Not Quite What We Imagine

Did you think it would be comfortable? Did you imagine it would be nice? When you listen to a prophet, what did you expect – a gentle pastoral response?

This is the problem with the whole shebang. We imagined it beginning and ending with angels singing triumphantly, a rampant drummer boy and a pristine manger filled with little Jesus-no-crying-he-makes.

Even if we stop reading the Christmas stories in Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels, leaving out the violence and the prophecies of aged disciples and just stick with the birth, it becomes uncomfortable.

God is at risk in our world, a moment almost as disturbing as it is wondrous.

It’s disturbing, because the moment we engage with the wonder, something happens. We discover that we are being transformed. We find out how valuable we are to God, as God becomes human flesh. We discover that we are loved beyond measure and trusted beyond our imagination’s grasp.

And there it is. Because if I am, so are you. If we are, so are they. And any amount of barbed wire wreathsno room and evasive press releases changes nothing.

John the Baptizer believed that Jesus was coming to “sort people out”, and when there were no reports of revolution and uproar, he sent a message from his prison cell: Are you the real deal?

The response from Jesus is good news: people’s lives are being transformed.

This is where the real discomfort comes for us. We discover not only our own worth, but the worth of everyone. The implications of that are obvious for how we serve and act, for how we forgive and seek justice. But it’s also when we see Jesus declaring this to be the heart of the Gospel – that the least become valued as the most.

John doubted because he expected uproar and instead Jesus brought embrace.  Many of us doubt because we expected it to be more like what we imagined – a wondrous story in which we are embraced and left to live our lives in peace.

When we expect discipleship to fit neatly into our lives, we are wrong. We talk often about the call of God, but we neglect the next part: obedience. All forms of ministry, engaging every disciple, ask us to follow. There are moments when the call dovetails into our life, our community and our family.

And there are the other moments we are asked to leave our home and participate in the call of God in a new way.

What did you expect?

As the story builds of God breaking into the world as a newborn, we need to embrace this story for all the hope and life it brings.

The discipleship of Mary, then Joseph, agreeing to God’s call. The discipleship of John, even as doubts begin. The declaration of God – how much all humanity is valued and loved.

God entrusts us with his child, vulnerable at the heart of the creation. God entrusts us with his story, offered with the hope with which we discovered it.

As these weeks draw close, let us ready ourselves for the surprise of God in our world – again.

 

When You Let Your Cousin Preach

So, it’s the new minister’s first sermon. People have worn their best church clothes, and there are a few new hats being spotted around the Congregation. The new minister steps to the pulpit, dressed in an unusual and informal outfit, looking like she’s had one too many espressos before worship.

People do the church-what-on-earth-sidewards-glance-towards-each-other-then-the-door-mild-panic-thing. And she starts

You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

Mobiles (set, of course, to silent) are activated as people send frantic texts to each other and to the powers that be. What’s going on?

This is not the language and style – thankfully – that we usually hear in worship. But in eschewing the violent imagery, have we neglected the challenge?

John the Baptist confronts those who have become complacent about their faith and their world, who have become complicit in the injustices and the broken system which pretends to govern.

John’s language is compelling; it’s Advent language. If you’re readying yourselves for the coming of Christ, what does that look like? Buying gifts for those you love? Decorating your favourite tree? Another Christmas party?

If these questions discomfort us, perhaps they should. Just as we smooth the rough-hewn cross to a comfortable veneer, and sterilise the stable so that the cattle could feed in our lounge room, we take the belligerent language of John and dismiss him as Jesus’ angry cousin.

That’s not good enough. In fact, it’s wrong.church-in-box

The life we have been offered in Jesus Christ calls us to offer that life to others. But the story is not crafted in fear of what God will do, it’s crafted in hope because of what God has done.

A child in a manger, God as one of us, tells us the incredible value of each human being; God has become exactly like one of us, born as one of us. The extraordinary becomes normal and thus, the normal has become extraordinary.

What does this say for how we treat our neighbour, our enemy, our refugee, our politician, our sister in Aleppo and our brother on Nauru?

John tells the crowd there is nowhere to hide from the call of God; showing our church membership, or claiming our place in eternal life is an exercise in deception if we fail to turn our lives towards Christ.

As we ready ourselves for the joy of Christmas, how shall we serve others, how shall we act justly and how shall we honour the image of Christ found in manger, cross, resurrection – and our neighbour?

 

Remembering Hope

We are entering the season of hope and the signs are all around us: jacarandas (and Patterson’s curse) are incandescent and cereal crops are ready in the paddock – reflections of good, plentiful rain. Thadvent-sime-leeere are flies everywhere, too; reminders of the season, but certainly not blessings.

It’s only a handful of Sundays until we remember one of the stories at our faith’s heart. We begin with portents of hope – Israel restored, with swords and spears used instead to prepare, then harvest the crop. The hope is well-founded, our wait is not in vain; this coming story of babies and mangers is not just one of profound beauty, but the earthed story of our God fully present in our broken world.

Israel waits, the first disciples waited, as we wait, for this to be complete.

We light a new candle each week, and we wait.

We remember, and we hope, because we remember what God has sung in Jesus Christ. Our waiting is the singing of that song; our waiting is forgiving those who need that word spoken; our waiting is loving our neighbour, and then our enemy, despite the struggle of each heartbeat.

Our waiting is creating peace where there is none, and declaring our hope when it seems reasonable to despair.  Our waiting is joining the Spirit’s chorus, crying out for justice, feeding the hungry and healing the broken-hearted.

We wait, as citizens of the kingdom which is to come and is already here.

We wait, because we remember, and we hope.

This hope helps us to remember that Caesar’s commands and Herod’s depredations and soldiers’ violence and a baby’s vulnerability and parents’ humanity cannot define, restrict, or defy the Word of God spoken into the world.

At our weakest, we believe it’s entirely up to us; at our worst, we affirm that Caesar really is Lord.

Why is why we are called to remember  so faithfully, and why we are  reminded to wait so deliberately. It is why we need each other to remind us when we stumble.

We are disciples of Emmanuel, of Jesus. We are apprenticed to him, and each deliberate act of hope is found first in him. These are the jacaranda flowers of our lives – signs that God is both coming to us, and is already with us.

We are never called to save the world, but we are called to live in the hope of the one who has – Jesus Christ.jacaranda-grafton

 

Making A Prophet

We affirm our eagerness to uphold basic Christian values and principles, such as the importance of every human being, the need for integrity in public life, the proclamation of truth and justice, the rights for each citizen to participate in decision-making in the community, religious liberty and personal dignity, and a concern for the welfare of the whole human race.

We pledge ourselves to seek the correction of injustices wherever they occur. We will work for the eradication of poverty and racism within our society and beyond. We affirm the rights of all people to equal educational opportunities, adequate health care, freedom of speech, employment or dignity in unemployment if work is not available. We will oppose all forms of discrimination which infringe basic rights and freedoms.

We will challenge values which emphasise acquisitiveness and greed in disregard of the needs of others and which encourage a higher standard of living for the privileged in the face of the daily widening gap between the rich and poor.

We are concerned with the basic human rights of future generations and will urge the wise use of energy, the protection of the environment and the replenishment of the earth’s resources for their use and enjoyment.

We declared this, the Un168741_10150092486399800_679984799_5932532_116650_niting Church, almost forty years ago, as part of our Statement to the Nation (google it for the rest). Wonderfully, sadly, this prophetic statement resonates today, as much as it did in 1977.

I am very proud of our Church this week, having participated in the annual meeting of Uniting Justice, the national justice body for our Church.

I heard once more how being a disciple of Jesus, articulating the Gospel, crying out for justice in the market place and bearing witness come together.

Each of us asks, each day, how we can best live as Jesus’ disciples in our world. One answer to that question is that the voice of Uniting Justice has been heard

  • advocating for a just and civil society in which life is not only sustainable, but in which we can all flourish
  • before Parliamentary Committees on capital punishment
  • in papers and protests on behalf of those seeking asylum on our shores
  • engaging with citizens and governments about a fairer tax system
  • urging leaders to take appropriate and urgent action on climate change, taking special note of our brothers and sisters in the Pacific
  • contributing to the vital conversation across Australia about Indigenous Recognition and the debate about a treaty

This is the Church acting in the tradition of the prophets, echoing Amos and Micah, Isaiah and Jeremiah. This is our Church, testifying before governments about our faith in Jesus Christ, which calls us to act.

This is leadership, both acting for us, and urging us to act. We are provided with resources to think things through, but not to remain dormant.

This is why I am proud this week, especially. Southside understands this passion – and this hope in Christ. We comprehend that we are participants in the Kingdom of God, and not spectators. We act, in Christ and because of him, in the power of his Spirit.

In the Spirit of God’s self-giving love, we go forward.

 

Finding Hope

The news is unrelenting, compelling. The final throes of the presidential election in the United States are being played out and the improbable – indeed what some believed, impossible – has happened. I will leave it to more able and seasoned commentators to ask the why and wherefores of electing Donald Trump and not electing Hillary Clinton.

I want to ask about hope.

It seems that, for many who chose to vote for Mr Trump, hope was a motivator. People hope their lives will change, that their lot will improve. Some hope that their country will find a new direction, or perhaps return to what they believe their country looked like before. Before President Obama, or the Presidents Bush, before the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, before the Twin Towers, before globalisation, or just simply, intangibly, before.

For many, life has become increasingly hard, and the changes with which they are confronted have become remorseless. It is these people who have found no sense of hope with what they perceive as “the system”, so they have turned elsewhere, leaving a fractured system in their wake. Systems are, by their nature, dispassionate, whether they are markets, or comhope-nearputers, or flow charts.

The people who believe they are ignored, or rejected, have chosen someone they hope will attend to them. Those who believe they are regularly placed last have elected someone they hope will place them better than last.

It is too easy – and false – to typecast these many millions of people as uneducated, or racist, or wrong. The temple erected for them by the system, of trade liberalisation and market worship, has proved an empty shell for many who were told to believe. Is it a coincidence that Jesus prophesies the fall of the temple immediately after an impoverished widow puts her last coins in the temple coffers?

Hope is realised when people know they have value – and any system will fail them there. The best sermon means nothing if the preacher has no integrity – integrating words spoken and life lived. Anyone who claims to offer hope by blaming others, by scapegoating or punishing, is not offering hope, but hatred.

The temple is not worthy of your faith. You’ll find no hope in a building, you’ll find it in God’s act in Jesus Christ. Jesus did not simply notice wounds, he healed them. He did not simply find the lost, he embraced them. Jesus did not simply identify the broken, he identified as one of them, and in so doing, saved us all.

On this day, when I don’t understand how this result can have happened, I place my hope in the one who invests everything in the whole creation – to give life.

This I believe, and therefore I have hope:

the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end.

Being Fed – Body & Soul

When we see how often Jesus is found in people’s homes sharing meals, is it any wonder that the central act of our worship is the sharing of food and drink? When we break a piece of bread and share it, when we offer another person the cup of wine, we look in their eyes.  It’s more than remembering Jesus, it’s an act of invitation and welcome, gathered around a shared hope.

When we gather around a table, whether it’s a degustation, rogan josh, or scrambled eggs on toast, there is an opportunity for us to share more than the food. We remember other shared meals, other friends, other homes; if we are courageous, we can tell those stories as guest or host.

In our lives which often appear to be full with “stuff”, creating the space for food and re-creation offers value to those with whom we share our meal, and it also renews our lives – body and soul.

When Jesus invited himself to Zacchaeus’ home for lunch, it is more than a meal – especially for Zacchaeus. What are we offering when we welcome someone to a meal – in our home or elsewhere? What are we expecting when we are invited and made welcome at a meal prepared by others?

Sometimes formality will stifle conversation, as easily as meals share around a television programme. The risk of being together with only background music and the aroma of roasting lamb invites us to share something of ourselves.

It is common practice for Jews to say grace at the beginning and the completion of a meal – for what we are about to receive and for what we have received, we give thanks.

I am quite fond of this “Pub Blessing” …

Bless this pub

where the snooker table slants with saving grace

where brass is polished with devotion …

 

Where we sit at a table

imbibing ale and conversation and

wine that makes us glad …

 

Where the jukebox plays sacred music –

numbered chants and anthems

we flip through choosing favourites

 

Bless this neighbourhood pub –

alight and alive with laughter –   

where we confess our failures

celebrate our victories

pray for health and happiness and true love

give thanks for our friends

sing

and raise our glasses to 

life in all its fullness.

feast