Category Archives: Sermons

14 August – A thought about your funeral

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Pentecost 10

Hebrews 11:29-12:2
Psalm 82
Luke 12:49-56

In a sentence:
For all the good (and bad we do),
God remains hopelessly devoted to us

On Tuesday, I again turned to discover the top item in the day’s news feed, to serve as a launching place for today’s sermon. I found there what I’d heard that earlier morning: that Olivia Newton-John had died overnight. I then realised that a “Greatest Hits” collection of her songs was quietly playing away in the background in the café where I was reading about this. Perhaps a sign from God?

Newton-John was talented and gorgeous, seeming to be the kind of person many would be happy to have as daughter, friend or lover. Rising to prominence as she did in the 60s and 70s, her bright personal style seemed to reflect something of the country’s own developing self-perception, and she made big on the international scene just as Australia itself was becoming increasingly aware of its own international presence and possibilities; “our Olivia” singing and starring was another “goal” kicked for Australia. Later in life, Newton-John’s public struggle with cancer also became representative of similar hardships among her fans.

It is meaningful and right, then, to say that Newton-John was an “Australian icon”. The Greek word eikon is what the New Testament uses to speak of religious idols, and of Jesus as an “image” or icon of God (e.g. Colossians 1.15). An Australian icon is, then, properly an “image” of Australia, encapsulating something of our essence. At least in the first couple of decades of her career, Newton-John seemed to do just that.

When our icons die, we hear what they achieved and what they stood for, principally from those who loved them for it. In this way, we “eulogise” the dead, to borrow another Greek term which means “speaking good of”. We gather to remember, to mourn and to tell stories.

And this brings me to a connection we can draw between the eulogising of Newton-John and the not unreasonably expectation that most of us, too, will one day be eulogised. Because, for the most part, we are icons to those who love us, if on a smaller scale than our celebrities, and the dynamic of story-telling is not different whether we have lived loudly or quietly. What is the “good word” to be heard at our funerals when the time comes?!

Let’s take it as a starting point that a eulogy should tell the truth. What does this mean? Our icons invite us to be wholly affirmative as we tell their story, and there’s been plenty of that this week. It seems bad taste to darken death with accounts of the darker corners in our lives, and we fear being judged for presuming to judge others and tarnishing the image. Of course, we make a judgement already if we choose to speak only the good, laying fig leaves over any regrettable nakedness that might be exposed if we peeked behind.

And yet, we have a problem if we only bury saints who did no wrong and victors who always prevailed, because a funeral gathers a room full of sinners, victims and losers. What we hear about him who died and what made his life worthwhile is also being said about us sitting in the congregation, and it may not fit very well – they are too unlike us in all our good and bad realities. A good funeral service – and the Uniting Church has a pretty good basic funeral service – allows that the saint we gather to remember was also a sinner. We are each icons – images – of more (or less!) than just the best we allow to be seen or acknowledged. If we are saints – and the funeral service also declares this – it is despite the truth about lives as much as because of it.

Within our Uniting Church funeral service are elements which make explicit that even if we gather to bury one of our icons, she is not much different from us. And so we pray,

In strength and in weakness, in achievement and failure, in the brightness of joy and the darkness of despair, we remember her as one of us…

We are also encouraged to pray,

…we confess that we have not always lived as your grateful children; we have not loved as Christ loved us…forgive us if there have been times when we failed her.

Then, scandalously to some ears, we also pray,

Enable us by your grace to forgive anything that was hurtful to us.

These little prayers are not much in the whole sweep of what is said in a funeral, but they mark the vision of human being in the service. We are one of each other: able to hurt and be hurt, and in need of forgiveness and reconciliation, as well as able to be the good which others will one day miss. This is very often difficult to acknowledge around the time of death: that the life our loved ones have lived – even if it has seemed to be a good one – has not been complete or whole, and neither yet is our own.

In our reading from the letter to the Hebrews this morning, there is a strange twist. Great Old Testament icons of the faith are recalled, who variously were

“…stoned to death…were sawn in two…killed by the sword…they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented…”.

In this, for the writer, they were terrifyingly exemplary. Yet faith icons though they are, the writer goes on to say that even they “did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.” Those who seemed to have achieved so much are yet incomplete. They – in some way – need us. The dead depend somehow on the living. Or, more precisely, the truth of the dead depends on the truth of the living.

What is the truth of the living? The writer goes on: the dead look to us as we look to Jesus, whom the writer calls the “pioneer and perfector” of our faith, the pioneer and perfector of our very lives. With this, the letter reminds us that there is a second story to be considered alongside our own: our story is told within the encapsulating story of Jesus, pioneer and perfector, beginning and end.

And so, a Christian funeral tells these two stories and not just one. There is, of course, our story: what we did and what was done to us. And there is Christ’s story, within which our story is placed. This second story is widely overlooked. Even in Christian funerals, it is often reduced to serve as an extension of our story, becoming a comforting religious bit to help with the mess of hearts and minds death leaves behind.

The overgrown eulogising which dominates in many funerals today is a sign that we don’t know any other story to tell, and so we tell only that of the deceased – as much of it as we dare. And so the death of one who lived life badly, or whose life was cut far too short, leaves us speechless. If they have not yet done anything or did nothing good, what can we say?

To tell just the one story is to misunderstand the funeral as being only about the deceased. Rather, funerals are about the living, not the dead. The second story about Jesus – the pioneer and perfector, the beginning and the end – is told to catch us all up together, the image-icon we gather to remember and us who saw ourselves in the icon we have lost.

We are, of course, entirely dedicated to knowing just how good we are and how good or bad others might be. We make these judgements not only in eulogies but in other assessments of ourselves and others along the way. Yet Christian faith shifts the focus: not only what we do but also what God gives and does: this is the whole of us. There is a pioneer from whom we spring and a perfector who fills us to completion.

Hearing this is not just the work of the funeral. Sunday’s services share in the same logic: a naming that we are less, and more, than we know. If we are doing it properly, Sunday worship should address us in such a way as to want to turn away from self-fascination and self-judgement towards an openness to a life which springs from and is completed by others. Sunday’s word is that we do not start ourselves and we do not finish ourselves: we are pioneered and perfected as much despite what we do as because of it.

There is freedom and peace in this: we are not measured, assessed or tested by God, even if we do this to each other. And we need not do this to ourselves or each other – proving or testing whether we and they are worthy of good words, of rich eulogising. If the wholeness of Jesus himself encapsulates us as pioneer and perfector, we are not under scrutiny: we have been well started and will be well finished. We can, then, be honest about ourselves without fear of judgement.

A life well-lived is one freely received and expressed in this light: now in strength and now in weakness, now in achievement and now in failure, now knowing the brightness of joy and, now, the darkness of despair. Such a good-and-bad life is finally worthy of a good word because it rests in a goodness greater than our own. Jesus is the pioneer and perfector of our lives. This means that, in our best works and in our worst, God’s word to us is, “I’m hopelessly devoted to you”. Every love song is on its way to becoming a psalm.

The good word about God – God’s own eulogy – is the beginning and the end of the good word to be said about us.

7 August – Of hearts and treasures

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Pentecost 9

Hebrews 11:1-11
Psalm 33
Luke 12:32-40

In a sentence:
People are never (properly) means to ends, but are an end in themselves.

This week a feature story in our newspapers was the apology of the Adelaide Crows football club to Eddie Betts and other players who were made to participate in a team training camp in early 2018. The occasion for the apology was a new autobiography by Betts, in which he describes the physical and psychological duress applied to the players in what was something like a military boot camp intended to turn the team into more effective sportsfield warriors.

Many important but mundane things about the camp could be observed, including the inappropriateness of subjecting what were, in some cases, little more than boys to such treatment, and how personal identity and confidential information were weaponised against individuals, and elements of indigenous culture were misused. The account of the camp is quite ghastly – or at least this seems to be what we are to conclude from the way in which it has been reported. “What were they thinking?” is a reasonable question to put to the club and the camp organisers, and the club’s apology reflects recognition of the problem.

Yet, if the reports do horrify us, they ought not surprise us, for there is nothing new here. By this, I don’t mean that the camp was an instance of similar things that occasionally happen. Rather, the unsurprising thing is the motivation for the camp. The methods used at the camp reflected the pervasive mindset that ends can justify means. In this case, winning was worth the risk to the hearts and minds of those who attended the camp: human beings were to be employed for ends other than those people themselves. De-humanising through abusive language and other psychological and physical methods was intended to re-cast in the players’ minds that their single purpose was winning the competition.

We trivialise what is at stake here if we judge the methods of the camp by dismissing football as “only a game” – that it was too much given what could be gained. This misses the point because the implication is that, were it not “only a game”, the methods might be justifiable. Here we can broaden what is at play in how we connect means and ends by observing that the camp was run that way because such methods actually work – or, at least, we hold that they do in certain contexts. We are familiar – as individuals, as a society and even as a church – with a justifying of means by ends, even if the means are a great human cost.

The quasi-military nature of the Crows’ training camp is significant here. In war, the hearts and bodies of soldiers are employed as a means to an end – winning the war. As a society, we celebrate the sacrifice these men and women make; that sacrifice is surely great, whether the soldiers make it willingly or unwillingly. But in this, we overlook that the nation also expects this sacrifice – that it effectively sacrifices those hearts and bodies. The human cost of war is the means to the end of winning the war. Not many months back, then Minister for Defence, Peter Dutton, warned that Australia needed to shift to a war footing, given growing tensions around the Pacific. At the same time, a recent survey reported the general unwillingness of young Australians to commit themselves to fighting a war. This prompted Prime Minister Morrison to express his disappointment in our younger generations on that issue and to write an opinion piece explaining how the nation’s defence depended upon people willing to enlist. Around all this has been a wider conversation about the reintroduction of national service – although seemingly only for young people. In a war, a nation consumes its young – apparently a justifiable means to the end of national security.

We know, of course, that the cost is horrific even if we are willing to pay it, and so annual remembrance services are sombre affairs. But it is the assumption that the cost of war must be paid which is the heart of the matter – the assumption that the end is important enough to justify means, whether the battlefield is the Adelaide Oval or the South China Sea.

We do distinguish between a footy match and geopolitical conflicts. This is principally in terms of scale: the Grand Final seems pretty trivial in contrast to national security. But we are a little confused here, because both seek to preserve a present or create a future and so both are about ends and means. And in both cases, the human means are clearly distinguishable from the end created, be it the Premiership or unassailed borders. Those human hearts and bodies matter less than the desired end. Footy is “only a game”, and so the methods of the Crows’ training camp seem excessive. Yet we still hold to the sacrificial principle in other seemingly necessary contexts.

We want then, two contradictory truths to be true at the same time: on the one hand, that human hearts and bodies are not means to anyone’s ends and, on the other hand, that sometimes we have to pile up a few bodies to divert history’s juggernauts. This is a kind of hypocrisy – a “sincere” hypocrisy, perhaps, but no less hypocritical. We don’t want to see that sometimes we agree that our hopes for history need to be lubricated by blood.

Now, we’ve not yet come to our gospel text of interest today(!), from which I’ll pull just one line: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”. If the treasure is “winning” at any cost, this is where our heart will be found, and not in the well-being of the other hearts which might be crushed in achieving that end. We might lament the great cost but we will nonetheless pay it because we treasure the end more than the human coin to be paid for it.

Yet, Christian faith declares that pain, suffering and death are never means to an end with God. God does not kill or oppress for some higher cause. God can use such suffering in a world which constantly generates it – this is part of the meaning of the church’s talk of incarnation. The cross of Jesus is not God’s plan or work but our own, even if God uses it to reveal grace and hope.

The problem with the Crows’ training camp was not merely that it happened but that it could have been thought to be worth trying in the first place, brutalising human hearts towards some inhuman end: “winning”. God does not treasure the end which can be achieved by what God can do with or to us. Human beings are not means to ends – even God’s own ends. God treasures not the end but us: we are the end and the means, and so we – treasured and nurtured – are paramount in all things.

In our reading from Hebrews this morning, we heard of those whose faith was a desire for “a better country”. This is a country in which hearts don’t so much treasure things but are the treasured thing, a country in which hearts, souls and bodies are ends and means – heart begetting heart. Heart is God’s end, and so also God’s means.

If we are to treasure what God treasures, we do not climb over each other to reach up to heaven. We have no vision of the future which requires that others don’t get there but are merely the means by which we get there. Rather, we reach down and pull the other up a little higher. For we do not climb to heaven but are drawn there. When a heaven like this comes, it captures us all because, drawing each other up, we are holding hands, so that catching one of us catches us all.

Let us then, with those faithful ones in Hebrews, desire such a country as this: a world in which we seek the peace we so earnestly desire by the means of peace – the treasuring of hearts – that it might be peace not just for us but for all.

31 July – Heaven’s work

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Pentecost 8

Colossians 3:1-10
Psalm 49
Luke 12:13-21

In a sentence:
Heaven is not a place of mere rest but a life in which work and rest are properly related to each other; heaven, then, is a possibility here and now.

Why is it that a great number of us, a great deal of the time, are “ready for a holiday” – ready to leave work, whatever “work” might be for us?

It probably has something to do with the way we work. There’s the distance we might have to travel to work – maybe even moving house, interstate, or even internationally. There are the hours we might have to work. There are the people we have to deal with – whether our colleagues or our employers. Perhaps there’s the sheer difficulty of what we do, or the state of boredom it lulls us into. To acknowledge all this is to say that work can hurt, and so we much prefer to be away from it – relaxing, eating, drinking and being merry, perhaps.

I suspect that most of us have a picture in our heads of heaven being not only a place where birds are twittering incessantly and all our friends and family (or at least the ones we like) are around us, but also being a place where we’re on constant holiday! – kind of a heavenly “idle rich” way of being! This seems to have been the plan of our barn-building friend in Jesus’ parable today – we’ll call him Barney. In the story, God calls Barney a fool. Perhaps it’s part of his foolishness that he thought he’d finally found heaven on earth: the ability to withdraw from the world of work. Heaven is no longer having to work.

Those who know their Old Testament will remember that at the end of the story of Adam, Eve and the apple, God lays curses on the labours of Adam and Eve. The woman’s labour – understood here as giving birth – will become a matter of great pain, and the man’s labour – tilling the soil – would become an ongoing battle with the earth to produce what they needed. The important point is not whether we buy into this particular explanation of why labour is so difficult, or whether we have different types of work today. The important thing is that the work itself is not the punishment. In the Paradise of Eden, Adam and Eve already had work to do – working the soil and raising families – and this was so even before the apple-munching episode. Work is part of the perfect human condition, if such a condition is what life in Eden is supposed to represent. God creates Adam and puts him in the Garden to till it and keep it.

Work, then, is a part of true created human being. If that seems depressing to you, it gets worse if we imagine “getting to” heaven to be like a return to the Paradise of Eden: there’ll be work to do in heaven, too! That is perhaps not the most comforting thing the tired and weary have heard from a pulpit! We usually talk about having to work as if it were a burden rather than because it is part of what God has given us. Our man Barney didn’t “have to” work anymore. He used his possessions to protect himself from the need to work, and perhaps that was part of his problem. Perhaps Barney’s foolishness was not merely that he set himself up for a secure future without thought for others around him, but that he thereby also cut himself off from what he was created for – work. And perhaps most of us are still thinking that we’re with him!

My point here is not that work should be easy, but only that it is, in itself, good. Barney and most of the rest of us get work out of perspective. We get work out of perspective in that we work hard for futures we might not actually have. The terrifying word in Barney’s ears is that “Tonight your very life will be required of you”; essentially, he hears that, for all of his work, he will not enter into any rest. Barney doesn’t get his day off, and it scarcely helps to say that now he “rests in peace”!

What good is retirement if you drop dead the day after you stop work, or the year after? More to the point, what good was your life if your work-life was only oriented towards the “rest-life” in retirement, but all you finally do is leave a barn-sized super-payout to your estate? Our Barney has not been short-changed in death but in life. We can’t rest properly if we don’t work properly. If we work for the wrong reasons – towards the wrong end – we will rest for the wrong reasons, in the wrong way. Rest becomes escape from work, and work becomes the possibility of rest. In this way, we divide ourselves into being just one part of the whole God has made us to be; we might recall here the division we saw between work and rest in Martha and Mary a couple of weeks ago.

Perhaps Barney said to himself, “I’ve earned my retirement,” with a strong emphasis on the “earned”. The problem here is that God gives us rest – as symbolized by the Sabbath – for nothing, quite unearned. God actually commands, Observe the Sabbath: stop working once in a while, for Christ’s sake (literally, for Christ’s sake! God asks us to do everything for the sake of Christ!). If we go to work with the idea of earning our break or retirement, who do we imagine is the task-master we will off, and who will owe us our rest at holiday time, or when we turn 55 or 60 or 65? It is not the God who commands that we rest. Who, then, have we been serving, if we’ve been lucky enough to have work to do?

We share Barney’s desire to relax, eat, drink and be merry! But such things are properly a part of life and not a stage in life. If they were only a stage of life, and even the best stage, then the rest of life is just a warm up to what we might not actually get to.

“Tonight your very life will be required of you” are words we’ll all hear one day, so to speak. Perhaps the difference for a Christian ought to be that such words don’t catch us by surprise or disappoint us because we haven’t actually started living yet.

By God’s grace, may we not be caught by surprise but be found to have lived a life of work and rest, labour and love, and be found to have been satisfied with that.

24 July – Jesus, our prayer

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Pentecost 7

Psalm 85
Luke 11:1-13

In a sentence:
Fundamental to the Lord’s Prayer is not the word but that it is prayed in and through Jesus: Jesus himself is our prayer

Do we not know the Lord’s prayer very, very well?

And yet that very familiarity itself can be a problem. Having received so comprehensively this teaching on prayer, we might miss the force of the request the disciples put to Jesus: Lord, teach us to pray. For this is a surprising – even startling – request. The disciples are people of a worshipping community. Since they were children, they were taught to pray – how to stand or to sit, what to do with their hands, what words to say, when to say them.

And yet they ask Jesus, “Teach us to pray.” And so Jesus gives them what we now have as “the Lord’s Prayer”. Does this mean that we, now having these words, know how to pray? Are the words of the Lord’s Prayer the answer to any question we might have about prayer? Most likely, all of us have had the experience of saying the Lord’s Prayer and yet getting to the end “automatically”, without having done anything other than parroting, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name…”. Just saying the right words isn’t what it means to know how to pray. If this were so, prayer would be nothing different from a magic spell – the right words said with the right intonation in the right place at the right time. (“Open Sesame” gets you into the robbers’ cave regardless of how “sincerely” or “meaningfully” you say it!). Whatever prayer is, it is not this!

And so it appears that, even though we have Jesus’ response to his disciples’ request, we are ourselves not yet able to pray; the words are not enough. Having been taught to put our hands together, bow our heads and close our eyes – and even say the Lord’s Prayer – we are not necessarily able to pray. Prayer – at least Christian prayer – is not set patterns, words, or actions, although it does involve all these things.

That being said, the temptation is now strong to rush in with the solution that it’s not the words that matter but our sincerity, our intention, our earnestness, our focus. This seems necessary because we now imagine that effectiveness in holy things is always about us and what we do. “If only I believe hard enough, pray hard enough, empty myself enough, or…” … whatever. But in response to the disciples’ request, Jesus does not say – “All that matters is that you really mean it, and then you’ll be OK”. What Jesus gives the disciples looks more like a formula or a rule for prayer, as if that were a sufficient response to the request.

It seems, then, that the Lord’s Prayer is both just what we need – for Jesus gave it to us in answer to the “how to pray” request – and still not enough, for God is not impressed by our simply knowing the right words and getting our religious practice and prayer right (cf. Psalm 51.16; Isaiah 1.11).

How can this be so? How can the Lord’s Prayer be both enough, and yet not enough?

We tell ourselves – or tell our children – that prayer is “simply talking to God”? How we talk, however, depends upon which God (god) we are talking to, and it’s here that the nature of the Lord’s Prayer as Christian prayer becomes clear. Approaching prayer as if what matters is getting the words or that attitude right is to operate with just another form of what we know as “justification by works”. St Paul contrasts justification by works of the law with justification by grace through faith. Not the work we do but the work which Jesus has done, which we might receive as our own through faith – this is what sets us right before God.

The gospel presents Jesus as the means by which we stand right before God. If we seek to pray “right” before God, it is again through Jesus that this is possible. But this is not because Jesus gives us the words to pray, so that we are now “independent” pray‑ers. We’ve already seen that the words don’t do it. To pray “right” before God through Jesus is to let Jesus himself be our prayer. Prayer may well be “talking to God”, but it also has to do with God’s talking to us. And the simplest and clearest thing God has said to us is “Jesus of Nazareth” – God’s “word” made flesh. To pray is to speak back to God what he has spoken to us; and when God speaks Jesus happens.

(We might note in passing that this has importance for what we do when we come together for worship. We gather not to generate emotion or sincerity or even right doctrine, but to hear and to speak to God of the one God has already sent – Jesus himself – and to be be made that one in the process: we receive what we are, to become what we receive: the Body of Christ).

The prayer of the church, then, is not the mere words of the Lord’s prayer but Jesus himself. It is in this sense that we can say that God knows what we need before we pray – not because God “knows everything”, but because what we need is what Jesus had and is. We need to know ourselves and to know God as Jesus did. We need to be supported and to have the freedom Jesus had. We need to be loved and to love as he did. Jesus – crucified and risen – is the prayer of the church; if we utter only “Jesus is the Christ”, then we have prayed as we should.

“When you pray”, Jesus said, “say, our Father in heaven…” – and just so we should pray. Yet in that prayer we ask, Father,

your kingdom – Jesus Christ – come;

your will – lives such as Jesus’ own – be done;

give us this day what Jesus trusted you for;

give us, and make of us, the forgiveness which is Jesus-the-Christ;

rescue us in the end from evil – as you raised the Christ from the death of the crucified.

In all things – not least the decisions we might make today about our future together – we say, Lord, “Let us see, become and testify to Jesus”. To pray is as difficult – and as easy – as it is to believe ourselves to be made whole in him. If we can rest in the grace of God which is Jesus Christ, if Jesus is Lord, then we have prayer “covered”, and the only “angle” on life we need.

And so we may trust that whoever asks will be given what they ask, whoever seeks will find, whoever knocks will have the door opened, for our Father in heaven is faithful, and gives the Spirit to all who ask, that God’s people may know themselves in and as the Body of Christ. When this happens, the work of prayer, and life, has been done.

17 July – The one thing needful

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Pentecost 6

Colossians 1:15-23
Psalm 15
Luke 10:38-42

In a sentence:
The one thing we need to “do” is trust that, in Christ, we are already “right before God”, and then to live as in the world as if this were the case.

The ancient versions of our biblical text sometimes show great variation at particular points in the text. One reason for this is that what was probably the original text was just too hard for the old copyists to believe that it was correct. The text offended the copyists, so they changed it to make it more palatable or sensible. When it looks like this might have happened, modern biblical critics ask, What is the most challenging version of these variations – the hardest to swallow. This reflects the assumption that a copyist was more likely to change a passage to make it easier than to make it harder.

Our gospel reading today is one of these disputed texts. The difficult thing is the thoroughgoing unreasonableness of Jesus’ response to Martha’s complaint. Jesus says that sister Mary has hit upon the “one thing needful”, and so seems to say that her sitting at Jesus’ feet in devoted listening to him is more important than Martha’s concern to prepare their meal. The copyists knew that we have to eat and that it’s righteous to be a good host to guests, so they wondered in what sense attending to Jesus’ teaching could be “the better part” over Martha’s attention to the necessities of nature and society. Surely, as the variant texts propose, there are a “few” things that matter and not only one.

On hearing the story, it is almost impossible not to think in either-or fashion, and we almost always do. It seems we have to choose between work and prayer. This corresponds to other dualisms in our heads – doing versus hearing, nature versus spirit, science versus faith, worship versus mission. Some modern readings wonder what Luke (and Jesus) are doing with gender roles, adding a male versus female dualism to the mix.

Faced with this perception of what is at stake, there are a couple of options before us – probably another dualism itself! We can choose between the options, or we can seek a kind of compromise. The choice is generally simply too hard: how can we properly be “only” spiritual or only worldly, only Martha or only Mary? We can’t, but still Jesus’ words jar harshly against one of these apparent options: she has chosen the better part. A compromise is a balancing act and seems to work: we know ourselves to be both matter and spirit, knowing and believing. And so we seek a balance: now a bit of body, now a bit of spirit; now I believe and trust, now I reason and know. And yet this doesn’t work, either. The problem with a balanced approach to holding opposites together is that your balance looks imbalanced to me, and my balance is an imbalance to you. This is Martha’s accusation about Mary: Lord, confirm that I have got the balance right by telling Mary that she has got it wrong.

The problem with Martha’s call for balance is that there is no reliably defendable unpacking of all our either-or moral polarities. Polarities are either-or by definition: black cannot be balanced with white if we define black simply as not-white. If worship is not-service, faith is not-reason and private is not-public, then there is no true reconciliation possible in these life options but only “balance”. We can’t agree on the balance, so we shift the problem of how to live together before God a little to the polarised left or right until our anxieties move and we shift the other way again.

Who we are and what we do – and the rightness of our identity and choices – is defined solely in terms only of the world itself. Prayer is defined not in relation to God but over against work; mission is defined not in relation to God but in relation to worship – our worship work, our mission work. We have faith here but reason there; we trust here but know there. And then we debate which is the more important, or which applies where, how the money should be spent, whose efforts better reflect the kingdom of God, the kingdom of God being somewhere outside of what we do and are.

None of this can be resolved on its own terms and so, with the ancient copyists, we have to alter the text, knowing that we’re mucking around with it and knowing also that it doesn’t make the problem go away. It just makes Jesus seem more reasonable – and so more like us as we seek to be reasonable and balanced. There is, however, nothing very balanced about Jesus, from the perspective of polarised lives like ours.

What could save us from this deathly existence? What could save us from the consignment to mere choice between options on our part, and then from the need to justify to ourselves, to each other and to God our choice for more of this and less of that?

What could save us here? The answer is scandalous. What will save us is the recognition it does not matter what we do.

This can’t be true, of course. And yet, from a Christian sense of God and the human being, it is. It does not matter whether you are working in the kitchen or sitting at Jesus’ feet. It matters that you do and be something; this is called being alive. And what you do will properly span the spectrum between the poles of our dualisms; it will be private or public, faith or reason, and so on. But no choice here is, in itself, more godly than the rest. Christain faith holds that our lives are already hidden with Christ in God, and do not become so through the things we are or do. This faith holds that it is Christ-in-us who does the praying and the working – such that holiness precedes what we do and is not applied afterwards. To say that there is no condemnation in Christ is to say that doing and being “right” has already been covered.

Jesus’ comment to Martha, then, is not that she too should be sitting at his feet, but that she should not allow herself to be distracted “by many things” from her particular responsibility at that time. Martha’s problem is not that she is in the kitchen – where for the moment she must be – but that she wants to be sitting at Jesus’ feet. Distraction is the inability to be where we are. Now is the time for rest, but we are distracted by the things we think need doing, and so neither rest nor work properly. Now is the time for faith, but we want to analyse, understand and calculate, so we finally neither trust nor know. Now is the time for worship, but we cannot get the world’s needs out of our heads; now is the time for “mission” and service, but we’re not sure we’re doing the right thing. Distraction has to do with anxiety – am I OK? Is this right, or that? Am I properly here, or there? Martha is distracted by many things – not least that Mary is not in the kitchen and that she, Martha, is not with Jesus.

And distraction has to do with judgement – first judgement of ourselves and then often of others and God. There seems to be another version of this story in John’s gospel (John 12.1-8) – familiar to many of us but not often connected to today’s version. In John, we are again at Martha and Mary’s house and hear again that “Martha served”. Mary is not “merely” sitting and listening to Jesus but takes a jar of perfume worth a year’s wages and pours it out as an anointing on his feet. In response, it is not Martha who complains to Jesus but Judas: Could this valuable thing not have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor? Is not our serving mission more important than worship? Is this not wholly (unholy) out of balance? Jesus’ response is no less appalling than in today’s (Luke’s) version: “Leave her alone… You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me”; there will always be mouths to feed but not always me to hear. Mary has done the right.

The strange word of Jesus is that it is OK for Mary to be with him, for now, without distraction. And that it is OK for Martha, for now, to be in the kitchen.

It is OK – or, in Christian-speak, it is righteous – to be where we are and to rest in that place, for now. It is OK not to be all things to all people, and even more OK not to be all things to God. It is OK not to know, or not to have done. It is OK to be a discrete, finite, mortal creature, the purpose of whose being is not to do and be all things but to do and to be according to the time and space given to us. Sometimes this will mean doing the dishes – and perhaps more often than we might think. Sometimes it will mean closing the door and our eyes and spending time with God – and perhaps more often than we might think.

The “one thing needful” – and the most difficult of all things – is to rest in the freedom and peace that God has already accepted us as we are, and will accept us as we become a different and new thing tomorrow. This is God in and for the world.

And this is what makes possible that we might be in and for God, and in and for ourselves: sometimes looking like we are working and sometimes looking like we are praying but, in all things, always thriving and alive in God.

10 July – God, our loving enemy

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Pentecost 5

Leviticus 19:1-4, 9-18
Psalm 82
Luke 10:25-37

In a sentence:
God’s love is strange to us but just the love we need.

The best stories invite us into them, causing us to identify with some of the characters and enabling us to see ourselves as part of what is happening. In a good thriller, it is “me” who is about to walk into the room in which awaits the psychopathic killer with his ridiculously long, serrated-edged knife. In a good love story, it is “me” who gets the girl or the guy (depending on your preference!). The best stories enable us to be the hero, the victim, the lover, or whatever; what happens to the players in the story is what happens to us. A good story is our story.

Our gospel reading this morning presents us with stories on two different levels. First, there is the story of an encounter between Jesus and one of the religious experts of his day – a religious lawyer.  Second, as part of that first story, there is another story about a man mugged on a dangerous road. The fact that we still tell these two stories nearly 2000 years after they were first told suggests that these are good stories. And so we might wonder, Where are we in the two inter-mingled stories of our gospel reading?

Consider the first-level story of the encounter between the religious lawyer and Jesus. Most of us are humble enough not to imagine that we are Jesus in the story. These are told about Jesus because the church has long thought that he is the supreme Good Guy. Even people who don’t confess Christian faith would hesitate to imagine themselves as Jesus here. However, this leaves us with a problem. If Jesus is the good guy, and the lawyer is challenging Jesus, then the lawyer is kind of the bad guy! That is hardly acceptable either. We don’t want to be identified with Jesus’ opponents, especially if we’ve heard these stories so often that we know we should be on Jesus’ side. At worst, we can only admit to being a little like the religious lawyer. This leaves an open question about who we are at this story level. We are not Jesus but also don’t want to be the religious lawyer who gets it wrong.

Let’s look then at the second level of the story – the tale of the man mugged and left beside the road. Here we might identify with the robbers, the religious leaders who ignore the man in need, the Samaritan who helped him, the man himself robbed and beaten, the innkeeper, and perhaps even the Samaritan’s donkey!

It’s still not easy to place ourselves here but what we think this story is told for will indicate to us who we really believe ourselves to be in the story. So, what is the story told for? Typically, we read this as a moral tale. The moral, it would seem, is that “we should love one another”, or “they should love one another”, if we think someone else needs to hear the story more than we do. The final remark of Jesus is, “Go, and do as he did”. This is an important lesson. Do not do as the robbers, the priest or the Levite did; do as the Samaritan did. Who, then, does this moral reading suggest we are in the story? Probably not the Samaritan and probably not the robbers. Perhaps we are a little like those religious leaders who should have helped but did not. Still, as with the first level of the story, it’s a bit of an open question. We may believe we are only a little like those Jesus criticises here but we can’t fully identify with them. It’s too difficult to criticise ourselves in that way.

Let’s consider now one further story level: the whole gospel story of Jesus. This seems to cast us and Jesus in very clear roles. The gospel encapsulates both the story-levels of Jesus and the lawyer, and the Samaritan and the beaten man. It does this by casting God in the role of the Samaritan, and us in the role of the man robbed and beaten and left by the road to die. This is a typically “religious” reading of the parable. The moral lesson about loving those around us becomes a religious lesson about God’s love for us. For some of us this extension beyond the moral lesson is a comforting one. But, of course, if you don’t think you need comfort, it’s not so impressive. And this brings us to “the twist”.

If one element of a good story is that it invites us to find ourselves in its characters, another element is the unexpected twist – the surprising turn which catches us off guard, and also catches our breath, causing us to stop and to reconsider what we always thought must be the case. The twist here is that the Samaritan is a Samaritan. This itself has a meaning – he doesn’t just happen to come from Samaria. It is of critical importance that he is what the Jews of the time considered a heretic from the North, and someone those same Jews refused to have dealings with.

This leads to an unexpected discovery about God’s approach to us. If we are the Jewish victim lying on the road, and if God-in-Jesus is the Samaritan, then Jesus comes to us as a stranger we would actually reject, perhaps even attack, if we were not too weak to get ourselves up out of the gutter.  To put it more strongly, Jesus comes to us as one we might even think of as our enemy. And yet he is, in fact, the only source of help for us.

This has wide-reaching – and troubling – consequences for what we might expect from the world. In the stories of our lives, we develop naturally a sense that we know what is wrong, a sense that we know what we need, and a sense of who might be able to deliver it. Certainly, we also have an idea of who would not be able to deliver it. But if the story of the Good Samaritan can be read as the story of God coming to aid us in the form of the scorned Samaritan, then our thoughts about what we might expect in our lives are thrown into disarray. If we are lying on the roadside, then those individuals or things we might have expected to have assisted us are shown to be worthless – our own strength or good sense to avoid the attack in the first place, and then the priest and the Levite as those we might have relied upon for help. Instead, in the hour of need, only this stranger, this foreign heretic, comes to assist. God’s love is a strange love – precisely what we need, but not what we would have expected. It lifts and restores and yet comes from the most unexpected of sources. (As an aside: perhaps this matters for our own future accommodations thinking).

Our gospel reading today hinges on the lawyer’s question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” It is easy to reject that question today, if we imagine ourselves to have outgrown such religious worries. It is easy to misunderstand the question, particularly for the religious who’ve developed a certain way of understanding what “eternal life” is. And in both cases it is easy to miss the answer Jesus gives to the question, because we think we know what “love” is when we hear Jesus tell us to love our neighbour. Only when we know ourselves as loved – when we have been the poor soul beaten and left by the side of the road and been surprised to discover love from the most unexpected of sources – only then will we begin to know what it is to be called to love others… (Again, perhaps this has relevance for what we could expect in our next steps as a congregation).

The gospel is story of “love unknown.” It’s unknown because it runs deeper than any other love we have known, and so is strange to us. But though a strange love, it is love. It is the love of God for a world which considers him strange, foreign, perhaps even an enemy. And yet it is love which will not be denied. If we seek love – love for ourselves and the capacity to love others – our starting place is by the side of the road, receiving the love of the God who offers it when all other love fails.

This is love: that God loved us, in order that we might know how to love.

May the God who once loved us in his Good Samaritan, Jesus the Christ, surprise us again with his amazing love, and make of us surprising lovers.

3 July – God is a resurrecting avenger

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Pentecost 4

Revelation 16:1-7
Psalm 59
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

In a sentence:
The violence of God in the Bible is “necessary” in a violent world but also contradicted by God’s final renewal of all things.

There are probably not too many here today with a good understanding of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. For those unfortunate souls, the MCU is a superhero movie franchise – the highest-grossing franchise in history, which is to say that pretty much everyone knows about it except for you. Numerous storylines run in all sorts of directions across these films, but a particular series recently (2019) concluded with the instalment Avengers: Endgame. The backstory to this finale is that one Thanos – whose name is suspiciously close to the Greek word for death (thanatos) – has determined that the universe is overcrowded and that space must be made for life to continue to thrive. Despite all the best efforts of the series’ superheroes to avert this, Thanos succeeds, and half of all living things simply disappear.

In the final instalment to the series, the surviving heros develop a plan to undo what has been done, now five years after the event. Overcoming enormous obstacles including time travel and Thanos himself – and all in spectacular computer-generated imagery – these “Avengers” manage to undo the evil, and everyone who was lost is restored to life. This is the happy ending the fans needed and is what makes whole the story a “comedy” in the technical sense – a restoration after a period of loss. Endgame is to this film series not unlike what Revelation is to the whole Bible: the comedic restoration of a fall from Paradise. Here is the point at which everyone can smile again.

And yet, as necessary as this ending is for the story to deliver the “required” final lift, it is a morally unjustifiable ending. With the loss of half the people in the world, economies would collapse and people would starve or go to war in order not to starve. Over the next five years, the widowed would re-marry and infant orphans would be adopted. Some people would just die because they were going to die anyway. And then, all the lost suddenly return. The collapsed economy now has at least twice as many people to support: more starvation and more violent struggle to survive. Those returned – who don’t even know what has happened – suddenly find themselves unmarried from former partners who’ve moved on, or widowed themselves because their spouse died in the interim, or find that their children don’t remember them. The heroic restoration to life of all who were lost threatens to be as violently disruptive to souls and bodies as was Thanos’ destruction in the first place. This is what resurrection looks like in the hands of amateurs: a prelude to more death.

The story, of course, is structured out of pure fantasy. Yet its purpose is not fantastical. It seeks to answer the question, How do we respond to a great evil such as Thanos’ wiping away of half of life? How do we respond to the pain of that loss in those left behind? Does good triumph over evil, and what does that triumph look like? The answer of the film, and of nearly every story we tell, is that good can triumph over evil. In the case of Endgame, the sign of this conviction is the heroic reversal of the evil itself. And so we find ourselves in the situation that the Endgame story is both right and wrong. It is right that evil does not triumph; it is wrong that evil could be reversed in the way the film proposes. Such a restoration would be morally unjustifiable for all the subsequent suffering it would bring. The film, then, says the right thing wrongly. It must do this because, in our violent world, it seems impossible that good could triumph over evil and still be good.

This rightness-in-wrongness matters because it guides us in how to understand the troubling notion of the wrath of God. We noted last week the violence in the book of Revelation and considered the violence directed at those people of God who appear as martyrs in the narrative. Today we’ll spend a little time with perhaps the more disturbing imagery in Revelation – God’s apparent violence. Drawing from how Endgame tries to deal with the problem of evil, we’ll see that God’s violence is “necessary” for an account of justice but also wrong – a kind of mistake about God the story makes in order to speak about justice and injustice in a world in which good responses to evil seem to be evil.

The apparent violence of God does not arrive with the book of Revelation. We have seen it in the Old Testament prophets we’ve considered over the last few years – Hosea and Ezekiel, in particular. What is new in Revelation, however, is the shift in direction of that violence. For the most part, God’s violence in the prophets is oriented toward Israel itself. Israel has been unfaithful, and the arrival of the marauding Assyrians and Babylonians is God’s punishment of God’s own people. However, one aspect of apocalyptic thinking we see in Revelation is that this no longer applies. God’s people are faithful and await God’s alleviating of their suppression by foreign powers. The violence of God in the apocalyptic imagery of Revelation is now not against God’s own people but is “vengeance” for the suffering they have experienced.

This, then, is not wild and capricious violence. Neither is divine vengeance in Revelation a retaliating eye-for-an-eye. It is vindication of those who have been killed for their testimony to the truth of God in Jesus. These died unjustly, and this injustice is proved by the death their oppressors. Divine vengeance is vindication. Divine vengeance locates true righteousness in those who are being avenged.

But this brings us to a strange tension between means of vindicating the righteous as those means appear in Revelation and in the Gospels. We have just seen that the vindication of the godly in Revelation – Revelation’s identification of the righteous – comes in the avenging destruction of the ungodly.  The vindication of the godly and the identification of the righteous in the Gospels, however, is seen in the resurrection of Jesus. The resurrection is fundamentally the assertion that the cross was a mistake. In raising Jesus, God saying to his persecutors, “Guys, you got this seriously wrong”. This is precisely what God’s vengeance is intended to say about the persecution of the faithful. The wrath of God in Revelation is a revelation of where righteousness is found in the world.

The Bible, then, employs two very different images to speak of the vindication of the righteous – on the one hand, the raising of the one persecuted and, on the other hand, the utter destruction of the persecutors. We must dare now to say that these are the same: resurrection is vengeance, and our God is a resurrecting avenger.

This means that a simplistic affirmation of divine vengeance is simply wrong; it does not take the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection into account. But a simplistic notion of resurrection into heaven is also wrong, because it does not reckon with the demands of justice. If God does not do with the unrighteous what Revelation describes, how are the demands of justice for the persecuted answered?

If you’re still wondering what we are doing splashing in Revelation as we have been over the last couple of months, let me try to explain again. In order for the foundations of our world to be shaken – and surely we desire this, for the sake of the justice and peace we don’t yet have – the foundations of our ideas of heaven have to be shaken. Revelation does this, although not by giving us “the answer” about heaven. Revelation’s portrait of heaven demonstrates not only confidence that there is an answer to our questions about truth, justice and peace – an answer to our questions about heaven – but also that any such answer is inadequate. Over the last few months we have wondered whether heaven might a be space of traffic jams or filled with people we don’t like very much – none of which seems very heavenly. That is, we have seen that heaven could not be very heavenly unless there is a God who can, at one and the same time, be holy and yet embrace an unholy creation – who could be just and yet satisfy the demands of justice without destroying the unjust.

In its interaction with our sense for justice and peace – with our desire for “heaven” – Revelation proposes that the God we worship is an impossible God. The vengeance of God in the book of Revelation is necessary if evil is to be utterly contradicted. And yet, at the same time, it is a kind of “mistake” in the story which cannot be sustained against other parts of the gospel which speak of the final power of God to make all things new: heaven and earth, the good and the evil, even us. But other parts of the gospel need the divine vengeance for the sake of justice. Rejecting the vengeance of God unthinkingly requires also that we reject cheap ideas of resurrection and salvation which don’t take evil seriously enough. The gospel holds death and life together in a necessary but impossible tension, and so we have to say that our God is an avenging God, until the time the gospel anticipates when God proves that he is not.

Today, the invitation is simply that we see this. There is no clear imperative which drops out here – no “go and do this.”

The best response to Revelation’s vision of heaven is not so much this or that action but wonder. This is not “to” wonder how such things could be, although this is part of it. It is more marvelling at the power – and the beauty – of a God who can do such a thing as justify the unrighteous: who can justify us who so often do bad things for good outcomes.

For only a God who can realise life out of death could be an answer to all that life and death seem to ask of us.

26 June – Dying to live

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Pentecost 3

Revelation 6:1-11
Psalm 16
Luke 9:51-62

In a sentence:
The witness – “martyrdom” – of Christians is against the powers which dehumanise the world.

The book of Revelation is a violent book, deeply marked by antagonism, conflict, threats, and death.

It is the violence of God in Revelation which is the most problematic. God’s four horsemen of this morning’s reading “conquer”, take away peace “so that people would slaughter one another”, and are given authority “to kill with sword, famine, and pestilence, and by the wild animals of the earth”: not everyone’s idea of a God of love. While the violence of God catches our attention, less obvious is the violence which has preceded the blood-letting of the narrative: the violence against the people of God. We might return to God’s violence before we finish with Revelation; today we’ll look to the martyrs in the text.

In today’s reading, John identifies “those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given” (6.9). The word “martyr” doesn’t appear in our usual translation of the book of Revelation, although it is present throughout the text in Greek. The Greek word marturia means “testimony”, so that a “martyr” is “one who gives testimony”. The later notion of martyrdom extends from this root to understand the death of persecuted believers as being because of, or as giving testimony to, the truths of God. The original context of Revelation is still debated, but part of that context is likely to have been the persecution of Christians, even to death. It’s not always clear why they were persecuted. Just being different can be enough to cause the powerful to scapegoat a community, as Nero is said to have done when he burned a large part of Rome. Here, the sheer difference drives the persecution rather than the content of a community’s belief. Scapegoats can be politically useful.

But other times it is the belief itself which causes the persecution. We have a record dating from early in the second century (AD 112), which describes the test put by one Pliny the Younger – a local Roman official – to Christians:

I interrogated them as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed. [1]

Pliny elaborates further, but the threat of execution in the interrogation was clear. Given that threat, are these believers themselves not being a little extreme, a little fanatical? What is lost if one softens a bit, especially if we keep our fingers crossed – if God knows we still believe even if we tell the Romans we don’t?

But we can’t begin with this question until we see what Pliny describes from another critical angle. We might think it extreme to die for convictions and creeds about something which can’t be seen. But we should also wonder: What is it about these “mere” beliefs which makes believing them reason to execute the believer? The death sentence reveals that what is at stake is not merely “religious” – not merely about what we might believe and others might reject. Pliny the Younger was sane and measured. He observed and investigated – if by torture! – and found only that Christians were deluded by “depraved, excessive superstition”. But these were for him no mostly harmless late-afternoon nutters on public transport. Pliny held the delusion of the Christians to be utterly dangerous to the community, the temple and the local economy. And so the Christians were executed if they would not sacrifice in the temple or worship the emperor’s image. Christian belief had consequences which threatened to break the social and political order.

In a decision to execute over “mere” belief, faith is revealed not merely a “belief” thing, as distinct from a political or social matter. Pliny killed Christians because the social and economic consequences they drew from their “deluded superstitions” were perceived to be positively dangerous. This is clear. But let us also see that if we consider the martyr to be a little unreasonable in her refusal to change her beliefs “a bit” under threat of death, we should also hold that it is unreasonable to threaten and execute her over such things in the first place. We might lament this clash of worlds and the blood it spills, but we should not do it too loudly, for Pliny might mistake us for Christians. No well-meaning “wish” that we could just get along better together is going to overcome the fact that, even today, people are killed because they see the world differently – often rightly – and such vision is dangerous. We might think here of those crushed in dark, faraway places by the interests of large corporations, or those who see the lies in despotic politics, or those who expose to us where we benefit from overlooking inconvenient truths. The history wars playing out in Australia are caught up in a similar dynamic; we’re just not as bloody-handed about it (anymore). To say “it all happened so long ago” is not unlike saying “it’s just something you believe”.

There is a lot of blood spilt in the book of Revelation – the blood of the martyrs and the blood of the perpetrators. This is because there is a lot of blood spilt in the world. The witness – the martyr – says, against too-easy claims about peace, justice and life, that is not peace, that is not justice, that is not life. The need for wide-ranging judgements about life and death, peace, justice and life are not as distant as we imagine. How will we handle the needs of the millions living on low-lying coastlines when rising sea levels render them homeless? There is no technological solution to this question; solar panels don’t float. How will we handle increasing hostility in the superpowers we don’t like or understand? Will there be true peace or the more likely return to killing as a means of “peace”? What truths will require witnessing – “martyring” – in these contexts?

We “hope”, of course, for less blood than more. By this, we usually mean that we have our “fingers crossed” because we know that the powers of darkness are very strong, for all our effort against them. We don’t need the book of Revelation to tell us this but opening our eyes to the world around us should at least explain why Revelation is violently dark and red. Indeed, revelation tells the story of the God of love, but it is the story of God’s love for us who are too familiar with blood.

For this reason, we gather around the table not merely to receive “the bread of life” and a “cup of salvation”. Indeed, this language is appropriate, but it doesn’t tell the whole truth, and here of all places, let us tell the truth. We are given what is named explicitly as tokens of the body and blood of Jesus because the very people of God – people like us – are capable of making a martyr of the Lord of life. “Bread of life” and “cup of salvation” are Christ broken “for” us; “body” and “blood” are Christ broken by us. Salvation is salvation from this “having-broken” another. The mystery of Christian faith is that, without justifying the violence, God uses it for the revelation – for the apocalypse – of God’s persistent love for his enemies.

Christians do not “wish” for peace. We “hope” for it. That is, we confess a God who exceeds the possibilities of a world of predictable cause and effect – the cause which is violence and the effect which is more violence. To hope “Christianly” is to say that violence is not the only thing which can follow violence. The violence of denial does not have to follow the violence of dispossession or neglect. The violence of war does not have to follow the violence of escalation. Yet Pliny shows how, in a violent world, even such suggestions seem violent, a challenge to the prevailing order: depraved, excessive superstition. Christian hope – not mere belief – can be costly.

To hope Christianly is to live as if we have done the worst and been forgiven, and to relate to others who have done badly in such a way that we become the means by which they do better. It is in this that we “martyr” – that we give testimony to a truth which is not known until someone points to it by being it. “This is what truth looks like”, says the risen Son of the Jesus hanging on the cross.

In none of this is there any revelling in the possibility of martyrdom – that martyrdom which is dying. This corruption has certainly infected the church and many other movements at times, but it is a corruption. Death is never a means to an end with this God.

In reflecting on the martyrs, there is only the invitation to open our eyes to the violent ways of the world. This is not easy for those of us served well by violence. Nevertheless, testimony – martyring – in word and deed – speaking the truth about God and the truth about ourselves – is our purpose as a church and the expression of our faith. Violence might be the way of the world but it is not to be our way.

Let us, then, be willing witnesses to the peace of God, for the sake of all world, believing and not.

Related sermons

[1] The text of the letter can be found at

19 June – Heaven is not our favourite things

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Pentecost 2

Revelation 21:1-6a
Psalm 42
Luke 8:26-39

In a sentence:
Heaven is where we are made by other people, not the absence of other people.

History has delivered many images of what heaven is like, which are usually connected to certain notions of what hell might be like, the one contrasted with the other. Hell is a place of fire and punishment; heaven is a place of sunshine and bliss – so the story typically goes. The book of Revelation has contributed considerably to these expectations!

Our Revelation text this morning provides a vision of heaven with elements of the blissful existence we might be hoping for: God will dwell with them, will wipe away every tear from their eyes, death and mourning and crying will be no more. These are things we all long for.

But there’s another aspect of John’s vision which may be more troubling if we consider its fuller ramifications: heaven is a place where others are. We might take some comfort in being in heaven with others if we could choose who else is there: friends, the family members we actually like, perhaps our favourite artists or musicians or thinkers. Yet not only they are there if heaven is a city. As a city, heaven is a communal place and not a place of isolated individuals with their narrow desires. This means that heaven may be a place where there will be people we don’t like or have even learned to hate and who return that favour. And there doesn’t seem to be very much heavenly about that.

Of course, if it’s a city, we expect heaven to be pretty large. Perhaps we could be in heaven without running into those people who rub us up the wrong way. Yet, given that that’s how we do things already here and now, there’s still nothing very heavenly about this vision if we have to plot when and where we’ll be to avoid being annoyed or threatened by others. If heaven is a city full of people, it could be just plain hard work. So, after a lifetime of being commanded to love people whom it’s hard to love, we’ll go to heaven and meet more of them. Praise the Lord.

This is all a bit silly but unpacking the ideas of the text in this way shows how they can be misunderstood. There are a lot of half-thought wishes and dreams about heaven (and hell) which have little relationship to scriptural imagery. Whatever heaven is, it is not our favourite things.

Day after day, our televisions, newspapers, radios and social media feeds fill the space around us with the cacophonies, the dissonances, the traffic of city life. What would it take for life in a city to be a harmonious reality, for the heavenly city John describes actually to be heaven?

The answer is that we cannot imagine. By this, we mean that we do not know how this could be possible and so we can’t create this Utopia. The bad news the church has is that we are unable to save ourselves, to the extent that we would have to be alone in heaven if we were to be there on our own terms and not be hassled by other people – even by those we love and yet who are still quite capable of driving us up the wall. Every dream of a new city, every vision of a new society, every “solution” for some communal problem creates just another problem. This is the dynamic between the left, the centre and the right in our politics, each crying out in turn “That didn’t work”, after every social and economic pendulum-swing solution.

But let’s turn all of this towards something more concrete and specific, and closer to home. What about us and our search for a solution to the problem of our future as a congregation? What do we dream of here? What is our vision? How will the next thing for MtE be “heavenly”? For indeed, that is what the next thing must be to be worthwhile.

In another reflection on our situation late last year, I quoted from a little book by Dietrich Bonhoeffer – Life Together – in which he makes a powerful statement about ideals and human community:

“God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. Those who fashion a visionary ideal of community demand that it be realised by God, by others, and by themselves.

They enter the community of Christians with their demands, set up their own law, and judge the fellowship and God himself accordingly… They act as if they are the creators of the Christian community, as if their dream binds people together.

When their ideal picture is destroyed, they see the community going to smash. So they become, first accusers of the fellowship, then accusers of God, and finally the despairing accusers of themselves.” (SCM 1954, 17f)

This is to say that it is not a brave person who declares “this, and only this” is how to give shape to heaven, is the future of a Christian community. It is not even a fool who says this. It is a blasphemer who declares that God’s home is not with mortals (Rev 21.3) – that God’s home is not with those whose existence is indelibly marked by brokenness and death, who are prone to get it wrong: even us.

We worship a God who justifies sinners. This is not a declaration that there is a safety net for when we break the rules. To say that God justifies sinners is the rules. “Who-justifies-sinners” is God’s name and not merely what God sometimes happens to do. “Home-is-with-mortals” is God’s name.

The shadow-side of this is that if this God is our God, then we are those in need of being justified. Why? In relation to the need to decide our future together, it is because we mistake planning for hope, our work for God’s.

It is, of course, necessary that tomorrow have some particular shape in our imagination: we must plan. This is so that we have something worth doing today. But we can have no confidence that our planned tomorrow will not amount to a crucifying of the Lord of glory. Instinctively, we know this. It is what causes us so much anxiety in the whole process. We wonder, Will we get it wrong?, with particular ideas in our heads of what “wrong” looks like. That is, we have a clearer sense of hell than of heaven. And we wonder, how will we account for ourselves? Who will accuse us for what we choose and how it works out? Perhaps those who went before us, giving us so much, only to see it lost? Perhaps the Presbytery or Synod, which imagine they could have put the resources to better use? Perhaps those sitting in the row in front of, or behind, you, who advised that we go a different way? Perhaps most powerfully: Does God have a plan for us, which we are supposed to guess? Do we risk failing God in this?

To put the question differently: what is the relationship between what we have to do and what is said from the throne in John’s magnificent vision: It is done? What is done? The “done-ness” is the revelation that God’s home is with mortals. God home is with those who built all this, and then died, leaving it to us to sort out. God’s home is with us who will decide what to do with it all, and will then die. God’s home is with those who will have to live with our decisions before they die.

All this is to say: our decision is not the source of our life. The God named home-is-with-mortals – this God is the source of life.

We are a baptised people. The only death which matters we died in that baptism; there is no condemnation of those whose lives are hidden with Christ in God. Weekly we are fed with the signs of death – broken body and spilt blood – not because we are a cannibalistic death cult but because with this God death has no power but what God gives it.

The decisions before us cause us so much trouble because we are afraid that something will die, that tomorrow will be less than heaven. But God’s home is with mortals, with those who die. There is nothing to fear.

“It is done” declares that death has no power; it is overcome, and there is nothing to fear.

What then are we to do? There is only one option. Let death be behind us by choosing life.

What kind of life? Life together: God’s will done, on earth as it will be in the impossible, promised heaven.

Based on a sermon
preached at MtE April 2016

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12 June – When three equals one

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Trinity Sunday

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
Psalm 8
Romans 5:1-5
John 16:12-15

Sermon preached by Rev. Dr Peter Blackwood

An infinite number of mathematicians walk into a bar. The first one orders a pint of beer. The second one orders half a pint of beer. The third asks for half of the last order. The fourth orders half of the last order. The next orders half of the last order and so on it went. The barman pulled two one-pint glasses of beer. Gave one to the first mathematician and told the others to share the other pint among themselves. They didn’t argue about this arrangement because they knew that the halving of each order even an infinity number of times, the amount of beer would not quite reach one pint. It is when thinking of puzzles like this that I don’t feel quite so bad when I can’t get my head around the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.

The human mind likes to picture things. We make pictures of things that cannot be seen.

Mindful of our love of visualising everything, God told Moses there had to be a limit to this desire. God got Moses to include this injunction into the Ten Commandments. God decreed thou shalt not draw pictures of me. A little aside – such is our love of images that Cecil B. DeMille made a film in 1956 of the Ten Commandments. Of course, anyone who had read the Bible realised that the film missed what the Bible is about by a long shot. This is the problem. When we make an image of anything or anyone we only get a little bit of it right and most of it wrong.

And God said, ‘Thou shall not paint me!’ So what possessed me to have an icon of the Holy Trinity on the cover of our order of service? There was a season in the history of the church when painting any kind of icon was against church law. Thou shalt not paint any kind of image of God or God’s Son or God’s followers. There shall be no images. Then John of Damascus said:

I have seen God in human form, and my soul was saved… In former times God, who is without form or body, could never be depicted. But now when God is seen in the flesh conversing with humans, I make an image of the god whom I see. I do not worship matter; I worship the Creator of matter who became matter for my sake, who willed to take his abode in matter; who worked out my salvation through matter.

So the church said OK you can paint icons, but THOU SHALT NOT PAINT ICONS OF GOD THE FATHER!!! For the most part icon artists have obeyed. They have sneaked a hand poking in from the top to indicate that God the Father is causing the story in the picture to unfold. There have also been a few blatant acts of disobedience. We were visiting old churches in Mystras in the hills above Sparta and I caught a glimpse of a triangular halo. I looked closer and there was an old man with a triangular halo sitting beside a younger man with a halo traditionally associated with Christ and a white dove fluttering between them.

Other examples of this disobedience occurred in Russia despite an injunction of the Acts of the Great Council of Moscow of 1666-1667 that said, ‘To paint icons of the Lord Sabaoth (that is, the Father) with a white beard, holding the only-begotten Son in his lap with a dove between them is altogether absurd and improper…’ Sure enough, I saw an example of this indictment being ignored as late as the early years of the twentieth century when it appeared in an old photo atop an icon screen in a church built in St Petersburg to commemorate 300 years of the Romanov dynasty. The church was destroyed during the Soviet era and is now restored. The offending icon atop the screen has been replaced with one resembling the famous Rublev icon of the Holy Trinity?

How did Rublev get away with painting God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit when it is against church regulation to paint God the Father. He got away with it by painting the three messengers from God who visited Abraham and Sarah to announce they were going to have a baby who would be the father of a nation. He wasn’t the first to paint this bit of scripture. Early versions go back to the early fourth century. Some of us have been to Ravena and seen a mosaic of the story from before 547 CE. Over the centuries some artists put the same kind of halo over the central messenger as was usually given to Christ. In others, Christ’s halo surrounded the three heads – they were interchangeable. There were many other variations to the image according to the imaginations of the artists. In many, Abraham and Sarah were still present bringing food to the visitors.

Theologians, poets, musicians, ecumenical church councils have joined with artists to help the church say what there is to be said and sung and seen about who God is. We know that human minds and senses are way to puny to begin to grasp all that God is. God reveals God’s self to humankind and, by God’s grace, we can see and hear and feel God with us. But if we ever imagine we have perceived it all we are kidding ourselves and our god is much too small.

And yet, on Trinity Sunday, the church pauses to grapple again with this great mystery that the omniscient, omnipotent, invisible, and all other superlatives that might be associated with God and wonder that this God cares for us. It is a kind of genius that prompted the church to abbreviate what it can know about God into statements we call creeds that describes one God as three persons.

When Rublev painted his icon of the hospitality of Abraham, the Russian church decreed that icons of the Holy Trinity would henceforth be modelled on the one painted by Rublev. The church recognised that of all the attempts to paint or sing or describe God, Rublev had got some things right. I will mention only two. Firstly, the table the three are sitting at with a chalice looks remarkably like every communion table or high alter where the Eucharist is celebrated. There is also a space at this table, a place where the worshiper may join in fellowship with the three who are in eternal unity.

Of course all these attempts to understand God are too small. In his hymn, King of glory George Herbert concludes his praise with the line, ‘ev’n eternity’s too short to extol thee’.

In my student days, a visiting theologian from America told of his late-night conversations with a fellow theologian as they grappled together with the mystery of God. He explained that what they had to say on the subject was never complete but always came to a halt, whereupon the host put his recording of JS Bach’s B minor Mass on the turntable and played the Credo, Credo in unum Deum (I believe in one God). No more words. No more argument to finds no winners or loser. Just time spent together enjoying a great artistic composition celebrating God.

On Trinity Sunday the church grapples again with the mystery of God. On every occasion when the liturgy of the church celebrates the Eucharist the worshiper is met again by the mystery of the Holy Trinity in the recitation of the creed and receiving the body and blood of Christ at his table.

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