Sermon: Peace Sunday

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
4th of December 2022

Isaiah 11:1-10
Matthew 3:1-12

‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?’

You know me; I want to preach sermons of love and light, talking about God’s overwhelming, unfathomable, unmerited, inclusive welcome. Give me my choice and I will always choose to preach on passages like those in the First Letter of John: ‘Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.’ (1 John 4:7-8) As I have said before, God’s love is my comfort zone as a preacher. And yet here we are, the second Sunday of Advent, Peace Sunday, and the lectionary has given us John the Baptist accusing people of being vipers. Continue reading

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Sermon: Jesus’ female ancestors

Reflection for the first Sunday of Advent
27th of November, 2022

Matthew 1:1-17

I did something quite dreadful to Kathryn, today’s Bible reader, by asking her to read the very beginning of the Gospel according to Matthew. We are now in a new church year and for the next twelve months we will be listening to Matthew’s telling of the good news of Jesus Christ, but it will not surprise you to learn, having listened to them, that the seventeen verses that Kathryn read this morning are not in the lectionary. Normally we would never hear Jesus’ genealogy read out in church, and obviously I think that is a pity, which is why we have it today.

Only Matthew’s telling of the gospel starts with Jesus’ ancestors. Luke also has a genealogy, but Luke puts it in his third chapter, after all the birth stories have been told, after John has baptised Jesus, and when we are told that Jesus is about thirty years old. Only Matthew begins with this list, which tells us how important Matthew thinks it is. The list is not historical; it is theological. Matthew is telling us that Jesus was the son of Abraham and the son of David. But Matthew also tells us that Jesus is descended from Abraham and David in unusual ways. In this boringly long list of names are some fascinating stories that tell us a lot about who Matthew thinks Jesus is. Continue reading

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Sermon: Longer than all earthly empires

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
The Reign of Christ, 25 November 2022

Jeremiah 23:1-6
Luke 23:33-43

‘[T]he leaders scoffed at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!’ The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’

Today, the last Sunday in the church’s year, we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King. We end the liturgical year on a high, acknowledging that Christ rules the world. And yet the Gospel reading for the day comes from the story of the Passion. We celebrate the Reign of Christ by reading about Jesus’ final moments on the cross before his death. This is necessary. We as human beings have such a tendency to respect power, to admire strength, to appreciate success, to celebrate wealth and influence. If you think that you are beyond such temptations, ask yourself: are you excited to meet your favourite footballer, or actor, or author? Have you ever been sad at the death of a public figure whom you have never met in person? Have you found yourself defending a politician against criticism simply because they are from ‘your side’ of politics? In my case, I confess, I get a fillip whenever a ‘blue tick’ author or journalist or comedian follows me on Twitter. I am not immune from valuing the famous more than the anonymous. Continue reading

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Sermon: The Peaceable Kingdom

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
13th of November 2022

Isaiah 65:17-25
Isaiah 12
Luke 21:5–19

“[T]hey will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons … You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name.”

What a cheery beginning to a Reflection! Sorry about that; Jesus can be quite confronting when he wants to be. As I have said before, here in Australia we do not face the actual persecution that Christians have experienced in other times, or are experiencing even now in other countries. But what we are doing here this morning is profoundly counter-cultural in Australia, the country I have described as ‘the place that religions come to die’. To begin with, we are gathering in community because we believe that this community is a place to encounter God. I suspect that if we asked most Australians where they encountered God, they would tell us that they found God by the sea, on the mountain, in the bush, or in the rugged red heart of the country. They might say that they encounter God in the love of family and friends; in the curl of a new-born baby’s hand around their finger; in the smile of a 90-year-old. Very few Australians would say that they encounter God when gathered with a motley crew of ordinary people in a suburban church on a Sunday morning. That is if they even believe there is a ‘God’ to be encountered at all. Continue reading

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Sermon: Forgiveness and Repentance

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
30th of October, 2022

Luke 19:1-10

Warning: This Reflection refers to suicide and to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

Recently I have been thinking about forgiveness and repentance. As I have said before, forgiving those who have sinned against us is a requirement for Christians. It is in the prayer that Jesus taught us and that we say together every time we gather. (Matthew 6:12, Luke 11:4) It is at the core of Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:14-15) and the Sermon on the Plain. (Luke 6:37) We are to forgive other members of the church who sin against us not simply seven times, but seventy times seven (Matthew 18:21-2) or seven times a day if that is necessary. (Luke 17:4) We are to do all this in imitation of the God who forgives us.

We forgive because God forgives. We forgive as God forgives. We forgive by echoing God’s forgiveness. In Christ, God has forgiven the sin of all human beings, and from Christ, we receive the power and the willingness to forgive those who have sinned against us, as we ourselves have been forgiven. Continue reading

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Sermon: God’s priorities, according to the Prophet Jeremiah

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
16th of October 2022

Jeremiah 31:27-34
Luke 18:1-8

Over the past few weeks, you may have noticed, there has been quite a bit of discussion among politicians and the media about the place of Christianity in Australia and the role Christians can play in public life. There are two things that I have found intensely frustrating about all this commentary. The first has been the contention that Christians are discriminated against in Australia. There are Christians being persecuted in the twenty-first century, it is not simply a historical phenomenon, but that persecution is not happening here. Here, unlike in Sri Lanka or Egypt, we do not have to worry about this building being bombed as we gather in it for worship. We do not risk death by identifying publicly as Christian, as our Christian siblings do in countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan. If we want to build churches here the government does not use the planning rules to prevent it, as happens in Indonesia and Israel. In Australia, unlike in Malaysia, Christians are not forbidden from evangelising and Muslims are not forbidden from converting to Christianity. Christianity may no longer be treated with the same respect that we could take for granted before the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, but that does not mean that Christians are now less safe. And I am worried that conflating criticism of churches and of elements of the Christian faith in Australia with the actual persecution of Christians in other countries might lead to the latter being taken less seriously. Continue reading

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Sermon: The shalom of the city

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
9th of October 2022

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

As you will undoubtedly remember (because you have been chewing over it all week) I ended last week’s Reflection by saying:

The world is a place of inordinate beauty, filled with the grace of God. The world is also a place of terror, in which wars kill the innocent, children starve, refugees become fugitives and wanderers. The Scriptures do not speak only of the gentle, loving, sunny side of life; they are honest about violence and pain.

At the heart of both Judaism and Christianity are despair and hope, vulnerability and promise, exile and return, crucifixion and resurrection. Last week’s readings from the Book of Lamentations and the Psalter dwelt in the despair that came from God’s judgement on Jerusalem through the Babylonian Exile. We know that that exile was not the end of Israel’s story, any more than Jesus’ story ended on the cross. The exiles will return, the city and the temple will be rebuilt, just as Jesus was raised from the dead – but we are not there yet. With today’s reading from the prophecies of Jeremiah we find ourselves in the equivalent of Holy Saturday, a time of waiting, of dwelling in-between. The prophet Jeremiah has written a letter from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon, to tell them how to live in the space between exile and return. Continue reading

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What is Queer Theology?

This is the first essay I wrote for the Queer Theology subject at Pilgrim Theological College of the University of Divinity. I only had 1000 words to work with, so it is not my best work, but I thought I’d put it here just in case it might be of interest to others.

“As with becoming Christian or woman, one is not born but becomes queer; one learns to live as a promise of the future.”[1]

God is queer. The original and ultimate “identity without an essence,”[2] God is radically unknowable; and yet Christianity believes that this radically transcendent God entered creation out of love. Jesus Christ is queer. A human man who is also God, he dies and returns to life, breastfeeds his followers with his flesh, marries avowed virgins, and gives birth to the church. The church, the multi-gendered Bride and Body of Christ, is queer. Its eyes on the eschaton, it problematises every human identity. Theology may be the queerest thing of all, because theology seeks to use human words, human lives, and human creativity to speak about the God who is utterly Other. Continue reading

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Sermon: There is nothing we cannot say to God

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
2nd of October 2022

Lamentations 1:1-6
Psalm 137

‘Her foes have become the masters, her enemies prosper, because the Lord has made her suffer for the multitude of her transgressions; her children have gone away, captives before the foe.’

‘O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!’

I have recently talked about my biblical comfort zone: news of God’s astounding, overwhelming, inclusive love. Today’s two readings from the Hebrew Scriptures are as far from my comfort zone as it is possible to be. Do we worship a God who punishes God’s people for their sins with the complete destruction of their city and nation? Do we want words of hatred and revenge to be part of our liturgy? My answer to both those questions is an immediate and fervent NO!, but today’s readings are not only in the Bible, they are part of our lectionary. Why? Continue reading

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Sermon: When Jesus is being all too clear

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
25th of September 2022

Luke 16:19-31
1 Timothy 6:6-19

On Monday this week a fund-raiser from Médecins Sans Frontières, Doctors without Borders, knocked on my door to ask me to financially support their work. I did a very quick mental calculation of my finances; agreed that, yes, I could give the monthly amount suggested; and signed up. Given that I knew what today’s gospel reading was, I did not feel that I had a choice. Last week’s parable of the dishonest manager might have puzzled Christians down the centuries; today’s parable is if anything too comprehensible.

The Gospel according to Luke is, as I have said repeatedly during this liturgical year, pre-eminently a gospel about and for the poor. In Luke’s version of the Beatitudes Jesus pairs the blessings with woes: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God’; ‘But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation’. (Luke 6:20-26) In today’s parable that beatitude and that warning are given shape in the story of Lazarus and the rich man. This parable is the only one of all the stories that Jesus told in which a character is given a name. In all Jesus’ other parables people are described by their wealth, occupation, or relationship: rich man; father; guest; shepherd; widow; poor woman. In this parable the poor man is called Lazarus. We are being told to truly see the sort of person from whom we would normally turn away. Continue reading

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