Monthly Archives: January 2017

LitBit Commentary – Rowan Williams on the Eucharist 17

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LitBit: The Eucharist reminds us of the need for honest repentance – of the need to confront our capacity to betray and forget the gift we have been given. And that is why the Eucharist is not, in Christian practice, a reward for good behaviour; it is the food we need to prevent ourselves from starving as a result of our own self-enclosure and self-absorption, our pride and our forgetfulness.


Rowan Williams, Being Christian, p.52f

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LitBit Commentary – Rowan Williams on the Eucharist 16

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LitBit: [The Eucharist] is, as some modern Christian thinkers have said, what makes the Church what it really is. For that short time, when we gather as God’s guest at God’s table, the Church becomes what it is meant to be – a community of strangers who have become guests together and are listening together to the invitation of God.

Rowan Williams, Being Christian, p.58

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LitBit Commentary – Rowan Williams on the Eucharist 15

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LitBit: Sometimes, after receiving Holy Communion, as I look around a congregation, large or small, I have a sensation I can only sum up as this is it – this is the moment when people see one another and the world properly: when they are filled with the Holy Spirit and when they are equipped to go and do God’s work. It may last only a few seconds but there it is. It has happened and it happens again and again. And what is the appropriate response? …thanksgiving.

Rowan Williams, Being Christian, p.58

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LitBit Commentary – Rowan Williams on the Eucharist 14

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LitBit: The Eucharist reminds us of the need for honest repentance – of the need to confront our capacity to betray and forget the gift we have been given. And that is why the Eucharist is not, in Christian practice, a reward for good behaviour; it is the food we need to prevent ourselves from starving as a result of our own self-enclosure and self-absorption, our pride and our forgetfulness.

Rowan Williams, Being Christian p.52f

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8 January – Getting Dirty, Being Washed

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Epiphany 1

Isaiah 42:1-9
Psalm 29
Matthew 3:13-17

Sermon preached by Rev. Rod Horsfield

Introduction:             Remember when going to church meant putting on your best clothes.  Some people even had things in their wardrobe that were classified “Sunday best.” Times have changed and people dress more casually not only for going to church but also for the opera. But while fashions may change, civility and gentility are still the marks of the usual church crowd. “Respectable” might still be the word to describe a congregation of Jesus’ disciples today.

Many of us are so used to church being like that, that we’ve come to expect that’s what the crowd that Jesus mixed with was like. But come with me into Matthew’s world and let me show you a different scenario.

1. The Crowd: There is a prophet out in the desert preaching a fiery message of repentance because the Kingdom of God is about to break in on their tired old world.  Everyone is going out to see him. People from Jerusalem and all over Judea are gathering by the Jordan River to listen to this radical preacher and you wouldn’t believe who was going down into that muddy old river to get their sins washed away!!  Pharisees and Sadducees – who are strictly religious and rigorously keep the law. But look closely and see large numbers of ordinary working people. These groups do not usually associate, but today they march together into the desert along with soldiers and the Temple security guards; mothers and prostitutes, tradies and business men as well as those publicans who work to keep their Roman masters happy.

The pious and the profane are here, blue collar and white – what a sight! This human throng, this motley crew, all coming out to hear the announcement by a wild prophet of the coming of God’s kingdom. And to make sure that they are part of it when it comes, they were baptized by John in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

2. Jesus stands with them: And there in the water, waiting, stands Jesus. He goes along with the crowd. He jostled his way to the Jordan side by side with all the rest of this motley collection of humanity. Jesus did not ask for a private baptism. He did not wait until everyone else had gone, nor did he disdain the crowd. He comes down with them, stands in the mire and the muck, shoulder to shoulder with prostitute and Pharisee, soldier and Sadducee, standing in solidarity with all who confess their sins. With them, he too receives a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

His sins? Jesus confessing his sins?  Has Matthew made a mistake in his story? But right here, at the beginning of his ministry Jesus takes a stand. He stands with the crowd – in solidarity with us sinners.  It surprises us – it shocked John the Baptist. Matthew reports, John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ And would we prevent him as well?   We look around at the people we have to deal with and wonder about the wisdom of Jesus getting too involved with that crowd.

3. A Story: There is an incident in our family story that has almost attained the status of myth. We recall it when we get together on family occasions: “Do you remember the day when we went mud sliding?” And everyone laughs – of course we remember. We were on holidays in May on Westernport Bay and it was one of those grey, mild, autumn days Melbourne sometimes has. It had been raining quite heavily when Andrew, our youngest, came running in from the beach and said he had found a great place for a mud slide. So, being a bit bored with the weather we followed him to the side of a bank on the beach where the water had run down exposing the soil. The two boys went first and began tentatively to slide down the hill. Before long I had joined them and we spent an hour or so becoming ever more daring and inventive in finding ways to slide down the muddy hill.

When we had enough we were, as you could imagine, covered in mud. We couldn’t go back to the house like this, so we ran across the beach and into the water. We frolicked there washing off as much of the mud as we could before taking off our jeans and tops and having a swim, come wash in the sea.

Then we walked back to the house in our underwear with our clothes wrapped around us as best we could. We remember and still laugh at the incredulous looks we got from a couple of people walking the beach wrapped up in parkas.

As I said it was one of those incidents that is firmly locked into our family’s corporate memory. But there is a sequel that I remember and which is the relevant part of the story for this sermon.  One of our sons had his current girl friend with him that day.  I was aware that she was having great difficulty accepting the mad behaviour, not only of her beau, but of his father as well. Her disapproval was as polite as her discomfort was obvious. I remember thinking – she won’t last. She can’t identify with us and our strange ways. She held herself aloof from our muddy madness, and I knew she could never really belong to the likes of us.          And she didn’t.

4. The baptism of Jesus is important because it declares to us that Jesus does not hold himself aloof from us. He does not fear getting dirty in his complete solidarity with us. He takes our humanity upon himself completely. The Apostle Paul said, For our sake, God made him to be sin who knew no sin. (I Cor 5:21).

It is important that we remember this as we trace the ministry of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel this year. The baptism of Jesus shows us that Jesus did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped – to be held on to preserved from the taint of humanity.  His baptism, there in the muddy old Jordan, shows that he who shares in God’s perfection identifies with us and with our sometimes messy lives.

That identification is important for our faith. We do not worship a God who holds himself aloof but one who is with us in our pain, our struggles, our failures and finally, in our dying.

But this identification with us is also important for the church’s mission. Jesus’ baptism sets the tone for the way in which we are witnesses to Jesus in the world. We cannot be involved in the mission of Jesus and hold ourselves aloof from the messiness of the life of the world.  We cannot be the people of this God and not be in the muck with the crowds that desperately want to discover a gracious God too. And we do it with them. Not as those who have all the answers, or have the right to wield power and lord it over people, but only as those who represent the way of Jesus, the way of serving, suffering love.

5. Affirmation of Baptism: In a moment you will be asked to come forward and reaffirm your baptism. The affirmation that “You belong to Christ” will be made. You will be marked with the sign of the cross. Both of these actions declare the truth of Jesus baptism. First, that we belong to Christ by God’s decision and action. The second is the sign that this belonging calls us to an uncommon way of life. We are just beginning to relearn this in the church as we move away from the culture of Christendom and its temptations to the pursuit of success, political power and cultural acceptance. At a time when there is widespread anxiety about the future of the church, we are learning again the way of Jesus. Marked with the sign of the cross we may again become an uncommon people living out Jesus’ way in the life of our world.

Conclusion: All this flows from the action of Jesus in choosing to begin his ministry by being baptized by John the Baptist in the River Jordon. Today we align our living with this uncommon way in which God chooses to bring humanity into fellowship with God.


1 January – “In the Time of King Herod…”

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Christmas 1

Isaiah 63:7-9
Psalm 148
Hebrews 2:10-18
Matthew 2:12-23

Sermon preached by Rev. Bruce Barber

One of the more absurd dogmas of the secular society in which we live is the assertion that politics and religion occupy parallel universes. Religion is about the private, so it is said, politics is about the public. We can be quite clear about this. If religion is presumed to be about the private, then neither Jewish nor Christian faith can be called religions. Those mouthing this mantra about religion being private have clearly never opened the Bible.  It is sufficient simply to keep repeating what suits the prejudice.

Today we need nothing more than the first words of this second chapter of Matthew to assert what is the truth about politics and God: “In the time of King Herod”. By the time we get to the end of the chapter we will encounter Herod’s son, Archelaus, who will similarly be allotted his time to be another political player. And everywhere else throughout the New Testament, and certainly the Old, Kings and Emperors and political States and cities abound as the context for religious engagement.  So much for politics and religion being hermetically sealed. In any case, whether we like it or not, and for good or ill, when the chapter of the next four years for both world and Church comes to be written it will be headed: “In the time of President Trump”. Theological time and political time are bound to converge here with a vengeance.

Instructive then is it for us today to hear how theological time intersects the everyday time of King Herod. The story of Jesus’ conception and birth is not some mythological story, but rather a story that shapes the time in which we live. It is a time in which rulers rule, on the manifestly wrong assumption that it will be only their power which determines the story that constitutes time.

Herods, however, and we can only profoundly hope Trumps as well, are seldom as powerful as they imagine. Certainly, in today’s gospel, Herod is king only because it pleases the Romans to have him rule over this province, peopled as it is by a troubling population. Herod is simply a pawn used by Rome to maintain an order useful to Rome. That’s how politics works. And it is here, that Jesus is born; in an occupied land, a small outpost on the edge of a mighty empire. And it is here that he will eventually be killed under Rome’s authority. What’s more, without a shadow of doubt it will be a death that will prove to mean nothing to Rome. For how in Herod’s time could Rome possibly know that this man would prove to be the most decisive political challenge it would have to face?

Rome, of course, knew how to deal with enemies; you either kill them or you co-opt them. But how do you deal with an enemy called the people of God who will come to understand that they have all the time in the world to challenge the world’s impatient violence?

But for now everything looks like being over. The wise men had been duped. Trustingly they tell Herod about the timing of the star, naively believing his assurance that he, too, would also like to travel to pay homage to the one who, when all is said and done, as another king has to have been born as a competitor.

But mercifully the wise men are warned in a dream not to return to Herod, but to go home by another road – that is to say, that already, as Gentiles, they anticipate what will prove to be the major theme as Matthew’s gospel unfolds. The wise men already just here are forerunners of the larger mission to the Gentiles.  Already in the figures of the wise men, the gospel anticipates a day that in due time eventually will come to include us: a day in which the followers of Jesus may well find that they are strangers even when they consider themselves to be at home, as we, too, are now experiencing daily in common with other Western churches. Not surprisingly, then – like the wise men – Joseph soon discovers through yet another dream that he must take Mary and the child on the journey to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod. So Jesus is taken to Egypt in order in due time to recapitulate the original exodus of the Hebrews, soon to be the new Moses who will lead his people to a new land of faithfulness.

So the wise men do not return to Herod. But Herod is no fool. He trusts what he has been told. The threat to him of a new king is to be found in Bethlehem. Realising that power can never be secure, Herods always know no limit when they sense that their power is being threatened. Power and killing are natural collaborators. So Herod cunningly estimates that two years sets the time boundaries for the wise men to reach Israel. Consequently, to ensure that the infant competitor Jesus will die, all the children of that age born in and around Bethlehem must be exterminated.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Jesus is born into a world in which children are killed. Can there possibly be anything more to scuttle the sentimental depiction of Christmas that we have gone though yet again?  Christmas refuses to let us hide from the fact that children are killed, and continue to be killed, as in the ghastly Syrias of this world to protect the power of tyrants.

To be sure, we are offered the possibility of living a gospel of resurrection, but that does not mean that these and other children down through the ages are any less dead, or that their parents are any less bereaved. Resurrection, rather, makes it possible for future followers of Jesus not to lie about the nature of the world that we believe has been redeemed. If we want to know what mission in our day means, refusing to lie might be mission enough in and for a post-truth world.

Notice how our text is striking in the fact that no attempt is made to explain or justify this horror. Instead Matthew reminds his readers that Jeremiah had prepared us for just such a terror – warning of the loud lamentation that would come from Ramah, where Rachel, lamenting for her children, would rightly refuse to be consoled.

The point in all this is that the Herods of this world begin by hating the child Jesus, but end up hurting and murdering other children. That is the politics, the politics of murder, to which the Church is called to be the alternative.  In other words, those who would follow and worship Jesus are a challenge to those who would kill children.

The fear of the Herods of this world must be resisted, but – take account of this – that we are also told that “all Jerusalem” was equally frightened by the news of this child’s birth. What could this possibly mean? Well, it has to be the case, since thirty years later all of Jerusalem will consent to this child’s death.

What’s more, such a fear is not at all absent from our own lives. It continues to possess cultures that believe that they have no time or energy for children. Unrestricted abortion is just one of the names for the fear of the loss of time that children make real.

But the good news is that Herods die. Kings, Presidents, Prime Ministers come and go. But God’s people endure, difficult though that might be for us today to comprehend.

So two times are being given to us this morning. Both speak of children. The first is the stark reality of the fate of the world’s children predicted in the opening words of the chapter: “In the time of King Herod….”.

The second time is that offered to us in the Epistle today:

Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death … and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.”

Two times: times of death and a time of resurrection. It is just this alternative time to the time of Herod that is the gospel for us today.

25 December – Being present

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Christmas Day

Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 96
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-14

2016 has been a great year for expressing opinions: Brexit, Trump, the resurgence of nationalism in the liberal West; the tragedies of Nice, Orlando, Aleppo; terrorism; refugees; the ongoing debates about climate change. And, of course, much more. If you read the newspapers or listen to the radio you’ll have seen and heard pretty much every conceivable opinion expressed on all these things.

In all of this opinion-expressing we wrestle with each other in a struggle to name where we are, how we are, what we are. That struggle is the sign of a deep restlessness within and a raging turbulence without, locked together in an endless cyclonic interaction. And in all of this we show that we are not at home in our world. There is not enough. Or there is too much. Or it is of the wrong kind. Or it should be mine and not yours. Or…

Into this struggle is added, around this time of the year, talk of a child about whom it is said that he is peace and joy and wholeness. This creates its own turbulence and, so, yet more restless opinions: the true meaning of Christmas, the cost of Christmas, the irrelevance of Christmas, the myths of Christmas, escaping from Christmas, the pathos of Christmas, the toleration of Christmas, the psychology of Christmas, and so on!

Those of us who choose to gather in this way today do so also because of another opinion or, in the old Greek – a “dogma”. That dogma, or opinion, is that even if – like us – Jesus was born into turmoil and created not a little turbulence himself, there is in him no restlessness and so no opinion.

We have already sung this morning of “the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes”.  (Some of us sang that a little more wistfully than others!) In the old carol the line is probably not much more than sentimentality but, theologically, it speaks volumes.

A child who is vital and yet does not cry is a child who is at peace with where he is. He knows no restlessness and needs express no opinion or judgement. For such a one, here and now are enough, whatever turbulence swirls around.

We risk becoming sentimental ourselves here, of course; the point is not the wonder of an infant, the peace she is in her mother’s arms. The dogma – the opinion – of the church is that this peace, this joy, this wholeness is what characterises the whole of Jesus’ life. It is the peace, joy and knowledge of knowing that it’s OK to be in this place – whichever place it is, however it is – because God is present here as well.

Restlessness is the sign of a sense that I need to be somewhere else, doing something else, being something else. It is the notion that I would be more alive if I were not me – here, now – but me (or perhaps someone else) in a different place. Restlessness reflects the sense that my present is the “wrong” present; there is more of me, and more of God, somewhere else. This is the thought which makes possible the suicide bomb, the endless gaze into a phone screen, the facelift, ethnic cleansing, the adulterous liaison, the abortion, “sovereign borders”, euthanasia and comfort chocolate: “not here”, “not this”, “not now”. All such things are the restless opinion that life in all its fullness – even heaven – is to be found somewhere else.

In our reading from the letter of Titus this morning Paul writes of waiting for the “manifestation of the glory of our great God and saviour Jesus Christ.” This is a complicated little text and its meaning varies enormously depending on where we put the commas and which part of the sentence we think is referring to which other part. We could spend 10 or 15 minutes pulling it apart to establish the most likely meaning, but, instead, let’s just jump to the most interesting reading on the grounds that even if the most interesting reading is not strictly the most correct, it ought to be…

The “glory of our great God and saviour Jesus Christ” is not here some vague illuminating brilliance behind which God (or Christ) is hidden. Scripturally, the glory of God takes concrete form in human beings: Adam is the glory of God, as is Christ himself. The glory of God is the human being, fully alive (Irenaeus). And so, to borrow from Paul elsewhere, negatively: to fall short of the glory of God is to cease to be our true, created selves. In the scriptural story human restlessness springs from the turbulence of Adam and Eve’s apple-munching episode: the desire to be something other than what they were – in fact, the desire to have an opinion on what is right and not. Tragically, the first thing they judge and reject is themselves: “we are naked”.

By contrast, Jesus is peace, joy, salvation – is the “glory of God” – because he gets being human right. You can’t tell this by looking at him in the manger, when he expresses no opinion. You can’t tell it by hearing him on the mount or at lakeside, when his way is just one among many, however appealing. And you certainly can’t tell it by looking up at him on the cross, when his way is clearly too dangerous for the sane to follow.

And yet we confess in creed and sacrament that what occurs here is merely – but also extraordinarily – the uncorrupted meeting of God with a particular human life. God does not so much “become” human at Christmas as meet a human being who does not throw him off with a restless shrug. To say that here we have God and human being in one place is to say that God and human being have come together, without confusion, without change, and yet also without division, without separation. This is God making heaven out of the world – what all of our opinionising strives for but always fails to achieve.

At Christmas God reveals himself to be at home with us. And Paul’s “manifestation of the glory of our great God and saviour Jesus Christ” is nothing less than our entering into that extraordinary possibility ourselves: we are the glory we await; we await ourselves, fully alive.

Concretely, this is freedom from opinionated restlessness, whatever the turmoil around us; it is the freedom to be present to our present, to be at home in the world into which we were born; it is discovering where-we-are and how-we-are to be enough. That would peace, joy and wholeness.

This is the one gift we cannot give ourselves. Yet, for Christ’s sake, God promises that it will be ours.

Thanks be to God.

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