Sermon: Avril preaches to herself

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
19th of September, 2021

James 3:1-4:3, 7-8a

This morning we hear an extract from the Letter attributed to James, the brother of Jesus, and addressed to ‘the twelve tribes in the Dispersion,’ – the Jewish diaspora throughout the Roman Empire. We first hear of James in the Gospels according to Mark and Matthew, when people are scoffing at the idea of Jesus being anyone special. ‘Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas?’ (Matt 13:55, also Mark 6:3) There are few references to James in the rest of the New Testament. Paul refers to him in his first letter to the Corinthians and in his letter to the Galatians. He is also mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles when Peter is released from prison by an angel and goes to the house of one of Jesus’ followers. Peter then says: ‘Tell this to James and to the believers’. (Acts 12:17) When Paul and Barnabas inform the Jerusalem church about their ministry to the Gentiles it is James who decides how these new Gentile followers of Jesus need to live. (Acts 15:19-20) Despite only being mentioned these few times, James is obviously a person of importance in the Jerusalem church. Continue reading

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Sermon: Choose to believe – at the core of the cosmos is love

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
12th of September 2021

Psalm 19

I hope that one of the things you are doing to stay sane during this apparently never-ending lockdown is reading the Psalms. If not, this is your encouragement to do so. The Psalter is a gift. Most of the Bible is made up of writings that we consider to be words from God (although as good Uniting Church members we are of course aware that the Word of God is Jesus, not the Bible). The Book of Psalms is different. The psalms are prayers, offerings of humans to God. We sing them or pray them in worship or alone, offering them as our words to God. In times like this sixth lockdown, whether we want to praise God for the beauty of Spring, or yell at God for the frustrations and fears of isolation, the psalms offer us words to use. But today I want us to instead listen to a psalm as God’s words to us; to treat it like any other part of Scripture, as a poem through which we hear God talking to us. Continue reading

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Sermon: Not just those like us

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
The 5th of September, 2021

James 2:1-10 14-17
Mark 7:24-37

If you have been following the news over the past few weeks you will have seen what has been happening in Afghanistan as the United States of America and its allies have withdrawn and the Taliban has taken over. The scenes at the airport as desperate Afghans tried to get on evacuation flights were awful even before an ISIS-K suicide bomber killed more than 170 people. Australians have been trying desperately to get family out of Afghanistan; defence force veterans have been trying to get colleagues and their families to safety; and the saddest stories are perhaps those of the Hazara refugees who fled Afghanistan and arrived in Australia by boat, who are unable to even try to help their families to come to Australia because of the limitations on temporary protection visas. As one of them said, ‘I am human first of all. Why does it matter how I got here?’

Australia has seen similar scenes before, and in the past we were more helpful. This week, on his final day as Governor of South Australia, Hieu Van Le said:

Looking at the television news in the last few weeks and seeing the situation in Kabul in Afghanistan brings back so many sad memories to us. We relate it back to the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975. I was there. I have a deep, strong feeling of what the people there are going through, so I wish the world will look into this with a very generous and receptive view. They need help, and we need to provide them with whatever help that we can. Continue reading

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Sermon: Counting our blessings

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
The 29th of August, 2021

Song of Songs 2:8-13

Last week’s Reflection talked about the long history of lament in Judaism and Christianity, and said that if our response to the sixth lockdown was anger and despair then the heritage of our faith tells us that kicking and screaming and blaming God for God’s absence is a faithful response. That is still true. But I feel that as your minister I am compelled to balance a Reflection about anger and sadness with one about hope and joy. If you are not in a place where being encouraged to ‘count your blessings’ is helpful, then please ignore what I am saying today and return to last week’s Reflection. The Book of Lamentations moves from lament to praise and back to lament again, and we will all be in different places in that cycle.

Because Christianity was born in the northern hemisphere the liturgical year does not fit with Australia’s seasons. We celebrate new life at Easter in the autumn, and the coming of the Light in the darkness at midsummer rather than midwinter. But this week it is we who are in the right season and Christians in the northern hemisphere will be out of step. For us, when the first reading tells us ‘now the winter is past … The flowers appear on the earth’ we can look all around us and see that it is true. The lectionary gives Christians only this one reading from the Song of Songs over the entire three years, and we hear it in Spring. Continue reading

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Sermon: Blaming God

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
The 22nd of August, 2021

Lamentations 3:1-6, 19-26, 31-33
Psalm 130

On Thursday Melbourne had been in lockdown for two hundred days. Luckily for us those two hundred days did not all happen in the one lockdown, or I am not sure we could have coped, but it was still a difficult milestone. It did not help that 57 new cases were announced on the same day, even though most of the people infected had already been in isolation. This year, thank God, we are not seeing the hundreds of deaths from covid19 that we saw last year. Most of the deaths in 2020 were of people living in residential aged care, and in 2021 most aged care residents seem to have been vaccinated. Every day, as we get Victoria’s numbers, I look at the 0 deaths in gratitude and relief. But in some ways this sixth lockdown is harder than the second. Last year there were no vaccines; lockdowns were the only way of controlling covid19 that we had. When announcements about vaccinations were made at the beginning of this year the projection was that 70% of us would be fully vaccinated by now. The reality is that about a quarter of us are fully vaccinated. So Lockdown Six is causing huge frustration simply because we did not expect to still need lockdowns in the second half of 2021. Continue reading

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Sermon: God comes to us in bread

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
The 15th of August, 2021

John 6: 35, 41-51

I am not sure whether you will have noticed this, but something odd happens to the Lectionary in the weeks after Pentecost in Year B. If you have not noticed it before, it is this: suddenly, in the middle of Ordinary Time, the Lectionary leaves the gospel according to Mark behind and spends five weeks reading very slowly through the sixth chapter of John, which is all about bread. There is always a point during August in this Lectionary Year when ministers stare at the readings in exhaustion wondering what more we could possibly say about Jesus and bread. There is a reason that I sneakily took two weeks’ holiday during these John readings, and spent so much time on King David’s soap opera.

This chapter is the closest that John gets to telling us about Communion, the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist. The gospel according to John has no narrative of the institution of the Eucharist. Rather than showing Jesus on the night of his betrayal inaugurating the new covenant by breaking bread and taking the cup, John shows Jesus tying a towel around his waist and washing his disciples’ feet. But that does not mean that John’s gospel has no Eucharistic references, and the passage from which today’s gospel reading comes is part of them. Continue reading

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Reflection: More of the David Soap Opera – rape, rebellion, death, grief.

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
8th of August, 2021

2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33

During my recent holiday I kept myself amused by reading nine and a half books of the Bible, from the First Book of Samuel to halfway through the Book of Job, because what else was I going to do when most of my holiday coincided with Lockdown Five? Despite being sure that I had read every part of these books before I discovered some new stories. I knew the story of the she-bears who ate the rude children who called the Prophet Elisha ‘baldy’ (2 Kings 2:23-25), but I did not remember the story of King Uzziah getting leprosy because he was angry with the priests, (2 Chronicles 26:18-21), or the story of Governor Nehemiah pulling out the hair of those Jewish men who refused to repudiate their foreign wives and children. (Nehemiah 13:23-25)The Bible is a fascinating and strange collection. Continue reading

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Sermon: Bringing down walls

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
July 18th, 2021

Ephesians 2:11-22

Sometimes there is good news. Every week, as I think about the Bible readings for the coming Sunday, I look back to see what I have said about them in the past. This week I discovered something that hugely pleased me. Twelve years ago, when talking about today’s passage from the Letter to the Ephesians, I mentioned the continuing exclusion of the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa from the World Council of Churches because of their support of apartheid in that country. The WCC had not expelled the Dutch Reformed Church; the Church withdrew itself in 1961. In 2009 it still had not returned, and in that very year the executive committee of the World Alliance of Reformed Church declared that it was not ready to readmit the Church to WARC after suspending it in 1982 because the Church had not yet renounced apartheid ‘fully and completely’.

But in June 2016 the Central Committee of the WCC, meeting in Norway, welcomed the Dutch Reformed Church back. Dr Agnes Abuom, a Kenyan Anglican, said that it was ‘a special joy to welcome back to the fellowship the Dutch Reformed Church, one of our founding member churches and now, a generation after the end of apartheid, a partner in building a future of justice for all peoples’; and Dr Gustav Claassen, the general secretary of the Dutch Reformed Church, said that they were, ‘really overwhelmed by the reaction … Our African brothers took special time and effort to share with us their joy’. Sometimes there is good news! Continue reading

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Not really a sermon about Michal

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
11th of July, 2021

1 Samuel 18: 20-29
1 Samuel 19:11-17
1 Samuel 25:43-44
2 Samuel 3:12-16
2 Samuel 6:1-5 12b-23

I keep referring to the story of King David of Judah and Israel as a soap opera, and today I’m going to ignore the lectionary suggestions and instead tell you the story of one of the most interesting characters in this soap opera – Michal the daughter of Saul and wife of David. The lectionary ignores her almost completely, and I suspect this is because the author of the books of Samuel portrays her as a brave and independent woman treated abominably by the great King David. So, of course, I think she needs to be remembered.

Michal was the younger daughter of Saul. Like her brother Jonathan, Michal loved David. We are told this in so many words: ‘Now Saul’s daughter Michal loved David’. This is the only time in the entire Bible that we are told that a woman loves a man. We are not, however, told that David loves Michal in return. We have earlier been told that when Saul’s son Jonathan first met David, ‘the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul’. That love seems to have been reciprocated; when Jonathan dies, David laments: ‘I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women’. Given the way that David treats the women in his life, that David cares more about the love between he and Jonathan than about the love of women is not really a surprise. Continue reading

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Sermon: Success and Failure

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
4th of July, 2021

2 Samuel 5:1-5 9-10
Mark 6:1-13

The elders of Israel beg David to become their king. Jesus, the descendent of David, is rejected by his hometown. In Lent, Advent, Christmas, and Easter the readings from the two different Testaments, the Hebrew and the Greek, the ‘Old’ and the ‘New’, share themes. In Ordinary Time they do not, and that is very obvious this year as we read through the Gospel according to Mark and the story of King David in the books of Samuel. I keep describing the story of King David as a soap opera, and David’s life undoubtedly has lows as well as highs, but most of his story is one of victory and strength. Today’s gospel reading, on the other hand, tells of rejection and weakness. Continue reading

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