Patterns and habits

This is a sermon for the tenth Sunday after Pentecost, given in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is Hosea 1:2-10, which refers to events recorded in 2 Kings 9 and 10.

Well, last week we looked at the psalm and some of the words there which had to do with God’s judgement, and this week, quite by chance, we have a reading from Hosea which also deals with judgement, from a slightly different point of view.  And it seemed to me to be a good opportunity – having had the chance last week to say some things about what we don’t do with judgement – to this week have a look at how passages like this might make a positive contribution to how we understand our faith.

And with that in mind, I particularly wanted to look at the name of Hosea’s first son, and what God is indicating in his instructions to the prophet.

So the Lord said to Hosea, “Name him Jezreel; for in a little while I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel.  On that day I will break the bow of Israel in the valley of Jezreel.”

Now this refers back to events recorded in the second book of Kings, and it took me a bit of digging around to feel that I really understood what God (through Hosea) was on about here, but I think the line of logic goes a bit like this.

In Kings, the story goes that Jehu, a commander of the army, was appointed by the prophet Elisha as king over Israel, and given the task of punishing the household of the wicked king Ahab and his wife, Jezebel.  So Jehu went on to slaughter the current king (Ahab’s son), Jezebel, (Ahab’s widow), and all seventy of Ahab’s children, his leaders, close friends, and priests.  And Jehu ascended the throne.

So far, it’s a little confusing.  After all, Jehu was brutal, but it was apparently a brutality God encouraged him to.  So why is Hosea so upset about it, quite a long time later?

It turns out that whatever pious justification Jehu might have had for his actions, what followed after him was a plotline worthy of Game of Thrones, with a line of kings who, one after the other, were assassinated; Shallum killed Zechariah for the throne, Menahem killed Shallum, Pekah killed Pekahiah, and so on… and each succeeding king was brutal; the records in Kings mention cities being sacked, pregnant women being ripped open, oppressive taxes, and so on.

The leaders of Israel, the royalty and the commanders of the armies who fought over the throne, had no prophets telling them to do this (at least in the records we have).  They had no justification for their behaviour.  They were out for power and wealth, and were happy to have it at any cost.

So then we get down to Hosea’s day, and by this time this civil war and assassination have become a way of life.  The current king had assassinated the previous king in his rise to power.  The land had no stability, no peace, no confidence in its leaders, no safety.

And this is the context in which Hosea – at the Lord’s instruction – names his firstborn son “Jezreel,” harking back to that first rebellion and assassination of a king, and the beginning of a pattern that the Lord here makes clear he finds unacceptable; indeed, a pattern that the Lord intends to break.  The name “Jezreel” stands as a warning for that judgement.

Hosea’s rhetoric and his symbolic actions (in taking a prostitute for a wife, and so on), are designed to remind the people that the behaviour that has become normal to them, is in fact not consistent with who God would have them be; not consistent with their best and deepest and truest selves as the people of God.  They had forgotten about God’s faithful love and instead borrowed standards and behaviours from the cultures around them, allowing those cultures to shape who they were in devastating ways.

And this is, I think, where the message of Hosea can become a useful prompt for reflection for us today.

Because while we have the great good fortune – although we might sometimes doubt it – of living in a fairly stable democracy, we always have the challenge of whether our behaviours and attitudes are really being formed by what we know of God’s character, or by whichever way the wind is blowing in the culture around us.

Because if we really understand God’s character, that understanding can be for us hope, confidence and motivation.  If we really understand God’s faithfulness, for example, we can read God’s promises of a blessed future and find there a sustaining vision which will give us the energy to make the changes in our own lives, which will help us to more live more faithfully in line with that vision.

If we really understand God’s faithfulness, we will reject any lack of faithfulness in our own hearts; any lack of commitment to this community – or the wider church – as the cradle of the future.  If we really understand God’s faithfulness, the church cannot be the arena in which we gratify our own egos or pursue our own agendas, instead becoming what St. John called “co-workers with the truth.”

“Co-workers with the truth” has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?  Could we adopt it as a motto of sorts, do you think?

Or if we really understand God’s justice, we will look at the world with eyes always ready to see when power is out of balance, and to lift the burdens of the oppressed.  Let me tell you that we are not good at this; we only need to look at what the church does to those who have been abused by clergy, in terms of processes and trials and psychological assessments and all of that, to know that even within our own institution we have not yet begun to really know or live out justice, even in what seems like the most basic and obvious of cases.  We have a long way to go before we can consider ourselves agents of justice with any integrity.

And it’s worth asking ourselves, even at the parish level, what can be done about that.

Or if we really understood God’s mercy, we would look at the world with eyes always quick to search out suffering in others, and willing to do whatever we can to make a difference.  This can seem overwhelming because we know that none of us has the resources to change the world on our own; but each of us is one part of a social and community network which can draw on enormous resources to respond to human need.  And yet so often we are not even conscious of where those connections are.

I’ve talked about faithfulness, justice, and mercy, and we could keep going indefinitely, reflecting on the various character attributes of God; but mercifully for you, perhaps, this sermon is probably long enough.  But you take my point; in God’s character, said Hosea, we find those virtues which ought to shape our own hearts and way of life.  That’s Hosea’s antidote to a country torn apart by ambition and war; and it’s a timeless prescription for those of us who live as part of a community of faith, in a wider social context which does not know God.






Of hope and healing

This is a sermon for the ninth Sunday after Pentecost, given in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is Psalm 52, which refers to events recorded in 1 Samuel 21 and 22.

I wonder, as we read the psalm this morning, which side of the dialogue you identified with more?

Is that a strange question?  Should I assume that we all wake up bright and cheery in the morning and burst out of bed like a green olive tree?  (I hate to tell you, but that’s really not me…)

But the thing is, I’ve been around churches long enough to know that some of us come here, when we gather, not feeling joyful and full of beans, but perhaps relating more to the images of being broken and uprooted.

And so when I saw these images side by side for this morning I wanted to have a look at them and think about what they do mean, and, more importantly perhaps, some of what they definitely don’t mean.

Bear with me, because the first thing I have to point out is that being broken down, in this psalm, is about judgement.  “God will break you down for ever…” and so forth.  But that does not mean – I really can’t say this strongly enough – that does not mean that all human brokenness is about judgement.  People who experience brokenness because of illness, or trauma, or abuse, or grief, or any other of life’s circumstances, are not there because God is punishing them or judging them; not because of their sin or inadequacy or worthlessness.  The last thing people who are suffering need is to be blamed for their own circumstances.

I need to say that so strongly because I know that so often even very well meaning Christians give out that impression, or say thoughtless things along those lines.  And not only are those messages profoundly damaging, but they get in the way of what passages like this can helpfully say to us.

In the psalm, David was venting about a man whose actions, as they’re recorded for us in Scripture, were pretty evil.  He destroyed a whole town, men, women, children and animals, including eighty-five faithful priests of God.  But the mistake we all too often make is to then take these words – and other words like them – and assume that therefore, wherever there is suffering, it must be a consequence of wrongdoing.

Of course it’s an attractive illusion.  If I can convince myself that someone else is suffering because of something that is her fault, then I can reassure myself that since, I, naturally, am not guilty of the same things, I am safe from the same judgement.

But when we think in this way, we lose sight of those other important Scriptures – like Job and Ecclesiastes – which remind us that life is never that neat and simple.  That bad things do happen for no apparent reason.  With that ambiguity in mind, then, we can ponder the idea that our relationship with suffering isn’t certain or clearly defined, but rather one in which we have to think about and discern the meaning of our life and experiences on an individual basis.  It’s harder work, yes, but perhaps more honest than trying to shove everything into one category of understanding.

There are some important things about the idea of God’s judgement which we do need to hold on to.  We do need to recognise that God wants us to be “good,” (although what that means is beyond the scope of this sermon).  We do need to recognise that we can do things which are wrong, or evil or stupid, and which can cause suffering.  Cause and effect is a pretty basic principle of the universe.  We do need to recognise that when we get it wrong, God does want to reach into that situation, to judge what is wrong, to break apart any hold that evil has on us, and to realign and reset us in a new position (just as sometimes a bone needs to be broken again before it can be set in the right way for proper healing).

That’s important stuff.  I don’t want to sound like I’m not actually taking judgement seriously, because I do.  But what I want to put in front of you most strongly today is the idea that when we encounter someone who is suffering, and we tell them that it is their fault in some way, we are putting a meaning to their situation which may not be true, and which will almost certainly not be helpful.  Telling someone else that God has caused their suffering directly as punishment is seldom going to help them in finding the beginnings of a healthier relationship with God (and don’t we all need a healthier relationship with God?)

Because just like a doctor who breaks a bone to reset it, we should never see God’s judgement as being separate from loving concern.  There are deep, deep lies that our world tells us; lies that God does not love us, that God will not love us unless we are perfect, or at least doing our very level best to be perfect.

Except that’s not what Christ’s life and death show us, is it?  Christ didn’t come to a world of perfect human beings.  He didn’t even choose perfect disciples.  He certainly doesn’t have perfect clergy today.  But he loved us enough to seek to set us right anyway.  All the tyrants he encountered, the disciple who denied him and the disciple who betrayed him, and each of us… his love, and his merciful willingness to set us right, don’t depend on how good we are first.  And praise God for that!

So what do we do with this?  The task, as I see it, is first to be honest.  To name our pains correctly and listen with an open mind when others do the same.  To discern the structures, the practices and even the ideas about God which push us away from our own well being; away from the house of God, as the psalmist put it.  And when we encounter suffering, looking for what can be set right, rather than where we can assign blame.

At the end of the day, a psalm like this one can’t present us with neat answers, good guys and bad guys, black and white, because our own experience of life tells us that that isn’t the truth – or at least the whole truth – of our own situations.  Instead the psalm can only open up questions which invite us to explore our own reality more deeply.

The thing about refusing to respond to other people’s brokenness with blame, is that it creates room for us to hope instead.  It’s in the context of human brokenness that Scripture has given us some of the most powerful symbols of hope in the Christian imagination; the leaven that raises the whole lump; the faithful remnant; the suffering servant; the new growth on the tree.  These symbols invite us to hope, even when we encounter brokenness.

And hope means more than just wishing that things will turn out alright, in the end.  It means grasping a vision of what could be, and making a personal decision about the part we mean to play in it.  One English theologian put it like this: ‘There is dissonance in the universe, but if I strike the right note it becomes harmony and reconciliation – and though they may kill me for it they cannot spoil that harmony.’

They killed Christ for it, of course; but they did not break the harmony that he brought.  It’s up to us to keep the song of hope and healing going.

On being worthy

This reflection was given during the daily Eucharist in the chapel of an Anglican convent.  The Scripture it references is Matthew 10:1-15.

“If the house is worthy…”

In giving his instructions to his disciples as they set out on their mission, Jesus tells them to find a worthy household as their base of operations in each town.  And he has some pretty harsh words for houses or towns that are not worthy!

I wonder if you’ve ever asked yourself what makes a worthy household – or whether your household is worthy?

If you asked my mother, she might say something about housekeeping standards (according to her, I fail dismally), but I rather suspect something else might be going on.

The word here that means “worthy” comes from the marketplace; it’s the word for something which is substantial enough to tip the balance in a scale.  It means something that has weight or gravitas.  We might go so far as to say that Jesus is talking here about a household which is serious.

It suggests that a “worthy” household – a substantial or serious household – is somehow more likely to be a place where the gospel is well received, and people are likely to respond to God.  Which says to me that it’s not about social worth or substance; it’s not about money or having a McMansion, but about the hearts and attitudes of the people who live there.

Do we cultivate a heart which is serious about what is good?  A mind which is well-equipped to take on substantial teaching?  An attitude which is truly worthy of what Jesus puts in front of us?

Questions I leave for you to ponder.

Genius, or madness?

So as Australia waits to see what gifts this last election has given us, I’ve been pondering political process, its strengths and weaknesses.

Today I had a bit of a brainwave.  What if, just as researchers are required to submit their proposed research to an ethics committee for approval, legislators were required to submit proposed legislation to an ethics committee before it could be introduced into parliament?

After all, isn’t legislation which governs the lives of all Australians more important than a PhD on some obscure topic which will mostly collect dust in some library’s stacks?

Of course, one could argue about the composition and the guidelines for such a committee.  But given that they function well in other spheres, it shouldn’t be that hard to do.

What do you think?

Saints Peter and Paul, Apostles and Martyrs

This reflection was given during the Eucharist at a local retirement village and nursing home.  The Scripture it references is Acts 15:1-21.

Today’s reading puts before us Luke’s account of one of the very important decisions of the early church; where it was agreed that the Jewish law was not binding on the gentile Christians.

While that’s a very important decision and there are lots of things one might say about it, the aspect I want to draw out today is the part played by different people in arriving in that decision.  Paul, Barnabas, Peter and James are all recorded as having had things to say, and as agreeing to the decision as it was eventually made.

The story doesn’t end there, of course, and in his letter to the Galatians Paul complains that Peter has not always acted in accordance with this decision.  And it’s interesting too that in today’s passage Peter claims to be the apostle to the gentiles, and in his letters, Paul thinks that Peter ought to be a leader of the Jewish Christians and leave the gentiles to Paul.  Clearly their relationship was complex.

And yet today the church has set aside as a memorial of both of them, together; Saints Peter and Paul, Apostles and Martyrs.  Even though they disagreed, and obviously fairly bitterly at times, the church has set them side by side as examples for us of how to live the faith; and ultimately, how to die for it.

And the conclusion I draw from that, is that disagreement amongst Christians is not a disaster.  It is not necessarily a sign that one is more faithful to God than the other.  Rather, the rich variety of the people of God might be God’s gift to us, as we each contribute to the kingdom of God in our own ways.

This gives me the freedom to pursue my own path with integrity, without necessarily needing to condemn others as wrong.

So what do we do with that?  We celebrate diversity in the Christian life.  We give one another permission and encouragement to be each who God has created, gifted and called us to be, even when that’s very different for some of us than for others.  We work to preserve and learn from the distinctive insights, traditions and practices which have come down to us from generations past.  That’s how we can remember and honour Saints Peter and Paul, two very different men who each nonetheless contributed indispensably to the foundations of the church.

Slaves to one another

This is a sermon for the sixth Sunday after Pentecost, given in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is Galatians 5:1, 13-25.

Paul wrote: “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.”

There’s a challenging instruction.  Shall we set up a bit of an auction block in the narthex after the service?  How much do you think I would fetch on the open market?

Is that a confronting question?  If it is, maybe it’s because we’ve become so used to the language of the New Testament that we’ve forgotten how confronting some of its phrases would have been to their original hearers.  Become slaves… become property… lose all standing in society, as well as any protection against exploitation.  Have your will bound by law to that of another person, so that you become powerless in your own life.

What is Paul really telling the churches in Galatia?

Slavery is a metaphor, here, of course.  Paul doesn’t mean that the Galatian Christians – or we – should become literal slaves.  But it means that looking at slavery as Paul understood it can tell us something about how Paul thought Christians ought to relate to one another.  It doesn’t tell us everything, but it is worth pausing to see what it does say.

I think the main point here is one of mutual service.  (And actually, to his original hearers, the idea that it was mutual would probably have been more shocking than the idea of slavery!)  That Paul is saying that our time, energy, and talents ought to be used not only or even mainly for our own ends, but for the good of one another.  I have to say that this is not something which I see as a particular weakness in this congregation.  The spirit of mutual care and love is real and expressed in so much of what you do.

But as I reflect on where the blocks to our giving ourselves to this demand more fully lie – and I fully include myself in this – it seems to me that it is often our families which compete for our attention.  In a society where very few people are part of a church alongside their spouse, children, siblings or other more distant relatives, instead of church being a natural widening of that circle of family, it’s become something that competes with it instead.  Shall I spend time with my daughter or visit a fellow-parishioner who is sick?

This isn’t something that has a simple solution, and I’m certainly not suggesting that we abandon our families.  But I do wonder whether, as our social patterns change, we need to revisit our assumptions about how church communities work, and how we shape our patterns of worship and community and family life?  Something worth thinking about together, at least.

The other aspect of the service of a slave is that it is non-judgmental, or perhaps I should say, unconditional.  The slave doesn’t serve only when he likes his master, or agrees with a course of action.  We aren’t bound to one another just in sunny times when it’s easy to get along.  But in Christ, we owe one another of our best even when we’d rather walk away.

So where do we go with this?  I think we need to look at the idea of our obligation to one another here alongside the idea – which Paul expresses in other places in his letters – that each of us is given gifts for the service of the church community.  It’s because God has given each of us something unique to contribute, so that the whole church can effectively share his love with the world, that we have an obligation not to leave that unexpressed.

As an aside, this is why I’m passionate about ministry not as something just left to professionals, but which belongs in a very real way to all of us as a community.  Because not only can I not do all the work myself, but because each of you will have something that you can bring which I can’t.  Some of us have more visible roles, but they’re not really more significant than any others.  And working together we can be far more than if we have a performer-and-audience model of ministry.  Paul asked in his first letter to the Corinthians, “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be?  If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?” But as it is, God has put all of us together with different strengths so that together we can be a well-functioning body.

I wonder if you’ve ever asked yourself what your unique gift for the church might be?  The New Testament mentions a huge variety of things which might be considered spiritual gifts; from administration to discernment, encouragement, giving, wisdom… and that’s just a small sample.  Which of them might belong to you?  And how might you use that here, in this community?

If you’re not sure, the best way to figure it out is to give a few different things a go and see what fits.  Maybe, if you’re not sure that you have any particular gift, or you’re not sure what it is, it’s time to try something new?

Now, none of this is meant to be a drudge, or a burden or a chore.  That’s why Paul wrote that it is through love that we become slaves to one another.  When you’re passionate about something, you want to give it your all.  When you really care about someone, your heart will break at their need.  We’re not being asked to fake it, but to let God help us find that depth of love within ourselves.

But to come back to the metaphor of slavery… I wonder what would happen if each of us set ourselves the challenge of finding, say, one thing to do each week, no matter how small, which in some way expressed God’s love for someone else in this parish?  If you keep a journal, and you took on a challenge like that, what you would find is that a sequence of very small acts of love, over time, added up to a significant pattern of making a difference.

Through love become slaves to one another.  I leave it with you to think about.




Christ triumphant

This is a sermon for the fifth Sunday after Pentecost, given in the “church up the road” and the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is Luke 8:26-39.

Feeling comfortable with that gospel reading?  Even more than other categories of Jesus’ miracles, stories of exorcisms can leave us feeling uneasy; what was really going on?  What are demons, and how do they come to interact with human beings?  And to what extent is this kind of encounter with them unique to Jesus, and how much should we consider them relevant to our own context?

Although the story in the gospel can shape our thinking on this, it’s probably fair to say that we are not going to understand these things in the way that the earliest Christians did.  A quick trip to a mental health ward will tell you that, because you will – I speak from experience – meet people there convinced of demonic involvement in their lives, who have very thick medical files documenting the physical nature of their illness.  We can’t turn back the clock on our thinking and see demons in a simple or naïve way.

But I also remember that when I was in college, one of our lecturers once talked to us about the things he wished people had told him when he was in college.  And one of his comments was that he wished college had prepared him for the first time he would be called on to be involved in deliverance ministry.  When I talk to older and more senior clergy, many of them have stories of encounters with things which are not easily reduced to or explained away in scientific terms.  This strand of Christian experience can’t be dismissed with the simple idea that “we know better now.”

The ancient world understood the spiritual powers – angels, demons and the like – as non-material, invisible, heavenly entities with specific characteristics or qualities.  These are all the good creations of a good God, but some of them have “fallen,” becoming more or less evil in intent, and may even be set on the destruction of humanity.

And this reminds us that the question of exorcism is really tied in to the bigger idea of what the charismatics call “spiritual warfare.”  The idea that while God is at work in the world, bringing about God’s purposes, and will ultimately triumph, there is also evil at work in the world, in various ways (not just or perhaps even primarily through possession but also perhaps involved in the oppressive forces in the world, in spiritual deception, and so on).  You can go to quite unhealthy places with that, and I’m not going to encourage you to start checking under the bed for demons.

But I’d say that it’s a concept, again, that we probably can’t dismiss out of hand as having no use in explaining how we experience the world.  Some scholars have suggested that it is better, in our own context, rather than thinking of quasi-magical beings, to understand demons and the like as the inner aspect of material or tangible manifestations of power working for evil.  In that way, we can also understand what is sometimes called “Satan” as the actual power that congeals around collective idolatry, injustice, or inhumanity; and I’d suggest that’s not a bad starting point.

So what can we usefully say about this encounter between Jesus and demons?  It is a dramatic presentation of a personal confrontation between God and evil, as it was understood in the culture of the day.  You see, exorcism actually wasn’t unusual in Jesus’ day; or for many centuries before and after it.  But in general, an exorcist used to call upon a higher power – usually his god or an angel or the like – to subdue the demon.  What was unique in Jesus’ exorcisms is that he doesn’t need to do that; he is the higher power, present to and standing to confront evil in his own being.  And the demon recognized it too; the demon had cried out to him as “Son of the Most High God”!

And something else I think it’s helpful for us to recognize here is Jesus’ compassion for the man in front of him.  The gospel describes his wretchedness; naked, living among the tombs, bound with chains and so on; but Jesus met him and loved him enough to want to remedy the cause of this wretchedness.

And if we take that concept and entertain it for a while, we can see that for a Christian, what is important is to be in some way present to Jesus, if we hope to find whatever evil we do confront overcome.  Whether that is through prayer, through the ministry of the Christian community, through being filled with the Holy Spirit, or in whatever way God may be present to us, it is through the presence and work of God that whatever is evil – whether we understand that in personal terms, as a demon, or in other terms – is transformed as we are brought closer to God, and God’s love for us is able to change us.

You see, we live in an in-between time.  If we want to use the imagery of battle, then the healings and exorcisms which Jesus did and which we have recorded in the gospels, are an open assault on evil, and an indication that the kingdom of God is winning.

Ultimately, Jesus, through his death on the cross and his resurrection, has brought about the final triumph of God over every form and manifestation of evil.  And yet that is still being worked out, and is not yet complete.  So we wait, and in the meantime, we still experience evil; but we do it in the full knowledge of the reality of God’s ultimate triumph.  That’s where our focus needs to be.  Because while we need to recognize evil in the world, we also need to be able to be part of God’s work in overcoming that evil, whether that is in individual people, or in institutions or social systems or cultures.  So we need to be a church of people who are confident of God’s victory in Christ, of God’s protection and his power, as we make that known outside these walls.

Paul put it this way:  “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Christ has fought and won the decisive victory over whatever may be that is evil.  Christ is triumphant and we, in union with Christ, share that triumph even while we wait for the final victory parade.

And that’s why gospel stories like this matter.  Because as we read them, they bolster that confidence, they help us to take shelter under that protection, and they help us to recognize the power of God when we see it at work in the world today.