Monthly Archives: September 2019

29 September – The Rich Man and Lazarus

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Pentecost 16

Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15
Psalm 91
1 Timothy 6:16-19
Luke 16:19-31

Sermon preached by Matt Julius

God, may my words be loving and true; and may those who listen discern what is not. Amen.

“For I know how many are your transgressions,
and how great are your sins —
you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,
and push aside the needy in the gate.

Hate evil and love good,
and establish justice in the gate …” (Amos 5.12, 15a)

These prophetic words from the book of Amos ring out in response to today’s Gospel reading. Lazarus has been laid down outside the gate of the rich man.

Lazarus has been laid down. Perhaps he has been laying there for a long time. Long enough, at least, for the rich man to learn his name, as we see later in the reading. Or perhaps we are to understand that Lazarus was himself unable to choose where he lay, someone else lay him outside the gate. Lazarus has been pushed aside.

Whatever the case Lazarus has been laid down, he is there, covered in sores, hungry, longing. Outside the gate. He receives no justice in the gate.

“For I know how many are your transgressions,
and how great are your sins —” (Amos 5.12a)

Before this parable about the rich man and Lazarus Jesus told the story of a dishonest manager. A manager who squandered the wealth of his master, another rich man. When the manager’s transgressions became known the rich man asked for an account of his management. Sensing his imminent firing the manager used the last moments of his employment to forgive some of the debts owed to his master. We are not told if, in the end, the dishonest manager was in fact fired. We are told only that his master, the rich man, commended his dishonesty as shrewdness.

This is a confusing story — which is probably why a lot of sermons last focused on the lectionary reading from 1 Timothy. But this story is important background for today’s Gospel reading, because it sets up the confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees. It is within this confrontational context that Jesus tells the story of the rich man and Lazarus.

The Pharisees found the first story as confusing as we do, it seems. In response they ridiculed Jesus, not knowing how to make sense of his teaching — as we often don’t. And so Jesus makes cryptic statements about the law and the prophets: they were in effect until John the Baptiser came, since then the Kingdom of God is proclaimed. And many try to enter the Kingdom of God by force.

This is not to suggest that the law and the prophets are to be done away with. For Jesus says that it would easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one letter of the law to be dropped.

We are supposed to understand the story of the rich man and Lazarus as some sort of explanation and rebuke to the Pharisees. And, perhaps — I might add — an explanation and rebuke to us.

“you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,
and push aside the needy in the gate.” (Amos 5.12b)

The Pharisees, we are told, were lovers of money. And so Jesus tells a story of a rich man.

Not merely rich, but richer than rich.

Not dressed in the white that showed he did not need to work in the field, and could afford staff to do his laundry. But a rich man dressed in purple, which showed he could send away to foreign lands for dyes or exotic fabrics with which to dress.

Not a rich man who put on a grand and special banquet. But a rich man whose banquets had become mundane, so often were they held — daily. Mimicking the lavish style of Kings and Emperors.

If the Pharisees love money, then let them hear the story of this rich man.

And, given their affinity for the law, let them hear of a poor and unclean man. Covered in sores, and laid outside the gate. Even dogs would come and lick his sores.

And this man’s name was Lazarus, or in Hebrew ‘Eleizer,’ meaning — in a feat of irony — “God has helped.” The point, of course, is that no one helps, and Lazarus dies.

This rich man also dies.

The story seems to be about the eternal fate of these two people: the rich man and Lazarus.

The rich man, who the Pharisees are wont to praise, is of course the villain. Uncharitable, lacking in generosity and hospitality. He dies and goes to the bad place, tormented by fire.

The poor man, Lazarus, is of course the one to whom we should attend. He dies and goes to the good place, to be with Abraham — the great father of Israel.

In their eternal resting places their fates are reversed. The rich man is punished for his failure to live out the virtues taught by the law and the prophets. While God, through Abraham, vindicates the poor man Lazarus, and makes everything okay. At last “God has helped.”

And when the rich man seeks in this afterlife the mercy he himself failed to show on earth, he is told: “no.” His fate has been set and sealed. His choice made. The gate that kept Lazarus outside of the rich man’s property, and away from any experience of mercy, has become a great chasm in the place of the dead, and so makes it impossible for the rich man to receive mercy. Perhaps this is the final justice of God.

“Hate evil and love good,
and establish justice in the gate …” (Amos 5.15a)

We might be able to see in this story a simple moral lesson, and a warning. Echoing the prophetic cry of Amos: take care of those in need, do good. Do not be like the rich man. Because the judgement of God is coming, and in the afterlife all will be set and sealed: justice will be done inside the gate of God’s Kingdom in heaven. No one can enter by force, or by petition, but only by living now the virtues taught by the law and the prophets.

Go then, and do likewise.

I want to suggest, however, that the way Luke recollects this story points us beyond simple moral lessons.

The story of the rich man and Lazarus in the hands of Luke’s masterful retelling does not give us a simple moral lesson, but proclaims who we are as God’s people, as the body of Christ.

Lazarus is the only character named in any of parables told by Jesus. His name means, ironically, “God has helped.” But his name has another heritage: Lazarus, or Eleizer was the name of the heir of Abraham, before the birth of Isaac.

Lazarus recalls not simply a poor man outside a gate, but those who seemed to be left outside of God’s promises through Abraham for the whole world. Lazarus is a sign for all of us that God’s redemptive plan for the world have not forgotten anyone. God’s redemptive plan for the world includes those who seemed to be left outside of God’s saving work through Abraham and ancient Israel. Not because the promise to Abraham has been replaced, but because this new Kingdom of God, here and now, brings to a crescendo the teachings of the law and the prophets.

Before telling the story of the rich man and Lazarus Jesus says it would be easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one letter of the law to be dropped.

The story ends with the statement: “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

With this Jesus is making clear that his resurrection is not a passing away of the world, and is not a passing away of the law, but is a fulfilment of the law, and brings the reign of God once and for all into this world.

As readers we already understand that this story is recollected by communities founded on the assumption that someone has risen from the dead: Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified Messiah. And in this rising from the dead God has displayed the salvific plan for the whole world. Establishing the Kingdom of God.

This is the point of the ironic twist at the end of the story. Even if someone rises from the dead they will not believe. We read this and proclaim that someone has risen from the dead and so the Kingdom of God has not been established in an afterlife, in a looming resurrection, but has taken root in the very midst of creation.

Hear then these words from the Apostle Paul:
‘Do not say in your heart, “Who will ascend into heaven?” (That is, to bring Christ down.)

Or, “Who will descend into the abyss?” (That is, to bring Christ up from the dead.)

“The word is near you,
on your lips and in your heart.” (Rom. 10.6-8)

This is the proclamation that the story of the rich man and Lazarus points to. The reversal of who is rich and who is poor, who is inside of the gate experiencing justice and who is left outside, has been completed in the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah.

Before we learn the moral lesson to help those in need, we must first recognise that we ourselves have been brought into a new relationship with God and the world. We must first see that we do not enter the Kingdom of God by force, but are freely and graciously welcomed in.

We are Lazarus. The ones who seemed to be left outside of the promise of Abraham.

We are Lazarus. The ones left outside the gate, victims of injustice.

We are Lazarus. Longing to be fed like the prodigal who seeks to return to the loving Father, and a banquet of welcome.

We are Lazarus. The ones who cannot enter the Kingdom of God by force, but are welcomed in by the freely given, overwhelming love and grace of God.

Before we declare what we must do, we proclaim who we are in light of the risen Christ. We are Lazarus: those who “God has helped.”

For all the unloving words that have been spoken to us, we proclaim that God is love and loves us.

For all the wounds that do not heal because they continue to be reopened, we proclaim that the crucified Messiah transfigured a scarred body into glory.

For all the exclusion, we proclaim that we rest in the welcome embrace of the Spirit.

And we are called to be this reality, in this community, here and now: a witness to the expanding reach of God’s love, glory, and welcome home. We are the body of the one who has risen from the dead.

From this proclamation. This foundation of hope. Not what we do, but what God has done in Christ.

From here we overcome the chasm that stops mercy flowing out and redeeming those who have lost their way.

From here, we find rest in the overwhelming love and grace of God. That does not guilt us into goodness, but loves us into new life.

From here we begin to open the gate and welcome others in: to make sure justice is done. Because true justice is found on the cross of the risen crucified one.

“We shall be judged, but with Christ. And there lies our salvation.” — Karl Barth


22 September – Timotheic

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Pentecost 15

1 Timothy 1:1-7, 18-19a
Psalm 16
Luke 16:1-9

In a sentence:
Scripture speaks of God’s honouring of us, and calls us to the honouring of God

‘Fake news’ has been no small part of the news over the last few years.

Whatever else can be said about it (not least that it is scarcely a new phenomenon), the most insidious form of fake news is that which we might have reason to believe is correct. It might not likely be believed that the candidate for election is a child-sacrificing Satanist, but be quite believable that he is philanderer or has manipulated some public process for personal gain. Believability is an important element of ‘useful’ or effective fake news. It has to be a report not only that we might want to believe but that we can believe.

We begin our reading of 1 Timothy today by considering the strong majority conclusion in critical scholarship that the letter was not written by Paul, and dates from perhaps as much as a century after Paul’s death (with a similar conclusion with respect to 2 Timothy and Titus). The reasons for this conclusion include the language in the letter, and the emphases and the context to which it seems to be written, all of which differ considerably from those in other letters of Paul.

Our point here this morning is not to test the theory – we’ll take it for granted. More important is to ask what it might mean for the reading of the letter and of the Scriptures as a whole. In particular, the question of authority presses forward – the authority first of the letter itself and then of a Bible which contains such fake news. For if it is fake, it may be untruth of that more dangerous type: close enough to what is possible that we might believe it to be true. There was a Timothy, and there was a Paul – a very, very important Paul. What that Paul might have said to that Timothy, then, is itself very, very important. It would seem to matter, then, whether or not Paul wrote this letter.

Indeed, this is a significant historical question, in the sense that historians are right to do the kinds of things historians do to establish as closely as possible what is the case about historical records.

Whether or not Paul wrote the letter, however, is not a very important theological question. For we must also take seriously the way in which the Scriptures are used in the Churches – or, at least, ought to be used. We noted, for example, that the prophet Hosea was not writing to us but to eighth century Israelites. We believe there to be continuities between ourselves and them but we also know that there are great differences. And so we ‘translate’ and ‘interpret’ in order that we might hear God speak to us in our own ‘here and now’. If it is Hosea we use, it is not quite Hosea we hear.

In the same way, if Paul did write to Timothy, he was not writing to us, and so we seek to read between the lines to understand more how Paul’s exchange with Timothy might matter to us. This is part and parcel of our not being in the ‘thick of things’ so far as the texts of the Scriptures are concerned.

The rumoured ‘fakeness’ of such a letter as Paul’s to Timothy – its ‘pseudonymity’ – is not, then, merely a ‘literary’ conclusion, as if the matter rested only on analysing the language and context for comparison to that of other letters in Paul. Rather, pseudonymity borders on being a theological requirement of a biblical text. This is because every text ceases to be what Paul said to Timothy or the Galatians or the Corinthians, and becomes a text addressed to us – independent of the historical personage of Paul.

All Scripture is, theologically, pseudonymous in this sense: we read it ‘as if’ we were the ones addressed by the text, and ‘as if’ our reading of the text is the address to us of the real or purported author. There is, then, a sense in which – as forgeries – the pastoral letters of Paul perfect the Scriptural principle. They demonstrate precisely what is required of us as we hear and speak the gospel: they write new Scripture from the authority of the old.

To suggest that Paul might not have written the Timothy letters (among others) is, then, simply to observe that the Bible itself already contains precisely the engagement with gospel truth that we ourselves enter into each time we open it. We read Scripture to discover what God might be saying to us here and now, and we see that the Bible itself contains texts which are doing just that. The pastoral letters are traces of how the gospel was already being addressed to a time and context quite different from that of its original speakers – Paul – and hearers, Timothy.

But in this these letters are crucial because, in the end, it is the ‘from…to’ address of Scripture which matters: ‘From Paul, apostle of Christ Jesus by the command of God…to Timothy, loyal child in faith…’:

There is a hint about this in the name ‘Timothy’. While we are confident that Paul had an apprentice named Timothy, at this distance (that is, the distance between the man and his name appearing in the Scriptures), the very name ‘Timothy’ becomes more significant than the man himself. The name is a compound of two Greek words, the ‘Tim-’ meaning ‘honour’ (timé) and the ‘-thy’ meaning God (theos). Timothy is either ‘one who honours God’ or ‘one honoured by God’. (In the letter the name appears three times: at the very beginning (v.2), where Timothy is identified as the ‘to’ of the letter, at the end of the introductory section (1.18), and then at the very end of the letter (6.20) – ‘Guard, O Timothy, what has been entrusted to you’.)

It was an accident that the man Timothy had this name but it is useful for the purposes of reminding ourselves what the Bible is: it is a word about honour from God to the one addressed and about the honouring of God in return.

That two-way honouring has its content revealed in the opening chapter of the letter. First, there is God’s honouring in the gift: ‘Paul, sent by Christ Jesus, to Timothy, loyal child: grace…mercy…peace.’ The ‘to’ of Scripture always proposes this first, even in the wrath of the prophets. Grace, as mercy for peace, is the gospel regardless of the context.

And then, consequent upon the gift, is the exhortation, our honouring of God: rise, stand firm, ‘take hold of the eternal life to which you are called.’ This, too, is always present: the law by which the grace takes form. This is what the gift ‘looks like’.

Whether the ‘real’ Paul wrote this letter to the ‘real’ Timothy does not matter here. In the gift and in its consequence, we are all ‘Timothy’. We are honoured by God in grace, mercy and peace. And we are called to honour God: to take hold of eternal things in lives abounding in love which springs from purified hearts, cleared minds and sincere faith.

Let us, then, be ‘timothe-ic’. Let us live from God’s honouring of us, and live towards it in our honouring of each other, to God’s greater glory and our richer humanity. Amen.

MtE Update – September 20 2019

  1. THIS SUNDAY September 22 we will begin a new sermon series on 1 Timothy; see here for more details.
  2. AND THIS SUNDAY September 22 there will be an update on MTEFP buildings project, straight after the service (before morning tea)
  3. We have had a new sound system update, making it possible to connect directly into the sound system via hearing aids or headphones — speak to Rod to see whether it will help you in the services!
  4. News from the Justice and International Mission Cluster
  5. The Church Council has recently signed on to the Keeping Children Safe policy of the Synod, with its associated code of conduct and statement of commitment. More details about this can be found here.

Advance Dates

  1. Sunday September 22 – an update on MTEFP buildings project, straight after the service (before morning tea)
  2. Sunday October 6 – New hymn-learning session after morning tea
  3. Sunday October 20 – Responding to the Ten Commandments series: a ‘sermon feedback’ session after morning tea

September 22 – Lazarus Lamilami

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.


Lazarus Lamilami, faithful servant

By any measure Lazarus Lamilami Namadumbur (1906–77) was a remarkable man. He was handsome, intelligent and physically strong. His broad smile, quiet chuckle and warmth of presence instantly drew people to him. He was a sailor, carpenter, pastor, translator, and interpreter. He spoke five Aboriginal languages as well as English. He initiated the beginnings of an Aboriginal literary tradition. He was awarded an MBE (1968), elected to the council of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, a part–time lecturer at Nungalinya College in Darwin, and the first ordained Aboriginal Methodist Minister in Australia. Lamilami moved almost effortlessly between two cultures and was much respected by Indigenous and European alike.

Lamilami was born among the Maung people on the Northern Territory mainland directly opposite South Goulburn Island (Warruwi). At about the age of eight he attended the school on Goulburn Island established by James Watson, the first Methodist missionary to Arnhem Land, in 1916. Amy Corfield was the teacher in the school for its first three years and her unpublished diary in the Mitchell Library in Sydney gives a unique perspective of the carefree life of the pupils in the school. Schoolboys like the young Lazarus spent much of their time before or after lessons fishing, hunting, trepanging, singing, corroboreeing and even learning to play rugby. Though his schooling was restricted Lamilami took advantage of the opportunities he was given. He was taught elementary English, mathematics, scripture, animal husbandry and gardening. Later, as an adolescent he learnt carpentry at the Mission and worked in that trade during the war years and afterwards. The anthropologist Ronald Berndt says in the Foreword to Lamilami’s autobiography, Lamilami Speaks (1975) that he was “fortunate in having Methodist teachers and guides who were not bigots and who, although they knew little of the traditional life going on around them, were not actively opposed to it.” 

As a young man Lamilami worked on the mission lugger and various boats in and out of Darwin. It was during this time (c.1946) that he was converted by the prayerful example of a wireless operator, named Bell, about whom we have no other details. A few years after Lamilami’s conversion, George Calvert Barber, the President–General of the Methodist Church in Australasia, met up with Lamilami on a visit to North Australia. In Calvert Barber’s report on the visit, he described Lamilami as a “sturdy figure with a radiant face and steadfast assurance [who] appealed for a deeper understanding among all the people of the world.” Calvert Barber was particularly impressed by the reality of Jesus in Lamilami’s life: “Jesus”, Lamilami told Calvert Barber, “is my friend and I must keep on trying to do my best for Him. He does not fail me and he won’t fail anyone who comes to Him. Colour does not matter to Jesus, and we must not let colour stop us from being friends in Him.”

In the mid 1950s Lamilami was trained as a Local Preacher and then selected to deputation work in New South Wales, Victoria, and Tasmania. It was the heyday of the Federal Government’s and the Methodist Church’s policy of assimilation and there were huge expectations placed on Lamilami’s shoulders. He was held up as an example of what the Methodist Mission could produce in Arnhem Land. He was variously named a “trail blazer”, a “worthy ambassador”, the face of assimilation, and the “first fruits” of what was generally considered slow and difficult work among the Aboriginal people in the North. Throughout the 1950s and ’60s the Methodist Missionary Magazine published numerous photographs (including the accompanying charcoal sketch) of a smiling, smartly–dressed Lamilami meeting church dignitaries, opening new churches, preaching in the open air, and speaking to the General Conference of the Methodist Church. For Australian Methodism Lamilami represented a “new era” in mission and a new future for Aboriginal people. Now that the protection days were over, the “Christian conscience” believed that Australian Aboriginals would now be “educated for Australian citizenship, and . . . be integrated into the Australian community.”

In 1966, at the age of 57, Lamilami was ordained in the small but picturesque church at Warruwi. His ordination was further evidence to the church of “spiritual advance”—an Aboriginal man had become a minister in a district where until then only Europeans, Fijians, Tongans and Rotumans had laboured. For the next ten years Lamilami faithfully ministered to an Aboriginal and European congregation at Croker Island (Minjilang). With great grace and dignity he straddled two cultures, becoming for many a “bridge of understanding”.  Although he did embrace some European ways and values, especially the importance of education for his people, he remained proud of his Aboriginal culture and never lost touch with his Maung “homeland. His dream, yet unfulfilled, was that one day there would be centre for Maung, Gunwinggu and Iwidja culture set up in West Arnhem Land, where the heritage of language, dance and song could be passed on.

Lamilami died on 21 September 1977 after a short illness. At his funeral in Darwin, Bernard Clarke, the Director of Mission and Service in the United Church in North Australia, identified Lazarus Lamilami’s lasting legacy: “As he [Lamilami] sought understanding and reconciliation between cultures, so he sought to understand the Gospel as an Aboriginal man. . . . [H]e understood that the challenge of the Gospel was to follow in Christ’s footsteps. He knew this was a narrow path, but he also knew that not all the signposts were in English. . . . As he found other signposts drawn from his heritage and culture he shared them and the way was clearer for us all.”

William Emilsen

15 September – The lost sheep and the lost coin

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Pentecost 14

Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28
Psalm 14
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Luke 15:1-10

Sermon preached by Andrew Gador-Whyte

God loved the world in this way, that he sought us, his lost sheep, at the risk of losing everything else.

God loved the world in this way, that he turned up the whole house for the sake of a single coin, that he pursues what adds nothing to him so that he may share with us in his unreasonable joy.

God loved the world in this way – that in Jesus he called us his friends and neighbours so that our lives might become a feast over what only God recognised as infinitely valuable.

God loves – which is to say, God’s will is oriented freely towards the other, embracing what he has made in its own integrity. God searches relentlessly for us in our alienation from one another and from him. God seeks us out in our weakness, our brokenness. God desires to embrace each person, incorporating each back into the communion that has been lost.

God desires us freely. God reaches out to our broken humanity in mercy. The form of God’s mercy, revealed in Jesus, is solidarity. God’s solidarity with us is an invitation to us to respond. Our response of love that his solidarity makes possible is repentance.

In today’s reading from Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells two parables to those who object to his fellowship with sinners. God has arrived, and welcomes money launderers with his surprising joy. And for others whose sin is to judge swindlers who are coming to trust God, he welcomes them too to share in his joy. Let nothing stand in the way of God’s grace – neither our despair of God’s mercy for ourselves, nor our attempts to manage others’ relationship to God’s mercy.

Jesus’ familiarity with those alienated from God’s people is not a cheapening of God’s righteousness. Rather, it is to reveal the righteousness of God over and against the righteousness that we place in the way of our neighbour’s healing.

In eating with sinners, Jesus makes communion possible not by toleration, but rather by solidarity. Not by denying what has ruptured our relationships, but by inviting us to one table. There we recognise the unity that comes from another, that judges our ruptured state. There we recognise the unity that impels us into the distinctly unglamorous work of asking and giving forgiveness, perhaps of giving up the need to be right that so pervades our culture.

Repentance is opening ourselves to God’s healing judgement. It is allowing God to meet us where we are, in love. And it is the recognition of how much we have attempted to live independent of his love. Repentance is allowing ourselves to have our feet washed by Christ. It is coming to receive our neighbour’s imperfect service as pure gift.

The Church is a repentant community. Repentance is the pattern of life Christ has given us. Like a bell ordering the hours of our work and prayer together, repentance is to be what structures our life, a constant invitation. Living together in the Church is taking God on trust that his mercy is always at work restoring our relationships, turning our will towards him, through what is ordinary and mundane and real. Liturgically speaking, repentance looks a lot like simply turning up, simply sticking with the rhythm of the Word, simply opening your hands to the gift that transforms us.

Repentance is standing in the line to the table of our common need, receiving forgiveness on behalf of our neighbour and for our own dire need. It is a life of prayer that refuses to despair of the mercy of God.

In baptism we have been given to one another as a forgiven people. To be washed is to be immersed again in the reality of a broken world, but to know it afresh as the place that has become the place of our healing. To be sanctified is to be drawn under the waves together where one has gone before us, with us, on our behalf.

To say that we are a forgiven people it is not to claim that sin is behind us in the streets outside. It is to say that we are given to each other in the particular awareness of having been met by the risen Christ. When he greeted us in the garden, his risen presence made visible our complicity in our neighbour’s betrayal. And yet, even before his presence is judgement, it is, above all else, reconciliation. His risen life, revealed to us with the wounds we have dealt him, is above all an assurance of our incorporation with our neighbour into the resurrection life we share.

On the cross, Jesus himself has become the lost sheep and the lost coin. On the cross, we who were lost have been found by God. We who have been met by the risen Christ have come to recognise our implication in his betrayal and death. We have come to see that in Jesus, God has become the outcast, the accursed. God has identified with us in our alienation, in the brokenness of our relationships, in the failure of trust in which we are enmeshed. God has made his mercy known by sharing our life in Jesus, by eating with us, by solidarity.

Through fellowship with him, we have received the gift of a life lived in complete trust in God. The joy of growing into absolute dependence on God. The joy of becoming slaves to the love of Jesus Christ. The joy of recognising our neighbours and ourselves as forgiven sinners. The joy of connecting others with the love of God, the God who searches unrelentingly to restore people to life and communion.

Through fellowship with him, we have received that paradoxical joy of coming to see with clarity how our lives have been marked so comprehensively by fear, by evasion of responsibility to our neighbour, by avoidance of dependence on our neighbour. That paradoxical joy of repentance.

God loved the world in this way, that in Christ he searched in the wilderness, swept all the rooms of his house until he found us. He has searched us out, even to the point of meeting us at the depth of our weakness and alienation. However lost we are, we will be found in Jesus Christ. And he calls us his friends and neighbours, that our lives might become lives of joy for the lost whom he carries home. Amen.

Worship Service Orders – Advent A

This is our first attempt at providing a series of worship orders which congregations might consider taking up more or less as given, for a liturgical season.

A worship order is provided for each Sunday in Advent, linked to the Revised Common Lectionary’s Year A readings for Advent (2019, 2022, 2025, 2028). The service structure is repeated each week, as are a number of the congregational responses

These service orders are provided as a ‘proof of concept’ experiment — with the question as to whether such things would be of use in the church. If you do use them and would be interested to see more such liturgical resources put together, please let us know via the feedback form and subscribe to the eList for updates on future additions.

A click on each button below will download a Word .docx version of each file:

8 September – The Ninth Commandment – ‘You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour’

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Pentecost 13

Genesis 3:1-4
Psalm 43
James 3:3-10
Matthew 26:69-75

Sermon preached by Rev. Bruce Barber

“I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of slavery, (therefore)….

“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour”

Each of the previous four commandments tells us what we should do. Now, in this ninth commandment, we are confronted not so much by the duty of deeds as by that of our words – what we say of, to, and about one another. In this respect, it connects with the third commandment: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” If, there, God seeks to protect his own name from dishonour, this ninth commandment seeks to protect the good name of every person whose desire it is to receive such a gift.

The need for true words, therefore, requires that we reflect how often we take for granted the miracle of human speech – that ambiguous faculty which distinguishes us from the animal creation, which can only growl, bark, neigh, hiss, moo and twitter. To state the obvious, language is the basis of every human enterprise. We use it to persuade, to inform, to entertain, to encourage, to curse, to depress, to enlighten, to deceive.

We have a graphic description of the power of the tongue for good or evil in the letter of James. Like the writer of the letter, we do not have to search hard to see contemporary illustrations of the power of the tongue to injure. False witness against individuals in the institutions of business and governments; false witness against neighbouring countries; false witness in and against churches, synagogues, and mosques – the power of the tongue is incalculable, not least in changing standards of judgement.

Ours is indeed an age at the mercy of intellectual hostilities, so that it is increasingly difficult, even in complete innocence, not to serve the lie to a far greater degree than we imagine. However well we may have thought we have negotiated the other commandments, it is certain we will have well and truly come to grief with the words “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour“. Over and above the casting out of the blatant lie, consider the reach of the commandment when, as deliverer or receiver, we are implicated in the all too human desire to be first with a good, though doubtful, story, or to trade rumour with an air of innocent regret.

Here, as in so many other things, it remains true that if false witness is to be cast out, there is need for much more of that fundamental reorientation which Jesus called repentance. The call for truthfulness, and the consequent necessity for repentance, makes plain that in a world where truth is not the single object of human desire, Jesus was bound to be rejected – “bound” in both senses of the word. His cross reveals ultimate human treachery with regard to truth. Here the truth dies, victim of false witnesses, of the tongues of slanderers, light obscured by darkness, even at the very centre: “Peter began to curse and to swear ‘I know not the man’.”

The powers of darkness which rise up to extinguish the light of truth so close to home demonstrates the cowardice of the outright lie. Here false witness is obvious. But rarely do we find ourselves faced with such clarity of choice. Most often honouring truth confronts us with genuine ambiguity.

In this respect, we might all benefit from a better understanding of how the very notion of truth has been redefined in Jesus Christ. And it is this. When he speaks and acts, truth is as much alive as is life itself. However scandalous it may sound to those secure in legalistic definitions of truth, he makes the truthful word no longer a simple given. The ministry of Jesus, above all, is witness to this reorientation, which is to say that his word and deed always takes into account the particular one being addressed. Where he is, truth is literally “embodied”, no longer detached from immediate life. Now truth is made personal, liberated from being simply a general maxim of easy application – which is how the Pharisaic mind, then and now, understands what counts as truth.

Consider this by way of illustration.  Some-time in the 1930s, it is said of Dietrich Bonhoeffer that he was present with a friend at a political gathering sufficiently small enough for individuals to be recognised. When all present gave the Nazi salute, the friend resolutely stood with folded arms. Bonhoeffer hissed: “Put your hand up you fool; this isn’t worth dying for”. Only when we take account of the subsequent brutality of his death does the sophistication in knowing when an “apparent” initial bearing of false witness is trumped so decisively by the ultimate cost of “true” witness.

The dangers which are involved in this realisation of the truth as living – and they are considerable – must never persuade Christians to abandon it in favour of appeal to some formal definition, like Christian “principles”. Properly understood, there is no such thing as Christian “principles” at all. Transformative realities such as “Faith, Hope, Love, Grace, Mercy, Peace” – these are not “principles”. Although they are nouns, each is actually experienced as a verb. This means that each becomes in practice an explosive event, even a miraculous event, capable of overturning every established status quo.

This is what it means to speak of truth as living Truth. Notice how this positive understanding of freedom is actually the shape of the commandment. The apparent negative injunction is to “not bear false witness against the neighbour”. As we know, when two negatives are joined, we have a positive. So, joining together “not” and “false” becomes a positive imperative: “Speak truth”. This means that our speech will always need to be “truth in relationship”, and therefore must always be particular. This recognition means that the hardest tasks we have are assessing what truthfulness requires in particular situations. Doctors presumably have this problem in knowing what to tell terminally ill patients. Or again, suppose, hypothetically, that the playground bully taunts a fellow classmate in the hearing of others with the accusation, overheard from parents, that her father is an alcoholic. It is true, but the child denies it. Her answer must indeed be called a lie. And if she had more experience of life, she might have found a way around it. Yet her lie contains more truth, that is to say, is more in accord with reality than would have been the case if she had betrayed her father’s weakness in front of others. The family has its own secret, and is entitled to preserve it.

The fact is that “speaking truth” does not mean the disclosure of everything that exists. After all, were we to read on in the Genesis text, we hear of the serious consequences which follow our assumption that what we call good and evil are safely under our control. The “false witness” of the serpent certainly appears to be right: “You will not die” by this serious endeavour. Well perhaps not, but it all depends on what death means. But such is the nakedness now revealed that even the fig leaves we grasp from the tree are not enough camouflage. Instead, we hear how God himself makes clothes for both Adam (humanity) and Eve (life) (Genesis 3:21). In picturesque form – remembering that the two names in Hebrew mean humanity and life – this merciful gift announces that in a fallen world God is happy for many things in life to remain concealed. If it is too late to eradicate evil, the goodness of God at least makes provision that it be kept properly hidden.

Consequently, “bearing false witness” has considerably deeper implications when it takes on a proper human face offered to us in the gospel. It is, of course, possible to bear false witness by refusing to bring to the light of day things that ought to be exposed. Equally, it is possible to bear false witness by intentionally bringing to the light of day things which ought to remain hidden. The wisdom to know the difference is an illustration in practical terms of what it is to own Jesus Christ as Lord.

The gospel tells us how this freedom has been readily resisted from the very beginning, Jesus announces liberating truth to those who lived by the “false witness” of a religious tradition reduced to a formula; rejecting his offer, their only option was to “pick up stones to throw at him” (John 8:59).

Fortunate then are we if, in this as in all things, we allow the church’s confession of Jesus as the Living Word to so fashion the commandment. When this happens, truth will not only have been declared; it will actually have become a life giving promise – a promise that will set everyone free.

MtE Update – September 6 2019

  1. The latest eNews from the Synod is here.
  2. Later in September we will begin a new sermon series on 1 Timothy; see here for more details.
  3. This Sunday we return to Bruce Barber’s Ten Commandments series – ‘You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour’.  Our reading of this text will be supported by Genesis 3.1-4, James 3.3-10, Matthew 26.69-75, Psalm 43. 

Old News

Advance Dates

  1. Sunday September 22 – Update on MTEFP buildings project, after morning tea
  2. Sunday October 6 – New hymn-learning session after morning tea

1 September – Return

View or print as a PDF

Pentecost 12

Hosea 14
Psalm 89
Luke 14:7-11

In a sentence:
Grace can only be given into empty hands

‘Sin’ the church’s four-letter word.

Four-lettered words are ‘sharp’ words. We call them ‘swear’ words because of the way we use them to intensify an oath – a promise or a threat. Just as four-letter words which actually have four letters are real words referring to real things and yet most of the time are the wrong way to refer to those things, short-and-sharp ‘sin’ both marks something we know to be real but which often feels overstated. It’s uttered all over the place in the church but often with the wrong emphasis: it is not the place to start in characterising the human being in her relationship to God.

Of course, it’s a very biblical word but we hear it in tune with the way in which it has been taken up in the church through history. It ought not surprise us that people so capable of sin as Israel and the church might not be quite capable of speaking of sin properly.

The prophets, of course, are full of the accusation of sin, and we’ve heard plenty of that from Hosea over the last couple of months. His account and assessment of the wrong in Israel has been visceral. It is hard not to be overwhelmed by the sheer weight of sin in the prophets.

Of course, the word of grace has been present alongside judgement of sin, and Hosea finishes with God’s willingness to reconcile – our text for this morning. This final chapter is structured as a confession and absolution: there is the call to Israel to ‘return’, the confession of Israel, and then God’s declaration of what good will now come to Israel. That good we have heard most weeks over the series as part of our own declaration of forgiveness in the liturgy:

4 I will heal their disloyalty;
I will love them freely,
for my anger has turned from them.
5 I will be like the dew to Israel;
he shall blossom like the lily,
he shall strike root like the forests of Lebanon.
6 His shoots shall spread out;
his beauty shall be like the olive tree…
7 They shall again live beneath my shadow,
they shall flourish as a garden…

This final chapter presents, on the surface at least, the ‘standard’ approach to sin, confession and absolution in the churches: you are sinners (swear word), therefore you need to confess (also a swear word), and then God forgives (resolution). I say ‘standard approach in the churches’ because, in fact, this is not quite how things unfold in the prophets or in true Christian experience.

Grace is not conditional. It must be received to be recognised as grace, but it always precedes our reception and recognition. The very possibility of a return by Israel has its basis not in the repentant heart of the people but in God’s invitation to them: ‘Return’ (14.1).

Earlier in Hosea we read,

Their deeds do not permit them
to return to their God.
For the spirit of whoredom is within them,
and they do not know the Lord. (5.4)

Later, when Israel says to itself, ‘Let us return to the Lord,’ God’s response is ‘Seriously? What shall I do with you? I look for love and knowledge, not religious obeisance’ (6.1-6).

The engine which moves the story from judgement to restoration is grace, and not the perceived need on Israel’s part for something better. The people cannot return until it hears God’s invitation: ‘Return’. ‘Return’ is an invitation to claim the promise God makes in the face of all that has come to pass: I will heal, I will love, I will be like the dew; and you shall flourish as a garden.

To claim these promises is to let go of other things claimed. And so Israel’s confession includes, ‘We will say no more, “our God”, to the works of our hands.’ In its immediate context this is a casting away of wooden and metal idols (4.12; cf. 4.17; 8.6; 10.6; 11.2; 13.2; 14.8). But the prophets’ easy mockery of the worship of wood and stone disguises a deeper truth: there is nothing we can make or do which will bring us into God’s favour. The ‘work of our hands’ is not merely the silver statue of a god; it as much anything we imagine will impress God, will allow us to approach God, will place God within our reach; this includes even our willingness to confess as a kind of ‘offering’ to win God over (such as seems to be proposed in 6.1-3).

For Israel ‘the works of our hands’ were not only the religious idols but also the land, the kingship, the divinely-commanded religious obligations, even the half-thought of turning back to God – whatever Israel counted as for its own good. For us, it is the same kind of thing: moral achievement, reputation, continuity of history, correctness of theology or purity of association. What we most love and cling to, or create to keep at bay the threats we most fear – these become the works of our hands, with the strong temptation to identify them as ‘our God’. The principle ‘God is what God does’ morphs into ‘God is what we do’.

God has a great interest in what we love and fear, but not as the basis for our relationship with God. For us, what we most love and most fear form a bulwark against the world, against each other and, finally, against God. It is their potential to secure us in this way that causes the works of our hands to begin to look like divine things. Just this saw Israel lose the plot: the God who called them into being as a people is just not doing enough to secure what we love and keep fear at bay, and so let’s try other gods, run off to arrange political alliances, develop new liturgies and more convenient moralities, focus on the ‘important’ people and let the rest fend for themselves.

We fear that if we do not, ‘with our hands,’ create for ourselves parents to keep us safe, we will be but orphans. But the confession on the lips of Israel this morning concludes by letting go of this anxiety: ‘in you, Lord, the orphan finds mercy’ (14.3), in you is mother, father, for you lift us to your cheek.

‘Return, O Israel, for you have stumbled… ‘Return’ is the sharp word intended to catch our attention in Hosea, not the four-lettered accusation, ‘sin’, or the stumbling. The sharpness is not dark pointedness of profanity but the stinging light which reveals a path back to God. An orphan cannot un-orphan herself; love and care cannot be forced from another. But this was never the requirement: ‘your faithfulness comes from me.

The command to ‘return’ declares that we never were orphans, despite how things felt.

And so, however things feel for us now – whether pretty bad or, perhaps especially, if they are feeling pretty good – Return, and say no longer ‘my God’ to the works of your hands. ‘For I desire not your works, your sacrifices and burnt offerings, but love and the knowledge of God’ (6.6).

What we make of ourselves and the world is not unimportant but must not get in the way.

God has already embraced us, and we cannot ‘return’ that embrace if our arms are already full. Grace can be given only into empty hands.