Sermon: Totally depraved; dearly loved.

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Second Sunday of Lent, 28th of February 2021

Mark 8:31-38

There is a joke I have started using on social media when discussing distressing news of human beings doing wrong. People ask how something so dreadful could happen, how human beings could so misbehave and mistreat others, and I suggest that the answer is ‘total human depravity’. ‘Total depravity’ is a Calvinist doctrine. It does not actually argue that human beings are totally depraved, but it does argue that absolutely nothing we human beings do is free from sin. Even when we seek to do good, part of our motivation is the pleasure we get in being do-gooders. Nothing we do is every completely pure.

When I refer to ‘total human depravity’ I am, mostly, joking. I have only been here a few months, but you might have noticed how often I talk about us all being the beloved children of God, made in the image of God. In the Picture Book I read last week, Water Come Down by Walter Wangerin Jr, we were told that the new name we receive at baptism is ‘Child of God’ and I am absolutely convinced that that is who we are, that human beings are part of God’s good creation, loved by God. Over the next few years you are going to become tired of me saying so.

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Sermon: Nothing will make God give up on us

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
The First Sunday of Lent, 21st of February 2021

Genesis 9:8-17
Mark 1:9-15

According to the first creation story in Genesis, when God created the world it was covered in water and darkness. Then God’s Spirit swept over the face of the waters and creation began. But a mere ten generations later the watery chaos returned. The wickedness of humankind was so great in the earth, and every thought in the hearts of humanity so evil, that the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind. He was grieved to his heart, the author of Genesis says. So the Lord allowed the primordial chaos to return and flooded the earth.

Many ancient Near Eastern cultures told stories of a flood at the beginning of time. The version that has been preserved for us in Genesis was, scholars think, finalised when the people of Israel were in exile in Babylon. They were living in chaos, and it is out of that experience of chaos that they wrote the creation story in which God speaks the cosmos into being. Earlier this year I spoke about the exiles, who had been ripped from their country and their Temple and were wondering how they could sing the Lord’s song in a strange land, looking up to the sky and finding a sign of God bringing order out of chaos in the simple division of day from night. When everything else around them was strange, the exiles saw God’s providence each morning when the night’s darkness gave way to the day’s light. In the same way, living in Babylon far from their home, the exiles wrote not only of the return of chaos but of the covenant that followed it. Continue reading

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Sermon: Living in the face of death

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
14th of February, 2021

2 Kings 2:1-12
Mark 9:2-9

Today, on the last Sunday before Lent, we celebrate the transfiguration, a theophany, a revelation of God. In the transfiguration the separation of earth from heaven is overcome by the presence of Jesus. Mark’s first readers would have recognised the heavenly nature of this event from the way Mark uses elements from the Hebrew Scriptures. The transfiguration takes place on a mountain, the traditional site of revelations of God, the place on earth closest to heaven. Mark tells us that the transfiguration takes place ‘after six days’, referring back to the six days that Moses spent on Mount Sinai in the presence of the Lord before the Lord called to him. (Exodus 24:15-16) Jesus’ clothes are described as ‘dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them’. They’re the colour of light itself; revealing that the person wearing them is an angelic figure, a messenger from heaven. The cloud that overshadows the mountain symbolises the divine presence, and God speaks from the cloud to the disciples on this mountain as God spoke from the cloud to Moses on Mount Sinai. Mark’s first readers would have had no doubt that what he is describing here is an encounter with God. Continue reading

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Sermon: Putting one foot in front of the other

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
7th of February 2021

Isaiah 40:21-31
Psalm 147
Mark 1:29-39

We woke up on Thursday morning to a new case of community transmission in Victoria. The covid19 journey is truly a wild rollercoaster of a ride. This week we swung from celebrating effectively eliminating covid19 by going twenty-eight days without community transmission, to once again masking up and reducing the size of our gatherings. It is exhausting.

The Book of Isaiah, that wonderful ‘fifth gospel,’ offers us perspective. The last time we heard from the prophet we know as ‘Second Isaiah’ was in the second week of Advent, when we were given the beginning of his words of comfort from the ‘Book of Consolation’. Whenever I preach from Second Isaiah I remind the congregation of the circumstances in which he was prophesying so, in case you have forgotten: Jerusalem had been conquered by the Babylonians in 587 BCE; the Temple had been destroyed; two-thirds of the people had been deported to Babylon. The population of Jerusalem dropped from 100,000 people to 30,000. The people who had been relaxed and comfortable were taken into exile, and they did not know how to sing the songs of their God by rivers of Babylon. They asked whether their God could truly be with them. Continue reading

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Sermon: Freedom, love, covid19 … and Margaret Court

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
31st of January, 2021

1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Mark 1:21-28

The gospel written by Mark is the strangest of the four canonical gospels. It is probably the earliest; it is definitely the shortest. Everything in Mark happens ‘immediately’, or ‘at once’. Jesus, the disciples, and we readers race though the gospel, scarcely pausing for breath. Here we are, four weeks into ordinary time, still within the very first chapter, and already John has appeared in the wilderness baptising; Jesus has been baptised; then driven into the wilderness and tempted; has proclaimed the coming of the kingdom at Galilee; and has called his first disciples. All that in 20 verses. Now, in today’s reading, we get the beginning of what seems to be a typical day of ministry for Jesus, a day of teaching and healing. Continue reading

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Sermon: When God is a comedian

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
24th of January 2021

Jonah 1:1-3; 3:1-5, 10; 4:1-11.

Today is the Sunday before Australia Day and at the request of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress the Uniting Church observes this Sunday as a Day of Mourning. The prayers we pray, the hymns we sing, and the Picture Book I have just read to you are all part of that. But I could not give up the Revised Common Lectionary readings, or the chance to reflect on them today. The lectionary only gives us one reading in three years from the Book of Jonah, and I cannot give this opportunity up. There aren’t many books of the Bible that are laugh-out-loud funny, but the Book of Jonah is one of them. Continue reading

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There are no more chances

There is never any need to interview white supremacists and neo-Nazis. Sunshine in their case is NOT the best disinfectant. The ABC is culpable.

Ketan Joshi

In March 2019, an Australian white supremacist walked into a mosque, armed with a shotgun, and killed 51 people, including a two year old boy. The man who enacted those killings wanted to wipe out those he’d been told were replacing white people, and erasing white culture. The first thing on my mind when I saw that was this article published only a few months prior.

Though complaints were made to the Australian Press Council, no action was taken to remove the article or punish the media outlet. The reason this article prompted little outcry among the employees of News Corp is because white supremacy, racism and the deadly ideology of the ‘Great Replacement’ belief system are viewed as harmless thought experiments – rather than things that lead to children being murdered by Australians with shotguns.

I wrote, a few days after the Christchurch attack:

“Politics and media are…

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Reflection: Bad theology is dangerous

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
The Second Sunday of Epiphany, 17th of January 2020

1 Samuel 3:1-20

I am a member of the Council of the University of Divinity. The Uniting Church in Victoria has the right to appoint two people to the Council, and now those two people are me and Associate Professor Natalie Sims. The University of Divinity, founded in 1910 as the Melbourne College of Divinity, is the only university of specialisation in Australia. Its students consistently rate the University highly, in 2019, 93 per cent of students at the University of Divinity rated their education experience positively, the top result in the whole country, and I am extremely proud of it.

I say all that partly as an advertisement in case you or anyone you know is thinking of doing some theological study, but mainly because it is at meetings of the University that I tend to be most strident about the importance of theological education. As a private, specialised, university the University of Divinity is often asked to justify itself. Why does theology need to be studied at a university level? My answer is always that ‘bad theology kills people’, and I mean that literally. In most cases I am referring to the LGBTIQ people who over the decades have died by suicide because they have thought that God would reject them for their sexuality or their gender identity. But over the past week or so I have been reminded again of just how dangerous bad theology is. Continue reading

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Reflection: Chaos and Creation

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
The Baptism of Jesus

Genesis 1:1-5
Psalm 29
Mark 1:4-11

Last week we celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany, the revelation of Jesus to the nations, the Gentiles, represented by the magi who journeyed to Bethlehem following a star. This morning we have another theophany, a revelation of God, as we celebrate Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan river.

Reading this story, we instantly notice that something strange is happening; something just as strange as the Jewish Messiah being greeted at his birth by Gentiles from the East. The ‘Baptism of Jesus’ raises the question: why would Jesus be baptised? Today’s reading begins by telling us that John the baptiser appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The people from Jerusalem and all Judea came to John and were baptised by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Then Jesus himself comes from Galilee to John at the Jordan, expressly to be baptised by him. But Jesus had no need of repentance. Sin is most basically a turning away from God, and Jesus, Emmanuel, God-with-us, lived his life in full relationship with God. So, why, since John is baptising for repentance those who confess their sins, does Jesus seek baptism? What is it that we are celebrating today? Continue reading

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Reflection: The light still shines

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Christmas Day 2020

Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 96
Luke 2:1-20

‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.’ These words from the Prophet Isaiah summarise Christmas Day; in fact, they could be said to encapsulate the entire meaning of Christianity and our parent faith, Judaism. Our faith does not say that darkness does not exist, or that we will not experience it. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus instead tell us that, as the Apostle John wrote, the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will never overcome it. Today we celebrate the birth in human form of that light.

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