Sermon: Trinity Sunday

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Trinity Sunday, 4th of June 2023

Genesis 1:1-2:4a
Matthew 28:16-20

Once again the church year has reached Trinity Sunday, the one Sunday that is named not after an event, Easter, Pentecost, the Baptism of Jesus, but after a doctrine. It is important to begin this Reflection by saying that anything I say today about the Trinity will be a heresy. Our human minds cannot understand, cannot encompass, and most definitely cannot explain, God. The Trinity is one of those aspects of God that we are never going to comprehend. We believe in One God who is also Three, which is why over the centuries people have mocked Christians as worshipping multiple gods. It sounds as though we do not know our own minds, or as though we are trying to do some weird mathematics. I tend to think of the doctrine of the Trinity as something like the square root of a negative number. The doctrine of the Trinity is impossible, and yet Christians believe it. Continue reading

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Sermon: No longer hiding

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Pentecost, 28th of May 2023

John 20:19-23

‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ We must not live our Christian lives behind closed doors. Faith is not something to express in private; it is something to be lived out in public. Pentecost is the anniversary of the Holy Spirit pushing the disciples out from behind a locked door, down from an upper room, and into the world. Pentecost is the birthday of the church because it celebrates the day that the Jesus movement went public. Continue reading

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Sermon: We have not been left alone

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
The Seventh Sunday of Easter, 21st of May 2023

John 17:1-11
Acts 1:6-14

It is late in the evening. The meal is long over. Earlier, as the meal ended, Jesus knelt and washed his disciples’ feet. He then began to prepare them for life without him. He gave them the new commandment, that they love one another. He prepared them for the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth. He shared with them the oneness of the Father and the Son. And he spoke of his betrayal and death.

Now, he turns from the disciples to his Father. The disciples become involuntary eavesdroppers on a prayer of communion, on an intimate meeting between the Father and the Son. But because they are listening, this prayer of communion is also a prayer of revelation. In this prayer, the theological heart of the Gospel of John is revealed. Continue reading

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Sermon: With gentleness and reverence

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
The Sixth Sunday of Easter, 14th of May 2023

Acts 17:22-31

In these last few weeks following Easter the Book of Acts has drawn our attention to a series of sermons. Two weeks ago, we were shown the aftermath of Peter’s sermon at Pentecost; three thousand people were converted, and then baptised, after which they shared all things in common. (Acts 2:42-47) In case that made us feel inadequate, last week we saw that Stephen’s sermon preached to the Jewish Council ended with him being dragged out and stoned. You might remember that those doing the stoning ‘laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul’. (Acts 7:58) This week we have a third, and hugely different, sermon by the preacher who had once been that ‘young man named Saul’: the Apostle Paul. Paul has a reputation as something of a theological hard-liner, but here we see him speaking to the Athenians ‘with gentleness and reverence’. (1 Peter 3:16) Continue reading

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Sermon: In death and life

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Easter 5, 7th of May, 2023

Acts 7:55-60
John 14:1-14

A few years ago I drafted the statement on funerals for the Uniting Church’s Doctrine Working Group. It begins, ‘Everyone dies. It is one of the great truths of life – it comes to an end’. Today’s Bible readings are about two deaths, one as inevitable as our own, the other completely voluntary. In the reading from the Book of Acts Stephen, the first Christian martyr, is killed. In the reading from the Gospel according to John we hear Jesus comforting his friends after telling them that, despite being the Word that is with God, and the Word that is God, he too is going to die. Our own deaths and the deaths of all those we love are inevitable, but these two stories remind us that as Christians we do not approach death without hope. Continue reading

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Zadok the Priest

This was how this Sunday’s sermon was going to start, but by the time I’d finished the sermon it no longer fit. So, have it as some random musings.

I spent way too much time this week trying to find out where the line, ‘May The King live forever’ in yesterday’s coronation swearing of allegiance came from. If you participated in the ‘homage of the people,’ which replaced the previous ‘homage of the peers,’ you were invited to respond to the Archbishop of Canterbury saying, ‘God save The King’ by replying, ‘God save King Charles. Long live King Charles. May The King live for ever.’ ‘May the king live forever’ struck me as a strange thing to say, so I took a deep dive into whence that line came. Continue reading

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Sermon: Life in abundance

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Easter 4, 30th of April, 2023

Acts 2:42-47
Psalm 23
John 10:1-10

‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.’

The division of the Bible into chapters and lectionary readings does us a disservice today, because our gospel reading is the third act of a three-act drama. We saw the first two acts on the fourth Sunday of Lent. In Act One, a man born blind was miraculously healed by Jesus, who thus completed the creation that had been left incomplete at his birth. Act Two was the response of various groups of people to this healing. His neighbours were unsure whether he was the same man; his parents came close to disowning him; and the Pharisees at first tried to convince the man to describe Jesus as a sinner and then, when he refused to do so, drove him out of the community. Jesus then sought him out, introduced himself as the Son of Man, and the man born blind worshipped him. That second act ended with Jesus saying:

‘I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’ Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.’ (John 9:1-41)

Now, we are in Act Three, in which Jesus tries to explain what has just happened. Continue reading

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Sermon: On not being terrified of eating and drinking with Jesus

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Easter 3, 23 April 2023

Luke 24:13-35

You may have noticed that I read a lot of books. A six-year-old neighbour popped their head into my flat this week and was stunned by the sheer number of books I own. Among the stranger books that I enjoy reading are novels by a nineteenth-century anti-feminist English author, Charlotte M. Yonge. Miss Yonge is one of the most bigoted religious authors I have ever read; apparently for her the only true Church was the Church of England; to her Catholics and ‘Dissenters,’ Methodists and Congregationalists among others, were equally misguided. Despite this, I find reading her family stories relaxing, and I have just finished one that was first published in 1854 titled The Castle Builders, or, The Deferred Confirmation. It begins with two sixteen- and seventeen-year-old girls who have been approved as ready for Confirmation. But they are terrified of it, because when they are confirmed they will become eligible to receive Communion. As the younger says:

The priest “said if we were fit for Confirmation we were fit for the Sacrament,” said Kate; “but I can’t quite see how that can be. We promised all these things by our Godfathers and Godmothers, and are bound to do them now, so it does not seem so much to promise them for ourselves; but the other – it is a great deal too awful!”[1]

For almost 300 pages the two continue to avoid their Confirmation until it takes place on the book’s second-last page, and the second-last paragraph of the book says:

Sunday is come, and again Emmeline and Katherine kneel on that step, and now it is beside their sister, while their brother and uncle admit them to the partaking of that Meat and Drink indeed, which can preserve their souls to everlasting life.[2]

Miss Yonge has written an entire and entertaining book out of two teenagers being afraid of participating in the Eucharist. I would find that more amusing if my heritage were not Scottish Presbyterian, and I had not heard from my grandmother about Elders visiting church members to determine whether they were worthy to participate in the quarterly Communion, and giving them tokens to indicate their eligibility.

Black and white photo of the head and neck of a white woman looking towards the left of the viewer in an oval frame.

Charlotte M. Yonge

Continue reading

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Sermon: Where, O death, is now your sting?

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Easter Sunday, the 9th of April, 2023

Matthew 28:1-10.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

I want to introduce you to what may be a new word, although I did use it in last year’s Easter Reflection: the word ‘eucatastrophe’. You will know of ‘catastrophe,’ which comes from the Greek words for ‘down’ and ‘turning’ and means great and usually sudden damage or suffering. Today’s new word, eucatastrophe, adds the Greek word for good or well to the beginning, the same Greek word we hear in eulogy – the good words we speak when someone has died. The word eucatastrophe was created by the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien. Writing about fairy tales, Tolkien said that all of them include a eucatastrophe, a good catastrophe, the sudden joy that comes amid despair, the moment of unexpected deliverance. The reason, Tolkien argued, that fantasy writers like him were able to offer their readers the Consolation of the Happy Ending is because the Creator had already given it to us:

The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy … There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits.[1]

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Sermon: Our Only King

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
‘Palm’ Sunday, 2nd of April, 2023

Matthew 21:1-17

‘Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’

Here we are at Palm Sunday. Jesus enters Jerusalem to choruses of praise and a crowd going wild. Rather than entering as most pilgrims do, on foot, Jesus enters riding a donkey. The people cut down branches and place them before him, spreading their cloaks on the road, as the people of Israel have traditionally acclaimed their kings. They greet him as the Son of David and the one who comes in the name of the Lord. They shout ‘Hosanna’, a special offering of respect to the one who saves. The people welcome Jesus with euphoria as a prophet and king. Continue reading

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