Monthly Archives: November 2016

27 November – A sign of the times

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Advent 1

Isaiah 2:1-5
Romans 13:11-14
Psalm 122
Matthew 24:36-44

Sermon preached by Rev. Dr Sandy Yule

[Note: This is a close relative of the sermon that was actually preached on Sunday morning. It has been written both before and after that sermon.]

‘But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father’ (Matthew 24:36).

This is the first Sunday in Advent, and so also the first Sunday of the church’s year. I have long been enamoured of Advent as a season, mainly because it begins with such a realistic view of our world. “There will be wars and rumours of wars’ (Matthew 24:6).  Enough said. Does not our pervasive, even global, anxiety rest on the threat of destructive conflict and the reality of it in all too many places?

In preparing for this sermon, I was struck by the oddity of a beginning which features the Second Coming of Christ as its main theme. At least you can say that it does make for a fully circular progression around the year! But how can this be a genuine beginning when it refers to the post-resurrection expectation of the return of Jesus, of whom we have presumably not yet heard? Perhaps we should simply acknowledge that each aspect of the church’s year has a topical place within the story of Jesus and a connection with God’s eternity, so that it is quite different from the secular idea of the New Year.

It is noteworthy that, at least in the Uniting Church, we don’t speak much of the Second Coming of Christ. This is true for me also. Whenever the topic comes up, this is the text that I quote. ‘But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father’ (Matthew 24:36). While the text literally refers only to the timing of the Second Coming, this ignorance is easily seen to be more global, as we have little idea or agreement as to what we are really expecting when we expect the Second Coming of Christ. I think I hope that it absolves me from too much knowledge of the topic, leading to the practical strategy of ignoring it. I do believe that this is preferable to the strategy of those who talk incessantly about the Second Coming and who use this as a reason why they don’t need to worry about present sufferers and the works of love.

Yet the church continues to present the Second Coming as crucial to our faith. This is because it holds out the promise that there will be a genuine judgement of the world and that evil will be definitively overcome. This is unimaginable to us, which is why the belief is couched in these strange and otherworldly terms. Some have tried to interpret the Second Coming as already fulfilled in the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. While it is true that the Holy Spirit makes present to us the things of Christ, regularly bridging the gap between the Risen Christ, seated at the right hand of God and ourselves, this idea only works if the Spirit is other than the person of Christ. Others have tried to interpret the Second Coming as the time when the teachings of Jesus and the real love of God in our hearts become so universal that evil and conflict is overcome. This is also a likely part of the truth, but the inbreaking, judging power of God is more than our human harmonious living. I conclude that we should frankly admit that we don’t have any clear idea of what the Second Coming might be like, nor what it means, apart from the essential reference to the time of the overcoming of evil, the judgement of our world and the public and visible inauguration of the reign of God.

Turning to our actual world, I can’t escape feelings of foreboding when I contemplate the candidacy and eventual election of Donald Trump, which has persistently dominated our media for a full year. Commentators of all stripes have been consistently wrong-footed by candidate Trump, who has shown considerable skill in half-saying dreadfully racist, sexist and misogynist things which the media felt obliged to publish (and which the transfixed interest of the viewing world encouraged them to keep publishing). The mismatch between what media pundits made of it and the support that he got from a significant section of American voters continues to baffle me. The best account of that that I heard was that his critics took him literally but not seriously, while his supporters took him seriously but not literally.

It is deeply disturbing to recognize that we have descended into a ‘post-truth’ world in our political culture. This is true here also, though in a less extreme form. Listening to candidate Trump, I was constantly wanting to invoke an ABC fact checker for confirmation that what I was hearing was untrue. When I was in Florida, a week or so before the election, I had a chance encounter with a man in the street who was convinced that Hillary Clinton had done many illegal things and that it was only her high connections that had kept her out of gaol. This man initiated the conversation with me and was at pains to let me know that, as far as he was concerned, it was all about winning politically. I feel that in this man, I encountered the reality of the post-truth world, where my concerns struggled to find a place.

What can we expect from President Trump? He has moved away from much of his campaign rhetoric the day after he was declared the winner of the election. It may be true that he is the one person who might be able to contain the divisive forces that he himself has let loose, though whether he will want to do so is most unclear. In the strange ways of history, conservative leaders can sometimes do good things not available to more progressive or left wing leaders who are also democrats. Yet the signs remain gloomy and many useful international alliances have been unsettled. Much is at stake when we remember the military power of the United States and the constant temptations to use it. Our fears circle back to wars and rumours of wars.

If our fears are not groundless, what should we say about them? The message of the advent season is that God has already acted to establish what is good and that it is God who is the one with whom we ultimately have to deal, in life and in death. Behind all the dark signs of the times, there is the light of hope that we glimpse in the prophetic words of scripture, that we hope for a time when all nations ‘shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks; [that] nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more’ (Isaiah 2:4). While this will not be good news while individual citizens maintain their arsenals, we can extend our hope to include all who rely on violence for their security, which obviously still includes ourselves. This is not a sensible, human project; it is a visionary hope that can only make sense on the basis of a transformation of the conditions of our lives that we do not comprehend and that we probably cannot comprehend. This is, nevertheless, a part of our faith to which we should remain open. For maintaining the faith, it is enough that we do not reject this vision as impossibly utopian, but recognize that it comes to us from the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. True peace, with justice for all, that satisfies the deep desire for fullness of life of the human heart, is contained as promise within God. It is enough for faith that we do not turn away from the promises of God, no matter how distant they seem from our everyday experience. In practice, we are challenged to wake up, to stay alert and to look for the signs of God’s reign which are even now appearing in our world.

The Christmas Bowl 2016

Each year Mark the Evangelist encourages its members and others to contribute to the Christmas Bowl, an annual appeal run by Act for Peace which raises funds for various national and international relief projects.

For an introduction to the focus of the appeal this year, click on the video below. The Christmas Bowl’s own home page is here. To contribute to the appeal, go directly to the appeal’s donation page.

Introduction to the Christmas Bowl Appeal 2016

2017-2-7 – Relgions for Peace Lecture – Melbourne VIC

Religions for Peace is jointly organising a public lecture with the University’s Chaplaincy. The lecture will be held on 7 Feb 2017 at 5:30pm in Gryphon Gallery of the 1888 Building. The lecture title is “Recently arrived religious leaders and exercising community leadership in Australia”. The speaker is Prof. Gary D Bouma, AM. Garry is the UNESCO Chair in Intercultural and Interreligious Relations (Asia Pacific), Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Monash University, Australian node of the Religion and Diversity Project (University of Ottawa), and the Acting Director of the Global Terrorism Research Centre. He is also the President of the Australian Association for the Study of Religions.

6 November – A gospel for rich and poor

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All Saints

Ephesians 1:11-23
Psalm 149
Luke 6:20-31

“Blessed are you who are poor… woe to you who are rich”.

Most of us have a pretty good idea that we’re not poor, and this, given the forecasts in the gospel passage, does not bode well for us. But we have a considerable interest in this and we will not go down without a fight! And so we can ask, What exactly do “rich” and “poor” mean? If a simple surface reading is true, then we might conclude with certainly that someone like Gina Rinehart has already received her consolation. And so probably also a Rupert Murdoch, and everyone else on the Rich List 200, and quite a few besides. But perhaps we imagine the fate of those who can afford to live in North Melbourne and environs may not be so clear. We know that there are those who can’t afford to live here, or in Essendon, or in Broadmeadows, or even in any of those isolated country townships where a house goes for a song. If such people as these are poor, does that make us rich? Probably. Perhaps the poor are those who are not much motivated to pray, “Give us today our daily bread”.

The trouble such words of Jesus cause us is that we do see the justice which is hinted at there and yet we are not sure that the justifying or setting right they imply is not something of a threat to us.

Do we, then, have to become poor in order to protect ourselves from God, in the long run? In fact, it’s not really clear what this might mean, or the way in which poverty in things might put us right before God. The word we have heard translated today as “blessed” could also be translated as “congratulations”, or even “happy”. “Congratulations to you poor, yours is the kingdom”; “Good for you, you who are hungry”; “Happy are you who weep…”

The only thing which would make it possible for us to speak of blessings in this way is the thought that all things will be set right in the end:  “you will be filled; you will laugh; you will be hungry; you will mourn and weep”. Even though the blessing upon the poor and the woe upon the rich are cast in the present, the overwhelming sense of the passage is: “Do not worry if you are poor, hungry, grieving, down-trodden or outcast now; God will bless you when heaven comes.

Is this to imply that these blessings and woes – God’s saving and judging work – are only other-worldly, that they do not relate to now, except as promises or warnings of what is coming? This would mean that we who are poor are made to wait for our blessing while we who might be rich are left in our anxious attempts to justify before God what we have.

But we should also note that there is a connection drawn between the fate of those who have and those who don’t. Those who have are implicitly being held accountable for those who have not. This is not to suggest that the rich, the full and the happy are necessarily responsible for the conditions creating poverty and grief, but there is at least a link implied between the fact that they remain well-off while the others remain down-trodden.

And this brings us within range of being able to see the present significance of the woes and the blessings, as distinct from what they might say about our future.

If we hold in our heads the declaration of Luke’s Magnificat – that God brings down the powerful from their thrones, and lifts up the lowly, fills the hungry with good things, and sends the rich away empty (Luke 1.52f) – then in fact in the blessings and woes we have another vision of God’s life and work, presented now with the invitation to share in that work.

For our text is cut rather short at the point where it ended this morning. It runs on, however: Love your enemies…Do to others as you would have them do to you…Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

To put it starkly: those who “have” – in whatever sense – are invited to “play God”. They are invited to see what God is doing, or promises to do, and to do the same. As a child might do in her toy kitchen what she sees her mother or father do in their real kitchen, so are we to imitate God, doing as he does, setting right, as God sets right.

To be saved is to share in the life of God. To share in the life of God is to be as God is, to do as God does – and this is precisely what God makes this possible in “saving” us. Coming to be his children – which is God’s gift to us – brings with it the call to come to do as God does.

The real question which should arise in relation to these troubling blessings and woes is not whether we are winners or losers but whether in fact God will bless (or curse) in this way – or has in some sense already done it in our lives. Trying to discover whether we are the rich or the poor, or the sad or the happy, misses the point, because the blessings and woes relate not to what we are in ourselves – whether we are rich or poor and so cursed or blessed – but to what our abundance or poverty are for our relationship to each other, for our common humanity.

To be drawn into the life of God is to be propelled towards each other. Luke presents to us again and again that the Jew does not have God without an embrace of the Gentile, that the inner circle does not have God without the outcast, that the rich does not have God without the poor. God’s saving work is a reconciling work in a fatally divided world; it is not a handing out of rewards and punishments which simply reflect or contrast with the world as it presently is. To speak of having been saved is to speak of having been commissioned to a part in that reconciling work. We may not be responsible for the world as we find it – we may not have “started the fire”. But if we declare that we have known something of that setting-right which is salvation from God, we cannot but be accountable for whether or not we do anything to douse the flames.

Jesus declares the blessings and woes in order to give us an image of what God’s justifying, setting-right action looks like. If we have begun a life in God, then in fact what Jesus says about who is blessed and who is not, is what we will have to say, for this is where our life in God will be found to have begun: in shifts between haves and have-nots, the full and the hungry, the laughing and the weeping.

These blessings and woes suggest that we are to pray that God save us from ourselves, that we might find him – and our true lives – in love and service of those who need us as much as we need God.

May that particular prayer be heard on the lips of all God’s saints, and find favour in the God’s ears.