Freedom

This is a sermon for the fifth Sunday of Easter, given in the “church up the road.” The Scripture it references is 1 Peter 2:11-25.

Freedom!  It’s an ideal that has inspired everything from great works of art to nation-building, and yet for Christians, there’s a lot of tension in how we think about it.

On the one hand, we say that in Christ we are free from sin, free from the law, and ultimately – in an eternal sense – free from suffering.  On the other hand, we say that we are bound to serve God with the totality of our being, that we are bound to love others as we love ourselves, and that we are bound to be part of a movement in which achieving our mission means taking up our cross.

I think, too, for Christians today there is another tension.  We have inherited from the recent past a solid tradition of Christian action which has been about opposing the “powers that be” when they’re unjust; and yet we know that in many times and places, the Church has been one of those powers, or closely allied with them, and has not always been just.  Obedience to authority has long been a spiritual discipline.  The proper attitude to authority – conformity or rebellion or something else – is a matter of hot debate.

Are we confused yet?

And in the middle of this confusion we read today’s passage from 1 Peter, which has some things to say on these issues; but I think for them to be helpful to us, they probably need some unpacking.

So, “For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution,” is where he starts with this train of thought.

Why, “For the Lord’s sake”?  What does it matter to Jesus, whether or not we accept the authority of the government or the various services under its umbrella?

I think we need to remember that this was a community which was already starting to experience official persecution.  Only a little bit later than this record we have historical documents – Roman correspondence from the area – which discusses torturing Christians to find out the truth about what they believed and did.  And the Romans forbade people to gather in groups of more than five, so that it would be hard for anyone to start an uprising.  There are records that in Bithynia – which is in the region this letter is written to – there had been terrible fires which couldn’t be put out, because this law against gathering together meant that even the fire brigade had been disbanded.  In today’s terms, we would say that the government was more than a bit paranoid.

So it seems to me that what Peter is saying here is, “don’t cause any unnecessary trouble.”  We are Christians, we need to live as Christians with integrity, but don’t stir the pot by doing anything unnecessary that’s going to upset the empire.  Don’t bring the wrath of the powers that be down on the church, for the Lord’s sake, because we suffer enough for the things we really do need to do.  Try to do the right thing, and to submit to the empire when we can.  I think it’s important here to realise that the words “as sent by him,” describing the governors, doesn’t mean that the governers are sent by God.  It means we ought, as much as we can, to relate to them as if they were sent by God, even when we know they weren’t; showing deference for the sake of not being treated badly.

While we’re fortunate not to live under the same kind of brutal or paranoid regime, I think there’s an important principle for us here; not to cause trouble about things which are not core issues for Christianity.  I leave it to you to reflect on what that might mean in our own context.

So Peter goes on from there to tell his listeners, “As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil. Honour everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honour the emperor.”

And there are a couple of interesting things about this.  I’ve already talked about how the thrust of his earlier comments seems to be, don’t cause unnecessary trouble.  And he seems to be repeating that idea here.  You’re free people, and you should live in that freedom, but don’t let that be an excuse for what our translation here calls evil.  But again, the word used here seems in this context to have the force of something like “social disruption.” The kind of evil Peter is talking about is the kind of evil that is subversive, creating turmoil.  So again, live free, but don’t start a riot.

And then the rest of the letter really goes on to unpack the implications of that principle in the social structures of the day.  Slaves are to be submissive, wives are basically property, and everyone needs to know their place and keep to it so that we don’t get into trouble.  Honour the emperor.

If I’m a little sour about that, I’m sure you can understand why.  Long after the paranoid and oppressive government was gone, this social system was held up as being “the way God wanted things,” partly because of the way Peter wrote here.  But I don’t think it ever was what God wanted; it was the way things were, in which Christians needed to endure.

But there’s one other interesting feature of the way Peter puts things here.  He says, “Honour everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honour the emperor.”  It’s like a basic list of where the lines of obedience are, in this moment where we need to make sure we present the smallest possible target to the authorities.

God, emperor, “everyone,” – well, that seems to cover all bases.  But in the middle of that, he throws in, “love the family of believers.” And while I’m sure he does want all of his listeners to love one another, I think here in this particular context, he’s saying something a little bit different; esteem the church; be dedicated to it.  In that sense, the family of believers, with its system of leadership already beginning to form, also has a claim on the honour and obedience of each Christian.

Not that I get to tell you what to do; but that I think Peter is here positioning the church community as being owed something by each of us, alongside or perhaps as an expression of the reign of God.  It bears thinking about, what that might mean for us, too.

So freedom, it turns out – at least in Peter’s thought – might mean something a little bit different than “doing whatever I like,” and maybe something more like, “getting to participate to the full in things which are good.”  And that way of looking at things might be helpful, when we think again about the tensions I mentioned at the start; between conformity and rebellion, or freedom from evil and yet being bound in love.

So my challenge to you from this text, something to take away and reflect on, is “What would it look like for you to participate to the full in something good this week?”

Priceless

This is a sermon for the eighth Sunday after Epiphany, given in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is Matthew 6:22-34.

“You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Are we feeling uncomfortable yet?  I don’t know about you, but there’s little more guaranteed to stir in me feelings of guilt and confusion, than the question of whether I’ve entirely got my priorities right about money.

There are a number of reasons why, of course.  In our society it’s not really polite to talk about money; who has it, who doesn’t, and what we do with it.  Instead we read one another’s clothes and  postcodes and cars as a subtle and complex code for economic status.

And we’ve had a long tradition of Christian suspicion of wealth.  Jesus told at least one person to give everything he had to the poor; and I suspect that many of us worry that if we really listened to what he was saying, he might say something similar to us.

And, more than that, we know that if we’re in this church on Sunday morning, fed, clothed and going about our business, by world standards that makes us filthy rich.  When people overseas die for lack of clean water or food that would cost very little by our standards….

Well, it’s no wonder that this is an uncomfortable subject, is it?

I don’t want to take us all on a guilt trip this morning.  But what can we do with this that’s a bit more constructive rather than anxiety-inducing?

It struck me, as I considered this question, that really we’re talking about an issue of boundaries.

Think of it this way; we know about physical boundaries; whether it’s a polite picket fence or a moat stocked with alligators, a boundary lets you know where things belong and who is responsible for what.  But move away from that sort of concrete geographical marker and we’re much less clear.  Try to add in God – just what is my responsibility in this life, and what is God’s responsibility, anyway? – and we can get ourselves into a world of pain very quickly.

And I think that’s what Jesus is trying to address here.  It’s our responsibility to use what we’ve been given wisely, to live the way God created us to be.  It’s God’s responsibility to make sure that we have what we need.  If we forget that last bit, we can tie ourselves up in knots as we try desperately to control things that, actually, are outside our control.  And we end up chasing money as if that were our purpose in life, instead of recognising that our job is to worship God and walk in his ways, and the money is there to help us do that.  It’s meant to be our servant, not our master.

I actually think it’s one of the weaknesses of our church tradition that we don’t talk about money very much.  Wanting to avoid manipulating or being inappropriate in asking for money for the church, we very seldom dare take on the question of what a Christian approach to structuring one’s finances might look like.  And then we’re surprised when people lack confidence in relating this area of life to our faith.

But I think we can talk about whether we’ve got this relationship the wrong way around; whether money is really an effective tool in our hands, or is driving us unhelpfully.

I’d suggest that, like most things, we can look for the symptoms: is there any anxiety about money, either making it or spending it?  Does money bind us unhelpfully?  I’m not talking there about being unable to upgrade to a mansion, but whether something to do with money gets in the way of living lives which are loving, joyful, and peaceful?  Is money – or the things we do to earn or manage money – an issue in our relationships?  Do we know when to stop working, and when to say no, to make room for other more important things?

There might be other things in play too.  One of the reasons I tend to get anxious about money, I realise, is that I was never really taught about managing money.  I’ve had to teach myself, as an adult, about things like superannuation and mortgages and investments and all the rest of it.  I still rely on my husband to do any internet banking!  And my own ignorance and lack of confidence can mean that worries about money bother me more than they would if I felt I knew what I was doing and had everything properly sorted.  So maybe, for some of us, part of the answer actually lies in being confident that we know how to use our money properly, rather than being at the mercy of systems we don’t understand.

Or it might be that anxiety about money is really masking another, deeper need.  Someone who is in poor health might end up with a distorted attachment to money, because they’re fearful of what might happen and their ability to have basic physical needs met, for example.

Those are questions worth taking seriously.  Maybe, as we head towards the beginning of Lent, taking an inventory of our anxieties, in general, might be a useful way to prepare to let God be at work in them.

Of course, sometimes we simply aren’t aware of our own weaknesses.  One exercise I’ve seen suggested is that of keeping a record, for a while, of everything you spend money on, and how much it costs.  Not with a view to beating yourself up about it, but just with a view to being conscious of the patterns of your own behaviour; patterns we often don’t recognise when they’ve become part of the fabric of everyday life.  I did that for a while as a student, and it was an insight into just how much chocolate I really ate!  A little here and a little there never seemed like much, until I was confronted with a grand total and had to admit that it wasn’t healthy.

My chocolate addiction remains unresolved.  But at least now I am aware of it, and I have a plan to do something about it.  Right after I manage to get enough sleep…

You take my point.  None of us is perfect and I certainly don’t want to come across here as presenting myself as any better than anyone else.  All of us can struggle with keeping things in their appropriate place in our lives.

But here’s the thing.  If we can keep money where it belongs in our lives – as a tool, rather than something that drives us – then it won’t get in the way of what really matters; our relationship with God and our relationships with our loved ones.  It helps us to be the best we can be, approaching life with confidence and joy, knowing that we’re doing our job in this partnership, and God is doing God’s job.  And that really is something priceless.

Love the stranger

This is a sermon for the sixth Sunday after Epiphany, given in the “church up the road.”  The Scripture it references is Deuteronomy 10:12-22.

One of the things that Christians have often wrestled with is how we deal with the fact that our Scriptures contain books of laws and commandments which were given by God to the Jewish people; and it’s not always obvious or straightforward to work out how those laws or commandments relate to our lives as Christians.

Some things we decided fairly quickly didn’t apply to us; food restrictions, keeping the Sabbath, the requirements for animal sacrifice, and so forth, we can see being abandoned even in the New Testament.  But if there’s one thing we’ve held onto as absolutely central to Christianity, it’s that human beings have a dual obligation, to love God and love one another.  Jesus himself affirmed this as the principle on which everything else hangs.

So when we come to a passage like today’s reading from Deuteronomy, we need to read carefully; is it dealing with matters of loving God, or loving everyone else?  Listen again to what Moses had to say: “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall fear the Lord your God; him alone you shall worship; to him you shall hold fast, and by his name you shall swear.”

“You shall also love the stranger.”

We are commanded, we know, to love our neighbours as ourselves.  This reading fleshes that out a bit further; you shall also love the stranger.  It’s not that the stranger is not your neighbour, but that he is a particular category of neighbour; someone who is in some way an outsider to the community; someone who experiences a degree of isolation; someone who is socially vulnerable.

This is, by the way, part of why the movement for social justice is an unavoidable part of authentic Christian life.  Because it’s by working for social justice that we seek to create a society in which those neighbours who are in some way vulnerable have a fair go in life; in terms of access to financial security, opportunities to participate in their community to the full, and opportunities to fulfil their God-given potential.  And we’ve seen this historically in the Christian push to abolish slavery, to establish adequate welfare for those in need, and to provide education to even the poorest in society.

Social justice isn’t optional for us.  It’s part of our very DNA as Christians.  Love the stranger; make sure vulnerability doesn’t turn into suffering.

Let me unpack a specific example for you this morning; and that is the question of how we treat refugees in Australia.

To be clear, a refugee is a person who has been forced to leave his or her home because of war or persecution, and who seeks protection in another country.  By international convention, to which Australia is a party, such a person has a right to protection in another country.

Let me say that again; by international law, a refugee has a legal right to protection in Australia.

But what actually happens to many refugees here is sickening.  It’s not easy to get permission to visit detention centres and I never have; so I rely for my information on accounts written by other people.  The points that follow I’ve taken from a public submission to an Australian senate inquiry, and if you ask me afterwards I can provide you with a link to more information.*

  • Isolation and lack of communication are constant realities. I’ve already mentioned that it’s difficult to get permission to visit; mail deliveries might not happen for up to a month at a time; public phones don’t exist in the centres and even when a refugee might be allowed to leave to use one, it is too expensive for them to make calls; equipment for electronic communication is in disrepair, very slow and requires that the refugee know how to use it and be literate in English.
  • There is a lack of medical care. Illnesses are left untreated.  Pain medication is not given.  Injuries are left to heal, or not.  There are stories of people going blind for want of basic treatment of an eye infection.  One such mother had two young children to care for; children whose smiles she will never see again.  Not only is mental health treatment completely inadequate, but the conditions in which people are kept create and compound existing mental health issues.
  • Fresh water supply is not consistent, and in Nauru has been reported to only be available for two hours a day; in that time refugees must see to their drinking and washing needs. Conditions are often unsanitary.
  • Normal family life is disrupted and the ability of parents to care for their children is compromised.
  • There is lack of legal assistance, or of access to information exercise their legal rights. Interviews determining someone’s future are often held without any legal advisors present.

And people are left in this situation, in limbo, for years on end, with no idea of whether or when they might be able to leave.

That’s just a start.  That’s the beginning of painting a picture for you of what we are doing to these people; people who, let us not forget, have a legal right to our protection.

It’s hardly loving the stranger, is it?

I would go so far as to say this; I have sometimes heard people voice concerns that Australia is losing its character as a Christian nation.  That as religious education has been removed from schools, as same-sex marriage is on the horizon, and so forth, we are becoming a nation detached from our religious heritage.

To those people I would say this: as long as we keep a single refugee locked up in what amounts to a concentration camp, we have no right to any credible claim to being a Christian nation.  Maybe we ought to worry less about whether children in the local primary school are hearing the story of Adam and Eve, and worry more about whether children who have already been traumatised and displaced have any hope for a better tomorrow under Australia’s sun.

I know I stated that strongly, and that some of you might find that confronting.  But sometimes we need to hear things which we find confronting.

We can do better than this.  Our God commands us to actually love the strangers who seek our protection.  And I put it to you this morning that we have a Christian obligation to seek justice and mercy for them.

https://refugeeaction.org/information/inside-the-detention-centres/submission-to-2006-migration_amendment-inquiry/

Darts in the dark

I don’t do much children’s ministry at the moment, but when I did, I often struggled with what I might describe as the gap between the ideal and the reality.  That is, I might have a clear vision in my head of what I wanted the children’s programme to be, and what I wanted it to offer to the people participating in it… but often, due as much to circumstances out of my control as anything else, what we actually settled for looked quite different.

Today I was reading a report on perceptions of parenting (the report can be found here and is interesting in its own right).  And one paragraph caught my attention.  It said that

“[Effective parenting] is responsive to a child’s individuality and to changing needs, temperament and maturity. This involves tuning in to a child’s interests, perspective and experiences, and interacting with him or her both to address challenges (discomfort, anxiety, confusion, etc.) and to build on strengths (insights, talents, ambitions, etc.).”

It struck me that of course the same is true of effective discipling of children.  And yet I can tell you exactly why this often does not happen, and that is that we don’t know the children well enough.

Not because we don’t want to, but because for many families, being in church once a month or so is as much as they can or want to manage.  The days when children who came to church, came every week and built genuine relationships with their leaders are gone for all but a very few families, at least in my tradition.

So your typical Sunday school teacher or children’s ministry leader tries to plan and prepare activities or teaching materials which will do all the good things described in the paragraph I quoted, but we do so a) without an adequate relationship with the children concerned, to do it well, and b) often unsure as to which of our various children will be present on any given day.  It’s like playing darts in the dark, and then we wonder why we so often miss the mark.

So here’s my plea; if you want the leaders and teachers in your church to be partners with and resources to you as parents, as you seek to nurture your children in faith, then please actually work with us.  Take church seriously.  Make it a priority.  Support us in building relationships with your family.  Communicate with us about all the things it would be helpful for us to know about your child, (or at least, about when you will and won’t be in church).

We care about your children and want to do the best we possibly can for them, but we can’t do that if we simply don’t know them well enough.

Naming and dominion

This is a sermon for the commemoration of the naming and circumcision of Jesus, given in the “church next door.”  The Scriptures it references are Psalm 8 and Luke 2:15-21.

Today we heard the story of Jesus’ being named and circumcised in our gospel reading.  I wonder if you noticed, though, the way that Luke put it?  “He was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.”

In ancient near eastern cultures, and thus in Scripture, names and their meanings are important.  Who gets to name someone or something is about authority or power of some sort over the thing or person named.  The point of Jesus being named by the angel is that no human being exercises that kind of authority or power over Jesus’ life and ministry, but only God himself (with the angel as a mouthpiece).

So I was interested to see that, in some ways, today’s Psalm explores some of the same sorts of ideas, but from a different direction.  The Psalmist is marvelling at the heavens, the moon and stars, the awesomeness of all creation (“the work of God’s fingers”), and in light of the vastness and intricacy and wonder of it all, asks why God cares about us?  Aren’t we pretty insignificant in the scheme of things?

And yet God, the psalmist notes, has crowned us with glory and honour, and given us dominion over the works of his hands; sheep, oxen, beasts of the field, birds of the air, fish of the sea, and whatever unnamed creatures lurk in the deeps.  This points us back to the beginning of Genesis, and the story of Adam naming all the animals; just as the angel announcing Jesus’ name sets Jesus apart as being under the authority of God, the earth and its inhabitants have, in some sense, been delegated to us to govern in accordance with God’s purposes for it all.

So for Christians hearing these two passages this morning, we are being pointed in both cases back to the question of what God’s purposes are.  What are God’s purposes which Jesus came to fulfil?  And what are God’s purposes which God’s people have always been called to participate in,  as we exercise dominion over the earth?

In the Scriptures, we’re given a picture of a God who creates, not just the material world and its inhabitants, but also a human society of community and justice.  This purpose – the creation of a society of community and justice – underlies the whole unfolding story of the covenant with Israel, which in turn opens out to the salvation of the whole world.  This means that when we consider what God has delegated to us, it’s not just about stewarding the material fabric of life but also justice and righteousness; and if righteousness is a word we often don’t really understand, I’d suggest that for the purposes of this discussion we could also just as well say “human flourishing.”

In the mind of any Jew steeped in God’s law, as the psalmist would have been, the “goodness” of the created world is mirrored in the “goodness” of right relationships and behaviour.  The two belong together as part of the seamless whole of God’s creation, and the enjoyment of what we might call “the good life” materially cannot be separated from the worship of God who gave it to us and the ethical treatment of the other human beings who inhabit it alongside us.

What this suggests is that enjoyment of the good things of the world is not ethically neutral, but is bound up with matters to do with relationships with God and our fellow creatures.  If the story of the garden of Eden (before the fall) gives us a picture of innocent enjoyment, it’s because in the garden there is harmony between the man and the woman, between them and the other creatures, and between them and God.  And the harmony is not merely an absence of conflict or competition, but an actual interdependence, a being there for the other.  The humans care for the garden (in a loving partnership of equals), so that it can be productive; the plants bring forth fruit; and God walks amongst them all at the time of the evening breeze.

But we are not in the garden, and the relationship between the moral life and the good things of creation is not so straightforward for us.  Where our dominion was given to us so that we could regulate the security of every family and individual in the human community, living wisely and productively in our environment, when we look around at our reality we see that what we have wrought is, in the big picture, very different.

We live in a world where about one in ten people don’t have enough to eat.  Where about one in eight children don’t receive life-saving vaccinations.  Where about one in twenty people live in a war zone.  Where about one in seven people are not educated enough to be literate.  Where we have exploited our lands, waters and air beyond their tolerance limit, destroying habitats, poisoning what was once teeming with life, and playing havoc with the climate on which so much relies.

Why do I remind you of all that?  Because this morning, as we ponder our dominion over creation, and as we ponder Christ’s dominion over us (after all, it is his name we bear from our baptism), we need to confront the fact that we have not lived in accordance with God’s purposes, at all.  We need to confront the fact that social justice, peace-making, reconciliation, and the safeguarding of creation are not new and trendy ideas, which we can choose to take or leave as we prefer.  They are obligations on us in the Christian life; they are, in fact, part of our very purpose for being here.

What are human beings that God is mindful of us, mortals that God cares for us?  We are supposed to be partners in God’s purposes.  We are supposed to exercise our power for the good of the planet and of human community.  And I put it to you that we in the church do not ask ourselves often enough, as a community, how we are going to do that; today, this week, this month, this year?

As we remember Jesus being given the name God Himself had chosen; as we remember being given the name of Christ, each in our own baptism; as we remember the power we have each been given as the children of Adam, heirs of his dominion over the earth; I put it to you that we need to take these matters to heart, as a core part of our identity and purpose here, if we are to be all that this community is purposed by God to be.

The Lord be with you.

A culture of encounter

This is a sermon for the twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost, given in the “church up the road.”  The Scripture it references is Luke 21:5-19.

I know that one of the small groups has been doing some work over the last little while on “sharing Jesus without fear,” and although I haven’t been able to go, I’m glad that they’re looking at such an important topic.

In a way, I think this morning’s gospel reading tells us something important about sharing Jesus, too; but it might need a little bit of unpacking to see the implications.

Jesus tells his disciples that when they have an opportunity to testify, (because of being persecuted), they should make up their minds not to prepare their defence in advance, because they will be given the words and the wisdom at the time.  And that’s all well and good, at one level, but one might wonder – especially if, like me, you’re a little bit prone to anxiety and you like to be prepared – why you can’t be given the words and the wisdom in advance, when you’re carefully and prayerfully preparing.

After all, we expect it to work that way for sermons, don’t we?

But the thing I learned at college, when I was being taught to preach, is that good sermon preparation doesn’t start when you sit down surrounded by all the best books, determined to craft the best possible explanation of the text.

Good sermon preparation starts at people’s hospital beds, over cups of tea in the kitchen, in the ordinary things of parish life; and it starts with listening.  It starts with really hearing where people are struggling, what people are feeling and thinking.  And it’s only after you’ve listened carefully to all of that, that you come to the books, ready to make connections between the text and the things that you’ve heard from people’s hearts.  That – or so I was taught – is where a good sermon draws its power from; from the hopes and faith and fears of the people listening to it; the people who have already been listened to and heard and who are now being spoken to with genuine love and care.

That’s the ideal, anyway.  I leave it to you to judge whether or not I often get near it.

But the reason I tell you about that is because it seems to me that sharing Jesus in other situations is a bit the same.  You can sit down and write the best, truest, clearest explanation of the hope that is offered to us in Jesus, but if you share it in a way that totally fails to connect with real people, it’s a pretty pointless effort (and hence we get “Bible bashing”!)

On the other hand, if you can really listen to people, hear their needs and longings and know them for who they really are, then you can respond by presenting the gospel in ways which really connect with those realities.  You can answer need with promise, longing with hope and identity with meaning and purpose; you can present each person with a tailor-made explanation which fits them perfectly.

And I suspect that that’s why the disciples are told not to prepare their words in advance.  Not because the Holy Spirit couldn’t help them prepare an absolutely knock-out argument, but because it would be something totally impersonal, and lacking in any connection to the people who would eventually hear it.  Think how many of the sermons in Acts are given before rulers and judges, and how they weren’t just a defence for the person being accused, but also were an appeal to the ruler or judge to take on board what they were hearing for themselves.  But you can only make that kind of appeal effectively if you’re willing to take seriously the person sitting in front of you, for who they are.

The point of this, for us, I think, is that it shows us how important it is to be people who really listen.  We can’t expect to create opportunities to share our faith in genuinely life-changing ways, if we’re not building relationships in which the other person is really known and valued for who they are.

Listen first.  Then speak.  (Maybe think in between, too).

I think this is one of the things which has made Pope Francis someone so admired.  People talk about his compassion, but it’s more than that; he’s gone out of his way to put himself in situations where he can really listen to, and connect with, people who wouldn’t normally get to speak to a Pope.  And then the things that he’s heard have shaped the way that he speaks and writes, so that the genuine hurts and needs of real, ordinary people are actually being taken into account.

What fascinates me about this is that it’s driving some more “traditional” Catholic people quite nuts.  They think the job of the Pope is to speak first, to articulate official Catholic positions, and to require all the faithful to adhere to them.  Francis’ approach of listening first, and then trying to lead the church in ways which actually open the doors of faith and hope wider, so that more people can walk through them, is to them something of an abandonment of what the church should stand for.

But Francis talks about creating a “culture of encounter.”  A church culture in which our encounter of people who are not part of our church community allows us to relate to them, in ways which allow them to encounter something of God.

And it starts with us listening.

As I think about it some more, this shouldn’t seem counter-intuitive or surprising.  After all, God does this with us, too.  I know it’s certainly been my experience that God meets me where I am in life.  He didn’t tell me, for example, when I was twenty-one and deciding to be baptised, that oh, by the way, eventually this would mean ordination (which is just as well, because I wasn’t ready to think about that!)  No; God knew where I was at and gave me just enough to take the next step.  Over and over again in the Psalms we read about God listening to us; our cries, our prayers, our requests; and responding to us at our point of need.  Not overwhelming us with teachings we’re not ready for or demands we can’t meet, but in his love and mercy measuring his goodness to us by what we can handle.

Of course God knows us perfectly and doesn’t have to get to know us in the way that we need to get to know one another, but the basic principle holds of tailoring what is being given to the person who is receiving it.

So from this gospel passage we can take more than just assurance that the Spirit will help us to find the words to say (although that is there too).  I think we find encouragement not to take on the task of sharing our faith as if it were an abstract thing, but to create a genuine culture of encounter, in which we take other people seriously, and getting to know them and their situation as the starting point for any meaningful exchange.

So that’s my encouragement to you, as we seek to build one another up in Christ.  Listen.  Really listen.  And then trust that God will be at work in what comes after that.

God-breathed

This is a sermon for the twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost, given in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is 2 Timothy 3:10-4:5.

All Scripture is inspired by God, Paul said.

All Scripture.  What.  All?  Even the bits celebrating dashing infants against rocks, or commanding genocide, or saying a rape victim had to marry her rapist?  (I’m sure you could add to a list of difficult bits from your own knowledge of Scripture).  On the face of it, this statement can seem an affront both to reason and to human decency; so this morning I want to pause and consider it carefully.

It seems clear that when Paul wrote this, he found himself in disagreement and conflict with others.  From the way this morning’s passage references Paul’s persecution in places like Iconium – persecution at the hands of the Jewish community – it makes sense to think that communities led by Paul were in some ways defining themselves over against those with whom they disagreed; and at least some of those “others” were Jews or Christians who wanted to live like Jews.

There must have been a temptation, when the early Christians decided not to live as Jews – observing all the food laws and Sabbath laws and so on – a temptation to set aside the Jewish Scriptures (the only Scriptures Christians had, at this point) as well.  To say to themselves that “We don’t need all that Torah stuff; we have salvation through Christ.”  But Paul says no, that won’t do.  We need Torah and prophets and wisdom and all the rest.  The Scriptures are a foundational element of our identity as well.  We may disagree with others about how to interpret Scripture, but that doesn’t mean we abandon it.

In a way, I’m reminded of a story about King James I of England, when some of his bishops approached him wanting him to push a stronger reformation agenda in the Church of England.  And he told them firmly that it was not enough reason to stop doing something simply because Catholics do it; or else we will end up going barefoot because Catholics wear shoes.  I think Paul’s idea here is somewhat similar; we don’t throw something out just because Jews do it, or we will end up abandoning things which are useful and necessary in the Christian life.  Just as Paul’s community had to deal with wicked people and imposters, we also have to deal with the difficult realities of our own times.  And Paul commends Scripture to us in the strongest terms, as something which equips us to confront and engage creatively with those difficult realities.

So.  All Scripture is inspired by God; or, more literally, all Scripture is God-breathed.  God-breathed is a very loaded term; in the background of Scriptural images familiar to Paul’s audience is the creation of humanity, and how life was given to the first human being by God breathing into Adam’s nostrils.  There is also Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones, which are clothed in flesh and brought to life by the Spirit breathing into them.  Paul draws on this imagery to express the same idea; God’s breath is life-giving.  If Scripture, then, is God-breathed, it too has the divine life within it.

This idea carries some practical implications with it.  If we encounter a divine liveliness in the text, we should see the fruit of that in our development in the Christian life.  It’s a bit like, you know when you do a unit of study, and the unit descriptions say things like, “Upon successful completion of this unit, it is expected that students will be able to demonstrate a working knowledge of this, and identify key features of that.”  If Paul were putting together a unit of study of the Scriptures, he might well have written learning outcomes which said:  “Upon successful encounter with inspired text, it is expected that Christians will be able to demonstrate a working knowledge of salvation through Christ, and identify key features of righteousness, and bear fruit in every good work.”  A living encounter with Scripture is going to actually show that life in our lives.

And that’s why it’s a mistake to take this verse to be claiming some sort of complete inerrancy for the Scriptures, as if they were a history – or worse – a science textbook.  Paul isn’t here claiming that God dictated the Scriptures and every word came from Him, unaffected by the medium of the human being putting pen to paper.  That’s a much later idea, and I think a dangerous one.  Rather, Paul is claiming that in Scripture we find everything we need for receiving life from God.  It’s in that sense that Scripture can be described as an organ of the Holy Spirit; an instrument which the Spirit uses in His work within us.

In that sense, a right understanding of Scripture recognises that we have this collection of diverse texts, because of God’s care to provide for God’s creation, and particularly for the church; and because of God’s desire to repair and heal all that is fallen and broken in this world.  Scripture’s authority as God’s word for us stands on millennia of God’s persistent use of these texts to bring healing and wholeness to the lives of his people.  As people are touched by the life within the text, we are healed, redeemed and placed in relationships with others who have had the same encounter, able to live and work in the world in a way which truly makes a difference.  When we recognise that people who encounter God in these words become more loving, more joyful, more peaceful, and so on; when we recognise the claims the texts make on our own hearts and minds, then we rightly acknowledge the authority of Scripture.

So what about those difficult texts I mentioned at the beginning of this sermon?  I’d suggest that in many ways they mirror the difficulties in our actual lives.  We read violent texts in a culture where much violence has been normalised.  We read texts which seem oppressive of women in a culture where questioning the oppression of women is only really just begun.  By learning to attend to the texts which challenge us – what they do say, and often more importantly, what they don’t say – we can learn to call into question aspects of our culture which we might otherwise take for granted.  By learning to pay attention to marginalised or powerless or vulnerable characters in Scripture, we just might learn to see our neighbours with deeper compassion.  Isn’t it the case – as we look around the room – that many members of our own churches carry many of the same scars and wounds as some of the people we cringe to read about in Scripture?  Confronting abuse and victimisation where it’s portrayed in the Bible may open the door to confrontations needed in real life today.

So whether it’s being encouraged by the joyful texts, or challenged by the difficult texts, it is my prayer that within this community, we may all be able to recognise the Spirit of God and the life of God at work amongst us, mediated by Scripture, as part of our living heritage.