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Sunday Worship at MtE – 25 February 2024

The worship service for Sunday 25 February 2024 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

The order of service can be viewed here.

 

18 February – The God who speaks softly

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Lent 1
18/2/2024

Genesis 9:8-17
Psalm 25
Mark 1:9-15


Those things it is most important to say must be said softly.

We live in a noisy world. The wind howls, the waves crash, the thunder trembles, the lorikeets screech. And then, of course, there is the noise of life together: the streets, the alarms, the notifications, the arguments, the wars. The sheer sound volume of life is very often overwhelming, whether that noise is real or metaphorical. In such spaces, it seems that we must get ever louder if we are to be heard.

Given all that, at what volume do we imagine the voices speak in our reading this morning? The voice from heaven: You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased. And Jesus’ own voice: The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news.

These are crucial words at the beginning of the Story of Stories. Spoken into a noisy word, they are not to be missed. In this clamouring world, then, does God shout to be heard? Does the voice from heaven thunder? Does Jesus cry out in the marketplace, to be heard over the clamour of store-holders and customers haggling over price and quality?

Speaking loudly, even very loudly, certainly has its place. With a shout we warn or threaten, we grab attention, or we lament or rejoice. And yet, when we hear an expectedly loud noise or voice, our immediate response is, “What? What’s that?” This is because what is said loudly is rarely articulate; it is just loud. The greater the volume at which a conversation is conducted, the less we can say. Nothing subtle can be communicated with a shout. It may be a jubilant Yes or an alienating No, but that’s about as far as yelling can go.

Still the temptation is strong, to raise our voice in order to be heard, to be seen, to be given attention. Within the church, the question is constant: how to attract new members? What is to be done, how are we  to attract attention, as if shouting were ever attractive. Social media is a cacophony of voices seeking be noticed, to commented upon, watched, shared. Look at this, look at me, cry a thousand voices.

And yet perhaps the gospel is proclaimed this way: (whispered) This is my son; listen to him. In him is my kingdom come. If God is love, so that we are properly God’s lovers, we want to keep in mind that lovers don’t shout at each other. The voice which is open and receptive, and which gives and creates, is softly spoken. The world is filled, of course, with its thunderous tempests and its earth-shaking explosions but it is the still, gentle voice which touches and claims us: You are my son, my daughter; believe, turn to me.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is not a loud word. Of course, it has its own noise – the noise of the demon-possessed, the lament of the ill, the anger of the authorities, a loud cry from a cross. But, ending in just this way – in death – God’s voice is not silenced but set in contrast.

The big thing God does in the world is – so far as the big world can see – a only small thing. The loud clarion call we wish would usher in the age of peace, the leader who will finally set all things right, the idea which is the solution to the equation of life – all of this turns out to be a quiet thing, a small thing, a thing which might be missed: one of us called to live a life of truth in the midst of untruth, to be quiet when the world is loud, to be himself.

This one God says, over here, almost out of sight, this one is my chosen; here I reign.

Come and see.
Come and believe.
Come and be changed.

Come and listen for God’s small, quiet beginning, where there is whispered
a word of peace
for this loud world.

Sunday Worship at MtE – 18 February 2024

The worship service for Sunday 18 February 2024 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

The order of service can be viewed here.

 

Sunday Worship at MtE – 11 February 2024

The worship service for Sunday 11 February 2024 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

The order of service can be viewed here.

 

4 February – Searching

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Epiphany 5
4/2/2024

Isaiah 40:21-31
Psalm 147
Mark 1:29-39


The news the disciples bring to Jesus: “Everyone is searching for you”. In the immediate context of the drama, this is the result of the impressive impact Jesus’ ministry is having on those around him. They want more: Everyone is searching for you.

The gospel as a whole, however, makes a greater claim for this declaration. The “everyone” who seeks Jesus is not just those in the story but those who read the story – and indeed even those who don’t. This Jesus, the gospel declares, is the one you are searching for. The church’s faith is that Jesus is the answer to a question we all ask, the missing thing we seek. We are all on a quest for something, and that something is Jesus.

This is rather a big claim. Between us, we search for a thousand different things in a thousand different ways: the job you want, the book you’re reading, the endless scrolling through TikTok, the lover you hope to find, the chocolate you crave, the country you invade, the country you defend, the holiday you desperately need – these are, in the end, all searches for something, for some one thing. The gospel proposes that Jesus is the secret hidden in any specific thing we seek.

This is scarcely believable, of course. Jesus is surely a “religious” thing, and most of what we do most of the time has little to do with what we call religion. And yet, the concern of the gospel is not one part of us but the whole of us. We are not made up of many parts, and also a religious part; we are a unified whole. The gospel’s concern is either everything – what we call “religious” and not – or it is nothing.

Yet, even if we grant this, to say that Jesus is what we seek remains deeply problematic because the implication seems to be that there are some – Christians in particular – who have found what everyone is looking for, and there are many – everyone else – who haven’t. There is here the possibility of a deep arrogance, and indeed a possibility which has been realised in much violence through the ages: you infidels must become what we are and believe as we believe, if you are to be whole. And we might have to kill you if you don’t.

The claim that Jesus is what we all seek, then, is eminently corruptible and can become deeply inhuman. But this doesn’t falsify the gospel’s own nuanced version of the claim. The full sweep of the gospel story reveals that those around Jesus, though they have “found” him, continue to be quite lost about what they have found. At this early point in the narrative, they are the enthusiastic followers of Jesus, who is the latest pursuit-worthy thing and perhaps even the final thing, the one thing needful. And they watch as others find in Jesus the answer to some quest – “Everyone is looking for you”. But as the story continues, Jesus’ circle of friends discover more about him, such that the more they know, the less found he becomes. “Who do you say that I am”, Jesus will ask half-way through the gospel story, and the confused answer of “Simon and his companions” is that they don’t really know. They have sought him, and found him, but he is not what they thought they were seeking.

And so, seeking Jesus is not like seeking a lost coin or sheep. He is not the answer to a question which might be found and popped into its proper place. To find in Jesus what we most earnestly seek is rather more like looking in a mirror and not recognising myself because this special mirror shows me what I’ve never seen before. What I have never seen before is what I will be, and not what I still am, which I usually see in the mirror. This strange image is both me and not yet me. For it is, finally, a reconciliation to ourselves that we seek, a recognition of ourselves: yes, that’s me, finally. But, strangely, I don’t yet know what I look like – what I should look like. This is, then, a strange seeking. We both know and don’t know what we seek, which make the process endless. What can make this restless search bearable?

“Everyone is searching for you”, announce the disciples. But Jesus responds, “Let us go to the neighbouring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also, for that is what I came out to do”. Our looking for Jesus is met with his seeking us out. It is as if, though we seek Jesus, in the end it is he who finds us. This is to say that our finding ourselves is not limited by our knowing where to look or our capacities to understand. While we search, God actively seeks us.

This means that what we do and what is done to us are the forms in which God will find us, and we will find God. Though our searching might cause us to leave home, or to steal something, or to turn vegan, faith expects from any such thing that God will meet us there. The gospel’s promise is that God longs to find us more than we long to find God, and that God’s finding of us is how we will find ourselves.

We seek Jesus because he is the point at which the many things a person does are found in the one divine heart. This is what I came out to do, Jesus says: to be the one who finds God in all I do. “This is what I came out to do”, Jesus says: I came to reveal all those who seek wholeness, completeness, and reconciliation as found in God.

Our lives – all that we do – are a journey to God. To believe this is to open ourselves to the possibility that in every act, every encounter, and every word, we might meet God and become a bit more ourselves.

Would not such a life be worth living, in which everything we did, enjoyed, and suffered was part of the whole of God, and the means by which we continue our journey into that completeness?

“Everyone is searching for you”, the disciples tell you. “I know”, he responds, and I have come that I might be found, and you might be found too.

Sunday Worship at MtE – 4 February 2024

The worship service for Sunday 4 February 2024 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

The order of service can be viewed here.

 

28 January – Possessed

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Epiphany 4
28/1/2024

1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Psalm 111
Mark 1:21-28


New Testament references to demons or evil spirits are something of an embarrassment to many modern Christians. Reading the NT today, it is very difficult to get out of our heads the kinds of images deposited in our cultural memory by movies like the 1973 horror classic The Exorcist: the innocent victim, shaking beds, projectile vomit, and 360-degree head turns. Is this what the Bible means when it speaks of the demonic?

In the movies, demon possession is straightforward and moralistic: human person = goodie, possessing demon = baddie; human person = free agent, demon = enslaving agent. The drama is resolved when the baddie is finally dealt with, with the implication that the exorcised victim can now return to her fundamental, free self.

But the exorcisms in the New Testament are stories of the liberation of people who find themselves not only possessed but inextricably so. And the emphasis must fall on inextricably, because while we typically imagine clear distinctions between the demon and the possessed person, the stories themselves show how the spirit and the person become intertwined and confused, to the extent that it is not really clear where the person and the demon each begin and end, because they are so tightly wrapped up in each other.

Listen again to the first part of today’s reading:

1.23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 and he cried out, “What have you to do with usI know who you are.”

While it probably sounds straightforward, in fact it’s not at all clear who is speaking here. If it is the man who cries out, “what have you to do with us”, why the “us” which seems to include the man himself with the demon? And who then is the “I” who knows who Jesus? Here, and even more so in another exorcism story later in Mark’s gospel (5.6ff) we see a slippage between the identity of the man and the identity of that which possesses him, such that the one is addressed, but the other answers, but the one answering seems to speak also for the other.

The demons of the New Testament, then, are far more dangerous than those of the horror movie. If all a demon can do is throw you into convulsions and twist your head 360 degrees on your shoulders then, by comparison with what the gospels describe, you’ve really nothing to worry about(!). This can still be treated, at least on the terms of the movie – a magic spell, or the right prayer.

The biblical notion of the demonic allows no neat separation of the powers which possess and the person possessed by them – it is no clear where to punch. To understand what Mark has to say about powers is to see more (and less) clearly than the simplistic demonologies of the movies and of contemporary politics and moral discourse. The powers which possess us also create us. I am not simply extractable from all which has happened to me. Christian faith, then, is about learning hard it is to see clearly here. There is no “me” who exists independently of the things which have formed me or oppress me; we and our demons are not easily prised apart.

For most of us, of course, our identity- and freedom-blurring “possessions” are much less stand-out dramatic than that of the man in the synagogue in Capernaum or of little Regan in The Exorcist. But they are there, and they are powerful. The catastrophe of Palestine is one of the deepest demonic possession – possession by millennia of oppression of the Jews by Christians, leading to both the Nazis’ “Final Solution” and the apparent necessity of the Jews’ own solution – the State of Israel. But history possesses us to a profound depth, and so the solution of a Jewish state has been only a partial solution and led to its own demonic possession: hundreds of thousands of people now living as refugees in their own country, victims of a state which must now make them safe again, for the state’s own safety.

Closer to home, we might think of the increasing tensions around colonisation, recognition and reconciliation. This cannot be “fixed”: we cannot undo the past, cannot exorcise contemporary experience of what has been done, and a political system like ours seems to be particularly ill-equipped to help the nation forward here, not least because we are increasingly that kind of democracy in which contrarianism is thought to be the best political strategy.

And yet closer to home again – on the personal level – we cannot stop being the person to which this or that happened, or who did this or that eternally regrettable thing. We cannot be exorcised of our history, and yet we are called still to live.

This is the realism of the gospel, although perhaps it also seems to be the pessimism of the gospel. Yet this pessimistic realism is a necessary preamble to the good news, and what causes the response of the people to Jesus in the synagogue: here is a teaching with authority, and not what we have been used to. The authority has nothing to do with whether Jesus has a deep voice, penetrating eyes or a convincing argument. Rather, he speaks in such a way as to become “author” of those he addresses. Jesus expresses here a truth which is not merely true but which resonates and defines, which identifies and moves. Here is a surgeon who understands what we are, who can separate flesh and bone, who perceives what matters and inhabits what is wrong, to heal it.

The truth of this is in faith’s conviction that the catastrophe of the crucifixion of Jesus becomes God’s blessing. Here, when most clear-sighted, the people of God are most wrong. To be sure we are so right, and yet to be so wrong, is to be possessed by powers such that we cannot know where we end and the powers begin. This is not to say that the devil made us crucify Jesus – for we did it ourselves – but we could not but do it and cannot now undo it. What can save us in such circumstances? What can undo the disastrous effects of the necessary establishment of a Jewish state, the ongoing impact of unavoidable colonisation, or the big mistakes we might have made in our lives and cannot undo?

There is nothing to fix such things in the simple way we would like, because such a “fixing” imagines that there is an evil spirit which is not properly part of the machine and we just need an exorcist to clear it out and all will be well again.

Only grace can make a real change here. Only grace can both know the truth about what I am and love me, nonetheless. Only grace can take the body of an innocent man and make of it the sign of forgiveness – true forgiveness in the form of the sin forgiven.

There are many things which possess us in the manner of demons – mostly without the thrashing and screaming, but nonetheless falsely assuring us or accusing us. To be called into the kingdom of this God is to be invited into understanding the true nature of the kingdoms within which we already live, the powers to which we are already subject, our com‑plicity – our interweaving – with those powers and our incapacity to extract a pure “us” from all that has happened to us.

But to be called into the kingdom of this God is also to hear a promise that, despite all which seems to envelop us, despite all which makes us less than we hoped to be, despite the seeming impossibility of wholeness, there is one who speaks our name with authority and so authors us: who calls us to be, and makes possible that we might yet be more.

Let us, then, despite the demonic darkness which looms and threatens to crush, listen for the voice of Jesus: come to me, and live.

Sunday Worship at MtE – 28 January 2024

The worship service for Sunday 28 January 2024 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

The order of service can be viewed here.

 

21 January – Saved by the world’s shortest sermon

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Epiphany 3
21/1/2024

Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Psalm 62
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Mark 1:14-20

Sermon preached by Rev. Dr Peter Blackwood


Satirists use humour to point their fingers at our culture and our strange or misguided behaviour.  An example of this is Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift that pointed the finger at his 18th century culture exposing its pomposity, the decadence of its political institutions and the brutishness of humankind among the creatures of earth.

The writer of the story of Jonah was a satirist. When we remember this, the story he tells makes a lot more sense. We were probably first told the story as if it were history, so we got all hung up on the problem of Jonah being swallowed by the fish who delivered him back to where he started. Nobody told us the story of Gulliver’s Travels as if it were history, so we never had any problems with the improbably small and large people and the creatures that he met.

Satirists often use humour, certainly that has been an indispensable feature of modern satire. The writer of Jonah may have been using humour – it’s hard for us to tell because humour is so culturally conditioned. In Jesus’ day it looks a bit as if humour was based on exaggeration. Apparently the idea of a camel trying to get through the eye of a needle was hilarious. Maybe Jonah is good for a bit of a laugh, what with there being a fish big enough to swallow a man and it taking three days to walk to the middle of the great city of Ninevah when archaeological evidence shows it was about three miles across. There is an appearance from a fast-growing Bodhi tree that might have been quite funny too.

I think the funniest thing about this story is that a preacher with the worst of all possible attitudes planted himself in the middle of town and delivered the shortest and worst sermon in all of history and the everyone from the king to the kitchen cat repented in sack cloth and ashes. My colleagues and I are obviously doing something very wrong on Sunday mornings.

We don’t really know if or why Jonah was funny, but we do know why it is satirical. We know why some people would have squirmed when they heard this story. The story of Jonah was probably written about the same time as the story of Ruth. Both stories addressed a similar issue. I used to enjoy reading back issues of Punch. Punch, of course, was the source of satire. It had wonderful cartoons, but they only made sense, or were in any way funny if you knew your history.

Jonah makes sense when we know our history. The story was told at a time when Jerusalem was resettled after the Babylonian captivity. Hundreds of people had returned from exile after Persia came to power. They were setting up a new community and they obviously had high hopes for their society, and they wanted to establish it on the highest principles. They looked to the Torah given them by God through Moses where there were places that urged them to be pure and holy just as God is holy. One way to be clean was to refrain from contact with what is unclean. Laws therefore forbade touching dead things and eating certain kinds of food. Special rituals were prescribed for becoming clean again. One way of becoming unclean was by contact with Gentiles – mixing with people for whom Yahweh was not their God. All this was extremely praiseworthy and high minded, but it presented a very serious problem for many of the returned exiles. While they had been in Babylon they had not been so puritanical and had intermarried with the local population. Many of the returned exiles had brought their Gentile wives with them. Because their wives were Gentile their children were also Gentile. One’s Jewishness is determined by one’s mother. This became an issue of debate and contention because there was a strong push from some powerful leaders to purify the race by having the foreign wives and children returned to Babylon – a form of ethnic cleansing.

The story of Jonah is a satire in that it sets out to challenge the prevailing piety, into looking again at what God is like. If you are to be holy as God is holy then look at how God’s holiness differs from the kind of holiness you are trying to live up to.

Jonah was told by God to preach to the evil foreigners of Ninevah. Instead he chose to travel in the opposite direction away from Ninevah and away from God, forgetting Yahweh is God of all creation, of storms and fish. There is no escape from God and God brought him back. So Jonah went and preached his short boring sermon – “in 40 days Ninevah will be overthrown.” Then the whole lot of them repented in the hope that God would turn his wrath from them. This is exactly what Jonah was afraid of and it got right up his nose. Jonah was the kind of puritanical fundamentalist who believed that bad people need to be punished and that the sign of a good person was one who keeps his word. All that is proper on earth has come seriously unstuck when God says he is going to destroy a whole bunch of bad people – well that’s OK, but what isn’t OK is when the bad people become good people and God changes his mind and goes soft on them. As far as Jonah is concerned some of God’s least endearing qualities are his mercy and steadfast love and graciousness.

The story of Jonah is satire because it is told to people who were just like Jonah in their pietistic fundamentalism. The story of Jonah is still satire because there are still pietistic fundamentalists who see the world in black and white, in good and bad, in reward and punishment. It is a pietism that is incapable for being gracious as God is gracious. It can have no mercy.

One of the reasons I think the story of Jonah has won favour in the Christian church is because it rubbishes the same kind of hardline attitudes that Jesus attacked in the pious leadership of his day. Jesus was found most often among the sick and the lost and the rascals and they saw in him the mercy and graciousness of God himself and it made a difference.

Hymn of Frederick Faber

2 There’s a wideness in God’s mercy
like the wideness of the sea,
and forgiveness in his justice
sealed for us on Calvary.
4 For the love of God is broader
than the measures of our mind;
and the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind

Sunday Worship at MtE – 21 January 2024

The worship service for Sunday 21 January 2024 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

The order of service can be viewed here.

 

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