A mistress of novices went to see her abbess, to discuss her concerns about a novice who was struggling.

As they walked through the convent garden, talking, the abbess picked a flower bud and handed it to the other nun, asking her to open it.  The blossom fell apart in her hands.

“Why,” the abbess asked, “does the bud fall apart when you try to open it, but when God opens it, the flower is beautiful?”

After walking in silence for a time, the mistress of novices replied, “When God opens the flower, He opens it up from the inside.”

This short story carries profound insights about human beings and how we change and grow.  Attempts to make us conform – to shape us using external forces – seldom work at anything more than the most superficial level.  On the other hand, transformation – change from the inside – happens all the time, but is less easy to see or control.

This is, I think the lesson we the Church need to learn.  We cannot control people into being Christians or even good people.  Our power used directly in that way is worse than useless; it results in broken people.

On the other hand, we cannot transform people from the inside ourselves.  We can only invite, provide opportunities and resources, and support people as they go through their own processes of transformation.  (In terms of the parable of the flower, we can make sure the person is in good soil, has water and sunlight and air, is protected from predators and in a suitable climate… but we cannot make them grow, or indeed, flower).

This calls for careful discernment about our use of power.

Are we attempting to open the flower, or giving it what it needs to open itself (when it is ready)?



The body in symphony

This is a sermon for the twelfth Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scripture it references is Romans 12:1-8.

I’d like to share with you part of my own story this morning.

I wasn’t raised going to church.  My parents were well and truly lapsed from any religious observance before I came along, and although they taught me to pray and read the Bible, that came with a fairly large dose of suspicion about church-as-institution.  So it was by no means a given that I would end up becoming part of a community of faith.  (I think sometimes my mother wonders what she did wrong…)

But what I found was that eventually I was restless for more; an undefined more; I couldn’t have told you what I wanted, but I felt that praying and reading the Bible on my own, while good, surely wasn’t all there was to living devoted to God.

And when I did start coming to church, let me tell you, it wasn’t at all easy!  We often underestimate how alienating our services can be to people who have never learned the language, the unspoken social expectations, or the shared assumptions which are taken for granted in church.  It was – and I say this as someone who’s done both – no less foreign than moving country.

But while that’s worth bearing in mind, it’s not really my main point.  The thing is, that with all the difficulties of church, I found something worth staying for.  I found that this group of people was able to be more together than we could have been if we’d been isolated from one another.  Together with others, I was able to learn more than I could teach myself, on my own.  Together with others, I could discover resources which would enrich my own pilgrimage.  Together with others, I could discover my own gifts, and be part of endeavours which were too big for any one person.  It was this experience, of being part of a community which was somehow more than the sum of its parts, which made me persevere despite the difficulty; and it’s also that experience which is at the heart of what being a priest is about, for me.

I see my job – at least in part – as being about creating an environment where we can be that kind of community.  Where each person can contribute, each person can benefit, and together we can be more than the sum of our parts, in pursuit of the reign of God.

And St. Paul saw the church in a similar way.  He talks about how the Spirit pours out a rich variety of gifts on us, so that we might all benefit from what each person brings.  Each of us, in our unique and particular mix of what we bring, our gifts, and personalities and experiences, makes the church what it is; and we are all diminished when one of us is removed.  It’s really not too much to say that each of us is God’s gift to all the rest, as we function together as one body, all supported by the whole.

And that’s why I chose the reading from Romans that we had this morning for my induction service when I started here.  Because when Paul said, “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness,” one of the things that that does is it immediately puts what I do in context.  I’m not the most important person in the church, or the one who makes all the decisions, or anything like that.  I’m one person who has a particular role, in a community of people who all have roles to play.  And it’s what all of us can be and do together that’s the important thing.

This vision of the church has implications for each one of us, and for how we work together.  It means that our identity as Christians isn’t an individual thing, it’s something that’s embedded in the Christian community; our identity is lodged in this network of relationships, and can’t be removed from it without damage.  We belong to one another in an incredibly profound way.

Lutheran theologian Marva Dawn, reflecting on this passage and her own experience as a teacher in the church, said this: “One of the most powerful reasons for our lack of gladness is that ours is a culture of solo efforts.  We live our Christian faith independently, not inextricably linked with other members of the body of believers.  Consequently, we do not experience the hilarity of being enfolded in a moment-by-moment awareness of the good news of our hope and life in Jesus Christ.  We don’t experience the support that true community engenders.  We aren’t set free to be truly ourselves in the stewardship of our Spirit-given grace-gifts.”*

What Marva Dawn describes as a “culture of solo efforts” is exactly what we have, and I have my own suspicions about how that contributes to workplace toxicity, to struggles with parenting, and to our society’s spiritual impoverishment.  But it is – as she points out – exactly the opposite of how the church is supposed to function.  In place of a culture of solo efforts, we ought to be building a culture of symphonic achievement.

So, as each person brings something unique and irreplaceable, each of us has a responsibility to work out what we do bring, and where it fits.  What are my gifts and talents?  What am I passionate about?  What does my personality make me well suited to?  And so forth.  And, going a step further, how does what I bring relate to the life and mission of this community as a whole?

Further than that, though, it means that we as a community have a responsibility to have a clear sense of purpose.  It means that we need to create goals around what we will do, and who we will be, to which each of us is committed.  It means our personal agendas can never be as important in the church as those shared goals.

Now this matter of shared goals is something which needs some work.  The parish has a mission action plan, but from what I can tell, while it’s a fine enough document as these things go, it hasn’t become the yardstick by which we measure what we put our time, energy and money into.  It hasn’t actually shaped our life together to any significant degree.  So we’re going to need to put some time and energy, over the next little while, into making sure that that plan is still a good summary of our aspirations, and then that how we work together actually goes towards achieving it.

It will require a certain amount of discipline from us; because while it can be exhilarating to recognise your gifts and really come alive with them, there’s also an accountability to one another if we’re going to work together rather than all follow our own enthusiasms in different directions.

But my experience suggests to me that in a society where people are now even more wary of institutional religion than I was raised to be, this might actually be one of the most significant things we have to offer those around us.  Many people in our society yearn to be part of something bigger than themselves; something which offers them a sense of purpose and a chance to do something worthwhile.  We can offer them that.  We can be a place where they can belong and make a difference.  But in order for that to be an appealing prospect, we need to really live it.  It needs to be clear to the people who walk through our doors for the first time, that as difficult as growing into a Christian might be, that it’s worth it for what you get to be part of.

And so this morning I commend to you Paul’s vision of the church as truly a body, of which we are all members, and the implications that has for who we are to be.

*This quote is taken from the book Truly the Community: Romans 12 and How to Be the Church, by Marva J. Dawn.



How big is your God?

This is a sermon for the eleventh Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scriptures it references are Isaiah 56:1, 6-8 and Matthew 15:21-28.

I wonder… how big is your God?

Is that a strange question?  After all, God isn’t made of stuff, as if we could measure or weigh it and come up with a number.

But I think it’s the key question both behind today’s gospel reading, and the reading from Isaiah.  Just how big is God, anyway?  Is there room for everyone in God’s household, or do we need to work out who’s in, and who’s out?

And that is, I think, the amazing thing about the Canaanite woman Jesus encountered.  She believed in a big God; big enough that she knew, even though she was despised in Jewish culture, that even she had a place in relationship to that God.  No wonder Jesus told her that “great is your faith!”

But I really want to spend more time this morning looking at how Isaiah deals with the same sorts of issues.

Isaiah – or at least, the part of Isaiah we read this morning – comes from a time when there seems to have been a shift happening in how the ancient Israelites thought about God.  In the earlier writings, they seem to have still believed that the gods of the other nations were somehow real.  So the Egyptians had their gods, and the Assyrians and so on; and the point of difference for Israel was that they had their own God, and refused to worship any of the others.  This is, strictly speaking, not real monotheism; they believed in many gods, but they only worshipped one.  (And this is why they had this problem of the worship of other gods creeping back into their society again and again; they still believed those gods were real, and might benefit them in some way).

But by the time this part of Isaiah was being written, there seems to have been growing acceptance of a new and radical idea; there really is only one God.  All the other gods are not real; delusions or fantasies or perhaps demonic deceptions, but not other entities who might make competing claims for our loyalty and worship.

The implications took time to work through, but they would challenge many Israelite ideas deeply; partly because now – if there really was only one God, creator of all that exists and sovereign over everything – that was a much bigger God than when they had understood their God to be one of many tribal deities.

After all, if there’s only one God, then that God has to be the God, not just for us and our tribe, but for everybody… and suddenly those who were outside God’s embrace are seen, potentially at least, as insiders, those who might worship alongside us.  God gets bigger; God’s household expands, and we need to become more generous with our thinking about who belongs.

And we can see exactly some of that sort of stuff being worked through in today’s reading.  Foreigners will join themselves to the Lord; they will hold fast to the covenant, they will be joyful in prayer to Israel’s God, their sacrifices will be accepted, and they will be gathered in.

It’s hard to over state how deeply shocking and confronting this would have been to people hearing it for the first time.  All of this is turning upside-down how people thought about their place in the world, in relationship with God.  God just got a lot bigger.

I should point out that although Christians would claim a relationship with this big God, we don’t do it on exactly the terms Isaiah puts forth here.  He only knows one way to be in relationship with God; to hold fast to the Jewish covenant.  And so his vision of what a bigger, more inclusive God might mean includes non-Jews who keep all the covenant laws, the sabbath regulations, and sacrifice at the temple.  We don’t do those things, because in Christ we’ve learned that God is big enough to be able to have more than one relationship at once; to keep his relationship with the Jews and also to have a relationship with non-Jews on different terms.  You could say that Christ gave us a bigger vision of God again.

But some things are constant.  We might not be obliged to keep sabbath, but the fundamental attributes of God which are mirrored in the lives of God’s worshippers belong to us, too.  So when Isaiah talks about the need to maintain justice and do what is right, we’re still part of that picture.

We often tend to think about these sorts of terms – justice and righteousness – in fairly forensic terms.  But we struggle to translate the Hebrew into English, and in the original they’re much richer than we our translations can easily convey.  Take the word for justice; in Hebrew it also means something like “exercising authority for good outcomes.”  Justice in this sense isn’t such an abstract thing, but the quality of how we use the power we have – and we all have power, whether we always recognise it or not – to achieve good things.

In a similar way, the word for righteousness, or doing what is right, isn’t just about playing within the rules (however we understand them).  It has a sense of relational loyalty and faithfulness; of giving of yourself to the full in your relationships.  Your relationship first with God, of course, but also those around you.

So together these two words – justice and righteousness – are about the quality and depth of our relationships, and about how we use what we have to work for good outcomes in our own families and wider society.  They’re very rich and warm terms, and it’s worth thinking about how we live them out.

But where is Isaiah going with all of this?  He puts in front of his people a vision of a bigger God – not just one God among many, but the only God who exists – and draws out the implication that therefore, that God is for everybody; that God will accept and gather in the foreigners and the outcasts, and integrate them into the people who know, love and worship the one real God.

And the point of all of this is that it points to a future full of hope.  If this good God is God for everyone, if even the foreigners – who are generally, in Israel’s experience, brutal, oppressive and depraved – can come to know God, and be bound together in relationships characterised by justice and righteousness, then the ultimate outcome of all of this will be the transformation of the nations.  Those powerful external forces which Israel knows as enemies will become partners in worship and service of God, and their national character will also come to reflect what is best about God.

We realise that we won’t know the fulness of that transformation until the end times, when earth will be entirely renewed and all evil removed.  But in the meantime, glimpses of that are possible.

And it suggests to us that we should take up Isaiah’s challenge to see that we have a big God; a God big enough that – potentially at least – nobody need be outside relationship with Him.  It calls into question all of our categories, all of our tendencies to play games of “us and them,” of insiders and outsiders; of those who belong, and those who do not; and to accept everybody as being – potentially at least – part of this vision of a transformed world.

So that’s Isaiah’s challenge to us today; how big is your God?  And does your vision need expanding?


This is a sermon for the feast of the transfiguration.  The Scripture it references is Mark 9:2-10.

I’d like to invite you, this morning, to pause; to set aside whatever worries and concerns you have brought to church with you, and to come with me, in your imagination, up the mountain path with Peter and James and John, following Jesus. It’s a strange encounter, the transfiguration, out of the round of everyday life and events, and it invites us to stop and see what it might have to say to us.

The gospel account tells us what the disciples saw – that Jesus’ face changed, that his clothes became white, that he spoke with Moses and Elijah. But what do those things mean?

Mark’s account here is brief, but Luke fills in some of the blanks for us, and explains that this is all about glory.   Moses and Elijah appeared in glory; the disciples saw Jesus’ glory.  A quick Google search tells me that today, glory is a word mostly used about sport, and war; both contexts in which it is closely associated with winning; with coming out on top and triumphing over competitors or enemies.  God, who is without peer, has neither competitor nor enemy who is any threat to him; and he exists in a state of eternal glory, which is something which both Mark and Luke come back to, again and again, throughout their gospels.

Glory exists the gospels when people praise God, and when they experience the nearness of heaven (think of the shepherds in the fields at the time of Jesus’ birth, and how “the glory of the Lord shone around them”).  Glory is what we recognize as the power and the presence of God, both in its utterly holy otherness, and its intimate nearness to human life.

And that reality – the power and the presence of God – is what the disciples recognized on the mountain.  So this tells us again who Jesus is.  The power and presence of God shines out of the depths of his very flesh, reminding us that he is God, who, although he has chosen to humble himself and take on flesh, is not limited by it in the way that we are.

In the language and understanding of faith of the time, the events on the mountain claim an unmistakable divine identity for Jesus, which lays the foundation for understanding the events of his suffering and death.

More than that, though, the transfiguration looks beyond Jesus’ death and resurrection, to the future.  The glory which shone out of Jesus on the mountain is the glory which we will most fully know in God’s future; in the banquet at the end of time, and the establishment of perfect peace and harmony.  The glory of Jesus on the mountain is a peek behind the veil of time, a foretaste of the future in which the lion will lie down with the lamb, human beings will cease their destruction, and all of creation will flourish in peace and beauty.  Remember the promise in Revelation that at that time, we will no longer need sun or moon, because the glory of God is the light of the new creation – and it is that same perfect and holy light which shone from Jesus’ face on the mountain.

So the light and the glory of the transfiguration aren’t just minor details of the event on the mountain, but really they are the event.  They are a down payment on a future where God’s salvation will triumph definitively over evil and suffering, where God’s glory will be – as Paul put it – “all in all.”

This means that the transfiguration is an encouragement to hope. For all their misunderstanding, confusion and fear, the three disciples on the mountain are given a vision of hope and joyful expectation.  Peter’s suggestion of building dwellings, while it might seem silly, suggests that seeing Moses and Elijah, he thought the final, perfect reign of God was beginning immediately; that Moses and Elijah would stay on earth for the resurrection and the new, blessed era which was now present. He was only partly wrong; because in Jesus that reign of God is begun, even if it is not yet made complete.  So it really is “good” for them to be there, and it gives them another glimpse into deeper understanding of who Jesus was.

In order to make sense of the vision of hope which the transfiguration offers, we need to remember that back down the mountain, there is the reality of a fallen world, and human beings alienated from God. This is why, after the bit we read this morning, Mark tells us that immediately after descending the mountain, Jesus is called on to perform an exorcism. It is in that context of fallenness and alienation that, like Jesus, we are called to live and work, always reminded of and holding out to others the possibility of reconciliation and restoration. The light of God, reflected in the face of Christ who is the source of creation in its original goodness, turns its beams upon human beings at the point of our violence and degradation, our oppression and escapism, our loss and alienation, our fear, pride, anger and despair; choose your poison!  In the end, human beings are saved through the dual revelation of their own disfiguration and the hope of their transfiguration in Christ.

In the meantime, this in-between time in which God’s purposes for creation are not yet fulfilled, it is in our work and worship (which really are two different faces of the same coin, which is our total commitment to God), that the meaning of these things becomes immediate and present to us. When we participate in the reality which has been revealed, walking by faith (if not yet by sight) in the light which shone from Jesus, then the glory which shone from Jesus’ face, and the future glory of a perfect creation, come together in the glory which is the praise of our hearts and the work of our hands. These are not isolated incidents of glory, but are part of an unbroken strand of faith and hope and love, binding together the whole household of God, in every space and time.

So there is a call to action, here. The hope which is brought to life in us in the light of Christ’s being is not just for our comfort, but is also supposed to spark a way of life in keeping with that hope. We’re not just meant to feel the hope, we’re meant to live it, as active love which yearns for the fullness of that vision at the end of time, and shapes our lives to move and act and speak always in accordance with that vision.

As the community of the church, we are called to make that a reality amongst ourselves, in order that we can then hold it out to the world as their hope, and an invitation to participate in God’s healing of human brokenness; in the big picture, in supporting movements for social justice, the ending of war, and the overcoming of poverty; and in the small details; it calls us to make peace within ourselves, within our families and circle of friends, to nurture the tender new shoots of the reign of God wherever we find them. We’re supposed to be on a lampstand, not under a bushel basket; and if we’re on a lampstand, we’ll be effective in bringing light to the spaces we inhabit.

Martin Luther King, Jr., told the story of how, during his struggle for justice, he was strengthened by God’s promises; by his vision of this hope.  One night he woke up to find twelve sticks of dynamite on his front porch with the fuse still smouldering.  The next morning, during his sermon, he told his congregation: “I am not afraid of anybody this morning.  Tell Montgomery they can keep shooting and I’m going to stand up to them.  Tell Montgomery they can keep bombing and I’m going to stand up to them.  If I had to die tomorrow morning, I would die happy because I’ve been to the mountaintop and I’ve seen the promised land and it’s going to be here in Montgomery.”

What would it take, my brothers and sisters, for us to be convinced that we have been to the mountaintop, and we have seen the promised land, and it’s going to be here, in Burwood?  What would it take for us to live with that absolute rock-solid certainty, so that we would persevere, unafraid, certain of what God is up to in our midst?  Perhaps, until we reach that point, we will need to keep coming back to the transfiguration and let it speak to us of the hope and glory of God.

The transfiguration is God’s answer to the world’s disfiguration, and we are entrusted with it.

May we be faithful stewards of it.