Sermon: Be afraid, very afraid – or reassured and encouraged

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
7th of August, 2022

Isaiah 1:1 10-20
Luke 12:32-40

‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.’

‘[I]f you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’

Today’s readings from the prophecies of Isaiah and the Gospel according to Luke are either encouraging and reassuring, or utterly terrifying, depending on where we sit as we listen to them. Are we among the ‘little flock’ who have no need to worry over what we are to eat, what we are to drink, and what we are to wear, because we know that we are of more value than the birds that God feeds and the grass that he clothes? Or are we among the rulers of Sodom and the people of Gomorrah, whose worship God refuses to hear because it is not accompanied by justice? Continue reading

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Sermon: Being rich toward God

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
31st of July, 2022

Luke 12:13-21

‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you.’

I am sure you know that the three things about which we should not speak in polite company are religion, sex, and politics. In the days when it went without saying that ‘sex’ was not a topic for dinner party conversation, the forbidden three were religion, money, and politics. We know from the gospels that Jesus got invited to so many dinner parties that he was accused of being a glutton and drunkard, (Luke 7:34) but he does not seem to have read the right etiquette books. Jesus talked religion, money, and politics all the time. And not necessarily in ways that his audience would have found pleasant. Take, for instance, today’s parable about the Rich Fool. Continue reading

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Sermon: The women in the Gospel according to Luke

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
17th of July, 2022

Luke 7:36-8:3 and 10:38-42

I am being a bit cheeky this morning. I looked at the four readings the Revised Common Lectionary offered us for today, and decided that only the very short reading from the Gospel according to Luke was in any way speaking to me. Possibly in three years’ time, when the other readings come round again, I will discover their value and be able to offer a helpful reflection from them, but this year they left me cold. So, since the timing of Easter this year meant that we did not hear Luke’s version of the anointing of Jesus, I decided to add that to today’s story of Martha and Mary, and think about the place of women in the Gospel according to Luke. But (shhh!) do not tell anyone I am playing with the Lectionary like this.

Commentators are completely divided on whether Luke’s version of the gospel of Jesus Christ is a positive one for women. At first glance, it would seem so. This gospel has the most references to women of any of the canonical gospels. Luke tells us the nativity story from the point of view of Mary, while Matthew tells it from Joseph’s perspective. (Luke 1:26-38) It is only in the Gospel according to Luke that we hear Mary sing the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-56) and we see the interactions between Mary and Elizabeth. (Luke 1:39-45) Luke’s telling often pairs the story of a man with the story of a woman, as in the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin. (Luke 15:1-10). Luke tells us that the women who provided for Jesus out of their resources, ‘Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others,’ accompanied Jesus to the very foot of the cross, and the empty tomb, making it clear that it is these women who provide the essential ‘chain of evidence’ for Christian claims of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Continue reading

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Sermon: Laugh hard. Run fast. Be kind.

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
The Fifth Sunday After Pentecost, 10th of July, 2022

Luke 10:25-37
Colossians 1:1-14

It is hard to preach on a biblical story that has become a cliché. The story known as the ‘Parable of the Good Samaritan’ is possibly the most well-known of all Jesus’ parables, and so the name ‘Samaritan’ no longer means ‘enemy’ as it did for Jesus’ first hearers. In Australia, ‘Samaritan’ can refer to a community service agency that promotes mental health in Western Australia, or to an order of Benedictine sisters, or to an emergency relief agency in NSW. We need to forget all of that before we can even begin to hear this parable as Jesus told it.

Jesus is on the road toward his death. He has ‘set his face to go to Jerusalem,’ and because of this he has been rejected by a village of Samaritans who want nothing to do with a Jew headed to the ‘wrong’ Temple. This makes the disciples James and John so furious that they want to call down fire from heaven on the impious Samaritans, and Jesus rebukes them. (Luke 10:51-56) Before Jesus tells this story even Luke’s Roman readers would have been aware of the division between Jews and Samaritans.

The history of the division went back over seven hundred years. Samaria had been the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel before the Assyrian invasion in the eighth century BC. The Samaritans of Jesus’ day believed themselves to be the descendants of the Jews who had been left behind after the Assyrian deportation, but when the exiles from the southern kingdom of Judah with its capital at Jerusalem returned from Babylon in the sixth century BC, they claimed that the Samaritans were the descendants of the foreigners who had settled on the land after the Jewish population had been removed. We can have some sense of the division between Jews and Samaritans if we think of the present-day division between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians. Does the land belong to the people who have been living there for centuries, or the people whose ancestors were removed from it and who have now ‘returned’? There was no Separation Wall built in the Israel of Jesus’ day, but there might as well have been. As the author of the Gospel according to John explained when telling the story of the woman at the well, ‘Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans’. (John 4:9) Continue reading

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Sermon: The Uniting Church ‘radicals in politics’

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Celebrating the 45th Anniversary of Union, Sunday the 26th of June, 2022

John 15:1-8

Happy Birthday! Today we celebrate forty-five years of the Uniting Church. Forty-five years later it might not seem important to celebrate something which we now take for granted, but we need to remember that Union did not happen easily. If the reuniting of three previously-severed branches of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church had been easy, we would today be celebrating our one hundred and twentieth anniversary, because the question of Church Union was first raised by the Presbyterians in 1902. In subsequent decades a Joint Board of Christian Education was created; a United Church of Northern Australia was established in Darwin; and theological students from the three uniting denominations began to study together.[1] But it took another seventy-five years from the time the Presbyterians first suggested it for the Congregationalist, Methodist and Presbyterian churches to unite. This was partly because of the ecclesial and theological concerns, such as whether a Uniting Church should have bishops,[2] and partly because there were huge problems and in fact legal cases about money and property, particularly the division of church schools and colleges between the Presbyterian and Uniting churches.[3] With Joan Montgomery as a member of this congregation we are aware of how nasty those cases became.[4]

Black and white photo from 1977 of eight men and two women in clerical garb with Uniting Church Scarfs, holding service booklets and singing.

Back row: Ian Tanner (SA), Chris Mostert (TAS), Ron Allardice (VIC), Ron Wilson (WA); Middle Row: Lilian Wells (NSW), Graeme Bucknell (Northern), Rollie Busch (Qld), Front Row: Rupert Grove, Christine Gapes (Bible Reader), Phillip Potter (WCC)

Even before the Uniting Church came into existence our particular understanding of God’s mission as inseparably connected to love and justice for everyone saw the Uniting Church labelled a ‘pagan institution’.[5] Protesters proclaimed that the Uniting Church was ‘Satan’s Synagogue’, that ‘Unity at the Expense of Truth is Treason’, and that the leaders of the Church were ‘False Prophets’.[6] Others claimed, slightly less colourfully, that the Uniting Church lacked evangelical impetus, that it placed too much emphasis on socio-political issues.[7] The continuing Presbyterian Church took the opportunity of Union to review its political activities, and the Presbyterian Moderator-General claimed that the Presbyterians who had joined the Uniting Church were ‘the radicals in politics’.[8] So if, like me, you were Presbyterian before Union, congratulations on being a political radical.

The Uniting Church’s concern with such so-called ‘radical’ socio-political issues was obvious in the 1977 Statement to the Nation made by the First Assembly. In it, the members of that First Assembly said firmly that: ‘A Christian responsibility to society has always been regarded as fundamental to the mission of the church. In the Uniting Church our response to the Christian gospel will continue to involve us in social and national affairs.’ In that message forty-five years ago the Uniting Church pledged itself to the correction of injustices, to working for the eradication of poverty and racism, and to the opposition of all forms of discrimination and the ‘values which emphasise acquisitiveness and greed’. At its inauguration the Uniting Church was already concerned about the protection of the environment and the wise use of energy. The Statement said, in words that now seem deeply prophetic: ‘We are concerned with the basic human rights of future generations and will urge the wise use of energy, the protection of the environment and the replenishment of the earth’s resources for their use and enjoyment.’

Our commitment to justice continued to be a cause of controversy after Union. In 1983 the Uniting Church was labelled one of the ‘Radical Left’s New Power Bases’ by the Bulletin magazine.[9] Together with the ABC, the Uniting Church was accused of being in the hands of ‘a new breed of middle-class, university radicals’.[10] Among the evidence given by the Bulletin for this left-wing takeover was the Church’s divestment of its uranium shares, its refusal to support companies that did business in apartheid South Africa, and the Church’s acceptance of ‘multiculturalism’ – which was apparently a dirty word to the Bulletin.[11]

Uniting Church Bulletin

The header of an article from the Bulletin titled 'Uniting Church Under Threat from the Left'.

The Bulletin article prompted letters defending or condemning the Uniting Church and the topic continued to be debated over its next five issues. As a media beat-up, it was an outstanding success, although the Press Council found that the headline was unjustified and that ‘nothing in the text of a story headed “Uniting Church under threat from the Left” justified a front-page introductory title, “The radical Left’s new power bases”.’[12] But of course in at least one way the writers of the Bulletin article were right. I personally would not describe the Uniting Church as being the victim of a ‘left-wing takeover,’ I would say that we are trying our best to follow Jesus, but as a Church we have always been concerned with the issues the Bulletin authors scorned.

We are involved in these apparently political issues because we believe that this is what the Gospel demands of us. Today we ordain women, we marry gay people, we are in covenant with the First Nations of this land, we celebrate our cultural and linguistic diversity, and we do all this because we are seeking to abide in Jesus and bear fruit.

The gospel reading we are offered for our birthday comes from the Farewell Discourse in the Gospel according to John. We have been reading a lot of that Discourse recently, and it has been helpful to hear Jesus’ words of comfort to his disciples as he leaves them while this community has been mourning the deaths of significant members. But the part we hear today is not the comfort that Jesus will go to prepare a place for us, or the reassurance that we will not be left alone because the Holy Spirit will come to us. Today’s passage is about how we are to live in between the time of Jesus’ leaving us and the time when we will see him again. In today’s reading we hear the last of Jesus’ ‘I AM’ statements in the Gospel: ‘I am the true vine’. Jesus is the vine, his Father is the gardener, we are branches that will bear fruit if we remain part of the vine.

The results of not abiding in Jesus sound quite terrifying: ‘Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.’ However, the fire in this sentence is not ‘the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’ described in the story of the sheep and the goats in the Gospel according to Matthew. It is simply the literal fire that burns up literally dry branches, the dry branches that disciples will resemble if they do not abide in Jesus.

What is the fruit that disciples united to Christ will bear? It will not at all surprise you that it is love. Early in the evening, Jesus had told his disciples, ‘I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’ (John 13:34-35) Today’s passage continues:

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. … I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.’ (John 15:9-12.17)

Abiding in Jesus means abiding in the love shared between Jesus and his Father. It does not simply mean rejoicing in knowing that we are loved by God, although Jesus makes it clear that he is telling us that we are so loved so that our joy may be complete. It also means imitating the love we have received; loving one another and the whole world that God so loved that God gave his only Son. We are commissioned to demonstrate that love in our own lives, so that the world may see it and believe in our proclamation of the God who is love. Living out love in action as well as in word may mean that we are sometimes misunderstood as ‘radicals in politics,’ but it is at the heart of who we are as Christians. The words that ended the Statement to the Nation forty-five years ago remain relevant:

We pledge ourselves to hope and work for a nation whose goals are not guided by self-interest alone, but by concern for the welfare of all persons everywhere — the family of the One God — the God made known in Jesus of Nazareth, the One who gave His life for others. In the spirit of His self-giving love we seek to go forward.

This is who we are as the Uniting Church. This is who we will remain. Amen.

[1] Alan Gill, ‘More than 100 years to achieve Church Union’, Sydney Morning Herald, 22 June 1977.

[2] ibid.

[3] Only two-thirds of the churches of the Presbyterian Church joined the Uniting Church. One-third remained Presbyterian, which entailed the division of Presbyterian property between the Uniting Church and the continuing Presbyterian Church. Mark Baker, ‘Church union leads to $500 mil. split’, Age (Melbourne), 17 June 1977.

[4] Kim Rubenstein, The Vetting of Wisdom: Joan Montgomery and the fight for PLC, Franklin Street Press, 2021.

[5] Alan Gill, ‘More than 100 years to achieve Church Union’.

[6] Alan Gill, ‘Union sealed in Town Hall Service’, Sydney Morning Herald, 23 June 1977.

[7] Editorial, ‘Christian Unity’, Sydney Morning Herald, 23 June 1977.

[8] Mark Baker, ‘Church severs links’, Age (Melbourne), 24 June 1977.

[9] Tim Duncan, ‘Uniting Church under threat from the left’, Bulletin (Sydney), 25 January 1983, pp. 20-3.

[10] ibid., p. 20.

[11] ibid., p. 23.

[12] The Press Council, ‘No specific case’ for headline’ (1983, December 1). The Canberra Times (ACT: 1926 – 1995), p. 8.

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Sermon: Trouble-making and scape-goating

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Sunday, the 19th of June, 2022

Luke 8:26-39
Galatians 3:23-29

I have no idea why so many people seem to think that Christianity is a reactionary force on the side of the status quo. After all the Jesus we claim to follow was a lifelong troublemaker. In today’s gospel reading, for example, Jesus cures a man who is possessed by a legion of demons. The demoniac is a man unclean in location, religion, culture, mind, and spirit. He is a Gentile: living in a land in which unclean animals like pigs are raised. He lives among the tombs: sources of ritual uncleanliness for Jews. He is totally dehumanised: he roams naked and doesn’t live in a house. Without any fear that he might himself be infected by it, Jesus approaches this situation of utter uncleanness and heals the man. Jesus then sends the demons into a nearby herd of swine, and the demons, forces of destruction, drown the pigs and presumably themselves. Evil destroys itself. Continue reading

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Sermon: Relying on Holy Wisdom

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Trinity Sunday, 12th of June 2022

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
Psalm 8

‘When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?’

Today is Trinity Sunday, the one Sunday in the church’s year when we focus explicitly on what is implicit in our worship on the other fifty-one or -two Sundays of the year; that the God Christians worship is a God in relationship, a God whose nature is community. On Trinity Sunday we give thanks that God’s very self is a community of love, a community of equality, in which Three exist so intimately with, for and in one another that they become One. As the theologian Leonard Boff says, ‘God is the lover, the beloved, and the love between them’. Continue reading

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Sermon: A quieter Pentecost

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
The Feast of Pentecost, 5th of June, 2022

John 14:8-17

‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.’ (John 14:1-3)

Today the church celebrates the Feast of Pentecost, the ‘birthday’ of the church, the day when the tiny Jesus Movement stopped hiding in upper rooms and took their message to the streets. Ordinarily, this is a day for loud and raucous celebration, with tongues of fire and rushing winds and people speaking in every language under the heavens. I had half-prepared a Reflection on the story of the tower of Babel, and how being ‘scattered … abroad over the face of all the earth’ might not actually be a punishment. But this week this community has experienced two significant losses in the deaths of Maurice Mathers and Enid Williamson, and so instead I want us to focus on the much quieter Pentecost reading we are given from the Gospel according to John. Continue reading

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Sermon: Salvation and Liberation

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
The Seventh Sunday of Easter, 29th of May, 2022

Acts 16:16-34
John 17:20-26

‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’

In today’s reading from the Book of the Acts of the Apostles Paul and Silas, and possibly the author Luke, are still in Macedonia, beginning their mission to Europe. Last week we heard the story of the first person they baptised in Macedonia, a dealer in purple cloth called Lydia. This week we hear of a further conversion and some baptisms, in a story that raises the questions: What does it mean to be saved? What are people being saved from or for?

At the beginning of today’s story, we are told that for many days Paul and Silas have been followed by a slave girl who has a spirit of prophecy that enables her to recognise them and who announces their identity to everyone around them. She is a slave to her masters and to the spirit that enables her to see the future. She recognises them as fellow slaves, but slaves to a higher spirit, the ‘Most High God’. She also recognises that, like her, they can proclaim a way of salvation to the people of Philippi. Undoubtedly many people who had sought the advice of the spirit within her had asked the very question that the jailer later asks Paul and Silas: ‘what must I do to be saved,’ and had been told how to avoid a difficult situation or to make the best of a promising one. The Spirit who guides Paul and Silas gives advice that is both similar and profoundly different. Continue reading

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Sermon: The Unexpected Lydia

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
The Sixth Sunday of Easter, 22nd of May 2022

Acts 16:9-15
John 14:23-39

‘Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?’ asks Judas, not Iscariot, of Jesus on Jesus’ last night with his disciples before his death. Judas may be still caught up in the idea of Jesus as the conventional messiah who will come into his kingdom through violence and might. Why has Jesus not rallied all those who are ready to rebel against Rome and claimed the kingship of Israel? By the time the author of John’s gospel writes about this night one answer would have been clear. Jesus had entered his messiahship through suffering and death, a humiliating failure that was paradoxically glorification. He was not the sort of messiah who would reveal himself to the world in power and panoply. But by the time John was writing the question would have a new relevance, as the members of the fledgling house churches were being excluded from the synagogues, rejected by their fellow Jews. Why could only some people accept Jesus as Messiah, while others not only rejected Jesus but rejected his followers? Continue reading

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