Sermon: Joining the church

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Baptism of Sophia Harry, 15th of May 2022

Acts 11:1-18
John 13:35-35

Today we celebrate the baptism of Sophia Grace Gordon Harry, welcoming her into the faith and family of Jesus Christ. Serendipitously, both of today’s scripture readings are about the nature of the strange community that Sophia is joining. Sophia is becoming a member of Jesus’ body, the church, a community formed by God’s love and made up of people who have heard God’s call to live in a new way.

Today’s gospel reading, which comes from the night before Jesus’ death, reminds us of exactly how strange that new way of life is. The reading beings, ‘When he had gone out …’ and the ‘he’ is Judas, who is leaving the meal that Jesus is sharing with his disciples to betray Jesus to the authorities. Now there can be no turning back; with Judas’ betrayal, Jesus’ death is sure. And yet Jesus describes his fast-approaching death as glorification: ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him’. The absolute height and depth and strength of God’s love are revealed in Jesus’ willingness to die. God’s glory will be revealed on the cross. It makes absolutely no sense, but this is how God does things. God’s glory and grandeur are revealed not in success and wealth and status, but in humility and betrayal and compassion. Sophia today is joining an organisation that seeks not to be the biggest and best, but instead to spend time with the last and the least. Continue reading

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Reflection for Mothers Day

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Mothers’ Day, 8th of May 2022

In Australia the second Sunday in May is ‘Mothers’ Day’ and many churches celebrate it, although here in Australia it is not part of the Christian calendar. ‘Mothering Sunday,’ mainly celebrated in Wales and the west of England from the seventeenth until the early twentieth century, did have a church connection. It was the Fourth Sunday of Lent, and it was the day on which young people who lived and worked away from their homes would return to their family for a meal and to the church at which they had been baptised for a service.[1] I suspect that this tradition of ‘Mothering Sunday’ was not brought to Australia because there were fewer live-in servants here, and so Australians did not need one special Sunday a year free from work on which they could return home.

The Australian tradition of Mothers’ Day, like so many of our festivals, seems to have come from the United States. In 1858 feminist activist Ann Reeves Jarvis organized a day on which to raise awareness of the poor health conditions in her community, a cause for which she believed mothers would be the best advocates. Jarvis herself gave birth to between eleven and thirteen children but only four of them lived to grow up. In response to the conditions that had killed her own children, Jarvis set up ‘Mothers Day Work Clubs’ that raised money to buy medicine, inspected milk, and visited households to educate mothers and their families about improving sanitation and health. Continue reading

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Sermon: Thank goodness for Peter

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
The Third Sunday of Easter, 1st of May, 2022

John 21:1-19
Acts 9:1-20

Do you ever find yourself lying awake at night in a cold sweat, wishing that you had said or done something differently? Have you ever said too much in anger or fear, and attacked someone with words that bite? Have you ever said too little in pride or obstinacy, and so let hurt linger or a division fester? Have you done the wrong thing, or failed to do the right thing? If so, I invite you to think of Peter, the rock on whom Jesus built the Christian church.

Peter is quite possibly the most encouraging biblical role model we could have as Christians. The gospels tell us stories of people who met Jesus, repented, and changed their lives around: tax collectors and prostitutes; the Samaritan woman at the well and the short-statured Zacchaeus. But no one committed to Jesus as completely, betrayed him so utterly, and was forgiven so abundantly as the Apostle Peter. Continue reading

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Sermon: This is our story

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Easter Sunday, 17th of April, 2022

Luke 24:1-12
Isaiah 65:17-25

Some two thousand years ago, a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. Everyone went back to the towns their families had come from to be registered. The Romans were in power. What they demanded, happened. Even if meant a young couple travelling while the woman was heavily pregnant. Even if it meant that she gave birth far from home. After all, the Romans ruled the world.

And yet, whatever the Emperor Augustus might have thought, however he might have been acclaimed, he was not the world’s saviour. It was not Rome that would bring the world peace. The baby born to that young woman would bring down the powerful from their thrones, and lift up the lowly; he would be the one who would fill the hungry with good things, and send the rich away empty. At his birth the angels sang: ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom God favours!’ Continue reading

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Sermon: Thank God! Palm Sunday and Refugees

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Palm Sunday, 10th of April, 2022

Philippians 2:5-11
Luke 19:28-40

Jesus ‘emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross’.

Today we celebrate Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem for the Passover. Like pilgrims throughout time, Jesus’ disciples rejoice as they enter the holy city, praising God for God’s mighty deeds. It is a moment of triumph. Jesus enters on a colt that his disciples take for him from its owners simply by saying that ‘the Lord needs it.’ As Jesus approaches people spread their cloaks on the road under the colt’s feet. At this point I must make the mandatory remark that in Luke’s version of Jesus’ entrance into the city not only are there no palm branches, there are no branches of any sort. According to Luke today is ‘Cloak Sunday,’ not ‘Palm Sunday’ at all. But while there may be no palms, there is a monarch. Continue reading

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Sermon: Do not be afraid

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
The fifth Sunday of Lent, 3rd of April 2022

Isaiah 43:16-21
Psalm 126
John 12:1-8

In 2022 being afraid of the future would simply seem to be common sense. Russia has invaded Ukraine; Europe is struggling to respond; and we are now closer to a nuclear war breaking out than at any time since the Cold War. This week Lismore and the surrounding areas were flooded for the second time in a month, and the centre of Byron Bay went under water in what locals described as the worst flash flooding they had ever seen. It is no wonder that so many of Australia’s young people are worried about living in a world affected by climate change. These are global, existential, threats. A lesser, local, concern, but one that might affect us more immediately, is the fear of the future felt by the many Australian church congregations that have shrunk over the past fifty years. What will the future of this congregation be, as those who have been committed members of it all their lives age and die and are not replaced? Given all this, feeling fearful of the future, and so hunkering down, turning inwards, conserving what we have rather than sharing it, only makes sense. Continue reading

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Sermon: Two brothers

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
The Fourth Sunday of Lent, 27th of March 2022

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

I sometimes talk here about the difference between who we are now and who God created us to be. To use the traditional theological language, I talk about sin and repentance. This is not the way to get people into the church in the twenty-first century, of course; to do that preachers need to promise health, wealth, and happiness. But the reason I feel comfortable saying honestly that we all fall short of what God intends for us, is because of parables like the one we hear today. These reveal exactly how God responds to our imperfect, sinning, selves.

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Sermon: Don’t blame the victim

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Third Sunday of Lent, 20th of March, 2020

Isaiah 55:1-9
Luke 13:1-9

Humans have a dreadful tendency, in our need to make sense of life, to blame victims. We tend to see it when a woman is raped or murdered, when the media report on where she was, what she was wearing, what time of day or night it was, whether she had consumed alcohol or other drugs. We have seen it recently with the floods in Queensland and NSW when Shane Stone, the Coordinator-General of the National Recovery and Resilience Agency, responded to floods consistently described as ‘unprecedented’ by saying, ‘You’ve got people who want to live among the gum trees – what do you think is going to happen? Their house falls in the river and they say it’s the government’s fault.’ It is a natural human impulse to look for reasons that bad things happen, and if we can tell ourselves that the reason is something we would never do – walk alone in a park at night, get so drunk we pass out, live on a flood plain – then we feel safer.

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Sermon: “All shall be well”

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
The Second Sunday of Lent, 13th of March 2022

Genesis 15:1-11, 17-18
Luke 13:31-35

We in Australia are used to seeing one level of government blame another for any failings, passing the buck back and forth between them. We have seen it happen throughout the pandemic and most recently after the floods in Queensland and NSW; state and federal politicians disagreeing on whose responsibility it is to do disaster mitigation or call out the defence force. In today’s gospel reading we might be seeing a little first-century buck passing between Herod Antipas and Pilate. Some Pharisees warn Jesus to ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you’. Luke has not previously shown the Pharisees as supporters of Jesus, and in Jesus’ response he seems to believe that they have come directly from Herod. If Herod does want to kill Jesus, why would those with access to him warn Jesus? It could be that they secretly want to drive Jesus out of Herod’s jurisdiction and into that of Pilate. Let Pilate deal with this troublemaker!

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Lent 1: Journeying with Jesus

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
The first Sunday of Lent and ‘Ash Sunday’

Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Luke 4:1-13

In last week’s Reflection I mentioned the importance of the Exodus to the people of God. As you will remember, in his description of Jesus’ Transfiguration Luke tells us that Moses and Elijah spoke with Jesus ‘of his departure [his ‘exodus’ in Greek] which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem’. Today, the first Sunday of Lent, we are offered a reading from the Book of Deuteronomy that I should just have quoted instead of finding my own words:

When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labour on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.

As I said, this experience of the Exodus means that the basic pattern of Judaism, and so also of Christianity, is the ‘saving reversal’ from a situation of despair to one of salvation. During Lent we accompany Jesus on the road to his exodus, as Jesus goes willingly to death for love of us, and we then experience the ultimate ‘saving reversal’ three days later when God raises Jesus from the dead. Continue reading

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