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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Sermon: A story without an ending

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Easter Sunday, 4th of April, 2021

Mark 16:1-8

Did you feel there was something missing in today’s gospel reading? Were you expecting the reader to read a little further on? Surely the story can’t end with: ‘So the women went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.’ That is no great shout of joy and triumph. The other gospels all end with tales of meetings between the risen Jesus and the disciples: the great commissioning on the mountain in the gospel according to Matthew; the meeting on the road to Emmaus in the gospel according to Luke; the miraculous catch of fish and breakfast on the beach in the gospel according to John. When we think of Jesus’ resurrection I suspect that we include all those things, in the same way that we imagine both shepherds and magi at Jesus’ birth. The Gospel according to Mark in its original form, however, does not tell us of any such meetings. We do not see Jesus after his body has been placed in the tomb. This abrupt conclusion was such a problem for the early church that in the second century scribes added two further endings to the gospel: the shorter and longer endings of Mark. You can read them, they are included in all copies of the Bible, and you will find in the longer ending elements taken from all three of the other canonical gospels. But they are not the way Mark originally ended his gospel, and we need to ask why. Why does the gospel according to Mark end with a whimper rather than a bang? Continue reading

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Sermon: A different sort of power

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Palm Sunday, 28th of March 2021

Isaiah 50:4-9a
Mark 11:1-11

I have mentioned before that the Book of Isaiah is so loved by Christians that it has been called a fifth gospel. When Jesus’ first followers sought to make sense of who Jesus was they naturally turned, as faithful Jews, to the Hebrew Scriptures. There they discerned hints of Jesus’ identity, life, and death, particularly in the Psalms and the prophecies. For instance, the writings of the prophet we call Second Isaiah contain four ‘Servant Songs’. At some points in these songs the suffering servant Isaiah writes about might be Isaiah himself or someone like Jeremiah, from whom we heard last week. At other times, the servant seems to be a personification of the people of Israel. But for the Church, Isaiah’s servant has long been seen as a forerunner of Jesus. We hear the first Servant Song, in which it is said of the servant that, ‘a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench,’ (Isaiah 42:3) when celebrating Jesus’ baptism in the Year of Matthew. We hear the second, in which the servant says that ‘The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me,’ and that the Lord said, ‘I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth,’ (Isaiah 49:1-6) on the week after Epiphany in the same liturgical Year. In the fourth, last, and longest of the Servant Songs the Servant is described as ‘wounded for our transgressions [and] crushed for our iniquities,’ (Isaiah 53:5) and ‘like a lamb that is led to the slaughter’. (Isaiah 53:7) Christians have long seen this servant as a type of Jesus, the Lamb of God who gave himself up to crucifixion, and that reading is offered to us every year on Good Friday. Continue reading

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Sermon: Destruction and Newness

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Fifth Sunday of Lent, 21st of March, 2021

Jeremiah 31:31-34
John 12:20-33

The Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”’(Jeremiah 1:10)

The Book of Jeremiah warns of and then records an absolute and utter disaster: the death of Judah as an independent nation; the siege of Jerusalem; the destruction of the Temple; the Babylonian Exile. Jeremiah prophesied at the end of the seventh century BC and the beginning of the sixth century. He spoke in a time, his prophecies tell us, when the Lord’s people had turned away from the Lord. They had forgotten who had brought them up out of Egypt and instead worshipped idols, saying ‘to a tree, “You are my father”, and to a stone, “You gave me birth.”’ (Jeremiah 2:27) Continue reading

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Sermon: The powerlessness and ugliness of God in Jesus

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Fourth Sunday of Lent, 14th of March, 2021

Numbers 21:4-9
John 3:14-21

Last week the Revised Common Lectionary gave us four wonderful readings, on any one of which I would be happy to preach. I love weeks like that, when my only problem is choosing which of the deeply meaningful Bible passages to focus on, and keeping myself to fifteen minutes. This week, however, is not one of those weeks. This week, we have the bronze serpent in the wilderness. If you, listening to today’s readings, thought, ‘Ah, yes, the bronze serpent in the wilderness! I know what that means,’ then you are more intelligent than I.  Today’s gospel reading does contain one of the most well-known and fundamental verses in the entire Bible, John 3:16: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life,’ but only after one of Jesus’ most enigmatic sayings: ‘And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.’ Continue reading

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Sermon: Righteous Anger

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Third Sunday of Lent, 7th of March, 2021

John 2:13-22
Note: this Reflection contains references to sexual assault.

There has been a great deal of anger in Australia over the past few weeks, most of it felt by women. To name just some of it: there is the anger that women and children are still, in twenty-first century Australia, being sexually assaulted. This is the anger expressed by the young woman, Chanel Contos, who started a petition to have ‘consent’ taught in NSW boys schools because she ‘was sick of constantly hearing my friends’ experience of sexual abuse’. Then there is the further anger that when sexual assault does occur it is so often considered to be a problem for the victims to deal with, as when political staffer Brittany Higgins was made to feel that she had become a political liability by being raped by a colleague, and that she had to choose between reporting it and staying employed. There is also anger that as recently as February this year the Chief of the Defence Force, General Angus Campbell, told his cadets to avoid becoming the prey of predators by staying away from the ‘“four As”: alcohol, out after midnight, alone and attractive’; anger that despite all the work older generations have done to clarify that no one ‘makes themselves vulnerable,’ young people are still being told that it is their job to protect themselves.

If you want to see an example of the anger currently being expressed throughout Australia against those who commit sexual assault, those who facilitate it, and those who cover it up, you can watch Australian of the Year Grace Tame’s speech at the National Press Club this week.

Continue reading

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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.

Continue reading
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