and those have not yet joined us along the Way.

In our decision-making over the next few weeks we must also be making promises. If we can make promises like this, and then seek to keep those promises, we will have demonstrated that we have a hope which is beyond the calculations, the imaginings and the reasonings. We’ll have demonstrated that there is a God who can raise the dead and cause dumb stones to sing.

And would that not be a very good thing?

MtE Update – October 4 2016


the latest MtE Update

  1. If any MtE members are interested in another opportunity to meet to consider our mission and property futures options, there is another group meeting this Wednesday Oct 5 at 2pm at the Elm Street cottage. Let Maureen or Craig know if you’d like your name added to the list (if it’s not already!).
  2. A recent statement from the VicTas Moderator on interfaith relations can be found here.
  3. The next after worship conversation will feature Hotham Mission, Sunday October 16.
  4. The next full congregational meeting regarding our mission and property futures will follow worship on Sunday October 23.

2 October – Faith in a faithful God

View or print as a PDF

Pentecost 20

Lamentations 1:1-6
Lamentations 3:19-26
2 Timothy 1:1-14
Luke 17:5-10

Sermon preached by Rev. Dr Peter Blackwood

Some of our favourite scripture texts are conveniently quoted out of context. A good one for when not many people turn up for a church event is from Mt 18 – For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them. (Matthew 18:20) It cheers us up enormously. Of course it is perfectly true – whether it be in worship or a meeting or a working bee – Christ is among his faithful, attendance numbers notwithstanding. For our comfort, when numbers are down, may we always be glad to be reminded that Christ is among us.

But the context of this text is discipline. Matthew 18 sets out a program for correcting behaviour in the Christian community. It is only after a step by step program for correcting a wayward member of the church in the name of God is outlined that we hear the text about Christ being among the two or three.

I mention this because this morning’s gospel is a good one for shifting the context a little.

The beginning of this morning’s gospel lesson is not one of the church’s favourites – probably because it rarely sees much need for casting mulberry trees into the sea, and the bits that follow about the slave coming in after working the fields then being expected to cook dinner is puzzling, though probably best appreciated by wives and mothers.

Strangely, the context of this text also has to do with discipline. The request by the disciples to increase their faith follows a stern rebuke by Jesus about the misuse of authority in the church community. The teaching about discipline begins with Jesus saying: “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come!  2 It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.” (Luke 17:1-2)

So the disciples have heard Jesus saying that if they, as leaders of the church, jeopardise the salvation of one of the little ones there will be dire consequences. Those consequences are not specified but they do rate at least one point beyond having a mill stone tied to the neck and being thrown into the sea – so, pretty dire. If this isn’t enough to put the wind up the future leaders of the church, Jesus goes on to tell them that when they are disciplining a member of the church and that person repents, they must forgive that person. Not only that, but they have to keep forgiving even if the pattern of bad behaviour does not change and the process of discipline followed by repentance continues up to seven times.

Now it is not clear whether the disciples are overwhelmed by the mill stone throwing prospect or the need to forgive a repeat offender, but their request of Jesus in the next verse – the beginning of our gospel lesson this morning, indicates that they do not feel up to Jesus expectations. So they ask, “Increase our faith.”

Jesus response is the memorable one about having faith the size of a mustard seed. That is all you would need to cast a mulberry tree into the sea. Matthew heard this saying a bit differently. He thought Jesus said you could cast a mountain into the sea. The point is that the faith the disciples have is affirmed. If you had so tiny a measure of faith, and you do have at least that much, that is all that is needed for the exercise of faithfulness in the Kingdom proclaimed in and by Jesus.

Then follows the uncomfortable bit about the relentless service demanded of a slave. This is uncomfortable in our culture – or it should be. We have hard won laws to guard against the kind of exploitation that is depicted here. We can only assume that those hearing and reading this account of what Jesus said understood the analogy and that the message was and is – service in the Kingdom doesn’t have a holiday. Now we know Jesus took time out, that he was wearied by the demands of crowds demanding his attention, that he enjoyed time off – so we can take heart that service in the Kingdom is not a relentless grind. I am encouraged in this thought by the prayer of St Augustine:

Lord, you are the light of the minds who know you, the
life of the souls who love you, and the strength of the
souls who serve you. Help us to know you that we may
truly love you, so to love you that we may fully serve
You, whose service is perfect freedom.

It is perhaps a curious juxtaposition of these two sayings of Jesus – the possibility of different sizes in faith and the servant who does not expect to be served. But it feeds into an issue that is visited a few times in the gospels, that of status in the Kingdom. Remember the disciples who asked for preferred seating arrangements in the Kingdom and arguments over who was greater. In the early church Luke tells of different Christian communities who claimed one or other leader as their authority on matters of faith. See? Nothing new. The message is clear – the Kingdom of God does not have a class structure.

The positioning of the two sayings points up the truth that people do seem to have different measures of faith (whatever that means) but faith the size of a mustard seed or the size of an avocado pip does not translate to time off for good behaviour in the service department.

The thing is that just as it is OK to take the ‘where two or three are gathered in my name’ text out of context, it seems to me OK to take the ‘increase our faith’ text out of context too. The context that Luke sets it in is that there will be difficult discipline issues to deal with to prompt the cry that denotes not coping – I am overwhelmed, I will need more faith. But the lesson that applies to this context may well apply to other dilemmas of life that prompt the same cry – we face difficulties as a congregation, as a denomination, difficulties as a Christian faith living among other faiths, difficulties living as a nation coping with the impact of world events that drive us to despair –  if only I had more faith I could cope with this. With more faith I could do something about these things.

Fortunately, living faithfully does not have to do with the size of my faith. If that were true my life would be very scary. I have to stay reliant on the hope that God is faithful. Does that let me off the hook? The outcome of the difficulties that beset me and the church and the nation are not dependant on the efficacy of my faith, or our faith. Luke writes about faith and its potency and then immediately writes about service that does not take a holiday. Faith is lived out in service and Augustine’s joy was that the in the God’s service is found perfect freedom.

When Jeremiah lamented for his people defeated and sent into exile, still he could say:

The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end;  23 they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. (Lamentations 3:22-23)