Vulnerability in community

This is a sermon for the feast day of St. Luke, given as a guest preacher (over Zoom) to Parkdale Church of Christ. The Scripture it reflects on is Luke 10:1-9.

I want to think a little bit this morning about vulnerability. 

That might seem like an unexpected thing; but just below the surface of today’s reading there are layers of vulnerability to be explored.  After all, a lamb among wolves is pretty vulnerable!  And, although – depending on your preferred translation – you’re unlikely to find the word “vulnerable” as such in your Bible, the whole gospel story, from womb to tomb, is one in which Christ deliberately chooses vulnerability for our sake, and invites us into that place of vulnerability for the sake of others.

Now this is something we often don’t want to think of.  We choose to think in terms of a God who is in control, of a Messiah of power and strength, and of a church which will ultimately know triumph over all its circumstances.  But if we’re honest with ourselves, the images of control, power, strength and victory are not the whole truth about our lives as they are now.  Those lives – whether our personal lives with their struggles and griefs, or our communal life as a church and its challenges and uncertainties – are coloured by our vulnerability.

So it’s good to take the time, sometimes, to draw connections between the vulnerability of Christ in the gospels, and of passages like the one we had today, and the vulnerabilities of our own lives, and see what God might be saying to us through those connections.

So we see today a passage from the part of Luke’s gospel where Jesus is beginning to turn away from his time as a wandering rabbi, and turn his face towards Jerusalem and his eventual death.  He is, throughout this part of the gospel, preparing his disciples for his departure, and equipping them for what they will need to do after he is gone.  He has sent out groups of disciples before in this gospel, notably the twelve; but now there is a new urgency, and seventy others are sent out in pairs.  Presumably these others will thus be well equipped to form a core group of capable, experienced, wise leaders in the fledgling church after Pentecost.

On a side note, although we don’t know who many of these seventy people were, in the letter to the Romans Paul mentions Andronicus and Junia, a couple who were “prominent among the apostles,” and there are ancient records that this married couple were two of these seventy sent out by Jesus at this time.  That’s significant in part because it is evidence for involvement of women as leaders and teachers – apostles even! – in the Christian movement, during Jesus’ lifetime and with his blessing.

But I digress.  Let me come back to today’s text.   And let me suggest that it would be helpful to consider it from two different points of view.

The first point of view is to hear Jesus’ commissioning of the seventy apostles, as an invitation to us to consider how we engage with our own context.  In that reading, we consider ourselves also as those who are sent out into the world – the world of our own schools, workplaces, families and social networks – with a mission.  We consider ourselves as inheriting, to some degree, the task of these early apostles, in our own time and place.

And there are a number of indications here in this passage, about how we’re to approach that mission.  First, before anything else, we’re not meant to engage in this on our own.  Jesus sent out these apostles in pairs; and although the text doesn’t tell us why directly, it’s easy to see that engaging intentionally in mission is easier when there’s someone else to share the joys and challenges, to bounce ideas around, to keep us accountable for our words and actions, and so on.  Mission can be challenging, and having a partner in mission strengthens us, gives us resilience, and makes us much more effective than we might be, each on our own. 

So that’s something I’d encourage you to think about.  If you’re taking seriously the challenge to engage in mission in your own context, how might you buddy up with someone for shared prayer, mutual support and care?

Then we come to the instruction to “carry no purse, no bag, no sandals.”  What this instruction, in that context, did was make the new apostles dependent on the hospitality of others.  They were not to take money and supplies enough to be self-sufficient, but would have to be able to create and sustain relationships in which others would be prepared to house and feed them.  This is also part of the point of the instruction not to move about from house to house; Jesus’ instructions put his apostles in the homes and at the dinner tables of those to whom they were sent, and then meant that they didn’t just get up and leave when the conversations became challenging. 

Now, our cultural context is different and I’m not suggesting we ought to apply that instruction literally today.  But I would encourage you to think about that position of being dependent on the hospitality of others.  How often do we, as Christians, engage from a position of cultural and emotional self-sufficiency, and even superiority; as if we need nothing from others, and indeed, could not possibly benefit from anything someone else might share with us?

That’s not the posture Jesus encourages in those he sends.  He encourages humility, openness; dare I say vulnerability.  He encourages us to put ourselves in a position where the people with whom we’re engaging hold the power in the relationship, and to engage with them on their terms, not ours.  

That’s not necessarily easy or comfortable.  It requires us to do more work in the relationship, and even to take the relational aspect of mission seriously, as the foundation without which anything else is not even possible.  So I’d encourage you to reflect on the question: how are you going about building meaningful relationships with the people to whom you are sent?

And finally, the apostles are given the content of their message: “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” 

It would take a whole other sermon (or possibly a series) to unpack all that is meant by “the kingdom of God,” but for now it’s enough for me to note that this is a message with stark, dramatic implications.  It is meant to be life-changing, and indeed life-giving.  It is meant to bring light into darkness, to offer hope to those in despair, and to bring joy to those who those who are in misery.  It is meant to offer a sense of identity, of purpose, and of connection.  It is meant to be the reason for the radical peace which Jesus here sets out as an inescapable part of the Christian way of life. 

So I would encourage you to be really clear about what the kingdom of God means in your life, and in the life of this church community.  I would encourage you to be ready and willing to share what happens for you when God truly reigns.  To be able to offer others glimpses of that life-changing, life-giving reality.

So much for what this passage might mean for us, as people who are sent out.

But let me suggest to you that there is another side to this reading for you, particularly at this point in the life of your church.  And that is to consider what it is to be a community who receives someone sent to you.

As I understand it, Parkdale is in the position of soon receiving someone who will be sent to you as a minister; a minister with particular experience and wisdom around helping churches which are not really viable any more to grow and rediscover vitality in mission.  And, alongside him, will also be sent another experienced and wise person to serve on your board, to bring support in governance and oversight, and help you renew this church’s vision and mission.

And I would suggest that this reading makes some suggestions about what it is to receive such leadership support, as well.  While your new helpers are not exactly in the same position as these early apostles, they are coming alongside you to help you with particular tasks and needs.  And that is not always an easy reality for a church to navigate.

You will need to face honestly and bravely the emotions around this; grief that the church has come to this; perhaps shame or a sense of having “failed;” frustration and anger and the temptation to blame others, or even oneself, for the difficult position the church finds itself in; fear of loss of control over a church that means so much to many of you, and has done for decades now; fear that decline is inevitable. And so on.

I know that in speaking like this I may hit sensitive spots, and I apologise if it is painful to hear me speak so frankly; but I have known all of you, and been connected to the life of this church so long,  (if somewhat at a distance more recently), that I hope you will hear that I am speaking to you with genuine love and concern for the next phase of your life.

These emotions are real, and the reasons for them are not trivial.  In many cases they come out of deep devotion and long, long years of self-sacrifice and service.  They sit alongside the frustrated hopes and the many lost moments of potential that have been a real burden to you.

And into all of that are walking these newcomers, offering their gifts, and making themselves vulnerable to you, in the sort of way that I’ve been talking about above.  This is not easy for them or for you.  You will inevitably bring to the table different perspectives, different experiences, different expectations, different values, and different hopes.  And somehow, in all of that, the challenge is to trust that God is at work, that the kingdom of God has come near to you, and that the reign of God will be transformative, life-changing and life-giving, as much to you as a church, as to those earliest Judean communities.

So what does that suggest about how you receive these modern-day apostles?

If they are invited to make themselves vulnerable to you, you are invited to be hospitable to them.  Here I don’t so much mean in terms of things like eating and drinking, but in terms of the intellectual and emotional room you make for what they bring.  For your ability to host their perspectives, experiences, suggestions, and so on; not dismissing them as different or foreign to the way Parkdale has always been, but truly being open to what God might be up to through them.  (After all, Jesus sent his apostles to people who needed to entertain and, eventually, come to accept and act upon new ideas and perspectives; and it may very well be the same for you). 

This reading makes it clear that peace is God’s expectation both of the people he sends and the communities who receive them.  Peace is not just the absence of conflict, but the reality of personal and communal flourishing.  Peace is not something which happens by accident, but needs to be intentionally cultivated. 

What does it mean to cultivate peace, in the midst of all that is going on for you?  Peace within yourself before God, peace with one another, peace and harmonious working with newcomers, peace in your outlook beyond your church.  That’s an important question which I would encourage you to reflect on over the coming weeks.

The key message of today’s reading is that, “the kingdom of God has come near to you.”  The kingdom of God is always near to us; and yet the kingdom of God always has more on offer than we have already realised.  The challenge in times of change is to see how God’s reign is bringing that “more” to the front of our experience, and to engage with God’s reign in ways which are transformative and life-giving for ourselves, our church and the world around us.

That takes humility and openness.  It takes vulnerability, and willingness to let God be in control.  Parkdale has done that faithfully over many decades, and I look forward to seeing you rise to the challenge again, discovering a renewed sense of purpose, and new depths of hope and joy, as you move into this next phase of your life.

Bridging the gap

This is a sermon for the tenth Sunday after Pentecost, given as a guest preacher for a parish in lockdown.  The Scripture it reflects on is Romans 10:5-15.

Good morning to all of the good folk of Holy Trinity, Williamstown; I’m delighted and grateful to be able to share in your worship in this way this morning.  So thank you to Elizabeth for inviting me!

I wanted to take this opportunity to reflect together for a few minutes on our epistle reading today, and especially verses 14 and 15.  It might be worth reminding ourselves that they say: “But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’”

It struck me that in some ways, it’s very much a statement of its time; on the one hand, here is Paul asking how Christ is to be proclaimed unless people are sent to do the proclaiming; and the irony of reflecting on that, recording this sermon in my own study, for distribution over the internet later, is not lost on me!  But on the other hand, there’s an aspect to what he’s saying here which is timeless; its concerns have been played out through every age of the Church.  So it’s important for us to pay attention to how they play out in our own time, and what our own concerns around that might be.

And I know that the way what Paul is saying here about what we might call his missionary agenda can strike our own ears as problematic.  Many of us are all too aware of the damage done by zealous people with missionary agendas; and how that has played into systems of empire, and colonialism; of genocide and cultural destruction; of racism and sexism and oppressive social and economic systems on all kinds of levels.  We might well pause before buying into a view of our role in the reign of God which sees us telling other people that we know better than they do, how they ought to think, and believe, and act; and be wary of the danger that what is proclaimed as “good news,” is sometimes good news only for the people doing the proclaiming.

No wonder we can be uncomfortable, sometimes, with some of these ideas; and wonder how they might be integrated with a healthy respect for and love of our non-Christian neighbours.

But of course, Paul was speaking at a time before any of those things had happened; and to a group of people who were not the dominant or powerful group in their own social context, but quite the opposite.  It might feel different if we think of the good news that is proclaimed, not as the agenda of the powerful, imposed on the marginalised; but as the gift of relationship, offered by the marginalised to the powerful.

Paul has as an assumption underlying a lot of what he writes, that the church – as a community of people – is fundamentally different to the wider society around it.  That Christians do not think or behave in the same way, or have the same priorities, as other people.  Now it’s debatable whether that’s as true in our situation as it was for the first-century church; a lot of the people around us still inhabit a culture profoundly shaped by Christian convictions (or as one Jewish friend put it to me, most Australians are still “not quite not-Christian”).

But to whatever extent that is true for us, let’s take that assumption seriously for a moment, and see what it suggests to us.  What Paul is saying is that the people out there – who are not Christian (yet) – are different from us; think differently, behave differently, and so on.  In effect, they’re inhabiting a different sub-culture from the one we inhabit.

And Paul’s saying, the work involved in bridging that cultural gap is our work to do.  If people don’t think like us, talk like us, do what we do… our job is to learn to think in their terms, speak their language, and be involved in the things they care about, in order to build the relationships in which they might come to know Christ.

Our job is to meet them where they are, because there’s no intrinsic reason why they should want to do the work to meet us where we are.  And that’s no less true when the person we want to reach is across the street, than it is when they’re across the world.

Or to give you a different example of the same principle, my mum grew up on a sugar estate where her dad was the manager.  When her brother, my uncle, was old enough, his dad set him to work supervising one of the cane-cutting crews.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the tough men who were used to hard labour in the cane fields had little time for this young brat who’d never done a hard day’s work in his life.

So he picked up a machete and laboured alongside them.  He came home with the palms of his hands shredded to ribbons, but in engaging in their world, taking on their hard labour, he earned the respect of the men, and the right to be taken seriously.

Paul’s saying it’s the same with mission.  Meet people where they are, engage with them on their terms, if you actually want to build meaningful relationship (because it’s in genuine relationship that people will come to know something of Christ, through you).

This is what has often been described as an incarnational approach to being the church.  The idea is that just as God the Son left the throne of heaven, emptied himself, and entered into human life for our sake – in the incarnation – that’s our model for how to engage with others too.  That we should be prepared to set aside our preferences, and enter into the life of others for their sake.  That Jesus, in his very life, gives us the model for how to live in a world which is different to us, but in whose flourishing we have a loving interest.

Now this is not the only way to think about mission, and it’s not the only thing we need to bear in mind as we go.  There’s no point, for example, identifying with others so thoroughly that we lose our authentic identity as people shaped by Christ.  But it is an important principle that reminds us where the obligation lies, on the divide between Christians and non-Christians; the obligation lies with us.  It’s our job to build that bridge, make those connections, nurture relationships.  It’s our job to be intentional about that.

This particular moment in the life of our society brings us both challenges and opportunities in that regard.  On the one hand, at a time when so many of our connections and relationships are already disrupted, the ways which would normally be open to us might not be there (and our resourcefulness and resilience might already be experiencing a level of demand just to cope with everyday life!)  But on the other hand, this is a time when people are receptive to creativity, to doing things in new ways, and grateful for any moment of human connection.  And modern technology has made that easier than it has ever been.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers, or a template for perfectly effective mission in Williamstown under stage four restrictions!  But I hope I’ve helped you catch a little of the dynamism, the enthusiasm, and the care behind Paul’s words, and how those might be a positive inspiration for us today.

Some musings on the book of Job

So this semester, due to pandemic shutdown, disrupted work, and all the rest of it, I’ll be keeping my mind busy by auditing a unit on the wisdom literature of the Scriptures; and as preparation for it, I’m re-reading the book of Job.  I’m 13 chapters in, so far (just under a third of the way through the book), and although I’ve read it before, this time I’m definitely noticing some new things.

One thing which really struck me, and which I thought others might find worth thinking about too, is something difficult to put into words about the dynamics of speaking, listening, silence, and power.

What I mean by that, (and maybe this is not surprising for a book which is mostly dialogue, but bear with me), is that the power relationships of the book – between God, Satan, Job, Job’s wife and friends, and at least implicitly, Job’s wider community – are illustrated by things like who initiates dialogue; who gets to speak, and to whom, and whose speech gets reported; who chooses silence as a mode of expression and who is silenced; who listens, who is listened to, who is held up as worth listening to, and whose words are rejected.  As I read these early chapters, words about speaking. listening, and silence jumped out at me over and over again, and showed me in various ways how the different characters understand and navigate their social world (into which we might include God and other supernatural beings).

I am not sure that what I have noticed here is particularly groundbreaking (although I don’t recall ever reading any work on Job which noted it, either), but I wonder how it relates both to issues in my own personal life, and more broadly to our current times?

Is it any coincidence that I am noticing these dynamics in the book of Job, in a time where I have just left a parish where the dynamics of speech, silence and power were at times significantly dysfunctional, and I am still processing all of those experiences?  Perhaps not.

But also, what might we learn from reflecting on these dialogues, and their power dynamics, in a world brought to its knees by a pandemic, with many people more isolated and in many cases, more disempowered than ever?  When the only way many of us have to connect with others is speech at a distance, what might this suggest to us about how we invite others into dialogue, whom we invite, and how that dialogue plays out?  Where silence is actually the most healing response, and where silence is a wound?  How we make space for the voices otherwise drowned out or not heard?

I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but certainly reading this text alongside experiencing the pandemic is enriching the questions for me.  I would be fascinated to know what others think, though, so by all means, please consider yourself invited to share your thoughts in the comments!

 

In a mood

So, due to a complicated intersection of causes (the pandemic not being the least of those), I have just finished my time in one parish, and won’t start in another until the 1st of November.  In between, I anticipate some locum work, some professional development, some intentional decluttering and sorting before moving house, and some time to focus on my own needs as a person.  I anticipate it being a rich, and perhaps rather strange, four and a half months.

I decided that one thing I definitely didn’t want was to waste that time; to look back at the end of it and wonder where it had all gone, and what better use I might have put it to.  So, to capture some of that intention, and my own sense of what I wanted this time to be about, I created a mood board (see attached image) for ongoing inspiration.

I’m curious, though; I know what I wanted to capture, but when you look at it, what strikes you?  What “mood” does it convey?  How much is lost in translation?

Does it really matter, if I’ve only made it for myself?

 

Refuge

Asking questions of Psalm 46.

God is our refuge.

At first blush it seems comforting,
a promise of safety, security, protection.

But at second glance,
there’s something darker hinted at.

Refuge from what?

What threatens our safety, security?
What is it that we’re being protected from?

What’s the thing out there
that apparently provokes us
to need a refuge?

Is it refuge I need,
or is it inspiration to look out
with eyes seeking wonders
and hands ready to reach
for my neighbour
not in fear, but in invitation?

The direction of service

During the pandemic shutdown, I have been livestreaming morning prayer on Facebook, and as part of that offering a short reflection on the readings for the day.  Last Thursday someone asked me for a written copy of the reflection, so I transcribed it for her, and thought I might as well share it here, too!


Reflection: Morning Prayer, Thursday 14th May 2020

Numbers 16:1-19, John 13:1-11

Well, here we have, by the coincidence of where we’re up to in each of these books, two reflections this morning on leadership.  In the first reading, we hear disputes about religious leadership in the Israelite community en route to the holy land.  You know, who’s holy, who gets to be close to God, who gets to make decisions, who has authority?And of course, in the gospel reading, we hear Jesus showing that leadership that God authorises is always shown in service.

But this is a tricky thing, though; because on the one hand, it’s absolutely right that our leaders are not meant to lord it over us.  But there is a temptation, I think, that some of us, and sometimes church communities, fall into.  Of thinking that because our leaders are meant to serve – and they are meant to serve – that that means that they should do what we want.

But Jesus wasn’t doing what Simon Peter wanted.  Jesus certainly wasn’t doing what Judas wanted.  Jesus in his actions in today’s reading, and in all of his ministry, was not kind of held captive in his leadership – in his service – to fulfilling other people’s agendas; but he had always a vision of what the community of his disciples was supposed to be.  And his service was expressed in helping them grow into and fulfill that vision.

And this is where the tricky balance in Christian leadership lies.  Because it is service.  It’s never about the person in leadership.  It’s never about lording it over other people.  But it’s also not just about keeping people happy; it’s about pointing to the vision from God about who we are meant to be, and what we are meant to do; and our service is in encouraging and equipping our communities to fulfill that vision of God.

So, you know, there are challenges there, to us; challenges to humility, challenges to obedience, challenges to a vision that’s bigger than ourselves; but hopefully challenges we can rise to.

Meaning, suffering and justice

This is a sermon for the sixth Sunday of Easter, given as part of a recorded service.  The Scripture it reflects on is 1 Peter 3:8-22.

I don’t know about you, but I have something of a problem with the themes of the readings we’ve been having from First Peter for the last couple of weeks.  Last week we had the submission of slaves to their masters; (I notice that the lectionary left the similar bit about wives and husbands out altogether), and this week we have more waxing lyrical on the blessedness of suffering; and Peter does seem to have in mind the kind of suffering that happens because of the oppressiveness of others.

On the one hand, Peter is making at least a couple of important points; that a Christian who suffers always knows that the blessedness they have in Christ is bigger than the current circumstances in which they are suffering.  And that faithfulness in suffering is part of God’s redemptive purposes for the world.

But.  But.  But it’s bothering me that whether it’s slavery or patriarchy or any form of evil or abuse, Peter doesn’t seem to question its existence at all.  It’s one thing to find meaning in suffering, but where is the cry for justice?  Justice is such a prominent theme in the Scriptures, from Genesis right through to the epistles, but Peter never mentions it here, and he seems not to be troubled by how questions of justice might relate to the suffering of first-century Christians.

If all Christians down the centuries had taken Peter’s exhortation to meek suffering to heart, absent other themes in Scripture, we might have had no democracy, no campaign against slavery, no civil rights movement, no end to apartheid, no rights for women, no push for social welfare, and so on.  We might well have been living in a much more brutal, harsh and oppressive world.  And texts like these have often been used to argue against exactly those kinds of changes as unchristian or unbiblical.

So there’s the tension.  On the one hand, we can find consolation and meaning when we experience suffering.  On the other hand, there’s the question of how much we should let that encourage us to accept the status quo, or lull us into being uncritical of the social structures which might be creating and perpetuating suffering.

How do we resolve that tension?

I wonder whether it might be helpful for us to reflect on the dynamics of power involved.  Peter was writing, by and large, to people deprived of power.  Whether slaves (or wives, who were basically property anyway), or people who inhabited a civic system which did not give them a voice or a chance to participate, most of the first readers of this letter would not have had much power to change things.  They were subjugated, and death hung always over their heads as the ultimate threat of retaliation, if they got too far out of line.

But justice, in Scriptural terms, is about how we use the power we have to do good, to benefit others and our community.  There’s little point, talking to someone who has little power in their circumstances, and exhorting them to work for justice; and perhaps that’s why Peter is silent about it.

But then, that’s also where Peter’s comparison of the suffering Christian to Christ himself finds its limit; because Christ was – is – not powerless.  Christ chose the course of action – and the course of suffering – that he did, as a way of using his power for good; as part of a commitment to justice.

Choosing to suffer in order to bring about a good outcome, is not quite the same thing as having suffering imposed on you by the choices of others.

Perhaps Peter is silent about how his readers should use their power for good because they had little power in the first place; but that doesn’t mean we need to accept what he writes as a script for us when we do have power.  This is not a call to relinquishing any effort to improve our situation, or the situation of those who have less power than we do.  In so many ways, each of us today has so much more power – more ability to influence minds and hearts and shape our social landscape – than any of our first-century forebears did.

So if our focus is on using our power for good, on seeking justice in the face of unjust suffering, do we then have any use left for Peter’s declaration of blessedness in suffering?  I think we do, because the path of the activist is not without its own suffering.  But in that case, we can see ourselves as being like Christ, not only in suffering as he did, but as uniting our efforts with his; knowing ourselves to be working towards the same purposes of human flourishing.  Knowing that in pursuing justice we are carrying out part of his mission, setting to rights what has become twisted in our social fabric.

And in that way, we may find ourselves much more Christ-like than if we simply passively accept suffering (our own or others’) as an inevitable part of the way things are.

(Dis)comfort

This is a short homily given as part of a recorded/online service for the fourth Sunday of Easter.  The Scripture it reflects on is the 23rd Psalm.

Today our readings take us into some of the most familiar places in Scripture.  Jesus as the good shepherd, or the words of Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd…”  These texts are old friends for many of us, with images and expressions which have accompanied us through life in all its ups and downs.

Maybe they’re good texts for what’s starting to feel like the billionth Sunday in shutdown, a distinct liturgical season with a flavour all its own.

But while there’s comfort In the familiar, there is also – especially with Scripture – always an invitation to go deeper, too.

What particularly caught my eye today was verse four of the Psalm: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for you are with me, your rod and your staff comfort me.”

These words speak of the comfort of the familiar, too; God’s presence here is that of a well-known, loved and trusted shepherd.  But there is a tension here between comfort and discomfort; because that comforting presence is being experienced in the valley of the shadow of death; and whether that valley is one of illness or injury or despair (or something else; we don’t really know), it’s clearly neither a comfortable nor a comforting place.

So the God the Psalmist experiences is the shepherd who offers comfort in the midst of discomfort and danger.

And that prompts two thoughts for me, which may or may not be helpful to you, as we walk through the valley of the shadow of coronavirus.  One is that this comfort is available to us, too.  God is with us, and provides us the means of both guidance and safety (what the rod and staff of the shepherd represent).  This is not a trivial thing.  In times when the whole world is being shaken, relationships, lives and livelihoods disrupted, and our entire social fabric tested and strained, that God is with us is a very profound thing indeed.  We are not alone.

But the second thing to bear in mind is that God being with us Is not about taking us out of whatever valley and shadows we travel through.  The walk is what it is, and though we don’t walk it alone, walk it we must.  God’s answer is not to remove the source of discomfort, not to restore “normality” (whatever that is), and not to shield us from all that is going on.

God offers us comfort so that we might be encouraged, find hope and joy and resilience.  God strengthens us to walk through the valley.  Indeed, God is up to good things – at work bringing that fulness of life that Jesus talked about in the gospel reading – and expecting us to be on the look out for opportunities to participate in that work.  After all, we are not alone in this valley of pandemic, but there are other travellers to whom we might reach out, offering them comfort and encouragement and hope.

What I am suggesting is that if we reflect on our current experience in light of this Psalm, we can look and listen for God with confidence that God is with us, and caring for us.  But also that our expectation of what the fruits of that might be, and the orientation of our prayers and actions, might not be to try to escape our situation, but to more deeply engage with the reality of it.

Every valley – and every pandemic – has an end.  We will get there.  But in the meantime, let’s try to live faithfully in the tension between comfort and discomfort.  Let’s respond to the presence of God by making ourselves available to God, and God’s purposes, in turn; each as fully and as faithfully as we can.

Strange times

This is a sermon given on the last morning before suspension of all regular services of public worship in this diocese, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

What a strange time we are living in.

I know that – like many of our fellow Australians, and indeed people around the world – many of you are anxious, feeling overwhelmed and helpless, and not knowing how to respond to what is happening.

I know also that the decision to make today the last day of services of public worship in the Anglican diocese of Melbourne, for the foreseeable future, will also be greeted with mixed emotions.  Betrayal, anger, grief, loss, fear and relief are all in the mix, and no doubt other emotions too.

And we’re about to embark on an experiment in church as we, personally, have never known it before.

But what I want to say to you this morning is that suspending services is not closing the church, much less ceasing to be the church.  We are the church, and we will continue to be the church even when we don’t gather in quite this way.

Being the church doesn’t depend on having a building, regular service times, liturgy and hymns and all the rest.  Being the church means being a people who worship God, who love and care for one another, and who reach out to the community around us to share the good news and serve them in their time of need.

Being the church means being a people of faith and joy and peace, no matter what the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

Being the church, above all, means being a people who show others the possibility of a God who loves them, often done best through the way that we love them.

And what we’re doing now – choosing, for a time, not to gather in this particular way – is an act of exactly that kind of love.  It is an act which says to the elderly folks around us (and amongst us), the immunocompromised, the asthmatics, and everyone whose life would be at risk if they get this virus, that we are putting their welfare above our own preferences.  That we will sacrifice our favoured form of worship to lower their risk of dying.

It’s a gift to our community; a costly, sacrificial gift; and it points to the character of the God we worship, who gave his life for ours in costly, sacrificial gift.

It is, then, authentic to who we are as the church, a people of love, of care, and of service, that we forego gathering together for a time.

That doesn’t mean we don’t connect with one another (and we’re fortunate to live in a time when technology gives us more options than ever before, in that regard).  It doesn’t mean we don’t pray, and read and meditate on Scripture (you’re not off the hook about that!).  And it doesn’t mean we don’t celebrate the sacraments; I anticipate a great many home communions over days and weeks to come.

In many ways, we’re peeling back the layers of centuries of church life and rediscovering something of what it might have been like in the early church, before there were buildings and public worship services and all the rest.  And we know just what a huge impact that early church had on their society!

These are strange times.  But we can face them with confidence in God’s love, and with certainty that God is not going to leave us alone over coming weeks, but will be with us to encourage, to inspire, and to care for each of us, and for all of us together.

The Lord be with you.