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Sunday Worship at MtE – 9 August 2020

The worship service for Sunday 9 August 2020 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

9 August – The blessing of insult upon injury

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Pentecost 10
9/8/2020

Ezekiel 6:1-10
Matthew 14:22-33


In a sentence
God takes what happens to us – the good and the bad – to tell us who we are and who God is.

Perhaps some of you have seen the recent stage musical Hamilton, an account of the life of the American revolutionary Alexander Hamilton.

The principal comic relief in the show is the appearance several times of King George III, commenting on the action. His first appearance is before the war is lost and so he imagines he still has a chance. His song ends like this:

‘You’ll be back like before
I will fight the fight and win the war
For your love, for your praise
And I’ll love you till my dying days
When you’re gone, I’ll go mad
So don’t throw away this thing we had
Cuz when push comes to shove
I will kill your friends and family to remind you of my love’

Of course, in an American telling of the American Revolution, the king’s appearances and comments are deeply ironic. The horror, then, that one might show ‘love’ by killing is both very real and yet, perhaps, softened a bit by the fact that the king loses the war and his ‘love’ is unrequited.

By contrast, the figure of God which features in the first half of Ezekiel appears, at least at first blush, not a little unlike Hamilton’s King George but without the relieving irony. The language of wrath and fire and sword abounds, and none of it is good news for those Ezekiel reminds, if not quite of God’s love, at least of God’s righteousness. ‘And you will know that I am the Lord’ – the slogan of God’s freedom we noted last week – finds itself too often at the conclusion of George-like threats, such as we have heard today:

6.7 The slain shall fall in your midst; then you shall know that I am the Lord.

The horror of it all is sufficient to make atheists of many and to cause even believers to squirm with discomfort. These instincts are pretty good.

Yet it ought not to surprise us that things are not quite as straightforward as simply editing out what seems to be such violence by God’s hand. Not least, it is too cheap to dismiss out of hand God the wrathful punisher of Israel, for would we not need then to deny God’s involvement as happy benefactor in the blessings we think we receive from God and so eagerly embrace? Most of us find it easy to identify God’s blessing action in things which go our way. We thank God that we dodged this or that bullet – that we arrived a moment too late to be caught up in the accident, implying that God caused some earlier irritating delay in order to save our lives; or we think it God’s blessing that we recovered from a serious illness though most do not. ‘Thank God’ is one of the more pernicious throw-away lines on the lips of believers, along with ‘God has been good to me’. Even the expected final receding of COVID-19 will be the cause of thanking God, as if it were something God ‘did’ – did in the same way we might hope God did not destroy Jerusalem in 586BC, or did not cause the pandemic in the first place.

The problem with too quick a dismissal of the divine violence in the prophets is that the texts about God’s wrath are as clear as those about God’s benedictions – to which Ezekiel will also come – so that we can’t have the one without the other. To imagine God active in giving to me but not in taking only really works if we split the world into two – and split God also – one part beneficent and one maleficent, the two battling it out through the course of history, with us fleeing from the one to the other.

Yet this is one thing Christian (and Jewish) confession will not allow; God has no rivals. This is to say that the God who blesses is the God who curses.

What then is happening in these terrifying texts? Is God managing history in this way, happily for blessing and horrifically for punishing?

It is clear that Ezekiel reads the suffering and exile as the sign of God’s wrath. The question Israel asks is, How could this happen? The biblical prophets answer, God is punishing you.

Yet the word ‘sign’ is important here, for it connects us to our thinking last week, when we noted the ‘like’ language in Ezekiel’s description of his vision of God. There he saw things ‘like’ human figures, ‘like’ precious jewels, ‘like’ fire and a throne. God is only indirectly seen, sitting somewhere behind our language but still ‘needing’ it in order to be presented – présent‑ed or ‘made present’.

But if the freedom of God means that God cannot be pinned down with precision, the same must also be said of God’s actions. The ‘error bars’, if you like, which indicate our uncertainty about God apply also to knowing God’s action. This is to say that a stark cause-and-effect reading of the connections Ezekiel makes between history and the action of God – even his own apparent reading of them – is an over-reading of those connections.

It is not that the words are unclear, it is rather that we might mistake the kind of words they are. These are borrowed words of blood and fire laid over borrowed events of conquest and exile. They are borrowed to speak of the relationship between an uncertain and disoriented people and a God we can’t quite grasp. This is a process by which God commandeers history – even ‘hijacks’ it – for use as a sign of God’s own character, or of the consequences of faithfulness or unfaithfulness. God takes historical fortune and make of it a so-called ‘teachable moment’.

To put it more starkly, Ezekiel’s preaching here is a process of adding ‘insult’ to injury. The injury is what befalls Israel as a matter of the flow of historical events. What we’re calling the insult is the charge of unfaithfulness by which that disaster is interpreted, and it’s the insult which matters and which endures. That the very people of God can fail – indeed have failed – is what we remember from these texts. And so we might refine this further and say that Ezekiel displaces injury with insult. The insult endures, long after the injury is past, to the extent that the injury is now only remembered because of the insult, because of the interpretation – because of the revelation of God’s character and what God looks for in the community of believers. Ours is not the experience of the destruction of Jerusalem and loss of all that we love; we do hear the lesson, however: that the people of God can get it wrong just as imagine they are getting it right.

‘Adding insult to injury’ is, perhaps, not the most profound description of Ezekiel’s preaching but it has at least the advantage of being memorable! Yet it does matter that the insult is the interpretation of a history which is then left behind. For these texts then call us to humility, repentance and thanksgiving in whatever historical circumstances we find ourselves. What is excluded, on the one hand is quivering fear before a God who might crush us to remind us of his love and, on the other hand, the arrogance of the faithful that because things are going well for us God must be on our side.

The pressure of Ezekiel’s preaching is not towards the guarantee that all will be well with those who keep the covenant; faithful people suffer and die prematurely all the time. Neither is it toward all being bad for the unrighteous; the unrighteous often do pretty well for themselves.

Rather, Ezekiel presses towards the guarantee that the world is a place which bears God to us, whether it be ill or good which is at play. God is never nowhere to be found. God borrows the world as it is – be it the good of sunshine or the of newborn babe, or the evil of a pandemic or the cross – so that we might be ‘reminded of his love’ in all things.

For, despite what we think we see going on around us, God’s love is what we are moving towards in all things.

It is for us, then, in all things, to adjust our sight so that it is this horizon towards which we are looking as we pass through green pastures and through shadowed valleys.

In all the days of our lives – for better and for worse – ours is the house of the Lord in which all things finally become goodness and mercy.

Sunday Worship at MtE – 2 August 2020

The worship service for Sunday 2 August 2020 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

2 August – A God to like

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Pentecost 9
2/8/2020

Ezekiel 1:1-28
Matthew 14:13-21


In a sentence
We can’t really say quite what God is like, and this means that God is free to set us free

For 2500 years, Ezekiel’s extraordinary vision on the river Chebar has captured the imagination of mystics and wackos alike. Winged creatures with strange faces, eye-balled wheels within wheels, a throned figure and fire against a thunderous soundtrack – what is not marvellous in this striking account?

Artists, naturally, have also been caught up by the vision, with all manner of attempts to capture Ezekiel’s vivid description as an image. And yet, for all the enthusiasm about what it was Ezekiel saw, there is one word in his account which goes largely overlooked in all these musings – the little word ‘like’.

In fact, ‘like’ (or ‘likeness’) appears 25 times in this account of Ezekiel’s vision, and ‘appeared’ (or ‘appearance’, both in the sense of ‘looking like’) is found another 8 times. The last three verses illustrate the point most intensively (NRSV):

26 And above the dome over their heads there was something like a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and seated above the likeness of a throne was something that seemed like a human form. 27Upwards from what appeared like the loins I saw something like gleaming amber, something that looked like fire enclosed all round; and downwards from what looked like the loins I saw something that looked like fire, and there was a splendour all round. 28Like the bow in a cloud on a rainy day, such was the appearance of the splendour all round. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.

The problem with any attempt to portray what Ezekiel sees here is that while we can draw, say, a picture of a person and saw that our drawing is like the person, how do we draw something which is itself like a human person? ‘Like’ a human being is not a human being. ‘Like’ a throne is not a throne, ‘like’ amber is not amber, and ‘like’ fire is not fire. This is to say that representations of Ezekiel’s vision with human figures and shining jewels and fire and a throne are representations of what Ezekiel did not see, for what he was ‘like’ these things.

This might seem rather a subtle distinction but consider the last line of what we heard today, which punches the point home. Ezekiel sees ‘only’ the ‘appearance’ of the ‘likeness’ of the ‘glory’ of the Lord. ‘Like’ language removes God as many as three times from what he actually sees. He sees not the Lord but the glory of the Lord, and not the glory but the likeness (or semblance) of that glory, and not the likeness of the glory of the Lord but something which appeared like the likeness of the glory.

Ezekiel’s account is of a kind of ‘space-holder’ for where God would be or what God would look like, if God were anywhere or looked like anything. To put it differently, here we have an account of the transcendence of God, of God’s being utterly beyond all in the world, and yet – the ‘and yet’ is crucial – still present to the world, pressing upon it. This is a transcendence not primarily ‘over’ or ‘beyond’ the world, but for it.

To capture this, God is indicated not by describing God rather but what God is ‘like’; ‘not-God’ stands in God’s place. God is thus always at least one step removed from anything said about God, properly in the background to what we think we see and name as ‘God’. This is not about the poverty of language to express God, and it is not an evasion by God. In this God is not to be elusive but free.

Throughout the book of Ezekiel we will hear the refrain ‘[and] you/they shall know that I am the Lord’ (in fact, over 50 times). Here the name ‘Lord’ is crucial, as is the fact that this refrain is never ‘you shall know I am God’; it is ‘Lord’ and not ‘God’ which matters here.

‘Lord’ is here the divine name given to Moses in the burning bush episode. We usually say that name in English as ‘Yahweh’ (‘Jehovah’, in the old money). The meaning of ‘Yahweh’ is itself somewhat elusive but we know that it implies self-determination. ‘Who are you?’ Moses asked. ‘I am who I will be’, God answers, or, ‘I will be who I will be’. This is a name which communicates the fundament character of the one whose name it is: I will be as I will to be. God here names Godself as the one free to be God’s own.

(While we’ve remarked on the prevalence of ‘like’ language in Ezekiel’s vision, it’s worth noting here that there are several things which are not described as ‘like’. The ‘wheels’ are apparently not like wheels but are, in fact, wheels. So also for the eyes in the wheels, and the spirit which animates them to move ‘chariot-throne’ – if we might call it that. At this great cultural distance any particular symbolism in the wheels or the eyes is difficult to identify with confidence, but we can comprehend at least the ‘every‑direction’ freedom of movement the wheels have, and the every‑direction vision of the eyes. The one seated on the chariot-throne is free to move, and sees all. There is nothing ‘like’ freedom here but freedom itself.)

God’s transcendence is not about God’s location – over, above, beyond – but about God’s freedom. Ezekiel’s encounter is with a God who relates to the world – as creator, lover, judge, redeemer – and yet is not part of the world, is at best only ‘like’ this or that thing we already know.

The question which might tempt us here is ‘What use is a God like this?’

It is a tempting question because useful things seem to us to be what we most need. We assess our situation and determine what it demands. We are building things and protecting things. Or future seems to us to be in our hands and what is ‘useful’ aids us in our work towards these projected futures. What is free – radically free – is precisely what our projects seek to overcome, because free things break with order and challenge the status quo, be it the wild child, the raging storm or the advanced tumour. Free things disrupt our own stories about ourselves.

A God we cannot get a handle on – who is only ‘like’ this or that familiar thing and so is really unlike anything – is a threat to our stories about ourselves. This the case whether those stories are positive or negative. When our stories about ourselves are arrogant and proud, such a God would reveal to us death, would reveal that our kingdoms are not God’s kingdom. When our stories about ourselves are bleak and desperate, such a God would reveal to us hope, for God sees further than we do.

What might we say such a free God is ‘like’ today?

There is among us at the moment something ‘like’ God in its freedom, at least – a radical disrupter revealing to us that our best laid plans are susceptible to the threat of death, for what else is the virus but such an unfettered interruption? We will, doubtless, yet discover useful tools beyond what we already have, and bring this terrifyingly free agent of death under some likeness of control. Our prayers are with those charged to fashion these tools, be they regulations to keep us safe or the magic of advanced medicine.

But, to add to the tentative reflections of last week on the relationship between the virus and God’s judgement, perhaps we could see in the virus not quite God but a likeness of God’s own freedom to approach us in times and places least expected, whether on the banks of the river Chebar in 593BC with condemnation and promise, or here-and-now with whatever will shake us down into a richer humanity. For as then so also now, it is only such a free God who might be able to dislodge us from our arrogance and self-delusion, our indifference and self-satisfaction, and our grief and fears.

Do we not need such a jolt?

All of this is to say, with Ezekiel, that when the God who is like nothing we know comes to us, it is to reveal that tomorrow belongs not to us with all our plans and projects but belongs to God.

And, unlike a virus which simply wipes tomorrow away, God comes to call us to meet him in that tomorrow, where condemnation resolves into grace, darkness yields to light, weeping gives way to joy.

What, in the end, is not to ‘like’ about such a God as this?

Sunday Worship at MtE – 26 July 2020

The worship service for Sunday 26 July 2020 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

26 July – The God of COVID-19 (II)

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Pentecost 8
26/7/2020

Ezekiel 1:1-3
Romans 8:26-37
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52


In a sentence
The simple affirmation that ‘God is with us’ in difficult times like the C-19 pandemic ultimately renders God pretty irrelevant to the whole catastrophe; the biblical dynamic of judgement and grace helps us more.

The persistence of COVID-19 – perhaps more urgently now that we see more clearly that we are in this for the long haul, and the potential for suffering deepens – urges us to fresh reflection on its ‘meaning’, if indeed it means anything. To faith the question of meaning seeks after a relationship between the pandemic and God and takes a form something like, ‘Where’ is God in all this?

Connected to this is another faith-question along the lines of, Where are we in all this? Scriptural images of exile and wilderness wandering seem to have pressed forward here. We are in the wilderness, exiled in self-isolation, but surely – to answer the question of God’s whereabouts – God is with us, here in our exile.

Perhaps we are in a wilderness, and perhaps God is with us. But is God’s being with us good news or bad news? In affirming that God is with us, we seek to say something comforting to those in exile. Yet if it is a scriptural wilderness or exile within which we and God presently meet, the notion of ‘comfort’ sits uncomfortably with this borrowed image.

Ezekiel is in exile in the spiritual wilderness which is Babylon, and his calling and visions take place in that far country. Yet his commissioning as prophet is not in order to declare to the exiles that God is ‘with’ them. Or, better, this is not yet a comforting message. As part of his calling, Ezekiel is given a scroll to eat and then to speak. On the scroll are words of ‘lamentation and mourning and woe’ (2.8-10). God is with Israel, but as judge. Ezekiel is to proclaim God’s condemnation of the ‘house of rebels’ which God’s people have become (2.1ff).

What does this mean for us in our current experience of ‘exile’ or ‘wilderness’, if that is truly what it is? If we claim these scriptural images as metaphors for our present experience, do we dare to interpret our suffering as a sign of ‘judgement’?

It is surely a dangerous thing to wonder about God’s hand in particular historical events. And yet it is not therefore an impious thing. If it were, then it would be entirely impious to assert that God is with us here to ‘comfort’, for this is already to have made a judgement about God’s hand in the matter – a black-and-white ‘God good, us good, virus bad’.

If we are to take the scriptural witness seriously, the two options here are equally dangerous. On the one hand we might say that whatever happens to us, we are innocent of the causes and, so, God also is innocent but nevertheless is always there comfort us in our wilderness. On the other hand, we might maintain that the wilderness implies judgement and that God stands over against us.

In churches like our own, at least, we hesitate in relation to the latter, and for good reason. A virus is indiscriminate and we want to say that God is not. We hesitate to entertain certain things about God and the virus, for God’s sake.

Yet – if we are honest – we hesitate also for our own sakes. A week or so ago the Victorian State Premier referred to COVID-19 as “a clever, invisible enemy”. Invisible it is indeed, but ‘clever’ doesn’t quite fit. A virus worth worrying about is not clever; it is merely terribly efficient. It simply does what it is given to do. Like the Angel of Death it is ruthlessly effective by nature and not by cunning – a deadly sword in the slayer’s hand. If that analogy is confronting, we must keep in mind that that is just how the prophets interpret the armies which invade Israel in the eighth century and Judah in the sixth, with a devastation most of us can only imagine.

But if the virus were a sword in God’s hand, why are we being slashed in this way? What is the judgement which could justify this?

Your preacher today is not a prophet, and so won’t be making the direct kind of link between happenings and the action of God which the prophets of old once so boldly made and which have been secured by the Scriptures. But the average preacher ought, at least, to caution against making too easy – too comforting – a borrowing from the Scriptures in order to speak God into our time. If we are going to locate ourselves in a wilderness or an exile, then the question should also be asked, is there a judgement here? The answer to this may indeed be ‘yes’.

This is not, however, because we can now see it as punishment for this or that transgression. It is because – with this God – grace is not grace without judgement, and judgement is not judgement without grace.

We desire only the gracing presence of ‘God with us in our exile’ but grace is only grace in the setting aside of a just condemnation. We reject judgement because we cannot see grace in it but, with this God, judgement is grace‑d.

The problem with the exile metaphor as it is used for our present situation is that, while it allows God to be with us in this place, it is agnostic as to God’s role in getting us here. And, presumably, if God didn’t get us into this and didn’t prevent it in the first place, God also can’t get us out, either. We will just one day be out, and God will just continue on being-with-us.

If we are going to be faithful to the God who interacts with God’s people in the way the Scriptures portray, we need something more than a God who just hangs about, even if we can’t quite say what it is. The church does neither itself nor the wider world any favours by telling half the story of God’s dealings with us.

Even if we may not be able to say what the judgement might be in these circumstances, to be in a ‘wilderness’ or ‘exile’ in any true scriptural sense is to be involved with a God who is more intimately involved in what is unfolding around us than merely as comforting observer. The evidence of this is the old prophets themselves, and Ezekiel among them. There is not much difference between the armies of Babylon and COVID-19, so far as the prophets and the people are concerned. If God can claim the armies as God’s own, perhaps, also then the virus.

And we might ask again: is this good news, or bad news?

It is indeed a scroll of lamentation and mourning and woe which Ezekiel is given to eat. But he says of that scroll, ‘in my mouth it was as sweet as honey’. The possibility that God’s hand might somehow be active in the virus is the possibility that judgement is not all bad, indeed, that it might be ‘as sweet as honey’, that it might be grace‑d. Perhaps, if this God judges, judgement does not mean what we fear it means; it is not made to abandon in condemnation but rather to draw back together.

This will, in fact, be Ezekiel’s message, and a difficult one.

The old rabbis wondered whether Ezekiel was one of those biblical books which most thoroughly ‘defiled the hands’ of those who opened it. Curiously, they held that the holy books of Scripture made unclean those who handled them, and that any book which did not do so was unworthy of being considered Scripture (candidates for this latter included Ecclesiastes, Esther and Song of Songs).

We no longer understand how holy books were thought to do this, but the effect is clear: uncleanness ‘sets apart’ those who are defiled – they are no longer fit for normal social intercourse, and ‘social distancing’ becomes necessary if others are not to be contaminated. To borrow from elsewhere, we might recall in this connection Moses veiling his face on coming out of the tabernacle, shielding the people from God’s reflected glory.

Of course, there is something deeply ironic in describing the holy books in this way. This ‘defilement’ by exposure to the deep mystery of God is to be desired and sought, not – feared – even if it has the potential to separate us from each other, at least for a season.

To see and know about judgement and exile, grace and restoration, what Ezekiel knew about these things will likely cause us to think and say surprisingly things, even uncomfortable things.

That is hard because many are finding it uncomfortable enough as it is. But if it is this God who makes us uncomfortable, we know that it is only for our benefit and wholeness.

Let us, then, in these hard times and always, wait on the God from whose Word there is yet much more light to shine, that we might more truly know God – and ourselves.


Sunday Worship at MtE – 19 July 2020

The worship service for Sunday 19 July 2020 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

19 July – God’s abundant harvest in a field of failure

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Pentecost 7
19/7/2020

Romans 8:12-27
Psalm 139
Matthew 13:18-23

Sermon preached by Rev. Dr Peter Blackwood


Melbourne is living through a second season of pandemic induced shutdown – maybe a suitable time to reflect a little on failure.

Years ago I was talking with a colleague who was a chaplain in a shopping centre. Part of every day he spent walking between the shops of the huge complex. He said that it is very frustrating work. He couldn’t measure the results. On one day someone would pour out his heart and soul to the chaplain. Two days later the same person would not even recognise the chaplain when they came face to face again. What was the use of being the church in the market place? So much of the effort seems to fail.

It is not an uncommon feeling, not uncommon in ministry, not uncommon in all kinds of walks of life. It doesn’t help when we hear wonderful success stories — stories of flourishing businesses, stories of sparkling achievements, stories that shout bigger and better at us and taunt us in our mediocrity and failure.

Between my ordination and my retirement, every so often I had to fill out a profile on myself for the church. The synod liked to keep a few details about me on their files. One question the profile form used to ask was, ‘What do you think are the most important tasks for the church over the next ten years?’ I never knew what to say. I decided to leave it blank rather than write, ‘blessed if I know.’ It seems to me that a church experiencing success and growth and confidence wouldn’t bother asking that question, and a minister who really knew the answer would have put things to rights by now. It would not be a question to ask of a church with 200 in the Sunday school and thousands of young people rushing off to Christian Endeavour on Sunday afternoons. That’s not what’s happening in most churches at the moment so we ask, ‘Does anyone know what we should be doing?’

Why couldn’t Jesus have told stories about failure, stories that speak to those bits of my life that don’t hold together? Why couldn’t Jesus have told stories that dwindling and confused churches might have resonated with? A nice failure story would speak to most churches.

But of course Jesus did tell some wonderful failure stories. He actually lived a remarkable failure story. Most people who heard Jesus preach didn’t follow him. By the time Passover came round in the third year of his teaching career public opinion had turned completely against him so that even his students ran away when he was arrested. When he was taken out and killed I wonder how close he came to saying, ‘Well what was that all about?’ What he actually said was, ‘My God, my God! why have you abandoned me?’

The church has remembered Jesus failure stories. One of them was the story of the sower who went out to sow and he failed. He sowed seed on hard ground and the birds ate it. He sowed seed on stony ground and it couldn’t take root. He sowed seed among thistles and it choked — complete waste of time really. A sower went out to sow and most of his efforts were unproductive, a complete waste of time.

A story that is not all sweetness and light is easier for us to hear because it more closely resembles our story. The sower failed and so do we and so did Jesus and so did the infant church and so does the Uniting Church — and that is disheartening and frustrating. So why don’t we give up. Why bother trying to be winners in the face of defeat? Why bother trying to be the church when we keep missing the goals? Why do we send chaplains into schools and hospitals and prisons? Why do we maintain worship in this church? Because a sower went out to sow, and some seed fell on good soil.

We know from our recent readings from Paul’s letter to the Romans that Paul would want to add something like, ‘Therefore should we try to fail more so there can be no mistaking that God’s kingdom coming is God’s succuss story, not ours.” Then Paul would add a phrase English translators render as, ‘by no means.” One of my New Testament teachers gave a fruitier translation – ‘not jolly likely’ – at least that was the jist of his translation. We do strive, we do try harder. Paul tells the church in Rome, ‘…the Spirit helps us in our weakness…’

Listen, a sower went out to sow and he failed, but because he sowed God triumphed and God has this habit of passing his triumphs onto his people.

We struggle and strive and fail — even so, God brings in his harvest. Keep struggling and striving — keep risking failure — for God’s sake.


Sunday Worship at MtE – 12 July 2020

The worship service for Sunday 12 July 2020 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

12 July – A Life or Death Contest: not just COVID-19

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Pentecost 6
12/7/2020

Romans 8:1-11
Psalm 119:105-112
Matthew 13:1-9

Sermon preached by Rev. Bruce Barber


We continue to live in unprecedented times as our entire city is once again in lockdown. It is helpful, then, to recognize that the problems all human beings face are likely to be of two kinds. Some we experience only as matters of momentary urgency. I lost my wallet on Tuesday in a shopping centre at the exact time that the lockdown was announced. Which of the two do you think exercised me the more? Other problems endure as issues of lasting concern. Sometimes the two cannot easily be separated. COVID-19 has arrived as a matter of momentary urgency as politicians juggle competing social health and economic claims, but for millions upon millions worldwide life will never be the same again.

However, it is when issues of enduring significance are unrecognized that they readily make life more problematic than would otherwise be the case,

The readings offered to us Sunday by Sunday invariably reflect both sorts of problems – momentary urgency and lasting concern. Today is a case in point.

Paul draws the attention of the church in Rome to what must be the most basic issue of lasting concern.  So, he writes:

“Those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on flesh is death, but to set the mind on the things of the Spirit is life and peace”.

Notice that the contrast he draws is between flesh and spirit, not body and spirit. The distinction is crucial.

In the much-vaunted secular society that we inhabit, “flesh” is likely to be understood merely as an infatuation with the sensual. And spirit? Who knows what spirit might be thought to represent? In former times, spirit might have suggested something non-material, even to be a somewhat ethereal experience eclipsing the predictabilities of the every-day. Today, spirit lacks all definition, except when increasingly rejoiced in as something superior to “religion”. It is far from clear what those have in mind who declare themselves to be “not religious but spiritual”.

This likely secular connotation of what flesh and spirit are thought to mean is not that which Paul is addressing. On the contrary, for him flesh is the whole of life turned away from God – turned away in “spirit”, we might say, as well as in body. Beware of those who imagine the “spiritual” to be benign.  Spirit, it turns out, might well be “flesh” in disguise; as much a disorder of a hidden “inner” as that of a conspicuous “outer”.

Equally, Paul’s “life in the Spirit” is not some self-indulgent solitary religious pursuit, but is rather the whole of life in the body turned toward God and the neighbour.

In another of his letters, this time to the church in Galatia (Galatians 5:19ff), Paul is confronting vital ethical matters of the moment. He chooses to use this flesh/spirit framework by way of their illustration. He first lists the contours of life in the flesh. We should not be surprised to find that fornication, licentiousness and drunkenness qualify as “flesh”. Remarkably, however, there he also lists as “flesh” such susceptibilities as: “idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy”. Who would have thought envy, anger, and jealousy might be described as failures of the flesh rather than of the spirit?

Martin Luther, always the master of the colourful image, once described “flesh” as “a heart curved in on itself”. Or, even better, in his earthy German, he pictured “flesh” as Nabelschau, literally “navel gazing”, a life originating from the centre of the self. How modern is that! And Nabelschau, says Paul, will, later if not sooner, be experienced as a form of death.

By contrast, life in the Spirit he describes as “fruit”, an image which suggests a flowering that is harvest from a lifegiving source: so, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, self-control. Being fruit, it follows that these socially desirable attributes are not likely to be self-generated. As gifts, they supplant a life dedicated to the dictates of the self. Moreover, precisely as bodily actions orientated towards others, this fruit becomes a genuine offering back to its source in the life of God.

The parable of the Sower is not an accidental accompaniment to all this. Here enduring concern and momentary urgency coincide. Employing an agricultural metaphor, it illustrates the consequences of life lived either as flesh or – by grace – the miracle of holy Spirit. We hear that it cannot be taken for granted that sown seeds will find their proper destination. Paths, rocks, weeds – each may well be seeds’ regrettable destination, the rich variety of places where, sooner or later, no life is to be found, therefore, places of death. Only those seeds which find good soil will prove to be productive.

In other words, the only alternative to deathly life where flesh reigns is life enriched in the Spirit which is God. This is why we must allow the conclusion of the parable to leave us with its warning appropriate to every moment:

“Let anyone with ears – listen”.

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