Reflection for the 44th anniversary of the creation of the Uniting Church

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Anticipating the 44th anniversary of the Uniting Church, 22nd of June, 2021

Note: This is a longer version of the Reflection. The spoken version given on Sunday morning is shorter.

You may have seen in the news last week that the Anglican Church of Australia has released a report into domestic abuse and the church. The National Anglican Family Violence Research Report, conducted by researchers from Charles Sturt University, found that members of the Anglican Church were more likely to have experienced domestic violence than the general community, and that 88% of those who did experience domestic violence did not seek help from their church. Horrifyingly the report found that “Christian teachings sometimes contribute to and potentially amplify situations of domestic violence”.

I would like to think that the situation in the Uniting Church is better, although we do not have any data on it. We know that the situation in many of our partner churches in the Pacific is much worse. One of UnitingWorld’s projects is ‘gender equality’ because, as UnitingWorld says, 95% of people across the Pacific identify as Christian and Christian teachings have a massive influence on people’s behaviour but around 68% of women and girls experience violence in their homes and communities. The reason I feel that I can hope that there is less family violence among Uniting Church members than there is among Anglicans is that the researchers from Charles Sturt University found that church teachings on equality, mercy and love could help empower victims. The Uniting Church has taught gender equality from before there even was a Uniting Church. Continue reading

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Sermon: Introducing David, episode two of the soap opera

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
The third Sunday of Pentecost, 13th of June, 2021

1 Samuel 15:34 – 16:13

Welcome to episode two of the soap opera that is the life of King David. And welcome to a very mixed up and confused Biblical story! Last week I talked about the contradictions in God’s calling of Saul to be king; that kingship seemed to be both a bad thing, a rejection of God as leader of the people of God (1 Samuel 8:7) and a gift from God to save God’s people from the hand of the Philistines. (1 Samuel 9:16) Now, with the arrival on the scene of David, the story becomes even more complicated because there are at least two, possibly three, contradictory stories of how David becomes a candidate for Israel’s kingship. Continue reading

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Sermon: Some mental exercise for lockdown

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
6th of June 2021

1 Samuel 8:4-11 16-20

Here we are again: our second Sunday in our fourth lockdown. When I prepared this Reflection we had been in lockdown for less than a week, and yet I found it hard to concentrate on what I was doing. I think that for those of us who lived through the exceedingly long Melbourne lockdown last year any additional lockdowns, no matter how short, throw us immediately back into the anxiety and exhaustion we felt then. This fourth lookdown started at midnight last Thursday; by Friday morning I was already eating chocolate for breakfast and staying in my pyjamas until eleven. If you are feeling like me, anxious and exhausted beyond reason, I hope that this service comforts you. And what I am going to offer you in this Reflection is something that comforts me. I am going to offer you a biblical problem to chew over.

Continue reading
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Sermon: As we go into lockdown again, God is with us.

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Trinity Sunday, 30th of May, 2021

Isaiah 6:1-8
John 3:1-17

Here we are again, Melbourne’s fourth covid19 lockdown. Let us hope that this will be another short one, acting as the ‘circuit breaker’ that we need. We all know that we can do this; we have done it before; but as people started being vaccinated, I know that we had hoped never to have to do it again. Please keep each other in mind and heart and continue to pray for each other over this week.

This Sunday we are celebrating the Trinity. Today we celebrate explicitly what is implicit every time we gather for worship: that the God we worship is not an isolated individual, but a God who in God’s very self is a community of love. Continue reading

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Sermon: The radical roots of the Church at Pentecost

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Pentecost, 23rd of May, 2021

Acts 2:1-21

This week, as I thought about Pentecost and the church’s celebration of the gift of the Holy Spirit, I was struck by two stories in the news. Neither of them is about Pentecost, Christianity, or the church, one of them was about another religion altogether, but both spoke to me about what it is we celebrate today, and from what it is that we are turning away. Continue reading

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Sermon: Don’t stand looking for Jesus in the sky

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Feast of the Ascension, 16th of May, 2021

Acts 1:1-11
Luke 24:44-53

We often ignore the Feast of the Ascension, hovering as it does between Easter and Pentecost in the same way that Jesus’ feet hover at the top of Ascension paintings. When the Gospels and the Book of Acts were written people lived in a three-tiered universe. Heaven was up; Sheol, the realm of the dead, was down; and there was no difficulty in imagining Jesus reaching heaven by rising upwards. We no longer live in that universe, and for us the description of Jesus being ‘lifted up’ can lead to mental images of Jesus taking off through and beyond the earth’s atmosphere into outer space, although as one of the biblical commentators I read this week reminds us: ‘We do not, as a matter of fact, believe that Jesus ended his earthly ministry with the equivalent of a rocket launch, rising a few hundred miles above the earth. Nor do we think Jesus was the first to be “beamed up,” to use the term made so familiar by the television series Star Trek.[1]

But we cannot ignore the Ascension. It is so important a part of the story of Jesus that it has a clause in the Apostles’ Creed. One of the things that the church believes about Jesus is that ‘he ascended into heaven’. So what is it that we are saying we believe in when we recite the Creed? Continue reading

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Sermon: In which Avril rabbits on about love yet again, because it IS all about love

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
The Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 9th, 2021

1 John 5:1-6
John 15:9-17

The First Letter of John is like a diamond. The Elder turns agape love round and around to allow different angles of light to flash upon it. God is love; love is from God; God loves us; we are to love each other; we can love because God first loved us; no one can love God without loving their brother and sister; we show our love for God by loving our brothers and sisters. The Elder rotates the diamond, and the different facets of love shine in the light. In today’s reading another one is illuminated.

Last week we heard the Elder say that ‘The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also’. In today’s reading the direction of ‘love’ and ‘God’ and ‘commandment’ is reversed. Not only will we be seen to love God by loving our brothers and sisters. Not only can we fulfil the commandments by loving others. The relationship also goes the other way. We will be seen to love our brothers and sisters by loving God, and we love God by obeying God’s commandments. The three: love of God; love of other people; love as commandment, are intertwined. One element does not, cannot, exist without the other two. Continue reading

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Sermon: Christianity means something (liberation and love)

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
The fifth Sunday of Easter, May 2nd, 2021

1 John 4:7–21
John 15:1–8

The Johannine community had a problem. In his ‘Farewell Discourse’, Jesus had told his disciples that revelation would not end with his death. According to John, Jesus promised them that, ‘the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you’. (John 14:26) And the Holy Spirit would not merely remind the disciples of what Jesus had said to them, the Holy Spirit would go further. As Jesus told them, ‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come’. (John 16:12-23) As the hymn says, ‘the Lord has yet more light and truth to break forth from his word’. (TIS 453 ‘We limit not the truth of God’)

So far, so good. The difficulty, one that churches have been facing for two thousand years now, is in discerning when new teachings truly came from the Holy Spirit and when instead they come from what the Apostle Paul called ‘the spirit of the world’. (1 Corinthians 2:12) This seems to have been the trouble in the Johannine community. Reading between the lines of the First Letter of John, some members of the community seem to have been claiming to have greater knowledge than the rest. They appear to have argued that they had received a new teaching: one that said that only the spiritual was real and that the material was irrelevant. The Son of God had not truly come in the flesh, they said. The divine Saviour had come from heaven only spiritually and had then merely pretended to take on flesh. And because the material world is unimportant, it does not matter how people live in this so-called ‘real’ world. No deed done in such a world can be sinful, and supplying the material needs of other people is irrelevant. Only the spiritual is important. Continue reading

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Reflection for ANZAC Day

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church

ANZAC Day, 25th of April, 2021

On the 25th of April, 1915, one hundred and six years ago today, Australian, New Zealand, British, and French servicemen landed at the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey. Russia, which was under attack by Turkey, had called for help from its allies, and it was also thought that attacking Turkey would protect Egypt and the Suez Canal. In November 1915 one young woman, writing to her soldier fiancé who was overseas, said: ‘Things about the Dardanelles are coming out now and it is openly acknowledged a failure. And the details of the failure are appalling.’[1] In December 1915 the invading forces withdrew. About 120,000 men had died: more than 80,000 Turkish soldiers; some 8700 Australians; and approximately 2700 New Zealanders. Controversy has raged ever since over whether the soldiers were landed in the right place and whether the invasion at Gallipoli ever had a chance. One thing is certain, whatever it is we are remembering today we are not celebrating a military victory.

This is not a sermon; it is instead a little bit of history and few thoughts about the churches’ role in making war and peace. I have never felt qualified to preach at ANZAC Day services, never having experienced war first-hand. I am also too aware of the role the churches played in the enthusiasm for war a century ago to be confident about adding in my own two-cents’ worth. When World War One was declared clergy preached in favour of it because they believed that a military victory that would lead to spiritual renewal. The Anglican minister at Bright, here in Victoria, declared that: ‘We are British first, and Australian second … Let us then offer the best of our manhood and let us speak with our pocket in helping the Empire in its time of need.’[2] Christian enthusiasm continued even after the number of casualties from the debacle at Gallipoli began to be known; in late June 1915 the Australian Baptist newspaper ran an editorial encouraging the physically fit ‘to present themselves, a willing sacrifice on the altar of their Empire’s needs’.[3]

The most frightening example of Christian aggression in the English-speaking world came from the Anglican Bishop of London, Arthur F. Winnington-Ingram. In a sermon preached in 1915 the bishop urged the British to ‘kill Germans – do kill them; not for the sake of killing, but to save the world, to kill the good as well as the bad, to kill the young as well as the old, to kill those who have shown kindness to our wounded as well as those fiends’.[4] There are similar examples from every nation involved in World War One. Churches saw World War One as a holy war, a new crusade.[5] When I first discovered this it puzzled me; how could churches encourage the Christians in their own country to kill and be killed by Christians in other countries? Christians have of course always been divided between those who believe that following Jesus demands absolute pacifism, which is the belief of the Quakers and other historic peace churches, and those who believe that there are times when going to war is the least worst option. But I had not thought that any Christian leader would be enthusiastic about sending people to war. The attitude of the then Pope, Benedict XV, who tried to make peace between the First World War’s combatants, made much more sense to me.

One historian, Philip Jenkins, suggests that clergy were enthusiastic about the First World War because in 1914 each country had a national church: the Church of England; the Russian Orthodox Church; the Lutheran Church. Even supposedly secular France had a special commitment to the Catholic Church. The nationalisation of churches allowed Christians to see the members of other churches as national enemies rather than fellow believers.

Australia, of course, has never had a national church. The only mention of religion in our Constitution prevents the establishment of one.[6] But Australia was part of the British Empire, the soldiers who invaded Gallipoli were part of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF). There may not have been a Church of Australia as there was a Church of England, but the same connection between church and state was felt by Australians. And so clergymen were able to find religious justifications for war based on the historic differences between national churches. In late 1914 the Melbourne Church of England newspaper condemned Germans as ferocious and among the reasons it gave for this ferocity was that: ‘To some extent Germans are influenced by Martin Luther, whose lack of Christian meekness was shown in his brutal treatment of [the Reformer Ulrich] Zwingli … in 1529’.[7]

So World War One echoed the religious wars of the Reformation. In a 1915 French play, Christmas Eve, 1914, a Catholic French soldier says: ‘It’s not a saint or a bishop, it’s Our Lady herself, it’s the Mother of God-made-Man for us, who endures the violence and the fire … she’s the one who stands as the rampart and the flag against Black Luther’s dark hordes’.[8] For their part, Germans were appalled that England allowed ‘heathen Asiatics’ Hindus and Muslims from India, to fight against ‘the people of the Reformation’,[9] although that was forgotten when Germany allied with the Ottoman Empire.

Because ANZAC Day commemorates a battle from World War One I have been talking about the attitudes of the churches in that war. After that war finished nothing was ever quite the same. As people became disillusioned with the enthusiasm for war in its aftermath, they also became disillusioned with the churches that had urged men to fight. But the temptation to see church and state as intrinsically linked, and so for churches to justify the violence of the state, remained. In 1962, Martin Luther King Jr preached:

In a world gone mad with arms buildups, chauvinistic passions, and imperialistic exploitation, the church has either endorsed these activities or remained appallingly silent. During the last two world wars, national churches even functioned as the ready lackeys of the state, sprinkling holy water upon the battleships and joining the mighty armies in singing, “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.” A weary world, pleading desperately for peace, has often found the church morally sanctioning war.

Martin Luther King Jr, A Gift of Love, Penguin Classics, 2017, p. 63.

King said that in 1962, and we cannot pretend that it does not still happen. In 1994 Rwandan churches justified the genocide and clergy participated in the violence.[10] Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf writes of Christian and cultural commitments merging until they ‘transmute what is in fact a murder into an act of piety,’ which he says is why Serbian fighters were able to see themselves as ‘the Christian faith’s valiant defenders’ in their war against Muslims in the former Yugoslavia, a war which included the genocide at Srebrenica in 1995.[11] We might be horrified at the Anglican Bishop of London urging the British in 1915 to ‘kill Germans – do kill them,’ but his heirs continue to preach.

I know that this Reflection has been gloomy, and obviously a Reflection given on ANZAC Day is never going to be particularly cheerful. But German theologian and pastor Andrea Lange writes that ‘a peace church should be a community of memories and a community in which stories are told that strengthen hope’.[12] I have spoken of some of the churches’ difficult memories; I want to end with a story to strengthen hope. It was told by a British Conscientious Objector, Thomas ‘Corder’ Catchpool, who had been imprisoned for his refusal to fight in World War One. On the afternoon of the Armistice, 11th of November 1918, he and some of the other Conscientious Objectors were in the exercise yard in their English prison. He wrote:

An airman suddenly swooped down from 3,000 feet and skimmed over our heads, waving a black arm and an oily rag. I was deeply touched by this little incident. I took it as peace overtures from the Army to us – a message of goodwill for the future, bygones bygones, all recrimination and misunderstanding, all heart-burnings over, wiped out by that kind, dirty bit of cloth.

Quoted in Adam Hochschild, To End All Wars: A Story of Protest and Patriotism in the First World War, London: Pan Books, 2011, p. 342.

Today we remember all those affected by war; commemorate all those who were injured or killed in war; mourn with all those who lost people they loved; recognise all those who conscientiously refused to fight. We also pledge ourselves to do everything possible to prevent war, so that future generations will not have to experience its horrors. We do this as Christians because Christ is our peace; because in his body he broke down the dividing wall, the hostility, between all human beings (Ephesians 2:14). The churches have not always lived up to that message of reconciliation, but let us use this ANZAC Day to again commit ourselves to be agents of it. In the name of Christ, the Prince of Peace. Amen.

[1] Quoted in Joy Damousi, The Labour of Loss: Mourning, Memory and Wartime Bereavement in Australia, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999, p. 20.

[2] The Labour of Loss, p. 19

[3] The Labour of Loss, p. 104

[4] Philip Jenkins, The Great and Holy War: How World War 1 Changed Religion for Ever, Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2014), p. 71.

[5] The Great and Holy War, pp. 4-5.

[6] s. 116: ‘The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.’

[7] The Labour of Loss, p. 50

[8] The Great and Holy War, p. 9.

[9] The Great and Holy War, p. 98.

[10] Alfred Neufeld, ‘The Power of Historiography,’ in Seeking Cultures of Peace: A Peace Church Conversation, Geneva: World Council of Churches Publications, 2004, p. 80.

[11] Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996, p. 37.

[12] Quoted in Alfred Neufeld, ‘The Power of Historiography,’ p. 92.

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Sermon: It’s all about love (I know, I know; I keep saying that. But it is!)

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Easter 3, 18th of April, 2021

1 John 3:1-7

Over the Easter season this year the lectionary gives us a series of readings from the First Letter of John. This delights me, the First Letter of John is one of my favourite books in the Bible, but I have had more trouble in writing this sermon than with any other that I have preached in my time here, because of one single verse. ‘No one who abides in [Jesus] sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him.’ What on earth does the author of this letter mean?

It will probably not surprise you that although we call this a letter of John, we do not in fact know who wrote it, when it was written, or to whom. It does not begin with a salutation and end with a valediction so it might not be a letter at all. Modern commentators refer to the author of this letter as ‘the Elder,’ rather than John, because that is how the author names themself in the second and third letters of John, and I will use that name, too. Continue reading

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