Grounded in love

This is a sermon for the tenth Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scripture it references is Ephesians 3:14-21.

Isn’t it nice when you have one of those moments when you can recognise that you’ve got something right?  A good mark, or positive annual review, or a child saying “I love you,” those moments encourage us and help us keep going.

And if we pay attention to this morning’s reading from Ephesians, we might see one of those moments for this parish.

Here’s what I mean.  Last week, at the parish planning meeting, we spent some time trying to identify a set of core values for the parish; values which could then guide the decisions we make, and how we communicate about who we are.  And our core values came out as being a community of love and care, of deep connections and meaningful relationships.  That’s what came from the stories we shared of what had been truly meaningful experiences for us here.

And then we listen in on Paul’s prayer that the Ephesians may be “rooted and grounded in love,” may comprehend the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of Christ.  What Paul puts forward here as so important for the Ephesian church; we’ve just identified as being something we already do well, and value doing well.  We identified that we are rooted and grounded in love, and that our knowledge of the love of Christ has shaped our relationships and our life together in deeply profound ways.

That’s us getting something very right.  Let’s acknowledge and celebrate that!  (What do you think about “grounded in love” as a parish motto, I wonder?  Perhaps we could do worse?)

So taking this bit of the letter as an affirmation of who we are, and as an encouragement to keep doing that well, let’s have a deeper look at what Paul has to say.

Notice that Paul starts this prayer section of his letter by saying that “I bow… before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name.”  He’s not just being grandiose – although Paul’s not above a rhetorical flourish – but he’s making an important point.  In a multicultural, cosmopolitan city like Ephesus, where tensions between different cultural groups were not uncommon, Paul points out that God has a fatherly relationship to every human group.  Not just Jews, or gentiles, or Romans, or Greeks, or Persians or whomever else might have been there, but every family in heaven and on earth.

And the point of this is to highlight that God is big.

It might seem obvious, and we forget, sometimes, how important these basic things are.  But Paul’s point is that our God and Father isn’t just the God of our tribe, or our area, or our ancestors.  He’s not just committed to our little group and no one else.  He’s on about the flourishing of all the families of the earth.  His love reaches beyond those who are near, and even beyond those whom we might hope to bring near.

If we’re going to be rooted and grounded in God’s love, the first thing we have to get is just how big, how universal in scope, that love is.  Our hearts are going to have to expand as we play our part in God’s loving plans for the whole world.

Then, after addressing his prayer to this big God, Paul makes his petition; and it is, in effect, that God’s kingdom may come.  That the good future God has planned and prepared, and is propelling us towards, might be brought just that little bit closer, in the life of the church; being made real and concrete in the ordinary stuff of the common life of the little Christian community in Ephesus.

So Paul prays that, according to the riches of God’s glory – the riches which are our birthright through baptism – the church might actually be able to live lives shaped by a vision of that hope; that good future of God.

Now here’s something important that kind of gets lost in English.  All the “you”s and “your”s in this prayer are plural.  This is not a prayer for the strengthening of individuals, but of the community. Let me read you the key sentences put in a way which makes that clear and personalised to us:

“I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that the community of this parish may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in the heart of the community through faith, as the community is being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that the community may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that the community may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

Our pew sheet reminds us each week that we are “witnesses to the risen Christ in our midst” but this pushes it one step further; the risen Christ needs to be not just in our midst but in the heart of our community and all its doings – not just our liturgies but our conversations, our meetings, our social gatherings and our various outreach activities – and that is how we are rooted and grounded in love.

And it’s together – in community, and in the quality of our relationships – that we have the power to comprehend the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of Christ; the love of Christ which arises ultimately from the dynamic, over-flowing love between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  It’s in our relationships with one another that the quality of that love, expressed in deep and loving and mutual relationship, can be known by us in some way, even though it ultimately surpasses any human knowledge.  And it’s in that way that we – as a parish community – may be filled with all the fullness of God.  To be rooted and grounded in love is to be rooted and grounded in relationships which mirror the qualities of God’s relationships; and that quality of relationship is the riches of God’s glory which Paul prays that the Ephesians might have.

It’s layer upon layer of imagery trying somehow to give us some idea of what God is calling us to be.

But as I said at the beginning, we can recognise that in this, at least, we’ve already made a good beginning.  We have a community marked by loving and caring relationships.  Not that we don’t have more growing to do; of course we do.  But we can be encouraged that we’re on the way in growing the way Paul was encouraging the Ephesians to grow.  So let’s be purposeful in continuing in that way!


St. Mary Magdalene

This is a sermon for the feast of St. Mary Magdalene.  The Scripture it references is John 20:1-18.

I found myself a bit uncomfortable, even reluctant, as I came to prepare this morning’s sermon.  It took me a while to realise why; but it was because I’m conscious that what we know about Mary Magdalene is very much at a remove.  Stories about her were told and retold and eventually written down in the early Christian community; and no doubt, told and retold and written down in ways which served the purposes of those doing the telling and the writing.  But Mary herself – how she would have told her story, how she felt during the events others remembered, what it all meant for her – is blurred behind the veil of those stories.  And there’s a part of me that’s reluctant to add another layer of telling and interpretation.

Perhaps, if I acknowledge that up front, it might help us as we consider the part of her story John gave us in our gospel reading today.

Because the portion of the gospel that we heard today is the high point of Mary’s story, at least as the gospels give it to us.  It’s Mary’s actions that give the unfolding events impetus and direction.  It’s her emotions that we’re invited to identify with.  And where the other two disciples slip away to their homes, it’s Mary who has the final word: “I have seen the Lord.”

The story begins in darkness, early in the morning.  In John’s gospel, Jesus is the light of the world, and to be without him is to experience real darkness; so we’re reminded that this isn’t just the physical darkness of night time, but the spiritual darkness of Jesus’ absence.

Over the course of eighteen verses, Mary moves from confusion to revelation.  She goes to the tomb and finds it empty; but after sharing the distressing news that “they have taken the Lord out of the tomb,” she comes back.  Not content with half answers or empty riddles she perseveres in seeking the truth of what has happened (unlike the two men who return to their homes).  And – at the end – her persistence is rewarded.

And she weeps.  Not at all a sign of weakness, but of responding the way a true disciple would in that situation.  Just a couple of chapters earlier, Jesus had told the disciples gathered for the last supper that “a little while, and you will no longer see me… you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice.”  The world might be rejoicing at being rid of Jesus, but Mary, here an exemplary disciple, weeps and mourns.

Then, when she finally meets the risen Jesus, she doesn’t recognise him until he calls her by name.  John has already told us earlier that Jesus is the good shepherd; the shepherd knows his sheep and calls them by name, and they follow him.  In response to being called by name, Mary is able to recognise Jesus as her teacher, and herself as one of his own.

So with all of these carefully layered details – and others, such as all the echoes of the scene when Lazarus was raised – John carefully shows us a Mary Magdalene to be admired and emulated.  She is the persistent follower who does not stop seeking until she finds the Lord.  She is the lover of light who weeps at the darkness, while the corrupt world rejoices.  She is the faithful disciple who knows her teacher and responds to his voice.

All of this is well and good.  We too should seek with persistence.  We too should love the light and weep at the darkness.  We too should know our teacher and respond to his voice.  As an example in the Christian life, John’s sketch of Mary works just fine.

But wait; there’s more to the story.  The way John shows us the primary witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection, there are three key people involved.  One is Mary Magdalene, as we’ve seen.  Another is Simon Peter, who goes on to have an intimate chat with Jesus over breakfast, after a hard night’s fishing; and to be commissioned to “feed my sheep.”  And there is the beloved disciple, identified as the author of the gospel himself.

Each of them presents, if you like, a different style of witness to the risen Jesus.  Mary’s is a deeply personal encounter; nobody else can test her claim to having seen the Lord, but we have to take it on trust and decide to believe her.  She represents the personal prophetic and visionary witness.  Simon Peter has a different experience altogether; he is commissioned to take up a leadership role in the community; to “feed my sheep.”  He represents continuity of leadership and pastoral oversight.  And John – the beloved disciple – faithfully records it all so that the Church might come to have a written reference, the beginnings of a Scriptural account.

The relevance of this is that all three are given their place.  Peter’s commissioning doesn’t invalidate Mary’s personal encounter.  Mary’s prophetic voice doesn’t override the written word.  And the written word doesn’t bind those who lead the community.  At a time when the church was coming to define itself and structure its life together, John carefully shapes his account to make sure that he shows us the beginnings of a church where leadership is diverse and shared by people with different gifts, different roles, and – let us not fail to note – of different sexes.

Not that I think Mary Magdalene’s being a woman is his primary point here.  John’s portrait of women in general is fairly open and positive and we can imagine that his community took a similar approach.  Though having a woman as the “apostle to the apostles” does allow women to claim the very earliest precedent for leadership and teaching roles.

But that aside, I think John is doing something more subtle.  He is saying that diversity is a gift. Authority is multi-vocal and complex.  Not just Scripture, not just tradition, not just personal experience, but all of these things are important for a healthy believing community.  More than that, all of these things are important ways that people today continue to experience the presence of the risen Jesus!

So we see that John tells the story of Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the risen Jesus in such a way as to position her as a community leader and a voice of authority; not exclusively, but in a collegial way, which enshrines diversity as normative and important for the ongoing life of the church.

By bringing Mary forward to stand beside Peter and John as the earliest witnesses to the resurrection, John himself shows us more than just an exemplary disciple, but something of a pattern of healthy church life.

That’s John’s version, anyway.  But there’s a good deal of wisdom in it, to hold on to.

You Can’t Ask That.

Here in Australia, there’s a TV show called You Can’t Ask That.  The premise of the show is to identify a group of people who are often misunderstood, and to allow the public to submit questions which one normally might not ask.

Recently, an episode was done on priests, and you can see it here:   See if you can work out which one is me. 🙂

(International readers, I’m afraid that it seems to be difficult to get access to from outside Australia; if you work out how to do it, please let me know in the comments!)

It was a fascinating experience; to be invited to reflect on the big-picture questions about who we are and what we do.  To give you some idea, I was in the studio for three hours, and the material had to fit a half-hour episode; so a lot of what I thought was really valuable material hasn’t made the cut.  But I think what is there is fair.

Do tell me what you think of it!


This is a sermon for the seventh Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scripture it references is Mark 6:1-13.

When I worked at the Cathedral, there was a young man who used to come and stand on the pavement just outside our doors, and engage in some public open-air preaching.  (Actually, there were quite a few people like that, but I’m thinking of one in particular).  And his message always struck me as a bit confusing, because he would yell at passers-by that they were all going to hell… but he’d punctuate that with random cries of “hallelujah!”

If you really thought everyone you could see was going to hell, that wouldn’t prompt most people to break out into spontaneous praise, but it seemed to make sense in his head.  I didn’t see him get much in the way of a sympathetic audience, though.

I was reminded of that this week when I looked at today’s gospel reading, because in it, Jesus sends out the apostles, on a kind of exorcism-and-teaching mission trip.  And Mark tells us that they went out and proclaimed, specifically, that all should repent.  (And they cast out demons and anointed the sick, but for the moment let’s focus on the message of repentance).

So often in the gospel we hear that the message being proclaimed was good news, or was that the kingdom was at hand, and so forth; it struck me as interesting that here, apparently, it was just a call to repent.

And it seems to me that the call to repent can cut in two very different directions.

The first is the one taken by my old acquaintance the street preacher; you need to repent because you are bad.  You are sinful, your life will be fruitless, and God might love you – because that’s who God is – but he probably doesn’t like you very much right now.

This is the kind of classic approach to trying to convert people.  First you convince them how bad they are, then you convince them that Jesus is the answer, and before you know it you have a thriving church full of ex-sinners (in theory).  And some people have really found a relationship with God that way.

It’s not a message without problems, though.  And any approach to sharing the good news, which starts by trying to convince other people that they’re bad, well… here’s the thing.  God created every human being in God’s own image.  And God said that creation was good.  The question we have to wrestle with is what sin has done to that good creation.  Is all the goodness totally destroyed?  Or is the goodness still there, but with some other mucky stuff going on around it?

If we think the goodness is still there – and Calvinists aside, pretty much every Christian tradition agrees that it is – then trying to start to share our faith with people by telling them how bad they are, moves away from truth, and more into the realm of effective emotional manipulation.

Not that I’m denying that sin is real; but it’s a question of where we put the emphasis.  Do we want someone to hear that they are God’s good creation, a beloved child, for whom God longs, and for whom there is a hope and a future?  Or do we want them to hear that they are worthless and without hope?  Especially when we bear in mind that often in these discussions any intellectual nuance gets lost in emotional responses.

So.  If we don’t want the call to repentance to end up being a message of our condemnation of others, what is its more positive side?

How about, you’re invited to be part of something better?

People know that the world is stuffed.  You only have to open a newspaper to see it; fathers shooting their children, teachers being charged with child porn offences, politicians completely failing to inspire us with their vision and integrity.  I could go on, but that was just a quick glance down the headlines as I was writing this.

People also know that their own personal lives are far from tidy.  We struggle as parents, struggle as spouses, struggle in the workplace.  Living up to our ideals and hopes and dreams seems impossible and unachievable.

And in the midst of all the world’s mess and brokenness, God opens a door and says, there’s a better way.  There’s a way to be who you were created to be, before all the mess and the brokenness got in the way.  There’s a way to be part of the solution, not the problem, in all the corruption of our world.  There’s a way to be part of a community that, although it isn’t perfect, is committed to living in this other way, this way of justice and peace and reconciliation.

And you’re invited to be part of it.  Just turn around, and take that step.

Every time we pray “we repent…” we’re saying yes to that invitation.  We’re turning around and stepping through that door.  We’re committing ourselves to relationships with God and others in which our love and our joy are stronger than our sin.

So often we’ve internalised the message that we are pretty worthless, as human beings; but the call to repent, instead of kind of hitting us over the head again with our worthlessness, can be an invitation to rediscover our true worth; or sometimes, even, to discover it for the first time.

That’s why, so often, Jesus’ message was, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  It’s near!  It’s not so far that you can’t be part of it; it’s only as far away as your choice to be part of it.  Or John the Baptist’s words, “Repent and believe in the good news.”  It’s good news!  Something better than what we have now is possible.

This was the mistake the street preacher outside the cathedral made; he told people they were going to hell, but he gave them no sense of any hope.  He didn’t show them what the alternative was like.  He didn’t invite them to anything better.

But we can.  Our job is to be absolutely crystal clear on what God invites us to; to respond to that invitation wholeheartedly, and then to hold out that invitation to others; to be part of a community which does its utmost to make real and concrete, the better way God offers us.  To show people, by the way that we are church together, that the kingdom of heaven has substance.

That’s how the call to repent becomes truly good news.  The disciples did it with exorcisms and healings; our experiences may be less spectacular, but they must be no less real.


This is a sermon for the sixth Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scripture it references is Lamentations 3:22-33.

On my side of our family, I’m the only person – at least of our closer relatives – who has any connection with a church.  It wasn’t always that way – both of my parents were raised as Roman Catholics – but as teenagers or adults they walked away, and as far as I’ve been able to tell, haven’t had any real desire to go back (or to find some other denomination to which to belong).

And while the reasons for a decision like that are always complicated, I think it’s fair to say – from the version of the family history that I’ve been given, anyway – that at least part of the problem for both of them was that when life was crap, church gave them neither language nor space to deal with that.

When church spoke of the incredible holiness of God, and of the blessedness of our life in relationship with him; but found no words for brokenness, no space for grief, and no answers except a prescription for deeper piety… is it any wonder that my parents, along with many of their generation, ended up deciding the church was pretty irrelevant to the big stuff in their lives?

Few of us would feel comfortable bursting into tears in the middle of a church service, or otherwise being demonstrative about our wounds.  Partly that’s a social thing – our culture doesn’t go in for public displays of distress, in general – but in church there’s often an extra layer of expectation that because God is good (all the time!), we should be okay.  That God should be enough.  And it can make people very anxious indeed to be confronted with evidence that maybe it’s not all that simple.

But we know that’s not reality.  We know that when we gather, some of us are hurting.  Some are grieving.  Some are anxious.  Some are weighed down with worry.  For some people, the bit of the intercessions where we acknowledge that people are struggling – or the chance to light a candle in silence – might be the only moments in coming to church where there’s kind of tacit permission to feel those feelings.

But – here’s the key point of what I want to say this morning – this kind of flattening of our human emotion before God and one another isn’t what God wants.  It’s not even Biblical.  This morning we had a reading from Lamentations; a whole book to give expression to grief and sorrow!  And if we flip through the rest of the Bible, we find in Job, in many of the Psalms, in a fair few of the prophets, and even, at times, on the lips of Jesus, absolutely righteous examples of people voicing so-called “negative” emotions.

The people who wrote these parts of our Scriptures didn’t keep silent about what they were feeling or experiencing.  They found words, poetry and even music to give shape to these emotions, and to share with others the experience of processing what was happening.

That means that these parts of Scripture can be a precious resource for us.  When I don’t know the words for how I feel, I might find that someone else has written something that resonates.  When I feel “stuck” in my own emotional mess, using a phrase from Scripture as the starting point for journaling or creative writing can help me find a way to work with it.  When I want to feel that I’m not alone in what I’m struggling with, I can relate to other people with similar struggles; those who wrote about them in the Scriptures, and other believers now who gather around those Scriptures seeking company on the journey.

And more than that, these texts can help us bring how we feel into our relationship with God.  If we believe that God wants to bring healing, restoration and hope in answer to our brokenness, we also need to understand that that can only happen when we confront our brokenness, are honest about it, and allow God to be at work in it.  To open our wounded hearts to God, and to be able to be vulnerable as we wait for what God might do.  A piece of text can help us to do that in a more controlled and measured way – I’d almost say a more emotionally safe way – than if we just kind of try to deal with everything all at once.

But they help us do that because these Scriptures aren’t empty words uttered to no one.  God’s people have someone to whom we can bring all of our emotional burdens.  In fact, lament – naming what is wrong – is just as valid a form of prayer as praising God for what is right.  It’s not somehow a denial of God’s goodness to say that your heart is breaking; on the contrary, it’s an affirmation of God’s goodness; because to even try to have that conversation with God says that you trust that God actually cares.  That God’s heart is moved with compassion; that God will not leave you unanswered in your distress.  Think about it; you wouldn’t complain to someone you really thought didn’t give a fig, would you?  But we can say these things to God because we know that God does care, and does want to respond with tenderness.

Our emotional lives are complicated.  I don’t for one second that preaching a sermon like this will magically fix everything, or even fix anything.  I do hope it will encourage you to be open with yourselves about the times when you’re not okay; and open with one another (this is half the benefit of the social time over a cup of tea), and maybe even give you some ideas about how to feel you can talk to God about this stuff.

How we might make space for it in our worship together is trickier, but I think it’s important to be thinking about that too.  I’ve been wondering for a while whether we might make more creative use of the oratory; set up different prayer stations at different times, encourage people to explore different ways of praying.  Doing that sort of thing well takes work and thought, though, so at the moment it’s really just an idea I’m keen to explore.

We neither want to rush past our difficult emotions nor get stuck in them.  I hope what I’ve said today will encourage you to accept them as normal and healthy, and explore some of the resources we have for finding the life God wants to give us, even amidst our difficulties.