Messages of Hope

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Tell your MP: ‘We can do better’

Published / by Sandy

A Message from UCA President Stuart McMillan

As followers of Christ, our faith calls us to love our neighbour and welcome the stranger.

We have particular responsibility to challenge unjust systems and speak on behalf of those who are marginalised and in exile. Right now, it is harder than ever for refugees and people seeking asylum to find a safe place to live and to rebuild their lives. Australia’s policies are making it tougher for families living in detention or in the community to gain their right to protection.

I am thankful to many in the Uniting Church who are already doing so much to support refugees, through practical and pastoral care, prayer and advocacy.

In Refugee Week (17-23 June), I encourage Uniting Church members to think about how they can tell those in Government that we can do better for refugees.

In the lead up to the next election, all major parties will be re-assessing their policy position on this issue.

Visit your local MP and share your desire for a more compassionate and humane response to refugees and people seeking asylum. The more people in our community who speak up on this issue, the more likely we are to create a real opportunity for change.

When we advocate for others in this way, we give life to our faith in Jesus.

We are reminded in the Uniting Church’s Statement on refugees Shelter from the Storm

When advocacy and service are done with integrity, and as a proclamation of the Gospel, the Church bears witness to Christ, and enters fully into the faith and mission of the whole Christian church.

Together, as members of the body of Christ, may we seek a just society that upholds the dignity of every person where all can have hope for a decent peace-filled life for themselves and their families.

Stuart McMillan, President, Uniting Church in Australia, June 2018

The film ‘Border Politics’ has been launched in Melbourne as part of Refugee Week and screenings will take place in other cities in July (a Q&A screening on July 4th at Mitcham cinemas in Adelaide) and may be of interest to those who would like to explore more deeply the politics around border control and the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. The film follows human rights barrister Julian Burnside as he traverses the globe examining the harsh treatment meted out to refugees by most Western democracies.
This contemporary story is about the threat to human rights, the loss of democratic values and our increasingly heartless treatment of ‘the other’.
Seventy years after the world constructed international conventions to ensure the horrors of World War 2 wouldn’t be repeated, Burnside finds it terrifying to see Australian and other western political leaders exploiting fears around border protection to extend political power.
Burnside defines humanity with the universally recognized Golden Rule – Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You as a benchmark. He questions whether the West has lost its moral compass by adopting ideas that reject humanity and undermine democracy. He concludes this erosion of human rights poses a threat to the very democratic values that define Western society.
(Information about screenings here)

The power of symbols

Published / by Sandy

On my travels in Ireland I’ve been fascinated to learn about symbols of the cross in Ireland.

The St Kevin cross from Glendalough is an example of how St Patrick tried to help the once pagan people of Ireland acclimatise to Christianity. This was done by combining the cross with the circle representing the sun, because the pagans worshipped the sun and moon. In time, this particular Celtic Cross was recognised as a Christian symbol. 

St.Brigid was the founder of the first Irish monastery in County Kildare, Ireland. She is credited with creating the unique cross which bears her name. The tale of its creation is somewhat confused, and there is not one definitive version. The tale as we know it is as follows….There was an old pagan Chieftain who lay delirious on his deathbed in Kildare (some believe this was her father) and his servants summoned Brigid to his beside in the hope that the saintly woman may calm his restless spirit. Brigid is said to have sat by his bed, consoling and calming him and it is here that she picked up the rushes from the floor and began weaving them into the distinctive cross pattern. Whilst she weaved, she explained the meaning of the cross to the sick Chieftain and it is thought her calming words brought peace to his soul. He was so enamoured by her words that the old Chieftain requested he be baptized as a Christian just before his passing. Since that day, and for the centuries that followed, it has been customary on the eve of her Feast Day (1st February) for the Irish people to fashion a St. Brigid’s Cross of straw or rushes and place it inside the house over the door to keep evil, fire and hunger from the homes in which it is displayed.

A few years ago, Pat Baker gave me a necklace with a cross, and on it was a female figure. The female image on the cross was thought of as nothing less than blasphemy when British sculptor Edwina Sandys wrought Christa in 1975. For the artist, it was a recognition that women had suffered and sacrificed their lives for love. Women were among the original martyrs of Christianity, brutally crucified by the Roman Empire.

And then there’s the inverted neon red crosses – four of them, each 20 m tall, that have been erected in Hobart as part of the mid-winter festival known as Dark Mofo.

Mofo’s creative director, Leigh Carmichael, said provocation was part of Mona’s* DNA and argued that while “the cross is deeply significant in our historical context … symbols don’t have an inherent meaning. The meaning comes from what we bring to them”. He said, “Dark Mofo has been exploring ancient mythology and religious themes since its inception in 2013. The cross is a powerful and deeply significant historical symbol, that has been used for thousands of years, with many cross-cultural meanings”.
(*MONA is Museum of Old and New Art)

Inevitably, predictably, there has been reaction. Outrage is the DNA of social media, and statements like Yvonne McAskill’s resonate with many: “All Christians are shuddering at this diabolical sign”. Clearly there is a lot of support for that point of view.

Interestingly, the original meaning of an upside-down cross was to recall the crucifixion of St Peter, one of Jesus’ disciples. When he was crucified by the Roman Empire at a time when Christians were persecuted, he insisted he be crucified upside-down, because he felt he wasn’t good enough to be crucified the way that Jesus was. So at one point it was a sign of penitence, long before it was adopted as an ‘anti-Christian’ symbol.

Here are three other responses to the Dark Mofo crosses:

Ben Clark writes: ‘The cross itself is an upside down symbol of love over evil. If the message of the cross has been tarnished and turned upside down and used as a weapon for evil then this becomes a profound statement…

Michael Frost writes: The latest outrage-du-jour for Australian Christians is the upside crosses installation in Hobart. For a start, since when do Christians get offended by ART?!?!? We’re followers of the King who converted humiliation into grace. Art is meant to be a provocation, a discussion starter. So let’s have a conversation. Secondly, why all the knee-jerk outrage these days?!?!?

Reverend Matt Garvin of the Citywide Baptist Church, said that while the inverted cross was “commonly thought to be a Satanic symbol”, churches should “engage with the conversation that has been created (in Hobart)”.

It begs the question about what Christians get ‘outraged’ about, and what outraged Jesus – injustice, inequality, war, conflict, denigration, abuse of power and authority, cheating the poor, loss of dignity, loss of community, the way refugees and asylum seekers are treated…

How might churches and individuals engage with conversation in the public square rather than being (stereotypically) reactive?

Shaping priorities: religion in a secular age

Published / by Sandy

On May 6th, Ben Clarke from TEAR SA spoke about his recent trip to Cambodia looking at community based projects. Many in Pilgrim have a strong commitment to supporting the work of UCA partner churches. Earlier this year, a donation was made to the UnitingWorld appeal for Tonga after it was devastated by Cyclone Gita on February 12th. Pilgrim also offers support for the United Church of Christ in the Philippines through active participation in the Philippines Support Group, and community projects in the Philippines.
In an article on his website, Mike Frost poses a question for our day: Should we be helping other Christians before we help non-Christians in greater need? 
Mike writes: This question came into even sharper focus recently when the Trump administration announced that its nominee to become director general of the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration (IOM) was Ken Isaacs. The IOM has an annual budget of over $1 billion and is tasked with providing secure, reliable, flexible and cost-effective services for those needing international migration assistance. Refugees, basically.
So alarm bells started sounding for some when it was revealed that Ken Isaacs, currently the head of international relief for Franklin Graham’s Samaritan’s Purse, has made comments that in some cases Christians should receive preferential treatment when being resettled from hostile areas. These comments appear to have been made on social media, reflecting on the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, and were coupled with disparaging references to Islam as a violent religion.
Mr Isaacs has since apologized for these remarks and said, “I pledge to hold myself to the highest standards of humanity, human dignity and equality if chosen to lead IOM.” Certainly, he has demonstrated a committed to helping refugees and has a long history of assisting those who are suffering. But his remarks, though retracted, reveal an underlying belief within the Christian community that we should help Christians before helping people of another religious faith (or no faith).
I fear it is becoming an entrenched assumption by many Christians that “charity begins at home”. There are many in Australia who express similar sentiments.
Didn’t Paul say we should prioritize doing good to Christians?
Those who think we should prioritize Christians in international aid often cite Paul’s words in Galatians 6:10, “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.”
It’s the use of especially they seize on. They agree we should help others, but insist that Paul is saying that we should prioritize assisting other Christians. That makes sense, I guess, if you look at this verse in isolation (which lots of people apparently do). But if you read it in its broader context, the meaning is somewhat different.
In the preceding section, Paul had just warned his readers to avoid sin, or to use his phrase, “sowing to please their flesh” (v.8). Instead, he insists, we should “sow to please the Spirit” and “not become weary in doing good” (v.8-9). So, doing good in this context refers to avoiding sin and pursuing spiritual things. When Paul concludes his argument by saying we should “do good to all people,” he means we should be helping everyone avoid sin and pursue the Spirit. So, it makes perfect sense that he would say “especially those who belong to the family of believers” because it’s particularly applicable to other spiritual people like the church members in Galatia.
This passage isn’t about providing practical assistance at all.
Another Pauline passage often cited in this context is 1 Timothy 5:8, “Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”  This verse is in the context of Paul’s discussion about the need for church families to care for the widows in their midst, and is most certainly referring to practical assistance. At that time, widows were extremely vulnerable members of society, particularly those without children or extended family to care for them. Paul insists that the church as a whole care for those widows with no family support, but that individual families had responsibility to “provide for their relatives” and not expect the rest of the church to carry them. It’s very practical advice, but it can’t be used to defend the idea we should only take care of fellow Christians.
Jesus said, we should care for his followers first, right?
Another passage that could be used to make the case that we should show favouritism to Christians when helping the needy is Jesus’ Parable of the Sheep and Goats (Mt. 25:31-46). In that story people are separated into two groups – those who did feed, clothe, house and comfort “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine” and those who didn’t. The latter are sent away to eternal punishment, while the former receive eternal life.
For a long time, “the least of these” was assumed to refer to the poor in general. But this was a problematic interpretation. Was Jesus saying that our eternal salvation is earned by feeding and clothing the poor? Surely this contradicts the biblical teaching on salvation by grace alone (Eph. 2:8-9).
More recent interpretations have concluded that “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine” just refers to Christians in need – those spiritual brothers and sisters of Jesus. They would be in need of food and clothing and housing, and especially being attended to in prison, if they were persecuted Christians, possibly evangelists and teachers. Those who refuse to help supply their material needs are presumably also those who reject their message.
If “the least of these” are Jesus’ messengers, then it makes sense for Jesus to say your salvation is based on your response to their message – that is, the Gospel.
In other words, even if the Parable of the Sheep and Goats does refer to helping Christians, it isn’t making a case for prioritizing them over others in need. It’s a comment on the acceptance or rejection of the Gospel.
Are Christian refugees in greater need than others? 
Whether Ken Isaacs cites Galatians 6 or Matthew 25 I don’t know. His work in Syria and other parts of the Middle East has, no doubt, has put him face to face with the terrible persecution being meted out to the church there, and his comments about prioritizing Christians might reflect this.
What is more difficult to understand is the attitude of the US President, Donald Trump, and the Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, neither of whom present as devout Christian men. Both Mr Trump and Mr Turnbull have publicly stated they will prioritize Christian refugees over others.
In fact, in their very first telephone conversation together, Mr Turnbull congratulated Mr Trump for such an approach,
“We are very much of the same mind. It is very interesting to know how you prioritise the minorities in your executive order. This is exactly what we have done with the program to bring in 12,000 Syrian refugees, 90% of which will be Christians. It will be quite deliberate and the position I have taken — I have been very open about it — is that it is a tragic fact of life that when the situation in the Middle East settles down — the people that are going to be most unlikely to have a continuing home are those Christian minorities”. (Malcolm Turnbull 2017)
This is based in some measure on a belief that Christians are more persecuted than other religions, particularly in the Middle East. But the data doesn’t bear that out. While Mr Turnbull wants 90% of his refugee intake to be Christians (the actual figure is closer to 80%), the UNHCR says Christians comprise only 15% of total refugees from Iraq and less than 1% from Syria. And Human Rights Watch, while not denying that the church has been persecuted in Iraq and Syria, points out that “Muslims have overwhelmingly borne the brunt of most of the atrocities by ISIS and the Assad regime.”
It’s very hard to get away from the view that it is a form of state-supported prejudice against Muslims. Mr Trump’s proposed travel ban against certain Muslim-majority countries reinforces this. As concerning as it is for secular states to engage in this kind of prejudice, my other worry is that Christians are being infected by this prejudice, believing it actually honors God for us to show favoritism toward other Christians.
Who, then, is my neighbour?
A far more helpful passage of Scripture to consider in this discussion is another of Jesus’ parables, the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).  The story is well known. A man is set upon by thieves, beaten to within an inch of his life, and left dying by the side of the road. Two fellow Jews – one a priest, the other a Levite – ignore the man, while a Samaritan – despised by the Jews – not only lends some assistance, but does so at great personal cost. The moral of the story: be like the good Samaritan.
Jesus told this parable in response to a man asking whether it was true that the Law of Moses required you to love your neighbor as yourself. When Jesus agreed, the guy, looking for a loophole, asked, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus’ answer-in-the-form-of-a-parable is, quite simply, anyone you encounter who is in need.
It’s interesting that Ken Isaacs, the man currently in hot water about his nomination to the International Organization for Migration, currently works for Samaritan’s Purse. In Jesus’ story, the Samaritan’s purse was open to whomever was in need, not only his fellow Samaritans. As Christians we need to go back to the question of who is our neighbor, and also ask, what does it say about us if we’re only interested in saving our own kind?
Human rights lawyer with the Refugee Council of Australia, Asher Hirsch sums it up well:
“Our position is that refugees shouldn’t be selected based on religion, but that we should prioritise the most vulnerable (women and children, elderly, disabled, those at severe risk of harm where they are living, etc). This may be Christians but often won’t be”
Of course, we should want to help our sisters and brothers in Christ. But we also have a moral obligation to reject a policy that sees a secular state selecting refugees based on their religious beliefs. Today it’s Muslims who suffer from this favouritism, but a time might come when it’s Christians who are prejudiced against, and who could blame them if we looked around on that day and found our Muslim neighbors unwilling to help us.
(This article first appeared on Mike Frost’s website)

Spiritually hungry – and wanting community

Published / by Sandy

Spiritually hungry and wanting community – the priorities of churchgoers
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When asked what church attenders would like to see priority given to in the coming 12 months, spiritual growth and building a stronger sense of community in their church were top of the list.

These findings come from the 2016 National Church Life Survey, when adult church attenders were asked for their opinion about what should be given priority by their local church in the next year.

The survey question posed 12 options for current priorities.

‘Spiritual growth (e.g. spiritual direction, prayer groups)’ and ‘Building a strong sense of community within this local church’ were most commonly selected responses, chosen by a third of churchgoers (~32%).

The third most common response was ‘Worship services that are nurturing to people’s faith’.

These three top priorities clearly display a spiritual fervour amongst those who attend church. It could be argued that these desires reveal the primary purpose attenders hold for going to church: to be spiritually nurtured and fed as part of a worshipping community. In fact, these three priorities align with the NCLS Internal Core Qualities which focus on the inner life of churches: Faith, Worship and Belonging.

  • Do attenders have an alive and growing faith?
  • Do they experience vital and nurturing worship and do they feel a strong and growing belonging?

These ‘internal’ core qualities are regarded as foundational to church life. This is a reminder of the main qualities of church life that church attenders value, enjoy, and see as most central to their experience of church.

Believe or belong, which comes first? (It varies slightly with age and denomination)
Overall, there were differences between age groups. In general, those aged younger than 60 chose spiritual growth as their highest priority and building community as their second choice. Those aged 60 and over gave highest priority to building community, followed by nurturing worship and third, spiritual growth.
Attenders in different denominations vary in their priorities. Attenders in Uniting churches chose nurturing worship first and spiritual growth second.

Wanting to contribute and nurture
Following the top three responses, came ministry oriented choices – attenders are clear they want to be involved. ‘Encouraging people’s gifts and skills’, ministry to children and youth and ensuring new people are welcome here all align with the development and growth of ministry. Using gifts and skills in a ministry of all believers, nurturing future generations and newcomers all build a picture of strengthening the life of the church.

Lowest on the list of priorities were social action, faith sharing and new approaches, church plants or mission ventures.

This may reveal an internally focussed attendership, one that wants to develop and grow the internal life of their church, spiritually feeding people, bringing people in to the congregation and empowering them to contribute and belong.

Whether that comes at a cost of losing an outward focus into the local neighbourhood is open for question.

Sam Sterland, Ruth Powell and Kathy Jacka Kerr, NCLS Research.
Citation: Powell, R. & Kerr, K.J. (2017). Spiritually hungry and wanting community. http://ncls.org.au/news/spiritually-hungry
Data Source: Powell, R., Pepper, M., Hancock, N. and Sterland, S. (2017) 2016 NCLS Attender Survey [Data file]. Sydney: NCLS Research.

Don’t Keep History a Mystery: National Reconcilation Week

Published / by Sandy

This year’s theme for Reconciliation Week is “Don’t Keep History A Mystery: Learn. Share. Grow”. It is an opportunity for all Australians to learn more about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and histories, to share that knowledge and help us grow as a nation.

(There will be many events during this week, including on Sorry Day, which remind and raise awareness among politicians, policy makers and the wider public about the significance of the Stolen Generations, and the profound and damaging impact that this has had, and continues to have, on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It is also a time to celebrate their survival, culture, and community).

Reading Henry Reynold’s book, ‘Why weren’t we told:a personal search for the truth about our history‘, was a revelation – and an awakening. It describes the author’s own journey from ‘innocence’ in his Tasmanian childhood, to facing the realities of race when he moved to North Queensland. He recognised the glaring reality didn’t match the two myths generally accepted in Australia at the time – that Australia was settled peacefully, and terra nullius. Reynold’s named starkly the reality of massacres of Aboriginal communities and other uncomfortable and ‘inconvenient’ truths. In 1968, WEH Stanner offered a challenge in his Boyer lectures to break the ‘Great Australian silence’ about Australia’s Aboriginal past. Speaking truth is a pre-requisite to reconciliation, past and present.

The 2018 Reconciliation Theme, Don’t Keep History a Mystery: Learn.Grow.Share’ is an opportunity to ‘break the silence’. The future of our nation depends on it.

The Australian Reconciliation Barometer (the Barometer) is one of the tools to assist us to understand how the nation is performing on its reconciliation journey. The Barometer is a biennial, national research study, conducted by Reconciliation Australia since 2008. The Barometer measures attitudes and perceptions towards reconciliation, and maps our progress towards the five dimensions of reconciliation – race relations, equality and equity, institutional integrity, unity and historical acceptance. Australia can only achieve full reconciliation where there is substantive progress across all five areas.

The 2016 Barometer tells us that since 2014 an increasing number of Australians are proud of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and believe these cultures are important to Australia’s identity as a nation. Almost all Australians continue to view the relationship between each other as important and many believe that it is possible that all Australians can be united.

The Barometer findings reveal that the majority of Australians maintain positive attitudes towards reconciliation. However, disappointingly, there is significant evidence that these positive attitudes have yet to translate into improved behaviours across a wide range of sectors in Australian society, including the workplace, law-enforcement agencies, and the education and community sectors.

More Australians, both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians and other Australians, now agree that Australia is a racist country. This racism is reflected in increasing incidents of prejudice experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.

The Barometer also identifies continued misunderstandings between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians and other Australians. Both groups believe they offer more trust to the other than is returned. Reducing the perceived “trust gap” is critical to improving confidence in relationships between First Australians and the wider Australian community. Further, there is still misunderstandings within the wider Australian community about the causes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander inequality.

It is encouraging to note that in relation to settlement in Australia, more Australians now accept key facts about Australia’s past institutional prejudices against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians and feel that the wrongs of the past must be rectified before all Australians can move forward.

In assessing perceptions, attitudes and behaviours within both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and the general Australian community, there are some positive signs of progress. The findings also show us that there is still much to do to achieve our vision of a reconciled nation across the five dimensions.

(Read the full report of the 2016 Barometer’s findings here)

For those planning worship this Sunday for Reconciliation Day on May 27th, consider using an Acknowledgement of Land (here’s some we use at Pilgrim) and resources prepared for the day.

What a beautiful day for love to change the world

Published / by Sandy

Bishop Michael Curry preached the homily at the Royal Wedding of Harry and Meghan. The text is printed below. Even without Michael’s enthusiastic delivery (you can watch it here), the text is inspiring with it’s focus on the redemptive power of love.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What a beautiful day for love to change the world.
And now in the name of our loving liberating and life giving God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
From the Song of Solomon in the Bible: Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm, for love is as strong as death, passion as fierce as the grave, its flashes of flashes of fire, a raging flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it out
The late Dr. Martin Luther King once said, and I quote: we must discover the power of love, the redemptive power of love, and when we do that we will make of this old world a new world. For love is the only way.
There’s power in love. Don’t underestimate it. Don’t even oversentimentalize it. There’s power, power in love. If you don’t believe me, think about a time when you first fell in love. The whole world seemed to center around you and your beloved. There’s power, power in love.
Not just in its romantic forms but any form, any shape of love. There’s a certain sense in which when you are loved and you know it, when someone cares for you and you know it, when you love and you show it, it actually feels right. There’s something right about it.
And there’s a reason for it. The reason has to do with the source. We were made by a power of love. And our lives were meant and are meant to be lived in that love. That’s why we are here.
Ultimately the source of love is God himself, the source of all of our lives. There’s an old medieval poem that says, “where true love is found, God himself is there.”
The New Testament says it this way, “beloved, let us love one another because love is of God and those who love are born of God and know God, those who do not love do not know God. Why? For God is love. There’s power in love. There’s power in love to help and heal when nothing else can. There’s power in love to lift up and liberate when nothing else will. There’s power in love to show us the way to live. Set me as a seal on your heart. A seal on your arm. For love it’s strong as death.
But love is not only about a young couple. Now the power of love is demonstrated by the fact that we are all here. Two young people fell in love and we all showed up. But it’s not just for and about a young couple who we rejoice with.
It’s more than that. Jesus of Nazareth on one occasion was asked by a lawyer to sum up the essence of the teachings of Moses. He went back and reached back into the Hebrew scriptures, to Deuteronomy and Leviticus, and Jesus said you shall love the lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind and all your strength.
This is the first and great commandment and the second is like it: love your neighbor as yourself. And then in Matthew’s version, he added, he said, on these two Love of God and Love of Neighbor, hang all the law, all the prophets, everything that Moses wrote, everything in the holy prophets, everything in the scriptures, everything that God has been trying to tell the world. Love God, love your neighbors, and while you’re at it, love yourself.
Now someone once said that Jesus began the most revolutionary movement in all of human history, a movement grounded in the unconditional love of God for the world. A movement mandating people to live that love. And in so doing, to change not only their lives but the very life of the world itself.
I’m talking about some power, real power. Power to change the world. If you don’t believe me, well, there were some old slaves in America’s antebellum south who explained the dynamic power of love and why it has the power to transform. They explained it this way. They sang a spiritual, even in the midst of their captivity, it’s one that says there’s a balm in Gilead. A healing balm, something that can makes things right.
There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul. One of the stanzas actually explains why: they said, If you cannot preach like Peter and you cannot pray like Paul, you just tell the love of Jesus how he died to save us all. Oh that’s the balm in Gilead. This way of love is the way of life. They got it, he died to save us all. He didn’t die for anything he could get out of it. Jesus did not get an honorary doctorate for dying. He wasn’t getting anything out of it. He gave up his life, he sacrificed his life for the good of the others, for the good of the other, for the well-being of the world. For us, that’s what love is.
Love is not selfish and self-centered. Love can be sacrificial. And in so doing, becomes redemptive, and that way of unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive love, changes lives. And it can change this world. If you don’t believe me, just stop and think or imagine. Think and imagine, well, think and imagine a world where love is the way. Imagine our homes and families when love is the way. Imagine neighborhoods and communities where love is the way. Imagine governments and nations where love is the way. Imagine business and commerce when love is the way. Imagine this tired old world when love is the way, unselfish, sacrificial redemptive. When love is the way, then no child will go to bed hungry in this world ever again. When love is the way, we will let justice roll down like a mighty stream and righteousness like an everflowing brook. When love is the way, poverty will become history. When love is the way, the earth will be a sanctuary. When love is the way, we will lay down our swords and shields down, down by the riverside to study war no more. When love is the way, there’s plenty good room, plenty good room, for all of God’s children. Because when love is the way, we actually treat each other, well, like we are actually family. When love is the way, we know that God is the source of us all and we are brothers and sisters, children of God. My brothers and sisters, that’s a new heaven, a new earth, a new world, a new human family.


And let me tell you something, old Solomon was right in the Old Testament, that’s fire. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and with this, I will sit you down. We’ve got to get you all married. French Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was arguably one of the great minds, one of the great spirits of the 20th century. A Jesuit, Roman Catholic priest, scientist, a scholar, a mystic. In some of his writings, he said from his scientific background as well as his theological one. In some of his writings, he said as others have, that the discovery or invention or harnessing of fire was one of the great scientific and technological discoveries in all of human history. Fire to a great extent made human civilization possible. Fire made it possible to cook food and to provide sanitary ways of eating which reduced the spread of disease in its time. Fire made it possible to heat warm environments and thereby made human migration around the world a possibility, even into colder climates. Fire made it possible, there was no Bronze Age without fire, no Iron Age without fire, no industrial revolution without fire. The advances of science and technology are greatly dependent on the human ability and capacity to take fire and use it for human good.
Anybody get here in a car today? An automobile? Nod your heads if you did, I’m guessing, I know there were some carriages. But those of us who came in cars, the controlled harnessed fire made that possible. I know that the Bible says, and I believe it, that Jesus walked on the water, but I have to tell you I didn’t walk across the Atlantic Ocean to get here. Controlled fire in that plane got me here. Fire makes it possible for us to text and tweet and email and Instagram and Facebook and socially be dysfunctional with each other. Fire makes all of that possible and de Chardin said that fire was one of the greatest discoveries in all of human history. And he then went on to say that if humanity ever harnesses the energy of fire again, if humanity ever captures the energy of love, it will be the second time in history that we have discovered fire.
Dr. King was right, we must discover love. The redemptive power of love. And when we do that, we will make of this old world a new world. My brother, my sister, God loves you. God bless you. And may God hold us all in those almighty hands of love.

Solidarity in times of sorrow

Published / by Sandy

The President of the Uniting Church in Australia Stuart McMillan and UnitingWorld National Director Dr Sureka Goringe have written to churches in Indonesia to express sadness and solidarity after the tragic church bombings in Surabaya, Java on Sunday.

11 people were killed in the explosions and more than 43 were wounded in what has been called the worst terrorist attack in Indonesia in more than a decade.

A congregation of our GKI partner church in Java was one of those targeted, wounding an Elder and several young members.

A prayer has been written for the victims of the Surabaya attacks, and Uniting Church members and UnitingWorld supporters are invited to use the prayer to  join in solidarity with churches in Indonesia.

Letter to churches in Indonesia
Letter to our partner church GKI in Java

A PRAYER FOR THE VICTIMS OF CHURCH BOMBINGS IN JAVA

Almighty God, we come to you with our hearts full of thoughts.

But you are our refuge and strength, the light in the darkness,

and so with confidence we offer our prayers to you.

Lord hear us/ Lord hear our prayer.

We stand in solidarity with all good citizens in Java

pray for the churches of Catholic, Protestant, and Pentecostal traditions,

and we are confronted by the attacks on Christian worshipers.

We bring to you all the deceased,

and our trust that in God’s peace their souls find rest.

Lord hear us/ Lord hear our prayer.

We pray for those who grieve the loss of life,

for those who are traumatized during Sunday worship,

for those who are separated from the loved ones and friends;

we ask for your healing presence in their lives

and we commend to your love all the injured.

Lord hear us/ Lord hear our prayer.

We give to your care all those

who have been involved in the rescue operation.

Be with local churches and government forces

as they minister to the suffering communities.

Sustain them through this time of stress.

Lord hear us/ Lord hear our prayer.

We commend to your care those who are cleaning up,

for those burdened by unimaginable losses

and who have found themselves

like refugees in their own locality.

We ask that the emotional and spiritual support

already offered by local communities and beyond

will encourage and lift their spirits.

Lord hear us/ Lord hear our prayer.

We pray for communities that have been devastated

– especially in East Java and West Java.

May your peace bring people together

to rebuild their lives and communities,

and bring them healing from all evil.

Lord hear us/ Lord hear our prayer.

We pray for families and friends in Australia

who feel far away from the loved ones in Indonesia,

and those who had been through racial and religious attacks

– still trying to make sense of the past.

Comfort them across the physical and emotional distance.

Lord hear us/ Lord hear our prayer.

We give thanks to God for the blessing in our lives,

especially the gifts of joy we so often take for granted

until they are in danger of being taken away from us

– the gift of family, friends, a home, our possessions.

Most of all we praise God for the gift of life itself.

Lord hear us/ Lord hear our prayer.

God of light over darkness,

come into our hearts in the moment of now!

Come to transform our sorrow over the lost

into blessings to the living.

Come to reassure us your eternal truth

in the resurrection of Christ Jesus:

Life is always stronger than death.

Lord hear us/ Lord hear our prayer. Amen. 

(Rev Dr Ji Zhang  张骥, Assembly Theologian in Residence, for our Partner Church GKI and Indonesian Communion of Churches. The prayer is rewritten based on the prayer of 2004 Asian Tsunami by Homebush Uniting Church)

Investing in the skills of women

Published / by Sandy

According to one report, it is anticipated that Australians will have spent a whopping $733 million on Mothers Day in 2018.

It is sobering to realise that many communities in developing countries still live in extreme poverty. West Papua has a staggeringly high number of people living below the poverty line. More than 27% live on less than $2 a day.

Marcus Campbell, Uniting World, reports on a group of women who are crafting themselves out of poverty by making traditional bark paintings (malo). These have been produced by women for hundreds of years. They spend weeks together making the canvases out of the beaten bark of fig trees, and then paint designs that express their culture, highlighting the theme of ‘harmony between all living things’. Ask them how they learned the designs, and they all say, “our ancestors taught us.”

The women live on an isolated small island on a lake in West Papua, on the far limits of Papua’s most modern city, Jayapura. People here still travel between the islands using wooden canoes. Many of the women work two jobs while raising children. Most of their husbands are fishermen, but fears of local overfishing has pushed their work out to sea and into the city where they make meagre earnings.

Uniting World is investing in the women’s skills so that their business can grow. ‘Our local partners have been running business training and are helping them buy industrial sewing machines to help them expand their business to include bags and clothing with their traditional designs”.

Empowering these women has huge flow-on affects for the community. Making positive changes for women affects all of society. The women’s hard work enables them to send their children to school; many of them never had the chance themselves. “Our local partners are working on strategies that invest in critical aspects of life: food security, health, women’s incomes and the future of children. They need our support to continue to make projects like these a reality”.

Perhaps you might consider investing in these skilful women and their projects that are helping people grow a new future in West Papua. Visit www.unitingworld.org.au/papua or call 1800 998 122 to make a donation, or talk with Julie in the office if you don’t have access to a computer.

(Following the review of all of the international mission partnerships at the Annual Presbytery and Synod meeting in October 2015, it was decided to ‘maintain a Partnership relationship with Gereja Kristen Injili Di Tanah Papua (Evangelical Christian Church In The Land Of Papua (GKI) via the principal framework and projects managed by Uniting World and directly through congregationally driven activities with a major focus on supporting educational activities and building relationships. Read more about the UCA SA Synod partnership here).

The 2018 Federal budget – and overseas aid

Published / by Sandy

On Tuesday May 9th, the Federal Treasurer handed down the 2018 budget, with the hope of being ‘in the black’ from next year. There will be ongoing commentary and analysis on the details of the budget.

Every year, the budget allocates funding to overseas aid which improves the lives of millions of people around the world. It is an investment in a better future for our world and our neighbours. It also promotes Australia’s interests by contributing to sustainable economic growth and poverty reduction. In a globally interconnected world, less poverty and inequality is good for everybody. Social and economic stability reduces the risk of political instability, just as access to education for all plays a part in reducing the emergence of radicalisation and better equips communities to respond to it if it occurs – all of which benefits Australia in the long term.

After significant cuts to overseas aid in recent years, the overseas aid budget was frozen in 2017 for 2 years, and in the 2018 budget this freeze has been extended for a further 4 years, dropping to its lowest level in our nation’s history at just 19 cents in every $100 of Gross National Income. The people who suffer the most are the millions of people who rely on Australian aid in our region. As a consequence of the cuts, there will be a greater reliance on the contribution from churches, aid agencies and charities, which will have to work even harder to close the huge gap in overseas aid.The spirit of generosity of ordinary Australians is reflecting in the fact that 80% contribute to organisations that help vulnerable communities.

The Australian aid sector has been calling for an increase in overseas aid as a step towards returning our overseas aid budget towards levels in accord with our international obligations. Earlier this year, ACFID (Australian Council for International Development), of which the Uniting Church is a member through its agency Uniting World, had campaigned to prevent an additional $400 million in cuts to foreign aid that were being considered. These cuts were dropped, but the decision to freeze the foreign aid budget comes at a time when we see global inequality on the rise and millions of people fleeing violence and oppression.

This is not a time when overseas aid can be put ‘on hold’ for four years, especially when we see what is happening in the lives of our global neighbours.

In 2000, Australia signed on to the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), joining 199 other nations aiming to halve extreme poverty by 2015. But in recent years Australia has been shrinking from its role on the world stage. While other countries have increased their aid programs, Australian aid is now at its lowest level ever, falling to 19th of the 29 countries that give overseas aid.

The hope is that a bi-partisan commitment can be made so that the overseas aid budget can reach 0.7% of GNI by 2030 commensurate with Australia’s international obligations and the commitments made as part of the MDGs.

Australian aid provides opportunities for our global neighbours to build a better future. It is work we should celebrate now, and look back on with pride in years to come. Can we champion a response to reducing poverty that is as generous as the Australian people?

Perhaps this something you feel strongly about, or you would like to know more? More information is available on the Campaign for Australian Aid website, and you can also find information on the Campaign for Australian Aid Facebook page. Campaign for Australian Aid is a joint initiative of Make Poverty History and Micah Challenge coalitions for all Australians who believe we can and should do more as a nation to end extreme poverty around the world.

Sandy would be glad to chat with you about this if you would like more information, or would like to learn about the impact on our partner churches supported through Uniting World.

Perhaps you might consider writing to or arranging a meeting with your Federal MP to share you concerns about this important matter?

(This article includes information collated from statements from ACFID, World Vision, Uniting World and Campaign for Australian Aid)Overseas aid as well as the contributions of individuals, groups and churches, is essential to supporting our partner churches in Asia, Africa and the Pacific through the UCA agency Uniting World. The diagram shows how this funding is used.

Living with diversity and difference

Published / by Sandy

The Uniting Church’s national Assembly has an important conversation about marriage coming in July. Here’s a link to the report and recommendations.

Here’s a video intro by past-President and Chair of the Doctrine Working Group Rev Alistair Macrae.

This week the Moderator of the Uniting Church SA sent a pastoral letter. Here is a (slightly) edited version:

Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,

The release of the Assembly papers on Monday has heightened the diversity of views held on same-gender marriage within the Uniting Church in South Australia.This topic has been painful for some.

I acknowledge that this has been a particularly difficult time for ministers and church leaders. It has been challenging for many to hold their congregations and faith communities together given the diversity of views and strength of conviction held by individual members of each church.

We have always been a diverse church since our inception when the leaders of the three denominations agreed to focus on Jesus’ call to unity and come together to form a new Christian movement for the Australian context. What we can often forget is how costly that was, as differences of opinion and theology were intentionally held apart for the sake of union. The Uniting Church has a history of working together, even through diversity and challenging times. In anxious times, it is easy to forget that we do have helpful policies that can guide and protect us as leaders. These policies remind us of our responsibilities in keeping our conversations around the Assembly respectful at all times, so all God’s people feel valued and safe.

The Code of Ethics for Ministers and the Code of Conduct for Volunteers and Leaders are the guidelines by which we live out our Christian life together in the Uniting Church in Australia. I commend these documents to you. The Social Media policy of the Uniting Church SA, which applies to comments posted on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other social media platforms, is a useful guide. I would also like to remind leaders of the Media Communications Policy of the Uniting Church SA, which states:
“As specified in section 3.6.3.2 (g) of the Uniting Church Constitution and Regulations handbook, the Moderator speaks on public issues for the church. The Moderator is the only official spokesperson for the church. The Moderator can, if the circumstances are appropriate, authorise a suitable qualified person to represent the Uniting Church in South Australia to the media on his/her behalf. is also to be noted by leaders, and in particular, that the Moderator is the official spokesperson for the Uniting Church in South Australia.” Any request by media to a minister or lay leader for an interview, must be referred to the Moderator’s office first.

In the matters before the 15th Assembly, the Moderator alone will be the Uniting Church SA spokesperson to the media.

As we pray for the members of Assembly, we give thanks for those members who have offered themselves to be our people from South Australia. These members are called to be open to the Holy Spirit in the context of the Assembly and to discern together the way of Christ for the Uniting Church in Australia.

There are many important matters for discussion at the 15th Assembly in addition to marriage, including the domestic violence policy, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, and the sovereignty of Aboriginal people.

I’d like to conclude this message with words from John 15:12-13:
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

Grace and peace,

Rev Sue Ellis (Moderator, Uniting Church SA)

And these words from Rev Apwee Ting (National Assembly)
There are common stories sustaining God’s mission in the life of Uniting Church: grace, generosity, love, friendship, worship, prayer …
There are things that people value about UCA: diversity, covenant with first people, justice, inter/cross cultural, emerging leaders and leadership open for every member.
Thank God for Uniting Church.

 

Rethinking practices of exclusion

Published / by Sandy

Reflecting on the Acts reading (the Ethiopian Eunuch, Acts 8:26-40)

So, the Ethiopian Eunuch is reading aloud (a very common practice – if you had the ability to read, then you would read aloud) from the scroll of Isaiah (Chapter 53), a passage that has come to be associated with the passion of Jesus.

What was this Ethiopian Eunuch doing reading this particular part of Isaiah?

Well, the background is that eunuchs were specifically excluded from the temple:
“If a man’s testicles are crushed or his penis is cut off,
he may not be admitted to the assembly of the Lord”
 (Deuteronomy 23:1)

But here, in the very section of Isaiah where the Ethipian Eunuch is reading, is this text:
Let no foreigner who is bound to the LORD say,
“The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.”
And let no eunuch complain, “I am only a dry tree.”
For this is what the LORD says:
“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose what pleases me
and hold fast to my covenant—
to them I will give within my temple and its walls
a memorial and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that will endure forever” (Isaiah 56:3-5)

A text of inclusion. It would have been a ‘favourite’ part of the Isaiah scroll for the Eunuch, one he would return to again and again, as it gave him a place of belonging. And, in the course of reading this text of inclusion, he would have become familiar with the surrounding text (no verses and chapter headings in those days!) including Chapter 53 that is the focus of the Acts 8 reading today (and for the conversation between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch):

“He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,
and as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.
Who can speak of his descendants?
For his life was taken from the earth.”

After Philip gives witness to Jesus, the Ethiopian Eunuch is baptized (in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy), and eunuchs find a place of belonging in the reign of God. That which was excluded has now been included.

It would have been a surprising and wonderful moment for both Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch.

Here’s a great reflection on this reading by Richard Beck:

The “eunuch story” may, at least in part, speak to the issue of social contribution or function. It seems that great emphasis was given to function in the old covenant “congregation of the Lord”. The “commission” of old covenant community focused around the growth of the Jewish nation, particularly in terms of the “be fruitful and multiply” directive. What we think of as evangelism wasn’t a primary focus – having and raising children with a particular worldview and a peculiar kind of monotheism was. Eunuchs could not contribute to this social mandate, and were therefore viewed as vestigials, as supernumeraries. There was a central religious goal, and these eunuchs were people who, having no way to further that goal, had no place in the religious community.

So, when the Spirit of the Lord went to miraculous lengths to ensure that the first known Christian non-Jewish convert was both of an alien culture and a “functionless” eunuch, the intention was to make us think about what it means to have “function” within the new covenant community of faith, and further,  about how the Christian community, like a family, must embrace a non-utilitarian society.

In the Ethiopian eunuch, I see every person that typically would be relegated to the non-contributing “others” of society: the irritants, the wastes-of-time, the hangers-on. I see friends with Aspergers and autism spectrum disorders and severe depression and body odour. I see psychopaths and addicts and narcissists. I see people with unusual humor and inconsiderate conversational habits. Communities formed on utilitarian goals or on the fulfillment of mutual self-need, would leave all these people behind, but the community of Christ continually redefines itself in order to accommodate them.

The community patterned after the heart of God intentionally includes the maladjusted, the awkward, and the outcast, even to the detriment of “the perfect social atmosphere”. Loving “non-contributors” is inconvenient, messy, unpredictable and disruptive.

This is the practice of unconditional love. The church will grow more by that practice in itself, than anything that could be done by avoiding all the “time wasters”. Whatever is gained by avoiding them of time, comfort and money, is lost to apathy, impatience and unlove. “The community that seeks to save its life will lose it, but the community that loses its life for Christ’s sake will gain it.”

Lest we forget

Published / by Sandy

A homily by Rev Dr Greg Elsdon for ANZAC Day Evensong 2018

(Micah 4:1-4 and John 15:9-17)

Together with Lest We Forget, the words ‘Greater love has no man than this’ have become deeply and powerfully lodged in the secular liturgy of Anzac Day. And as we saw last year, any attempt to use these words to draw attention to the plight of victims of war, violence or injustice in other contexts is likely to draw immediate and savage condemnation.

Many Australians have mixed feelings and emotions when Anzac Day comes around each year. On the one hand we experience a deep and solemn sense of mourning and grief as we recall the brutality and inhumanity experienced by so many. On the other hand, we feel a profound sense of gratitude to, and pride in, those men and women who served their country with indescribable courage and self-sacrifice.

But it is not unusual for us to experience feelings of disquiet, even awkwardness, at the way these legitimate and worthy responses to the events of The Great War can so easily deteriorate into an almost cultish reverence or romanticisation of war and violence. In recent years there has even been a discernible push by some to elevate Gallipoli and the ‘Anzacs’ to the status of the ‘foundational events and stories’ of our Australian identity.

Lest we forget is the call for active remembrance of war not in order to glorify war or indulge ourselves in bouts of nationalistic pride. It is rather the call to acknowledge the gravity of the events and the consequences of what happened not just in places such as Villers-Bretonneux and Gallipoli, but wherever people have been killed in conflicts between nations.

But Lest we forget is also a call to mourn and to lament the horrors of all war; to pay respect to the countless millions whose lives were brutally taken or permanently disfigured or deranged – and to commit ourselves to do all within our power, our spheres of influence, to reject the deathly ways of violence and the romanticisation of war.

Anthem for Doomed Youth by Wilfred Owen

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?

— Only the monstrous anger of the guns.

Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle

Can patter out their hasty orisons.

No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;

Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs —

The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;

And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?

Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes

Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.

The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;

Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,

And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Lest we Forget

What will we do with our remembering?

What does our remembering mean for us?

What does our remembering demand of us?

Where will our remembering take us?

What value is our remembering,

– if it does not inspire us to commit ourselves to the ways of peace and reconciliation?

“In a society and world in which military metaphors and binary choices are extended increasingly to international relationships, immigration, customs, policing and welfare, Anzac Day is an occasion for dwelling compassionately on the things that bind us together, not those that separate us into allies and enemies.” [Andrew Hamilton SJ]

For those of us who encounter God in the life and teachings of Jesus, Lest we Forget is a call to eschew violence and learn the ways of peace and justice – following the one who dares us to learn what it means to love enemies and repay evil with good.

In Sydney’s Anzac War Memorial there is a bronze sculpture by artist Rayner Hoff titled Sacrifice.  It depicts the body of a dead soldier held aloft on a shield, his arms draped across a sword in a posture of crucifixion, like a sacrificial alter. Australian theologian Ben Meyer has comments, “It is a majestic image, a portrayal of worship, devotion and sacrifice. It’s hard to imagine a more vivid representation of the cult of war that lies at the heart of the modern nation-state.”

Rayner Hoff, Sacrifice

Rayner Hoff also sculptured another bronze, which wasn’t displayed. He called it The Crucifixion of Civilisation. Of this sculpture Ben Meyer writes;

“In this sculpture, the form of a young naked woman (symbolising Peace) is crucified atop a pile of corpses, limbs, weapons, and other wreckage of war. She is crucified on the weapons of Mars, the Roman god of war. The huge helmet of Mars gapes over her like some monstrous ravening mouth. From a distance, the whole hideous scene forms a traditional symbol of victory. Hoff himself described the sculpture like this: ‘Adolescent Peace is depicted crucified on the armaments of the ravisher, the war god, Mars. The Greek helmet animalistically gapes over the head of expiring Peace, the cuirass of the body armour hard and brutal in contrast to her lithe woman’s body’.”

Rayner Hoff, The Crucifixion of Civilisation

Peace, Shalom, human well-being … sacrificed on the altar of the cult of war.  It’s disturbing and deeply challenging.

We’ve been at it for a long time, this warmongering. You’d think we might have learned something by now.  But it seems not

700 years before Jesus, the Jewish prophet Micah – who lived surrounded by wars and rumours of wars – eloquently captured the human longing for peace and peacefulness: 

3 He shall judge between many peoples,
and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more;
4 but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
and no one shall make them afraid;
for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.  [Micah 4:3-4]

On this Anzac Day, may this graphic portrayal of human wholeness be that which calls us forward. May this vision of God’s Shalom be that which inspires and shapes our living.

And may the God of Peace be with us all.

Amen

Reframing the Good Shepherd

Published / by Sandy

A sermon by Dr Liz Boase, 22nd April 2018, Pilgrim Uniting Church

The Lord is my shepherd.

Jesus says, I am the good shepherd.

Bring to mind an image of a sheep with Jesus as the good shepherd. A tiny lamb lying in the arms of Jesus, the arms of God.  Cuddled, gazed on with love, every need provided. How wonderful is that? 

I wonder if that is what came to mind as you heard today’s readings? Do you picture Jesus as we see him portrayed in so much traditional art. A clean shiny Jesus, not a speck of dirt or dust anywhere, in clean white robes, cradling a snowy lamb, also surprisingly clean? The lamb looks so content and rested and it is clear that all the lamb will ever be asked to do is to remain lying there content with not a demand made upon it.

It’s a lovely, comforting image. 

But if that’s the image we hold, then we’ve got Jesus and the lamb all wrong. 

What are we saying when we say the Lord is my shepherd? What does it mean that Jesus is the good shepherd?

Let’s start with Jesus. 

The image of a gentle eyed Jesus softly cradling a lamb is, without doubt, a comforting one. It’s an image of gentle power, of someone who can control the uncontrollable in our world. And isn’t that what we want of Jesus?

We want Jesus to tame what is wild and unruly in the world. A God who can solve what is unsolvable and answer what is unanswerable. We want to feel safe and comfortable.

Regardless of what we want, though, we eventually come face-to-face with the reality that the world is wild and unruly, that there are questions without answers, that there are thieves and bandits in the world bent on destruction.

When we look at our world, at the destruction in Syria, the detention of refugees in off-shore centres, at the impact of natural disasters, environmental degradation, and so on, we are left wondering where is the Good Shepherd in the midst of the violence and the suffering and the destruction.

Where is the shepherd that will sanitize all that is wrong with the world, who will clean up all that is messy and misplaced in our lives?

Where is the shepherd? 

The Good Shepherd, He Qi

He’s right there, in the midst of it all. In there amongst the dirt and the grime. With the sheep, protecting the sheep, fighting on behalf of the sheep, warding off the thieves and the bandits. 

You see, that’s what shepherds do. They protect the sheep. Not in the rigid confines of the sheepfold, but out there in the midst of the world. If the shepherd simply kept the sheep in the pen, the sheep would not thrive. The food would run out, the sheep’s ability to grow and thrive would be restrained through lack of space. 

The shepherd takes the sheep out to where there is food, space, the potential to live an abundant life – but those places are also places where there are dangers, risks, thieves and bandits. The good shepherd, in contrast to the bad ones (the Jewish religious leaders in the context of John’s gospel) is out there to protect the sheep. The bad shepherds are there for their own gain, but the good shepherd is there for the sake of the sheep. The good shepherd is there in the dirt, the squalor, the un-sanitized places. The good shepherd is in the real world outside the safety of the pen.

The good shepherd is even prepared to lay down his life for the sake of the sheep. 

But why? What is it about sheep that leads to this? Why does the good shepherd act this way?

We have talked about the shepherd, and dismantled the view of a squeaky clean Jesus, now, let’s look at the sheep. What might this have to say about us and who we are as the community of Christ?

In the ancient world sheep were valued. Shepherds didn’t  generally keep sheep as pets, but because of their usefulness. 

Shepherding was a job, a means of making a living and feeding a family. If the sheep didn’t produce, the shepherd’s family was at risk. The shepherd cared for the sheep to ensure that they would thrive. That they would produce wool and provide meat.

So when we think about that lamb, we need to think about who we are as individuals and who we are as a church. What does it mean that we are cared for? What is expected of us?

The image of the good shepherd is not only about God, about Jesus, it is also about us – about what it means to be sheep.  It’s about our part of what’s going on with this familiar and comfortable talk about green pastures and still waters. 

We don’t grow wool, that’s not of our nature. But we can worship and serve; we can reach out and share; we can study and pray; we can increase in holiness and tell the truth; we can fight for justice and to be willing to sacrifice. We can choose to grow into the fullness of who we are in Christ– and to do this in community, and with integrity. This is expected of us. 

The metaphor of the good shepherd tells us that there are expectations on us. . The care offered us is intended to lead to something, something real and substantial. There are other sheep – other people – that Jesus wants to reach out to, to enfold.

I need to make something clear here. Jesus as the good shepherd is about the gift of God. There’s  no fine print on Jesus’ promise to be the Good Shepherd, or that he’s only a good shepherd for the most useful of the sheep. Jesus isn’t going to leave us to the wolves or turn us into dog food – or whatever it is you do with worthless sheep – if we don’t produce. God cares for us and has blessed us. Jesus has laid down his life for us. That sacrifice, that love, that continued care, these are simply gifts. They are given without condition and without exception. We don’t try to do stuff in the hope that God will be nicer to us or love us more. There is no “more.”

But there are expectations. We are to produce, to give back, from who we are – from what we can do, from what our situation in life is. From our various skills, abilities, resources and gifts. 

This isn’t just about church work – Sunday morning and committee stuff – although that can be part of it. Instead, this is about the work of the church, which is much larger and a whole lot more interesting.

Each and every one of the sheep, has purpose and value and worth.  Each is important. Each and every one of us can contribute, and is called to contribute, in one way or another, to the mission of the church. You can’t be too young or too old or too new or too sick or too ordinary or too uneducated, or too busy, or too anything to avoid that reality.

We are needed; and without us, without any single one of us, the mission and work of the God and the church are impoverished. 

So, let’s put aside the sugary image of a washed out Jesus and a meek and gentle lamb. Instead, let’s embrace the radical call of Christ the good shepherd. The call to be out there in the grimy, messiness of the world. A call to go with Christ and for Christ into the places where Jesus is already active and present. A call to walk along paths of righteous action. A call to dwell in and with God in God’s house, the world. A call be sheep, in all our glorious messiness, doing what we can, when we can, following the one who leads us.

Amen

 

Making a new world

Published / by Sandy

Acts 4:32-37: Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

Acts depicts the ideal of the Christ-following community and provides a glimpse of the dynamic experiences of a community enlivened by God’s Spirit. What do we do with this story from the early church? Sell up and move into community? Many have been inspired to do so, some successfully, and some where the communities have ended up fractured and dysfunctional. Is the depiction of the early church community a pipe-dream? Maybe a short term response to the hope of Jesus’ imminent return? Or is something else happening in this story?

The commentator Luke Timothy Johnson, says: While many of us go searching through the scripture looking for rules which will tell us what to do, what we find instead, particularly in Luke-Acts, is what he calls a “diversity of mandates”. Christianity isn’t an ethical system that tells you what you’re  supposed to do all of the time. Instead, it tells you who you are and through the shaping of that identity you then grow to discern, by the power of the Spirit, which mandate of the many given in scripture is the best one to be followed at a given moment.

Martin Luther King Jr followed a particular mandate of compassion and justice. The world remembered his death this month – 50 years ago on April 4, 1968. Just 2 months earlier he had delivered a powerful sermon, at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, where he served as co-pastor with his father. The sermon was entitled ‘The Drum Major’s Instinct’ (it’s available on the web to watch – be uplifted by his oratory and content). It features his trademark fusion of radical faith and politics, and calls out the dangers of capitalism, racism and militarism. Towards the end of the sermon, King speaks about his own mortality, and the way he wants to be remembered as one who pursued justice. “Every now and then I think about my own death and I think about my own funeral. I don’t think of it in a morbid sense. Every now and then I ask myself, ‘What is it that I would want said?’” “I’d like somebody to mention that I tried to give his life serving others. I’d like for somebody to say that day that I tried to love somebody. I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question. I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry. And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked. I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison. I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity. If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness … Yes, Jesus, I want to be by your side not for any selfish reason, not in terms of some political kingdom or ambition. I just want to be there in love and in justice and in truth and in commitment to others, so that we can make of this old world a new world”. Two months later, this part of his sermon was played as part of his eulogy at his own funeral.

What strikes me about his sermon is the way he made clear that activism or acts of compassion emerge from and are sustained by faith. His action were not so he could find purpose and identity and fulfilment for himself but primarily about a selflessness shaped by the example of Jesus and the transforming work of God’s Spirit in his life.

Rev. Dr Sarah Bachelard, founder and leader of Benedictus Contemplative Church in Canberra, and an honorary fellow at the Australian Catholic University, has reflected on activism. Yes, she says, there needs to be awareness raising, advocacy, education – all these things are clearly vital. Yet by themselves, they’re not enough. What is also needed is the deeper transformation of persons, where individuals and whole communities let go of certain ways of imagining themselves and others, and build a different kind of community. That’s what was happening in the community in our reading today.

She cites another example: where the Jewish Christian Peter goes to the home of the Gentile Cornelius (Acts 10). It was a radically new way of relating that transcended the divides of religion, culture and tradition. It placed the primary focus on hospitality and a willingness to be vulnerable.

It demonstrated the imperative for followers of the Jesus way to be willing to give up particular social norms and patterns of behaviour and identity formation, and to take up new ways of being, belonging and behaving. It involves a willingness to let go of a constructed ‘ego’ identity with particular social norms and patterns of behaviour, to let go of old certainties, and to be willing to be vulnerable as new ways are practiced and embedded.

Sarah speaks about an example where she attended a pastoral care committee meeting. The agenda was how to ensure that people felt welcomed to the church, how to ensure that new people stayed. At one level, the concern expressed was genuinely for the people: Had they been offered hospitality? Did they feel accepted, cared for? They’re important concerns. At another level, though, I discerned something else driving the meeting’s agenda. Things like: Is our community growing and sustaining itself? Are we being seen as welcoming? Are we living up to our self-image as inclusive, caring and warm-hearted? In this she saw a clear distinction between selflessness in serving others on the one hand, and the concerns of the community to enhance their own identity. The problem is that too often Christian acts of compassionate care and our desire to do good don’t emerge from humility and poverty of spirit. Unconsciously, and despite our best intentions and sincere efforts, often our involvement serves our own needs, or the desire to be seen as “good Christians,” as “worthy and good”.

English theologian Andrew Shanks has identified the issue at stake here. He’s pointed out that when it comes to doing the “right” thing, two motives are, in most of us, deeply intertwined. There is the genuine desire to do justice, and show compassion, and then there’s the desire to find satisfaction in doing the right thing. This second desire, he says, gets in the way of the first. Instead of being genuinely other-directed, our concern is subtly but unmistakably self-centred. The same thing can be seen at times in the way the church speaks in the public arena. Throughout history the church has often been concerned to secure a place in the world, and has often been more a “sign of wealth rather than of poverty and has aligned itself with the rich and powerful on earth more than the weak and lowly”. 
(Luke Timothy Johnson, Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church: The Challenge of Luke-Acts to Contemporary Christians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), p. 125.)

When the church should be living out hospitality together as an alternative way of life in opposition to runaway and militant consumerism, we instead have become that which we have otherwise been called to convert.

The community of Christ is called to grow in ‘self-forgetfulness’ in order to more fully serve others. It would be good to reflect further on the difference between a self-forgetful church and a church that has forgotten faithfulness. How does the church identify and deal with the confusion between faithful Christian discipleship on the one hand, and ideology and self-protecting religion on the other?

Perhaps the example of the selflessness of the early church speaks to us afresh today – not to replicate the actions of caring and compassion for their own sake as a kind of blueprint of Christian community, but to open ourselves afresh to the God we know through Jesus, and to God’s living Spirit, so in turn we may become ‘self-forgetful’ and to give ourselves selflessly to others following the example of Jesus, so we can ‘make of this old world a new world’. 
May it be so. Amen.

(this sermon was inspired by and draws on an article, The Ego-Driven Church: On the Perils of Christian Activism 2017)

A meal for the homeless

Published / by Sandy

On the day of his funeral, Professor Stephen Hawking’s family donated an Easter meal for 50 homeless people in Cambridge. It was held at Wesley Methodist Church, about a kilometre away from where mourners gathered on Saturday to celebrate his life. A touching note, signed by “the Hawking family”, was left on the tables and told the 50 guests that the lunch was a “gift from Stephen”. Organisers of the event, run by the charity FoodCycle, said the much-loved professor was given a “little cheer” by diners before they tucked into their meals. FoodCycle Cambridge said: “We’re so grateful to the Hawking family for their generous donation so we could give our guests an extra special Easter meal yesterday. A heartwarming gesture from the Hawking family that no doubt provided great cheer and comfort to the homeless.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, another act of generosity, and another special Easter Day meal at Pilgrim Uniting Church. This year the meal was served to about 100 people in a delightful ‘al fresco’ setting in the Pilgrim Plaza area at the rear of the church, making the most of a balmy autumn evening.

Twice a year, on Easter Day and Christmas Day, the Australia Angels for the Homeless  (coordinated by the amazing Steffan Joseph) prepares a meal for homeless, and disadvantaged people. This has been happening for 10+ years, with Steffan bringing together a huge number of volunteers, and preparing a veritable banquet for those who rarely have anything to celebrate. Food and other items are donated and some are purchased for the meal, with takeaway bags with treats for each person, and a toiletries bag with a range of personal care items.

In addition to the meal, some guests at the special events enjoy an opportunity to have a haircut, manicure and massage.

This is truly inspirational. Congratulations to Steffan and his team.

And for the other Sundays evenings in the year, Pilgrim Uniting Church hosts the Sunday Night Tea program for homeless and disadvantaged people, with numbers averaging around 60-80 people each night. Volunteers from Pilgrim as well as other churches and the wider community provide a warm welcome, and nutritious food.

(If you want to find out more about the Sunday Night Tea program, or how you can be involved in supporting the special Easter and Christmas events, please contact Pilgrim Uniting Church, office@pilgrim.org.au, 8212 3295).

2018 Easter message from the Uniting Church President

Published / by Sandy

Easter Greetings to you. I’m Stuart McMillan, President of the Uniting Church in Australia. 

Welcome to my home town Darwin – a beautiful place of diversity and difference. 

For Christ’s love compels us – he died for all so that we should no longer live for ourselves. This is at the very heart of the Christian faith, and yet in our own lives we often fail to resolve conflicts between ourselves and others.

The Karama Indonesian Uniting Church Congregation here in Darwin is doing just that. This new community came together at the end of last year. After 17 years of separation Christ’s love compelled them to be reconciled, truly one in Christ.

REV. THRESI MAUBOY: Greetings from Northern Synod – Karama Indonesian Uniting Church. I’m Thresi Mauboy – I’m the Moderator of Northern Synod.

The Indonesian community in Darwin – we’re coming from a multicultural background. 

We celebrate diversity, but we are one. So we as a Christian people, we always make sure – part of what Jesus teaches us to do is to bring people into unity and reconciliation.

JESSICA MAUBOY: [singing Amazing Grace]

REV. THRESI MAUBOY: You can come together – to love one another, to support one another and burn the burden and the suffering – and start a new life. That’s part of the reconciliation.

STUART MCMILLAN: It’s this amazing grace, this love of God for all people which is the message of hope at Easter. For me that is the message of the Cross. Our world needs this message of hope, of reconciliation.

The love of Christ means we put the needs of others ahead of our own and seek to come together to find a new way forward, a way of peace and reconciliation. This Easter, Christ’s love compels me to pray, and continue to work for reconciliation; in families, in communities, in our nation and between nations.

May the God of love and peace be with you all.

Reflections on April Fools’ Day and Easter Sunday

Published / by Sandy

April Fools’ Day is the perfect excuse to talk about jokes in the Bible. Most of us believe that the Bible is all heavy stuff, and Christian discipleship is based on a very serious Jesus, so we need to try to be a very serious Christian. But the Bible is full of jokes! This does not mean Jesus is not serious. A joke need not be frivolous or false, and in fact the best jokes are neither. One reason we miss jokes in the Bible is our Puritan tradition of disdain for levity, which tends to frame the things Jesus says as pithy ripostes or clever aphorisms – but not jokes. There is a logic to this: we have no problem being fully human but struggle to be godly, so we should focus on what is godly about Jesus. The ability to tell good jokes (and get them) is deeply tied to our moral imagination.
A good joke in the functional sense depends on our ability to see the difference between the world as it is and as it could be. A good joke in the moral sense, then, depends on our ability to see the difference between is and should. A good joke can light up the dark between the two, can help us see one from the other. Not everything that is funny is a joke, and not every funny joke is a good joke, but a good joke helps us see the distance between who we are and who we should be. Who but Jesus ever saw so clearly the distance between is and should? Who else had the imagination to grasp fully the gulf between heaven and earth? Laughter is both human and humane, an essential tool to help us cross the distance to God.
The lectionary for April 1 – Easter Sunday – is heavy on the heavy stuff, but it does contain one good joke. In the Gospel reading from John, Jesus finds Mary Magdalene weeping over the tomb. Mary, “supposing him to be a gardener,” does not recognize him. It is a joke about Mary’s failure to recognize Jesus, but also a joke about the reader’s ability to do so. The joke is at Mary’s expense and also ours.
It is neither stretch nor slight to say that the resurrection was a joke – and a good one. What more could Jesus have done to mock the world that killed him than rise from the dead? When we say we are Easter people, we say we live in the light Jesus brought to the darkness between what is and what should be.
“Jokes can be noble. Laughs are exactly as honourable as tears. We have no problem with the Jesus who wept. This Easter, let’s grapple with the Jesus who laughed”. (Kurt Vonnegut)


(adapted from an article by Miles Townes on Christian Century

Here’s another thoughtful article on Eureka Street

How do we envisage Jesus?

Published / by Sandy

Uniting Church Minister and Trinity College lecturer Robyn J. Whitaker writes:

While there is no physical description of him in the Bible, there is also no doubt that the historical Jesus, the man who was executed by the Roman State in the first century CE, was a brown-skinned, Middle Eastern Jew.

This is not controversial from a scholarly point of view, but somehow it is a forgotten detail for many of the millions of Christians who will gather to celebrate Easter this week.

On Good Friday, Christians attend churches to worship Jesus and, in particular, remember his death on a cross. In most of these churches, Jesus will be depicted as a white man, a guy that looks like Anglo-Australians, a guy easy for other Anglo-Australians to identify with.

Think for a moment of the rather dashing Jim Caviezel, who played Jesus in Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. He is an Irish-American actor. Or call to mind some of the most famous artworks of Jesus’ crucifixion – Ruben, Grunewald, Giotto – and again we see the European bias in depicting a white-skinned Jesus.

Why do we continue to allow images of a whitened Jesus to dominate?

Many churches and cultures do depict Jesus as a brown or black man. Orthodox Christians usually have a very different iconography to that of European art – if you enter a church in Africa, you’ll likely see an African Jesus on display.

But these are rarely the images we see in Australian Protestant and Catholic churches, and it is our loss. It allows the mainstream Christian community to separate their devotion to Jesus from compassionate regard for those who look different.

I would even go so far as to say it creates a cognitive disconnect, where one can feel deep affection for Jesus but little empathy for a Middle Eastern person. It likewise has implications for the theological claim that humans are made in God’s image. If God is always imaged as white, then the default human becomes white and such thinking undergirds racism.

Historically, the whitewashing of Jesus contributed to Christians being some of the worst perpetrators of anti-Semitism and it continues to manifest in the “othering” of non-Anglo Saxon Australians.

This Easter, I can’t help but wonder, what would our church and society look like if we just remembered that Jesus was brown? If we were confronted with the reality that the body hung on the cross was a brown body: one broken, tortured, and publicly executed by an oppressive regime.

How might it change our attitudes if we could see that the unjust imprisonment, abuse, and execution of the historical Jesus has more in common with the experience of Indigenous Australians or asylum seekers than it does with those who hold power in the church and usually represent Christ?

Perhaps most radical of all, I can’t help but wonder what might change if we were more mindful that the person Christians celebrate as God in the flesh and saviour of the entire world was not a white man, but a Middle Eastern Jew.

(Robyn J. Whitaker, original article published in The Conversation)

https://tenplay.com.au/channel-ten/studio-10/extra/season-2018/how-do-we-envisage-jesus

Good Friday

Published / by Sandy

The hosannas have died away
O Holy God,
the hosannas have died away,
the palm branches have turned brittle.
Now, today, there is only this –
each of us,
all of us,
sitting in the darkness,
the hymns of lament in the air,
the mumblings of our own feeble confession,
on this Friday
which we tremble to call Good.

What is good about Good Friday?

What is good about the innocent one nailed to a cross?
What is good about the darkness of war that persists today?
What is good about our devastation of the planet?
… about people living in poverty?
… about the fog of addiction, depression, disease and despair?
What is good about the crushing weight of hunger, racism, scapegoating, apathy?

No, there is nothing good and desirable in these things.

Yet you, O God, are Good.

When suffering reigns, yours is the first heart to break.

When despair lurks about, we remember that you were there first,
peering into the abyss and crying out, incredibly:
“Father, forgive them.”

When we feel forsaken, we remember that in your last moments,
you cared for your mother and your beloved disciple,
binding them to one another as a new family.

When we feel overcome by guilt, we remember that you spoke grace to a thief:
“Today you will be with me in paradise.”

Your love for us is just that boundless,
and ever-present,
and Good.

Thank you.
What else can we say here, in the dimness,
in the darkness,
but thank you.

Amen.
(Source: MaryAnn McKibben Dana, LiturgyLinks)

Palm Sunday

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2018 Palm Sunday Rally – Walk for justice for refugees
Across Australia, people from faith groups, community groups and organisations and unions will join the Palm Sunday actions for Refugees, bringing banners and messages of support to express their concern about the treatment of refugees and people seeking asylum. In Adelaide people will gather in Victoria Square at 2pm, before walking to Parliament House for presentation by guest speakers. Speaking truth to power. (Details of Palm Sunday actions for Refugees in other cities here)
Approximately 30,000 refugees are living on temporary visas in our community with their futures in limbo. Many families are separated by the harsh system, and people despair of ever being reunited. Many lack access to education and citizenship and fear being deported to danger.
Refugees on Manus and Nauru are approaching their fifth year languishing offshore.
The refugee movement is shifting public opinion. A majority of Australians are now opposed to the continuing detention of refugees on Manus and Nauru and believe they should be brought to Australia
Join us and show your support for:
1. An Australia that treats people seeking asylum humanely and in accordance with Australia’s international obligations ensuring access to a fair application process irrespective of mode or date of arrival.
2. An Australia where people are free to live in the community while their claims are transparently processed
3. An Australia that expands alternative migration pathways for refugees, increases access to family reunion and creates opportunities for increased community involvement in the refugee resettlement program
4. An Australia that shows leadership in working with governments and people in the Asia-Pacific to address the causes of refugee displacement and increase access to sustainable humanitarian solutions that include aid, active diplomacy and resettlement

A reflection on the gospel account of Palm Sunday (Mark 11:1-11)
The events of Palm Sunday open themselves to an element of foolishness in interpretation and application. We have already encountered this call to foolishness in Lent 3, but on Palm Sunday, the implications and impact of this call to Gospel foolishness are made more clear, and our need to respond is made even more urgent.
The archetype of the Fool is an important and subversive one, since the fool, traditionally, was the only person who could speak truth to power. The musical Godspell portrayed this through dressing Jesus up in clown make-up and clothing. Rather than being an irreverent and mocking way of thinking of Christ, the fool image is a prophetic and transforming way of encountering Christ’s message and work, and this is particularly true as we think of the rather foolish image of a Christ processing into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey – not the most compliant of species at the best of times.
What makes this even more subversive and comical is the comparison with the second procession that would have been happening in Jerusalem that day – Pilate, on his white war horse, and his Roman troops arrayed in their best and most intimidating military finery.
In the Gospel of Mark’s account of this event, the strangeness of the procession is further heightened by the fact that Jesus does not immediately overturn the tables in the Temple. Rather, he simply looks around and leaves – leaving the crowds, I am sure, rather bewildered and perhaps anti-climactic. It is only the next day, when the “safety in numbers” is no longer there, that Jesus does his work of cleansing the Temple.
It is clear that Jesus is working hard here to reveal that God’s Reign is present, but to avoid either the excess of a military dictatorship, or the uprising of a bloody and violent revolution (which may well have arisen if he had done his table-turning with the crowds in attendance – in spite of what the other Gospels may say…).
So, this may be a good time to reflect on the foolishness of Christ, and the foolishness of following Christ in the ways and values of God’s upside-down Realm. This is actually the wisest way to live and offers real strategies for addressing our world’s crises, and the seeming wisdom of the world’s systems which are, in fact, fostering inequality, injustice, climate change, ethnic and religious violence, and fragmentation of our world and societies. When the simplicity, humility, generosity, compassion, justice, and grace of Christ are fully embraced – as foolish as these qualities may seem in today’s competitive world – the impact on our world is life-giving, healing and peace-making. The question we need to face is whether we are willing to become fools for the sake of the Gospel – and for the healing of our world. (John van de Laar, Sacredise)

 

Earth Hour – 24th March 2018 – 8.30pm

Published / by Sandy

Earth Hour is the single largest symbolic mass participation event in the world. Born of the hope that people could be mobilized to take action on climate change, Earth Hour now inspires a global community of millions of people in 7001 cities and towns across 178 countries to switch off lights for an hour. The event recognizes our global responsibility for the climate change which is already devastating lives and threatening the future of the planet. Now in its 11th year, Earth Hour 2018 takes place on SATURDAY MARCH 24TH 8.30-9.30 pm.  Our actions today can change our tomorrows. We love and care about our beautiful, fragile planet – “our common home”.

A reflection by Nancy Schreck, OSF:
Alice Walker, once asked, “Is there anything more painful than realizing we did not know the right questions to ask at the only time on earth we would have the opportunity to do so?” There are new questions for our time such as how do we and ought we think about God and the world, and about ourselves in relation to God and the world?

Or the question posed by Sallie McFague, “What if we dared to think of our planet as the body of God? God, not transcendent over the universe in the sense of external to, or apart from it, but as the source, power and goal; the spirit that enlivens and loves the entire process and its material forms. God the inspirited body of the entire universe, the animating, living spirit that produces guides, and saves all that is. What if the cosmos was the picture we turned to when we try to imagine divine incarnation? What if as Thomas Berry says “the body of Christ is ultimately the entire universe?”

For the past several hundred years at least, Christianity has been concerned almost exclusively with the salvation of the individual human beings (souls) rather than with the well being of the oppressed including not only the oppression of human beings but also the oppressed earth and all its life forms. What if we believed that salvation is about healing, and just as the cosmos itself can be ruptured and torn apart by injustice, so too it can be healed by human efforts to bring justice back to the human relationships with earth, air, fire, water, and one another. (Matthew Fox)

While Christians generally understand God’s will for salvation on earth to involve healing and wholeness for human beings, we must extend our understanding to include healing and wholeness for the rest of creation. To usher in God’s will on earth as in heaven requires that we treat the earth as if it were heaven. This means we must treat it with respect for its sacredness and ensure its health, beauty and wholeness. Human responsibility that reconciles humankind and creation with God does not requires dominating the earth as Christians have often misunderstood their task, but loving the earth as one’s kindred and one’s self. Restoration of right relationship with God includes restoration of right relationship with the earth. Such restoration is redemptive because we move toward God’s original intention of the harmonious interrelatedness of life. (Karen Baker-Fletcher and Garth Kasium Baker- Fletcher)

Though we live in a new time, so much of theological worldview continues to come to us from the Council of Nicea: While its hold is fading many continue to be formed in a kind of theological thinking in which there is the world (which was evil and to be escaped,) the church (which was the vehicle of escape) and heaven or the other world (our real purpose in life.) We have developed much of our theology based on this world denying approach. As I have said, much has shifted but it is not left behind.

Thomas Berry says, “The deepest crises experienced by any society are those moments of change when the story becomes inadequate for meeting the survival demands of a present situation. Such, it seems to me, is the situation we must deal with now. We are confused at present because our historical situation has changed so profoundly. Our story, too, has changed. We no longer know its meaning or how to benefit from its guidance. We are in trouble now because we do not have a good story. We are in between stories. The old story, the account of how the world came to be and how we fit into it, is no longer effective. Yet we have not learned the new story.”

A prayer for Earth Hour
Creator God, this earth is beautiful and fragile. Forgive our confusion and inaction as we confront the challenges of climate change. In the light of your truth, seen so clearly in the life and teachings of Jesus, help us to re-examine ourselves and our lifestyle choices and see clearly the implications of how we live on all that sustains life on earth. May we follow your leading in caring for every aspect of this precious world, which you made and love. Throughout history you have moved people to do amazing things for the sake of their neighbours and especially the poor. Inspire us now to work together, to change priorities in the way we live so that we build a fair and safe world for all your creation and for future generations. Amen
(Source: Eco-congregation, Ireland)

‘How to’ and ‘how not to’ vote

Published / by Sandy

 

The writer Gregg Easterbrook (The Atlantic Monthly; New York Times) was interviewed this week on Radio National and he said,

“By almost every meaningful measure the modern world is better than it’s ever been. People want to believe the worst because they think that optimism means complacency. Optimists are not the ones that have a ‘sunny disposition’, who think everything’s going to be fine. Rather, optimism is the belief that problems can be solved, that reforms can address the problems in society. Why then do so few of us not look optimistically to the future? That everything is worse than what it is? To say it’s better than it looks and to make a case for optimism is not the same as saying everything is fine. It isn’t. The world is full of problems. There are a lot of things you should be worried about/cynical about/angry about. Pessimists think the things you should be angry and cynical about are going to overwhelm us. Optimists can be angry and fixed, but think things can be fixed”.

So how does this impact on how we vote in the South Australian election on 17th March? How do we vote for the ‘common good’ and how might the ‘common good’ impact not only our politics but also our personal lives, families, churches, neighborhoods, and world? And the environment? How do we tap into the ‘belief that problems can be solved, that reforms can address the problems in society?

Dr John Dickson, Director of the Centre for Public Christianity has provided some ‘how to’ and ‘how not to vote’ tips for the upcoming State Government election on 17 March 2018.  The full article “Mixing religion and politics” can be accessed here.

How Not to Vote

1. Precedent: ‘how we always vote’

Voting patterns are sometimes based on little more than family heritage (‘We have always voted for x’) or geographical location (‘Most people vote for y where I live’). I want to suggest that voting by personal or demographic precedent is not a thoughtful vote, and whatever else a Christian vote must be it must be thoughtful.

2. Christian favouritism

Secondly, and perhaps a little controversially, voting for a candidate simply because s/he is a Christian, or our brand of Christian, is morally suspect; it is a religious form of favouritism. Having Christians in parliament is no guarantee—or even indicator—that our nation will be marked by peace, justice, compassion, truth and so on. Sadly, history is littered with counter-examples.

3. Economic prosperity

Thirdly, the main parties and most of the major media tend to make ‘economic prosperity’ a central election issue. This is a window into the soul of a country. However, Christians must seriously question a fixation with the ‘bottom line’.

How a Christian Ought to Vote

1. Vote for others

Firstly and most importantly, a Christian vote is a vote for others, not oneself. It is fundamental to the Christian outlook that life be devoted to the good of others before oneself:

Honour one another above yourselves (Rom 12:10).In humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others (Philippians 2:3-4).

2. Vote for the moral health of the community

Secondly, the moral health of our community provides another motivation for the Christian’s vote. Personally, I think the church has no right to seek to impose a Christian way of life on a largely secular society (‘What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?,’ said Paul in 1 Cor 5:12). Having said that, as citizens who believe that a society’s health depends (in part) on living as the Creator designed, Christians will want to ponder: which party and/or policies will promote the values applauded by the Creator, the values of justice, harmony (nationally and internationally), sexual responsibility, honesty, family and mercy.

3. Vote for the poor and weak

Thirdly, in voting for the ‘other’ the Christian will principally have in mind the poor and powerless. We will use our vote for those who need our vote more than we do.

4. Vote for the gospel

Fourthly, almost by definition, Christians are to live for the eternal good of others (1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1). Concern for the advancement of the Christian message throughout Australia, therefore, will potentially play a part in a Christian’s voting patterns.

5. Vote prayerfully

Finally, a Christian vote is a prayerful one. The Scriptures urge believers to pray for leaders and for governments. And, ultimately, believers will see this as more important even than their vote.

I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Saviour, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:1-3).

See also the Pilgrim Worship resources website related to Elections.

 

There must be a God somewhere

Published / by Sandy

A sermon at Pilgrim Church by Pastor Liz Dyson, 4 March 2018 

Over my head
I hear music in the air
Over my head I hear music in the air
Over my head I hear music in the air
There must be a God somewhere.

I work as a hospital chaplain. In hospitals, like in the largely Greek culture of Corinth – knowledge is highly prized. The knowledge of the Doctors is especially prized – though without the knowledge and expertise of all the other staff the place could never function sustainably.

Early in my hospital chaplaincy it took a while to get my head around who it was I was called to be in that place. I attended meetings with staff and began to learn a new language – the language of this medical world. I had nothing intelligent to say about clinical matters and initially no expertise to offer about what they were talking about. ‘What am I doing here,’ I wondered? What is the purpose of my presence?

I learnt though, that when the experts have come to the end of their answers that’s when the chaplain comes into their own. When there is nothing left to be done or when there are several options for the way forward and people can’t agree …everyone else steps back … And the chaplain is invited forward.

In time it’s become clear that my presence is my purpose. It’s not my role to give answers but to be a reminder of another way of being when the answers are hard to come by.

For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

When I first started as a chaplain I was anxious about where to be. I felt the urge to sprint around the hospital looking for hot spots where I could be of use.

A wise woman offered me this … As you walk around the hospital … what would happen if you imagined Jesus walking next to you.

The moment I did that I realized that Jesus would not be sprinting. He’d be walking a whole lot slower. He wouldn’t be anxious or rushing.

He would be noticing. He would be pausing to enjoy people’s company. He would be stopping to listen and hear about people’s pain. He would be sharing a scone and a cuppa in the staff room. He would be living in the moment.

That changed everything.

If you were to distil the chaplain’s job description down to a few words it might be these … to notice, to listen, to value, to reconcile, to be.

Chaplains be with patients, as well as families and friends … and they be with staff – with the nurses, with the lady who brings the menus around, the man who lugs the dirty linen out of the wards, with the general manager.

Our text today repeats the notion of proclamation and of proclaiming Christ crucified. The function of chaplains is not to evangelise. The man who lugs the dirty linen is not at all keen for me to hole him up in the lift and ask him if he knows God.

But when people feel noticed and listened to and cared for, when people are reconciled to each other, or to God or to themselves, then they often sense something of the power of God spoken about in our text for today.

Over my head I hear music in the air
There must be a God somewhere.

Generally chaplains are highly trained individuals.They’ve worked hard to gain wisdom and skill in their craft. Though these things are important the days when the real magic happens are the days when they throw themselves on God and say … I don’t know where to go today. I don’t know what to say today. Take me where you will.

For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

Starting the day in the way can take you to all kinds of unexpected places … Often it takes you to a bedside.

Recently a nurse at a nurses’ station told the chaplain that she struggles when a patient dies alone. Nurses often don’t have time to stay with patients themselves but it goes against the grain for the patient to be alone when others can’t be present. On this day there was a patient in that position not far away. Shall I wander in then? the chaplain said.

In the room the patient lay in a beautifully made bed. The patient looked peaceful and comfortable but was very low. It wouldn’t be long. What to say? What to do? But it seemed important just to be there for a while. Like an increasing number of patients in the hospital this person had described themselves as having no religion. Praying or singing amazing grace wasn’t an appropriate way to connect with this person.

I wonder what you like? The chaplain asked. I wonder what’s important to you?

And after a while of this the words to a song came into her head … so she quietly began to sing “somewhere over the rainbow, way up high… ” Strange that she would sing that song. It’d never been one of her own favourites. But it came to mind and it seemed okay to sing it.

After a while she went out to the nurses station and mentioned to the nurse what had just happened. Later in the day the chaplain received a phone call from the same nurse. The patient had passed away not long before. The patient’s sister had arrived and told the nurse that “Somewhere over the rainbow was one of the patient’s favourite songs.”

For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

I would like to introduce you now to Jim (not his real name.) Jim is sitting alone in his hospital room. He’s pale and thin and sitting on the edge of his bed hunched over his overway. He needs oxygen to breathe freely and he’s a frequent visitor to the hospital. He has a wife, Mary, but they live in the country so he’s alone today and he’s feeling flat. A nurse comes in and notices this. Would you like to talk to someone? We have a chaplain here.

Not if they want to talk about God, he says. It doesn’t have to be about God the nurse says. It can be about anything. So begins a relationship.

That first meeting was a bit stop and start but the chaplain visited again and was well received. Jim went home and some months later returned. The chaplain saw he was in and visited him and he was pleased to see her. They didn’t talk about God. She found out he liked to paint. She met Mary, his wife. He told her about his favourite beach and how he loves to paint there.

Jim came and went, came and went. Sometimes he was unwell but jovial, sometimes he was weighed down. One day the chaplain felt brave. She found a picture of a man weighed down with a huge bundle on his back. She showed it to Jim and told him it reminded her of him. He said weighed down was how he felt. At the bottom of the picture was written, “Jesus said come to me all who are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” Nothing was said about that. Jim kept the picture.

One day Jim he rang the chaplain from home. He asked if there was someone like her near where he lived. Like me, she said. What do you mean? Someone who will come and talk with me.

She said there was a minister near where he lived – a woman. Would he like her to see if she would come and see him at home. He said he would give it a try. He received a visit. Then another. After a while Mary began to go to the local Church where that minister was leading. Then a while later he started to go too.

He would sit up the back because he was embarrassed about his oxygen bottle. He thought people would look down on him.

The chaplain told him that at any half reasonable church people wouldn’t be thinking that. Everyone is welcome.

Some months later the chaplain heard that Jim was in a different hospital and was very unwell. She visited him there and took with her a smooth wooden hand cross for Jim. Easter was approaching. She thought he might want something solid to hold in his hand. He was grateful. He told her he’d have to look out or Mary would want to pinch it, drill a hole in it and make it into a necklace. He said he’d been trying to paint a scene of good Friday but he couldn’t get it quite right.

Not many days after this she received a phone call to say Jim had died in the early hours of Sunday morning. Mary hadn’t known what to do or where to go after she’d left the hospital. She took the long lonely drive back to her country home and as she passed her church the cars were still there for Sunday worship. She went in and shared the news. The church mourned with her.

In the following days they visited her, drank cups of tea with her and helped her hang her washing on the line.

A few days later at Jim’s funeral – his life, which had been at times lonely and isolated and hard was remembered and celebrated . And the Church was full of people.

Over my head I hear music in the air
There must be a God somewhere.

I don’t know if, like the Jews, you look for signs or, like the Greeks you search for wisdom. I don’t know what you believe about how God does or doesn’t connect with people.

What I do know is that in eight years of turning up to work in a hospital I have seen that Aslan is on the move. God is alive and well and lurking in the corridors of our hospitals and in the streets of our communities. And more than that, evidence suggests that God is open to me, indeed invites each one of us to be part of God’s plan for relationship and reconciliation of the whole creation.

I can understand if you think that is foolishness. There would be many in my hospital who would think the same thing. But I cannot help but proclaim today that when I walk slowly enough – slow like I think Jesus would walk … and when I notice the people I think Jesus would notice … and when I try to be present to people in the way I imagine Jesus might be present… Something happens. It’s like I can hear music. And I sense that other people can sometimes hear it too. Listen … can you hear it too?

Over my head I hear music in the air
There must be a God somewhere.

Time of silent reflection

You can use this time as you will … or you might reflect on what God’s music might sound like? When do you hear it the loudest?
Or as we move through lent how would Jesus walk and where would Jesus walk. What might it mean to walk in step with that.

The changing of the seasons – autumn

Published / by Sandy

Autumn begins on March 1st in the southern hemisphere. In 1995 Parker J. Palmer wrote a reflection on the four seasons. Here is his autumn reflection, which seems most appropriate in this season of Lent. 
Autumn is a season of great beauty, but it is also a season of decline: the days grow shorter, the light is suffused, and summer’s abundance decays toward winter’s death. Faced with this inevitable winter, what does nature do in autumn? She scatters the seeds that will bring new growth in the spring – and she scatters them with amazing abandon.
In my own experience of autumn, I am rarely aware that seeds are being planted. Instead, my mind is on the fact that the green growth of summer is browning and beginning to die. My delight in the autumn colors is always tinged with melancholy, a sense of impending loss that is only heightened by the beauty all around. I am drawn down by the prospect of death more than I am lifted by the hope of new life.
But as I explore autumn’s paradox of dying and seeding, I feel the power of metaphor. In the autumnal events of my own experience, I am easily fixated on surface appearances – on the decline of meaning, the decay of relationships, the death of a work.
And yet, if I look more deeply, I may see the myriad possibilities being planted to bear fruit in some season yet to come.
In retrospect, I can see in my own life what I could not see at the time – how the job I lost helped me find work I needed to do, how the “road closed” sign turned me toward terrain I needed to travel, how losses that felt irredeemable forced me to discern meanings I needed to know. On the surface it seemed that life was lessening, but silently and lavishly the seeds of new life were always being sown.
This hopeful notion that living is hidden within dying is surely enhanced by the visual glories of autumn. What artist would ever have painted a season of dying with such a vivid palette if nature had not done it first? Does death possess a beauty that we – who fear death, who find it ugly and obscene – cannot see? How shall we understand autumn’s testimony that death and elegance go hand in hand?
For me, the words that come closest to answering those questions are the words of Thomas Merton: “There is in all visible things…a hidden wholeness.”
In the visible world of nature, a great truth is concealed in plain sight: diminishment and beauty, darkness and light, death and life are not opposites. They are held together in the paradox of the “hidden wholeness.”
In a paradox, opposites do not negate each other—they cohere in mysterious unity at the heart of reality. Deeper still, they need each other for health, as my body needs to breathe in as well as breathe out. But in a culture that prefers the ease of either-or thinking to the complexities of paradox, we have a hard time holding opposites together. We want light without darkness, the glories of spring and summer without the demands of autumn and winter, and the Faustian bargains we make fail to sustain our lives.
When we so fear the dark that we demand light around the clock, there can be only one result: artificial light that is glaring and graceless and, beyond its borders, a darkness that grows ever more terrifying as we try to hold it off. Split off from each other, neither darkness nor light is fit for human habitation. But if we allow the paradox of darkness and light to be, the two will conspire to bring wholeness and health to every living thing.
Autumn constantly reminds me that my daily dyings are necessary precursors to new life. If I try to “make” a life that defies the diminishments of autumn, the life I end up with will be artificial, at best, and utterly colorless as well. But when I yield to the endless interplay of living and dying, dying and living, the life I am given will be real and colorful, fruitful and whole.
Parker J. Palmer is a writer, speaker, and activist who focuses on issues in education, community, leadership, spirituality, and social change. The article was published here.

Winter Olympics

Published / by Sandy

(originally published by Christine Sine, Godspace)

Like many, I have had my eyes glued to the TV watching the Winter Olympics over the last few days. I have rarely been impacted so much by a sports event. Maybe it is because it began as the season of Lent was getting underway. Maybe it was just that I needed something to relax me in this challenging season. Whatever it is, I have been impressed.

The commitment of these athletes, their endurance and stamina which comes through discipline and perseverance is incredible. For love of the game they are willing to endure incredible pain and suffering. Some performed with broken bones and massive bruises. Others like Belle Brockhoff had just recovered from major injuries they chose to ignore because of their desire to reach their goal and walk away with a gold medal.

Australian Belle Brockhoff leads the field in her snowboard cross quarter-final. (Reuters: Issei Kato)

They are also willing to fail. I was fascinated to learn that the judges gave higher marks in many events to those who tried the most difficult jumps and fell than they did to those who chose simpler jumps. To try for the best even if you don’t make it is very important.

As I watched them I wondered: If athletes are willing to endure so much in order to compete for a medal in the Olympics,  why is it so hard for me to persevere with my spiritual disciplines? Why don’t we, as followers of Christ have the same level of commitment?

Not surprisingly the scripture that comes to mind is Hebrews 12:1-3

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

We are indeed surrounded by a cloud of  2,000 years of persevering witnesses who have run incredibly disciplined races. The results of their commitment still enriches our lives today.

What I am challenged with today is to prayerfully consider what disciplines I must persevere with during this season of Lent that will enable me to reach my goal of a deeper and more loving relationship to God and God’s world. What setbacks and pain am I willing to endure because of my commitment to this goal?

Talking about Lent and sausages

Published / by Sandy

(This article was originally published by Mike Frost on his website)

Ash Wednesday is the traditional commencement of the Christian season of Lent, a time of fasting and repentance in readiness for Easter. I’m occasionally asked why not all Protestants observe Lenten fasts and I explain it’s basically about freedom from legalism. But it’s also about sausages. Yep, a lot of Protestants don’t observe Lent because of the humble wiener.

(Comment: Several years ago in Lent the Pilgrim community cooked sausages for a breakfast program we were running, premised on the following story about sausages. While it couldn’t match the radical and illegal act of cooking sausages in 1522, it was an imaginative way of recognising the strictures of ‘religion’ as distinct from freedom in Christ). 

Way back in the 16th century, a dissident group of Swiss Christians were putting together a new translation of the Epistles of St Paul. The edition was being published by a very prominent citizen of Zurich, the printer, Christoph Froschauer. Printing was still a relatively new trade, and wildly popular, so Froschauer had become a wealthy businessman, prestigious and influential. He was also a Protestant, having been caught up in the liberation and excitement of the Reformation that had begun to sweep through Germany and was creeping into eastern Switzerland.
Froschauer’s priest, the forceful and charismatic Ulrich Zwingli had brought the teachings of Martin Luther to Zurich, and he had seized upon the need to publish the New Testament in the vernacular, as well as distributing tracts and sermons to the citizens of the city. The priest and the printer became a formidable duo.

Anyway, in the spring of 1522, as the first copies of the new edition of Paul’s letters rolled off the printing presses, Zwingli and Froschauer were in the mood to celebrate. Together with his exhausted staff and his apprentices, and in the presence of a number of church clerics, Christoph Froschauer had his table loaded with beer and sausages (and presumably cheese and potato and sauerkraut) and threw a party.

Except…
…and this part is going to be hard to fully understand…
…eating sausages during the season of Lent was against the law.

Not just frowned upon, illegal! And Froschauer and Zwingli knew it. That feast was an incendiary act. They had just published Paul’s epistles, for goodness sake! So they knew Paul’s teachings against the imposition of ritual fasts and festivals. They knew his words from Galatians 4:
But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain (7-11, emphasis is the author’s).

And his even more pointed advice to the Colossians:
Therefore, let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind… If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations — “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used) — according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh (Col. 2: 16-18, 20-23).

Having just rolled those pages through his press, Froschauer was in no mood to kowtow to the Roman Catholic Church authorities. They had turned the Christian faith into a repressive system of social control. If you’ve read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, or seen the Netflix series, you’ll know how vile and soul-crushing toxic religion can be.

Froschauer’s sausage dinner, or wurst abendessen, was a big “middle finger” to those very authorities. It was an intentionally provocative act, designed to show the city of Zurich that he wasn’t only prepared to print the words of Paul, he was going to follow them.

His partner in this act of defiance, Father Ulrich Zwingli, immediately prepared a sermon entitled On the Choice and Freedom of Foods and soon after, he climbed into the high pulpit at his church, the Grossmünster and unloaded both barrels.

There is no such thing as Lent in Scripture, Zwingli announced. The draconian rules imposed on you by the authoritarian clerics have no biblical support. If you think you can earn the church’s favor, and by extension God’s favor, by observing these rules, think again. You have been saved by grace, not by somehow achieving some required level of righteousness.

Or as Zwingli might have put it, you can take your Lenten fast and shove it.

Boom.

It’s hard for us today to fully appreciate the stifling religiosity under which men like Froschauer and Zwingli were living, and the enormous sense of liberation they felt when they realized Scripture freed them from all this dreadful rule-keeping and religious anxiety.

I spent a bit of time with Russian Protestants in Moscow some years ago and heard them speak of their revulsion for Great Lent, Clean Monday, Ash Wednesday, Lazarus Saturday, etc etc. They felt they had been set free from the slavish observance of these feasts and from the veneration of saints and the use of icons. When I asked them whether, in order to share their perspective with their Orthodox friends and relatives, they could still engage with these feasts and practices, showing that their salvation is assured in Christ, not via legalism, the answer was a big fat, NO.

When you’ve suffered under legalistic religion, you want no part of it again. Ever. It’s revolting.

There are a number of hallmarks of a bad religion. They include being chiefly concerned with things to avoid; measuring quantities (of observance etc.); locating our identity in our behavior; constricting life; simulating holiness; promoting suspicion; suppressing thought; isolating dissenters.

These are the very things Christoph Froschauer was done with when he dished up those bangers. No more bad religion for him, even if it meant risking arrest.

I’ve just watched The Handmaid’s Tale on Netflix and I’ve gotta tell you, it isn’t for the faint of heart. It is set in a near future when fertility rates have inexplicably plummeted, and a cruel and misogynistic religious state has been established. Fertile women (or handmaids) are used like cattle for breeding purposes, their dreadful treatment being veiled by grand-sounding religious jargon. The penalty for disobedience is torture and death.

Like serving sausages during Lent in 1522.

Today, Lent holds no such revulsion for Protestants who’ve never suffered under religious legalism. For many younger Protestants, Lent can be a season for bearing the burden of one’s sin in readiness for a fresh experience of God’s grace in Christ on Resurrection Sunday. The fasting element is designed to foster that sense of carrying a nagging need or hunger. Every pang of desire for whatever you’ve given up is meant to be experienced as a call to prayer and repentance. It’s a beautiful tradition when truly practised with the devotion of the penitent. And it makes the freedom and joy of Easter Sunday so much more enjoyable (especially if you gave up chocolate for Lent!).

I see no problem with Protestants reaching back into church history and pulling out ancient observances like Lent or Advent or traditional practices like the Stations of the Cross. I hear the concerns some people have about us adding to Scripture. But it’s possible to engage in traditional practices in a way that enhances our faith without diverting us from the freedom we have in Christ. While I have found the observance of Lent very enriching in the past, I’m not practising it this year. I think one of the ways to find it spiritually profitable is to avoid it becoming a routine, or worse, a slavishly observed ritual.

As Paul wrote to the Galatians, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (5:1).

‘This is my beloved:Listen to him!’

Published / by Sandy

(A sermon at 11am by Dr Tanya Wittwer, 11th February 2018)

Mark 9:7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”

There is mastery in the way Year B of the lectionary introduces us to Mark’s story, capturing the structure of his narrative. We meet Jesus on the banks of Jordan. The preaching and actions of the charismatic Baptiser, John, become merely background when the heavens are torn apart and the Holy Spirit appears, accompanied by the voice of God: this is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased. After a sojourn in the wilderness, Jesus calls disciples, controls and expels the demonic, heals, teaches. Then, in today’s Gospel, we reach the turning point and hear about the Transfiguration – an account of mystery, where three of the disciples hear the voice of God, extending the baptismal message. This is my beloved Son. Listen to Him.

As we leave the mountain we turn our faces to Jerusalem. On Wednesday some of us will walk through a portal of ashes to start the journey. The Lenten journey will end when we hear that darkness covered the land from noon until 3, when Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last, and the centurion took on the role of carrying the message: Truly, this man was God’s son.

The Gospel of Mark doesn’t want us to miss that point, but actually, it’s not the key point.

You may recall the first verse of the book of Mark reads, The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

That little phrase, good news, is theologically loaded: the people have been expecting this, in the light of God’s actions in the past. Israel has been yearning for good news. Isaiah had put words to their hope: “How beautiful … are the feet of the one who brings good news, who declares to Israel: your God reigns.” (Is 52:7) Or again “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.” (Is 61:6) They have hung onto their deep longings through exile, decimation and occupation. In verse 14 and 15 of Mark 1, we hear, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, “The time is fulfilled, and the reign of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

So it’s not the claim that Jesus is Son of God that is important, but that this hoped for good news is somehow to be linked to Jesus’ life, because of his identity as the Christ, the Son of God.

So when we return to the mountain and to the words “This is my son, the beloved. Listen to him”, what is it that we should listen to that is answering the human yearning and human hope? How is God acting in that time and space? And what on earth can this strange transfiguration event, and these words mean for us, today?

Listen to him!” Moses had said that Israel should heed a prophet whom the LORD God would raise up (Dt 18:15). So to what should Jesus’ disciples pay attention? Presumably, everything that Mark records that Jesus says and does.

Jesus has arrived to bring about God’s reign. Somehow God will be acting through Jesus’ activity. And just as John had called for repentance, so does Jesus. People are being asked to change. They are being invited to believe in the immanence of the reign and to trust in God’s action in Jesus. It’s not a one person fringe event, but Jesus gathers people around him to share his joy and task, people that believe Jesus’ message and live as if they can see God’s reign already accomplished.

Jesus is setting people free. He has the power to exorcise and to heal, to call away from loneliness and addictions and to call to love and community. But, there is more.

Listen to him” the voice calls. In the section before the story of the transfiguration, Peter identified Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, the promised one, and instead of a grand military parade, ticker tape procession or celebratory party, Jesus tells his disciples of his future suffering and vindication, and of the need for cross-bearing discipleship. It seems these hard things are to be listened to.

Is this why we have this strange story? In some mysterious way, three disciples, the core of Jesus’ leadership team, are being prepared for the unthinkable. God’s generous and overflowing love gave the community, through the three, a glimpse of something that would sustain through the hardest of times. The story is loaded with symbolism: six days, the mountain, the cloud, the two ancients who have not seen death, Jesus radiant as the righteous one, the light of God that has come into the world. Those for whom it was first recorded would have known all the hope and expectation loaded into that symbolism, and already knowing the end of the story, the connections to death and resurrection.

Instead of untangling those layers of meaning, instead of picking it apart, and making a declaration about what it means, I invite you to use the imagination the Holy Spirit has give you. Let’s not reduce it to a verbal explanation. Enter into the mystery, so that we are strengthened to live in this reign of God that we cannot yet see, strengthened to bring sight to the blind, to unlock the chains of the detainees and to set the oppressed free?

In Luke, when the angel visited Mary, she was told The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. On the mountain, the group were overshadowed … This is my son, the beloved. A cloud was the presence of the Most High. Through Jesus, the disciples shared this too awesome, too strong nearness of God. Some among us have been blessed with our own epiphany, our own moment when we have truly known God’s presence. But the promise of God’s presence is for all of us. The Holy Spirit has come upon us. Through our baptism we are joined with Jesus, and the Most High has overshadowed us. Maybe, with Mary, we have emerged from that overshadowing, pregnant with the possibility of the reign. Pregnant with all that is light and life-giving.

Dr Deidre Palmer has announced the 15th UCA Assembly theme: Abundant Grace, Liberating Hope, and I’d like to share it with you:

In a time where our world is overshadowed by violence, hatred and suspicion of the other, the Church is called to live an alternative narrative of hope, reconciliation and love.
As the Church, God’s grace at work in us liberates hope – communally, personally, in our society and in our world. We see God’s grace most fully expressed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In Jesus’ life and ministry, we see God’s hope for us and all creation expressed in the proclamation of the Reign of God. As the Body of Christ, the Spirit opens our eyes to God’s deep desire for our world, and we are led toward horizons of hope that expand our imagination into Spirit led ways of being and living that we had not thought possible!
“Liberating Hope” is an action of God in us, and it is a call for us to participate in God’s mission in the world. Liberation movements around the world have been inspired by the Gospel of Christ, to be communities of resistance and protest in the face of injustice and inequality.
The Uniting Church has been shaped by Christ’s call to be bearers of God’s justice, compassion, healing and hope in our world.
In the next Triennium, this theme highlights for us Christ’s call to be a church that embodies God’s abundant grace, compassion and love – a Church that is a bearer of Christ’s hope and light in the midst of despair and darkness. The overflowing of God’s abundant grace through us will be seen as we create communities and contribute to a world, where people experience God’s good news of reconciling love, healing and hope.
You are God’s child, the beloved. Listen to him!

“The prejudice of exclusion”

Published / by Sandy

As we turn towards Ash Wednesday and into Lent, it starts again… the self-righteous furore over Cadbury ‘removing’ the word Easter from the range of boxed solid eggs.
An old Facebook post by former Australian Senator Glenn Lazarus (he hasn’t been in politics for years but the post is still being circulated) says he’s sick of Australia bending over to ‘the rest of the world’ (??) to ‘appease everyone except Aussies’. (Presumably this is linking ‘the rest of the world’ with having something to do with removing the ‘Christian’ word Easter). What do solid chocolate Easter eggs have to do with Easter anyway (companies are making the most of a trading opportunity). Since when do Australians stand self-righteously against ‘the rest of the world’ (though it’s easy to work out that’s code for ‘people not like us’). The UK and other places have identical ‘outrage campaigns’ but tailored to their context. And the word Easter itself is commonly understood to have originated from pagan gods and goddesses associated with fertility (Easter being in Spring in the northern hemisphere).
The old fashioned hollow Easter egg could well be construed as a symbol of the empty tomb of the Christian story, but all the rest (like Cadbury’s solid eggs) are ‘seasonal’ rather than meaningful – meant for fun (and profit) rather than spiritual edification. No need for ‘Easter’ as a descriptor on the box.
My personal favourite ‘outrage’ was from @ChristineHodge2 who was trying to state the case that the word Easter had been removed so as not to offend other religions and poses the question, ‘since when was Easter offensive?’. Ummm, can I suggest you read the Gospels, Christine?
I’m much more interested in whether the chocolate is Fair Trade certified so that all stages of the chocolate harvesting and production are fair and just.
I came across this quote from Pakistani theologian Charles Amjad Ali: “We are all prejudiced. What changes in our dialogue with others is the focus of our prejudice. Can we be prejudiced towards justice, equality and respect, or do we always live primarily with the prejudices of exclusion?”
Can we stop contributing to the prejudice of exclusion and work towards a prejudice towards justice , equality and respect?
Ah, hang on, wasn’t that what Jesus’ life (and death) was all about…..?

Advance Australia Where?

Published / by Peter
The following is a letter from Justice for Refugees SA

Last year twelve former Australians of the Year wrote a letter to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull  calling on the government to act over the “human disaster” at the former refugee detention centre on Manus Island. This treatment does not represent who we are as Australians, or indeed as human beings.

This Australia Day many people are thinking about Indigenous dispossession. It’s also an opportunity to think about people who are imprisoned, yet have done nothing wrong, committed no crime, and who are even denied a trial, fair or otherwise. Especially consider the plight of refugees and people seeking asylum, people who, in earlier times, have contributed so much to make Australia great.

It is a good time to consider Australian values. Where is our Australia “fair”? What is happening to our Australian values? Whatever happened to the Fair Go for all? We are losing the right to transparent government, to habeus corpus, to fair trial, to nobody being above the law. We are being deliberately divided. The vulnerable members of our communities are being trampled on and manipulated as political playthings. Minorities are being scapegoated.

In history’s page let every stage advance Australia fair

The tune to those words we sing was written by Tommy Tycho, a Jewish refugee who came to Australia after experiencing, as a 15-year-old boy, the horrors of a forced labour camp during WWII. Australia gave him a chance to shine, to contribute.

For those who’ve come across the seas
We’ve boundless plains to share.

In the lead up to Australia Day, Rural Australians for Refugees has launched a letter writing campaign. Justice4Refugees are supporting the campaign. It’s time to take a stance, for all good people to stand up and take action. So please consider writing to your MPs and Senators, and city and regional papers.

The letter cited above was signed by Australians of the Year
2015 Rosie Batty
2013 Ita Buttrose
2011 Simon McKeon
2010 Patrick McGorry
2009 Mick Dodson
2007 Tim Flannery
2005 Fiona Wood
2003 Fiona Stanley
2000 Gustav Nossal
1997 Peter Doherty
1996 John Yu
1983 Robert de Castella

Link to the Letter Blitz here . . .
Link to Justice for Refugees South Australia

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free,
Jesus – quoting from the prophet Isaiah – Luke 4:18

Media, politics and the South Sudanese community

Published / by Sandy
Stuart McMillan with members of the South Sudanese National Conference in Melbourne, 29 Sep 2017.
President Stuart McMillan with members of the South Sudanese National Conference, Melbourne, September 2017

President Stuart McMillan has expressed solidarity with Australia’s African community in the wake of recent negative political and media commentary.

“Fear and negativity are such a blight on our public life. I find it deeply regrettable and offensive that some of our political leaders and media have begun the New Year by demonising a group of young African men,” said Mr McMillan.

“This is no doubt hurtful to many Africans who have made Australia their home and do their level best to contribute to the Australian community whilst in many cases also supporting loved ones in their home nations.”

“Our politicians and media need only lift their eyes to the wonderful African communities of faith to find positive role models and affirmation.

“If, as I have, they attended a gathering of the Uniting Church’s South Sudanese National Conference, they would see a young, enthusiastic community, rising up from the difficult circumstances of settlement and growing young leaders.

“At two national gatherings in Brisbane in 2015 and at Hoppers Crossing in Melbourne in September 2017, I have marvelled at their faith and resilience.

“At Hoppers Crossing last year young people from the Nuer-speaking Faith Community in Brisbane led the opening worship.

“At the time I said: ‘Your community here in Australia shows us, the members of Uniting Church, how to be witnesses to Christ’s love by striving to be a fellowship of reconciliation.’

“There was much sharing on what it means to be the reconciling people of South Sudan living in Australia. Ideas were shared on practical ways to bring about greater unity among their communities. Young people under 30 also stepped up – taking up half of positions on the new executive for the South Sudanese National Conference.

“South Sudanese in Australia are taking their future into their own hands,” said Mr McMillan.

“I rejoiced last month when I read a Facebook post by the Rev. Amel Manyon from the Northern Suburbs Dinka-speaking Faith Community in Adelaide, celebrating her son’s 92.50 ATAR score.”

Rev. Manyon is the first South Sudanese woman to be ordained in the Uniting Church.

“I look forward with great anticipation to the contributions young African women and men will make in a diverse Australia,” said Mr McMillan.

“I refuse to let our miserable public discourse hold back these inspiring young people. Rather than engage with fear and negativity I will celebrate the achievements of my African friends and their children this year and at every opportunity.”

“I pray that you too will support and encourage African people who live in your community and those who may be members of your church.”

Mr McMillan referenced the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Church in Philippi, saying Paul would urge us today:

“Beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

South Sudanese ministers speak out

Rev. Amel Manyon from Adelaide’s Dinka-speaking Faith Community says she finds the commentary disappointing.

Reverend Amel Manyon and Pastor Moses Leth
Rev Amel Manyon and Pastor Moses Leth

“I don’t support crime being committed by our young people, but I want the public and the politicians to open their eyes also and see the other side,” said Rev. Manyon.

“They should not focus only on what is wrong. There are lots of good things happening in our South Sudanese community in particular with young people.”

“Nobody pays attention to those achievements and their contribution to the Australian community. In 2017 our community in Adelaide celebrated the academic achievements of our young people – Masters degrees, Bachelors degrees, and Year 12 graduations.

“We have lawyers and doctors in our community, as do South Sudanese communities in other states.”

“In the sporting arena, our young people are performing at high levels in basketball, soccer, football and wrestling. They are also involved in cultural activities and performance: singing, drums, dance, and so on – and they are involved in church leadership.

“I am not denying that some of young people are struggling with studies, some are brought up by parents who also struggle with settlement issues such as language and lifestyle.

“But that does not mean that all African Australians are what the Australian politicians and media think. We should not all be painted with the same brush.

“These children committing crimes are Australian like any other Australian who commits a crime here. I think there is racism and discrimination in the language being used.”

Pastor Moses Leth has led the Nuer faith community at St David’s Coopers Plains in south Brisbane for the last 15 years.

He says holistic ministry is required to address the challenges faced by young members of his community.

“Jesus responded to people’s physical and material needs, as well as spiritual needs. Christian workers should take care of the whole person as well.”

“We are looking to develop strategies that afford African Australian young adults opportunities to explore and develop to their full potential, as well as offer them protection from drugs and violence.

“We are trying to encourage young people by including them in discussions and decision-making concerning the church, and most importantly, listening to their ideas and views.

“We are also looking to sponsor young people for theological training.”

“We would like to provide more activities and resources to get young people involved,” said Pastor Leth. “Music and art equipment, employment support, training them and getting them involved in bible study can really encourage them to attend and take part in church community functions. The challenge for those of us working with African Australian young adults today is to explore how we can share our religious values that will allow them to bear fruit in the church of God forever. If we do that, they will better be able to engage in their communities with respect confidence and purpose.”

Entering the new year with hope

Published / by Sandy

I enter this new year with hope.
Yes, there is reason to be discouraged.
Of course we wish for the overthrow
of evil, greed and violence.
But our hope is not wishing:
hope is confidence
that God’s future is already present.
The light shines in the darkness
and the darkness can’t overcome it.
The spirit of love can’t be snuffed out
by politicians and their hubris;
the life force can’t be stopped
by corporations and their kept legislators.
God is alive and at work in this world.
Smart, thoughtful, compassionate, courageous people
are rising up, finding their voice, taking their place.
We have seen tyranny and cruelty before,
but we will never see the darkness win out.
Love always has more to say.
God is creating, always creating, and if we look
we will see signs of it all around us,
and its light will fill us and we will be radiant,
ourselves signs of the very hope that sustains us.

Yes, I have hope – joy and delight, even –
for God is here, and God’s world is still becoming.
(Source: Steve Garnaas-Holmes, Unfolding Light)

As the old year passes

Published / by Sandy

As the old year passes
(Tune: As the Green Blade Rises/Jesus Christ is waiting – Noel Nouvelet; Words: David MacGregor)

As the old year passes
we look back, reflect:
times of joy and promise,
times we’d best forget.

God of the ages
help us walk your way.
Help us greet your future,
seize tomorrow’s day

As the old year passes
sorrow wells within:
loved ones no more ’round us,
all that could have been.
God of compassion,
heal each ailing heart.
Guide us to your future
where new life may start.

As the old year passes
we cry for our struggling world.
Climate ever-changing,
fighting too often heard.
Jesus, you call us
to cherish all you give.
Call us to your future
where all in peace might live.

As the new year dawns now
we would give you praise.
Faithful God, come lead us
onward in new ways.
We’ll love and serve you
in the faith of Christ,
in your Spirit’s future:
people of new life.
(© 2007 Willow Publishing)

As this year draws to its end,
We give thanks for the gifts it brought
And how they become inlaid within
Where neither time nor tide can touch them.

Days when beloved faces shone brighter
With light from beyond themselves;
And from the granite of some secret sorrow
A stream of buried tears loosened.

We bless this year for all we learned,
For all we loved and lost
And for the quiet way it brought us
Nearer to our invisible destination.

(Source: John O’Donohue, excerpt from ‘At the End of the Year’
in the publication ‘To bless the space between us’). 

Apocalypse now? The dangerous truth behind the birth of Christ.

Published / by Sandy

For most of us, there is a warmth, a magic, a timeless peace that comes with the Christmas season. Our childhood memories of Christmases past evoke in us a sense of transcendent wonder. Enjoying a good meal with loved ones, pausing to admire nativity scenes and colourful Christmas lights, and singing heartily along with the festive music that comes about only once per year.

These things help us return to a feeling of abiding hope, holy innocence, and supernatural rest. Many of us find that we deeply resonate with the classic Christmas song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”. And, we long – as the song lyrics say – for our “troubles to be miles away,” even if only for a few days. We want to lose ourselves in the season . . . and hopefully to find ourselves sometime soon after the New Year.

No doubt, there is something worth keeping – even worth cherishing – in the peacefulness and restfulness that Christmas brings. The nostalgia and fond remembrance that it evokes in us is something I’d never want myself or anyone else to be without. Yet, when I look at the Scriptures, I start to wonder if in our eagerness to embrace the restfulness of the season we might have lost a sense of the restlessness toward which the birth of Christ is meant to call us. As noted theologian Jürgen Moltmann has said, “Faith, whenever it develops into hope, causes not rest but unrest, not patience but impatience. It does not calm the unquiet heart, but is itself this unquiet heart . . . Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it.”

What if the birth of Jesus evoked in us, not merely the seasonal warm fuzzies for the status quo of religious affection, but a revolutionary zeal to see the victory of God in Christ change everything? What if the incarnation of God in a manger in Bethlehem was not a merely merry occasion, but one that would have been terrifying to Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds? What if it was an event that could be described – not as holly and jolly – but as vulnerable, dangerous, shocking, and dare I say apocalyptic?

In fact, this word – “apocalyptic” – is one that is applied to Jesus at many points in the New Testament. We tend to think of the word in negative terms, referring perhaps to the end of the space-time universe due to its association with the New Testament book of Revelation. However – contrary to the Christian movie industry – such a negative understanding of the word “apocalyptic” must be, if you will, left behind. ‘Apocalyptic’ (in Greek: apokalupsis) refers to the revelation of that which was previously hidden.

In Galatians 1:12–14, St Paul explains that the Gospel he received was not delivered to him through human beings. Rather, it came to him through “an apocalypse (meaning, ‘revelation’) of Jesus Christ.” Far from being the natural outworking of the status quo, or something Paul expected – the apocalypse, the revelation, of what God was up to in Jesus Christ literally knocked him off his horse. It shattered his world, it woke him up. He was spiritually illuminated whilst physically blinded.

If we asked Paul whether he enjoyed the song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” I think he would be perplexed. He would likely suggest that we change the title to “Have Yourself an Apocalyptic Christmas!”

Paul would not have viewed the birth of Jesus as a merry little happening, complete with eggnog, Sinatra songs, and celebratory seasonal cigars. Rather, he would have perceived Christ’s birth to be an apocalyptic intrusion, a disruptive event that smashed to pieces the expectations and worldly restfulness of the status quo, replacing it with the inbreaking of God Almighty in the incarnation of his son for the redemption of the cosmos. And, of course, Paul would add, an apocalyptic Christmas should be ever calling us to remember the gravity of the gospel and cost of the victory of God, namely that the events of the first Christmas led to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, not to the return queue in Kmart. It is to the severe detriment of the true nature of Christmas that we let religious customs (even good customs!) or rank commercialism replace the apocalyptic power of the incarnation of God.

In fact, Jesus’ own name, which is mentioned in the birth account in Luke 2:15–21 often read on Christmas Day, is a Greek transliteration of a Hebrew word meaning “victory, deliverance, or salvation”. Thus, the manger wasn’t just an adorable, cute event; it was itself the initiation of the divine victory over the powers of sin and death through victory incarnate, Jesus.

When the Old Testament refers to the “victory” and “deliverance” of God (e.g. Psalms 96 and 98; and Isaiah 52:7–10); it uses the same Hebrew root as the word that is translated “Jesus.” Therefore, Jesus (“victory”) provides both the New Covenant lens and the literal fulfilment of the victory of God through Israel for the sake of the world. The victory of God in Jesus, beginning in Christmas, is thus the paradoxical joke of the gospel. Consider this: the greatest kingdoms and nations, the fiercest warlords and leaders, and the most brilliant thinkers and politicians have all been outsmarted and defeated by an infant in a manger in Bethlehem.

There is nothing less intimidating than a baby. And yet, a baby named “Victory” was God’s preemptive move in the metaphorical battle by which he is reconciling all things to himself. The vulnerability of the manger eventually led to the violence of the cross; violence inflicted on Jesus—not by God—but by “powerful” human beings intending to thwart the mission of Jesus.

Yet, profoundly, Scripture and the Great Tradition testify that through both his humble birth in the manger and his humiliating death on the cross, Jesus demonstrated that “power” and the “will to power” have been reframed by the paradox of the gospel. Vulnerability and sacrifice—not coercion, force, or violence—have now become the way of the people who follow the crucified God. All of this began on Christmas; and it changes everything. Or does it?

We must ask ourselves this Christmas season: is the humility of the manger and the humiliation of the cross the guiding paradigm and inspiration for our life together as the church, the body of Christ? Do we live by the apocalyptic message of peace, or do we think that—after all—the way to get things done in the church and in the world is through coercion, force, and manipulation? Do we behave more like the ones in “power” who crucified God, or do we adopt the ethos and character of the crucified God? Do we follow the way of the vulnerable God in a manger, or do we forsake that path for ecclesial pragmatism, politics, and worldly power—for the things that “work” and “get the job done”?

Have our Christmases been merry and bright; but not apocalyptic? Have we capitulated to the cultural Christ of comfort and commercialism, or are we seeking to see those things crucified in our flesh so that our lost, dying, and hurting world can receive more than a candy cane and a Christmas card this season but instead encounter the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ through us, through our ministries and through our churches?

An apocalyptic Christmas invites us to rest in the peace of the silent night in order that we can be preemptive peacemakers, holy troublemakers, and reconciled reconcilers in the light of day. The peace of the silent night is meant to shake things up; not simply to shut us up or settle us down. The restfulness of the silent night is not meant to serenade us into a permanent state of spiritual sleepiness in which the narcotic of religious nostalgia stuns us and subdues us, causing us to become complacent supporters of the status quo, at rest with the world in all its brokenness, injustice, and suffering.

The restfulness of the silent night is meant to be a missional rest, a Sabbath for the soul that energises and compels us to be restlessly active participants of the mission of God in the redemption of the world in and through Christ. My hope and prayer is that as individuals, families, churches and communities our Christmas may be flooded with the peace of Jesus Christ that brings both joy and apocalypse to the world

Sadness In a Time of Anticipation and Joy

Published / by Sandy

In the wake of the sad and tragic events in Melbourne (on 21st Dec), Rev Jon Humphries has offered this prayer…

Sadness In a Time of Anticipation and Joy
God of incarnate compassion,
We look to your Christ –
in a time where much of our world
is caught up in anticipation of joy and celebration,
our world throws us death and tragedy anew,
and we are cast back into the story of your birth,
where hardship and stress abounded,
and death and tragedy was awfully injected by cruelty and injustice.
So we find such things in our Christmas story.
Why do such things happen?
Where are you in all this?
Why are some effected and yet others escape harm?
More than ever we need hope, peace and joy.
More than ever we need to know and share your love.
Be with us Immanuel.
Be with those who are forced to mourn in shock and bewilderment.
Be with those who seek to help
that they might be resourced with resilience and compassion
as well as wisdom and skill.
In time and grace may we come to understanding
and then to forgiveness.
Yeshua – one who saves,
Save us at this time,
That we might cope and survive.
Gift us with the true gifts of Christmas,
so we might come through it.
Help us have faith,
for fear and anger and doubt – not to mention sadness unfathomable,
threaten to overwhelm us.
So, with deep need we pray.
Amen.

We must never forget

Published / by Peter

From the National Church

Stuart McMillan, President of the Uniting Church in Australia has issued the following Pastoral Statement in response to the Final Report to the government of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. 

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

Five years after its announcement, Australia’s landmark Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has handed its Final Report to Government.

On this occasion I want to acknowledge the extensive and invaluable body of work produced by the Royal Commission and its staff, and remind all church members of our solemn commitment to child safety that is informed by the Commission’s work.

As Chief Commissioner Justice Peter McClellan AM warned at the Royal Commission’s final sitting, the sexual abuse of children is not just a problem from the past.

Justice McClellan said: “Poor practices, inadequate governance structures, failures to record and report complaints, or understating the seriousness of complaints, have been frequent.”

He went on to say: “If the problems we have identified are to be adequately addressed, changes must be made. There must be changes in the culture, structure and governance practices of many institutions.”

The Uniting Church in Australia will consider the Royal Commission’s Final Report carefully, reflect on its findings and recommendations, and implement measures to deliver the best quality of care, service and support for children.

At this time, I would again like to sincerely apologise to all children in our care who suffered sexual abuse in our church, whether it happened after our foundation in 1977 or before that, in our predecessor churches.

We are, and I am, deeply sorry that we did not protect and care in accordance with our Christian values for those children. I again want to acknowledge the impact that it’s had in the lives of those young people and their families, and to say that I am truly sorry.

We must never forget the courage of survivors who’ve come forward to tell their stories in public and in private. The Uniting Church will continue to work constructively with Government and other stakeholders for a truly national redress scheme, as the most equitable way to support survivors wherever they might be.

Our church’s commitment is that we will seek to make amends and strive to ensure others will not suffer as they have. Our prayers and a determined focus will be required if we are to build a robust culture of child safety.

With the collaboration of Synods and many others across our church, we have begun applying the learnings of the Royal Commission through a National Child Safe Policy Framework. The work of implementation will continue to be resourced into the future through the National Royal Commission Task Group and support staff, who will work to incorporate the recommendations of the Final Report in the weeks and months ahead.

I urge all church members to remain vigilant, to ensure that wherever you are in our church, agencies or schools, you are focussed on child safety. If you are a church member and would like information about safe church training, please contact your Synod or Presbytery.

In the years ahead, may God grant us the strength and wisdom to honour our pledge to be the safest church we can be for children, and for all people in our midst.

Marrkapmirri,

Stuart McMillan
President, Uniting Church in Australia

Marrkapmirri means deep affection, love as with a brother or sister, in the Yolŋu languages of North East Arnhem Land.

Discussing these issues can raise difficult emotions and past memories.

If you or someone you know needs help, please call:

1800 RESPECT (1 800 737 732)

Lifeline on 13 11 14

Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800

MensLine Australia on 1300 789 978

Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467

For the full text and including Prayers for personal use or corporate worship  –  see here

 

Parliament voted yes

Published / by Sandy

Australia has joined 26 other developed nations in abolishing one of the last legal discriminations against the gay community, paving the way for its first same-sex weddings in January 2018, with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull claiming it as a win for his government.

Parliament erupted into cheers, hugs and tears of joy on Thursday night as it voted to pass a bill enabling same-sex marriage, three weeks after almost 62 per cent of voters backed the reform.

The President of the Uniting Church in Australia Stuart McMillan has appealed to Church members to continue their respectful considerations on marriage, in the wake of the Australian Parliament’s changes to the marriage laws.

In a Pastoral Statement to the Church, Mr McMillan said:

“Some members of our Church will greet this legislative change with great joy whilst others will be deeply concerned about what they see as the consequences of the change.”

“We recognise there will be frustration and disappointment for some same gender couples who will still be unable to be married in our Church because our policy on marriage remains unchanged.”

The Uniting Church has been discussing the theology of marriage since the 13th Assembly meeting in 2012. The 14th Assembly in 2015 committed to further discussions about marriage and same gender relationships in culturally appropriate ways, also affirming the Church’s embrace of LGBTIQ people as full members of its community.

“In line with the resolutions of the 14th Assembly, General Secretary Colleen Geyer has today written to all ministers and authorised marriage celebrants of the Uniting Church in Australia to explain what this means for each of them legally,” said Mr McMillan.

“During the triennium we have had formal and informal conversations, and we will have further opportunity at the Assembly to discuss marriage in a respectful way. “

“At the 15th Assembly in July 2018 we will again consider marriage, including a report being prepared by the Assembly Working Group on Doctrine and recommendations from the Assembly Standing Committee.”

“At that time I pray that God will enable us to truly hear one another and most importantly the leading of the Holy Spirit.”

“I appeal to you in the time between now and the rising of the 15th Assembly to please pray for wisdom and discernment for the members of Assembly who will gather as the body of Christ.”

Mr McMillan said that during his term as President from 2015 he had often spoken from Romans 12 verse 5: “We belong to one another”.

“The writer of Romans continues speaking about sincere love as: ‘Honouring one another above yourselves’ (verse 10).”

“In all we say and do, I appeal to you all, let us follow these encouragements to be Christ-like.

“Whatever your personal response is to these changes of Australian civil law, the Church’s call remains unchanged to be a ‘fellowship of reconciliation’.

“We are the body of Christ. Let us be witnesses to the transforming power of God’s love in Jesus Christ at work in and amongst us,” said Mr McMillan.

Pastoral statement here

Click here for more information on the Uniting Church’s ongoing conversations on marriage. 

#Manus

Published / by Sandy

In light of the events this week on Manus, President of the Uniting Church in Australia Stuart McMillan has called on the Federal Government to take moral leadership and resolve the status of refugees on Manus Island in mainland Australia.

Hundreds of men who remained in the offshore detention centre after its closure on 31 October have been transported to new facilities by Papua New Guinean authorities. Their removal follows a tense stand-off in which the men initially refused to leave.

“Haven’t these people suffered enough? After all this time, is it still impossible for the Federal Government to show some compassion and bring them here?” said Mr McMillan.

“As Christians, we believe all people should be treated with respect. The parable of the Good Samaritan is just one bible story that illustrates the Christian ethic of caring and sheltering people in their time of need.”

“We stand together with our sisters and brothers of faith in other Australian churches calling for a long-term humanitarian solution that upholds the dignity of these vulnerable people.”

The Uniting Church in Australia has advocated for the humanitarian treatment of refugees since its inception, and for many years has called for an end to mandatory detention and the closure of all offshore processing centres.

“The Federal Government should take the lead in developing a genuine regional approach, where refugees are offered permanent protection regardless of their means of arrival,” said Mr McMillan.

“Just bring these poor people here!”.”

Meeting today, the South Australian Synod has resolved to encourage congregations to join the call on the Federal Government to find safe haven for the refugees without delay.

Here is the text of what was agreed to at the SA Synod on Friday 24th November (note #2 was passed by formal majority, the rest by consensus):

Proposal 22
That the Presbytery and Synod:
1. Express its deep concern for the health and welfare of the refugees and asylum seekers on Manus Island to the Minister for Immigration, Peter Dutton, and the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, and urge the Government to effect immediately a humane resolution to the unfolding humanitarian crisis, and to ensure physical security, medical care and basic necessities for their health and welfare, and to reinstate immediately the provision of torture and trauma counselling and interpretation services.

2. Encourage Uniting Church members and their congregations to join in with community actions that call for the Australian Government to evacuate the men on Manus Island t a safe place and if necessary to Australia to await resettlement, to ensure their safety and security, and to find safe haven for the acknowledged genuine refugees without further delay.

3. Encourage Uniting Church members and their congregations to contact Federal MPs by letters, emails or phone calls to express their grave concern for the refugees and asylum seekers on Manus Island, and to ask Government MPs to ensure that the Government expedites a humane response to the continuing crisis unfolding for the refugees and asylum seekers on Manus.

4. Resource members and their congregations with current information, to be available on the Uniting Church SA website (sa.uca.org.au), so that informed conversations can happen with friends, families, work colleagues etc., in order that a groundswell of community concern is enabled, and request the Public Theology and Mission sub-committee (Mission and Leadership Development Board), in collaboration with the National UCA justice network and refugee networks (Circle of Friends, Justice4RefugeesSA, ACFID, Amnesty and our partner church in Papua New Guinea – UC Papua New Guinea) to compile current information and keep resources updated on the Uniting Church SA website.

Proposers: Rev Sandy Boyce, Margaret Chittleborough

A Space for Grace

Published / by Sandy

This week, the SA UCA Presbytery and Synod is meeting. There are many matters of concern to be discussed, including the UCA understanding of marriage, and implications of the postal vote and deliberations in the Federal parliament on same-sex marriage. It is contested space, given that 61.6% of those who participated in the postal survey voted Yes and 38.4% voted No. The statistics are clearly reflected in the disparity of yes and no voters in the church as well. The Presbytery and Synod aims to use a process called ‘Space for Grace’, and to conduct all conversations in the ‘grace margin’ process – to be respectful, empowering, and inclusive in a way that embraces the full cultural and theological diversity of the Uniting Church. I endorse this approach absolutely. It is in stark contrast to a methodology where people, no matter what their particular viewpoint, state their convictions come hell or high water and steady for a fight. My way or the highway. It is never appropriate. It provides a huge challenge to find our way through polarised views and contested space. A ‘space for grace’ promotes respectful listening, creating space for hospitality and mutuality, and learning from and with the other.

In his book Jesus and Community (1984), Gerhard Lohfink offers a tremendous insight into Christian community. Paul used the reciprocal pronoun “one another” (allēlōn) in the New Testament numerous times eg outdo one another in showing honour (Rom 12.10), live in harmony with one another (Rom 12:16), welcome one another (Rom 15:7), admonish one another (Rom 15:14), wait for one another (1 Cor 11:33), have the same care for one another (1 Cor 12:25), be servants of one another (Gal 5:13), bear one another’s burdens (Gal 6:2), comfort one another (1 Thess 5:11), build one another up (1 Thess 5:11), be at peace with one another (1 Thess 5:13), bear with one another lovingly (Eph 4:2), confess your sins to one another (James 5:16), pray for one another (1 Peter 4:9), meet one another with humility (1 Peter 5:5), have fellowship with one another (1 John 1:7). The earliest church was a collection of ‘one-anothering‘ communities, sharing God’s grace, love and mercy together in a reconciling community (ekklesia) of Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free, men and women brought together by the Holy Spirit. The people of God are called to be a ‘one-anothering‘ community: growing in faith, upholding one another in prayer, encouraging each other, building one another up. It is what we are called to invest in, to extend, to build upon. (*adapted from MCM-NRC Resources: “Space for grace – living in the ‘grace margin’ in respectful, empowering, and inclusive decision-making”)

May we commit ourselves afresh to being such a community together. And please join me in praying as our Presbytery and Synod meet this week. May grace, mercy, love, compassion and reconciliation prevail. Amen.

(an extract from a sermon by Rev Sandy Boyce at Pilgrim Uniting Church 19th November 2017)

(Note: this post has been updated as correspondence related to the conversation around marriage which had previously been available on the Synod website in preparation for the Presbytery and Synod meeting is no longer online).

Pastoral statement: Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey

Published / by Sandy

Pastoral statement from the Uniting Church President and Moderators

Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey

Greetings in the name of our Lord Jesus.

The week ahead will be challenging for our community and our church, as the results of the Government’s voluntary postal survey on same gender marriage will be released. (On Wednesday, results from the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey will be published on the ABS website)

We are in challenging times facing a range of disturbing issues all of which go to our common humanity – our inherent worth to God and to each other. This affects how we speak and act and, as disciples of Jesus, we are called to reflect upon what the gospel asks of us.

Every human being is of equal value to God. From the creation story, to the birth of Jesus and our own baptism, we assert that every person is created in God’s image, and our worth is without question. Our humanity is made whole in Jesus Christ.

Whatever the result of the postal survey, many people in our community will feel hurt, some deeply. Our families and friends who are LGBTIQ have found the whole survey incredibly difficult, and indeed unsafe. Many of our families and friends in the broader community have also found this time disconcerting.

There has been a great deal of anger, fear and hurt, for which we grieve.

The question for us is how we will act as the church now, and in the weeks and months ahead. We must care for each other, acknowledging that most of our congregations will host a diversity of opinions, as does our community. We cannot use our roles in the church to tell people what to think, to criticise, or to abuse, others.

Ministers and those in specified ministry have particular responsibilities to demonstrate leadership that all with whom they engage, whether directly or through various social or other media platforms, hear and experience the witness of the gospel to the God given dignity of all people.

We are the Uniting Church, a wonderfully diverse community of faith, which is founded in the grace of God’s act in Jesus Christ.

We are responsible to, and for, each other. We need to pray for wisdom, courage and discernment. In this difficult season, we will look towards Christ and encourage others to do the same.

“God has given to all people in the Church the Holy Spirit as a pledge and foretaste of that coming reconciliation and renewal which is the end in view for the whole creation. The Church’s call is to serve that end: to be a fellowship of reconciliation.” (Paragraph 3 Basis of Union).

Friends, when we allow the Spirit to shape us then our witness and love, counters the hostility of the world and testifies to the reality of the risen crucified One.

If you need support please make contact with your Presbytery or Synod.

Be assured that we are praying for our whole church, and for the community in which we live.

Grace and peace,

Stuart McMillan, President
Rev. Sharon Hollis, Moderator, Synod of Victoria and Tasmania
Rev. Simon Hansford, Moderator, Synod of NSW and the ACT
Rev. David Baker, Moderator, Synod of Queensland
Rev. Sue Ellis, Moderator, Synod of South Australia
Rev. Thresi Mauboy, Moderator, Northern Synod
Rev. Steve Francis, Moderator, Synod of Western Australia

Uluru Statement from the Heart

Published / by Sandy
Stuart McMillan (President, Uniting Church in Australia) and Rev Dennis Corowa (National Chairperson, Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress)

The national leaders of the Uniting Church in Australia and the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC) have lamented the Federal Government’s failure to embrace greater national representation for First Peoples.

In May 2017, Indigenous leaders from across the country met for three days at Uluru to discuss their approach to recognition in the Australian Constitution. The meeting rejected the idea of Constitutional Recognition, instead calling for a representative body that would be a “Voice to Parliament”.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has now ruled out the idea, calling a new Indigenous advisory body, neither “desirable [nor] capable of winning acceptance” adding that a Constitutional amendment should not undermine the universal principles of unity, equality and “one person, one vote”.

“The Government had a historic opportunity to recognise and honour the sovereignty of First Peoples through the proposal coming from the Uluru Statement from the Heart,” says Rev Dennis Corowa, the UAICC National Chairperson (pictured right).

“They asked us what we wanted. We told them and they just knocked us back. Why did they ask in the first place if they weren’t prepared to listen?

“We have a Government that is doing nothing and playing around with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.”

The President of the Uniting Church in Australia, Stuart McMillan (pictured left) describes the Government’s response as weak.

“I’m very disappointed that 50 years after Australia gave the First Australians a vote Malcolm Turnbull’s Government has refused them a voice,” says Stuart.

“We in the Uniting Church changed our own Constitution in 2009 to recognise prior ownership of First Peoples, and have regulated for Indigenous representation in the major deliberative meetings of our Church.

“While we are still challenged to honour our Covenant relationship with our Indigenous brothers and sisters, the Uniting Church has shown that progress on representation is possible, if you keep working at it,” he continues.

“Instead of buckling preemptively to intolerance, the Government should be leading for the future. We don’t need a dead hand on the Uluru Statement from the Heart.”

Building a brand

Published / by Sandy

John Naughtan, in The Guardian, writes about the 500 years this week since Luther posted his 95 theses to the Wittenberg door. Here is an excerpt. 

new power is loose in the world. It is nowhere and yet it’s everywhere. It knows everything about us – our movements, our thoughts, our desires, our fears, our secrets, who our friends are, our financial status, even how well we sleep at night. We tell it things that we would not whisper to another human being. It shapes our politics, stokes our appetites, loosens our tongues, heightens our moral panics, keeps us entertained (and therefore passive). We engage with it 150 times or more every day, and with every moment of contact we add to the unfathomable wealth of its priesthood. And we worship it because we are, somehow, mesmerised by it. In other words, we are all members of the Church of Technopoly, and what we worship is digital technology.

Suppose, though, you were one of a minority who was becoming assailed by doubt – stumbling towards the conclusion that what you once thought of as liberating might actually be malign and dangerous. But yet everywhere you look you see only happy-clappy believers. How would you go about convincing the world that it was in the grip of a power that was deeply hypocritical and corrupt? Especially when that power apparently offers salvation and self-realisation for those who worship at its sites?

It would be a tough assignment. But take heart: there once was a man who had similar doubts about the dominant power of his time. His name was Martin Luther and 500 years ago on Tuesday he pinned a long screed on to the church door in Wittenberg, which was then a small and relatively obscure town in Saxony. The screed contained a list of 95 “theses”challenging the theology (and therefore the authority) of the then all-powerful Catholic church. This rebellious stunt by an obscure monk must have seemed at the time like a flea bite on an elephant. But it was the event that triggered a revolution in religious belief, undermined the authority of the Roman church, unleashed ferocious wars in Europe and shaped the world in which most of us (at least in the west) grew up. Some flea bite.

What made Luther’s theses really provocative was that they represented a refutation of both the theology and the business model of the Catholic church. In those days, challenging either would not have been a good career move for an Augustinian monk. Challenging both was suicidal.

But Luther understood the significance and utility of the new communication technology better than his adversaries.

Unlike most scholars of his time, Luther was both interested in and knowledgable about the technology of printing; he knew the economics of the business, cared about the aesthetics and presentation of books and understood the importance of what we would now call building a brand.

He knew, for example, that his message would only spread if he gave printers texts that would be economical to print and easy to sell – unlike conventional scholarly books in the early decades of printing. Because paper was expensive, printing a standard scholarly tome required capital resources for buying and storing the necessary reams of paper. And because there was no developed market for distributing and marketing the result, many printers went bankrupt – which is why most printing and publishing was concentrated in large towns with established universities where at least some of the necessary infrastructure existed.

Although the original 95 theses were in Latin, as were most theological books of the period, Luther decided that he would write in German. In doing so he immediately expanded his potential market by orders of magnitude. He also developed a literary style that was “lucid, readable and to the point”. But his masterstroke was in enabling printers to make money by publishing his works. Because paper was expensive, he channelled his output into extended pamphlets that could be printed on one or two sheets of paper, suitably folded into eight or 16 pages at most.

The strategy worked. Within five years of posting his theses he was Europe’s most published author. A printed sermon or a commentary by Luther was a surefire seller, and appealingly inexpensive to produce. The nascent printing industry was quick to respond: Wittenberg, which had a solitary shambolic printer when Luther began, was soon home to a handful of presses, including one run by Germany’s most accomplished publisher, Moritz Goltz. Luther, proactive to a fault, took care to spread his work among all of these new publishing houses and was “sufficiently popular to put bread on the table of publishers throughout Germany”. By the time Luther died in 1546, nearly 30 years after posting the 95 theses, this small town in Saxony had a publishing output that matched that of Germany’s biggest cities.

One thing above all stands out from those theses. It is that if one is going to challenge an established power, then one needs to attack it on two fronts – its ideology (which in Luther’s time was its theology), and its business model. And the challenge should be articulated in a format that is appropriate to its time.

The full article is on this link. It goes on to provide examples of theses for our internet world.

Bad Religion?

Published / by Sandy

by Andrew Dutney

from his blog: https://andrewfdutney.wordpress.com/2017/10/13/religion-does-more-harm-than-good-in-the-world-agreed/

It’s been reported that two out of three Australians think that religion does more harm than good in the world. That’s not encouraging news at a time when there are questions being asked about whether or not the various tax exemptions and privileges that religious organisations enjoy in Australia should be wound back – or even dispensed with.

But the Ipsos Poll on which the report was based gave mixed messages about Australians and religion. While 63% agreed that religion does more harm than good in the world, 84% agreed with the statement, “I am completely comfortable being around people who have different religious beliefs than me”. So, on the one hand, scepticism about the value of religion and, on the other hand, high levels of toleration for religious diversity. What might this poll be telling us about Australians and their religions?

It’s worth thinking about how a poll like this works. In this case it was a telephone poll of more than 17,000 people across 23 countries. There would have been an attempt to get balanced representation but, even so, it could have involved only a very small number of Australians. Probably fewer than 1000. Also, those being polled were simply asked if they agreed or disagreed with a series of statements such as “My religion defines me as a person” (27% agreed) or “Religious people make better citizens” (25% agreed). So when some hundreds of Australians agreed with the statement “Religion does more harm than good in the world”, it’s not at all clear what they were actually thinking. It would have been a range of things. Certainly they would not all have had the same reasons for agreeing with the statement.

Nonetheless, it’s a worthwhile exercise to think about what some of those things might have been. What harm does religion do?

Some may have been thinking about religious bigotry and the harm that does in some families and communities. Australia has a sorry history of sectarianism – particularly of bitter conflict between Protestant and Catholic people. Thankfully those days are behind us now, but it was still a very real part of Australian society when I was growing up. Some people might have been thinking about religious extremism or about religiously motivated conflict. Some might have been reflecting on the Royal Commission on Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse.

But about a third of those Australians who were polled did not agree with the statement. They thought that, on balance, religion does not do more harm than good. They might have even thought that religion did more good than harm (but we can’t know that). So what good might they have thought religion does?

If they practice a religion themselves, they probably do so because they find or believe that it has some benefit for them. There are many studies now that associate religious practice with improved mental health and wellbeing. They might have been thinking of the community life and pastoral care that’s made available to them in their faith community. But even the Australians polled who do not practice a religion themselves might have been thinking of the caring services that religious communities offer. Christian congregations run drop in centres, op shops, playgroups etc. Most religious organisations run schools, community services, hospitals etc. UnitingCare Australia, e.g., is a network of some 1600 sites with 40,000 employees and 30,000 volunteers. Their impact for good on Australian society is huge.

In the light of the Ipsos Poll a journalist asked me whether religion “should be trying to redeem itself” in the eyes of the Australian public.

I replied that I thought not. The place of religion in Australian society has changed dramatically in recent decades. The proportion of Australians participating in a religion is now smaller, and the religious groups that Australians are involved in is now much more diverse. The community no longer automatically looks to religious representatives for moral leadership – or even for rites of passage such as weddings and funerals. In this situation it’s important that religious organisations don’t pretend that nothing has changed, and don’t try to steer things back to the way they once were – if that’s what “redeeming” themselves means.

Instead, religious organisations need to get on with doing what they do – developing communities, practicing their faith, serving their own members and the wider community at real points of need. And they need to do what they do with integrity, fairness and transparency. That will be more than enough for Australians.

Time and Sabbath

Published / by Sandy

Time and Sabbath – a service for daylight saving
Pilgrim Uniting Church 9.30am, October 1, 2017

One cannot talk about time in a Judeo-Christian faith context without placing Sabbath and Jubilee at the centre of consideration.

I accepted the invitation to help with this Daylight Saving Service not because I have clarity about the central Biblical tenet of Sabbath, but because I continue to struggle with the whole idea!

I always have.

As a young Christian in my teenage years, I thought Sabbath meant that I didn’t do anything but attend church on Sunday. So, outside of this, I moped about the house, totally bored. And when I needed to train on Sunday morning to continue to play basketball at the highest level, I became totally conflicted, repressing my sense of guilt for breaking the fourth commandment.

Eventually, I gave up the struggle, deciding that the idea of Sabbath as rest might have been sustainable in an agrarian economy, but was unachievable in the modern world.

By the time I was an innovative science teacher, I didn’t give it a thought when I ran into inexplicable tiredness on weekends, this was the onset of serious depression.

That was the time when a host of Baby Boomer humanistic corrective bandaids began to appear. Self-help books, all manner of workshops and retreats, the emergence of Buddhist techniques, and the massive uptake of anti-depressants. Some Ministers moved into social work or psychological counselling. The Centre Of Personal Encounter (COPE) was established in Hutt Street, later to evolve into Relationships Australia.

COPE, I think had a truly prophetic name – all these movements were trying to help us cope with a new age – new freedoms, mass communication, global exploitation, mass transport, population explosion, pollution, immigration and explosion of knowledge – challenging, and continuing to challenge, every culture.

I threw myself into humanistic education and established Health Education at the suburban High School where I was teaching. Rev Dr Malcolm McArthur had the role of shaping all the non-traditional emerging curricula in the Education Department – Religious Education, Health Education, Social Studies, Driver Education and so on.

The churches lost their battle with popular culture. Leisure, shopping and sport became the new Sabbath activities. But family time continued to be valued.

Church attendance, which had been associated with a traditional notion of Sabbath, inevitably declined. For some churches, the threat to remain sustainable, became all consuming. Church makeovers with new noticeboards in the hope of renewal, demonstrated a complete lack of understanding and engagement with the deep and rapid shift of our cultural context.

Many churches, holding strong dichotomies like sacred and secular, became reactive to these cultural movements: self-interested, attempting to pump up their profiles – all the while, the many saw past these attempts at regaining popularity and control – and all the while the churches generally not understanding that God loves and is active in the world. They thought God-things only happened within the church!

A contemporary Jeremiah might say that God was and is abandoning the Church, much like the ancient Jeremiah prophesied that God would destroy the Jewish Temple with ISIS-like invaders from Babylon, and the people would go into exile.

A modern Jeremiah might rather say that the institutional church is self-destructing.

‘Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath’, said Jesus.

I suggest this might be our starting point for re-imagining Sabbath.

Secondly, I suggest that in re-imagining Sabbath, we might affirm we are not created for ‘work’. The Exodus story of freedom from oppression might be our teacher. The parallels to today are stunning!

We might begin to re- imagine Sabbath by confessing that from 5 to 65, we are obsessed with ‘work’, creating our identities, and consuming us. Clearly, the evidence is in that the increasing demands of elite taskmasters for ‘efficiencies’ is repressive, and all the anti-depressives in the world won’t change that! The research shows that over 70% of the workforce only show up for ‘work’ in order to get a pay cheque. It’s not working!!!

Thirdly, in re-imagining, we might place at the centre of our understanding, a cyclical understanding of time in which Sabbath is understood as disengagement from our anxieties and pressures and engagement with ‘being’.

Fourthly, Sabbath cannot exist in a scarcity culture – a culture we ourselves often construct to prove something to ourselves – but in a culture of abundance and generosity. Sabbath and not ‘work’ is meant to create our identity.

Sabbath was made for man, says Jesus, so that we might delight in an abundant life.

In the end, Sabbath might actually be about abundance – abundant generosity, abundant hospitality, abundant trust, abundant faith, abundant love. The fruit of such Sabbath might be gratitude, bursting with praise for the life the Creator has gifted, humility to know our honoured place in the scheme of things, meekness, empowering our determination for human equality, compassion for those whose circumstances are grim, and, above all, joy for the abundant life God wills.

Sabbath may well be about keeping on returning to refresh those deep and practical dynamics that provide abundant life.

A meditation on daylight saving

Published / by Sandy

God who was and is and is to come,
It must seem so silly for us to whine and carry on about time.
We have such a short span here in this life, 
and yet we make such a fuss
over when this or that is to happen,
how long that takes,
how early we must rise,
how late we’ve stayed up…
How long, O Lord, will I make you wait?
Wait for thankfulness. 
Wait for praise.
Wait for an open heart: the sort that causes the mouth to close,
the mind to rest and the ears to tingle as we listen.
No more waiting… at least not for today!
Thank you….
For the strength you provide when I am too tired to go on.
I praise you…
For the wonder of your creation,
for the mystery of your love for me and for the world.
And I wait…
For the Spirit to breathe new life in me.
For the love of Christ to fill me anew.
For the grace of God to be so real in me
that others are drawn to God’s presence.
I wait for you.
You save me from my short-sighted understanding of 
today, tomorrow and the future.

Postal vote

Published / by Sandy

The postal vote is dominating the airwaves, and so many conversations in homes and workplaces, and in places where people gather. The person installing the NBN (finally!) in our home this week said he thinks he’ll vote no just ‘to show them’ (inferred hostility evident towards those who identify as LGBTQI).  Meanwhile, I’m still waiting for my postal vote papers to arrive!

The Moderator of the Uniting Church in South Australia, Rev Sue Ellis, has prepared a pastoral note to go out to congregations:

Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,

As papers begin to arrive for the Marriage Law Postal Survey, many members of our Uniting Church congregations and faith communities will be engaging in conversations about marriage – within our families, our circles of friends, our churches, and in the wider community.

While we have these discussions, I encourage each of you to remember that, as Christians, we are called to be salt and light in the community. We are to be instruments of the Holy Spirit and model how people should relate to one another in every arena of life.

As Moderator, I want to honour all people in the life of the Uniting Church. I echo the sentiments of Uniting Church President Stuart McMillan, who has urged church members to listen to one another and maintain respectful conversations on the topic of same-sex marriage, particularly where cultural understandings differ. (Read Stuart’s latest statement here and previous statement here.)

As a civil matter, the plebiscite provides an opportunity for every member across the breadth of the Uniting Church to place a vote based on personal reflections and convictions. The upcoming Presbytery & Synod meeting in November and the 15th Assembly meeting in 2018 will allow space to engage in conversations about marriage as the body of the Church. Whether or not the Marriage Act is changed, the Uniting Church will continue to anchor these conversations in grace, respect and love.

I encourage Uniting Church members, the people of God, to look to Jesus throughout this process.

May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” – Romans 15:5-6

Rev Dr Amelia Koh-Butler has prepared some prayers in this season of the postal vote that may be helpful including this one (the prayers are posted on Amelia’s blogsite):

We pray especially for those who are confused or confounded.
We pray for those who do not know how to behave well or find their reference.
We pray for Wisdom to touch people’s hearts and souls.
We pray for clarity of thinking, of speech and of your mercy.
We pray your blessing on those who are struggling most.
Come – Holy Spirit – Come!

Making space for grace

Published / by Sandy

Romans 13: 8-14
Paul exhorts the believers to owe no debt to anyone except the ongoing debt of love, and encourages the believers to live pure lives, free from the dark deeds to which they may be tempted.
Matthew 18:15-20
Jesus teaches his followers a gracious process for making right with those who have hurt them – going first to the individual, then, if necessary, taking along a couple of witnesses, and finally, taking the matter to the church. Then he encourages his followers to agree, for in doing so, they find power in prayer and Christ’s presence in their gathering. (Source: John van de Laar, Sacredise)

Relationships in churches are complex because people’s lived experiences are complex – hurt and harm, sorrow, disappointment, anger, dashed hopes, broken relationships, as well as joy, love, undiminished hope and all the things that sustain us. Mistakes, misunderstandings and mountain top experiences all co-exist in an awkward and often inconvenient way.

Writing about this in an article on Patheos, Benjamin Corey suggests 5 things wounded Christians should probably avoid. He writes:

Life brings wounds. The Christian life sadly, is no different. While Christian community ought be the safest place for one to run and hide, it’s often a place where we experience some of the most painful wounds. Sometimes we’re wounded and pushed to the margins. Other times, we’re the ones who do the wounding. We’re human. We hurt. We injure.

I’ve singled out 5 things that might be good for a wounded Christian to avoid.

1. Speaking before we’re actually ready.

When we speak before we’re ready what we say and how we say it often is a reflection of our woundedness – but rarely comes across as that. Instead, it comes across in all the ways we don’t actually want it to. Speaking from a place of pain too soon will usually accomplish something other than what we want it to. Instead, take some time, take some space, and give yourself freedom to find the right voice at the right time.

2. Making hasty life decisions that will have long term impact.

One of the crossroads we often come to as wounded Christians is being faced with some critical life choices that will have long term impact on ourselves and others. As with when and how we use our voices, so too can we get into problems – not just when we speak from a place of pain too soon – but when we make life decisions from a place of pain too soon. Sometimes we crave major change in the midst of pain because we’re desperate for something to give, but so often the choices we make from that place of hurt aren’t actually good for us in the long run. It’s a good idea to put off some of these choices until the dust settles and we can think a bit more clearly.

3. Using our wounded hearts to inflict pain on others.

There’s an old saying that “wounded people wound people” and I don’t know of anything more true. It’s just soooo hard not to. It often reminds me of an old German Shepard we had a few years back- she’d let you pat her, but if your hand got too close to the bottom of her spine and the source of her arthritis, she’d bite you. I think what grieves me about much of Christian woundedness is that often it’s caused by other wounded people who are typically kind but will bite you if your hand gets too close to the source of their hurt. If you’re one of these folks with wounds, let me encourage you to opt out of the cycle of passing our woundeness down the line. It’s hard, but I think if we develop some self awareness, it can be done.

4. Blaming God for whatever happened.

I don’t know what it was, but I do know it wasn’t God. Maybe it was someone who claimed to speak for God, an abusive leader in a quest for power, a fickle friend, or too many years in an oppressive theological system– but whatever it was, it wasn’t God. We must resist the urge to walk away from faith in God because of wounds suffered at the hands of other humans.

5. Letting go of hope that things could be better.

There’s plenty of things we can live without, but one can’t live without hope. As hard as it is, we’ve got to keep hope that new life can be breathed into those broken or seemingly dead areas inside of us. Sometimes we don’t know how, sometimes we don’t know when, but we’ve got to maintain hope that it can. One of my favorite verses in the Bible is found towards the very end, and is a vision of God who “makes all things new.” The one thing I hold onto is the hope that one day God can and will make things new – that God will bring beauty from ashes, bind up what is broken, and water seeds of new life. It is this hope that keeps me going when nothing else does.

The call for all ages

Published / by Sandy

A sermon by Rev Vikki Waller, Pilgrim UCA
Sunday 3 September 2017
Readings: Exodus 3: 1-15   Rom 12: 9-21 Matt 16: 21 -28

Did you see the article by Rev Dr Mike Frost in the August/September New Times? It is on page 16/17. The title is “Are you willing to be sent where few can see you?”

After a service where he had preached on God’s call, an elderly lady in a lavender cardigan bailed him up and told her story. Her husband has advanced Alzheimer’s and is a shell of the man she had loved for most of her life. She said that she used to be angry and yell at God for letting him just lie there and not die. Then it dawned on her that this is God’s calling to her. She looked around and saw others in the same situation and she began praying for them and then speaking with them. Now she is like a pastor to them as well as her husband. These are the people to whom she has been sent.

Moses was wandering around in the wilderness, minding his own business with his sheep, which he had done for many years. Suddenly something breaks into his day – fire in a dry land. He turns aside to check things out. Then he realises that it is not what he thought.  In fact, this fire is different – the fire is not burning the bush. Real fear of the unknown now takes hold of Moses. Then a voice speaks to him and tells him to take off his sandals as he is on holy ground. He has entered a sacred space – a place where God is. God has now got Moses’ attention.  God now tells him what he wants him to do. God says that he has seen the plight of the Israelites in Egypt, that he has heard their cries and has remembered his promise to their ancestors and now he is sending Moses to Pharaoh to bring the people out of Egypt to a new land.  Just like that.   Now this was not exactly the activity that Moses had planned for his old age!

So he thinks up reasons why he should not do this. Who am I to do this? I’m a nobody!
God says, “I will be with you”.
If I do this, the Israelites will ask me what your name is?
God says, “My name is I Am who I Am – tell them that “I Am”.
If we go beyond today’s lectionary to cChapter 4 we find Moses is still trying to evade God’s call. He says, ”The people will not believe me. I can’t talk, I am a hopeless public speaker.”
God says, “I will give you the words to say.”
God – please don’t send me!

At this, God gets mad and says, ‘you can take Aaron, your brother, I know he can speak well‘. Finally Moses accepts God’s call and starts on the road back to Egypt. Moses’ call changed his life and the course of the history for his people forever.

The Bible is full of stories about God’s call.  One story is of Jesus calling to ignorant fisherman and the other to an educated, upper class young man. Jesus’ call comes to them all. Like Moses, they understood what it meant but they did not all respond the same way. The rich young man turned his back on the way of freedom and “trudged back to the bondage of the past” but the fisherman left all and followed Jesus into a future that was to change their lives forever. Little did they know what would happen and where the journey would lead when they took that first step.

God’s call may come when we least expect it, often when we are not looking for it, and at any age.  Samuel’s call was when he was very young but Moses call came when he was almost 80 – so that covers us all. The churches call may well be different for every generation or the vision the same but the expression different

So what for us as a church?  Is it the same as for individuals?   I suspect that churches too can live the life of an ‘uncalled community” when they get caught up in things that are only for themselves.  For the church as for individuals also God’s call will make sense of what we do, will hold us fast through tough times, will send us out on mission made possible by God. But this may well be counter cultural – and may well also be counter cultural within the church community

At Pilgrim we commit ourselves to responding to God’s call to live like Jesus, to be ambassadors for the one who walked the way of the cross and so to represent his values of forgiveness, reconciliation, and peace. To heal the broken, feed the hungry, stand up for the oppressed. And we also acknowledge that the call to non-conformity with the ways of the world includes a call to resist the legitimising of greed, selfishness, infidelity, violence, and exploitation. But it is precisely that refusal to legitimise the very things on which our society is founded which, if really followed through faithfully, will provoke an angry backlash against us.

Romans 12: 2 says, “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you in to its mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands and move towards the goal of true maturity”.

This is no easy call. It may sound okay as a religious theory, but to live by it when we are really under threat is as difficult. We have to work at this. We have to allow the Holy Spirit to train us in a new way, in a way that goes against our basic instincts and scandalises and offends our natural sense of justice and decency.

 

The full sermon can be downloaded here, Pilgrim sermon 3 Sept 17.VW

The Hope We Have

Published / by Sandy

(an edited version of a New Times online article published on the SA Synod website)

Hope Released

This week’s The Hope we Have conference in Adelaide featured speakers Karina Kreminski and Mike Frost. Their research and experiences demonstrate the nature of authentic evangelism in the Australian context.

Here are five principles:

Love your neighbour – Karina Kreminski talks about this as ‘the art of neighbouring’. Jesus gave everyone a practical plan to live life “love your neighbour as yourself”. This means knowing someone’s name – humanising and seeing people in what can be a dehumanising world. Discovering your neighbour’s names, building genuine friendships, practicing stick-ability – show people you are around for the long haul.

Self-sacrifice – Allowing yourself to receive from others, this often means relinquishing power and control in order to relate to people authentically.  Self-sacrifice involves having conversations in order to build relationships with those you would not normally converse with. For Jesus, this was dining with prostitutes, tax collectors and sinners. Non-Christians can be buffered and resistant to hearing the Gospel. It is possible to counter that sense of being buffered by creating space that is safe so people feel comfortable with discussing deeper issues. Find out what people are craving, help people develop the longings within them. The longings that are the real stuff of being human. Things like gratitude, joy, kindness, forgiveness.

Don’t stereotype people negatively
People are yearning for affirmation, not the opposite. People don’t want to be told how ‘not good enough they are’. They are yearning to be valued, taken seriously as a person, as a precious subject of personal love. When people come to know Christ, the first thing they notice is the beauty and kindness of God. It is in the face of such beauty and kindness that sin can then be seen for what it really is, and real change happens as a result – not from guilt but from grace.

Bless others – Mike Frost gathers with a group of Jesus followers in Manly, Sydney each week. They call themselves ‘Small Boat, Big Sea’. One of their weekly actions is to bless 3 people each week and to eat with 3 people each week. Mike says these actions of generosity exemplify good community and spark a cycle of giving and generosity by the receiver which is also deeply and progressively transformative to the giver.

Look for the overlap – Mike encourages 3Story evangelism. 3Story is made up of ‘My Story’, ‘Your Story’ and ‘God’s Story’. My Story is how God has transformed us. That is, how is God shaping and transforming our lives. Your Story involves active listening. Listening to the stories of others and pointing out how there is a mutuality and respect between My Story, Your Story and God’s Story that can be accentuated. God’s Story refers to what God is doing in the world. The overlap refers to the space in the middle of the three stories. How does God’s Story shape Your Story after hearing My Story? More on 3Story can be downloaded here.

Karina Kreminski is releasing a book in late October, titled: Urban Spirituality:embodying God’s Mission in the Neighbourhood. She also has a blog post which can be followed here. Mike Frost has written several books and also has a website and blog which can be viewed here.

Justice as a deeply spiritual practice

Published / by Sandy

This article was written by U.S. based Stephen Mattson on Sojo Net. A thoughtful catalyst for discussion in the Australian context.

Many Christians are wary of participating in social justice because of a deep-rooted fear of being labeled “liberal,” “progressive,” or “secular.” They don’t want to be associated with “secular” movements, and are uncomfortable delving into issues that go beyond their cultural comfort zones.

But the Bible tells us that Jesus cared deeply about the social causes around him.

Instead of saying all lives matter, Jesus said, “Samaritan lives matter.”
Instead of saying all lives matter, Jesus said, “Children’s lives matter.”
Instead of saying all lives matter, Jesus said, “Gentile lives matter.”
Instead of saying all lives matter, Jesus said, “Jewish lives matter.”
Instead of saying all lives matter, Jesus said, “Women’s lives matter.”
Instead of saying all lives matter, Jesus said, “Lepers’ lives matter.”

Jesus went out of his way to intentionally help specific groups of people — the alienated, mistreated, and those facing injustice. Participating in a movement seeking justice, positive reform, and empowerment is one of the most Christ-like things we can do.

Christians must recognize that our society is filled with numerous groups and communities facing systemic oppression, and we must act. We must be willing to admit and address the complex realities within our world that create such problems, and avoid the spiritual laziness that tempts us to rely on generic excuses and solutions.

Christians do a disservice to the gospel message by removing the cultural context from Jesus’ ministry and watering down his message to one of religious platitudes. We like to generalize the words of Jesus and transform his life into a one-size-fits-all model that can apply to all of humanity.
Throughout the New Testament Jesus was more complex than we give him credit for.

He intentionally, purposefully, and passionately addressed very specific causes. He radically addressed the diverse and complicated conflicts of the time and shattered the status quo.

Jesus wasn’t just preaching a universal salvation message for the world, but he was also addressing specific political, social, and racial issues. He was helping those who were being abused, violated, and oppressed.

Involving ourselves within these issues – serving those who need justice – is an example of following Jesus that today’s Christians must adhere to, because throughout the world there are millions of people who are suffering. But many Christians remain simply apathetic, ignorant, or refuse to admit any problems exist. They’re uncomfortable facing the complex and controversial issues surrounding race, ethnicity, history, and culture.

To avoid such discomfort, many Christians assume that equality and justice looks like a total dismissal – and rejection of – any cultural, ethnic, or distinguishing form of identity. They believe our very humanity should supersede all other labels or descriptions, and that a love of Christ wipes away any “superficial” characteristic such as skin colour, heritage, or other cultural identifier.

They see verses such as Galatians 3:28 that states, “ There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” to mean that nothing else matters beyond our faith in Christ.

Ironically, verses like this show that these things – race, ethnicity, culture – DO matter to God, because God is recognizing the very public fact that there are various laws, expectations, practices, and opinions regarding each distinction mentioned.

Paul is validating all of the cultural issues associated with Jews, Gentiles, slaves, the free, men, and women rather than disregarding them. He’s stating that Jesus is relevant to these differences, and is working throughout their lives by understanding and recognizing the unique pros and cons they’re dealing with – the privileges, disadvantages, stereotypes, assumptions, treatment, rights, social value, and expectations they face on a daily basis.

Participating in social justice is a Christian tradition inspired by Jesus, not liberal causes, populist agendas, media platforms, lawmakers, or mainstream fads. It’s a deeply spiritual practice.

Instead of being motivated by political affiliations, financial gain, power, pride, control, or our own secular motivations, we should be active participants for the sake of following Jesus – for the purpose of glorifying God by through acts of justice, empowerment, and love.

Because everyone is created in the image of God and loved by God, we are responsible for identifying with the victimized — not rejecting their existence. That’s why the New Testament goes into great depth detailing the newfound worth given to the Gentiles, slaves, and women. These countercultural instructions to believers were radically progressive, to the point where the gospel writers had to put them in writing to make sure they were implemented within the newly formed church.

While God does love everyone and all believers are united in Christ, this doesn’t negate the fact that we have a unique cultural identity and upbringing and are called to recognize the marginalized, help the oppressed, and avoid rejecting their significance by denying their identity or ignoring their plight.

By acknowledging and actively participating in the #blacklivesmatter movement, addressing racism, immigration, gender equality, and a litany of other issues, you are following in the steps of Jesus.

It’s not a matter of pitting social causes against the gospel message of Christ; it’s a matter of realizing that these causes ARE actually an important part of that gospel message.

Read the full article on Sojo Net here.

Hospitality and Grace – God’s antidote to the dark side

Published / by Sandy

A sermon by Geoff Boyce at Pilgrim Uniting Church, Sunday August 20th.

Hospitality and Grace – God’s antidote to the dark side

Genesis 45: 1-15 Joseph Reveals Himself to His Brothers

Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, “Send everyone away from me.” So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.
Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. I will provide for you there—since there are five more years of famine to come—so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.’ And now your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see that it is my own mouth that speaks to you. You must tell my father how greatly I am honored in Egypt, and all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here.” Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.

Executive Summary:
Today’s text from Genesis is very rich. One could explore the dynamics of prejudice and bullying, forgiveness and intimacy or family relationships. But I am choosing to reflect on two principles at work in the story – karma and grace. In many ways, this story prefigures the agenda of the enigmatic Jesus: that the risk of hospitality and compassion trump blind, static and comfortable obedience to cultural norms. The brothers represent small mindedness; Joseph represents openness and vision. The brothers are victims of their own doing and represent a life lived by karma; Joseph represents a life lived by grace.
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Sandy and I once visited a young Australian woman who had volunteered in a pre-school for disadvantaged kids in the heart of Johannesburg, South Africa.
During her time there she had begun to support a group supporting homeless people and had been befriended by a family who lived in a makeshift cardboard shelter in the old disused central bus station.
We joined her and the group one night, with hot food and a supply of aspirin and medical dressings in the boot of one of the cars that were doing their ‘run’ across the inner urban centre.

At first we felt out of our depth to be among such desperate people, but were consoled by the fact that the organisation was run for the homeless by the homeless themselves! We were immediately welcomed as friends!
Inside the little shanty, lit only by a fire of waste wood in an old oil drum, we met the family. They were full of joy to meet us, and of course their ‘adopted daughter’!

I asked how they supported themselves and heard how they collect old telephone cables and strip them to get the thin coloured wires; then mother weaves them into bowls for sale. I noticed her arthritic, gnarled hands, cut by the weaving process. She showed me an example of her work. Then she immediately offered it to me as a gift!

I was gob-smacked! I, who by comparison had everything, had brought the family nothing! She had offered me a piece of her own creative handiwork – probably a week’s income!

Have you ever experienced a moment like that?

Sandy and I have experienced a number of these kinds of situations. In Soweto, in Palestine, in India – you never forget and you feel bonded to these wonderful people forever. Forty odd years later, we still catch up with friends who took us in when we were in need in London!

Grace is the giving and receiving of an unmerited gift. Sometimes it’s harder to receive than to give.

Today’s reading is full of the unexpected – a surprising moment for everyone concerned.

Joseph, stereotyped, abused and shunned by his brothers and sold by them into slavery, would have given up all hope of ever seeing them again. His memory would have been the rejection and abuse he was subjected to during his growing up years.

But Joseph had made the best of his situation as a slave in Egypt. His native skills, so despised by his brothers, turned out to be what the Egyptian Pharoah was looking for. Joseph was open to using the gifts he had and to receiving unexpected favour. By grace – as a gift – he found himself elevated up the ladder of success in Egypt.

The brothers on the other hand, thought they had got rid of their embarrassing brother and would never see him again. He didn’t fit their mould. Now, forced by a famine to seek food aid from Egypt, they come face to face with the Egyptian Prime Minister – none other than the one they had despised in their youth! They are gob-smacked!

What will Joseph do? Send them away? Exact revenge? Seek justice for their despicable behaviour – tantamount to murder? That would be the expected response in a tit-for-tat, eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, karma culture!

But Joseph had learnt grace – free, unwarranted, unmerited gift -giving.

There is a wonderful statement by Bono of U2 at the end of their song ‘Grace’, on YouTube.

Commenting on the song, Bono says:

You see, at the centre of all religions is the idea of Karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics – in spiritual laws – every action is met by an equal or an opposite one. It’s clear to me that Karma is at the very heart of the universe. I’m absolutely sure of it. And yet, along comes this idea of Grace to upend all that “as you sow, so you will reap” stuff.
Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff.
I’d be in big trouble if Karma was going to finally be my judge… It doesn’t excuse my mistakes, but I’m holding out for Grace.

One senses the Irish context for Bono’s statement on grace – the bigoted militancy of Paisley’s Protestants and the guilt, hellfire and damnation credo of the Irish Catholics. Bono holds out grace into the future in the hope that he escapes judgement. For Bono, grace is his escape from karma.

But grace seems to me to be on a another plane altogether than sin, law, guilt and judgement; and certainly not the triumphalist certainties of biblical literalists.

Law tries to keep doors closed that, if opened, will cause harm. Do not murder, do not steal, do not drive through red lights. To motivate you not to murder, steal or run a red light, we have police to enforce consequences for breaking these laws and courts to dish out the punishments. We are deterred from breaking the laws that have been legislated through a democratic process. Law protects us against the selfish and wilful and establishes norms for order and cohesion in our society.

Grace, on the other hand, opens new doors. It is all gift, not guilt and looking back over one’s shoulder in case you’ve transgressed. Grace would have the policeman pull you over to tell you you are driving beautifully and to accept a $250 reward for doing so! ‘Think of the good you can do with that!’ says the policeman as he rides off!

That is the reality Jesus insists is in the mind and heart of God. That is the ‘good news’! Life is a gift. You don’t have to prove anything!

Joseph prefigures this good news demonstrated by Jesus by not demanding payback, but forgiving. He mourns the squandering of opportunity for happiness, and weeps in celebration of the hope of a new future, living in the much bigger, surprising, open, risk-taking and life-giving world of grace.

Grace…
She travels outside of karma
When she goes to work
You can hear her strings
Grace finds beauty in everything

What once was hurt
What once was friction
What left a mark
No longer stings
Because Grace makes beauty
Out of ugly things

Grace. Do you feel the strings lifting you?
Or is life just notes on the music page?