Monthly Archives: June 2021

27 June – The full story

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Pentecost 5

Ephesians 1:1-14
Psalm 91
Mark 5:21-43

In a sentence
God’s story for us is wider and richer than the ones we tell ourselves

Some 15 years ago there appeared a film, ‘Stranger than Fiction’, which told the story of one Harold Crick. Harold is an ordinary kind of chap who, in the course of going about his daily routine, suddenly begins to hear a voice narrating events in his life. The voice describes the way he brushes his teeth or what he is thinking as he walks down the street. As the tale unfolds, Harold begins to suspect that he is, in fact, a character in someone’s novel.

This realisation doesn’t concern him too much until a day when, standing at the curb waiting for the bus, his watch stops. Asking a bystander for the time, he resets his watch and, at that moment, hears once more the novelist’s narration: ‘little did he know that this seemingly innocuous act would result in his imminent death.’ You can imagine what effect such news has on poor Harold and the efforts he goes to, to change the course of his story.

Now, the point of introducing Harold here is just this: we are, all of us, all of the time, hearing a narration of our life story; we are just much less conscious of it. We are constantly being told what to eat, what to buy, how green to be, how much exercise we need, what we can and can’t expect from our relationships, how much we should work, what we need to earn, that we need a new phone or computer or car, where the best place to live is, how to bring up our children, who we should vote for, who the good guys are and who are the baddies, and so on. All of these things have, in a sense, already been worked out for us, and are presented to us as our story. We largely do and are according the background plot which is ours by virtue of when and where and to whom we were born: this is who you are, and what you must do, and what you can expect. Harold had been living the life of the immortal and is reminded that it is not his true life.

Yet, our mortality is not the point of invoking his story today. The point is that it is quite possible to live a life of apparent freedom but be entirely oblivious to the fact that we are caught in the flow of some grand narrator’s telling of a story. This is the case even in our particular culture, with its heightened consciousness of the ‘binding’ nature of tradition. We are suspicious of received ‘story‑ings’ of who we are. We consider ourselves ‘enlightened’ people who have outgrown tradition and now live and move freely, according to our true story as human beings. Yet even modern enlightened thinking on the past is constantly being revealed to be inadequate. Much of the thrust of modern identity politics (‘critical theory’) is oriented towards a radical destabilising of all story that might confine us. In its most extreme versions, the postmodern principle presses towards the revelation that our story is that we have no story, no narrative curve which causes us to move or by which we can expect others to move.

This is surely a counsel of despair but an understandable one. For stories don’t merely entertain or sustain. They also crush. I rain bombs rain down on you because you don’t fit into my story; you simply shouldn’t be there, says the Jew to the Palestinian, democracy to dictatorship, murderer to victim. Asylum seekers languish because they don’t fit into a nation’s story. The claims of indigenous peoples don’t register with the broader body politic because that story has already been told, and those peoples should reconcile to having been crushed. The story my mum or dad or teachers told me was my story can cripple me.

All of this is to say that there are stories that give life and stories that take it. Each tells me what to do, what to love, what to fear. The question is, which story is the best one?

The work of the letter to the Ephesians – indeed the work of every proclamation of the gospel – is to tell yet another story. In these opening verses of the letter, Paul tells a story of the world. He tells it as the story of all stories. As such, it both must be told and cannot be told. It must be told because it is the key to all stories, all histories. It cannot be told – properly – because it can only be heard as yet ‘another’ story among other stories.

And so, Paul’s language is pressed to its limit. This is a story which begins – nonsensically – ‘before the foundation of the world’, in time before time, in ‘time beyond our dreaming’. Yet the point is not nonsense; it is the sheer excess and abundance of the story Paul wants to tell. The ‘breadth and length and height and depth’ (3.18) of God’s approach to us reveals a love which ‘surpasses knowledge’, so that we ‘may be filled with all the fullness of God’ (3.19) – which is to say, that we may be filled with what could not possibly fit. This excess is Paul overflowing with the gospel story.

The only way to assess the story Paul tells, over against the one I am already living, is to uncover which gives a better account of me and my world, a more desirable account for us all. Or, to put it more succinctly: which story makes us better and freer people? Which reveals to us who we are, the bad and the good? Which shows us the best ethic for that life of peace we considered last week, peace‑full not only for ourselves but for others also?

These questions are not usually to the fore in our day-to-day thinking. Instead, we nestle into the story we have been given, and its flow takes us from day to day, conversation to conversation, joy to joy, sadness to sadness. This is the life ordinary.

This was the story of Harold Crick until he was jolted into lived awareness of a deeper story. But our point here today is not that we know our mortality. The gospel’s word to Harold and to us is unexpectedly different. We are all standing at the curb wondering what time it is as we hear Paul narrate our story: ‘Little did they know that the crucifixion of Jesus would result in their imminent life’.

This is also a life which knows its mortality but does not fear it, even if it should suddenly become apparent how imminent death can be.

This is the life of those who know themselves to be adopted children of God. It is, then, the life of those who are clothed with a new self – a new story – in the likeness of God (4.24), and who are learning to imitate God in humility and gentleness, patience and love, in the unity of the Spirit of the bond of peace (4.1-3).

Paul overflows with the gospel because this new life is a miracle.

Let us, then, not simply acquiesce into the old self – the familiar story which merely tips us into the next thing. Let us not be weary, resigned, or predictable within those stories which drain life away to nothing.

Let us become God’s miracle, for the fuller, richer humanity of us all, and for God’s greater glory.

Sunday Worship at MtE – 27 June 2021

The worship service for Sunday 27 June 2021 can be viewed by clicking on the image below.  The order of service can be viewed here.

Other worship services can be found in the list below or at the MtE YouTube channel

MtE Update – June 25 2021

  1. Worship this Sunday June 27 will remain as last week — gathered in the church, with masks to be worn for the duration of the service (and while in the church); no service of morning tea until further notice.
  2. An important congregational meeting to consider further our congregation’s future accommodation and ministries will be on Sunday July 18, commencing after worship and continuing to mid-afternoon (11.30-2.30/3.00pm). Documentation for the meeting will be distributed from July 4
  3. The most recent Synod eNews (June 24)
  4. News from the Justice and International Mission Cluster (June 23)
  5. The Hotham Mission End of Financial Year Appeal has now been launched. If you can support HM in this way, this is possible via the HM website.
  6. The New Testament study groups will take a week’s break next week (Wed 30th, Fri 2nd), and return the week after.
  7. For those interested in Taize, Northcote UCA’s monthly service will be held the afternoon of July; details.  
  8. Please consider supporting the Friends of Vellore fundraiser to support the hospital’s COVID-19 response in India; UPDATED (June 17) donation details are here.
  9. From June 27 the focus texts for Sunday worship will be taken from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. For more details, see this dedicated post. This week we will hear again Ephesians 1.1-14, looking this time at the longer second section of this passage.

20 June – Grace to you, and peace

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Pentecost 4

Ephesians 1:1-14
Psalm 85
Mark 4:35-41

In a sentence
God offers a more profound peace than we think or dare to ask for

‘Grace to you, and peace, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ’. This is how the Apostle addresses the people of God. Every New Testament letter under the name of Paul begins with words like these.[1] And so do our worship services each week.

In terms of function, these words look something like a gracious ‘hello’. But Paul’s benediction and that which begins our worship are more than pleasantry. What is a play here is an invocation of the gift of God, and so the naming of our need. We speak the whole of the gospel in these two words, and Paul’s letter to the Ephesians can be read as an extended teasing-out of the meaning of this benediction.

To most people, peace is probably the more familiar of the two concepts. Peace is the motivation of most of what we do; to act is to strive for peace. All our desires are for a peace we don’t yet experience, and are reflected in things like wanting the bombs to stop falling, wanting a place to escape to when it all feels too much, wanting to be warm in this cold weather, or a safe neighbourhood for our children, or a reliable vaccine, or a quiet corner in a café. We act to make such things happen. ‘All we are saying’, we sang 50 years ago, ‘is give peace a chance’.

As desire, then, peace is something of a negative concept: it begins with a ‘not this’, ‘not here’, ‘not now’, ‘not her’, ‘not them’ – all in relation to the feeling that something is out of place. We are displaced, disappointed, dissatisfied, and peace is being properly placed, appointed and satisfied. Curiously, it is only of the dead that we say that they are ‘at peace’, which must be as about as negative a statement of the possibility of ‘peace in our time’ as we can make.

The ‘not’ hiding in our notions of peace is important because it makes it possible to see that our enemies also desire peace. For that enmity springs from them saying of us: not them, not that, not now. Our peace is often the desire that other people, in their pursuit of their own desires for peace, go away, for their peace conflicts with ours, their heaven competes with ours.

This is to say that our ‘un-peace’ is not as simple as the presence of a dangerous enemy who brings discord or threatens war. When we say ‘not this’, ‘not now’, ‘not them’, so also do those we distance. And the distancing, the reduction of those others, is the un-peace against which they react. Only the stupid act in such a way as contradict their own desire for peace, and those who oppose us are not usually stupid. But they see us as their un-peace, the shape of our peace as cast against the shape of theirs.

Seeing the desire for peace in those who oppose us might cause us to grow suspicious of our own visions of peace. What does our peace deny in the desires for peace in others? This is a question at the heart of struggles such as those between colonists and indigenes, oppressors and oppressed, the homed and the homeless, or within tense family relationships. We’ll probably see some of it in our efforts to find a new home for the congregation. The peace we long for now becomes much more difficult to define or to visualise, if indeed it is something we are all to recognise as peace. It is not merely irony that the church as a whole is most grievously divided at the Eucharist, the sacrament of peace; our visions of peace are the problem.

And so we come to a surprising and troubling possibility: that to link arms and sway back and forth as we sing ‘Give peace a chance’ might not point to the solution so much as manifest our confusion. More starkly, it might be that war is not so much overcome by peace but caused by it: the shape of my peace in conflict with the shape of yours.

What then of grace? In a place like this it is strongly emphasised that grace is the nature of something freely given, with particular reference to what God gives. God gives reconciliation with God grace­‑fully, freely, under no compulsion to do so other than from God’s own character.

The thing about a gift – a true, no-strings-attached gift – is that it doesn’t spring from need, or at least, it does not spring from the need of the giver – from the giver’s vision of unfulfilled peace. A true gift is not about an absence in the giver, a desire for what is not there. Such a gift, then, is unlike desire, in that it carries no potential for competition or conflict. There are no competing desires here, no competing shapes of peace.

This is to say that God has no peace-idea in competition with ours. Competing shapes of peace are dealt with on the cross. To crucify someone is to cast peace in a certain shape – again, negatively: not you, not like that, not now. To crucify someone is to declare, Peace is the absence of you. To be crucified, if this is something to which a person freely submits – if, we must say, it is a gift – this denies nothing, demands nothing. Jesus on the cross is in conflict with nothing and no one.

And so, when we say that here, on the cross, there is grace, it is not yet the gift of any particular ‘thing’. There is no vision of heaven imposed over against our vision, no demand made of us over against our demands on God. The letter to the Ephesians will take us further into the cross, but for today let us note that when Paul greets his churches in this way, ‘grace’ precedes ‘peace’: ‘Grace to you, and peace, from…’ The gift precedes the desire, so that the gift and not the desired peace determines the shape of what is given. This matters because the word of peace from grace is spoken not only to us but also to our enemies. The peace given does not negate our un‑peace but exceeds it. True peace is more than we have thought to ask for. True peace springs from grace.

Perhaps we will say more of this in the next couple of months with Ephesians.

But for now we might say that grace – what God gives – is the knowledge that we are seen. Grace is that the Lord lifts up his countenance, and we see ourselves reflected in the eyes of God. The peace which this knowledge will finally realise is that it is the one God in whose eyes we all see ourselves reflected. What unites us comes from beyond us and our visions of peace. God’s peace exceeds our desire for it.

Heaven is being seen by the God who binds all things together, and the work of peace is calling others to turn towards that gaze.

Grace to you, and peace, from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, that you might know again your need, and God’s gift, and the call to become peace-makers, the very children of God.

[1] See a collection of these greetings in Paul’s letters here: .

Sunday Worship at MtE – 20 June 2021

The worship service for Sunday 20 June 2021 can be viewed by clicking on the image below.  The order of service can be viewed here.

Other worship services can be found in the list below or at the MtE YouTube channel

MtE Update – June 17 2021

  1. Worship this Sunday June 20 will return to the church, although we’re back to masks on for the duration of the service (and arrival/departure), and so also won’t be serving morning tea again until further notice. Sigh…
  2. The Hotham Mission End of Financial Year Appeal has now been launched. If you can support HM in this way, this is possible via the HM website.
  3. From June 20 the focus texts for Sunday worship will be taken from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. For more details, see this dedicated post. We begin this week with Ephesians 1.1-14.
  4. Hotham Mission in the news!

Old News

  1. Please consider supporting the Friends of Vellore fundraiser to support the hospital’s COVID-19 response in India; UPDATED (June 17) donation details are here.

Advance Dates

  1. Our congregational meeting to consider further our congregation’s future accommodation will be on Sunday July 18, commencing after worship and continuing to mid-afternoon; more details to come!!

Lectionary Commentary – Sunday/Ordinary 12B; Proper 7B (Sunday between June 19 and June 25; if after Trinity Sunday)

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:  1 Samuel 17:(1a, 4-11, 19-23), 32-49 see also By the Well podcast on this text and Psalm 9:9-20

Series II:

2 Corinthians 6:1-13

Mark 4:35-41 see also By the Well podcast on this text

13 June – Looking on the heart

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Pentecost 3

1 Samuel 15:34-16:13
Psalm 20
Mark 4:26-34

Sermon preached by Rev. Dr Peter Blackwood

Some of the best told stories in the Scriptures are about David, the shepherd boy who became king and ancestor of Jesus. There are the heroic stories like David and Goliath, David and Johanthan, David the musician and some shameful ones like David and Bathsheba. The whole anthology of David stories begins with one of the most skilfully crafted bits of literature. It is all about David, and yet David just gets a walk on part at the end. It is all about David, but the centre stage is occupied by Samuel. It is even book ended by reference to Samuel’s itinerary. It starts, ‘Then Samuel went to Ramah’ (1 Samuel 15:34) and finishes, ‘Samuel then set out and went to Ramah’ (1 Samuel 16:13).

The political intrigue is wonderful. Samuel is instructed by the LORD to go to Bethlehem to anoint a king. Everyone is scared stiff. Samuel is scared of King Saul. The elders of Bethlehem are scared of Samuel. We would appreciate better why Samuel is so scary if we had read the story that immediately precedes this one. It concludes, ‘And Samuel hewed Agag (king of the Amalekites) in pieces before the LORD in Gilgal.’ (1 Samuel 15:33). It’s OK, don’t be scared, says the LORD, just take a heifer with you and pretend to be doing something religious. Who could suspect any political intrigue if you are worshiping? I mean, look at us. Is what we are doing here political? Well, actually it is. Not party political, but we are declaring loyalty beyond our different national and ethnic loyalties.

Anyway, back to the story where everyone seems to have been fooled by the heifer and the invitation to Jesse’s household to join in offering a sacrifice. Behind the smoke and cinders of the sacrifice the real drama takes place.

David’s anointing as king comes after a long line of misdirection. It is obvious that Samuel should consider Jesse’s eldest to be king, and failing him, the next, then the next, and so on. The LORD has even given Samuel a clue as to what he should be looking for, or rather, what he should not be looking for – “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)

Interestingly, the storyteller reveals this human propensity to looking on the outside when the story focuses on the shepherd boy’s ruddy complexion and beautiful eyes. Michaelangelo also took a very human view when he released his statue of David from a lump of marble in Florence. Mind you, the story of Michaelangelo’s statue has some resonance with the anointing story because the lump of marble was a reject.

Sorry about all these side steps and diversions.  Life is full of side steps, misdirections and diversions that lead away from what is really important, away from what is life giving.

Samuel is to anoint a king chosen by the LORD. He must rely on the voice of the LORD to point in the right direction. He is to discern according to how God sees, not as humans see. The outward appearance will not do. God sees the heart or the core – that is what will reveal what a king should be.

God looked in the unexpected place for a king and found the shepherd from a family of one of the lesser tribes of Israel, a ruddy lad with beautiful eyes who had not been invited to the sacrifice.

Jesus looked in the unexpected places for the kingdom of God. He did not find metaphors for the Kingdom in palaces or temples, in mighty armies or libraries stacked with wisdom. He looked rather at a farmer scattering seed and waiting for the harvest. He looked at the tiniest of seeds and saw the tree and the birds that would nest in its branches.

All very interesting, but what are we to do? The story of David’s anointing reminds us of our humanity and how different our perspective on what is important from how God looks to the core. Well, as followers of Jesus there is the invitation to see differently – to attend to what Jesus made of the world and what is important. To look for signs of the Kingdom coming. Sure, we will continue to be fed misinformation and distractions, so the challenge will always be to look for God’s view and listen for God’s word. We are bombarded by news and commentary on all manner of local, national and world affairs. There is plenty of advice on how to deal with them, or, indeed, whether to deal with them. Anyone grappling with how to see what God sees has little difficulty with some of our disputed issues – should we be doing something about carbon emissions? Should we be dealing compassionately with a family incarcerated on Christmas Island? Even here we find professing Christians in leadership failing to come up with the same answers you and I see so plainly.

Paragraph 3 of The Basis of Union of the Uniting Church tells of our journey to God’s promised goal and concludes with this sentence: ‘On the way Christ feeds the Church with Word and Sacraments, and it has the gift of the Spirit in order that it may not lose the way.’

Our seeing and hearing and acting in God-like ways is possible by gifts that keep us on the way. The prophet Samuel went to Bethlehem to share in a religious ritual and performed an act, guided by the word of the LORD that impacted a nations future under the reign of God.

We gather for religious ritual, for worship, and impelled to act in ways that reveal something of God’s kingdom coming. Little acts are fine – like a farmer spreading little seeds.

Sunday Worship at MtE – 13 June 2021

The worship service for Sunday 13 June 2021 can be viewed by clicking on the image below.

Other worship services can be found in the list below or at the MtE YouTube channel

MtE Update – June 11 2021

  1. Worship this Sunday June 13 will be a pre-recorded service (no gathered congregation). While some congregations will gather, the decision to pre-record was taken to simplify preparation in view of the uncertainty prior to the government announcement of the relaxation of C19 constraints. Check-in for the service from 10am via the MtE website homepage or direct from our YouTube channel from 10am on Sunday. At this stage, worship for June 20 can be expected to be back in the church.
  2. News from the Justice and International Mission Cluster (June 10)
  3. The Hotham Mission End of Financial Year Appeal has now been launched. If you can support HM in this way, this is possible via the HM website.
  4. From June 20 the focus texts for Sunday worship will be taken from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. For more details, see this dedicated post
  5. The most recent Synod eNews (June 10)
  6. This coming Sunday June 13 worship will be led by Robert Gribben and Peter Blackwood; some textual and podcast commentary on the readings are here.

Old News

  1. Please consider supporting the Friends of Vellore fundraiser to support the hospital’s COVID-19 response in India; donation details are here.

Advance Dates

  1. Our congregational meeting to consider further our congregation’s future accommodation has been shifted to Sunday July 18, commencing after worship and continuing to mid-afternoon; more details to come!!
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