God’s Creatures Our Companions 17-11-2019

God’s Creatures Our Companions

Genesis 2: 15 – 24

Do we supplant our God given companions with the companions we can control?

In the first book of the Bible, Genesis, there are two creation stories. The second story tells us that God created a human to look after the earth.  When God saw that the human was alone and needed assistance to take care of the land God created animals to be the human’s companion and help.  But the human was still lonely so God created another human to be a companion to the first human. There is wisdom here in this quaint and ancient mythological story, which is too easily dismissed by our prejudices or shallow reading. The wisdom and truth I emphasise today is this. Humankind was given the task of caring for the land and given animals as helpful companions. The land, animals and humans are bound together in a purposeful sociability. Land, animals (all creatures) and humans are to work and live together in a purposeful community.

Today we come to give thanks for and honour the wonderful companionship of the canine species. But what we will say about them is not exclusive to our canine pets. People have had special relationships with different land, water or air based species. 

I was reading about the special relationship between some the British monarchs and their dogs. I wondered how much these British monarchs had formed our culture’s views on dogs. The monarchs that spring to mind are Queen Elizabeth II and her corgis and King Charles II and his preference for a small breed of spaniel which now bears his name. But have you heard of Caesar of Notts? That’s his full name – Caesar of Notts. Caesar was a small wired-haired terrier given to Edward VII when he lost his beloved dog, Jack, in 1898. Caesar won the heart of his master and ended up travelling everywhere with the king.  Caesar was assigned his own footman and would sleep at night on an armchair in the King’s bedroom.  When Edward VII died in 1910 Caesar wandered the palace looking for him and refused to eat. The queen engaged a vet who managed to persuade Caesar to eat.  As the King’s cortège passed through the crowded streets of London following the coffin was the King’s charger, Kildare, fully saddled for riding with his master’s riding boots reversed, then came Caesar accompanied by a Highland soldier followed by the aristocracy and the rest of procession. When Caesar died a tombstone was erected over his grave with the inscription written by Queen Alexandra; Our beloved Caesar who was the King’s Faithful and Constant companion until Death, and My Greatest Comforter in my loneliness and Sorrow for Four Years after. Died 18th April 1914.

Dogs are special to us. I love it when our greyhound ‘grandchild’ is dropped off for us to look after. I enjoy her company and love our early morning romps on the beach. 

Dogs exemplify for us the God intended sociability that is understood in the Bible’s Creation stories.  Let’s remind ourselves of five important characteristics of a dog that point us to God’s intention for the well-being of community.

Faithfulness is a quintessential quality of dogs. They weld themselves to their owners with an unswerving dependability. The story of King Edward VII’s Caesar is a case in point and that would be replicated in countless stories around the world. A dog’s faithfulness reflects for us the faithfulness of God to humanity. Faithfulness is a critical element for the health of any community.

Acceptance is another redeeming quality in our dogs. Dogs can teach us a lot about acceptance. They do not care what we look like and accept us in all forms of dress and mood. They wear their hearts on their sleeves with the simplicity of enduring love. They will not let you cry alone. They sense our sadness or quietness and will sit with us and will either lie against us or nuzzle us.  It seems that they inherently understand that ‘making love not war’ is the best thing. In this sense they reflect our Maker’s intent and shame our human foolishness.

Playfulness … endless playfulness to which we humans give far too little attention … is another mark of a dog. I think we overlook the value of playfulness.  Having fun releases the tension within us.  I believe God made us to be playful. Why else do we have music and dance? My cousins recently returned from visiting Israel. They remarked that in the otherwise tense city of Jerusalem how often they saw Jews dancing and singing in the streets.  It might be worth our while to ponder why God made an animal that happily retrieves the same ball time after time with a wagging tail and excited eyes?

Joy is a consequence of the playfulness, the acceptance and faithfulness of our pets. Our dogs meet us with such happiness. It always fills me with a little joy when visiting my daughter’s home to have the dog greet me.  They appear to be so happy to see us. Did you know that one of the chief characteristics of the first Christians was their joy?  They were noted for that. Sadly that has not always been the case for the Church.  However the songs of praise and thanksgiving give opportunity for joy to come to the surface.  And these moments of joy enable us to go and spread the joy around.

Courage is another quality of the canine species. Hear the story of Nemo A534 who was an Alsatian stationed in Vietnam with the armed services. When the Vietcong snuck into a military base one night, which Nemo and his handler were guarding, Nemo confronted them head on.  His handler, Airman Thoneburg was wounded during the confrontation and Nemo took a bullet, which passed through one eye and snout. Despite this, Nemo lay across this master’s body and defended him against any more threats. He would not even let the medical team attend to his master. A vet was called to remove Nemo. Airman Thoneburg survived due to Nemo’s courageous actions.

Today we celebrate our dogs and we give thanks to God for them. They’re a blessing to us with their faithfulness, acceptance, playfulness, joy and courage. But in our celebration let us remember a few important truths.

  1. Remember that our dogs were created to be our companions and assistants in the service we render to God as good caretakers of this world.
  2. Remember dogs reflect the qualities that go towards building up a healthy social environment and these qualities remind us of our duty to each other.
  3. Remember that when our appreciation of our pets becomes excessive we run the risk of idolising them, which leads to exclusion of others. 
  4. Remember that dogs are faithful and are happy to be with us all the time. It is we                     who walk away from them.
    Is there a parable here for us?
    Is this what we do with God? 

May God bless you and your pets.

*******

Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  17/11/2019

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org

What is God like? 10-11-2019

What is God like? Christianity in a Nutshell. 2.

Exodus 3: 5 – 10, 13 – 15;   John 14: 5 – 11

Some ‘names’ for God are more helpful than others! 

Today our focus is on who God is?  Last Sunday’s sermon on – why I believe – possibly was a little too theological and may not have been seen to be practical. I hope this sermon will restore the balance. However I do think it is important to reflect on why one believes or does not believes.   

Clarifying who God is helps us in two ways: it frees us from the prisons of negativity and confusion about God; and, it frees us to utilize the power of God.

I could give you endless stories of people’s confusion and negativity.  I recall reaching the bedside of a parishioner in hospital. He was very sick. I asked him if he felt at peace with God. The parishioner replied that he felt he was not good enough for God.  I was surprised. This parishioner ran the church’s library and had critiqued my worship leading from time to time and read theology. This parishioner was a stalwart in the faith, yet on his sick bed he felt uncertain about his relationship with God.  He wondered if he was ‘good enough’ for God.  The parishioner seemed to have missed the point about God’s gracious love. Somehow the notion that God’s love comes freely to us through Christ Jesus had been overlaid by the notion of ‘working for our salvation’. Surely this is an indication of some confusion about who God is and what God does.

Only the other day we met a couple in Perth. We were talking about life. In the conversation they mentioned that their son had tragically died in a motorcar accident. I asked the woman if she went to church. (Now that question was set in a much longer conversation and was more sensitively asked.) Her response was spontaneous and angry, “Don’t go there!” That was the end of it. She just didn’t want to talk about it. While her husband still worshipped God she refused to go to worship. She was angry  – angry with God.

Now there are good reasons to be confused about God and angry with God.  You see, if God is the all powerful Lord and King and in control of this world, then why does God not do something about the awful suffering and injustice in the world? It is confusing to sing about the almighty power of God and then witness what seems to be God’s powerlessness or disinterest. If one firmly believes that God is in control then why does God let awful things happen? Does God intend this to happen? If so, then I too am angry with such an indifferent and capricious god.

In the 90s I was a chaplain and team leader to the Scripture Union Family Mission at Tidal River, Wilson’s Prom. The young leaders used predominantly three terms to describe God – Father, Lord and King. Of course, our Christian songs predominantly use such concepts to describe God. Let us ask ourselves what do these terms raise in our minds?  The first thing is that all three are male images.  So it is easy to assume that God is a male. Oh, of course, we’re going to add, but God is a spirit and we mean this spiritually.  Well, having said that, the overall impact, the subtle message is the maleness of God. This is the reason why I use the language I do and refer to the Spirit as she.  Think of the pronouns and the words that you use in your devotional life. Ponder the songs and the concepts of God we use.  These three terms not only conceptualise God as male, but also conceptualise God as powerful one. The term lord describes a person of noble rank who has authority over us. We hardly need to unpack the meaning of king.  The problem is not that we use these terms but that we tend to use them exclusively.  The result is that we have hardwired our brains to think of God being in control of everything. If that is so then God is responsible for everything. However the Bible does not use these terms exclusively. On the contrary the Bible has many names for God and not least that God is merciful, compassionate and suffers with and for us. The most powerful image for us is the Cross and we often take it for granted. 

Nothing challenged Western Christianity’s faith more than the Holocaust. The Holocaust – Germany’s Nazi genocidal programme that exterminated 6 million Jews – raised enormous questions about the existence of God. Why did God let this happen? Such tragedy on such a scale does beg the question about God – who made this world.

Where is God when we suffer? What is God doing?  What is God like?  These questions are important to address because we need a level of clarity in our times of great need, otherwise we slip into the prisons of confusion and anger.

Three German theologians, Jürgen Moltmann, Dorothee Soelle and Johan B Metz, addressed this issue. They had to, the church had to, and we have to as well. They came up with an insight that I use often. I talk about the God who suffers with us and for us. What theologians recognise today is that God the Creator comes to us not as the dominant ruler demanding obedience, but the loving Guide calling us to walk and work with God.  Jesus reflects this truth. Jesus never lorded it over his disciples or the people. He walked beside.  He walked a few paces ahead. He gave his life for us. Jesus emptied himself of all kingly power [Phil 2:7] so that we could see the true nature of God – the God who hears our cry, gives us life and suffers with and for us.  That latter phrase I have often used. 

Jesus comes, walks amongst us, experiences our life, and loves us to the ultimate point of giving himself so that we might freely experience the love of God. The sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross is not a sacrifice to an angry God, but the expression of God’s very self and his love for us. Recall again what Jesus said to Thomas and the other disciples.  

Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. [Jn 14:10,11]

We need to expand our concept of God to balance any notion of a powerful God who lords it over us with the picture of God working with us and for us. This means that God suffers with us and for us. The story of Hosea the prophet, the prophetic vision in Isaiah’s suffering Servant poems, the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus and the first Christians’ understanding of Jesus all point to this truth. God also works with us and for us in leaders such as Moses.

Now we come to the second practical advantage of clarifying our concept of God.  When we understand that God is a god who suffers with us and for us, then we not only are set free from the prisons of our negativity and confusion, but also set free to embrace God’s power. God doesn’t want to do things for us. If that were the case we would remain small children, if not God’s puppets. God wants us to look past the distractions of life and our small pictures of reality to see that we are surrounded by the presence of God.  God the Holy Spirit infuses all of life. God the Holy Spirit breathes life into this world. Where there is life there is God.  God wants us to harness this power and become mature in the faith.  This is why Paul talks so often about spiritual gifts and becoming mature in Christ.

God is all-powerful as the Creator but does not use this awesome power to control but set us free. God sets us free to serve.  Instead of being caught up in our confusion or anger, we are free to see God working in us, about us and through us. I have come to see that God does not have a plan for us. I have always felt uncomfortable with this notion that God has a plan. S/he who has a plan for someone inevitably tries to influence, manipulate and drive the plan.  I have come across a better expression for this idea of God having a plan.  It is this.  God doesn’t have a plan for us; God has a vision for us.  God’s vision is in the teaching of Christ about the Kingdom of God.  The Vision of God is that the lion will lie down with the lamb and that we will beat our swords into ploughshares as Isaiah prophesied [Is 2: 3-4]  

What is God like?  My answer is this.  God is the Living God of the Bible, who hears our cry, walks with us and suffers with and for us.  Rider 1. God has many names and we should not presume that any one is exclusive. Rider 2 is that the phrase, the Living God, is used 21 times in the Bible at critical points meaning, the God of life.

 

When we understand God as the God of Life this sets us free to work with God and allow God to empower us.

*******

Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  10/11/2019

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org

Why I believe? 03-11-2019

Why I believe?

Psalm 27; Luke 19: 1 – 10

It is easier not to believe than to believe in God today?

110 years ago we were a big Church in a small world. Today we are a small Church in a very big world. Before WW1 the Church was right at the centre of a small world. Britain, Europe and North America were predominantly Christian and dominant in the world. For all concerned the world was Christian. Other countries were seen as mission fields. Before the Church became a small Church in a big world it was the conventional thing to be a Christian. The Church was where everything happened: births recognised, marriages performed and burials undertaken, along with all social activity. It was easier then to be Christian, or at least go along with the notion of faith in God than it is today. 

Today it is entirely different. Two world wars ensured that by the second half of the 20th Century the Church was a small institution in a big world.  The 20th Century saw three major currents that changed the way we saw life.  Science gave us pragmatism and we demanded things to be proved according to scientific methodology. Democracy superseded fascism and communism and we now prize our independence and rights. Intellectualism came to the conclusion that god-is-dead. 

What has this meant for us? What has it meant for me?  I will speak personally. Since my 18th year I have struggled with the Christian faith not because I don’t believe in God or found Christianity not to be meaningful, but because when I entered the wider world I encountered a society that didn’t believe in God and deliberately denigrated faith. Even within the Church doubts and questions about God and the Bible were bandied around. I have ministerial colleagues who reject core beliefs of the faith.  I live – we live – in a world that is secular, atheistic, pluralistic and materialistic. And yet much of the Church carries on as before. To be a Christian today requires commitment. Being a member of the Church is no longer a matter of convention. It is not easy to be a Christian and that is why we need to know what and why we believe. 

Over the next few Sundays I want to share with you my understanding of Christianity in as fewest words possible – Christianity in a Nutshell. By the way, Shakespeare coined the phrase ‘in a nutshell’ in his play ‘Hamlet’. The overall theme is Christianity in a Nutshell. There will be four sermons – Why I believe in God? What is God like? What is the Christian life? Why is the king a servant?

Why I believe in God is easy to answer in one sense. I believe because I have encountered God. This is my experience, which may be similar to yours. Are we simply foolish people looking for some spiritual crutch to help us with life?  What I have to say now I hope you will find encouraging and help your walk with God.

Firstly, we must say we cannot prove that God exists according to scientific methods because those methods apply largely to material objects, not spiritual and personal beings. More importantly we cannot prove God’s existence because God is incomprehensible. God is so great, so complete, and so awesome that our minds cannot hold that knowledge.   Proof always assumes two things: firstly that we know the subject thoroughly; and secondly that proofs might be demonstrated.

So what can we say?

There is convincing evidence that humankind is innately orientated to something 

beyond themselves (transcendence) which they strive to know.

Here is the evidence for stating that humankind is naturally orientated to transcendence. By transcendence I mean we naturally look for something greater than ourselves. Transcendence refers to an existence or experience that is beyond the normal or physical level.

Firstly, from the dawn of humankind’s discovery of fire and light we notice that humans believed in something bigger than themselves. The most telling evidence comes from burial sites. Archaeologists have uncovered signs that most burials demonstrate a belief in the afterlife. The stiff dead bodies have been forced into a foetal position before burial suggesting that the dead were now going into a new life. Another birth was taking place.  Supporting this interpretation is the placement of implements and money they might need in the next life, and food for the journey, so the very least we can say is that they did not see death as the end. The reverence and planning that took place indicates a reverence for something that transcends this life.  We may simplistically conclude that they believed in gods and spirits.

The second piece of evidence for believing in transcendence you might find surprising. It is our questioning.  We tend to treat the questions of children as signs of an inquiring mind. However further reflection on our questions reveals something significant. All questions presume that the ‘asker’ already knows something and wants to know more.  A little child who asks, ‘why is the sky blue?’ has already noted the colour blue and distinguished blue from other colours.  Our questioning demonstrates a desire to know more. When we consider what questions do and how often we use questions we realise that questions form an essential part of the human spirit to know and expand the horizon of knowledge. 

We ask questions about everything. We always want more information. In asking we presume there is a reality to be found. When an answer emerges we don’t stop there for long. Even a perfectly good answer doesn’t allow us to rest for long, because the answer received nestles in a background of related things that trigger our curiosity anew. The answer has become the basis for a new question. The human tasks of weighing, judging and defining continue to push us further out into the unknown.  I boldly declare that with out our natural enquiring minds we would be less than human.

Immanuel Kant pioneered transcendental philosophy, which believes that our thought processes help us understand the principles of reality. Such research leads to the conclusion that the human spirit is characterised by an unrestricted drive for truth, freedom and love – that we cannot deny.  There are no bounds to our search for these things. This seeking for truth, freedom, love and such like things characterises our humanity and our desire to transcend life, as we know it. In other words we intuitively know there is transcendence in life. I hope you can begin to see that what makes us human points beyond a merely materialistic view of life, and that beyond-ness begs questions about the reality of transcendence.

Thirdly, we humans are seekers of truth. It is interesting to note the Bible’s many references to seeking truth and God. One might expect to find in the Bible some certainty and clarity about God, but right through the Bible there is a strong encouragement to seek God. That is, God is not simply known or ever completely known. Faith in God is an ongoing journey where we continue to seek God and through this seeking find freedom and joy in God, but it remains a journey. It is always a search. The Biblical writers knew the importance of seeking God.

Moses knew that when the people had settled in the new country they would go astray if they did not continually seek God and so he reminds them saying; From there you will seek the LORD your God, and you will find him if you search after him with all your heart and soul. [Deut 4:29].  Moses astutely knew that when people settle into a relatively routine and prosperous lifestyle they tend to take for granted their beliefs and values. 

After the disaster of the Exile when the people of God’s faith was sorely tried, Jeremiah reminded them of God promises; when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me [Jer 29: 12-14].  God’s promises fed their faith and hope as they still do. God’s Word remains true for us today.

The Psalmists encourage the people to seek God despite God’s promises: 

O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; [63:1] and,  

“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!”  Your face, LORD, do I seek [27:8]. 

All that has been said in this sermon is reflected in the Bible including such stories as that of Zacchaeus who wanted to see Jesus. Zacchaeus had heard about Jesus. Something in Jesus spoke to Zacchaeus’ deepest need for freedom and peace with God. 

I believe that this yearning in me for truth and freedom is God given.

I believe and trust that the Living God meets us in Christ Jesus. I certainly don’t fully understand and certainly don’t know completely, but I experience enough love and my hope is set ablaze by that love.

I believe because in my search for truth and meaning nothing is more convincing than that this universe is not an accident of random events. I believe there is transcendence in this universe – a dynamic spirit of energy that I happily name the Living God.  I believe we humans are born for this search and will only find our true peace and vitality in seeking God. So like Zacchaeus, I want to see Jesus.

*******

Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  03/11/2019

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org

Coming Out the Other Side 27-10-2019

COMING OUT THE OTHER SIDE

Sometimes life just seems like a dark tunnel we will never get out of.   Perhaps it is a natural disaster like the bushfires raging across New South Wales at present – bushfires that could hit Victoria again this summer.   Sometimes it is more personal – the death of a loved one or a serious health scare and we feel we are never going to come out of the dark hole.   Often it is no one’s fault but our own, but it is still just as dark and there is no one else to blame.

Our reading today is from the Book of Joel which is all about a severe plague of locusts which destroys the country’s food for the next year.   Joel also takes this as an image of the disastrous things happening in other ways to the nation.   People are asking where God can be in all this, and Joel is reassuring them that God has not forgotten them, that this time will not last forever.   Sometimes all we can do is hang on and know that this time will not last forever.

Joel goes further, and tells the People that not only will God give them food and wine in plenty in the future, but God actually want to bring something better out of this bad thing that has happened.  God will send his Spirit on all people, not just prophets and priests, and these are the words that came to Peter hundreds of years later to explain what was happening on the Day of Pentecost.   That is worth holding onto.   God does not cause bad things to happen to good people, but is with us throughout the bad times and wants to bring something even better to pass if we will be open to the Spirit of God.

The Pharisee did not think he needed any help – he was sure he was a righteous person whom God would delight in.   But it was the tax collector who went home justified by God, because he acknowledged his life was a mess, all created by him and he threw himself on the mercy of God.   Whatever our disaster, whether we caused it ourselves or it just happened, if we open ourselves to God’s mercy and love, we will not only come out the other side of the dark tunnel, the Spirit of God can make something new for us and for our world.

Robert Johnson

27 October 2019 

Yearning for Justice 20-10-2019

YEARNING FOR JUSTICE

Luke 18: 1-8 Leighmoor UC

Jeremiah 31: 27-34 20 Oct 2019 

There is a deep yearning within each one of us.

Not just the yearning to love and be loved,

But I think it is connected to it.

It is the yearning deep within us for our home and our family.

Some of us have begun to doubt whether we actually have a home,

  a family, a Father who loves us.

The People of Israel were stuck in a foreign land, in Babylon,

servants of the people there.

Their home, Jerusalem had been destroyed, and their identity as the People of God smashed even as the Temple had been smashed.

But through the prophet, they were reminded again and again,

Don’t let go of that yearning 

– you do have a home, you are part of my family, says God.

Even though they were there for generations, for 70 years,

the yearning kept reminding them of who they were 

and whose they were.

Even more, God says through the prophet,

I am doing a new thing, making a new covenant.

There won’t just be stone tablets of the Law in the Temple,

for you to obey;

I will write this new covenant on your hearts

You will understand what is right and wrong

More than that, I will be in a close relationship with you,

So wherever you are, I will be there with you.

The Temple might have been destroyed, but they learned God was with them in their gatherings to worship wherever they were;

in their homes as they kept Shabat;

in their hearts as they lived what was right .

The widow in Jesus’ parable yearned for justice.

She had been wronged, and she knew it was wrong.

She had no man to stand up for her publicly, so she did it herself.

Jesus said, if that unjust judge eventually heard her pleading 

and her yearning, how much more will God listen to our yearning.

It is a yearning for home, for a place where people are loved 

and treated with fairness and more.

We talked a few weeks ago about children and justice.   

How often have you heard a child saying It’s not fair!   

It is often a very simple understanding, like whether someone else has more lollies than me, 

but the idea of fairness and justice is deep within us all.   

But what do you do when the world clearly is not fair, not just?   

Hitting and screaming may not be the best solution, but we often see adults or even countries trying this.   

Others just give up, but Jeremiah and Jesus are encouraging us never to give up, 

to keep yearning for justice, 

to always persist in prayer. 

There is a reason why we should never give up yearning for justice.   It is because God is yearning for a just world, 

a world where people treat each other with justice and compassion,

  a world where God’s love rules.   

Our God is a God who never gives up 

– never gives up on his world; never gives up on us.   

The reason we need to keep yearning for justice, 

to persist in prayer, 

is that it gives God a chance to change us, 

so that we can become part of the answer to our own prayers.

Never give up yearning for justice, that yearning comes from God.  

Especially when the vulnerable are being picked on, we join God 

in calling for them to be treated as valuable children of God.

Sometimes we wonder if God is even hearing our prayers

Remembering praying for the end of Apartheid

 – would it ever come?

East Timor …

Refugees

Later this month I will have been ordained for 50 years.

Back in 1969 I was yearning for people 

to find a living and vibrant faith in Australia.

Since then church attendances have dropped markedly

Christian faith is not the assumed position of this nation,

It is clearly secularism now.

Should I give up?   It hasn’t really worked…

I can’t get away from that yearning …

I could be at home in bed, or at a friend’s Pink Ribbon breakfast;

But I choose to come here;

because I yearn for you to find a close and stronger 

relationship with the living God.

I yearn for this congregation to discover its mission and to thrive.

Don’t give up on that yearning God gives you.

Never give up praying, 

for praying brings us into a deeper relationship with God, 

and through that we are changed, 

so that we become channels of his peace.

Blessed to be a Blessing 13-10-2019

BLESSED TO BE A BLESSING

A recent scientific study of 150,000 people over 25 years has found that our level of happiness has little to do with our genetic make-up, personality traits or childhood, and that factors such as partner’s temperament, faith, social participation, healthy habits and long-term goals are much more important.   On the other hand, the pursuit of wealth and material goods, as well as a neurotic partner, are key elements of unhappiness. They could have read the Bible and found that out for free!

The story of Jesus and the ten lepers who are healed teaches us that not only does God bless us, but that we need to bless God.  Jesus told the Samaritan who returned that his faith had made him well.  The others were blessed with physical healing, but in the act of thanking God he was made whole.   That is why we come to church – to give thanks to God for all our blessings, and when we come to church in that frame of mind, we go home blessed.   Singing praises to God is more than having a “good sing” – it links us to the source of life and joy.

When we know we are blessed and we thank God, we discover that we are called to be a blessing to others.    It gives us a purpose in life that brings a deep sense of satisfaction and joy.   In fact the Bible does not promise us happiness, but something better and deeper – joy.   God does not promise that life will be all smooth sailing – in fact the opposite; but God does promise that He will be always with us and will give us that deep joy even in the midst of adversity.

The study is right when it says that we actually have a choice about how happy we will be.   Choosing whether to be a blesser is an important start, having faith, sharing in a faith community and responding to Jesus’ call to be a blessing to others will bring life and joy.

It is the same with congregations.  If our congregation thanks and praises God and is a blessing to our community, it will be blessed and made whole.   We are blessed to be a blessing!

Robert Johnson 

13 October, 2019 – Pentecost 18 

From Little Things Big Things Grow 06-10-2019

FROM LITTLE THINGS, BIG THINGS GROW

Increase our faith, said the apostles, and so do most of us.  We all struggle with our faith, and would love to have a deeper and stronger faith.   But Jesus says it is not the amount of the faith that makes a difference; in fact only a tiny amount of faith in the living God is enough.   From that tiny faith in God, great things can happen.   It is actually not the faith that makes the difference so much as who we put our faith or our trust in.

The story Jesus goes on to tell shows that the key thing God is looking for is faithfulness, actually doing what God asks of us or calls us to do.   That is much more important than the depth of our feelings or the words we use to profess the strength of our faith.  Faith is having the trust in God to take that first step without knowing the outcome.  Faithfulness kicks in as we keep following Jesus, even when the going gets tough.

Paul writes in 2 Timothy telling Timothy that his faith first lived in his grandmother, Eunice, then his mother, Lois, and has been handed on to him. Eunice would not have dreamed when she first decided to start following Jesus that her grandson would become a leader of the church, still celebrated 2000 years later. It was the same in Russia.During the long period of Communism when churches were closed, it was the grandmothers who passed on their faith to their grandchildren in secret – now churches are being reopened and are full.

From little things big things grow.

The marvellous song From Little Things, Big Things Grow tells the story of the Gurindji aboriginal people, who in 1966 walked off the cattle station owned by Lord Vestey, who had taken over their land.  

A small protest by people who were not even citizens in their own land, against rich and powerful interests.  But they remained faithful to their vision of running their own cattle station on their own land, and eventually were granted the title to a portion of it in 1975.

What small step in faith are you being challenged to take?

From little things, big things grow.

Robert Johnson 

6 October 2019

October 2019

A Hymn, A Song, A Sermon! 08-09-2019

A Hymn, A Song, A Sermon!

Jeremiah 18: 1 – 12;  Luke 14: 25 – 33

This week’s sermon is not strictly a sermon. It’s about a hymn, a song and a few little sermons. Let’s begin with the definition of a hymn: it is a song of praise. The songs we sing in worship services are very important to us. In the first place they have a physical impact on us releasing endorphins, strengthening our immune system, forming natural anti-depressants, lowering stress levels and providing a work out. Secondly and most importantly our songs build community and our faith.  The songs we sing help us understand the reality of our faith.  When we gather for worship our songs help us reflect and reinforce our faith: in other words our songs express our thoughts and knowledge about God.  So when we are singing we are theologising. Theology doesn’t belong to the halls of learning: theology begins with our words in worship about our faith and experience of God. 

When singing during a worship service I often wonder why I need to preach when the words of the song say it better. Today we are going to sing our sermon. After each verse I will offer a brief reflection and pose a question. The song I have chosen is from Lambeth Praise, a British songbook, and it is called ‘God is here’ (No. 165). This song is what I call a modern Christian hymn composed by Fred Pratt Green (1903-2000) in the second half of the 20th Century using the concepts and expressions of the time. Let us sing the first verse while we sit or if you prefer to, stand.  

God is here! As we his people

meet  to offer praise and prayer,

may we find in fuller measure

what it is in Christ we share.

Here, as in the world around us,

all our varied skills and arts

wait the coming of His Spirit

into open minds and hearts.

It begins with a faith statement – God is here. That is what Abraham and Sarah discovered as they entered their nomadic life to which God had called them. They lived in a time when they believed their god lived in a particular time and space. However God taught Abraham and Sarah that ‘He’ was with them wherever they went.  The next sentence picks up the essence of worship – praise and prayer.  But the sentence alludes to two profound truths. Firstly, as we meet refers to the understanding that where God’s people meet to praise and worship they form the temple – that space where God is present.  Secondly, there is the truth that when we are together our Christian life finds its fuller measure.  Christianity like Judaism and I imagine Islam, does not promote individualism and independence but community. The second long sentence beginning with ‘here’ reminds us of the variety and diversity of what we bring to this community – the church.  But the experience of God is here crescendos as we wait with open minds and hearts inviting the Holy Spirit to work in our lives. That’s quite a lot of theology in that first verse, isn’t there.

What struck you while singing this verse?

Here are symbols to remind us

of our lifelong need of grace;

here are table, font and pulpit;

here the cross has central place.

Here in honesty of preaching,

here in silence, as in speech,

here, newness and renewal,

God the Spirit comes to each.

The second verse is filled with practical wisdom and reminders. The symbols in our worship centres are reminders of our lifelong need for grace. The table recalls the Last Supper that Jesus celebrated with his disciples and his directive that we celebrate this meal – the Eucharist or Holy Communion –  as a reminder that our journey together needs nourishment.  The font  speaks of the baptism that marks the beginning of our Christian life and God’s action of including us as God’s children – sisters and brothers in Christ.  We say a little more about the pulpit in a moment, but first the Cross that has central place. Although we worship the risen Lord Jesus it is nevertheless the risen Crucified Lord Jesus.  The Crucifixion is vital to our faith. Not because it means that Jesus paid the price for our sins.  I have said elsewhere that the Cross is not primarily a sacrifice offered to appease an angry God. Personally I am not sure it is about that view at all which is the view expressed in the final two older style hymns in our service today. The Cross tells us that Jesus confronted the ugly face of evil with absolute love. Jesus’ absolute love destroyed the power of evil and sin, because you can’t destroy evil with evil, only by the power of love. Jesus’ self-giving love broke Sin’s power and through acceptance of Jesus we share in His victory.  Secondly, the Cross of Jesus reminds us that self-giving love is the taproot of the Church.  We are called to love with sacrificial love and have compassion for this world. We are not called to like each other but love as Christ Jesus loved us remembering that Christ gave his life for our well-being.

The second sentence enlarges on the role of preaching. It reminds us that preaching should be done with honesty. If the preacher is to be honest – what a task – s/he may well have to tell the truth and the truth can be confronting as well as being comforting.  It is through such honest preaching  we find newness and renewal. 

How do you feel about honesty of preaching, or for that matter anything else in that verse?

Here our children find a welcome

in the Shepherd’s flock and fold.

Here, as bread and wine are taken,

Christ sustains us as of old.

Here the servants of the Servant

seek in worship to explore

what it means in daily living

to believe and to adore.

This song of Fred Pratt Green encompasses the essence of the Christian Faith.  Firstly, we are welcomed as children and form part of the Shepherd’s flock and fold.  That is what our membership means. We are God’s children, brothers and sisters, and part of Jesus’ group. As the good Shepherd would lead his sheep to still waters and green pastures so the Great Shepherd, Jesus, provides nourishing drink and bread at the table, which sustains us.

Secondly, this verse, reminds us of our role. We are servants of the Servant. How beautifully put.  We’re servants of the Servant Christ. Christ Jesus doesn’t lord it over us, he serves us and so we are to serve.  Furthermore the service we offer one another and the world is explored  and understood through our worship. Worship is important because it is where we gather to be with God and each other and seek the wisdom and nourishment that sends us out into the world. I find in Green’s words the sense that it is not my interpretation of what the world or others need, but it is the discernment of the community of Christ to explore what it means in daily living to believe and to adore.

What does this teach us about our worship services?

Lord of all, of Church and Kingdom,

In an age of change and doubt,

keep us faithful to the gospel,

help us work Your purpose out.

Here, in this day’s dedication,

all we have to give, receive:

we, who cannot live without You,

we adore You! We believe!

Finally Fred Pratt Green reminds us that our task is to pray to the Lord of all so that we may be kept faithful to the gospel and be able to understand God’s purpose.  The phrase, in an age of change and doubt, reminds of the times we have lived through and are living through in the past fifty years. This phrase more obviously than any other in this song tells us that we are in the 20th Century entering the 21st Century.  We have lived and are now living through one of the most rapid and dramatic periods of change this planet has possibly ever experienced. We older ones hearing/reading this sermon will have memories of the horse drawn cart and certainly know that in our time travelling to another continent meant a long journey by sea. Now the horse is reserved mainly for recreation, sea travel is mainly about holiday cruising, and we fly to far away places. A hundred years ago that would have been absurd. We are now possibly at the dawn of space travel and we hold the world of knowledge and communication in the palm of our hand with our phones. (Show iPhone)  Needless to say that in this day and age all this change begs the question – what are God’s purposes? We can’t simply go back to the old expressions of mission! And with the enormous changes we are witnessing comes uncertainty.

The song concludes with an affirmation of faith and a dedication of ourselves to God and each other. We are reminded that we cannot live without God who is in Christ Jesus, and our living is about giving and receiving grace. So although we may be beset by uncertainty and doubts we go about our daily business giving and receiving love.

*******

Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  08/09/2019

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org

Life’s Winters become Summers 01-09-2019

Life’s Winters become Summers.

Jeremiah 1: 1 – 10;  Luke 14: 1, 7 – 14

I was annoyed that an injury had interrupted my fitness programme. I could not run. I had injured my right foot’s 1st large metatarsal. In fact the injury had persisted for weeks and I was limited in how far I could walk. Running and walking was not possible in spite of the expensive shoes recommended by the podiatrist. One week my cousin recommended the gymnasium to me. I used to do a lot of gym work so I tried it out. Well, how pleased I am.  My fitness level is way above what it was before. The injury that had set me back eventually pointed me to a different fitness programme and I am much better for it. If I hadn’t had the injury I would still be plodding along with the old programme. By the way my metatarsal is slowly recovering too.

It is interesting how a loss of one thing can lead to finding something better.  It just takes time, some persistence and a little bit of hope and faith. I have found that a sickness that sends one bed for a day or two can become an opportunity for reflection. One hears stories of people who have faced major illness and through their persistence, hope and faith have come to a better place, or at least a new place that also brings wholeness to one’s life.

A gardener understands that all too well.  The winter downtime accompanied by rigorous pruning leads to new and vital growth in the spring. Without the rigorous pruning and the apparently deathless sleep of winter most plants would not be flourish.

There are spiritual lessons for us in these personal and natural events of life. Yes, sometimes the sickness and loss last longer than nature’s winter sleep and are far more painful than an annual pruning.   However these downtimes can become times for reflection and renewal. Our lives can be turned around for the better in spite of the physical and emotional scars we carry. All is never lost. I do not want to make light of our sufferings and deprivations, but I do believe that these hard times can become opportunities for something new and meaningful. I believe this especially so as a Christian. The Holy Spirit not only comforts us but also guides us to a new future. The sermon could end here. That’s it.  But let us look at a big story of disaster and suffering recorded in the Bible and what came out of it. 

We begin with Jeremiah, the prophet, who lived through the reigns of three kings, a catastrophic national disaster and great personal suffering. The book of Jeremiah is filled with personal reflections that reveal the tough nature of his calling. We tend to read Jeremiah’s call and focus on the call and the fact that he tried to escape the calling by pointing out to God that he was not a very good communicator.  Well, he should have known better because Moses, Gideon, this preacher and many others had tried that line with God. It doesn’t work. God just says, ‘I’ll get you over that hurdle, don’t worry’. I’m not going there in this sermon. Instead I felt led to concentrate on the content of his mission.  God called Jeremiah and said to him that his job will be to uproot, pull down, destroy and overthrow nations and kingdoms, and then to build and to plant [Jer 1:10].  Phew!  What a task?  To accomplish this mission Jeremiah would have to confront, challenge and bring a message of disaster. He had to tell the king and people that the nation would lose its independence, its sovereignty and king. Worst of all Jerusalem’s magnificent Temple would be destroyed. 

Jeremiah obeyed God and not surprisingly he was very unpopular. Very few accepted his message. The rest stubbornly held on to the belief that when God blessed King David there would always be a king of David’s line, and the city and temple would always be there. The Covenant God made with Moses at Mt Sinai stated that God would provide for the people and that the people in return would faithfully follow God’s laws, which were the laws of love.  That is, love God and love one another. That was covenantal agreement. Jeremiah pointed out that if the people disobeyed God and trusted in themselves they would stumble and suffer. Prophets like Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel and others pointed out that what was essential to being a loyal follower of God was to love God and be just, faithful and honest in dealing with each other as well as any strangers in the community. But this wasn’t the case. The people paid lip service to God in worship and carried on with their selfish pursuits.

So the people were going through the motions of faithfulness but were not sincere. They had been warned that God would punish them.  All this was happening in times of political unsettledness.  As you listen to the political situation you may have a déjà vu experience. There were two great superpowers, Babylon and Egypt, which were vying for dominance.  I guess the bottom line was either trade or the control of land or both.  There was Assyria, which morphed into Babylon, competing against Egypt for influence and control in the Middle East. Judaea and Israel were small nations at this time. They tried to manipulate the politics.  They put their trust in political alliances and in the naïve belief that God would never let the Davidic kingly line disappear, or destroy the Temple and city, no matter what happened.  First Israel was conquered and the capital Samaria fell to the Assyrians, then the Babylonians took over from Assyria.  Judah, with its capital Jerusalem, managed to maintain some independence for a while. Unfortunately their king, Hezekiah, tried to cuddle up to Egypt but it didn’t work. Egypt failed to deliver what was promised.   Throughout all these political manoeuvrings Jeremiah ministered. He tried to get the king and the people to focus on God’s laws. But the people and king trusted more their political manoeuvrings and stubbornly resisted the Babylonian empire.  

The people’s unfaithfulness resulted in the devastation of Jerusalem.  First the negatives.

Jeremiah was persecuted and attempts were made on his life. He was not liked at all.

Jerusalem was raised to the ground. The city walls and its defences were destroyed and the army over powered.

The Temple was pillaged and destroyed.

The leaders and the bulk of the people of Jerusalem, who became known as the Jews, were dragged off to Babylon.

Jeremiah opted to stay, but some supporters grabbed him and dragged him off to Egypt where he later died.

The positives were: –

As soon as it was clear that Jerusalem would be sacked he began speaking about the saving work of God and that God would restore Jerusalem.  He actually went and bought property at the time of the sacking to show his faith in God’s compassion for the Jews.  

The other thing Jeremiah and the other prophets did was to give a helpful interpretation of what was happening. They said that the city’s and the temple’s destruction did not mean God was weak and non-existent but that God was punishing them for their sin and faithlessness. This served to help them understand that God hadn’t been destroyed but that God was allowing this to happen in order to help the people become the people of God.  All was not lost.

One of the amazing outcomes of this national disaster was what emerged from the ruins of national disaster and the labour camps in Babylon.  Jeremiah’s mission to pull down and rebuild, to destroy and plant led to the establishment of the ‘synagogue’.  What the Synagogue meant was that God didn’t need a temple where God was present. The people’s perception of God being tied to a place and space called a temple was set aside and was replaced with the understanding that God was present wherever a few of the faithful met in prayer and reflection.  The Synagogue system was God’s way of keeping the people together for both the present and the future.  The synagogue made the faith portable. So wherever Jews moved to they would establish a synagogue, which was a group of faithful men and their families worshipping together.  They no longer needed a special building.

We may find this hard to grasp because we live with the understanding that God is ever with us. But in Jeremiah’s world – really throughout the whole world at that time – religions were centred on temples. The temple was where the god met with the people. That is a sociological fact of the times. What happened to the Jews was revolutionary. Everyone else looking at them would say, no king, no city no temple equals no god. Your god is dead. It’s all over. The prophets like Jeremiah and his compatriots at the time, reminded them of the faith of their fathers expressed in the lives of Abraham and Sarah. They left their home when God called them.  What they discovered was that God was with them wherever they went. Although the sons and daughters of Abraham and Sarah knew this they had put that experience aside and become like the nations, having a king and a temple. In their case Solomon’s temple was outstanding. Eventually the Jews’ national disaster revolutionised their worship and equipped them to be the faithful people of God at all times and in all places. 

The message for us today I believe is this: we are going through hard times as a local church, more so as a denomination. God is doing something new. God wants us to move in new directions. I am not sure what those new directions will be, but what is important is being prepared for the changes to come. No matter what happens God’s faithfulness to us will not end.

******

Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  01/09/2019

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org

Freedom and Service 25-08-2019

Freedom & Service

Luke 13: 10 – 13;  John 8: 31 – 47; Galatians 5: 1, 13 – 15

Have you been set free? Do you want freedom? What’s it look like?

Woman, you are free from your illness!” [Lk 13: 12(GN)]  shouted Jesus to a woman who had entered the synagogue. She had been bent over for 18 years.  That would have been an amazing experience for that woman! Just imagine being set free from something that had bound you for 18 years.  One thing we all long for is freedom, whether it is freedom from physical or mental pain, or the pain of rejection or the pain of shame. Last week I spoke about how unforgive-ness imprisons both the victim and the perpetrator, and how forgiveness sets the victim and perpetrator free. The things that enslave us can be physical, mental, psychological, social and political.  The desire for freedom in the human spirit is so imbedded that it begs the question as to why we are not free, but we are not.  

Jesus says in John’s Gospel that the truth will set us free [Jn 8:32]. Jesus teaches that his freedom is grounded in his teaching and practice.  Secondly, Jesus understands that humanity is enslaved or imprisoned by sin [Jn 8:34]. Jesus is talking about the condition of being sinful not sinful acts.  The essence of sinfulness is that our minds are focussed elsewhere. Our chief focus tends to be on ourselves, and that inevitably comes at the cost of others. The Greek word used means ‘missing the mark’.  I find that helpful. What we are focussing on is missing the mark. The true mark is Jesus.  The false marks concern our interests. It is a matter of getting our deep life-shaping-priorities right.  We want to exercise our rights and independence. But when all is said and done we find ourselves slaves to something. In reality we are never entirely independent of anything or anyone.

Freedom is a very big subject.  We commonly think of freedom as liberty, independence, and latitude to do and say what we like. All I can do today is provide a Christian and Biblical picture of what the first Christians understood and secondly how we might become truly free.  I pray that you might discern in this sermon God’s will for you.

Let us start with a word picture of the first Christians way of life and what it looked like. The first followers of Jesus, like Jesus, were Jews with a view on life.  They believed that God would send the Messiah / the Christ to set the Jewish people free, restore the Temple and gather the twelve tribes. [Christ is the Greek word for the Hebrew word Messiah.] There is no doubt that this is how they perceived Jesus. Jesus gave them hope and inspiration. But as the events unfolded their idyllic picture of the Christ began to fracture. Jesus’ crucifixion was not expected. The Christ was not meant to be crucified. Actually Jesus’ crucifixion was the absolute opposite of what was anticipated. Then came the Resurrection, which was followed by an out-pouring of the Spirit at Pentecost. The inspiring and empowering experience of Pentecost was followed by persecution, which led to their dispersion. They left Jerusalem and found refuge in other towns and cities. But they took their persecution and rejection as a badge of honour, because they believed they were the followers of God’s Messiah/Christ. When they were told to be silent they found the freedom to say ‘no’ to the Jewish leaders.  They would not and did not remain silent.  Instead the Spirit gave them the boldness to proclaim Christ Jesus more fervently [Acts 4: 20,31]. Secondly, when the Gentiles began to follow Christ Jesus the first Jewish followers found the freedom to loosen their ties to the traditional Jewish expectations of what was to happen.  They no longer held to the view that the Temple would be restored.  Nor did they dwell on the traditional belief that the 12 tribes would be brought together.  They began to see that God was doing something different. God was building a new temple, but the stones of that temple were the hearts and minds of his followers.  They began to see that the Gentiles sharing in the blessing of Christ Jesus and the Holy Spirit meant that God was gathering in the Gentiles, not merely the 12 tribes of Israel.  This meant that it was not Judea or ancient Israel that would be reclaimed, but rather the world was to be claimed for God in Christ Jesus. They understood that the mission of God encompassed the Roman Empire. The result of this was a radical freedom to preach the Gospel in face of rejection and at times deliberate and violent persecution. King Jesus set them free to serve the Kingdom of God.

Freedom was one of the marks of the first Christians. They were unfettered by fear of the authorities. They were untrammelled by meaningless tradition. They were unconstrained by small visions.  So it is not surprising to read Paul’s letter to the Galatians – Freedom is what we have – Christ has set us free. Stand, then, as free people … do not become slaves again [Gal 5:1]. Paul goes on to speak of the calling to be free.  This statement begs the following questions.  What are we set free from? What are we set free for? 

In the first place we are set free from the power of sin. In the ancient world sin would have clearly included being controlled by the demonic powers of evil. We westerners don’t think like that.  However we cannot deny that our bad behaviour becomes bigger than us and like demonic power controls us. We find ourselves caught up in genocidal programmes, industrial slavery and prejudicial fears that systematically hurt and destroy people.  Christ Jesus sets us free from such powers. 

Secondly, we are set free from self.  Paul and others make it clear that the freedom we have is not about doing just what we want to do.  It is not about indulging ourselves [Gal 5:13]. We should never confuse licence to do what we like with true freedom. Christian freedom, true freedom, is doing something worthwhile.  In looking to Jesus we lose sight of the self. Jesus steers our lives not our egos.

Thirdly, we are set free from traditions that stifle and control us. In Galatia the Christians were being pressured to follow Jewish laws that were seen to be unnecessary and unhelpful. This problem emerged in a number of places in the Church. It is not surprising that this enslavement to traditions continues to lie in the shadows of our lives. Reading through Scripture we get the picture that some wanted new Christians to comply with the old traditions, in particular circumcision. This would have impeded the growth of the Church.  Today the church struggles with the pull of social conventions and traditional practices.  Such conventions may be as innocuous as the way we sing our praises, or the way we worship, or the best time to worship, or the way we dress, or the way we use our buildings. 

Those first Christians experienced a freedom to be what Christ wanted them to be. As I have already said, they went into the world and spoke boldly about Christ Jesus.  If we are being set free from sin, traditions and ourselves what are we set free for?  Here we come to the heart of the matter. We are set free to serve. Paul speaks about becoming ‘slaves to one another’ [Gal 5:13].  Jesus sets us free to preach the Good News. Jesus says, ‘Follow me’; I am the truth, the way and the life [Jn 14:6].  In following Jesus we will see that Jesus looked to God and then looked to earth and humanity. Then Jesus acted. He served humankind.  His service was the love that wanted the best for all. He stood against untruth and evil to the point of surrendering his life;  in that he demonstrated a power over evil and untruth. Jesus’ Cross was Jesus’ Crown. Jesus crown was made of thorns of pure gold.  When Jesus’ disciples wanted to save Jesus from the Roman and Jewish authorities he told them he had come to give his life as a ransom for many [Mk 10:45].  When Jesus commends the faithful and watchful servants he implies that when he comes and finds his servants faithful and watchful he will take off his coat and serve them [Lk 12: 37]. Yes, Jesus keeps his focus by serving others.

I want to suggest that we will find a freedom in such action. I understand service to free us from our self-interests.  Self-interest is the first devilish master or mistress we have.  The by-products of service are freedom for us and empowerment for others.  Compassionate service opens the door to freedom for all. Service is the best way of preserving our freedom and independence. 

Hans Denk said; God forces no one, for love cannot compel, and God’s service, therefore, is a thing of perfect freedom.

Maybe another way of looking at the Freedom Christ offers us lies in the Revd. Martin Luther King’s words; “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, what are you doing for others?

*******

Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC:  25/08/2019

pcwhitaker@icloud.com

 / www.leighmoorunitingchurch.org