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.

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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.

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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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