Pentecost 20 – A party of anti-Roman Pharisees and pro-Roman Herodiams decided to work together in their efforts to get rid of Jesus by discrediting him in the eyes of a crowd of onlookers. So they concocted a trick question – was it legal to pay taxes to the Roman emperor, or not? It was a question with many layers of meaning, both political and religious, and any Yes or No answer was going to make him appear to be aligned with one party or the other. But he wriggled out of giving a yes/no answer when he asked to see a Roman coin. Roman taxes had to be paid with Roman coins, stamped with the emperor's image and title. Because in Roman eyes the emperor had been declared to be one of the gods, a financial transaction using Roman coinage was also seen as a religious activity. In his reply, Jesus was telling his questioners to give to Caesar, the emperor, that which was in the image of Caesar, and to God that which was in the image of God. We are the ones who have been created in the image of God, even if some of us are a bit tarnished and distorted. We are the image bearers of our creator, and what we render to Caesar should always take second place to what we render to God. Matthew 22: 15-22
Pentecost 20 – While Paul was on his first missionary journey he stayed for a while in the Greek city of Thessaloniki, 300 km north of Athens, and while there he visited a Jewish synagogue three times to tell his countrymen about the good news of Jesus Christ. He was not well received by the Jewish leaders, who were so enraged by him and his message that they ran him out of town and followed him south as far as Athens and Corinth. Paul was left afaid and discouraged – until news came that his preaching to the Thessalonians had borne fruit, that new believers had formed a church, and that the young Thessalonian church was going strong. It was exciting news, and Paul dashed off a letter to them. They had been impressed by the integrity of Paul and his colleagues; they were confident they were being told the truth, and that is was God who was being promoted, not a private agenda. They were showing the nature of true faith – hard work, patience and service. The portion of Paul's letter on which this sermon is based has become very precious for one of Sandy's friends, a German woman who has been working with refugees in this same city of Thessaloniki. Let us continue to be the kind of commumity that is known for its service, labour, love, perserverance, and steadfasness of hope in Jesus Christ. 1 Thessalonians 1: 1-10
Pentecost 18 – In our Western culture, a person's status and worthiness can often depend on achievements such as academic success, a good annual income, and the ability to accumulate stuff, in the hope that they will bring a sense of satisfaction and well-being. In first-century Philippi life was understood quite differently, and a person's worthiness and status could largely depend on the 'badge of office' for position in a hierarchy. In the letter to the Philippians, Paul related how he had formerly acquired some impressive 'badges of office' as a scholar and lawyer in the Jewish hierarchy, and had been spending time 'ticking the boxes' on lists of religious laws and punishments. But since his encounter with Jesus his understanding of God was very different. Sticking to the letter of the religious law leads to community suspicion, despair, hatred, retribution and envy; but Paul was saying that he had found the secret for forgiveness and reconciliation - it is not found by earning enough good behaviour badges, it comes to us as a gift. On account of Christ's faithfulness with us, we are not going to be assessed and judged on the basis of our status badges. In what do we place our confidence, our sense of identity and our well being? It is in the faithfulness of Christ. (In Chapter 3 Verse 9, the phrase habitually translated as "faith in Christ" is more accurately translated as "the faithfulness of Christ".) Christ is faithful with us, and we are not ranked in order of worthiness - regardless of our flaws, God holds us equally in Jesus. Philippians 3: 4b-14
Pentecost 19 – The Parable of the Wedding Feast in Matthew's gospel is violent reading. It tells of a tyrannical, narcissistic king who sent out invitations for a lavish feast celebrating his son's wedding. When the invitations were ignored and some of the couriers were murdered, the king ordered his army to destroy the city where the murderers lived. Then he decreed that everybody was going to attend the feast, and that everyone was going to be dressed uniformly in wedding robes that he himself was going to supply. When the guests had gathered, one of them was seen without a wedding gown; and when he was challenged and remained silent, the errant guest was bound head and foot and tossed out into the dark. In the sermon we are asked not to equate the king in the parable with God. The God of Jesus is not a God of violence, coercion and punishment, he is a God of love, forgiveness and acceptance. This parable in Matthew's gospel is placed during the week before Christ's betrayal and crucifixion; and when the parable's non-conforming wedding guest is thrown out into the darkness, it could be seen as a preview of the way Jesus was going to stand silently in front of Pillate, before his descent into the darkness of death. To what and to whom do we show allegiance? To what and to whom do we need to show dissent? May these questions prompt us to enliven spiritual conversations and orient our lives in the reign of God. Matthew 22: 1-14
Pentecost 17 – Thanks to the Internet, we now have a greater capacity than ever before to communicate with each other. However, Internet communication can be manipulated to determine what we may and may not see and hear, and the algorithms are designed to reinforce a particular one-sided, adverserial view of the world. A result is a reduction in the ability of people with different points of view to hear each other with respect and understanding, and it can lead to conflict. A few thousand years ago, Paul was a prisoner in chains when he wrote a letter to the small church in Philippi, and in the letter he directly addressed a conflict between two of the women in the church. He urged them to be of the same mind, meaning that he wanted them to engage together with courageous, humbling service, which is what it means to be of the same mind as Christ. When we communicate with each other, we must give serious consideration to the way our speech and actions impact on the life of others. Philippians 2: 1-13
Pentecost 16 – Seasons of Creation, Week 3: Earth – In the 'Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard', Jesus was telling an unlikely story about a wealthy landowner who paid a full day's wages to every one of the labourers he had hired to do some work in his vineyard, whether they had been hired early in the morning for a whole day's work, or later in the day for a few hour's work, or had been engaged so late in the day that they were on site for only an hour. When the wages were being handed out, the latecomers were put at the head of the queue to make sure they were paid first, and despite the grumbling, the ones who had being working in the sun for the whole day were refused a bonus. It just didn't seem fair. What is it that leads us so naturally to jealousy and resentment? In the rural Palestine of that era, day labourers would have had a precarious existence, constantly threatened by unemployment and destitution; and the vineyards of our world will only thrive when everyone has a place of dignity and a purpose. In the kingdom of God, reward is not based on what is deserved, but purely on God's love and generosity. Do you feel angry because God is generous in places where you wouldn't expect it? The sermon concludes with thoughts about the wonderful world that God has given us, and the pressing need for us to look after it much more effectively. NOTE: A large part of this sermon was also used for the 11 o'clock church service. Matthew 20: 1-16
Pentecost 15 – The sermon begins by expressing some curiosity about the story of the Red Sea parting to reveal a dry path for the Israelites to walk to freedom, and then closing over to drown the pursuing Egyptians. The violence against the Egyptians was God's alone. What does it mean, for God to harden his heart against the Pharaoh and the charioteers? Where does it fit into our concept of God as love? The account of the crossing of the Red Sea is commonly read as an allegory for baptism, with an expectation that the newly baptised will put to death all manner of vices – vices which parallel the way that the Pharaohs treated the Israelites, and which also parallel the vices of some of our contemporary politicians. But the Christian life should lead us to be better than that. What is needed is kindness, 'the ultimate soft skill in a hard world', sparked from empathy and compassion, The reality is that the world is hard, and kindness is not easy. Galatians 5:22 reminds us that the fruit of God's spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control. May those gifts be reflected in our lives, both personal and communal. Exodus 14: 19-31
Pentecost 15 – Season of Creation, Week 2: Wind and Air – The prophet Elijah had to flee for his life because of his forthright criticism of the way the people of Israel were worshipping a Canaanite weather god called Baal, and disregarding the God of their ancestors, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God told Elijah to make his way to Horeb, a mountain in the middle of a wilderness, and wait for him there; and when he arrived at the mountain, Elijah was tired, depressed, despondent, overwhelmed, alone, uncertain, and discouraged. It's a list that well might describe how many of us are feeling today, in a world of pandemic, scarcity, fear, greed, violence, economic meltdown, climate crisis, and democratic institutions in jeopardy. During his prophetic ministry, Elijah and his audience had experienced some dramatic manifestations of the power and presence of God; but this time, up on the mountain, God did not make himself known in hurricane, earthquake or lightning. When it was all over and there was peace and silence, God made himself known to Elijah as a small voice. God is in the quiet, gentle influences that are ever around us; yet, during this COVID-19 time of trial, the gift of time and silence has for many people been overwhelmed by fear, anxiety and loneliness. It could be the grace of the moment many have felt in the depth of despair when, suddenly, anguish ceases and a perfect stillness means the crisis is over. 1 Kings 19: 9-13
Pentecost 14 – The gospel passage is the classic text for church discipline. If someone in the church offends you, try to sort it out in private; if that doesn't work, try again with a few witnesses present; if there's still no resolution, get the whole congregation involved; and as a last resort, treat the offender the same as you'd treat a social outcast. The Jesus way of treating a social outcast is not to throw him out and ignore him, but to welcome and befriend him and go partying with him. It has little in common with judicial punishment and the law, which use force in an effort to make the miscreant see reason. In his letter to the Romans, Paul puts law in its place: if we love one another, we are already fulfilling the law. The good news is that God is not interested in punishment. But loving the 'wrong' sort of people, the Jesus way, can be regarded as an undermining of the authority of law, and it can get you into trouble. That was certainly the case for Jesus. He was accused of disregarding the Law and stirring up trouble in the lower classes with his subversive teaching; he was found guilty as charged and put to death by crucifixion; and such was God's approval of what Jesus had achieved, that he was raised from death on the third day. Romans 13: 8-14; Matthew 18: 15-20
Pentecost 13 – Moses was about 80 years old and still tending sheep when he had his encounter with God in the burning bush, with God asking Moses to go back to Egypt, from where he had fled 50 years previously, to confront the cruel, despotic Pharaoh with a demand that the Israelite people be set free from oppression and slavery. This year, on August 28, the world remembered the anniversary of the 'March on Washington' of 1963, when Martin Luther King Jr gave his 'I Have a Dream' speech at the Lincoln Memorial. It was then one hundred years since Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation, yet descendants of former Negro slaves were still languishing in a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. It's not much better today. In the Philippines there are systemic killings, outside the law but condoned by Government, of human rights defenders and activists. Many more examples of systemic injustice could be cited from around the world. Over and over again, the biblical God of Moses is revealed to be on the side of the oppressed, not of the powerful. May we all - young and not so young - find our part to play in God's reign of justice and liberation. Exodus 3: 1-15; Matthew 16: 21-28
Pentecost 13 – In the ancient story of Israel's origins and identity, Moses was looking after his father-in-law's sheep when he came across a bush that was apparently ablaze without actually burning, and when God spoke to Moses from the bush, God would not reveal his name or identity apart from saying that he was "I am who I am, and I will be who I will be", and also that he was the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. How do we describe the indescribable which is God? Humans ever since have been asking God, "Who are you?", seeking to name and label him; but God cannot be classified and quantified, although the prophets and poets have given us many depictions of him as fundamentally merciful, just, compassionate and forgiving. In the gospel passage we see Peter telling Jesus not to be so stupid as to put himself into mortal danger by going on to Jerusalem, and Jesus rebuking Peter in no uncertain terms by calling him a "Satan", that is, a deceiver and a stumbling block. There are dangers in trying to control God with our own limited understanding. God can reveal himself in surprising ways and places. Exodus 3: 1-15; Matthew 16: 21-28
Pentecost 12 – The apostle Paul urged his readers in Rome to offer their bodies as a "living sacrifice" acceptable to God – but what sort of sacrifice was it supposed to be? There are several different kinds of sacrifice, and Vikki in her sermon speaks of just three of them. First there is penal sacrifice, which deals with sin when a penalty must be paid; the assumption being that God is like the angry pagan gods which demand a penalty in spilt blood. But God wants mercy, not that sort of sacrifice. Secondly there is purging sacrifice, which often involves vilification, shaming and banishment of those with whom we disagree. It doesn't actually work, and Jesus urges us instead to love our enemies and do good for them. And thirdly, there is self sacrifice – sacrifice of personal preferences for the common good. That is the way of Jesus. Paul asks us not to be conformed to this world, but to follow the ways of Jesus and be transformed. Romans 12: 1-8
Pentecost 11 – In the Uniting Church and in many other Christian churches, confirmation is a rite administered to baptized persons, especially at the age of discretion, to admit them to full membership; and today saw the confirmation of Christopher Bridge, who has been on the books as our assistant organist since 1994. When asked to give his witness or testimony at this service, he spoke of his love for music, claiming that for him, "Home is where you play the organ" (laughs from audience). After outlining his musical activities of a more administrative nature, such as dealing with visiting organists and arranging concerts, trips and tours, he spoke of the significance of sacred music. Great music comes from the extraordinary gifts of creative geniuses, from all ages, as they grapple with great mysteries of the universe in a musical language that's far more expressive than any language of words.
Pentecost 11 – During the church service our speaker, Bronwen Blight, made a personal reaffirmation of the baptism she had received as a child, and you will hear Bronwen's testimony to her faith journey. The journey started well when she was born into a family of strong, faithful, active Christians, but it faltered when the confirmation lessons they were taught in her church school were painting such a stifling, negative picture of Christ's work of reconciliation that she chose not to be confirmed. She left the church, and found instead a closeness to God in music and in nature. She was attracted to Buddhism, where she felt welcomed, and in Buddhist practices she found quietness and serenity. The Buddhist compassion and gratitude were so like the Christianity she had abandoned years before. A few years ago, now retired, she was looking around for a Christian community when friends guided her to Pilgrim Church in Adelaide, and she was welcomed as never before. She loves the prayer, the wisdom in the teaching, the weekend retreats, the study and reading groups, and the commitment to serving the community. It's a place where you are challenged and encouraged to follow Jesus.
Pentecost 10 – While the disciples were battling with strong winds and dangerous conditions out on the lake, Jesus set out from the shore and walked on water, on the choppy surface of the lake, to reach the boat on foot. When Peter asked Jesus to give him, too, the ability to walk on water, Jesus invited him to step out of the boat and join him. But when he did step out, Peter could manage only a few steps on the water before taking fright and starting to sink, whereupon Jesus reached out, caught him, and helped him back into the boat. This sermon looks at the idea of "stepping out of the boat" for the times in which we live. For the last few months, and nobody knows for how much longer, we are living in a strange, unpredictable environment brought on by a global pandemic, and the future is unknown. In response to Jesus' call to action in the world, we need new and innovative ways to connect with community and neighbours, to bring about God's vision of love, justice and reconciliation. There are going to be radical changes in the way the world is organised, and we are going to have to move out of our comfort zones and take risks – and we can be assured that when Jesus encourages us to "get out of the boat" and step into uncomfortable places, he will also be there to reach out his hand and pull us back in when needed. Note - The same sermon was delivered at the 9.30 AM service. Matthew 14: 22-33
Pentecost 9 – While Jesus was ministering to crowds of people in the town, some disciples of his cousin John the baptiser had to pass on the news that John had been murdered during the birthday party of the local Roman ruler, Herod Antipas. On receiving the news Jesus left the town and went by boat to a deserted place, quite alone. But crowds of people followed him around the lake on foot, and when Jesus saw them he had pity on them and set about curing their sick. There was a catering problem at the end of the day: Jesus did not want the crowds to walk back home on empty stomachs, but when he told his disciples to feed the people themselves they could find nothing more than a few scraps of bread and a few fish. Jesus told them, "Bring them to me." With actions that have become familiar to Christians ever since, Jesus took the scraps of bread, he blessed them with prayer, he broke them into pieces, and he gave the broken pieces of bread to the disciples. The disciples distributed the bread to a crowd of well over five thousand hungry people, and every person in that crowd was able to enjoy a satisfying meal. The connection between this story and that of the Last Supper is plain. For the very first Christians, the story's significance was profound. To gain much more insight than you'll ever get from this outline, please listen to Greg! Matthew 14: 13-21
Pentecost 9 – Following Jesus – In the gospel passage, Matthew tells us how Jesus provided a satisfying evening meal, indeed a banquet, for five thousand hungry men and goodness knows how many hungry women and children, when he drew on a food supply of just five bread rolls and two fish. He broke the bread with prayer and asked for it to be shared. One of the more rational explanations for the miracle suggests that Jesus had persuaded the people to be kind to each other and share the food they had taken along for themselves. But that is not the main or only lesson. There had earlier been another banquet of a very different kind, a birthday party for the notoriously corrupt Herod, to which only the political and religious elite were invited, and it became a banquet of death when the head of John the Baptiser was ceremoniously delivered on a food platter. The hospitality of Jesus, on the other hand, brings life and food to everyone without distinction. And don't be surprised if you find yourself in trouble with the powerful and influential when you walk the same way as Jesus. Matthew 14:13-21
Pentecost 8 – In the selected portion of his letter to Christians in Rome, Paul shows how determined he is to acknowledge that nothing, not even death, can separate us from God's love. You can be confident that you are known through and through by the Creator Spirit of God himself, and that the Spirit will intercede on your behalf when you simply can't know how to pray or what to pray for. You are assured that you can ask God whatever you want, and it will be done – but what you want reveals what you are. There is a need for discernment, honesty with one's inner self, because prayers are so often for the fulfilment of a selfish whim or personal advantage. Discernment is a willingness to open up and reveal whims, wishes and desires to the scrutiny of God's wisdom. The Quaker tradition has a way of dealing with the problem: if you are facing a difficult decision and don't know what to do or how to act, you can ask a group of trusted friends to form a "Clearance Committee", and at an agreed time and place your friends can ask you honest, open-ended questions and quietly wait for your honest, carefully considered responses. What we need is God's kingdom, his reign and his presence. Romans 8: 26-39
Pentecost 8 – Jacob was a trickster; and now he was a victim himself, tricked into marrying not Rachel, the girl he loved, but her older sister Leah. The sisters had been swapped during the wedding celebrations. Jacob had spent seven years working for his future father-in-law Laban, to win the hand of Rachel; and now he found himself obliged to work another seven years if he were to actually marry her. He agreed, and they were married a week later. As a result of it all, Leah was doomed to a loveless marriage shared with another woman, and Rachel was robbed of her wedding day after waiting seven years. Jacob's ménage included two 'maids' or concubines; and between them, the four women were the mothers of Jacob's twelve sons and one daughter. The sons became the patriarchs of the twelve tribes of Israel. It's a rather seedy story based on cultural conditions of the time, and it's the stuff of novels and reality TV. We all have memories that make us feel ashamed, and nothing silences us more than shame. In these times of physical distancing to protect our physical well-being, how are we getting on with our emotional and spiritual well-being? In what ways can we function as a place of safety, mutual care and compassion, where judgement and criticism give way to a pandemic of kindness that brings hope and breaks despair? Genesis 29: 15-28
Pentecost 7 – Jacob was a despicable cheat who had alienated himself from family and friends with his deceitfulness and lack of justice, and he was fleeing from victims demanding retaliation and judgement. He was also fleeing from God. He would have been in a very dark place, physical, emotional and spiritual. One night, sleeping rough with a stone for a pillow, he had a vivid dream of a ladder between earth and heaven with angels ascending and descending; and God stood next to him in the dream to tell him that he would inherit the promise first made to his grandfather Abraham. God loved even a despicable cheat like Jacob, and gave him a new start. The parable in the gospel passage asks for weeds not to be uprooted from among good plants in case the good ones get damaged; and who can tell the difference between good growth and bad growth? Don't go around self-righteously calling out "Clean up the church! Get rid of the heretics and sinners!" Our lives will have rocky times, but God has not deserted us. He is here in this place, in our shame and grief, in every place and situation. He was with Jacob. He is with us. Genesis 28: 10-19a; Matthew 13: 36-43
Pentecost 6 – In the Parable of the Sower we have a tongue-in-cheek account of a wasteful farmer preparing for his next crop by wandering across the landscape and tossing his seed around without caring where it lands. If some of the seed happens to land in good soil, that patch of dirt will produce a good crop, and if the seed lands anywhere else it will be wasted for various reasons. The sermon offers three ways of interpreting the parable. The first interpretation is taken from the gospel passage, where the author sees the parable as an encouragement to his readers to be more like the good soil. In the second interpretation, the generosity of God is seen in the way he scatters the good news of Jesus to all, without considering whether he will get a good return. And in the third interpretation, a parallel is seen between the way thorns in the parable were choking the life out of seedlings, and the way many groups of people are being choked off by being excluded from the means for human flourishing. The Greek word translated as "choke" can also mean "strangle", "throttle" or "suffocate", which brings to mind George Floyd's murder and the formation of the Black Lives Matter movement. In the light of this parable, how do we picture the nature and character of God? Matthew 13: 1-9, 19-23
Pentecost 6 – Despite resuming church services, we aren't going back to 'normal' anytime soon. What seeds have been sown in this time of quarantine and lockdown? What is God up to here, and what are the holy possibilities, adaptations and challenges we could embrace together? When the questions were tackled by Rev Dr Sean Gilbert and Rev Dr Tim Hein, two faculty members from the Uniting College for Leadership and Theology, their thoughtful responses were filmed and transformed into a video clip that we were able to use in place of a live sermon. The present sound-only recording is a copy of the video sound track. In general terms, the first half of their 'sermon' deals with spiritual practices that have proved helpful in times of separation and loneliness; and the second half has some thoughts about the worldwide effects of previous emergencies like pandemics and world wars, and the changes we could find ourselves facing once the present emergency has been resolved.
Pentecost 5 – When John the Baptiser and Jesus the Nazarene were both preaching repentance and the coming of God's kingdom, they had their distinctive styles. With his uncompromising message about giving up pleasures and taking on uncomfortable responsibilities, John was branded as a religious fanatic; while Jesus was described as a glutton and a drunkard because he mixed socially with people of doubtful character. When the authorities were determined not to get involved but to watch from afar, Jesus likened them to a lot of street urchins sitting around and refusing to join in other peoples' games. Criticising or denigrating those not on your own side shows a lack of wisdom – this was not a simple all or nothing narrative. To reach the truth with wisdom, we need to respectfully listen to each other and enter into each other's worlds. Wisdom is justified by her deeds. Matthew 11: 16-19, 25-30
Pentecost 5 – While Greg was enjoying some fishing along the Huon River in Southern Tasmania, he couldn't help but notice that something was moving through the bush nearby and keeping up with him; and the something turned out to be an emaciated cow, struggling along with a tangle of barbed wire around her legs, unable to care for herself. She was too terrified to be approached and helped. What do we carry around that entangles us and stops us from living the full life that God intends for us? Jesus was greatly moved by the sight of people wandering like sheep without a shepherd, or a cow entangled in barbed wire. He has told us that his burden is light and his yoke easy; he has said, "Come to me, all of you with heavy, unnecessary burdens, and we'll work together. What we'll do together is easy. Learn from me how God sees life." Most religious burdens result from a distorted understanding of God's requirements, and the way they are misused for purposes of manipulation and control; and the result is fear, embarrassment, guilt, shame, and feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness. God is not like that; God's law is meant to protect us and set us free. Matthew 11: 16-19, 25-30
Pentecost 4 – In the gospel passage, Jesus was remininding his followers of the importance of hospitality in their preaching missions. Trying to preach the good news in a place lacking hospitality would be fruitless; but when there is hospitality, something of God is shared with others to unleash the love of God which humans crave. We can provide an environment of hospitality by receiving welcome, and giving welcome as agents of God's hospitality. Hospitality creates free space where strangers can become friends instead of enemies, and it can create a place where change can occur. The church can also offer hospitality to God's provocative, discomforting messengers whose urgent causes disturb us on occasion – a few examples being Black Lives Matter, the plight of undocumented refugees, Aboriginal deaths in custody, and environmental issues. Matthew 10: 40-42
Pentecost 4 – When they were setting out on their mission to preach the good news, Jesus told his followers that anyone who supported them in their mission with the smallest token of hospitality, even just a drink of water, would become an equal partner with them. No matter how insignificant someone's contribution may seem, that person will be doing God's work in the world and will receive full credit for it. But is that really how our church works? How we understand God determines how we behave toward others, and how others behave toward us. Paul suggests that when we have accepted God's hospitality and friendship, and are no longer bound by rules and laws but by love, we should be extending the hospitality to those around us. We are sent on a mission from God to bring much-needed justice and transformation to the world. With God, all things are possible. Romans 6: 12-23; Matthew 10: 40-42
Pentecost 3 – Uniting Church 43rd Anniversary – In biblical terms, wilderness is a terrible place where those whom God loves find themselves under extreme duress; and it is the place where God sends angels to those whom he loves. While the 43rd Anniversary of the Uniting Church is currently being celebrated, it might be asked, what does the future hold as we slowly move out of lockdown? Is it worth continuing this fifty year old creative experiment in church unity? A lot of effort is being expended on keeping things running as they are, at a time when the church's significance in the broader community is declining. That is the wilderness in which we find ourselves. Perhaps God is calling us to places against our grain, giving us challenges that help us to grow. The Uniting Church has a particular vocation, and we must not give up just because the secular wilderness called Australia makes it feel too hard. It is a time for us to refocus on the particular vocation God has given us, for today and for tomorrow. Genesis 21: 8-20; Matthew 10: 24-39
Pentecost 2 – What does hope look like? The Hebrew ethnic saga of Abraham and Sarah is a story of hope in the midst of hopelessness, with meaning and wisdom at many levels. God had promised Abraham that he would find a new life in a new country and become the father of a great nation; but try as they might, Abraham and Sarah simply could not start a family of their own. When Sarah was well past childbearing age God visited them in the form of three men who told them they'd be back in a year's time to see their new baby boy – and that's how it worked out. Despite the apparent hopelessness of the situation, the elderly couple's hope in God's promise was fulfilled. Many centuries later, Paul in his letter to the Romans was trying to communicate what he had discovered about God's grace towards humankind; and he suggested that we should be revelling in the fact that we have the hope of sharing in God's glory. What is hope like in these present times of anxiety and uncertainty? It is suggested that hope involves doing what is right, with courage and determination, telling the truth about the condition of our own soul. Genesis 18: 1-15; Romans 5: 1-8
Pentecost 2 – Journey and Place – Jesus set out on a preaching and healing tour of towns and villages, visiting the places where ordinary people lived and worked; and in his travels he was seeing so much unhappiness among the people that he called his twelve disciples and commissioned them to extend his preaching and healing mission to other towns and villages. They were advised to travel without too much baggage; to graciously accept any offers of hospitality; to offer help where needed; and to leave when not welcome. We are on a journey of a lifetime, and it's the journey that matters the more, not the destination. In the company of others on the journey we will find a rich harvest, working for the good of all. We need to love the place, the neighourhood, the same way as we care for ourselves. Matthew 9: 35-38; Matthew 10: 1-4, 10-15.
Trinity Sunday – How do we describe the indescribable mystery that we call God, when we try to talk about and relate to God as Trinity? There have been many popular analogies for the Trinity, for example St Patrick's alleged use of the three parts of a shamrock leaf, but such analogies can be misleading and even dangerous if we think that on their own they will bring us closer to understanding God. Describing God needs more than just logic and human reasoning; also required are stories of love, compassion, grace and justice, expressed through such means as images, metaphors, poetry, art and music. When the disciples met with Jesus up north in Galilee after his resurrection, he told them to go out into the world to teach people what he had taught them, immersing them by baptism into the new way of living, in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Matthew 28: 16-20
Pentecost – That morning, Jesus' body had disappeared from his tomb; and in the evening his disciples were huddled behind locked doors for fear of what might happen to them, when Jesus himself unexpectedly joined them in the room. After proving who he was by showing them his bruises and scars, he gave them a blessing, and breathed on them, saying "Receive the Holy Spirit." Breathing keeps us alive. The Holy Spirit is God's breath, God's energy and vitality, the promise of Jesus being among his people in the world. During the COVID-19 pandemic many of us are, in a way, huddled behind doors for fear of what might happen, waiting for Jesus to breathe on us. John 20: 19-23
Pentecost and Reconciliation Sunday – There were violent wind noises and tongues of fire when the Holy Spirit came to the apostles during the Pentecost festival; and the apostles amazed onlookers by speaking intelligibly, not in the rough Galilean dialect, but in the mother tongues of visitors from other countries, to announce the good news about Jesus and reconciliation. The Holy Spirit brings people together in a new relationship of understanding. But it is very difficult to come to any deep understanding of issues and attitudes when they are explained in a foreign language, and your own community, language, history and culture are in danger of fading away. Of the roughly 250 languages and 800 dialects in Australia before colonisation, only 13 languages are now being passed on. The first people have an intimate system of laws for the good of the community. We must learn from the spiritual gifts of others. Acts 2: 1-7; 1 Corinthians 12: 3-13
Easter 7 – By not being together for Sunday worship we are missing out on a sense of community, belonging and connection. But it's not the building that matters, it's our capacity to connect with one another during our enforced social isolation. God meets us where we are; and only a small proportion of deep spiritual experiences have been reported as happening inside a building. A few hours before his betrayal and arrest, Jesus was praying for himself, for his disciples, and for all of his followers; and he was asking whether they could all of them be united with him in his own deep, intimate relationship with the Father. There was no mention of selection criteria like theological unity or doctrinal purity. Followers of Jesus are all invited to join the dance of the divine and be the presence of Christ in the world, and we all have a part to play. John 17: 1-11
Easter 7 – In what is generally known as his High Priestly Prayer, Jesus spent his final hours praying first for himself, then for his disciples; and finally for all believers, that they might know what it meant to experience a life of love and unity, a life that reflected the relationship between Jesus and his Father. Earlier in his ministry he had taught his followers that they would be recognisable from the way they loved one another across their differences – not always in agreement, but respectful of those with whom they disagreed. It would be a community inspired and shaped by God's grace. But with so many church denominations and splinter groups all over the place today, where is the unity that Jesus prayed for? "God, may we see in your oneness our need for unity; and in your threeness, our need for community". The prayer of Jesus is still the same today – "That they may be one." John 17: 1-11
Easter 6 – In this scripture passage, the followers of Jesus are struggling with the idea that he may not be with them for much longer – what will happen to them when they are left without him? Jesus says that he will not leave them abandoned, but will be sending another advocate, the Spirit of Truth, to walk with them, strengthen them and comfort them. God draws close to those who need refuge and comfort, and his presence is not subject to religious rules and rituals. While Paul was in Athens he spoke of "The God whom they worship but do not know". God is at work in the most unexpected and surprising places, and when God seems absent, what's really absent is our awareness of God's presence. John 14: 15-21; Acts 17: 22-31
Easter 6 – What can be seen that's changed in our neighbourhoods and public spaces, as a result of the lockdowns and restrictions brought on by the pandemic? There have been many examples of people taking the initiative to connect with and support each other, with opportunities to stop, listen and learn. Learning comes from patience; teaching comes from knowing; seeing comes from respectfully waiting to understand. While the apostle Paul was in Athens he was invited along to a place where citizens and others spent a lot of time discussing new ideas, and when he was invited to speak he told them about a new way of living that involved giving, caring, and loving our neighbour as we love ourselves. Before long others, too, were spreading that particular good news around the city. Stop, listen and learn. Acts 17: 15-31
Easter 5 – When the disciples were quite upset by Jesus telling them about his coming death, he told them to see beyond the immediate issues and look at the big picture. In the place where he was going there would be plenty of room for them as well. In the context of this gospel passage, John was writing to a Christian community that had been forced out of Judaism and was being urged to give up and return to the old norm; and the words of Jesus, that he alone was the way, the truth and the life, were being addressed to his immediate followers, not to people of other faiths and traditions. It was not an arrogant claim, but a truism about a particular way of relating to God: that Jesus is the only one who can show you the way that Jesus does it. It does not assert a supremacy of the Christian faith over other faiths; neither does it say that all faiths are equally valid. But as followers of Jesus, let Jesus deal with our troubles. Let us live as the body of Christ. John 14: 1-14
Easter 5 – Stephen and six others were preaching the gospel with compassion and kindness, by distributing food to elderly and needy widows who would otherwise be neglected because of their Greek language and ethnicity. When Stephen got into trouble with the authorities and finished up by being stoned to death, it was not for his compassion but for the passionate way he expressed his beliefs in public. Hauled before the temple authorities, he gave an historically accurate and truthful summary of how they and their predecessors had been disobeying God, and the authorities were infuriated by the thrust of it. To "Tell the Truth" is the greatest contribution that Christians can make to society – but it may well bring them into conflict with the prevailing culture, because as a church we are aliens with upside down values, "the first shall be last" being one example. The Holy Spirit encourages and sustains us as we move toward something new and wonderful – it is the hope given to us at Easter. Acts 7: 55-60
Easter 4 – In the reading from John's gospel Jesus describes himself as a shepherd who loves and protects his sheep, knowing each one of them by name. While they are locked up in the sheep pen he makes sure that they are secure and come to no harm; and on the way to the pasture they will follow him and nobody else. He also describes himself as the gate through which one passes on the way to a full, satisfying life. During the pandemic we are finding ourselves penned up behind gates and doors that must remain closed to the world for the safety of ourselves and the vulnerable. It can be a very trying time, and in this sermon Sandy offers some suggestions that could be useful in dealing with spiritual and mental health issues caused by social isolation. When the time is right and the gates and doors are opened, the Shepherd will be there, calling us to go out with him into the wide world. What sort of world will it be? Psalm 23 (Paraphrase); John 10: 1-10
Easter 3 – Two of the disciples of the late Jesus of Nazareth were making their way from Jerusalem to the nearby village of Emmaus, and they were thoroughly dejected. Two days ago their Master had been brutally executed, and that morning his body had gone missing. They had had enough of it; all the promises and hopes and dreams had come to nothing. While they were plodding along they met up with a stranger who set about explaining it all in some detail. They didn't recognise that the stranger was Jesus until he broke bread at table, using a very familiar blessing; and he vanished from view. We at present are living with the threat of a virus that has shaken the foundations of our health, travel, standard of living, and future security. Whether we realise his presence or not, Christ is on our journey with us, and his followers are continuing to experience him as a living reality. The same wonderful things are happening today that happened back then, if we can open our eyes to see them. May our eyes be open to the often surprising places where the risen Christ often conceals himself. Luke 24: 13-35
Easter 3 – 'Break The Silence Sunday' – During the current pandemic we are being told to stay at home; to leave our homes for only a limited number of reasons; and to avoid normal social interactions. It's the law, and it's meant to save us all from being infected by a horrible disease. But what if home is not a safe place? Being forced to live with a violent, controlling partner or an abusive parent, and not being allowed to use the phone or call for support, results in enormous fear and uncertainty. If you're nearby and hear the cries of victims, call the police! The risen Christ walked alongside two of his despondent disciples to reassure them, again, that they were beloved children of God. The risen Christ walks with us, too, to assure us that we are all beloved children of God. The Uniting Church is part of a wide collection of people who hold that all people are created in the image of God, and are created to express their gifts. Let's break the silence about family and domestic violence; listen to and hear the cries of victims; and treat the victims with mutual care and respect. Luke 24: 13-35
Easter 2 – While the disciples were huddled behind locked doors after a long and confusing weekend, they felt the presence of someone else; and when the stranger let them see the bruises and scars on his body, they realised it was Jesus. The disciples were overjoyed to be with him again. Then Jesus gave them a disturbing challenge, that he was sending them out as his Father had sent him out. He was saying, "Look at what it cost me; that's the way it will be for you." Christianity is willing to embrace real people with real bodies, real scars and real pain. We all carry wounds of one kind or another, whether we admit to them openly, or hide them from others, or deliberately bury them. We are living in times of fear, doubt and anxiety; and the invitation to follow Jesus, the risen one, continues to be a therapeutic, healing invitation. The invitation is to go out on a journey of healing, with the experiences that have marked and hurt us, and to form communities of trust and compassion where stories of woundedness are listened to, and our own woundedness is accepted. John 20: 19-31
Easter Day – Is there room for joy in the middle of the COVID-19 epidemic, with we cannot worship in a crowded room but must keep away from each other and sing alone? Yes, there is room for joy, from the news of an empty tomb and the joy of the disciples. For the duration of the pandemic we have to live with social isolation and worse. We long for real, three dimensional people contact. While digital technology helps us keep in touch and bind us together, it doesn't stop the desire for actual presence. Easter is a story of presence and absence. The disciples had the painful experience of Jesus' absence after his cruel death, and when they found the tomb empty their emotions were complex. The resurrected Jesus appeared quietly and gently to Mary and his disciples, and he is still with us in the Spirit. He is God's presence. When our isolation is ended, how might we again be spending our time in fellowship with one another? Easter Day celebrates the fact that Jesus is with us, present and not absent, even at times when we are alone. John 20: 1-18
Rev Dr Greg Elsdon
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FRI 10-APR-2020 - 9.30 AM Good Friday Reflection
Good Friday – Good Friday is a solemn day for remembering how Jesus confronted brutality, betrayal, lies, duplicity, cowardice, self-serving and manipulation. But it is not all about death, it is also about life. Jesus died the way he did because he lived the way he did. His was a life of love and passion unchanged by hatred; a life spent confronting evil and injustice; a vibrant, fearless life. Suffering and death are not an end in themselves, they are part of the journey that is life. Jesus invites us, and the rest of the world, to a new way of living, refusing to settle for less than the authentic living that he demonstrated himself. But, it is a way of life that will undoubtedly have consequences for us as it had for Jesus. ++ NOTE ++ During the COVID-19 emergency, church services are being uploaded to the Pilgrim Facebook page and also posted on YouTube, and the Orders of Service can be downloaded from this LINK.
Palm Sunday – Jesus had planned ahead for his entrance into Jerusalem, and he had deliberately chosen to be mounted on a nursing female donkey with its colt trotting alongside to keep up with its mum. That donkey must have been the most unmilitary and unthreatening mount imaginable. Crowds cheered, they waved palm fronds, and they laid cloaks on the road. It was a counter-procession, a subversive piece of political street theatre that mocked the obscene pomp and circumstance of official events like the arrival of His Excellency the Procurator, Pontius Pilate, for his official presence during the feast of the Passover. Jesus knew it was going to land him in deep trouble with the authorities, and it certainly did. The mission of Jesus was the proclamation of God's kingdom of peace, justice, and radical, universal freedom. He mounted a donkey, and he took Rome for a ride. Matthew 21: 1-11 ++ NOTE ++ During the COVID-19 emergency, Sunday services are being uploaded to the Pilgrim Facebook page and also posted on YouTube, and the Orders of Service can be downloaded from this LINK.
Palm Sunday – We are living in unpleasant times, and this year the Lenten theme of spending time in the wilderness seems more real, even from the safety of our own homes. Self isolation and social distancing will certainly help in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic; but they can also lead to problems, for example in households with domestic violence, or where parents are struggling to cope with young children. Even though physical separation is mandatory, there are acts of incredible generosity and kindness that give hope for us to live together in our global village. We can celebrate our common humanity as we face the unknown together. Our call is to be the church in the places where we find ourselves, following the example of Jesus whose vision was not of might and power, but of justice and mercy. This might be a time to develop spiritual practices, or to be more intentonal about being neighbourly – perhaps with more phone calls? ++ NOTE ++ During the COVID-19 emergency, Sunday services are being uploaded to the Pilgrim Facebook page and also posted on YouTube, and the Orders of Service can be downloaded from this LINK.
Lent 5 – The raising of Lazarus from the dead is a troublesome story. When Jesus was told that his friend Lazarus was critically ill, he announced that Lazarus wasn't going to die but was simply going to be asleep; but Lazarus did in fact die, and a few days later Jesus was to be seen weeping alongside other mourners at the tomb of an obviously dead Lazarus. We can thank God that Jesus wept – it gives us the assurance that grief takes hold of God just as it takes hold of us. The tomb was opened at Jesus' request, and when Jesus called him, Lazarus came out with the funeral cloths still wrapped around his body. The bindings were undone, and Lazarus was sent on his way. We don't understand resurrection, but it is a metaphor for Christian living and life, the way that God engages in the life that we live. God is calling us out of the tombs of our despair, denial and death, to a new life here and now. May Jesus' tears keep us tender, open, humble, generous and brave. Despite COVID-19, our journey need not be to the grave, but through it. Let us mourn in hope. John 11: 1-45 +++ NOTE +++ While the church building remains shut during the coronavirus emergency, Sunday services are being uploaded to the Pilgrim Facebook page, and also posted on YouTube. To download the Order of Service and associated resources, click on this LINK.
Lent 4 – When we move on from asking God why certain things happen and why doesn't he do something about it, we can come to understand that the works of God are the works of love in the world. It doesn't mean that love will kill our troubles, but it does mean that God will love us with our troubles and through our troubles. A very troubling situation at present is the spread of that COVID-19 coronavirus, and the official demands on us that we remain physically separated from each other by a certain minimum distance, along with other precautions. But we still need social connection, for the sake of our mental and spiritual health. We need to find new ways of caring for one another at a physical distance, as a witness to the grace and tenderness of God. May we treat each other with kindness, compassion and respect, especially in this challenging time. John 9: 1-17 +++ NOTE +++ For as long as the church building remains shut during the coronavirus emergency, Sunday services will be streamed live to the Pilgrim Facebook page. To download the Order of Service and associated material, click on this LINK.
Lent 3 – The story of Jesus and the woman at the well is often interpreted in terms of God's forgiveness of a promiscuous woman who kept tricking men into marrying her and then walking out on them. But it's not a story about morality. It's a story of how Jesus saw and understood this woman's plight, and shared his insight without shaming or condemning her. In the patriarchal society of the day a woman had no legal or social power to end her own marriage, because only a man could initiate a divorce. This woman was most likely the victim of a series of husbands who had all thrown her out, and she was currently surviving under the patronage of yet another man. Jesus saw her for what she was, and he did not judge or condemn her. Can we follow the example of Jesus, to see brokeness without shaming and condemning the victim? John 4: 5-42
Lent 3 – Jesus bridged a considerable social gap when he, a Jewish man, took the initiative of engaging an unaccompanied, socially isolated Samaritan woman, to share with her some deep spiritual truths. It gave her the courage to rejoin her village community and tell them all about it. Her life was transformed. It has been shown that social rejection often leads to loneliness and mental illness, while social connection and cohesion are associated with wellness. But, with the COVID-19 pandemic spreading around the world, we are being told, on the best of medical advice, to maintain a safe distance between ourselves and anyone else. Not to socialise? No, there are ways of caring for our neighbours even if we keep our distance physically. In cities with compulsory lockdowns there are blue skies instead of polluted grey, birds can be heard singing, people are reflecting, and neighbours are singing to each other through open windows. Isolation doesn't have to be loneliness. There may be endemic sickness, but there doesn't need to be disease of the soul. John 4: 5-15, 27-30
Lent 2 – During Lent we find ourselves invited by a risen Christ to accompany him to a barren wilderness, to be confronted with new information, new insights, and new opportunities for realigning our lives; and it might not be a comfortable experience. Nicodemus, a high ranking Pharisee, visited Jesus during the night to discover something about the powers that God had bestowed on this remarkable rabbi; and Jesus told Nicodemus that he would not see the kingdom of God unless he was born twice: first with the 'water' of normal human childbirth, and then born of the Spirit. The teaching would indeed be confronting and disturbing for Pharisees, when they saw themselves as the guardians of Jewish heritage. John, the author of this gospel, goes on to assure us that God loves this world of ours so completely, unconditionally and passionately, that he was prepared to give the life of the one he relates to as son, so that everyone who trusts in what he is saying will have true, real life, here and now – which is eternal life, not a life that putrefies and falls to pieces. John 3: 1-17
Lent 1 – Following his baptism, Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert for an extended period, during which he was subjected to a series of temptations that suggested that his mission to the world could be made much more spectacular if he were to use his God-given powers to better advantage. He resisted the temptations. During his subsequent three year mission, Jesus often went away to isolated, quiet places like hillsides and deserts after a busy time of interacting with people; it made space in his life to commune with God and grow in grace. By following his example of quietly retreating from the world from time to time to be with God, we too might return into the world to reflect more of God's loving kindness to humanity. Genesis 2: 15-17, 3: 1-7; Matthew 4: 1-11
Lent 1 – Immediately after his baptism, the Spirit led Jesus into the desert to be tempted by the devil; and when the devil tried to subvert him with 'proof texts' from the Scriptures, Jesus responded with verses from the book of Deutoronomy to summarise everything the Jews had learnt about God when they themselves were in the wilderness. Jesus knew where he stood, and he stood in the law; the tempter had no power over him. The ancestors had been taught that their vocation was to be the people of God for the sake of the world; and by echoing what the ancestors had learnt, Jesus was revealing that he himself was the embodiment of that sacred vocation. The novel "Gilead" (2004) by Marilynne Robinson is mentioned in the sermon, for the way it deals with passages from the Scriptures that assure us that however daunting a wilderness may feel or be, there is a promise that God will send angels at the critical time. Matthew 4: 1-11
Transfiguration Sunday – As recounted in the day's gospel passage, while Jesus and three of his disciples were up on a mountain, the disciples were scared out of their wits when God spoke out of a cloud to affirm Jesus as his beloved son; but Jesus gave each of them a gentle pat, and assured them that there was nothing to be afraid of. Most of our lives do not dazzle with non-stop special effects like that; but all of our lives do contain the sacred. We have a challenge, to cultivate the insight for seeing God in the darkest and murkiest of places. This scripture reading is about affirmation. God's affirmation of Jesus calls on us to listen to Jesus, who exemplifies God's intentions behind the Law and the Prophets. How do we go into the community in such a way that people will feel affirmed and encouraged, not chastised and made to feel worthless? How can we acknowlege the shining presence of God in each other? Matthew 17: 1-9
Epiphany 6 – The portion of the Sermon on the Mount set for this week deals with the first three of the 'six antitheses' or 'opposites', in which Jesus introduces some radical teaching using phrases such as "You have heard it said, ... but I say ...". For us, living 2000 years later, his words can be challenging and obscure. For example, if a certain part of this teaching were to be taken literally, there would be a lot of people stumbling around with eyes and hands missing. These teachings of Jesus must not be interpreted word by word; he was using 'midrash', which involves highly critical and scholarly analysis of a text with reference to its historical period, the cultural background, the intentions of the authors, and more. Hear what Sandy has to say in her sermon, as she deals with the 'opposites' that Jesus once presented to his audience. Matthew 5: 21-37
Epiphany 5 – The day's scripture passage comes straight after the listing of the Beatitudes, a list of attitudes and actions of ultimate significance to the community; and anybody who lives and acts in accordance with those Beatitudes is to be blessed and congratulated. Every year on Australia Day, persons with outstanding achievements are honoured with national awards; so, in the light of the Beatitudes, to whom would Jesus be awarding honours in 2021? After Jesus had told his group of followers about the Beatitudes, he went on to tell them that they were collectively the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Salt being a preservative, could this be seen as a call for us to be preserving the Earth and its environment? And if we are the light of the world, it means that we are called to shine God's light into the dark places of human existence and expedite healing and justice. Matthew 5: 13-20
Epiphany 5 – What kind of world are you prepared to live in, and what are you prepared to do for it? In the chosen portion from Isaiah, God makes it clear that he does not respond to people who cry out for him to intervene on their behalf, if they're quarreling among themselves and mistreating their fellow humans. God will only respond to our cries for help if we notice and respond to the pressing needs of others. The gospel passage from Matthew follows on directly from the Beatitudes, with Jesus addressing the same small group of people to assure them that they were, metaphorically, the salt or seasoning that brings out God's flavour to the world, and the light that reveals God's colours to the world. The earliest Christian churches exemplified this teaching, with growing communities that were noted for their outstanding care for others, including their non-believing neighbours. Isaiah 59: 1-9; Matthew 5: 13-16
Epiphany 4 – In Australia we have been observing periods of one minute's silence in memory of those who have perished in bushfires. The silence of remembrance can send a powerful message, and if we listen, we can hear the whisper of God's heart, giving strength to weakness, courage to fear, and hope to despair. But remaining silent can also be highly unethical in the face of injustice and wrongdoing, when the perpetrators can take advantage of our silence to spread even more of their fake news. We must never be afraid to raise our voices for honesty, truth and compassion. That's what the Beatitudes are about – they offer a list of actions and attitudes aimed at achieving justice for the underprivileged, the reviled and the persecuted. The Beatitudes are full of opposites – as an example, it will be the merciful, not the hard and unforgiving, who will receive mercy. The eight Beatitudes are the frontier for entering the reign of God. Matthew 5: 1-12 (The Beatitudes)
Epiphany 4: Covenant Sunday – The Beatitudes listed in the gospels are a distillation of what Jesus had to say about a good, flourishing life. To be declared 'blessed' in the beatitudes, for some action or personal quality, is to be congratulated for doing the things that bring true value to human existence, and for being an encouragement for others to do the same. The beatitudes are not meant to be soothing, sentimental platitudes for greeting cards; they are a declaration of God's intention for human life, and they are meant to startle us awake. Unfortunately, Christianity is often proclaimed loudly as a religion of legalism and judgementalism. What would it mean, to be people whose lives are shaped, inspired and encouraged by Micah Chapter 6 and Matthew Chapter 5 which tell of the covenant to which we are invited? Micah 6: 1-8; Matthew 5: 1-12