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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Sermon: The beauty of the mountains

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Feast of the Transfiguration, 27th of February 2022

Exodus 34:29-35
Psalm 99
Luke 9:28-36

Mountains are places to encounter God. Looking up at them from the surrounding plains we see their peaks reaching into the heavens. Climbing a summit is an escape from everyday life. Looking down from them we have a ‘God’s eye’ view of our surroundings, and can see the interconnectedness of all things: rivers joining lakes; roads linking place to place. Most importantly, mountains are simply beautiful. Years’ ago the church sent me to live for six months in the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Institute in Switzerland, and every single day I saw the Jura Mountains looming up over Lake Geneva, and every single day that sight took my breath away. It is no wonder that we refer to our most immediate encounters with God as mountaintop experiences. It is no wonder that Moses encountered God on Mount Sinai; that the Psalmist calls us to worship God on his holy mountain; and that it is on a mountain that Jesus meets with Moses and Elijah, and God speaks directly to Peter, James, and John. Mountains are places to encounter God.

A photo of mountains in the distance, with Lake Geneva in the middle ground and rooftops of Nyon in the foreground.

The Jura Mountains over the rooftops of Nyon

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Sermon: Do as you would be done by? Not necessarily

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
20th of February 2022

Luke 6:17-26

If last week’s extract from the Sermon on the Plain, with its terrifying ‘woes’ to balance the blessings, was difficult to hear, this week’s reading is even worse. ‘But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.’ I have heard and read this passage over and over again through the years and it still makes me gasp. This is what Jesus asks of us when he calls us to follow him, and it seems impossible. ‘Do to others as you would have them do to you’ may be manageable, but surely in the Sermon on the Plain Jesus is either demanding too much of us, to make us aware that we are all miserable sinners saved only by his death, or is being aspirational. Continue reading

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Sermon: Of equal worth

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
13th of February 2022

Luke 6:17-26

On the day on which I wrote this Reflection, Victoria announced another sixteen deaths by covid19, bringing the total of covid19 deaths announced so far in 2022 in this state to 717. This means that as far as we can tell the number of lives lost to covid19 so far this year has exceeded the number of lives lost by suicide in all of 2020. If you can remember back that far, in this pandemic that seems to have been happening for decades, you might remember that in 2020 some politicians and media opposed to the Victorian lockdowns argued that there was a ‘shadow pandemic’ of suicides happening that would ultimately take more lives than would the actual pandemic. Instead, the Australian Bureau of Statistics found that fewer Australians died in 2020 than in 2019 (161,300 in 2020, as opposed to 169,301 in 2019). Even with the covid19 outbreaks here, there were fewer deaths in Victoria in 2020 (41,093) than in 2019 (43,944), and, as far as the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare can tell, fewer deaths by suicide in Victoria in 2020 (694) than in 2019 (717). Continue reading

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Sermon: Exercising our gifts

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
February 6, 2022

Isaiah 6:1-8
Luke 5:1-11

I am often envious of those who provide practical help in emergencies, people like my sister-in-law the nurse and my brother who volunteers with the SES and CFA. As an emergency chaplain I have been deployed after floods and fires, and worked alongside Red Cross and Salvation Army volunteers who provide food and material aid in Emergency Relief Centres. They know exactly what they are there to do and can see their work making an immediate difference. In contrast my role has usually been to sit beside people and provide an atmosphere of calm in which they can begin to process their trauma. While I hope that the people who talked to me were less likely to develop PTSD, I have never been certain that my presence was useful. My ministry has always felt so much more nebulous than the practical responses that others can offer when people are in trouble. Continue reading

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Sermon: Day of Mourning

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
23rd of January 2022

Luke 4:14-21
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a

Think back to the last time you injured yourself. Were you surprised by how much an injury to one part of the body affected every other part of it? The human body has 206 bones, 639 muscles, about two square metres of skin, and numerous ligaments, cartilage, veins, arteries, blood cells and fat cells, all working together. Our bodies are among the most complex systems in existence, and it is to our astoundingly complicated bodies that the Apostle Paul compares the church.

Paul was not unique in comparing a community to the body, but the way he did it was profoundly radical. Philosophers who had previously compared society to bodies usually did it along the lines of that verse in ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ that we no longer sing: ‘The rich man in his castle/the poor man at his gate/God made them high and lowly/and ordered their estate’. But Paul is not describing the church as a body in order to say that the apostles are the head, while the widows are the feet and should behave according to their inferior place. Instead, Paul says that: ‘the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honourable we clothe with greater honour, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect’. Paul uses the image of many members in one body to argue for the unity and equality of members of the church, despite their diversity. Continue reading

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Sermon: Maybe we’re the answer

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
16th of January, 2022

John 2:1-11

The story of the miracle at Cana must be one of the better-known miracle stories. People who know little else about what Jesus did, know that he once turned water into wine. But it is also a story that for a long time I found troubling. First, I did not like the way Jesus spoke to his mother. ‘Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.”’ That struck me as unnecessarily rude. Second, it is sometimes used to support ‘replacement theology’ or supersessionism, the idea that Christianity has replaced Judaism and that the Church has replaced the people of Israel as the people of God. The argument is that the ‘stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification’ are no longer necessary because Jesus has come and filled them with the wine of the messianic banquet. It was only when I read that Jesus had produced somewhere between 450 and 680 litres of wine, a frankly ridiculous amount of wine, that I took another look at this miracle story. Continue reading

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Sermon for the Epiphany

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Epiphany, 9th of January, 2022

Isaiah 60:1-6
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
Matthew 2: 1-12

Today we celebrate the Epiphany of the Lord, the feast that concludes the twelve days of Christmas. The word ‘epiphany’ means any sudden realization; so that if at any time you have a revelation, you can declare that you’ve had ‘an epiphany’. But the particular epiphany about which Matthew writes and that we are celebrating today is the revelation to the Gentiles, through the magi, that the One God has come to live among humanity and can be seen in the infant Jesus. According to Matthew, wise men from the East saw Jesus’ star at its rising and came to pay him homage, bringing him gifts. The star went before them and when it stopped over the house where Jesus was the magi were overwhelmed with joy. This was a moment of great and sudden illumination, an epiphany, as the Messiah was revealed to Gentiles. The homage offered by these people from the East acknowledged that Jesus had been born for all humanity, even if they had been looking for one they called the ‘king of the Jews’. Continue reading

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Sermon: Being wowsers, do-gooders, virtue signallers, etc

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
For the New Year, 2nd of January, 2022

Revelation 21:1-6a
Matthew 25:31-46

Here we stand in the liminal moment between the old year and the new. Literary heroine Anne of Green Gables once said, after flavouring a cake with liniment instead of vanilla, ‘Marilla, isn’t it nice to think that tomorrow is a new day without any mistakes in it yet?’[1] At this time of year I always think: isn’t it nice to be on the threshold of a new year without any mistakes in it yet?

Between Christmas and New Year two comments were made that I have been pondering ever since. One was to me personally and was roughly that I was a hypocrite who hid my inherent nastiness by donating money to charity and talking about it. The other was a tweet by Sydney Daily Telegraph politics editor James Morrow that said, ‘Public health has always been about endorsing a particular sort of politicised virtuous liberalism’ (liberalism with a small ‘l’, obviously). Both statements had me thinking about the relationship between doing and speaking, and the dangers that Christians fall into if we do not merely try to follow Jesus, but dare to do it publicly and talk about what it is we are doing. And then I saw today’s Bible readings and it all made sense. Continue reading

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