Previous Sermons by Rev Dr Brian Brown
11 June 2023 - "Yes I KNOW, don't talk about it" - Genesis 12:1-9, Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26
FROM EXILE TO NEW LIFE IN CHRIST
Sunday 1st January 2023 Boolaroo Uniting Church - Jeremiah 31:7-14
It may seem like an unusual choice of topic for New Year’s Day, but I have decided to focus my thoughts on the theme of Exile, for three reasons. Firstly, this theme confronts us in the lections of the Christmas season, in the words of the prophet of the Exile, and the Story of the flight of the Holy family to Egypt.. The second reason for choosing exile as our theme is that the most transformative part of my own spiritual journey happened in the seven years between the breakdown of my first marriage in 1993 and my commencement as minister at the Hamilton Broadmeadow Congregation in the year 2000. This was my time of exile, and by sharing this part of my testimony I hope to give you a glimpse of who I am, as we start to get to know one another. Finally, as it is my conviction that most people have at least one experience in their lives that is akin to exile, we can, by reflecting on the biblical perspective of the process, be helped to better understand the way through the turmoil to new life and joy in our Christian journey.
The biblical Exile of 582 BC saw large numbers of Israelites captured by the Babylonian military and taken to a foreign land. Apart from the grinding dislocation from family and community, the people were also unceremoniously wrenched from two primary elements of meaning and structure. One was the Temple in Jerusalem, which was held to contain the very presence of God in the Ark of the Covenant. The other was the King, who would protect them, tax them, conscript them and generally tell them what to do. The things we accept to feel safe and secure! In the face of all this loss the people lament “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” What was worse, their prophets interpreted this hiatus as an act of God’s judgment on them, a kind of karmic consequence for the bad behaviour of Israel and Judah for their straying from God’s ways of love and justice.
When a minister of a congregation experiences marital separation, the almost inevitable consequence is the end of that placement, along with the loss of many friends. This, along with living separately from one’s family creates a sense of deep grief. The losses are multiple and complex, and each one contributes to the sense of being cut off from everything which formerly provided a sense of security. When guilt and shame are added to that toxic mix, life truly becomes a struggle for survival in all sorts of ways. (Included in this was the experience of having to queue up at Centrelink for the first time, and ask for unemployment benefits.) Loneliness is one of the few constant companions.
I offer this as one personal example of how one might experience exile. There are all sorts of reasons why exile can come about. Sometimes one is cut off from crucial life and community support through no fault of one’s own. This happened to a lot of people during COVID. Natural disasters such as are being commonly experienced in the floods of Northern NSW and Pakistan for example, can leave people suddenly and cruelly in the lurch. Such undeserved suffering was in the mind of Rabbi Kushner when he wrote the book “When Bad Things Happen to Good People”. Then there are those circumstances which a person can bring upon themselves, when we fear that our suffering is a judgement of God.
In the end though, the way back is a well-worn path. Jeremiah describes it as a great restorative journey home, as the God who scattered Israel “…will gather him and keep him as a shepherd of a flock”.
My central assertion, my crucial point in today’s message is that, no matter how we got into exile, in the grace of God there is a way back which can leave us changed for the better in all sorts of ways. This “way back” consists, in my understanding of three main elements- seemingly paradoxical, yet connected:
1. Getting on with it.
There is a lovely story from Novocastrian Trevor Dickenson, author of “The Book of Newcastle”. He says “I was a whinging Pom… By 2009 when I had made the first drawings in this book, I had already lived in Newcastle for seven years, but still felt disconnected. I had arrived in 2002 from London with my wife Jo and two children. Through chance and convenience we settled in the same Waratah house that Jo’s father grew up in. I worked from home designing textiles and graphics for UK and Sydney fashion companies, mainly communicating by email. I felt like my life was spent in front of a screen, emailing my work down a black hole and getting little response. I missed England and missed my extended English family. I’m sure I came across as the classic whingeing Pom, when in reality I was depressed. I was grieving for my old life while trying to make a new life. I also knew that going back would solve nothing. I reached the point where I had to sort myself out and work harder on my mental health. The way to do that was to connect with Newcastle.” Hence the book of his amazing sketches.
The first reaction to the awful experience of exile is often lament. It’s not wrong, in fact, it is both healthy and biblical. So the grieving Israelites mourn with the refrain of the psalmist “By the rivers of Babylon we lay down. There we wept as we remembered Zion” But the lament must eventually cease, lest it become an unending alienating whinge. So the Prophet Jeremiah says God’s word to them “I have sent you into exile. Build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters…(29:5-14)” In other words, when you have had a good cry, GET ON WITH IT. Accept where you are. The fact is that the God you thought you left behind in the Temple of Jerusalem is right there with you.
Coming to terms with one’s sense of guilt and shame is important, but you cannot move forward and carry it as a dead weight, or wallow in it for too long. If we truly believe that we are redeemed in the saving love of Christ, that we are a forgiven people, we need to get to the point of forgiving ourselves, and get on with it. We must live where we are now planted, even if the soil that sustains us is not exactly to our liking. My “getting on with it” involved many things, including three jobs which I would never have considered in normal times, yet they were part of my salvation.
2. Thinking about it
Both surviving exile and being enriched in the experience does not just happen by itself, or by hoping for the best. I was playing a round of golf at Merewether recently, and all four of us were struggling. Someone said something about hoping for better on the next hole, when one wise fellow quoted Aristotle to us: “It will not happen if you just expect it. You have to inspect it!” This reminded me of the wisdom of two other great minds from far different eras. Socrates was reputed to say at his trial “The unexamined life is not worth living”, and Einstein, who gave us this definition of insanity, as “doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result.”.
There is a work of reflection and introspection that needs to be done when one is in exile, in order to come out of the experience in a different place from where we went in. The question we need to ask of ourselves is-“What needs to change in my own heart and mind?”
I know that many people have a visceral resistance to introspection, which they will quickly proclaim to be “navel-gazing”. The bottom line is that in any experience of grief and loss, we need to do the emotional work, which for men in particular may be one of the new skills for living in the changed circumstances.
I was faced with such a challenge when working with men at the Steelworks leading up to the 1999 closure. We foresaw the huge loss that was coming for so many who had worked there all their lives, many with non-transferable skills. How were they supposed to cope? I mentioned an idea I had to one of the workers, about gathering groups of men to talk about what was happening to them. His response was swift- “We fellows do not sit around talking like hens”. In fact, this is not true. There is actually no great difficulty getting men to share concerns and deep feelings when there is a level of trust in the room. The hardest thing is to actually get them into the room in the first place! What we worked towards in those groups was helping one another find our depth. (I did not call it spirituality for obvious reasons). These men, typically, were used to battling their way out of their difficulties, but sometimes that is not possible. Newer, deeper emotional resources need to be mined get a different result, and we are all capable of it, if we can just overcome our fear of others seeing what is going on the inside. (This is not necessarily just an issue for one gender)
3. Seeing the Grace in it all (God’s saving love)
The final question is, “Where is God in all of this?” The prophets understood that banishment into exile was both a punishment of a disobedient people, and also a process by which they might be redeemed and restored. Thus understood, the experience of exile, with all its crushing blows, is also an experience of grace. When I look back on the gracious way that this process unfolded for me, I can hardly believe it. I was pretty much on my own. It was as if the church I love was saying to me “Go and bleed somewhere else, and after that let’s see what happens”. The first job I got was driving taxis in Wollongong for three nights a week, earning $5 an hour for a 12 hour shift. Talk about alien territory! Most of the other drivers were Turkish, and I did not really know what I was doing, and yet I survived, partly due to a few other drivers, (guarding angels if you like- one a Pom and the other a Turk) who looked out for me. Then, irony of ironies, I scored a job as an adolescent and family counsellor with Campbelltown Care Force, the community wing of the Sydney Anglican Church. Again, I found myself in alien territory (Though a qualified and trained counsellor, I had never done clinically-based counselling) and again, the forces of grace were at hand to help me through as I reached out to people whose lives, like mine, were in states of chaos. And, then, as if God had not yet had enough fun, I landed the job of full time chaplain at the Newcastle steelworks, a working environment which, for one whose blood pressure rises even at the thought of going into Bunnings or IKEA, was both alien to my experience and to my very nature. And yet those five years ended up being the most fulfilling and life-changing of all. Grace had become an undeniable reality in the most unexpected environment of all.
And so my time of exile, which started with a crash in 1993, came to an end early in the year 2000. As the closure of the Steelworks was happening, I was approached by Hamilton Broadmeadow UC about taking up the ministry placement there. I was not ready to leave just then, but they came back and asked again when the time was ripe. Just before Easter 2000, seven years to the week since I left my earlier congregation, I was inducted in to the Ministry of Hamilton Broadmeadow, a ministry which was to run for eleven years, where I was restored into my church community, embraced, and given the opportunity to serve in a new way. “He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd doth his flock” (Jeremiah 31:10b.)
To sum up; I am saying three things about the creative experience of exile:
1. Accepting where we are, and then getting on with it
2. Learning new ways of living in the strange place in which we find ourselves, especially by reflecting on the experience and allowing ourselves to changed on the inside.
3. Holding to the faith that understands God’s Grace as the crucial element in bringing us back home, changed, transformed, restored to the community of Christ, ready to serve anew. “Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy. I will comfort them and give them gladness for sorrow.” (Jeremiah 31:13). New life in Christ has begun.
“CALLED TO SERVE”
The Willows Uniting Church 8th January 2023
Isaiah 42:1-9, Matthew 3:13-17
The call to serve echoes in the space at the very centre of the invitation of Jesus Christ to follow him. One of the greatest disservices that has ever been perpetrated on the life and witness of the Christian church is the idea that a person’s response to the call of Christ can be disconnected from the call to serve.
I could, at the risk of being seen to be unduly negative and critical, give some examples of what I mean, but I am instead going to leave that to your imagination. (Well, I might just slip in one or two along the way). I would rather, however, emphasis the positive by giving a number of examples, which will I hope explain why I feel so strongly about this.
Here is one that will be familiar to most of you, I am sure. Later we will sing the hymn Amazing Grace, written by a former slave trader John Newton. When Newton was converted to the Christian faith during a violent storm at sea (it’s amazing how violent storms at sea tend to focus the mind on things of life and death significance), he changed his profession to that of clergy. As his faith matured, Newton’s remorse over his involvement in the slave trade surfaced, and he became an ardent abolitionist, working closely in this ministry of service to humanity with William Wilberforce. And so “Brother, sister let me serve you” replaced his earlier call of “Brother sister, let me sell you.” As St Paul puts it, “Whom he calls he justifies, and whom he justifies he sanctifies…”
When I was in theological college, we students, being arrogantly sure of ourselves and our understanding of the ways of God, could not understand how the various theologians we studied could be so different from one another, even if all of them had Germanic surnames starting with the same letter- Barth, Bonhoeffer, Brueggemann Brunner… The wise professor explained it this way- “in order to understand how a scholar thinks about God and the world, read their biography.” As another has said “What we see depends on where we stand”.
Now I am no academic theologian, even if my initials are BB, but I would like to share with you just a little of my background in order to let you see how I come to stand where I do; why when I read the scriptures for this week I want to preach a sermon entitled “Called to Serve”.
What do I mean by “Service”? One formal definition says “Actions and programs of support, care, nurture, advocacy and prophetic action as commonly exhibited in the church’s community service agencies and other mission and service focussed entities of the (church).” More generally, it can be anything we do that serves the needs of others, especially those who were the focus of Jesus’ ministry- the poor, the disadvantaged, the oppressed, the displaced, the young and the vulnerable.
Now let me share with you how I came to the point of seeing Christian service as being at the heart of the Gospel. I had a typical Christian upbringing for a child of my era- Sunday School while my parents slept in, Confirmation at 15 because everyone else did, then the good fortune to fall in with a vibrant Methodist youth group at age 19. I quickly began to take the gospel challenge seriously, became a Local Preacher at 21, and candidated for the Methodist ministry at age 24. I was as evangelically conservative and biblically literalist as the next candidate, but there was something else that was having a subversive and influential effect on the way I understood what it meant to follow Christ in a deeply cruel and seriously unjust society.
On reflection, I understand this influence to go right back to my childhood, where I absorbed rather than understood what was going on around me. I suppose it all came to a head one Friday evening in 1965. (I was born in 1950 so the arithmetic is easy). My parents had friends in for cards that evening, and my father, having run out of cigarettes, sent me to the corner shop at a major intersection just down the road. It was raining, and as I approached the shop I saw a large motor-bike on its side, and a broken bag of potatoes. Looking around, I then saw the broken African man lying on the pavement, with a woman standing by helplessly. I went over to discover that the shinbone of his left leg was sticking through the skin. As he lay there on the concrete in a stream of water, I could think of nothing else to do but sit down and cradle his head in my lap while waiting for the ambulance.
A little while later, a doctor who was driving home stopped, and administered a morphine injection, leaving me instructions to tell the ambulance officers this when they arrived. He will never know, as he drove away to his warm home, how much I wanted him to stay and take control.
When the White ambulance officers who drove the ambulance for Blacks arrived, and placed the patient on a stretcher, one of them, in walking around the man’s feet, bumped his left ankle. When the injured man cried out in pain, the officer said words that are now seared into my mind, words he could not and never would say to a White patient- “Don’t be such a baby!” I went home drenched by more than rain, and without my father’s cigarettes. I won’t say that that one incident changed my life, but it surely, along with many other experiences, helped set its course. Among other things, it ensured that I would or could never countenance a version of the Christian faith that allowed for a comfortable personal relationship with God without demanding a life on the edge, where the needs of the community intersect with the call of Christ to humble, and where necessary, sacrificial service. I know that I failed many times to maintain the gospel standard of service, but I will never be able to forget what it is and what it calls us to.
When the church reads about the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, it naturally and understandably relates this prophecy of the coming of Jesus Christ, the hoped for Messiah. That is not to say that the Hebrew scriptures uniformly expected this kind of Messiah, in fact for many, a warrior king like David was much preferred, someone who would eject the Romans, or any other interlopers for that matter, from Zion. Nevertheless, at Easter we know that this is whose life, death and resurrection we celebrate, the one by whose stripes we are healed.
There is nothing wrong with this interpretation of the prophecy, as long as we understand that when it was originally written, it was more probably with the nation of Israel in mind as the Suffering Servant, a holy nation, dedicated to God, and to the service of its people. Such a nation would be looking, not to its own aggrandisement or accumulation of wealth and power, but to the costly, compassionate care of its people, its neighbours and the foreigners in its midst.
So it is that when Matthew, in the 25th chapter of his Gospel, talks about the separation of the sheep and the goats on the basis of whether or not they cared for the poor and needy in their midst, it is the NATIONS that are being called to account (Matthew 25:32). Is the nation a suffering servant of its people, or is it a ravaging wolf, dedicated to its own prosperity at the neglect of the weak and vulnerable?
To cut a very long story short, the nations have by and large never seen this as their main responsibility, and it is the Christian church that is now the intended recipient of the Suffering Servant mantle, called to the task of care and justice and advocacy. In so doing it is showing what Christ is like, the one who proclaimed, in the words of the Prophet, “I have come to bring good news to the poor…” The Christian Church is called to serve in the way of Christ as are the individuals, you and I, who are part of the Community of Faith. This should, from an inspection of the gospel record, be self-evident, but, being a human organisation, has found ways to try and avoid this responsibility, as the waters of cheap grace flow around the rock of ages that they cannot dislodge.
To illustrate, let me take you back to South Africa, 1975, as I begin my first year as probationer minister to three suburban churches on the outskirts of Durban (It’s called being thrown in the deep end) These congregations are doing OK, with just a bit of evidence of the Wesleyan tradition of caring for the disadvantaged. Ten miles or so up the road, another local church of a different denomination is full to overflowing, a legend of the Pinetown ecclesiastical community. Is the charismatic pastor the key to this success? Probably. I also suspect that it had something to do with the words in large print on the notice-board: “NO POLITICS ARE PREACHED FROM THIS PULPIT” In Apartheid South Africa, that is code for “We are not going to bother your consciences about the dreadful injustices that are being perpetrated around you on people of racial classifications other than yours.” The Jesus we embrace is not always the Suffering Servant of Isaiah. We sometimes derive from what we assume about him a cut price brand of grace, a grace anything but amazing. For the nation’s churches to say “we will not get involved in the politics” is in fact a political decision in itself, giving at least tacit support to the status quo, and one that has benefitted the cruellest of regimes from Nazism to the current invasion of Ukraine. Karl Barth radically changed the direction of theology in the 20th century in reaction to the acquiescence of the German Church to the horrors of Hitler. Meanwhile, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed by the Gestapo for trying to put a spanner in the works of that genocidal regime. Suffering servants indeed! The Suffering Servant is, by definition, one who gets involved in the nitty gritty of life, when the chips are down and the fists are swinging. The Suffering Servant always takes sides for the common good, and often pays the price for their courage.
Of course, the Gospels leave us in no doubt as to who Jesus is, and the extent to which a ministry of service lies at the heart of the Gospel. This is foreshadowed when he submits himself to baptism by John, placing himself in a humble space as one who is of and with his community, not there to be served, but to serve. The gospels then link this story with that of Jesus in the wilderness, where he explicitly rejects the devil’s temptation to embrace wealth, power and self-interest, instead entrenching himself the way of suffering service.
And so, in the light of all this, what does it mean to belong to a church which at best has a strong and vibrant ethos of Christian ethics, a church that embraces a ministry of service in the way of Jesus?
When I could no longer stomach the regime I grew up with, or imagine raising my infant children there, I applied to the UCA to enter its ministry. I had already applied and had been rejected by UK Methodist church on the grounds that they knew what was best for me. The Uniting Church Synod General Secretary’s response was swift: ‘Come as you are. You are welcome.’ Our ethos of inclusion is as close to unconditional as we can humanly get it, a stance which has at times attracted strong criticism from both within our own fellowship, and among the wider church. We will continue to wear that, under the conviction that being spiritually mature is consistent with a ministry of unconditional welcome and humble service.
More than that, our church, at its best, demonstrates at all levels of its functioning, a willingness to embrace the challenge to bring spirituality and service together. We try and honour the observation of Jesus that a tree is known by the fruit it bears, and that, as St Francis of Assisi observed, we preach by our deeds. So it was that as I wandered around this property a few days ago, I observed the signs of a congregation that understands the call to serve inherent in its commitment to Jesus Christ; from the welcome banner in the foyer, to the instructions about maintaining a Safe Place for congregation and community alike, to a labyrinth that says we see no separation between our spiritual pursuits and our ministry of service. Renowned South African theologian John De Gruchy reminds us of our calling to “…a spirituality which enables a lived experience of God, with people and with creation, fed by a longing for justice and wholeness and resistance to all that thwarts wellbeing.” (Public Theology as Christian Witness).
Part of the reason why I chose the word “service” to summarise my intended direction for this year was influenced by the fact that I will be working with you, part of the time, for part of the year. I understand that you are in a grieving space following the resignation of your former and long-serving minister, Rev Kenneth Brown. His gifts and skills for ministry will be missed, and the future is uncertain as you embark on that uncertain journey to engage future ministry. You do of course have many gifted congregants who are willing to further serve where the gaps appear. You nevertheless need time and space to grieve and be restored, and I aim to honour that need in our life together.
I also know that service is a two way street, so let me close with words from a modern hymn by Richard Gillard:
“Brother sister, let me serve you, let me be as Christ to you; pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too.” AMEN
Brian Brown. 8/1/23
HOLDING IT ALL TOGETHER
Sunday 5th February 2023, Boolaroo Uniting Church, Matthew 5:13-20, 1 Corinthians 2:1-16
I call this message “Holding it all together” because I believe with all my heart that the church’s calling is to do just that- to keep the spiritual practices of our faith, including those actions that enact the love of God in the world, when we add value to those around us like the salt of the earth, and shine a light in dark places so all may be saved. Because faith without works is dead.
John Newton, author of the hymn Amazing Grace, is an excellent example. His career as a cruel slave trader came to crashing halt one night during a frightening storm at sea. In the midst of it, he became converted to the Christian faith, stopped his heinous slaving, and became a minister of the Gospel. As he grew in faith he became involved with Wilberforce in the politics of abolition. From greedy cruelty in dark places, he became a light to the world. Amazing grace indeed! Holding it all together.
The metaphors Jesus uses in the Sermon on the Mount speak clearly of this. Salt is useful in a number of ways, all of which have in common that it ADDS VALUE to what it mixes with. Salt preserves food, enhances taste, disinfects wounds. Remember how we used to gargle with salt water when we had a sore throat?
We sometimes speak in high praise of a particular person as ‘salt of the earth’, usually someone who is down to earth, who gives energy to those around them; is kind and generous.
Jesus says to his followers that they are the salt of the earth. Some are fishers; not in salt water, but no doubt their catch would be salted down to preserve it in the hot climate without refrigeration. They are good men, who, for all their faults, are learning how to be better.
Then he calls them “The light of the world”. Now this is not a term we often use in praise of our fellows. It seems overblown, a bit too spiritual; a heavy burden to carry. I can imaging Peter turning to his colleagues and saying “What the…” It is perhaps helpful to hear this metaphor as applying to a community rather that an individual- a “city set on a hill”. This is the high calling of the Christian Church. At best this is what we are, when we are not going silent or underground for one reason or the other.
But what does it mean in practice to be salt and light? What did Jesus intend? Answers are to be found in the scriptures either side of this passage. For instance, Matthew places these salt and light sayings right after the Beatitudes where Jesus lays out the marks of a life that is blessed; humility, meekness, a drive to do the right thing, mercy, purity, peacemaking. Practical virtues. Those who embody these virtues are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
Then, in what follows the “salt” and “light” sayings, Jesus equates salt and light behaviour with fulfilling the whole law of God. In fact, he says, you will have to do a whole lot better than those who claim to be righteous enactors of the law- the Scribes and the Pharisees- who say one thing and do another.
I leave it to your creative imagination to work out what it means for you to live a life that qualifies you for the title of “Salt of the earth”. And this and all churches need to delve in the cupboards and drawers of their communal homes to find the batteries that will power the lights that they will set upon a hill to show the world what God’s goodness is like.
Now let me take you back for a moment to the gospel passage and make one more observation. Note that when Jesus affirms his gathered followers as salt and light, in both cases he issues a warning about how these gifts can be squandered. “If the salt should lose its flavour…” “No one puts a lamp under a bushel basket”
What is his point here? Why introduce such notes of negativity? The clue lies in the criticism of the lack of righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees; they who should know better, and have fallen into the trap- the same trap that hounds and restricts the church today. The trap is that they have thought that righteousness begins and ends with religious practices like prayer and fasting and reciting the law by heart, without the righteous deeds that should accompany this show of piety. Words without actions. Trees without fruit. The salt has lost its flavour. The light has been masked by empty piety. Their pious disguise has fallen apart.
The great 16th Century reformer John Calvin assures us that if a person it chosen and elected by God, it is impossible to fall away from grace (apparently the salt cannot loses its flavour). Martin Luther dismissed the teaching of the Book of James as “An Epistle of straw” because it says that faith without works is dead; and Billy Graham, great evangelist as he was, said little about what concrete social action should follow the act of repentance and belief in Jesus.
I think John Wesley had a better grasp than any of them about “holding it all together”. He was a true evangelist. He preached repentance and conversion to the masses with an effectiveness which some say prevented a bloody revolution in Britain like happened in France. He also served the literally poor and hungry. His Sunday Schools were started, not in order to teach the young about Jesus, but illiterate children to read and write. He knew how to hold it all together. OK, there are shady parts to his biography but he was, by and large, salt and light. And he also taught that a person of faith can fall away from grace if their behaviour falls away from doing the right thing; if the salt loses its flavour.
The great irony of a singular focus on the personal spiritual life as be all and end all of what it means to be a person of faith is that it is clearly unbiblical, and there is in fact a huge chunk of the Bible to support Jesus’ teaching about holding it all together. The biggest section is the Books of the Prophets, which have one core message. They all call the People of Israel to repentance for their social misdeeds. They call out kings for their corrupt rule and lives. They excoriate the hypocritical religio/political leaders, who parade around in a pompous show of piety for their cruelty to the vulnerable, naming them wolves in sheep’s clothing who prey on the poor the so-called “little ones. Jesus himself, who stands squarely in this prophetic tradition, has extra-harsh words for those who cause such little ones to stumble. And if you want a core sample of this prophetic proclamation, there is no better place to drill down than Isaiah 58. You heard it read earlier in full. It is too much to take in in one go. In summary it says this:
- God’s people are sinning by pretending to be good and do good
- They practice religious rituals like prayer and fasting, then go out and do things like beating up their workers.
- True fasting is, firstly, being repentant about our misdeeds. Secondly, it is about acting justly in the community, feeding the hungry, freeing the oppressed, housing the homeless, keeping the Sabbath.
-If you do this, God will richly bless you AND YOUR LIGHT SHALL BREAK FORTH LIKE THE DAWN
As one commentator writes, “Isaiah 58 mocks worship preoccupied with ritual and blind to human oppression and need. It subverts a religion, no matter how passionate and busy, that ignores the ordinance of God and social arrangements that leave people dehumanised and enslaved. Authentic worship occurs when the liturgy is joined to the hands-on involvement with the hungry and the homeless . . . This passage) undergirds the statement of Jesus to the disciples that they are the light of the world and the salt of the earth. “Light” and “salt” are functional metaphors. By their very nature they do something, and do it openly….No more than the people of Israel of Isaiah’s day can the disciples retreat into private spirituality. Their call is to the market-place, to the public arena.”
Terrible things can happen when the church or individuals, separate their professed faith from their public action. We may wonder how the pious Lutheran Church could quietly acquiesce to Hitler, and its pastors preach under a swastika in the midst of open genocide, but then, their founder Luther himself supported the German nobles as they cruelly crushed a Peasant’s Revolt. South African Apartheid could have been ended much earlier had the Dutch Reformed Church not waited until the 1990’s to declare it a heresy. The Robodebt scandal, currently under scrutiny by a Royal Commission, could have been averted had professing Christians in high office not turned a blind eye to its illegality, or the reports of multiple suicides that followed this dehumanising process.
Christian is as Christian does. At our best, we hold it all together. Spirituality and social justice; prayer and pastoral care, salt and light.
Brian Brown. 5/2/23
“STICKS AND STONES”
Sunday 12th February 2023, The Willows Uniting Church, Matthew 5:21-26
Today I am addressing the issue of the place of respect in community and church. What does respect look like in its action and its absence? If we truly mean it when we sing “Let us build a house where all may dwell, where all may safely live”, what part does respect play in that process?
A troubled young woman comes to a trusted elder with a question: “My boyfriend has just proposed to me, but we have not been together all that long, and I am unsure if he is the person I want to spend the rest of my life with?” The wise elder replies “I cannot advise you if you should marry this fellow or not. What I can suggest is that you take a bit of time to note a few things. Watch how he relates to his mother. How does he get on with his siblings. How does he treat the family dog? When you are out and the waiter spills his drink, how does he react. When he gets angry, how well does he control his impulses. Because in the end, when the gloss wears off, this is how he is going to treat you. With respect?
The critical consequences of disrespect are evident in a number of ways in society today. On average, in Australia, one woman a week dies at the hand of their partner. The damage is compounded by psychological and sexual abuse, where children are often involved. The statistics of older women living in cars, broke and broken, are horrendous. How did it come to this fatal lack of disrespect?
Of course, the internet and social media has exacerbated the problem exponentially. For example, teenage suicide as the result of social media trolling is at epidemic levels. Bullies are often also cowards, and do their dirty work while hidden from sight. Even email can become a disaster area, not to mention Twitter. I have learned the hard way that “Reply” and “Send” are the two most dangerous buttons on the screen. We can get angry and stay respectful, but it takes self-control.
In today’s Gospel reading, Matthew 5:21-26, Jesus addresses the issue of the consequences of disrespectful anger. It seems on the face of it that Jesus is criticising the emotion of anger itself, however I do not think is the intention. For instance, he says “if you are angry with your brother or sister you will be liable to judgment.” I suspect the judgment will be on how the person responds in the midst of their anger. How do they control the angry impulse? Do they lash out, smash their racquet, metaphorically or physically, or do they find a creative way to manage their disrespectful outburst? Do they engage in conflict and remain respectful?
Things then get more serious with the hurling of insults, like calling a person a “you fool”. While I see the threat of hell-fire as metaphorical, the danger to the recipient is real. The saying “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me” is NOT true., even as a short term strategy to cope with the schoolyard bully. This is especially so with unfettered social media, where words and images do all the damage. For this awful abuse of fragile people, there should indeed be hell to pay. Respect?
Here are two Gospel stories that indicate the nature of true respect, or lack of it. When Jesus visits the home of Simon the Pharisee he is given none of the normal courtesies due to a guest. It takes a woman of the street to wash his feet as the social more requires. According to Jesus’ observation at the end of this passage, her act of respect covers a multitude of sins. Then, at the Last Supper, Jesus washes his disciple’s feet, a courtesy usually carried out by the household servants. The one who came not to be served but to serve, shows that true respect is unconditional. Jesus treats with respect those who are the least used to getting it. Later, a secular counsellor, Carl Rogers, emphasised the importance of treating a client in therapy with unconditional positive regard.
And so to psychiatrist Scott Peck, a later convert to Christianity and author of The Road Less Travelled, on the value of respect in the community of faith. The story he tells today is called The Rabbi’s Gift. (A narration by Peck can be seen on Youtube, while the text of the story can also be located on the internet.)
The point here is not that a revival of respect will automatically initiate a revival of an aging and declining monastic community. Our task is to do the groundwork, and see what the Spirit does with that. The reality is that even in the best of communities there is disruption, argument, disagreement gatekeeping, anger and hostility. It’s how we manage it that counts; how we notice, acknowledge and control our negative impulses so that the energy created by the conflict is converted into positive, restorative relationships. A true community of faith is built upon a foundation of fundamental respect and unconditional positive regard.
Even if we find ourselves at odds with someone here for what we consider to be an excellent reason, it is far better to find something we respect them for than to think or call them a fool. Who knows, that person you consider in your unabated anger to be an idiot…they might just be the Messiah!
Scott Peck’s story also gives a shout-out to the value of self-respect. Sticks and stones may break your bones, and names can surely hurt you, but when your self-respect is strong, nothing, no abuse, no scourging, no humiliation can take away you sense of self worth. Think about it like this: If you or I had been one of the 12 at the Last Supper, Jesus would have washed our feet too.
With some people respect seems to comes naturally. We might refer to such as ‘the salt of the earth’. Much of it, hopefully, we learned by absorption in the family home, or from valued mentors at school and church. In following the way of Jesus, we may have embraced the value of “doing to others as we would have them do to us”. We also find, even, now, in an ever changing world, that there is still a lot to learn, such as to using inclusive language and appropriate pronouns when people need us to respect their difference. To learn what LGBTIQ+ means instead of just sniggering when someone adds yet another letter to the list. To listen to the Indigenous Voices from the Heart rather than allowing ourselves to be drawn into yet another destructive culture war.
The good news is that there is a strong and growing current of influence in the community that advocates for respect of those groups who are seriously disadvantaged by its absence. I did an informal analysis of Australians of the Year back to 1960, to see who we most highly value and respect as a nation. In the early years the awards tended to favour gifted experts like sports persons, entertainers and scientists. Then around the time of Patrick McGorry and Rosie Batty, the trend shifted towards advocates for those disadvantaged groups for whom respect is in short supply. Then, for the last three years, we have had Grace Tame on behalf of survivors of sexual assault, Dylan Alcott as an advocate for disability, and now Taryn Brumfitt, who works for the benefit of that group who are particularly vulnerable on Instagram, for example, to the ridicule of a person’s body image; especially so-called “fat-shaming”. Whoever picks these winners has my wholehearted respect.
The sticks and stones and words we throw are the infected carriers of disrespect. Respect costs us nothing except a willingness to stay awake to its necessity in any situation, even in the very community of faith of which we are a part.
Brian Brown 12.2.202
"THE STEP OF FAITH" BOOLAROO UC, Sunday 5th March 2023
Today I am going to reflect on the actual step of faith that takes us from a position of belief onto a path to a new future on the way of the transformed life.
To illustrate this, let me describe a scene from the film “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”. Indiana and his father are following a set of archaeological clues to find the Holy Grail, the cup that Jesus used at the last Supper. As they near the destination, Jones’ father is shot by a Nazi officer. Now Jones needs to find the Grail and bring it back to save his father’s life.
The final clue leads him to the edge of a precipice with no discernable way across. Yet the riddle tells him to step out at that very point. Finally, and against all instincts, he places his foot over the edge, to find solid ground there. A stone bridge spans the chasm, but so cleverly camouflaged as to be invisible to the naked eye. This step of faith leads Jones to the Grail, and the day is saved.
Indiana Jones believed the truth of the clues, but it took a step of faith to reach his goal.
I’m not sure if Abram’s step into the unknown beyond his village and his kin was quite as dramatic, but the consequences changed the course of biblical history. Humanity, like the antelope, has a built-in survival mechanism that keeps them as close to the centre of the herd as possible, and yet Abram is called to obey a voice telling him to put it all at risk. I’m not sure in what way he heard the voice telling him to leave home for an unknown future. What we do know was that he was faced with a choice to take one of two paths- go or stay. He chose the road less travelled, and that made all the difference.
The step of faith into the unknown requires courage. Jungian psychologist Joseph Campbell describes what he calls the “hero’s journey”, that begins when the person leaves the safe confines of the “village”-a metaphor for whatever contains and sustains us- and sets out on a journey into the unknown, where they are now protected by supernatural forces as a new world opens up to them. He uses many examples from Greek mythology, and from the scriptures of the major religions to illustrate the point. St Paul, for example, names a long list of biblical “heroes” whose willingness to choose the step in faith builds the salvation history of a people preparing to receive the Messiah.
His own story is of one who is trapped in a lifeless entanglement of Pharasaic devotion to the law. It is only when his eyes are opened by the Spirit of Christ on the road to Damascus that he realises that he has to change direction and choose another road, which leads him on to the missionary journeys and letters for which he is famous.
So too, conflicted Nicodemus hesitates at the point when his unease with life in the sterile Pharisaic village urges him to go and seek the deeper wisdom of the strange and unsettling new rabbi in their midst. When the writer of John’s Gospel says that Nicodemus came to Jesus “by night”, we can be sure that he does not just mean that Nicodemus came under cover of darkness to avoid being seen by his religious brethren. John always uses such dualisms as “day” and “night’, “light “ and “darkness” to convey deeper meanings. In this context “by night” conveys the sense of Nicodemus’ lack of deeper spiritual insight, and into which Jesus brings enlightened wisdom about the ways of the Spirit.
We know that this encounter was effective because Nicodemus is identified later in the Gospel as defending Jesus in the Sanhedrin, and finally, helping Joseph of Aramithea recover the body of Jesus from the Romans, and embalm and bury him. He has left behind the life of stultifying law, and embarked on the risky but ultimately transforming path of faith.
One can speculate what might happen if a person like Abraham or Paul or Nicodemus, or any one of us, hears the call to move out of dark and restricted spaces and onto the way of faith, but fail to heed the call. Joseph Campbell puts it this way:
“The myths and folk tales of the whole world make clear that the refusal (to take the step of faith) is essentially a refusal to give up what one takes to be in one’s own interest. The future is regarded not in terms of a (transforming) series of deaths and births, but as though one’s present system of ideals, virtues, goals, and advantages were to be fixed and made secure.”
Joseph Campbell “The Hero with a thousand faces”
I read this and hear the echoes of Paul’s confession of his former entrapped life- “…circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, a Hebrew born of Hebrews, as to the law, a Pharisee, as to zeal, a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” But having stepped out in faith on a different road, leaving all of that behind, he can now say “Yet whatever gains I had there, I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.” (Philippians 3:5-7)
This leads me inevitably to ask the question about how such enlightened thinking applies to us in the present day. The call to take a step in faith is not a once in a lifetime event, but a recurring challenge to face the renewing future, the refusal of which leaves us stuck where we are, stuck in a non life-giving past; and the acceptance of which takes courage and hope. It may seem that all that lies before us is an empty chasm which makes the Grail quest hopeless, and yet the step in faith brings with it the solid ground the of a transformed life.
This is a question for every one of us who hear the Gospel week by week and wonder what it is that God is asking each one of us. The hymn-writer articulates the challenge thus- “Faith will not grow from words alone…our faith must feel its way about”; and then, in the final verse, “Faith takes the little that we know, and calls for hope, and tells us : Go! Love and take courage, come what may; Christ will be with us on the way."
It is also a question for a church that knows deep down that no matter how comforting and supporting is the fellowship, something crucial is missing. Children and young people, for example. It is as if the changing climate in society has dried up the glacier that once fed the institutional church with the refreshing energy of the younger generations. If we are honest, we have to ask ourselves whether or not we were among the climate change deniers in the face of the call to take another road when the writing was on the wall! Without some radical new direction, what sustained us in the past will not sustain us into the future. How then do we refresh our mission in the world that has moved on without us? Having said that, we worship a God who is full of surprises, so we should keep open our ears and eyes, not to mention our hearts and minds. THE STORY IS NOT OVER.
The “Hero’s journey” is a quest for which we are never too old. After all, Abram was 75 years old when he lefts Haran with his wife, and they had not yet even started a family! Joseph Campbell finds a recurring theme in mythology that the “hero” inevitably finds supernatural help to complete their quest, and in the Bible, Jesus promises that “I will be with you always, even to the end of the age”.
The way of faith is a choice to step out onto a new road, a new and risky path- to leave behind that which holds us back and weighs us down. At a point of my life when faced with the choice to embark on such a new journey, this poem of Robert Frost challenged me to the point that I committed it to memory:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh! I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads onto way,
I doubted I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Robert Frost. “The Road Not Taken”
Who knows where the step in faith will lead us? For the Spirit blows where it wills. But this we know, by faith- it is the road that leads us home.
BEYOND INCLUSION The Willows Uniting Church 12 March 2023
Very early in my ministry I came across a book, neither the name nor the author of which I can remember, which addressed the basics of building an effective community of faith. The very first thing upon which the author insisted was “Pay special attention to the process of inclusion.”
Of course, inclusion is not the be all and end all of community building, but without it, nothing much else can happen. I have worked very hard through my congregational ministry to try and make newcomers welcome, and people at the “soft core” of the congregation feel that they have an important place in the fellowship. In doing this I have found it crucial to have a team of commissioned and trained leaders (elders), whose calling in the Uniting Church is to work with the minister in the ministries of worship and pastoral care in particular, but also in leadership of outreach activities. In addition to Eldership, the Uniting Church, very early in its life, instigated a quota system for its meetings whereby at least one third needed to be women, and at least one third men. (It is no longer a regulation, mainly because it is now ingrained best practice in our communal psyche- just like seatbelts, and unlike masks).
Thus inclusion is not just about bringing people into the fold, but also the involvement of the people in the roles of Christ’s ministry.
Such an ethos is central to who we are as a church. That the ministry of inclusion is highly valued is clearly shown whenever Uniting Churches participate in the National Church Life Survey, where the affirmation of the aim to include all people in our fellowship as that characteristic which we most highly value runs at between 70 and 80%.
I recently listened to a podcast where Sharon Hollis, President of the Uniting Church Assembly, interviewed Rev Amelia Koh-Butler. Amelia spoke about how her Chinese family enrolled her in a church school, then disowned her when she was “thoroughly converted” to the Christian faith. In that church, she “hit the glass ceiling” of women’s participation in leadership aged 19, and finally found her way into the Uniting Church where she was warmly welcomed and enabled to take leadership positions without any gender restrictions whatsoever.
I have no doubt whatsoever that such radical and inclusion is a key way in which we can reflect the image of the God we serve. Unfortunately our ministry theology and practice has not always reflected this, and the picture that the wider community get of the church through the popular media in no way gives us credit for who we are at our best. After all, when is it ever said that the Wayside Chapel or the Medically Supervised Injecting Centre in King’s Cross are both Uniting Church Ministries, or that Lifeline, the go-to phone number for anyone who may be distressed by what they see and hear on TV, was founded by a Methodist Minister? The negatively biased representations of the church in the popular press is one of the reasons that we need to be open to new ways of understanding and speaking about God that more clearly reflect the inclusive love of Christ, rather that the sometimes aggressive and judgmental God of the Hebrew scriptures, and the gender bias of some of the Epistles.
And what better way to do this than to learn and sing the great hymn of Brian Wren: “Bring many names, beautiful and good”. If the words and ideas are somewhat confronting on first hearing, we should remember that all of our classifications of God, especially the devoted “Father” of Jesus’ prayers, are metaphors that give but a limited glimpse of the how God interacts with God’s people. Wren’s images of God are inclusive of women and men, old and young. He also, with a whimsical sense of humour, describes God as transcending our gendered expectations of women and men, where the energies of both animus and anima can flow freely in each.
But then, just in case we have fallen for the idea that God can be contained in human images, the last verse erupts in a eulogy of the breathtaking breadth and depth of God’s mystery- “Great living God, never fully known, joyful darkness far beyond our seeing…”
And just in case we have fallen too much in love with the idea that as long as we are an inclusive church we have done our job, along comes the Jesus of the Gospels to tear that illusion to threads.
Take, for example, John’s Jesus as he interacts with the Woman at the Well. In John chapter 4 just his first four words are enough- “Give me a drink”! For one thing, in Jesus’ world, Jews are not allowed to share a cup with Gentiles, let alone hold a public conversation with a Samaritan, let alone a woman. This act of civil disobedience demonstrates the dramatic originality of one who is not seeking to draw this woman into his Jewish fellowship, but is placing himself outside the closed world of his religion in order the reach with saving love into hers. In so doing he makes himself vulnerable in all sorts of ways, a risk that is just not there when all we are trying to do is include others in our world. This interaction is one of those situations where it is impossible to make any progress without being willing to break something, namely, the Jewish laws about cultural and gender interaction.
In a second example, also from John, the Pharisees who are trying to entrap Jesus into defying their religious law, bring to him “…a woman caught in the act of adultery…”, and want to know if he agrees that she should be stoned according to the Law of Moses. Jesus does not immediately answer, but stoops down to write something with his finger, in the dust. Now, much ink has been expended trying to work out what he actually wrote, but I am here today to tell you what it was that I would have liked it to be: “WHERE IS THE MAN”! He then stands to silence their confused babble with those words, so well known and usually quoted out of context “Let anyone among you who is without sin cast the first stone”.
Jesus has, once again, stepped outside the comfort zone to advocate for the needy and the vulnerable- not to condone her action but to forgive it, and stand up against the ugly hypocrites who prefer to pick on the easier target.
I could actually go on all day giving further examples of how the ministry of Christ goes beyond inclusion- how he heals the bleeding woman who touches his robe, how he goes to the home of Zaccheus to bring transformation to the life of the outcast tax-collector, how he tells stories that God is like a shepherd who leaves the 99 in the safely of the fold, and goes onto the wild hillside to find the one that is lost. His very incarnation is about leaving the safety of the heavenly home and entering a world that rejects him from start to finish, from outhouse stable to brutal Calvary.
I saw a compelling image in my twitter feed this week, of an aging Rev Dorothy McRae McMahon, on her walker, crossing the Harbour Bridge, bedecked in a large rainbow scarf on the World Pride Day March- Dorothy, who in her ‘coming out’ as a lesbian placed herself at the un-mercy of vilification from within and without the church, even to the extent of getting faeces in her mailbox at the hands of a Neo Nazi group in Sydney.
I offer this image as an example of what it means to go beyond being inclusive, (which her congregation at Pitt St certainly was), and face the world offering compassion for the vulnerable and the persecuted.
Being inclusive, we open our doors and our hearts to others who seek our company. Beyond inclusion, we venture outside the confines of our safe space, so that we may stand in the world of the other, and perhaps walk a mile in their shoes. Being inclusive requires of us hospitality with a generosity of Spirit, making room for newcomers in our midst, and sometimes sitting with them instead of with our friends. Beyond inclusion, the call is for courageous, selfless compassion. We may even be asked to break something in order to be a part of putting someone together again. In this mode, we reflect the image and follow in the way of the one who came not to be served, but to serve.
WHERE DID THAT COME FROM? Boolaroo Uniting Church Palm Sunday 2nd April 2023
I think that we can all identify with a situation where someone does something quite out of character on the spur of the moment. A flash of anger, a flood of tears, an act of violence or even a spontaneous and unexpected act of kindness, draws from us the surprised or even shocked response “Where did THAT come from?”
The issue I am keen to highlight during this Holy Week is the behaviour of a number of the players in this drama who behave seemingly quite out of character, and in various ways bring negative and destructive forces down upon Jesus’ head. Some try to explain it as God’s plan that Jesus be crucified, divinely organised so that people would act in certain ways to bring it about. I don’t buy that. For one thing, the little that I do understand about the divine nature on the basis of the Gospel accounts leaves me no room to accept how any good father could behave in that cruel and callous way, let alone one who is “all compassion”. I am looking rather for an explanation that arises from the human survival instinct.
I therefore find enlightening the theories of psychiatrists and psychologists of the late 19th and early 20th century, about the depth and power of the human unconscious mind. Through techniques such as the analysis of their patients’ dreams, and by delving into the legends and mythologies of ancient cultures, they began to explain where some of the curious and at times deeply destructive actions of human beings have their origins.
Psychologist Carl Jung and others proposed the existence of strong unconscious energies to which they gave the name “the shadow”. Unconscious energies which exist in every person, and have a way of affecting and even driving our behaviour in ways over which we seem to have little or no control. Our shadow, they said, consists of the things we have suppressed over time because they seemed to be unacceptable in our culture or family. The problem is that these suppressed energies have a way of festering deep within us, and, when neglected, can erupt with seemingly disproportionate force in the sort of actions to which we habitually respond: WHERE DID THAT COME FROM?
The golf course is one place that seems to trigger such outbursts, such as when a golfer throws a club when they cannot get out of a bunker, or releases a volley of swearing when the one metre putt lips the cup and stays out. Such outbursts are relatively harmless, unless the thrown club actually hits a fellow player. But uncontrolled shadow forces can really do a lot of harm, and especially when they come from the collective shadow of a community or nation that decides to abuse or invade their neighbour.
I would suggest that these insights help us to understand some of the seemingly inexplicable actions of otherwise decent people that contributed to the suffering and eventual death of Jesus. For example, how could it be that the crowds, who welcomed Jesus and his disciples as they entered Jerusalem with loud and vocal support, just are few days later are baying for his blood, having switched their allegiance to the criminal Barabbas? Where did that come from?
We do, of course, know how fickle crowds can be. A packed stadium of spectators can cheer their team onto the field, then boo them off at full time when their hopes and expectations of a crushing victory have been dashed by a rash of penalties and dropped ball. We can understand the disappointment, but where is the loyalty towards players who are, no doubt themselves bitterly disappointed by their own efforts. As the hymn-writer also asks, “What drives this rage and spite?”
Jung would call such behaviour “Shadow projection”. The energies, both good and bad, that fester in our unconscious, find an outlet as they are dumped upon others, both positively or negatively.
Remember, for example, the huge outpouring of grief and anguish following the death of Princess Diana in that needless traffic crash in a Paris tunnel? Yes, she was beautiful, and kind, and had been badly treated, yet the reaction still seemed out of all proportion from a community that hardly knew her. It could even be argued that all of the hopes and dreams and expectations and adoration that had been projected onto her frail being actually contributed to her demise. After all, how could she possibly live up to all of that?
Then, on the other hand, recall how a Melbourne footy crowed bayed for the blood of Adam Goodes because he stood up to them as a proud Aboriginal man. He became the singular focus of all their racist anger, which they could express in the worst possible way because there was safety in their numbers. In so doing, the mindless projection of their dark, prejudiced shadow ruined a wonderful career. You could say that they crucified him. Where did that come from? It came from the powerful collective shadow of mob instinct, when in the midst of a driving herd mentality, they basically lost control of their better selves.
When we blame others for the very things of which we are guilty, we are projecting from our own shadow those things we unconsciously despise in ourselves. It seems far easier to see what we dislike out there than in here. One way to own our shadow is to become aware how much we are blaming and who we are blaming, and to then withdraw the projection. This is better than making the footballers responsible for our joy or our disappointment, instead of asking ourselves what is missing in our lives that we need to rely on such fickle circumstances to be fulfilled.
Long before modern psychology, St Paul understood how a person, driven by unconscious forces, could say and do awful things, seemingly way out of character with their best selves. In Romans 7 he says “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate”. And this is AFTER his conversion to faith in Christ. His explanation of why this is so differs from that of Jung, but the antidote is similar. When we confess our sin, we seek absolution so that we can start again in a new way. When we identify our shadow projections and the harm they cause to ourselves and others, we gain new self knowledge by making the unconscious conscious, and bring our shadow behaviour into the light of day where it can be seen and dealt with.
As believers in Christ, we are not alone here. Normal human beings, no matter how talented or gifted or mature they are, cannot forever carry the weight of the shadow projections of the people. Eventually, this invisible yet irresistible energy will bring them down or wear them out. And it can be truly said that this is part of what contributed to Jesus’ death. Yet Jesus was no normal human being, and by his grace and willingness to self-sacrifice gave all who witnessed the last week of his life the opportunity to look within themselves and find there both the sin that kills and the grace that saves.
Jesus puts his finger right on the shadow characteristics of the greed that betrays him and the fear that denies him, the rage and spite that condemns an innocent man, the childish bullying of the mocking and scourging of him, and the casual brutality with which he is tortured to death on a cross of wood. He prays with deep grace and insight, “Father, forgive them. They do not know what they are doing!” (We may at times instinctively prefer to side with cartoonist Michael Leunig, who after some or other outrage of human inhumanity wrote “Father do NOT forgive them. They know exactly what they are doing!”)
In this sense, it can be truly said that he died for our sins, and indeed, that he died that we might be forgiven.
The rest is up to us to own our own shadow; to withdraw the shadow projections that we place upon others and start to take responsibility for our own behaviour; to look within ourselves for the answers that will change our lives for the better, and have what Jesus wanted to give us- life in all its fullness.
How we go about this in practice is a topic for another day, or a matter of conversation. Let me simply say here that one way to bring our unconscious impulses into the light of day is to seek the counsel of a trusted friend. It is quite common for others who know us well to see things in us that we cannot. If we let them know that it is safe to do so, they may well be able to enlighten us in ways that enhance our transformation towards life in all its fullness.
It is also comforting to know that those early psychologists also proposed that not only does the shadow world contain dark and destructive forces- it also contains gold: the strong, positive and beautiful energies we unknowingly hold within ourselves. But that is another story, befitting the day of Resurrection.
“GOLD IN THE SHADOW”. EASTER SUNDAY, 9th April 2023 THE WILLOWS Uniting Church
I confess that I have always found Easter Sunday to be the hardest service of the year to prepare for. One reason is that it is such a short time between Good Friday and today. As such it is very difficult to move into the headspace of resurrection joy while still immersed in the tragedy of Holy Week.
More so, I believe, for a congregation still coming to terms with the difficult events of late last year, and then, just a few days ago, grieving the death of a beloved member of the community of faith.
Psychologically, we just cannot healthily move that quickly. Traversing these deep waters takes time. As poet and priest Noel Davis has written of his own journey of transforming grief, “It takes time to bake a loaf of bread, to grind, to knead, to wait…time for friends to break and share their lives. ….It takes time to still within and merge with life, time in the wild to let a river slow you down….”
And so, again this year, I found myself struggling with decisions such as which Gospel account of the Resurrection to choose. I ended up with the lectionary choice of John’s Gospel- the longest account, and the most, may I say, “polished”, having been compiled some decades after the synoptic accounts.
I love John’s work, as he strives to go deeply into the spirit of the story, but my heart is drawn back inexorably to St Mark, the briefest, the most “down to earth” account. Mark’s story gets me closest to the reality of what it must have been like for the shattered disciples, both men and women, so soon after the torture and crucifixion of their beloved friend and teacher.
That is not an experience you get over in five minutes, whatever might be implied by or said from an empty tomb, or whatever the words of a man dressed in white clothes might suggest about something bigger than usual going on. These followers of Jesus must have been deeply traumatised by what they had gone through, especially those who had fallen asleep at the crucial moment, or denied knowing him when the chips were down. One had already taken his own life in shame. The men especially were still in physical danger from the Jewish authorities. The women, even after giving testimony of their encounter with the risen Christ, were not believed by the male disciples, who considered their story, (according to St Luke), to be an “idle tale”! In Mark’s account there are no angel messengers to rely on. You have to make up your own mind about what is implied by “…a young man dressed in a white robe” giving them directions while sitting in the otherwise empty tomb. On top of that, the original and shorter ending of Mark has the disciples fleeing in terror, “for they were afraid.”
It is misguided, and I believe, spiritually unhelpful, to come to this day thinking that everything is done and dusted; that everything is now put right. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in his time of deep suffering, ‘…or is what remains in me like a defeated army fleeing in disarray from a victory already won?”
Yes, we know Jesus is risen. He is risen indeed! But where are we if not left, like the disciples, with a lot of catching up to do. We need time to process the griefs of our lives. We need space to try and deal with the sorrow that haunts us in our knowledge of the frailties and disruptions that arise from the shadows of our souls?
And if that sounds like too harsh a reality for such a happy day, let me now offer you some indication of the direction in which our hope may lie.
For in fact, the shadows that lurk within our unconscious lives are not all full of destructive potential. Jung and others talk also about what they call the “golden shadow” within us. This is the creative potential that we have yet to recognise, not yet brought out of the tomb of our lives and into the golden light of day. Under the guise of teaching us humility, there may have been those who have caused us to suppress a whole lot of gifted potential; to bury it away, unused.
Who will roll away the stone at the entrance to our inner selves? How can this transformative energy be released? The answer to such a question may not be as straightforward as we might like, but just knowing it is there can be the start of a new journey. This journey may in some ways resemble the one when Jesus called a whole bunch of unlikely disciples whose potential to transform the world he alone could see at the time. At that point, all they needed to do was say “YES” to one who, they sensed, was different from all the rest.
But perhaps you would like some corroborating evidence about this “golden shadow within”, let it too be considered an “idle tale”?
Let me share with you a poem by the 13C Sufi mystic Rumi. It’s cryptic, but you will get the connection, I am sure:
Some commentary on I was a hidden treasure,
and desired to be known: tear down
this house. A hundred thousand new houses
can be built from the transparent yellow carnelian
buried beneath it, and the only way to get to that
is to do the work of demolishing and then
digging under the foundations. With that value
in hand all the new construction will be done
without effort. And anyway, sooner or later this house
will fall down on its own. The jewelled treasure will be
uncovered, but it won’t be yours then. The buried
wealth is your pay for doing the demolition,
the pick and shovel work. If you wait and just
let it happen, you’d bite your hand and say,
“I didn’t do as I should have.” This
is a rented house. You don’t own the deed.
You have a lease, and you’ve set up a little shop,
where you barely make a living sewing patches
on torn clothing. Yet only a few feet underneath
Are two veins, pure red and bright gold carnelian.
Quick! Take the pickaxe and pry the foundation.
You’ve got to quit this seamstress work.
What does patch-sewing mean, you ask. Eating
and drinking. The heavy cloak of the body
is always getting torn. You patch it with food,
and other restless ego-satisfactions. Rip up
one board from the shop floor and look into
the basement. You’ll see two glints in the dirt.
“The Essential Rumi”. Translations by Coleman Barks
A golden shadow deep in our unconscious psyche; glittering minerals of priceless spiritual value beneath the foundations of our humdrum everyday lives. And what did Jesus say about it? “The Kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”
Gold in the shadow. Priceless minerals under the house. Treasure buried in the field. These are like spiritual trig points to help us find what we are looking for, alerting humanity to the existence and location of as yet undiscovered and unearthed potential of our inner lives.
What Jesus did not say here (though see, for example, Psalm 126 verse 6) is that the fields in which treasure is buried are often the places of our pain. Rumi hints that the house beneath which the priceless minerals lie is the place of bored desperation; and the golden shadow is often revealed in souls that are broken open in grief. The followers of Jesus may well have been deeply traumatised, heart-sick and shaking with fear when they came to the place where they supposed Jesus had been buried, but, thank God, AT LEAST THEY WERE LOOKING IN THE RIGHT PLACE.
IN PERILOUS PURSUIT OF PURITY Boolaroo, 7/5/23
As we move towards the end of the season of Easter, it is worth recalling that great resurrection hymn “The day of resurrection, earth tell it out abroad….” In particular, I would like to draw to your attention to the prayer that the hymn writer makes on our behalf in verse 2: “Our hearts be pure from evil, that we may see aright, the Lord in rays eternal of resurrection light”. I am guessing that John of Damascus had a scripture in mind when he wrote that- “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God”. And while it is well that we aspire to such a high ideal as purity, you may notice from the title of this address that the voyage to this particular destination is never plain sailing; as illustrated by this story:
“The water of life, wishing to make itself known on the face of the earth, bubbled up in an artesian well and flowed without effort or limit. People came to drink of the magic water and were nourished by it, since it was so clean and pure and invigorating. But humankind was not content to leave things in this Edenic state. Gradually they began to fence the well, charge admission, claim ownership of the property around it, make elaborate laws as to who could come to the well, put locks on the gates. Soon the well was the property of the powerful and the elite. The water was angry and offended, and began to bubble up in another place. The people who owned the property around the first well were so engrossed in their power systems and ownership that they did not notice the water had vanished. They continued selling the non-existent water, and few people noticed the true power had gone. But some dissatisfied people searched with great courage and found the new artesian well. Soon that well was under control of the property owners and the same fate overtook it. The spring took itself to another place!” Owning Your Own Shadow by Robert Johnson. P1
Of all of the lofty ideals to which humanity chooses to aspire, purity would have to be about the most difficult to achieve and sustain. Part of the reason is that as soon as one begins to gain something of the quality of a purer life, pride at this achievement and the attempt to contain it begins to sully the very thing that one has been aiming for. It is very hard to keep white clothes clean.
Another problem with the pursuit of purity is that it almost inevitably invites comparisons with the lives of others, whose state may then begin to appear to be a dirty grey by comparison.
Finally, the fall from such an elevated position is long and hard. Sooner or later, those separate ones who hold themselves in such high regard will come unstuck, as the shadow forces of their psyches, which in their quest for purity they have fought so hard to contain and hide, bursts forth in an ugly show of force with a fury and intemperance. Such a performance makes a complete mockery their supposed superiority.
Take, for example, the Jewish Sanhedrin, Israel’s court of justice. It is reported in Acts that, in response to Stephen’s direct criticism of their outrageous behaviour, “… they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen….they covered their ears and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him.”
That’s another thing about professed purity- it tends to have a very thin skin!
This is the same Sanhedrin, including the High Priests and Pharisees, Sadducees and Elders that meet to trump up false charges against Jesus and condemn him of blasphemy. Then, not satisfied with the verdict, they too rush at him, verbally and physically abuse him in their spiteful rage.
The lengths some people will go to maintain their purity! Among this religious leadership it is the Pharisees who most exemplify this ambition. Their name means “The separated ones”. They seek to teach and enforce not only the rules for ritual purity of the Hebrew Scriptures, but also an oral code that adds detail to cover all areas of the Jewish everyday life. They tell people what to eat, who they can talk to, how far one can walk on the Sabbath.
So, what starts as a pool of pure, clean water of ritual devotion quickly becomes a dirty stagnant pond that fails to refresh those who seek its healing and refreshing power. Irony of ironies, the Pharisees cannot see what is happening, so when Jesus wades in and begins challenging the religious poverty of those who should know better, they whip around and begin to attack him as if their very lives depended upon it.
In so doing, they constantly clash with Jesus about things such as healing on the Sabbath, or whether or not his disciples have ritually washed their hands before eating. And when Jesus heals a man blind from birth by getting him to wash in the pool of Siloam, they do everything in their power to discredit the healing. As Jesus says, because they say that they see, they prove themselves to be are blind.
And so it is that those who so want to be close to God keep making the rookie error of thinking that purity is something they can achieve by force of the will. Trying to entrench their position, they build exclusionary walls to control the flow and keep out the contamination. In similar fashion, almost any cult or sect that we can think of tries to control the lives of its devotees from the cradle to the grave. They do so with hard and fast, black and white rules, the breaching of which results in the harshest of penalties, such as shunning and excommunication. The results are often serious, and sometimes disastrous, as we have recent witnessed in the mass deaths by starvation in a pseudo-Christian group in Kenya.
And it’s not just those weird sects that display this unnerving proclivity to knock others around when they fail to conform to the cultural norms of the powers that be, or fail to live within the rules of theological, ritual or behavioural piety. Back in the 16th Century, revered Reformer John Calvin has a man burned at the stake because he refuses to believe in the virginity of Mary the mother of Jesus. Those of us who grew up in Methodism were taught that standards of purity could be easily breached by gambling, smoking and drinking alcohol. As trainee ministers we would poke gentle fun at our predecessors claiming that they counselled young people to avoid pre-marital sex on the grounds that it could lead to dancing. Standing at a traffic light recently, Helen was asked by an Orthodox Jew if she wouldn’t mind pressing the button to allow pedestrians to cross as he was not allowed to use an electrical appliance. I was once at a dinner where I was seated next to a rabbi. When the meals were served, everything he received was on a plastic plate, with everything wrapped in plastic, including his own utensils. I could not help feeling somewhat alienated by what seemed to be an echo of the words of the Pharisee in the temple, who says in Jesus Parable “I thank you God that I am not as other men….” The repeated and mostly unlearned lesson of history is that purity can never be sustained by prohibition alone.
There is ample clear teaching in the scripture about the value of purity. The Psalmist asks the question “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord, and who shall stand in His holy place”. He then answers his own question with “The one who has clean hands and a pure heart…” But why should any of us think for a moment that the term “clean hands” was meant literally in this context? Jesus honours the piety of those who hold themselves to a high standard with the Beatitude “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” I am sure however that there would not be one person here who would imagine that the purity to which he refers has any more than an incidental reference to hand-washing or choice of diet, or the company a person keeps. In fact, just the opposite, for Jesus deliberately kept company with those lepers and sinners from whom the Pharisees would have recoiled in horror. As Jesus once said, it is not what goes into a person’s mouth that makes them unclean, but what comes out of it!
Picking up on what I have been saying recently about the power of the unconscious shadow, we might suspect that excessive emphasis on purity that overlooks the contradictions of an otherwise impure life is clearly the function of repressed psychic energy. We see it when those who bang the pulpit about social and personal evil themselves break out with the same actions they have previously condemned. Consider, for example, the professing Christian politician who runs for office on a platform of “family values”, only to find themselves in a compromising relationship with a staffer; or the homophobic preacher who is exposed for having a secret same sex relationship of his own. There are deep and dangerous traps in the path of those who in their supposed purity hold themselves above reproach. To those it should be said, “beware the shadow”.
Is it not better to have a few foibles that remind us that we are human, and keep us from the false elevations of an overblown ego? If we love to draw lines in the sand for others to conform with, we need to be alert to the possibility that we are simply setting up boundaries to reassure ourselves that we are better than most when it comes to living lives with clean hands and pure hearts.
Jesus teaches a pure law: the law of love. This love develops in us clean and healthy thoughts, words and deeds that come from within. Such love expresses itself in inclusion, and beyond inclusion to interaction and engagement; not a false piety that grows in the stagnant and polluted space of withdrawal and isolation. There are indeed many ways to understand the teachings of the great religions and philosophers. What Jesus, in particular, shows me is that whenever I say or think “I am better than you”, I am wrong, and the pure water of the Spirit starts to flow elsewhere. Also, whenever I say or think “You are loved, and we are one in the love of God”, I am right. And whenever I say “I am right”, there could be trouble ahead!
“On New and Risky Paths” The Ethos of the UCA (Expanded with material drawn from historical sources) Delivered to The Willows 14.5.2023
Who are you, when you are at your best? What characteristic spirit is manifested in you attitudes, your aspirations and, most importantly, in your actions. Who are you in your essence?
At our recent Church Council meeting we were discussing the recommendations of the Hunter Presbytery following the Faith and Witness Consultation with this congregation and Boolaroo. One of the recommendations referred to Uniting Church ethos, and the importance of reflecting this in the life and witness of our church. At this point one person asked the obvious question- “What actually is our ethos?”
Firstly, what is “ethos”? One dictionary defines it as “The characteristic spirit of a culture, era or community as manifested in its attitudes and aspirations” I would add “in its actions” on the basis of Micah 6:8- “What does the Lord require of you but that you do justly…” Christian is as Christian does. Applying this to the Uniting Church, how do we characteristically behave on the basis of who we believe we are? In other words what is our DNA, and who are we; and further, who are we when we are at our best?
The following is a succinct summary of Uniting Church ethos, from a disturbingly unlikely source: Chat GPT!
The ethos of the Uniting Church in Australia is rooted in principles of inclusivity, diversity and social justice. It seeks to be a welcoming and inclusive community that embraces diversity in all its forms, including race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age, ability, and socio-economic status. The church is committed to promoting social justice and advocating for the rights of marginalized and oppressed communities, both in Australia and around the world.
The Uniting Church in Australia also places a strong emphasis on ecumenical and interfaith relations, seeking to build bridges of understanding and cooperation with other Christian denominations and religions.
At the heart of the Uniting Church's ethos is the belief that all people are created in the image of God and are worthy of love, respect, and dignity. The church seeks to embody these values through its worship, community life, and outreach activities, and to make a positive difference in the world by working for justice, peace, and reconciliation.
In 2015 I was commissioned by the Synod of NSW/ACT to write a paper on the Uniting Church’s Theology of Service as part of the Synod’s Mission Plan. The following is an extract from that paper:
The ethos of the Uniting Church, that is, its fundamental character, guiding beliefs and ideals are enshrined in and drawn from a number of sources including the scriptures and its foundational and other key documents. (see summary below) The church also uses the term DNA, which indicates that its character is inherited from its Judeo-Christian tradition, and particularly from the Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregational denominations that came together to form the Uniting Church.
The name “Uniting Church in Australia” is itself descriptive of ethos. “Uniting” indicates openness to becoming something for which we strive- a people on the way to the promised goal. “In Australia” indicates that we are not “of” this nation but stand in a prophetic and pastoral (or serving) relationship to the community in which we are located.
Ethos is also perceived when the church as a whole expresses its conviction about what it holds to be of primary importance. For example, in the 2011 National Church Life Survey, church attendees from Uniting Churches throughout Australia, when responding to the question “Which of the following aspects do you most like about the Uniting Church as a denomination” rated “Inclusiveness of all types of people” well above the other 11 options (71.6% chose this category in its top three selections). “Provision of community services (e.g. preschools and aged care)” at 25.4% was the second choice, and “Social Justice emphasis”, at 21.6%, fourth. Notably, inclusion, community service and social justice are all categories related to the service ministry of the Uniting Church.
The ethos of the Uniting Church affirms all people as equally entitled to flourish, and actively seeks to demonstrate fairness in offering service to all without reference to race, class, culture, economic status or sexuality. In so doing it aims to restore a level playing field by focussing on improved quality of life for those who may be in a position of disadvantage. It takes inspiration from the recorded experience of the early church as it lived in community whose worship, witness and service was inclusive and generous to all (e.g Acts 2:43-47 and 4:32-37), the revelation to Peter that Jews and Gentiles were equally under God’s grace (Acts chapter 10), and the conviction of fundamental equality under God of people formerly divided by culture and custom (Galatians 3:28-29).
The Uniting Church seeks to go beyond gender equality to specifically affirm and promote the leadership of women, to the point where the gifts and skills of women and men are fully appreciated and utilised.
The Church is committed to promoting the benefits of a multi-cultural community, and to ongoing covenanting with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to promote the interests of Australia’s First Peoples, and foster mutual respect and understanding.
The following are expressions of Uniting Church ethos embedded in some of its key documents:
The Basis of Union
The Basis of Union affirms that The Uniting Church is centred on Christ, (paragraphs 3 and 4) with all of the faith and ethical implications of that allegiance. It expresses an openness to learn new things in terms of Christian scholarship and the influence of contemporary society and thought (paragraph 11). It describes the church as being “the people of God on the way to the promised end” (paragraph 18). By implication, it has not “arrived” and needs to be open to correction.
The Basis of Union affirms (paragraph 13) the gifts of all who are called to serve Christ within the Community of Faith, and seeks to find a place for everyone’s service. Further, it affirms in its form of government (paragraph 15) the interrelationship of and mutual respect between its various councils. Service within the Uniting Church therefore assumes the participation of each one and each part for the good of the whole community. Former Uniting Church Assembly President Alistair Macrae says that “The church, and hopefully agencies related to the church, is the steward of a vision that is radical and universal, of social order that is without fear, oppression and the violence of exclusion because it is one where each recognizes their dependence on all and each is seen as having an irreplaceable gift for all.”
Writing with special reference to social responsibility in the first twenty years of the Uniting Church, Bronwyn Pike draws the following three characteristics from the Basis of Union:
“*to be a fellowship of reconciliation- following the example of Jesus who brought
reconciliation at an individual, interpersonal and societal level
* to be a pilgrim people- continually wrestling with our place in contemporary
* entwine word, sacrament and service- recognizing that the separation of these diminishes the mission of the church at both congregational and agency level.” (Emilsen, 168/9).
The Statement to the Nation
The Uniting Church’s “Statement to the Nation: Inaugural Assembly, June 1977”, expresses an ethos of passionate intention to be a church that reaches out wholeheartedly and with compassion to the vulnerable, disadvantaged and dispossessed with in prophetic and pastoral acts of justice and mercy. The Uniting Church’s witness in the midst of the Australian community is determined by the affirmation “that the first allegiance of Christians is God…”. The statement recognizes that such a commitment will sometimes lead the church into conflict with the rulers of the day. The statement does not claim that such service to Christ’s poor should be the primary focus of all churches, but that “In the Uniting Church our response to the gospel will continue to involve us in social and national affairs.”
The Faith Foundations document locates the ministry of service of UnitingCare Australia in an ethos described particularly in terms radical equality, inclusive unity and ministry with the vulnerable poor. “We witness God’s love extended to all people, with no discrimination on the grounds of age, gender, sexuality, class, culture creed or cultural origin.” Under “Core Values”, worship, witness and service are grouped “to give greater expression to unity of God’s love for the world and the church as a loving agency, a church that cares and works together for justice”. Under “Multiculturalism” the document speaks of “A commitment to transformative action”, emphasizing the power of social engagement to be a witness that can bring about a change of hearts and minds. Under the heading “Service”, UnitingCare Australia commits to “continue to give care and hospitality to those who have been victimized and hurt by their involvement in Australian society.”
In summary, Uniting Church ethos is consistent with the key theme “Towards Wholeness”. As this term acknowledges, Uniting Church ethos is not “cut and dried” but develops with the church’s own willingness to be open to new spiritual insight and leading. The expansive base of Uniting Church ethos encourages service with compassion, courage and generosity of spirit, embracing those who may be excluded by other parts of society.
The Common Good from a Christian Perspective
The ministry of service in the Uniting Church operates from the understanding that it is the will of God that all creation might flourish under God’s reign. We seek the Common Good because God is uncommonly good.
“When it comes to life in the world, to follow Christ means to care for others (as well as for oneself) and work toward their flourishing, so that life would go well for all and so all would learn how to lead their lives well….A vision of human flourishing and the common good is the main thing that Christian faith brings into the public debate…. For this, in the end, is what the Christian faith as a prophetic religion is all about- being an instrument of God for the sake of human flourishing, in this life and the next.” (Miroslav Wolf. A Public Faith.)
Finally, here are a few stories to illustrate the nature of a church that is open and embracing of change, and willing to stand out from the ecclesiastical crowd when necessary.
Same-gender marriage: When the Australian Government responded to a surge of community support for an amended Marriage Act to include same gender unions, the UCA stood almost alone among the churches in support of the change. Then, when the Act was amended the Uniting Church was the first to allow its ministers and congregations to officiate and participate in same gender marriage ceremonies, should they feel so inclined.
Divestment from investments in fossil fuel: In line with its evolving environmental convictions the NSW/Act Synod, in 2014, under its theme Uniting for the Common Good, gained the consensus of over 500 diverse participants, both clergy and laity, to begin to divest itself of such investments. As the first church organisation to do so, it expressed its solidarity with the poor, who are usually the first and most impacted victims of climate change.
When the Roman Catholic Church withdrew its support from a group of its Sisters who were aiming to establish a Medically Supervised Injecting Centre in Sydney’s King Cross, the Uniting Church’s UnitingCare, under the leadership of Rev Harry Herbert took up the cause. The MSIC is now a lifesaver and beacon of hope for drug addicts in the area. The UCA is also at the forefront of efforts to decriminalise the use of recreational drugs.
Love Make a Way: At the height of the Federal Government’s efforts to Stop the Boats, a group of young (mainly UCA) Christians prayed for a solution to the Immigration detention of refugee children. LMAW organised sit-in vigils in the electoral offices of high profile Government and Opposition politicians such as Tony Abbott, Scott Morrison and Bill Shorten to try and influence a change to a more compassionate approach to the crisis involving refugees and asylum seekers. Participants were sometimes arrested, then released or charged. Later, the Grandmothers against the Detention of Refugee Children (GADRAC) took up a similar cause, using rallies and street protests to get their message across. The NSW/ACT Synod joined in many of these actions, and the Pitt St Congregation hosted a public Service of Lament in solidarity with those who were suffering the consequences of this cruel and punitive policy.
Who are we when we are at our best? Are we open to embracing change, when to stay the same has become a dry and barren state of being because the spring of living water has left us in frustration and gone to spring up elsewhere? Do we dare to be different when time makes ancient good uncouth? Are we ever alert to the biblical imperative to be engaged in prophetic ministry for the Common Good?
Are we a people of vision, holding on to the Divine assurance from the Book of Revelation- “Behold, I am making all things new.” Are we willing to move forward in faith, leaving behinds the baggage or former days? Will we affirm, with our founders, in the words of the Basis of Union: “We are a people on the way to the promised goal”?
Brian Brown May 2023
PENTECOST FROM BELOW Delivered to Boolaroo Uniting Church - 4th June 2023
Psalm 8:1 “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth”.
Over recent decades the church in Australia has managed by and large to move Christmas out of its wintry European context, and reframe the season as one where “the red dust is over the town”, rather than snow. We have not, however, made a similar contextual adjustment to our thinking about Pentecost.
When traditional European religious culture speaks of the human experience of God, it usually expresses this in terms of God “coming down” to be among humanity, or humanity having to reach up for the Divine. They built lofty cathedrals that emphasise the vertical quality of the divine human relationship. “He came down to earth from heaven, who is God and Lord of all”, and disappeared into the clouds at the Ascension. Pentecost is depicted in biblical tongues of fire descending to anoint the first apostles, along with a seemingly extra-terrestrial “rushing mighty wind”.
In his initial work on Australian spirituality “Edge of the Sacred”, David Tacey reflects on the nature of Aboriginal spirituality where the ancestral supernatural is experienced in the landscape itself, where sacred space is often located below one’s feet, and power and energy arises from deep down. In the language of Jungian depth psychology, emergence from the unconscious into consciousness finds a dramatic geological parallel in the great uplifts of the Central Australian landscapes, of which the sandstone monolith of Uluru is the most dramatic.
In summary, Tacey considers the European Australian to be afraid of such natural forces, which is why we tend to congregate on the eastern edge of the continent- as in AD Hope’s poem Australia, “…Where second-hand Europeans pullulate timidly on the edge of an alien shore”.
Tacey proposes that “…whereas the old European alchemists made gold in their dark, vapourous chambers, we in Australia… discover symbolic gold by direct encounter with the landscape….Our spiritual way here cannot be…a work against nature. There is too much nature in Australia, too much rock, too much prima materia or untransformed nature….The entire heroic fantasy about subduing nature, conquering Gaia (or Everest) or controlling mother earth is a European fantasy, which can never work in Australia. The very notion that spirit is opposed to matter cannot take root here. Our spiritual mode will have to be ecological, a work with nature.”
Perhaps this is why so many are morally offended when, having ripped the overburden from the earth to reach the coal below, mining companies sell the residual asset to a shell company, which, faced with the huge clean-up bill, files for bankruptcy. There was in fact never any genuine intention of remediating the land.
In drawing the parallel with a Jungian understanding of the human psyche, Tacey goes on, “But the Australian landscape is like the unconscious itself; if you respect it and realise the ego can never hope to assimilate, conquer or transform it, you are allowed to survive. That is, and must be, our humble, Aboriginal way, a shamanic way. Poet Les Murray has said that the sheer space and size of this country is ‘one of the great, poorly explored resources of this country’, since ‘in the huge spaces of the outback, ordinary souls expand into splendid.’”
Spending six days in Central Australia in 2021 has given me just a glimmer of understanding about what drives the raw spirituality of the land, starting with Uluru. It was only as I stood there watching this awesome spectacle through the phases of its day, and saw its near vertical striations that I began to understand how it was formed- how the sediments of an eroding mountain range were compressed from above by rising seas, and heated from below, to form the solid grey sandstone, which was later thrust skyward and twisted by the near unimaginable force of shifting tectonic plates, while most of the great rock still remained underground. As it stood there and weathered, it accumulated its rouge makeup from the oxidising iron on its skin.
Meanwhile, not all that far away, a similar process was happening which eventually exposed the many heads of Kata Tjuka (formerly known as The Olgas). Here, the rock is not the same solid sandstone as Uluru, but a hard-baked conglomerate.
Then, well down the road towards Alice Springs, sits the glorious King’s Canyon, where dramatic chasms were formed through the literal splitting then eroding of the giant rock masses, leaving in places sheer cliffs. The forces of the earth itself have created, over some 350 million years, landscapes of dramatic beauty which aroused in some people, and certainly this country’s original inhabitants, a profound sense of being in the midst of the spiritual in the cathedrals from down under.
The Todd River in Alice Springs, has none of the awesome geological wonder of the others, but makes a cogent point. As our tour guide at the Telegraph Station said, here even the rivers flow upside down. The water is in fact usually below the surface, and as such was able to sustain a significant population of intrepid frontiers-people who created and maintained the telegraph link from Adelaide to Darwin. Refreshment from below.
The point I am trying to make today is about the potential for enrichment of our spiritual experience and psychic health by engaging with an earthed and grounded spirituality, one that is inspired by a first-hand experience of the land and the landscape. It need not compete with our more traditional spiritual experience, but perhaps gives us a new dynamic in the experience of Pentecost “from below”, as it were. Like the literal emergence of Uluru, in spiritual practices like meditation we can draw from below our consciousness a healing energy which we might otherwise have never found from looking for God in the sky. In such spaces we may find a “Garden of Eden” like that of King’s Canyon in the crevices of our own souls, a place to go to for much-needed nourishment and inspiration.
(I am not implying that there is no vertical dimension to Aboriginal spirituality. With the kind of night skies available to them, who would not gaze upward for spiritual direction in the signs and visions of the sacred? Yet even here, I am led to believe, indigenous astronomy was somewhat different. For example, while our astronomic and astrological forebears saw meaning in constellations of stars, the Aboriginal astronomers looked at the spaces created between the astrological formations, and saw the giant dark emu outlined there.)
We can glean from gospel references to the spirituality of Jesus that being in the quiet, even desolate places and spaces can bring deep comfort and enormous energy. Following his baptism, he faced his demons in the wilderness, and was ministered to by angels. Grieving the death of John the Baptist, he took his followers to a quiet place, as he did when the needy crowds threatened to overwhelm them. He respected the temple, but railed at its misuse, and in extreme distress, he went to the Garden of Gethsemane.
In such places, and in such practices, we meet God and find ourselves. Just as music would be banal without the rests between the notes, spiritual seekers find nurture in the resting places, the dark emptiness, the COVID lockdowns of our lives. By staying with the experience of wilderness, be it literal or metaphorical, we invite the rising within our spirits of the formerly repressed unconscious forces which cause havoc in the dark, but are an enriching golden shadow energy when brought into the light of the conscious mind. We choose to embrace peace and replenishing restfulness rather than anxiously accumulate a stockpile of toilet paper. Life is enriched in its complexity, the breadth and depth of its experience. In its vertical and its horizontal dimensions we draw energy from above and below. Spiritual practice draws power from a singular focus in an enduring present moment. This can happen in a lush crevice of a Central Australian canyon, a quiet pew in a European cathedral, or even in the single-minded nurturing of what grows in our own back yard. I also see spiritual drawing power in the curiously Aussie activity of the grey nomads in their open-ended excursions to the interior and beyond. The questions of the first half of life are different to those of the second, and we must seek answers in a different way and place. Les Murray was right- “In the huge spaces of the outback, ordinary souls expand to splendid.”
A D Hope caught a glimpse of the transformational possibilities for pale-skinned newbies in this awesomely vast and untapped wilderness of spiritual possibility: “Yet there are some like me turn gladly home from the lush jungle of modern thought, to find the Arabian desert of the human mind, hoping if still from the deserts the prophets come. Such savage and scarlet as no green hills dare, springs in that waste, some spirit which escapes the learned doubt, the chatter of cultured apes which is called civilisation over there.”
Valuable though it is, there is a place beyond “learned doubt”, a rich wilderness where, as the one who found his calling there said, “You shall find rest for your souls.”
“YES I KNOW! Don’t talk about it” Delivered to The Willows Uniting Church 11.6.2023
Genesis 12:1-9, Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26
It is an interesting quirk of human nature that people will do all they can to avoid talking about the very things they most need to address. Like the extended family coming together for a significant occasion, and studiously avoiding the elephant in the room; or a congregation that gingerly steps around the metaphorical dead dog in the church foyer because nobody wants to touch it. Of course, unsuspecting newcomers trip over it every time.
(The reference to the “dead dog” relates to what is known as a “Dead Dog audit”, where an organisation engages an independent person with a fresh set of eyes to inspect their premises and processes, looking for obvious but neglected issues that the regulars have become used to and do not notice anymore. So the story goes, a dog died on the front steps of a church. Those who first saw it were concerned, but did not have a way to remove it, so left it for the property committee to handle- and so on…In the end nothing was done, and the congregation got so used to it lying there that they stopped noticing it, or simply got used to stepping around it.)
When the prophets at Bethel come out to tell Elisha that God is about to take his mentor Elijah away from him that very day, Elisha says “Yes I know. Don’t talk about it” My message to you today is that, in spite of the potential discomfort; we need to talk about grief and loss.
Not only because we as a community are suffering a succession of losses, including the abrupt end of a long-term ministry, and the death of friends who have served here faithfully over many years;
We need to talk about grief and loss, not only because every time we arrive for worship we notice the gaps in the fellowship- children, young people, friends who have left due to unresolved conflict.
We need to talk about grief and loss, not only because the empty pews and our growing greyness of hair reminds us that life, including our own, is fragile and transitory
We need to talk about grief and loss, not only because, of all the people you meet today, approximately one in four is in the midst of dealing with significant loss- illness, lessening of independence, trauma of some kind somewhere in the family.
We need to talk about grief and loss, not only because things are changing so fast around us that we can barely keep up, and if we insist on business as usual, this church will die.
We need to talk about grief and loss, not only because new “unprecedented” climate events somewhere in the world are telling us that time is running out for humanity to save itself from ecological disaster, and very few people with the power to do so are inclined to do anything about it.
We need to talk about grief and loss, not only because belligerent nations are amassing ever more deadly arsenals, a small fragment of which, if released in anger, could cause mass annihilation.
Not only because of any of these hovering threats, but because of all of them combined; we need to talk about grief and loss.
I can talk about it, because I have travelled this road many times and understand the processes involved.
And I will talk about it, because it is my job here to do so. (I am cautious around elephants, and do not particularly like handling dead dogs, but some things have to be done to prevent the far worse consequences of just leaving them there.)
You see, grief not faced is grief that accumulates. We need to deal with it when it comes. If we do not, every new loss adds to the burden, until the weight of it all overwhelms us.
Grief is multiple. For example, the loss of a job can include not only loss of income but also loss of the social benefits of the workplace, loss of independence, along with potentially spiralling health loss. Unmanaged, it can take your life, figuratively, and occasionally, even literally.
Grief is complex. While we understand that grief resolution tends to follow a more or less predictable path in most cases, no two situations are the same, and we can move back and forth through the stages. All grief involves loss of attachment, but the way it affects us can vary from situation to situation.
We need to talk about grief and loss because only then can we truly discover what is at stake, and how we can go about healing, and ideally, about transformation.
As a church, we need to talk about the findings of the Hunter Presbytery Mission Vision and Strategic report: “The Hunter Presbytery stands at the crossroads of life. The choice we have is to structure ourselves for life and growth, or let the current situation take its course towards decline”.
We may not want to talk about it, because to do so is painful. Can we not just be left in peace to enjoy what is left of who we are and what we have, then quietly slip away at the end? Well we could, but that would be a denial of everything we have learned about the call to serve Christ in the common good, and counteract everything we have invested in lives that continue to be transformed in the power of God’s Spirit.
As we proceed along the road together in this Christian community, our informal narrative is littered with unresolved grief, though little is said. “Yes I know” says Elisha to the prophets at Bethel. “Don’t talk about it”! However, if you listen carefully you will hear it, and if you look closely enough you will see it. If you are willing to peer below the surface of a basically happy, cheerful and satisfied community persona you will identify another visage. From it you may hear a tone of frustration, or a sense of being stuck and stagnating.
If we listen with quiet attentiveness, we will hear things we never heard before, A good counsellor also learns to listen for what is not being said, as much if not more than the words that are spoken. For example, today’s narrative about Abram and Sarai tells the story of a brave older couple who leave behind everything that is familiar to them including their kith and kin to go on a journey far away to an unknown destination, and start a family.
The narrative is all about their faith in the face of seemingly impossible odds, which St Paul eulogises in the passage from Romans. Now, it might be because I have packed up and left my secure places a number of times over the years that I am emotionally drawn, not so much to the amazing journey, but to the emotional and psychological cost of it all. They lose their roots. They leave so much behind, and at such great cost. But don’t talk about that! Talk about their faith. Talk about their obedience. Talk about their amazing procreative energies. But do not talk about what they have lost, and what, in the midst of the amazing journey, they would most undoubtedly have grieved.
Likewise the call of Matthew the Tax Collector seems, according to the narrator, to be all upside. His life is transformed. All of the things that made him feel ashamed of himself have been left behind. But what has he lost! A reliable source of income, a whole circle of like-minded friends and business associates, the protection of the Roman military on whose behalf he collected the taxes. Matthew has gone out on a limb, to a place that can be cold and windy, if not downright dangerous. But do not speak honestly about the cost of discipleship, because you might put people off!
And what about the woman who had been haemorrhaging continuously for 12 years? That shocking fact and its unbearable social and health consequences are quickly passed over to emphasise her amazing faith, and the extraordinary sensitivity and healing power of Jesus. Suddenly everything is made right. Similarly, in the narrative of the raising of the Synagogue leader’s daughter, the mourning rituals are in full swing, engulfing shattered family when Jesus intervenes and raises her back to life.
The risk of only seeing the upside in these stories is that the ministry of Jesus can be perceived as a quick fix, a focus which can bring a dangerous unreality to the everyday human experiences of suffering and loss. I heard a story once about a pastor who believed so deeply in these healing miracles that when his own daughter tragically died, he insisted on staying to pray at the graveside that she be physically resurrected.
I have also heard of churches that refuse to worship on Good Friday, but go straight from Palm Sunday to Easter Day, because victorious living need not take account of the darkness of death.
The truth is that in nearly all, if not in all cases, people who die young or tragically, are not physically resuscitated back to business as usual. There is no successful detour around the pain of loss and grief, no sudden muting of the mourners’ wails. Jesus calls us to life in all its fullness, and that fullness is chock-a-block with reality, be it abiding peace and joy, be it seemingly overwhelming pain and suffering.
The fact is that any change, be it for better or for worse, takes courage to face; because any change involves a disconnection from something that sustained our lives and fuelled our well-being. We heard a reflective musical piece earlier called Samwise the Brave, from Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. Sam was indeed the courageous ally of ring-bearer, Frodo Baggins. They face many challenges and dangers on the journey to Mount Doom. However, the bravest thing that Sam had to do was wave Frodo, and the wizard Gandalf goodbye, as those two heroes sailed into the West, to another, unreachable world. Not only did Sam have to bear the unbearable loss of his closest friend; he then had to take up the leadership of their group, to confront the evil that still lurked, threatening to destroy their hard–won new community of Middle Earth. We tend to dwell on the faith of Abram and Sarai, but to my eye, their greatest virtue was the courage to face an unknown future. Likewise the woman whose physical affliction would have made her an “unclean” outcast from her community. The Gospels talk about her great faith, but what about the courage to venture, in her highly vulnerable state, into the swelling crowd in the first place. Hers is surely a hero’s journey.
We need to talk about grief and loss. Over the next few months I invite you to an experience of discovery where we explore the nature of grief and loss. I am not naïve enough to suggest that a few sermons on the subject is all that is needed, but you have to start somewhere. As we reflect on the process of moving from the loss itself to its eventual resolution, we will discover what is the work that we need to do for this to be a journey of transformation. My decision to offer this to you is solidly based on the most profound insight of my whole ministry, which is expressed by Walther Brueggemann in these words “Only those who embrace the reality of death will receive new life” It’s about having the courage to accept the reality of our losses, and allowing ourselves to feel and express the pain. It’s about learning new ways to live in the absence of that which is lost, and finally reinvesting our energy in new life. It’s the process of moving from endings to new beginnings, which as Christians we call death and resurrection. Only those who face the losses in their lives with open eyes will receive the Pentecostal spirit of renewal.
By doing nothing, we simply transition from one disaster to the next, and noting significant will change.
Or, we can embrace Jesus’ promise of transformation to life in all its fullness, and walk with courage and faith on the journey to the promised goal, bearing one another’s burdens and sharing one another’s joy. As the Psalmist says: “Those who go forth weeping, bearing precious seed, will doubtless return with joy, carrying their sheaves.”
Brian Brown. “The Willows” Uniting Church. June 2023
“MOVING FORWARD TO A NEW FUTURE” - delivered to The Willows and Boolaroo congregation 2nd July 2023
“How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?” (Psalm 13)
The process of moving from slavery to liberation, from stagnation to revitalisation, from death to new life is a well-worn path. It is attested to in all great literature, both religious and secular. It is taught in the curriculae of secular psychology as well as the training in pastoral care.
It can be summed up in the words of the great Old Testament scholar Walther Brueggemann: “Only those who embrace the reality of death will receive new life.” The word “embrace” is instructive. It implies open-hearted, intimate engagement with the energies associated with our grieving.
It starts with embracing the reality of that which we have lost. In the last week before the closure of the steelworks in 1999, one of the workers I met on my rounds said to me, “You know, the steelworks is not going to shut. Management is just waiting until we walk out the gate on the last day, then they are going to turn around and rehire us at a lower rate of pay.”
In some way denial is a gift in that it softens the blow of loss. When the prophets at Bethel approached Elisha about Elijah’s imminent departure, Elisha was not ready to talk about what he deep down knew to be true. It was only when he saw Elijah part the waters of the Jordan that he realised what was at stake for the people of God. The transition of leadership from Elijah to Elisha was a critically important process. It was then that he asked Elijah for a double portion of his power. Elijah’s response is as astute as it is instructive: ”If you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted to you. If not, it will not.” In the open-eyed facing of the critical moment of Elijah’s departure, as he stared his astounding loss in the face, Elisha put his feet on the path of power. Had he chosen to turn away, he would have left that holy place both broken-hearted AND empty-handed.
If we want to move forward in power, we start by bravely looking reality in the face, even if it makes us want to weep. In closing our eyes to reality, harsh as it may be, we miss a critical moment on the journey to transformation.
Of course, by choosing to watch Elijah depart, Elisha inevitably exposes himself to the pain and shock of Elijah’s dramatic assumption into heaven. His response is to cry out in lament “Father, father! The chariots of God and its horsemen!” Then when Elijah disappears, Elisha, in a dramatic expression of his broken-heartedness, rends apart his garments.
With the impact of reality comes the waves of pain. In their seminal work called “Healing Pain”, Nini Lieck and Marieanne Davidsen-Nielsen describe the so-called “second task of grief recovery”, the dealing with the emotions of grief, as “…the central feature both in crisis intervention and in grief therapy.” They go on to say that “the great majority of the 600 people we have worked with in the grief group had come to a halt mainly on the second task.” The truth is that most of us are pain avoiders, who will take all other options first. Not only that, we often baulk when we see it in others. Australian poet Les Murray hits the nail on the head with his disturbingly insightful poem “An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow”:
“The word goes round Repins.
the murmur goes round Lorenzini’s.
At Tattersalls, men look up from their sheets of numbers.
At the Stock Exchange scribblers forget the chalk in their hands
and men with bread in their pockets leave the Greek Club;
there’s a fellow crying in Martin Place. They can’t stop him.
The traffic in George St is banked up for half a mile,
and drained of motion. The crowds are edgy with talk
and more crowds come hurrying. Many run in back streets
which minutes ago were busy main streets, pointing:
there’s a fellow weeping down there. No one can stop him.”
Actually, crying is not mandatory for grief resolution. I rarely cry. Sometimes I wish I could cry more. Many do shed therapeutic tears, and there are also other ways. Elisha cries out words of lament, then tears his clothes. Dramatic action can do it, like for the woman who has been through a particularly painful divorce. She gathers a handful of close friends, and goes to a secluded beach where they light a campfire. She tells the painful story of the loss of her marriage partner. They share her distress, and then she takes out her wedding dress from a bag, and throws it on the fire.
A time honoured biblical response to loss, as with the Israelites when they were taken into Exile, is to cry out in lament. Hear, for example, the anguish of the Psalmist “How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?” or Jesus’ lament over his beloved people: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it. How often have I desired to gather your children as a hen gathers her chickens under her wings, and you were not willing. See, your house is left to you desolate.”
In Brueggemann’s understanding of the way from slavery to liberation, lament is a key component. These anguished utterances are not so much a criticism of God as a way of expressing deeply felt inner pain. They bypass the rulers who oppress them, with a direct plea to God to save and restore them. By way of contrast, WH Auden’s poem “Stop the clocks, turn off the telephones” is more a cry to the universe, or to anyone who will listen.
Some people find it helpful to write a letter to the person they have lost, to unlock and release the energies of their grief. When I was working with steelworks employees who wanted help to face the loss of their jobs, we invited them draw a tombstone, and write an epitaph to their job on it. Some were grateful and positive, others were angry and bitter. Just don’t tell me than men are unable to express difficult emotions, given the right support!
There is no way to healthily sidestep this part of the grief resolution journey. To shut it all down is to invite stagnation, and risk missing the golden opportunity to grow from the experience. The emotion of grief is an inner energy that, suppressed, can bog us down or tear us apart. Released, it fuels our journey to the next phase, as we learn the new skills we will need for the new thing that God is doing in our lives.
Michael Leunig wrote of the process of dealing with our pain in this prayer:
God help us
If our world should grow dark;
And there is no way of seeing or knowing.
Grant us the courage and trust
To touch and be touched
To find our way onwards by feeling. (From “The Prayer Tree”)
The redemptive power of healthy emotional release also goes beyond the grieving individual, to become a gift for those who share the space with them. Les Murray’s poem continues:
The man we surround, the man no one approaches
simply weeps, and does not cover it, weeps
not like a child, not like the wind, like a man
and does not declaim it, nor beat his breast , nor even
sob very loudly-yet the dignity of his weeping
holds us back from his space, the hollow he makes around him
in the midday light, in his pentagram of sorrow,
and uniforms back in the crowd who tried to seize him
stare out at him, and feel, with amazement, their minds
longing for tears as children for a rainbow.
Some will say, in the years to come, a halo
or force stood around him. There is no such thing.
Some will say they were shocked and would have stopped him
but they will not have been there. The fiercest manhood,
the toughest reserve, the slickest wit among us
trembles with silence, and burns with unexpected
judgments of peace. Some in the concourse scream
who thought themselves happy. Only the smallest children
and such as look out of Paradise come near him
and sit at his feet, with dogs and dusty pigeons...
Notice, when you read the stories of Jesus’ ministry, how often the writers note his feeling responses to those around him. Weeping at the tomb of Lazarus, livid at the traders in the temple, joyful when his disciples return triumphant from their missions. When he approaches the bereaved widow of Nain, the Greek word for how he hurts for her is translated “compassion”. It also means pity or sympathy, a literally gut-churning feeling. Jesus’ humanity includes deeply felt emotions that fuel his healing power.
Les Murray again:
Ridiculous, says a man near me, and stops
his mouth with his hands, as if it uttered vomit-
and I see a woman, shining, stretch her hand
and shake as she receives the gift of weeping,
as many as follow her also receive it
and many weep for sheer acceptance ,and more
refuse to weep for fear of all acceptance,
but the weeping man, like the earth, requires nothing,
the man who weeps ignores us, and cries out
of his writhen face and ordinary body
not words, but grief, not messages, but sorrow
hard as the earth, sheer, present as the sea-
and when he stops he simply walks between us
mopping his face with the dignity of one
man who has wept, and now has finished weeping.
Evading believers, he hurries off down Pitt St.
The man in the poem grieves, and moves on. The Psalms of Lament characteristically begin with a cry of anguish, but end with the outpouring of hope- Psalm 13- “But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.”
Similarly, in the Book of Revelation chapter 21, the Spirit of Christ proclaims a vision of a new heaven and a new earth, a place where there will be no more tears, no more grieving. This is the hope, the goal, the inheritance of those who walk the way of Jesus to the end. Until then, we grieve that we may be healed; and that we may be a healing presence for others in their own place of pain.
"But to what will I compare this generation?" 9th July 2023 The Willows
“But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, “We played but you did not dance; we wailed but you did not mourn.” (Matthew 11:16-17)
The key question for me from this somewhat cryptic analogy is this: to what extent is “this generation” of which Jesus speaks comparable to our current cohort? If the comparison is valid, what is it that we need to hear, that we currently resist with childish stubbornness and dangerous indifference?
The background to this encounter with the curious and argumentative Jewish crowds is an exchange between Jesus and the disciples of imprisoned John the Baptist, who wants to know if Jesus really is the expected Messiah. Jesus points them to his works of power, and his message of good news to the poor.
Jesus then addresses the gathered crowd, challenging their perception of John, telling them that The Baptist is a messenger of even greater stature than the quintessential prophet Elijah. The implication is that they have misjudged the messenger, and therefore, missed the message. His comparison of them to children in the marketplace is best described thus by an eminent commentator:
“The parable depicts a generation that cannot come to grips with either John or Jesus. Children pipe happy songs and their friends refuse to dance; they play mournful tunes and their friends refuse to weep. The friends are totally non-responsive. They apparently have no intention of joining in the music. John came as a sober figure, a teetotaller who ate a strange diet, and he was labelled demon possessed. Jesus came as a convivial character, eating and drinking with all sorts of people, and he was dismissed as a glutton and a drunkard.”
“This generation” has been given every opportunity to hear, but they refuse. Take, for example the cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum. They are the privileged sites, where Jesus has done many mighty works. Citizens have more than enough evidence to discern who he is. But instead of being moved by what they see, they have remained blasé. Their resistance leaves them in a worse state than the pagan cities of Tyre, Sidon and Sodom.”
The comparison between the unbelieving Israelite citizens and their non-Jewish neighbours is reminiscent of Jesus’ confrontation with the crowd following his first sermon at Nazareth (Luke Chapter 4). The locals initially speak well of him, then ask questions about his parentage. He responds by telling them that no prophet is accepted in their home town. He reminds them how Elijah and Elisha reached out to the needy outside of Israel, like the Widow of Zarapeth and Naaman the Syrian. “When they heard this, all in the Synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of town, and led him to the brow of a hill that they might hurl him off a cliff.” (Luke 4:28).
In order to decide whether Jesus’ excoriation of that generation has any relevance for this one, we need to examine just what it is that he is calling out in them. Then, if the cap fits…!
Jesus is calling out three things in particular in the attitude and behaviour of the crowd, the same people who have been schooled to expect the Messiah:
1. A stubborn unwillingness to get involved in, or commit themselves to, the drama that the prophet enacts in their midst. Nor are they moved to respond to the obvious signs of power in the ministry of their long awaited Messiah. They will not “play the game” in spite of Jesus’ gracious invitation, or John’s more forceful exhortation.
2. Their obtuse attempt to deflect the impact of the divine confrontation with their poverty of spirit by shooting the messengers that God sends into their midst. “John has a demon so we do not have to listen to him. Jesus is a glutton and a drunkard who mixes with people we do not rate for company. Why should we follow him?”
3. Their show narrow-minded tribalism in the face of the universal message of welcome to all who would receive the kingdom into their hearts.
If we are willing to look for possible parallels, we could ask a question like: ‘Where today do we find this tendency for people to behave like children, with their stubborn refusal to be part of the dance of joy or join the lament of the suffering going on around them? And where might we see unwelcome truth being deflected by the shooting of messengers with the arrows of savage criticism of their characters, or their dress, or their accent, or their ‘woke-ness’, or their skin colour, rather than taking their sincere message to heart? And how does parochial tribalism create a barrier between people and their ability to see the truth that is there in front of them?
The temptation within our untransformed human nature is to distance ourselves from blame. In today’s scriptures, both Jesus and Paul interrogate this avoidance behaviour. To what extent are we willing to admit our own disengagement from the dramas that swirl around us, or to excuse our unresponsiveness on the grounds that we don’t like the look or the tone of those calling us to account. You see, Jesus and Paul are addressing their own people- the so-called chosen ones. If they came back here today, they would be addressing, among others, the Christian Church. That means us!
It’s a hard message to bear. The fact is that if we are honest, few could deny our stubborn unwillingness to change. And are we not all guilty at times of the tendency to deflect the criticism we do not want to hear onto the other. And if we think that we are immune from the distorting influence of tribal parochialism, let me tell you what happened in one particular NSW lounge-room when Queensland scored the last minute try to rob us of our victory in Origin 1. The fury we felt towards the referee and linesman for not spotting what we saw as an obvious forward pass actually had much more to do with our deep disappointment at the loss, rather than an objective assessment of the quality of their eyesight!
It is sobering to note that both John the Baptist and Jesus were murdered for their outspokenness- John because he called the Jews a brood of vipers, and called out Herod for his promiscuousness; Jesus because he spoke truth to power and named their hypocrisy and cruelty. Today, there are modern prophets in jail for exposing war crimes. Others are subjected to secret trials for blowing the whistle on dirty dealing of their governments. And as the planet gets hotter by the day, what reputable climate scientist would not be justified in saying- “We wailed, but you did not mourn.”
Given all of this, you have to hand it to St Paul! In some ways he comes across as arrogant, and yet in today’s passage from Romans he owns the self-destructiveness inner forces that cause him to do the very things he does not want to do because he knows they are not helpful, and realises how much he leaves undone that he really should have done. This honest self-reflection drives him to despair. No shooting the messenger here! This is a clear and honest mea culpa (An acknowledgment of a personal error or fault.)
The fact is that when Paul says “I” he also means “we” because in truth, what afflicts him afflicts everyone. After all, which one of us, if asked to make a list of the things that we do that we know were better not done, would not be able to put pen to paper? This is part of the human condition, an addiction to standards well below what we know to reflect our best selves. I don’t like the term “original sin” because it can be a way of abdicating responsibility for our choices, but it is hard to deny the existence of an “entropy” that drags us down and causes us to produce standards of attitude and behaviour that do us no credit.
Enough about the disease! What about a cure?
A healing of the afflictions of stubborn indifference, deflecting of blame and one-eyed parochialism (the quality of showing interest only in a narrow range of matters, especially those that directly affect yourself, your town, or your country) starts in a willingness to confess our all too human tendencies to look everywhere but within our own hearts to find the solution to the problems that beset us.
Jesus says “Come to me all you who labour and are heavy-laden and I will give you rest.” Pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps is a both physical and ethical impossibility. We need help, and sometimes, urgently. There are times when, without Christ’s gracious intervention, we are as trapped as those five souls encased in the submersible “Titan”, which, even on dry land, could only be opened from the outside. I know. I have been there! At my lowest point, it has been grace that has saved me.
The very first recorded exhortation of Jesus as he begins his ministry, is “Repent and believe the good news”. (Mark 1:15) We need help- someone to lift the burden from our backs. “Come to me, all who labour and are heavy-laden and I will give you rest!” When I talk about confession and repentance, I am not just talking about a routine and generalised liturgical response in a church service, week after week, with no expectation or even intention of change. I am referring to the genuine sorrow that comes with the knowledge of falling short, and the deep intention to try and do better next time. So that when we leave the place of prayer, we are, like the tax-collector in the parable, justified, forgiven, and lighter for it.
Honest, self-reflective confession is indeed good for the soul, and the burden lifted by the forgiveness of Christ is relief for our whole beings. It sometimes even includes actually going and putting something right - like leaving your gift at the altar, so to speak, and restoring the relationship with an alienated brother or sister. Ultimately, it means discipleship in the way of Christ, where we have the courage to be our best selves, to stand out from that crowd, and like Jesus, be good news to the poor.
TAKING SIDES - 17th September 2023 – The Willows
Since I was last here, Helen and I have travelled half-way around the world on our holiday to Europe. We flew from Sydney to Budapest via Dubai, and spent three days in the Hungarian capital before embarking on the Viking River Cruise through Austria, Germany and Holland to Amsterdam. We then flew to Toulouse where we hired a car, and spent 12 days in the small southern French town of Entraygue Sur Truyeire, from where we visited various places of interest in the surrounding countryside. After three days in Paris, seeing the city all scrubbed up for the Rugby World Cup and next year’s Olympic games, we flew home.
Today’s excursion into the scriptures begins in the passage of Paul to the Roman church. It then moves to the turbulent story of the Israelites’ escape from Egypt of the Book of Exodus, before a brief stopover in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. We finally arrive back where we started, in the letter to the Romans, when I will attempt to try and integrate the key and contrasting biblical perspectives from this wide range of inspired discourse. The two key questions for me in all of this are “When is it right for us to take sides in the issues of our day and community, as opposed to letting our differences go; and how can our experience of Christian community help us live and work together even in our differences”.
Some time ago I was preparing a wedding ceremony with a couple of personal friends. The wife-to-be was strongly committed to her church and faith, and the prospective husband was not. When it came to the issue of what religious content might be included in the liturgy, the man said “I am happy to go with what she wants. This is not a hill I need to die on.” In other words, he was willing to not make an issue of the use of God language, even though it was not personally meaningful to him.
Sometimes we have to take our stand for what we believe, but not every hill of difference is one we have to die on.
Another example comes from my experience of being a part of a multi-faith discussion group, held in the home of a young Muslim man that I met at the chess club. When he met us at the door the first time, Helen asked about taking of our shoes. “If you like“ he said, offering her a handshake. Now, as we know, removing shoes and limiting physical contact across genders are very important to Muslim people, but this man considered hospitality to strangers as more important than upholding strict religious customs. For our host, making us feel at home and welcome was more important than upholding certain strict rules about what should and should not happen in a practicing Muslim home. This is the better witness to the grace of the God he serves. For him, religions rules of engagement were not a hill he chose to die on. And how different would our world be if this were the normal order of priorities in our communal lives
And so, when we think about some of the things that cause division in the community, or in the community of faith, we really should be asking ourselves the question “Was THAT important enough to justify such a level of conflict and division, or was that not something that we could have just let go, and saved our energy and our unity for the things that REALLY matter?
In today’s Romans passage Paul confronts the Christian community for making a big issue about which foods are and are not permissible for Christians to eat. He also challenges those who make a fuss about one day of the week being more important than another. He says, in effect, “if that is your preference, fine, but let’s not divide the community by taking sides about the things that do not ultimately matter.“ Can’t we just live and let live when it comes to such non-fatal preferences?
One sign of mature Christianity community is the ability to discern between that which is of relative rather than ultimate concern- when to live with difference, and when it is imperative to take sides.
Having said that, how do we know when it is right to take sides in a conflict? For me is comes down to the issue of human suffering and vulnerability, which appears to be a biblical principle on which divine decisions are made about which are the hills worth dying on- or even, dare I say it, worth killing for. This is abundantly clear in the whole process of God calling Moses to lead the people of Israel out of slavery, to the wholesale slaughter of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea. When God calls Moses at the burning bush he says “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt: I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed I know their sufferings…” So God calls Moses, saying I AM ON THEIR SIDE. Go to Pharaoh, and tell him to let my people go.
We all know the story, of how a trembling Moses confronts Pharaoh with God’s message that Pharaoh’s treatment of the Israelite slaves is definite not OK. We remember how, when Pharaoh maintains his hardness of heart there are a graduated series of plagues of punishment, until, with the slaughter of the first-born Egyptians, Pharaoh finally relents. But of course, he changes his mind again, the consequence being the wholesale drowning of his army.
I am well aware that this story is difficult to reconcile with the love of God as shown in Jesus. Does God not love everyone, including Egyptian children and soldiers? In fact, God loves the whole creation; everything. And when some distort that creation, then God is forced to take sides so that everyone has a chance to live proper lives. Some cannot be allowed to destroy life.
One could go on all day giving examples, from the Books of Moses to the book of Judges, from Kings and Chronicles to the 17 books of the major and minor prophets, right through to the Gospels of Jesus, of how God takes sides with the little ones, the beaten-down ones, the deprived and homeless ones. In fact, the greater percentage of the bible is prophetic literature which describes and tells forth divine judgement on the ways of the nations, their leaders, and sometimes their people. In story after story, GOD CHOOSES TO TAKE SIDES TO RESTORE JUSTICE AND EQUITY, and one prophet after another makes clear the divine imperative to either repent or perish.
Of course, the prophets inevitably suffer a variety of difficult fates for their obedience to the Divine will, even to the point that the hill on which they choose to stand becomes the hill on which they die.
As a young man I was deeply moved and influenced by the great prophetic ministers of my day- people like Rev Dr Beyers Naude of the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa who was excommunicated for his prophetic witness against the heresy of Apartheid. When I was studying, theologians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was martyred for his stand against Hitler, loomed large in the curriculum. I was also greatly influenced by the great civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King, who was killed for his prophetic leadership during the Civil Rights movement in the USA. I read and reread his sermons which were published under the title “Strength to Love”. It was however the following words, spoken at age 36, in Selma Alabama, just before he was assassinated, that I find the most memorable: “Deep down in our non-violent creed is the conviction there are some things so dear, some things so precious, some things so eternally true, that they're worth dying for. And if a man happens to be 36-years-old, as I happen to be, and some great truth stands before the door of his life--some great opportunity to stand up for that which is right…(and if that man) might be afraid his home will get bombed, or he's afraid that he will lose his job, or he's afraid that he will get shot, or beaten down by state troopers, and he may go on and live until he's 80. However, his cessation of breathing in his life is merely the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true.” These words really lit a fire of conviction in me about the call to witness where God is taking sides, even when the consequences could involve what Bonhoeffer called “costly grace”.
When the Scribes and the Pharisees confronted Jesus about the breaking of petty rules of eating and drinking, his response was “You strain off a gnat and gulp down a camel. You tithe dill and mint and cumin, and neglect the weightier matters of the law. You load heavy burden on the backs of my people.” If effect, his message was “I am on their side here, not yours”. Had Jesus been more tactful, had he compromised with the ruling religious, or made a pact with the Romans, he could have extended his life, and arguably done more good. He knew though what Martin Luther King knew, that to compromise in order to extend one’s physical life would come at the expense of spiritual power and authority. When he chose to take his stand, to take sides with the poor, the marginalised and the dispossessed, he chose the hill upon which he would die.
As I read the scriptures for today, seeing the prophetic witness of Moses and the pastoral concern of Paul side by side, it occurs to me that focussing on minor differences of religious conviction can be a way of avoiding much more critical issues of faith and action. When it comes to being accountable to God, (Romans 14:12) what are the things that really matter? Is it about the types of foods that are going into someone else’s mouth, or is it about the words of life or death that are coming out of ours? Is it about preferencing one day of the week over another, or about honouring God in the everyday?
Jesus’ Parable of the Unforgiving Servant teaches that living justly as forgiven people is critical to our spiritual well-being, as well as making a big difference to the lives of others. It is also a reminder of the heart of the Gospel- “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” This is elevated ground - an excellent place to take a stand, a biblically legitimate cause for taking sides, an honourable hill to die on
Coming right back to the words of Paul to the Romans, we are forced to deal with this paradox: God makes judgments about right and wrong, and God’s prophets are called to tell the world what side God is on. At the same time, within the fellowship of the church, Paul’s injunction is this: “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister?” I’m just so glad to belong to a church that honours its prophetic tradition, which stands ready, willing and able to speak truth to power. At the same time, we hold just as strongly the pastoral conviction that our congregations provide and maintain a safe place for people to come together in our unity and diversity, to celebrate our agreements and deal creatively with our conflicts. As Rev Seforosa Carroll wrote in With Love to the World, “This important passage reminds us and challenges us to examine how intentional we are in creating spaces of welcome and belonging in the church” And so, whatever side we might find ourselves on in whatever issue confronts us, we continue to hold one another in the deepest respect
This is true Christian community, of which hymn-writer Shirley Murray writes as follows: “When menace melts away, so shall God’s will be done, the climate of the world be peace and Christ its Sun; Our currency be love, and kindliness our law, our food and faith be shared as one for evermore”
Sunday 1st October 2023 Warners Bay and Boolaroo UC
“Using the Servant’s Entrance” HUMILITY IN MISSION
(Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32)
When Helen and I were in Amsterdam as part of our recent European trip, we decided to walk from the Rijksmuseum back to our hotel on one of the canals. One of us was sure that they knew the way. At one point we came to a major road, where the decision was made to turn left. About half an hour later the crowds were thinning out, and the shops becoming seedier. At this point it was decided that we must have made a mistake, so we ate humble pie and asked a local which way to go. It turns out that the left turn should have been a right turn, and we retraced our steps to arrive at the hotel an hour behind schedule. In case you are wondering, we are still together!
I had a friend, now deceased, who reminded me of a cartoon I once saw. A family of four are sitting in their minivan at an intersection, with a police car behind them. One of the children is leaning out of the car window with a hastily written sign. “Please help us. We are lost. Mum is crying, and dad will not ask for directions!” My friend was one of the nicest people I knew, and spiritually mature, but sometimes humility is one of the last virtues we acquire!
The last story in this trilogy is probably mythical, but it could have happened. “Plowing at night through rough and foggy seas, a battleship’s radar suddenly indicates an object directly in its path. The ship’s captain sends a radio signal – “We are on a collision course. Advise you change direction 10 degrees north.”
A response crackles over the radio. “Negative. Unable to do that. We advise you change direction ten degrees south.”
The captain can now see a blinking light from the approaching object. He bellows a perturbed reply- “I’m a ship’s captain. Change course 10 degrees north, NOW.”
“I’m a seaman second class” comes the reply. “I cannot comply with your order. Advise that you change course 10 degrees south to avoid imminent collision.”
By now the captain is furious- “This is a battleship. Change your course immediately!”
Back comes the calm reply “This is a lighthouse. Your call.”
The captain changed course.
“Do not think too highly of yourself than you ought” Says St Paul to the Roman church, “but think with sober judgment…”
Finding our way forward through the fogs and storms of life is no easy task. Sometimes we have to admit we are lost, lest our pride and arrogance drive us onto the rocks. It is then that the biblical injunctions to embrace humility can stand us in good stead.
For the Jewish religious leaders who opposed Jesus every step of the way, the narrow way to salvation was impossible to find, because while they thought that they could see more clearly than others, they were actually blind to the deeper spiritual path along which Jesus came to lead. On the other hand, the redeeming feature of the lost and lowly strugglers who heard Jesus gladly was that, with their life experience of struggle and disadvantage, it was not too hard to accept that the way into the fellowship with God was through the servant’s entrance.
What embracing the way of humility means to each of us personally, and where we find ourselves on that particular journey, is not my main concern. In my experience, people who have reached the age and stage of the average member of this congregation have well and truly had most of the corners knocked off them, and have a sober estimate of who they are. I remember as a trainee minister in my twenties thinking I knew pretty much all there was to know about matters theological. Nowadays I find that I know less than I used to. The saving grace in this is that I now have a better idea of the difference between a battleship and a lighthouse, between my ego and my better self. Life does get a bit easier when we came to accept how much we don’t know.
I want to speak rather about what humility means for the Church and this one in particular.
We have recently been receiving strong signals from The Hunter Presbytery, initially as a result of the Life and Witness consultation following the resignation of Rev Kenneth Brown, and more recently following the visit here of the Presbytery Mission consultant, Rev Rod Pattenden. Having met with the congregation, and twice with Church Council, Rod has given us a list of recommendations on reorganising our Mission. Church Council Chairperson Garry Porter has begun to share these recommendations with you. The way into future ministry here is the compiling of a plan containing concrete missional objectives, based on listening to the needs of the community around us. Accepting such a direction tells the world that this is a church that knows that the way of following Jesus is through the servant’s entrance.
Now, I know it can be hard taking advice or direction from others, especially when we may have been lead to believe that they are not much more qualified than an able seaman second class. After all, are we not the captain of our own ship? The fact is that in crisis, where the message is coming from a lighthouse, a change of course is not really an optional extra. Perhaps it might help the humble pie to go down when we realise that the true lighthouse is not in fact the Hunter Presbytery, but Jesus himself, of whom the Presbytery is but a conduit.
The actual gold standard for the church is Jesus’ mission plan for his disciples, and his emerging community of faith. The way Jesus calls us to follow his servant leadership can be discerned in many ways though the Gospel record, but the most concise expression is his quote from the prophet Isaiah when he was invited to address the congregation in the Synagogue at Nazareth- “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” This proclamation was initially well received, but when the implications became clear, they were enraged and tried to throw him over a nearby cliff.
The words of the Prophet give us the biblical framework for mission. Our task is to fill in the detail from our own context and experience.
Finally may I share with you a few key thoughts from a deeply insightful writer on Church Mission. In Kennon Callhan’s first chapter of his book “Twelve Keys to an Effective Church”. He says “Missional objectives start with a longing to help, and people sometimes discover that longing to help as they lie awake at night, restless and disturbed.”
He talks about how mission-focussed churches become “living legends on the community grape-vine”, perhaps for just one thing that they do. This recognition is however not the aim. Humility would not allow that. It happens when a church is more interested in helping than being helped, more interested in loving than being loved. Ironically enough, people seek out churches who give themselves away. People stay away from churches whose only interest is self-interest.
It is my hope and belief that there are exciting times ahead in the mission of this church. As I look around I see green shoots of hope in the way people care for each other, the groups who are engaging in conversation about the ways of the Spirit in their lives, and the impulse to share with the needy though such programs as the Christmas Blankets Appeal. The way forward to the blossoming of mission in this place depends on picking up the signals we are being sent, and interpreting them with humble hearts. This demands all of the passion, all of the love, all of the commitment that we can give. As a great theologian of the 20th century Emil Brunner, once said, “Mission work does not arise from any arrogance in the Christian Church. Mission is its cause and its life. The church exists by mission as a fire exists by burning”. In other words, it’s either that, or nothing.
MOVING FORWARD TO THE PROMISE GOAL
presented to the congregation of Warners Bay Uniting Church, 8th October 2023
Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46
The following story is an oldie but a goodie, so hopefully worth repeating in the context of talking about mission:
On a dangerous seacoast where shipwrecks often occur there was a once a crude little life-saving station. The building was just a hut, and there was only one boat, but the few devoted members kept a constant watch over the sea, and with no thought for themselves, they went out day or night tirelessly searching for the lost.
Many lives were saved by this wonderful little station, so that it became famous. Some of those who were saved, and various others in the surrounding areas, wanted to become associated with the station and give of their time and money and effort for the support of its work. New boats were bought and new crews were trained. The little life-saving station grew.
Some of the new members of the life-saving station were unhappy that the building was so crude and so poorly equipped. They felt that a more comfortable place should be provided as the first refuge of those saved from the sea. So they replaced the emergency cots with beds and put better furniture in an enlarged building. Now the life-saving station became a popular gathering place for its members, and they re-decorated it beautifully and furnished it as a sort of club.
Less of the members were now interested in going to sea on life-saving missions, so they hired lifeboat crews to do this work. The mission of lifesaving was still given lip service but most were too busy or lacked the necessary commitment to take part in the life-saving activities personally.
About this time a large ship was wrecked off the coast, and the hired crews brought in boatloads of cold, wet, and half-drowned people. They were dirty and sick, and some of them had black skin, and some spoke a strange language, and the beautiful new club was considerably messed up. So the property committee immediately had a shower house built outside the club where victims of shipwreck could be cleaned up before coming inside.
At the next meeting, there was a split in the club membership. Most of the members wanted to stop the club's life-saving activities as being unpleasant and a hindrance to the normal life pattern of the club. But some members insisted that life-saving was their primary purpose and pointed out that they were still called a life-saving station. But they were finally voted down and told that if they wanted to save the lives of all the various kinds of people who were shipwrecked in those waters, they could begin their own life-saving station down the coast. They did.
As the years went by, the new station experienced the same changes that had occurred in the old. They evolved into a club and yet another life-saving station was founded. If you visit the seacoast today you will find a number of exclusive clubs along that shore. Shipwrecks are still frequent in those waters, only now most of the people drown.
The term “mission” can conjure various images, from a bearded man in a pith helmet trudging around the African jungle to a building in the city offering various services to the community, Such as the Mission to Seamen in Hannell St Newcastle. Many a cartoon depicts the upper half of the unfortunate missionary sticking out of the top of a large cooking pot, indicating that his efforts to bring light into their darkness has not been readily appreciated by the locals. It is in fact true that some missionary activities have done more harm than good to the local culture, while others, especially those bringing health and healing, have been a godsend. The name Albert Schweitzer springs to mind, he who said “Wherever a man turns he can find someone who needs him.”
In thinking about mission in our local context and in these days, it is important to clarify what it means, especially within the ethos of the Uniting Church
Firstly, mission is not the same as evangelism, though they are related. One definition of evangelism is “To so present Jesus Christ that others will come to put their faith in him”. Mission, on the other hand, seeks to listen and observe in order to identify needs in the community and find ways to meet them. It is true that sometimes a person who receives the missional ministry of the church chooses to convert to the Christian Church, but that is not the main aim of the mission. Nothing in Jesus’ great missional statement in Luke 4 mentions anything about a required response to his bringing of good news to the poor.
So I could stand here now and extol to you the virtues of electric cars, and show you my new MG4 in the car park. I could tell you how much money and emissions I will be saving, and how it can go from 0-100 in 7 seconds, and has a fully charged range of 450kms. The key words here are “tell you”. The evangelist may not be a great listener; but the church that seeks to be in mission with its community starts right there. Mission respects the integrity of the local context and culture. That is why, when constructing its mission plan, the church starts by listening, rather than by assuming what the community needs, including having their minds changed about what they believe about God or electric cars. Kennon Callahan says “Churches with effective mission have tended to identify specific hurts and hopes with which they have shared their principal leadership and financial resources.”
True Christian Mission is unconditional in what it delivers, seeking no reward or recognition. For example, the Wayside Chapel in Kings Cross, while its name suggests a church connection, nowhere badges itself as a Uniting Church endeavour. Nor does the Medically Supervised Injecting Centre, or the Wesley Mission. Nor did Lifeline before it became completely community-based.
Yet they are, or were, all true missions of our church.
Another part of the missional nature of these and other endeavours is that they are ready, when appropriate, to “give themselves away” when the right time comes.
Let me offer you an example of how one church did this. The Bathurst Uniting Church was my first placement, so I saw it firsthand. Firstly, the minister and Elders discerned a gap in services to young people in need. So they lobbied for funding which enabled the commencement of The Bathurst Youth Service, housed on church property in William St. and overseen by the Church Council. A similar process led to the establishment of a Lifeline Counselling Centre, and a third, to the establishment of a local Senior Citizen’s Group. These three programs had in common that they were the result of a listening and consultative process, and were established to meet specific needs.
My understanding is that all three missional activities have long since been handed over into the control of the governance of the local and wider community. This frees the local church to discern new missional ventures.
In a similar way, the Church Council at Hamilton Uniting handed over the governance of the Margaret Jurd College, initially a project of the Newcastle Youth Service, to the Hunter Presbytery and community-based Board. This school now stands head and shoulders above all of the other church schools I know in its outreach to challenged and disadvantaged young people. Started by Margaret Jurd in a disused pub in Stockton, it now takes students to year 12, and has a strong program of helping students from school into paid employment. Missional activities should never be for the aggrandisement of the church, but should be of the Gospel values of love and humility.
The practical issue facing this congregation is that, before it can call a new ministry agent, there has to be in place a concrete and achievable mission plan. The Hamilton Congregation went through a similar process about seven years ago. The minister had left, and the church could not afford a full time replacement. At the same time, they had been trying for ages to devise a plan to redevelop the building next door, which was becoming decrepit and dangerous. A small Mission Planning team was assembled, including a few suitably gifted people from the wider community, which simultaneously worked with other agencies of the Presbytery and Synod to plan and build the redevelopment. This process had to achieve two things- it had to show how the new building would house community groups in such a way as to have a missional impetus, and it had to achieve an income stream that, together with the congregational offerings and income from other sources such as the Bill’s Place coffee and op shop, could finance and support a full-time ministry placement. All of that is now in place.
The compilation of such a Mission Plan here would initially need, in my opinion, the commitment of about six people from this congregation, who would be willing to meet regularly over a period of about six months to put the Plan together. It is my conviction that these people are here in the congregation, and would be willing to make this task a priority for that period of time. I’m not talking about people already heavily committed to keeping the church running. They have enough to do. If it’s you I am talking to, feel free to let me know in your own time. (I could say “no pressure” but I have experienced God’s call on my life as pressure at certain times. It has led me to unexpected places.)
Today, we revisit St Paul’s words to the Philippians in chapter three. These words inspired the formulators of the Uniting Church’s basis of Union to affirm that “We are a people ON THE WAY to the promised goal.” While we live and breathe, our work is not yet done. Likewise, we do not hold this space by divine right, but in terms of Jesus’ parable, we are tenants working in God’s vineyard, and it is to the landlord that we owe primary allegiance. Our ongoing responsiveness to God’s call is a condition of our discipleship, and at the end of the day, we are simply doing our duty.
Let me conclude with a true story that hopefully reinforces the parable with which we begun:
The city church was popular with the community as a chosen wedding venue, having up to five services on a Saturday. Because of the steps leading into the front entrance, it was difficult to bring in a person in a wheelchair, so the property committee had a temporary ramp built with two steel channels for the wheels. The gradient made for a difficult manoeuvre, but the main problem arose the day a person arrived in a motorised wheelchair. In the end they had to suffer the indignity of being carried into the church.
The matter was raised with the congregation, and plans devised for a permanent ramp of regulation gradient into the front door. When the plans were viewed, some raised the objection that the ramp would spoil the look of the church. Others suggested that affected people could be brought in though a back entrance. Others again argued that the project was far too expensive for the benefit that it would achieve. At that time, an elderly member died, and left a sum of money to be used “at the discretion of the minister”, which covered a third of the cost of the pathway. The various pros and cons were discussed, and finally a majority of the congregation voted to go ahead. The need was identified and met, not only for physically challenged guests, but also elderly church members who came to find the new way into the church to be a real boon when they came to the stage of needing to use a walker.
As the old Methodist Covenant Service used to say, “Sometimes we can please God and please ourselves. At other times, we cannot please God except by denying ourselves” I would add, “and sometimes we just have to jump in, not knowing which it will be.”
Presented to The Willows and Boolaroo Uniting Churches 5 November 2023
Today’s message is about leadership.
I cannot think of a more critical time for national and international leadership in the history of the world. I find it hard to identify leaders who are steeped in the ways of justice and righteousness. I see national leaders greedy for power, hungry for wealth. I see whole peoples being trampled underfoot. I see a lazy and culpable disregard for the health of the planet. Frankly, a lot of the time I am in despair. I feel like the psalmist “How long must we cry our till justice rolls down like a river”.
At the other end of the spectrum, the issue of leadership is especially relevant given that this congregation is about to elect a re-formed Church Council, which we propose be called a Mission Council in keeping with its new focus. This Mission Council will be an amalgamation of the administrative work of the former Church Council, and at least 50% of people chosen specifically for their passion and experience in ministry. It’s on a different scale to national and world leadership, but the principles are similar, and just as important in their own way.
Now the concept of “leadership” can mean different things to different people. The ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tsu said that the best leader was one when, at the completion of their time in leadership, the people would say “We did it ourselves”. At quite another level, former US President and actor Ronald Reagan said “If they don’t not see the light, then apply the heat.”
These two men’s ideas are poles apart, but what they have in common is the thought of the leader as an individual.
This was also true in the Methodist tradition, where the minister was pretty much considered to be “the boss”. He (as it usually was) would do everything in the service including all the prayers, readings and of course the sermon. He would also usually read the first verse of every hymn before it was sung. I have even known of a few who, if the organist was away, would rush to the keyboard and play the hymn tunes as well.
Well, times have certainly changed, have they not? These days worship liturgy is indeed “the work of the people”, (“laos” means people, “ergos” means work) where ideally not only are the roles shared, but so too is the planning both for individual services, and for the liturgical year ahead.
Shared leadership in the church took a step forward when the new Uniting Church embraced the concept of Eldership* (see footnote) from the Presbyterian tradition, and expanded it to form a Council of Elders, whose responsibility is to share leadership, along with the minister in the areas of pastoral care, worship, education and so on. Ministers in the UCA are not THE BOSS of the congregation, though they may be considered to be the overall ministry team leader. The Church Council is the primary decision-making body, of which the minister is an ex officio member, and the regulations require that 50% of that body consists of elected elders, to ensure that there is a clear focus on ministry, along with the administration.
Our understanding of the leadership needed for our day is crucial. We need to identify the gifts and strengths of those who are to be called, those who will encourage the whole congregation in their faith, hope and love, and embrace the style of leadership to which Jesus calls his followers. And when those leaders are identified and chosen by the gathered congregation, every one of us is involved in an act of leadership ourselves.
The bible contains a lot of material about leadership, with many examples both good and bad, and some insights as to the way chosen leaders need to conduct themselves. At the top end, so to speak, great leaders were anointed by God for specific tasks. Like David, for example, they were not always the obvious choice. When we delve into our three readings for today, we see those great anointed leaders, Joshua, Paul, and Jesus expanding the leadership role to embrace those who followed them. Let’s take a quick look.
Firstly, from the Book of JOSHUA chapter 2, the leader of the Israelites was chosen by God to carry on the mantle of Moses: Today’s passage is all about leadership, specifically describing the process by which the Israelites would enter the Promised Land. In obedience to God, Joshua says to the gathered tribes “Now select 12 men from the tribes of Israel, one from each tribe.” The leaders are selected by the people because they know their own.
I can quite literally lift these words from Joshua and say to you “Now select 12 (or so) to lead this congregation across the difficult currents of our day and into a new and exciting time and place. Only make sure that among these elected are at least 4 women and at least 4 men, because times have changed, and so must we!
Secondly, 1 THESSALONIANS chapter2: For me the key for today in this passage is to be found in a tucked away in verses 11 and 12, where Paul says ”As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, urging and encouraging you and pleading that you live a life worthy of God.”
You know this choice of words by the author really intrigues me: “urging”, “encouraging” “pleading”. WHY? Are these not the people of whom the apostles say “our message of the gospel came to you not in word only but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1:5). Are these not new converts who are powerfully convinced of the reality of Jesus Christ? Why did they have to be urged? Why did they have to be encouraged? Why did they have to be pleaded with? What went wrong?
Why? Because they were human. Because the first flush of love can quickly be spent under the weight of the daily grind. Because the early commitment to give all can be heavily impacted by the threats against those who seek to hold the moral and ethical line in the midst of hostile forces. Because lassitude can afflict us all, and perhaps particularly as we get older and tireder. Because sometimes we have to dig and delve a bit to expose our best selves.
The scriptures carry an urgent message of encouragement and pleading to regroup, to stand firm and strong together, not expending precious energy in internal conflicts and interpersonal grudges.
And finally, from the MATTHEW chapter 23 passage: There are two words ensconced in the heart of today’s passage, that put the focus firmly where it needs to be; two words that switch from the line of attack on the hypocritical religious leaders to a call to service of those who have become followers.
Those words are “BUT YOU….”. Now we all know that when “but” is used in a sentence, it calls us to attend to everything that follows it. So, if someone we respect says to us “I know you have tried your hardest but…” we fear what is to come next. However, if they say “I have been disappointed in you up to now, but…”, we get ready for some welcome praise. Or, when someone says “I am not a racist but…” we should prepare ourselves to hear them say something critical of another group”.
When Jesus says “BUT YOU…” he is calling the attention of his hearers away from the long diatribes against the Scribes and Pharisees, and back onto themselves lest they project all of their attention away from themselves and their own spiritual journey.
And when he says BUT YOU, he means YOU. And ME. He is saying, in effect, “I have just torn strips off the Scribes and Pharisees, and you have probably enjoyed that, BUT YOU…The greatest among you shall be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” This is the kind of leader Jesus was- a servant leader with all the authority in the world because of it, and this is the kind of leaders and followers he calls us to be.
Thus is the established order turned upside down. Thus is the Church of God called back to mission and ministry. Others may have lost their way. Others may have been led away down other paths. BUT YOU, you are called and chosen to get on with it.
And so, as every member of this congregation takes at least some responsibility for the leadership process, the first task is simple. Nominate for election those people you consider to be the able administrators and leaders to serve on the new Mission Council. Discern their gifts and invite them to represent you. Discern those folk who have administrative skill to keep the church running efficiently. Discern those who have the ministry gifts and skills to serve as Elders. They may be tried and proven. They might also be someone for whom this is a new challenge. The congregation will then discern by their vote on 26th November who is chosen to lead in this service of Christ.
I know the hurdles. I have heard the cynicism. I am aware that some are tired through much service, and may be ready to take some well-deserved rest. When faced with such situations I am always encouraged by the process by which Gideon’s army was chosen. Those who are left when everyone else has gone home are the ones who get the job done. The saying “God marches with the big battalions” is just another way of saying that God’s power seems to have been usurped by those who have the biggest armies and the best weapons. But that saying is not biblical. What IS biblical is this: “Not by might nor by power but by my Spirit says the Lord.”
* The ministry of Eldership was embraced by the newly formed Uniting Church as a way of sharing the leadership roles of the congregation among those who the congregation discerned to have gifts and skills for the task. Initially, and in the tradition of the Presbyterian Church, Elders were given lists of congregation members and asked to maintain pastoral contact with them on a regular basis or as needed. This was not as successful in some places as the UCA might have hoped, because many chosen for Eldership were not necessarily the best suited for this particular task. Also, in some cases it did not account for the caring relationships already existing in the congregation.
Elders are elected to exercise leadership in all areas of the Church’s ministry and mission, alongside the Minister. Our Regulations call for the Church Council (Which we propose be renamed “Mission Council” to have a membership that includes at least 50% Elders, so that both the administrative and ministry work of the church can be given appropriate focus.
To be clear, all members of the congregation are welcome and encouraged to participate in the ministry and mission of the congregation, in whatever area they may feel suited. They do not have to be Elders to do so. Elders are there to provide leadership, as well as usually having “hands on” roles in some ministry area(s). All Elders are entitled to be part of the Church (Mission) Council, though some may chose to not do so.