Sermon: Death and Life

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
26th of March, 2023

John 11:1-45

Today, the fifth Sunday of Lent, we are again offered one of the beautifully symbolic stories from the Gospel according to John. It is a story about death and darkness and mourning; about life and light and rejoicing; a story that offers us comfort and hope.

Later this year Luise and I are going to offer a seminar on funerals that we currently jokingly title, ‘We are all going to die!’ That will not be its name by the time we start advertising it properly, but from Luise’s years in the funeral industry and aged care, and my years as a minister, we know it is true. Every life ends in death, and sadly that death does not always come peacefully after a long life. The funeral service used to contain the reminder that ‘in the midst of life we are in death,’ which apparently comes from a battle song by tenth-century monk Notker the Stammerer and, while that might strike our twenty-first-century ears as morbid, it is simply a fact. If we accept that, today’s reading can offer us comfort. Continue reading

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Sermon: A man born blind

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Fourth Sunday of Lent, 19 March 2023

John 9:1-41

‘You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?’

Today, like last week, we hear a magnificent story from the Gospel according to John, a tale of light and sight and blindness, in which faith is born and faith is lost. The story begins with a question about God’s justice. Jews, and we Christians who follow them, believe that God created everything, that there has been no equivalent, evil, power interfering and marring God’s good creation. But if everything is made by a good God, why do bad things happen? How can any baby be born blind? One, false, explanation that has sometimes been offered is that such tragedies are the result of our sin. So the disciples ask Jesus when they see a man born blind: ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus says that it was neither, that ‘he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him’. We need to be careful that we do not take this and create another false explanation for tragedies; that they have come from God as teaching moments.  What Jesus now does could only have been done while he was walking the earth. Continue reading

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Sermon: A woman at a well

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Third Sunday of Lent, 12th of March 2023

John 4:5-42

Today’s story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well is one of my favourite stories in the entire Bible, with one of my favourite characters. I love it so much that I asked to have it as one of the Bible readings at my ordination, because I have long identified with this nameless Samaritan woman. I am, however, swimming against the tide of biblical interpretation, because throughout history this Samaritan woman has been defamed.

The story starts with Jesus sitting alone by a well, when a woman approaches to draw water. John tells us that it is about noon. Immediately we know that there is something wrong in this woman’s life. She is coming to the well in the heat of the day, rather than in the cool of the dawn or early evening. She is coming alone, rather than with the other women of the village. This woman is an outsider, isolated from her community. And yet Jesus, a Jewish man, asks her for a drink. Continue reading

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Sermon: An imagined community

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Second Sunday of Lent, 5th of March 2023

John 3:1-17

In today’s reading we are introduced to one of the most tantalising characters in the Bible – Nicodemus. He only appears three times in the Scriptures, all in the Gospel according to John, and we know nothing else about him. But in these three moments we see a journey from darkness to courage and love – a journey for us to imitate.

The reading starts with Nicodemus the Pharisee coming to visit Jesus by night. Why at night? Is he coming to visit a teacher in the quiet hours when Pharisees were advised to study without the distractions of the day? Will a night visit mean that his fellow scholars are unlikely to see him visiting someone as potentially disreputable as Jesus? Or is the ‘night’ from which Nicodemus emerges to question Jesus symbolic, representing the world of ignorance into which the light that is Jesus has come to shine? Given that we are reading a story written by John, who always likes his symbolism, probably all of these answers are right. Continue reading

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Sermon: Chocolate, Milton, and Lent Event

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
First Sunday of Lent, 26th of February, 2023

Genesis 2:15-17 3:1-7
Matthew 4:1-11

I have given up chocolate for Lent. I do this at least every few years and I always feel a little ridiculous about it. Jesus is walking towards his death, the most humiliating, painful and lonely death the Roman Empire could impose, and to show my solidarity with his journey I am giving up a completely voluntary sweet treat. Shrove Tuesday is ‘pancake day’ because medieval Christians had to use up the milk, eggs, and fat that they could not eat during Lent before Ash Wednesday, and fasting from such staples can be respected. Giving up chocolate? Not so much. At the end of this Reflection I will explain why I am doing so, anyway. Continue reading

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Sermon: Salt and Light

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
5th of February 2023

Isaiah 58:1-9a
Matthew 5:13-20

How I wish that I had the problems of the third of the prophets Isaiah. (Or maybe not.) As you are probably tired of me repeating, the three prophets we call ‘Isaiah’ were prophesying in the context of the greatest tragedy that had happened to the Jewish people since their slavery in Egypt. Third Isaiah, from whom we hear today,  is writing in the sixth century BCE, after the Babylonian Exile has ended, when the people have left captivity in Babylon, returned home to Jerusalem, and yet found their home-coming incomplete. There had been tremendous hope in the prophecies of ‘Second’ Isaiah that the return from Exile would be a second Exodus from Egypt, leading to prosperity and joy. That has not happened. Life is difficult. There is no new and glorious kingdom. The Temple remains in ruins. It is from amid this despair that we hear Third Isaiah prophesy. Continue reading

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Sermon: The Beatitudes

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
29th of January 2023

1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Matthew 5:1-12

Today, as we continue our Epiphany journey through Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, we hear one of my favourite descriptions of what it is that church believes: ‘For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.’ It is a perfect description of today’s gospel reading, because today the lectionary takes us to the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, and the foolishness and the wisdom of the beatitudes. Continue reading

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Sermon: In favour of the Voice to Parliament

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
22nd of January 2023

1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Matthew 4:12-23

In last week’s reading from the Apostle Paul’s first surviving letter to the Corinthians, Paul started his epistle on a surprisingly positive note – for Paul. He wrote: ‘I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus’. (1 Corinthians 1:4-7) That is lovely, but in today’s reading, a mere ten verses into the letter, Paul is not so happy. The Corinthians are being scolded.

The problem is division. The Corinthians have been called by God into community, but they are a community in conflict. Apparently, they are idolising certain leaders, saying of themselves: ‘“I belong to Paul”, or “I belong to Apollos”, or “I belong to Cephas”, or “I belong to Christ.”’ We do not know exactly what this means, what each of those different factions represented. It could be that those who describe themselves as belonging to Cephas, Peter, want the church to hold more strongly to its Jewish roots. Apollos came from Alexandria; it might be that those who claimed to belong to him wanted Christianity to become a school of philosophy. We do not have the Corinthians’ side of this exchange, so we just do not know. What we do know is that (according to Paul) claiming to belong to a different evangelist or teacher from your fellow church members is divisive. Continue reading

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Sermon: The Church – always ‘of God’ but never perfect

This sermon refers to the sexual abuse of children by clergy. If this raises issues for you, remember that you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
15th of January 2023

1 Corinthians 1:1-9
John 1:29-42

‘To those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints’. Here at the beginning of the new calendar year, our lectionary readings also have a very ‘beginning’ feeling to them. We have Jesus calling his very first disciples, two of whom are initially disciples of John the Baptist, and the third of whom is Simon, renamed Peter by Jesus: emotional, committed, brave, cowardly, and profoundly human. We also have the greeting from Paul’s magnificent First Letter to the church at Corinth. If we ever feel that size, strength, wealth, or unity are necessary to show that the church is on the right path, Paul’s two surviving letters to the Corinthians remind us that the fellowship of Jesus Christ our Lord can be small, weak, poor, and divided, and still be the church of God. Continue reading

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Sermon: Mutual epiphanies

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Epiphany 2023

Ephesians 3:1-12
Matthew 2:1-12

‘In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit’.

An ‘epiphany’ is an illuminating discovery; the sudden perception of an essential meaning; a new understanding that comes from a simple and striking event. The Epiphany, celebrated by the church after the twelve days of Christmas, commemorates the revelation of the Jewish Messiah to Gentiles from the East; the discovery by them that God is present in the child born King of the Jews; a new understanding of the mystery hidden in former generations. As God is revealed to the magi in the child they see with Mary his mother, so the magi, Gentiles, are revealed to be ‘fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise’ that this child’s life, death, and resurrection will bring to the world. Continue reading

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