Monthly Archives: September 2017

MtE Update – September 14 2017

The latest MtE News:

  1. The VicTas Synod of the UCA met this week; you can find information about the meeting and its resolutions here.
  2. On Sunday October 1 there will be a conversation following morning tea of the “Voluntary Assisted Dying/Suicide” consultation paper prepared by the VicTas Synod’s Justice and International Mission unit. You can download the document here, or pick up a hard copy at church on Sunday (72 pages long!)
  3. For those interested in some background commentary to the readings for this Sunday September 17, see the links here. We are presently hearing the Series II OT readings on Sunday.

10 September – Irreconcilable differences

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Pentecost 14

Ezekiel 33:7-11
Psalm 119:33-40
Matthew 18:15-20

“If a brother sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If he listens to you, you have regained him. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let such a him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

We can imagine that this process has been faithfully applied in a literal sense many times in the last 2000 years. Yet a “faithful” application of the process is not necessarily a good one. We can also imagine that the application of this process has often led to great injustice. This might be the case when the one accused of sin is actually the prophet, standing courageously against an unjust congregational practice or culture and being named “sinner” for her trouble.

The scenario Jesus describes here, then, is idealised; things are rarely this straightforward. The biblical text does not deal with all scenarios. We have comprehensive legislation for that kind of coverage, and case law to cover what the legislation doesn’t. This is why we need (or at least use) lawyers; but the Scripture does not facilitate in the practice of law in this way.

Rather, this idealised example stands for, or represents, all instances of the rupture of a Christian community. It stands, then, even for what seem to us to be impossible and intractable situations, in which we might find it impossible to clarify blame or to forgive as our reading might imply should be the case.

What are we to do with today’s text, then? The context might help. Preceding today’s reading is the parable of the lost sheep, in which the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine he still has to go searching for a lost one, and rejoices more over the found one than the ninety-nine not lost. Following today’s reading is Jesus putting it to Peter that forgiveness might be required of him to the extent of seventy times seven times. These passages suggest that the overcoming of whatever separates us from God and from each other is paramount.

In between these two readings stands the shocking possibility of the excommunication that Jesus allows here, or even mandates. Where is the seventy times seven forgivings here?

Let’s allow that tension to hang for a moment, and note a couple of other things about our gospel reading this morning. After the possibility of excommunication, Jesus returns to the “binding” and “loosing” we met a couple of weeks ago: whatever you bind or loose on earth will be bound or loosed heaven. This is reinforced in the next verse: “if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.” And then we hear why this is the case: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

These texts seem to work better for us when we don’t hear them all together – the parable of the lost sheep, the challenge of endless forgiveness, the dispute resolution process for churchly conflicts, the uncomfortable binding of heaven linked with the doubtable promise about agreement in prayer and, finally, that wonderful invitation to self-congratulation, “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them”. By themselves we can make some sense of them but, in fact, they are not discrete texts: Matthew lumps them all together. This might have been because they sound like they’re about the same kind of thing and so were gathered together for commonality’s sake. That is, Matthew may or may not have had a clear thought about what putting these things together meant. But even if he did, I don’t know what he was doing (and I’m going to presume that you don’t either!). I, with you, have only the series of verses with their consistencies and contradictions, and an imperative to understand them.

What do we do when we can make no sense of the Scripture? One option is simply to let the absence of meaning stand. A preacher, however, can’t quite do that. He or she is forced to write Scripture to fill the gaps, even to make the Scripture say what it seems it clearly does not, but must intend. This, of course, is a very impious proposal, and so you didn’t hear it from me. However, impious or not, it is important for understanding the peculiar task of preaching. No sermon – and certainly not this one – carries the authority of Scripture for the church as a whole. The Scriptural canon is closed because in it enough – although not everything – has been said. A sermon exists for a local community in the space between the “everything” which might have been said and the “enough” which has been said. A sermon is something which might have been Scripture but doesn’t need to be, because Scripture is already enough. We might say, then, that a sermon extends Scripture without quite adding to it. Or, to use a different metaphor: a sermon which meets its mark – striking the heart of the sinner – will from that point “infect” that heart’s reading and hearing of the Scriptures. The Scripture takes on a new clarity because of the way it has been expounded.

How might this help here? Like all things which really matter, this is more easily demonstrated than described. We have left hanging the tension of today’s reading with the preceding the parable of the shepherd’s desire for the lost sheep and the following call to eternal forgivings. What is necessary for clarity and meaning here?

The new thing might be this: the excommunication of the unrepentant brother is not the application of the gospel, but the mandated sign of the failure of the gospel. In this failure – a binding – on earth, there is a binding in heaven. But heaven bound is no longer heaven. The failure of the gospel in our failure to live as God’s reconciled and reconciling people is, already, the failure of our prayer – we are not in agreement and so our prayers are not granted. And, finally: we have generally been given to imagine, on the strength of today’s text, that only two or three are necessary to get Jesus into the room, so that the presence of Jesus seems to be the easiest of things to effect. But we might also say that the sheer scale of the call to forgiveness and reconciliation surrounding this text is such that it will take a loosing of all of heaven and all of earth for two or three to come together in this way. In human terms, this is not going to happen.

But, of course, the Jesus who is present to the two or three is not gentle-Jesus-meek-and-mild but the crucified Lord. We imagined a couple of weeks ago that, when given authority to bind and loose, the church sought immediately to bind Jesus. This led to Jesus proposing the cross as what it would take to loose both heaven and earth from such a binding. It is the cross which would appear among us, if we were to gather “in his name”.

Thinking about church life – reconciliation, authority, prayer and the very presence of God – cannot be done and be Christian without the cross. A church which excommunicates is an impossible possibility which only the cross can treat. Excommunication is impossible if the church is reconciling in its nature, but it happens, of course. Or, if as in churches like the UCA, it doesn’t happen, we still fail by baptising unbaptised “diversity.” Nothing is easy here – not the life of the Christian community, not its prayer, not its experience of the presence of Christ.

What does all this mean? It means that we have nothing we can do but throw ourselves onto the mercy of God, as we work for reconciliation, make our rules, pray, and seek to gather as God’s very presence.

This mercy, we believe, takes shape precisely as we gather. Here – in this space – Christ, as the crucified one, is “remembranced” – made real to us again. “Do this for the remembrance of me” is to say, Do this, that I might be among you again. This is to say, Do this, that the reality – the judgement and the mercy – of the cross might be in your midst, judging and dividing, forgiving and reconciling.

It is in the Eucharist, as the presentation of the cross, that all our gatherings and our hopes for gatherings have their meaning. It is in the Eucharist, as prayer, that all of our prayers take their meaning and seek their union. It is in the Eucharist, as the re‑present‑ing of the Jesus, that we encounter the mystery of the cross – the mystery of one who loved abundantly more that he was loved, and who continues to do so, that we might know ourselves as loved despite the poverty of our Christian community and the contradictions of our prayers and visions of God.

The work towards reconciliation, the making of our rules and regulations, the prayer for the ourselves and the world must, of course, go on. But it is in the cross – God’s crossed-shaped key to heaven and to earth – that these things are effective, for us and for the world God loves.

Let us, then, in all that we do as God’s people, let the light of the cross be the light in which we seek to see and be seen.

Lectionary Commentary – Sunday/Ordinary 24A; Proper 19A (September 11 – September 17)

The following links are to the Revised Common Lectionary commentary pages of Howard Wallace and Bill Loader, and are suggested as preparation for hearing the readings in worship for the Sunday indicated above.

Series I:Exodus 14:19-31 and Psalm 114

Series II: Genesis 50.15-21 (no link) and Psalm 103.(1-7), 8-13 (see Psalm 103:1-13, 22)

Matthew 18:21-35
Romans 14:1-12

MtE Update – September 7 2017


the latest MtE Update!

  1. The latest Synod eNews (Sept 6) is here.
  2. A letter from the Moderator (Sept 7) regarding our Synod meeting this and next week is here.
  3. The latest Pilgrim College news is here.
  4. For those interested in some background reading to the readings for this Sunday September 10, see the links here. We are presently hearing the Series II OT readings on Sunday.

Other things of potential interest

  1. The Resilient Women Forum.A new report has shown that women are the main targets of Islamophobic violence, with half of offline attacks occurring in crowded public spaces, often in front of children. You can read more about the report here Islamophobia in Australia Report.Participants attending this mid-day Forum will learn what practical steps community members, as well as local agencies and community leaders, can take to respond to this gendered violence and community safety issue.Guest SpeakerTasneem Chopra – Curator, Consultant, Author and prominent activist.  Tasneem’s passion for addressing social justice issues has embraced many platforms.We welcome all those interested, including those from community organisations, state and local government, schools, hospitals, places of worship, community members and leaders.  The event is free of charge, but please register, as it is being catered. Please also let the organisers know if you have any dietary requirements.  Note: Some childcare can be provided. Please contact April Robinson if you will need to use this service: or 0417 225 231Details are as follows:Date:                     Tuesday, 12 September 2017Time:                    10am – 2:30pm (including morning tea & lunch)Venue:                 Preston Shire Hall – 286 Gower St, PrestonRSVP before 8 September 2017 via Eventbrite: Resilient Women Forum

    Kind regards, April Robinson

    Interfaith Network Developer
    Commission for Mission
    130 Little Collins St Melbourne 3000
    t  (03) 9251 5965  | f  (03) 9251 5491  | m  0417 225 231

  2. UCA Assembly Membership 2018 (Melbourne)
    TO: Synod members, ministers in placement, Church Council secretaries and Presbytery Secretaries:

The Business Committee has decided to extend the deadline for Assembly nominations  till 6.00pm on Saturday 9 September – the first day of the Synod meeting.

Nominations for Synod Standing Committee close at 6.00pm on Sunday 10 September. Please note, you do not have to be a member of Synod to nominate for the Assembly, but you do need a member of Synod to nominate you.

You do, however, have to be a member of Synod to nominate for the Synod Standing Committee. You can find the nominations website at:


Lectionary Commentary – Sunday/Ordinary 23A; Proper 18A (September 4 – September 10)

The following links are to the Revised Common Lectionary commentary pages of Howard Wallace and Bill Loader, and are suggested as preparation for hearing the readings in worship for the Sunday indicated above.

Series I: Exodus 12:1-14 and Psalm 149

Series II: Ezekiel 33.7-11 (no link) and Psalm 119.33-40

Matthew 18:15-20
Romans 13:8-14

September 23 – Henri Nouwen

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Henri Nouwen (1932-1996), faithful servant

Henri Nouwen was a well-known spiritualist and psychologist whose writings have been available to people in four continents. His teachings have helped seekers to develop authentic paths in providing space for others, for Christ to enter their lives and to make space for themselves.

During my studies at Yale Divinity School I was enrolled as a practical theology major, what we would recognize in Australia as Pastoral Theology. I took my first course taught by Henri in the Spring Semester of 1973. It was called “Ministry as Hospitality.” In that course we students did theological and personal exploration of God’s hospitality to us, how that spoke to our calling to ministry and how we, then, participated in the hospitality of Christ, which was about making space without conditions for others. We were also challenged about being open to the hospitality that we would receive in return. It was a way of recognizing that two people were both strangers in a hospitable space whereby we could offer and receive the gift of the other and no longer be “strangers”.

The hardest part for those of us ministry students out to save the world (or at least those that would eventually be in our pastoral care) was that Henri offered a teaching that challenged our perceived responsibility to change other people.

Instead he wanted us to step back while still being present and to offer others a space in which they could make change. It also meant that we had to be open to being changed by our “guest”.

Henri was a practical teacher. He wanted his students to experience what he was teaching, which included completely new (unfamiliar) ways of being a guest in order to understand how to be a host. One of those experiences was to accompany Henri for a week, in the middle of winter, to Mount Savior, a Benedictine Monastery near Elmira in Western New York State, about 440 km northwest of New York City. Having a fixed idea of what a monastery would look and be like, the first shock was to find that Mount Savior was a fully operational farm with each monk contributing skills that ensured its viability. Interwoven with looking after livestock (and winter work like repairing furniture or re-binding books) was the observance of worship called “vigils”. For a daughter of New England Congregationalism it was a new experience to slide in knee-deep snow down the long hill from the women’s guesthouse for the first vigil of the day, which in February was an hour before dawn. The monks made themselves available for conversations as well as providing spaces of quiet where we could learn to be available for God. Henri was their guest as we were.

Back at Yale Divinity School we would reflect often on that experience and others in learning what it mean to be hospitable in ministry as well as how to do hospitality in ministry. Henri shared with us what it meant to be “useless” for Christ. That is, not becoming trapped by the idea that our ministry to others was valid only if it was “useful” by the standards of contemporary life. This was my first “ministry formation” class—although that language was not used at that time.

Henri was my teacher and later an important friend in the time that followed my years at Yale. His letters to Harry and me during the time of our first child’s illness and death offered love and support and let us know that he felt our pain. Even after he left Yale we would hear from him by letters or through a mutual friend, Virginia (“Enie”) van Dooran, of his continued search for the spaces that would answer his own call to be host and guest in the name of Christ.

It remains important for us to hear Henri’s wisdom, to learn to live in the hospitable space he creates for us in the name of Christ, and to make that space available to others.

Contributed by Meg Herbert

September 17 – Hildegard of Bingen

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), person of prayer

Hildegard of Bingen, renowned for her spirituality in her day, was a German Benedictine abbess of the twelfth century. She was a poet, theologian, composer, artist, playwright, healer, visionary and advisor to eminent church authorities.  Hildegard was the tenth child of a noble family who, at age eight, went to live with the reclusive Jutta von Spanheim, at the monastery of Saint Disibod in Disibodenberg. She took her vows at 15 and on Jutta’s death in 1136 became leader of the convent.

Hildegard achieved fame when her remarkable work, Scivias, a record of her visions, was approved by Pope Eugenius who publicised it widely. Between 1147 and 1150, over the objections of the officials at Disibodenberg, Hildegard moved her community to Ruperstberg, near Bingen on the Rhine. In 1165, she founded a second convent at Eibingen.

Hildegard, despite frequent attacks of ill health, possessed extraordinary energy. During her long life she produced three books of visionary theology, several collections of writings on natural history and medicine, 77 songs and Ordo Vitutum the earliest surviving liturgical morality play. Hildegard is of contemporary interest with her appreciation of the feminine, her emphasis on the relationship between soul, mind and body.  Her inspirational music has been widely recorded—especially by the group Sequentia.

Since the fifteenth century, when her name was incorporated into the Roman Martyrology, she has been remembered on 17 September. 

Contributed by Carolyn Craig-Emilsen

3 September – For Christ’s sake

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Pentecost 13

Jeremiah 15:15-21
Psalm 26
Matthew 16:21-26

“For what we are about to receive, Lord, make us truly thankful, for Christ’s sake. Amen.”

What have we just prayed? This is surely a reasonable question, given that it is prayed often enough at the tables of the pious. Clearly, we prayed that we be found to be grateful for what is to be received. In this context, that’s the sermon, which perhaps makes it a bold prayer for me to put on your lips at this point!?

But notice what we use to lever the prayer: “for Christ’s sake.” What on earth (or, in heaven), does this little phrase mean? The easy answer we can find in a dictionary: “For Christ’s sake: prepositional phrase, used to express surprise, contempt, outrage, disgust, [boredom], or frustration” ( In response to this definition we might feel moved to remark, “For Christ’s sake!”

But setting profanity or even blasphemy aside, what is going on in our table grace or in a text like the one we have heard today: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it”?

Having dealt with the profane sense of “for Christ’s sake”, we must turn to another more insidious sense which accords to what these words usually mean. When I say, “I did it for Jane’s sake”, I mean that I acted for her benefit. My efforts accrue in some way to Jane’s account – she is the beneficiary. Yet this is not the case in our gospel text. Jesus has no interest in what we do. If, in some way, we lose our life – literally or figuratively – Jesus does not benefit. Jesus does not need us to take up our cross and follow. We add nothing to him in our response to his call.

This was a something of a shock to me as I wrote it. How can it be so? It is the case because this is how it is with Jesus’ own work. What Jesus does is not “for God’s sake”, in the sense of adding to what God is. God does not need Jesus to do anything or, to put it differently, there is nothing which it is necessary that Jesus do it. This is a thought which will likely give rise to “surprise, contempt, outrage, disgust, or frustration”. Do we not imagine that God needs us, that God calls us to do certain things – maybe Hotham Mission things, maybe certain liturgical things maybe “Marriage Equality” things – all “for God’s sake,” understanding that without those things God’s project is diminished or thwarted? Even closer to our sense for the confessional heart of the matter, did not God have a “plan” for Jesus, in which it is “necessary” that he be crucified? Does not Jesus die for some “sake”?

Those who took offence at Jesus in the gospel story, of course, did not express their contempt, outrage, disgust and frustration with, “For Christ’s sake!” Their offence and their actions against Jesus were summed up with “for God’s sake” or “for Rome’s sake,” but operating precisely with this sense of for the benefit of. “For God’s sake” and “for Rome’s sake” express contempt and outrage on God’s behalf and Rome’s behalf. Seen from within this understanding, Jesus is perceived to be doing nothing to help God or Rome. He is, then, perceived as having a negative impact in a world where the good is dependent on our attitudes and actions. The programs of God and Rome are understood to be advanced when the troublemaker is dealt with, so that it is necessary that Jesus die, if God is to continue to be God and Rome to be Rome.

This sense of necessity is the essence of sin. Sin becomes possible because of a perceived need. Random, unnecessary sin is just capricious sociopathy; a good sinner as a reason to sin, and justifies his or her actions by reference to that reason, that necessity. We appeal to the notion of “rights” by telling ourselves that we deserve something we probably don’t, or we appeal to the notion of necessity by telling ourselves that we are not free to act otherwise. If indeed there were rights or necessities involved we would not be dealing with sin but simply observing nature following its course. The accomplished sinner knows this and appeals to nature as a justification of his or her sin.

The thing about Jesus is that he doesn’t do anything because it is necessary. It is not even “necessary” that Jesus die in order to save sinners, as our atonement theories sometimes have it. Rome and religion find it necessary to kill him, but Jesus simply lives, even on the cross, until nature does finally take its course.

To lose one’s life for Christ’s sake is not to add to him but to take up a share in his strange freedom. It is a strange freedom because it is both the freedom for which we are created and yet a freedom from which we are alienated. Most of the weight which crushes us – perhaps all of that weight? – is necessity of our own making, rods for our own backs, or for the backs of others.

The freedom which Jesus lived revealed these things as secondary, as idolatrous. But this revelation brings a conflict, the result and sign of which is the cross. The cross, then, is not merely a righteous or undeserved suffering; it is the mark of a free life – a life free from false necessities, from fear of things which look like gods but are not and, so, are unnecessary. The cross marks a particular kind of suffering – the suffering which comes from the clash of the freedom for which we were created with the unfreedoms we create. Think back to our reading last week: Peter, set free to bind and loose both earth and heaven, immediately tying himself in knots. It is just this which brings Jesus to talk of his cross, and of ours.

We won’t labour this much more now, but the call to the cross is central to Christian discipleship and spoken in many ways in the gospels. To finish up, let’s hear one of the more colourful – although no less terrifying – accounts of the call, given a little earlier in Matthew’s gospel, in that account of the crucified life we call the Sermon on the Mount:

6.25 ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?* 28And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” 32For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

Or, as we’ve heard today,

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?”

A life lived – a life “lost” – for Christ’s sake, is a life in which the only thing which is “necessary” is that we rest in God’s knowledge of what we need.

“For what we are about to receive, Lord, may we be truly thankful” is a prayer which looks forward into life acknowledging that not even we are necessary. All that we are is gift. This is the meaning of a life lived as a prayer “for Christ’s sake”.

Let us then – with Christ, in Christ, for Christ’s sake – strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and watch for God’s addition of all other things.


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