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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Reflection: Gender Equality in Jesus’ healings

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
27th of June, 2021

2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27
Mark 5:21-43

This week, in the latest episode of the soap opera that is the life of King David, we have the beautiful lament that David sings over Saul and Jonathan. This includes the lines: ‘Jonathan lies slain upon your high places. 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’ which, while it might not say anything positive about relationships between women and men in Ancient Israel, says a lot about the nature of biblical friendship. I would love to reflect on David and Jonathan today, but I am going to leave that Reflection in my back pocket for a week without interesting lectionary readings, and this morning I am instead going to focus on the gospel reading.

This liturgical year, as we make our way through the Gospel According to Mark, we are prompted to ask two questions. The first question, raised by the stories told of Jesus from the time he enters Galilee proclaiming the good news of God, until he travels with his disciples to Caesarea Philippi, is: ‘Who is this man Jesus?’ The answer, eventually articulated by Peter, is that Jesus is the Messiah. This leads to the second question: ‘What sort of Messiah is Jesus?’ To that the answer is ‘one who must suffer and die’. Continue reading

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Reflection for the 44th anniversary of the creation of the Uniting Church

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Anticipating the 44th anniversary of the Uniting Church, 22nd of June, 2021

Note: This is a longer version of the Reflection. The spoken version given on Sunday morning is shorter.

You may have seen in the news last week that the Anglican Church of Australia has released a report into domestic abuse and the church. The National Anglican Family Violence Research Report, conducted by researchers from Charles Sturt University, found that members of the Anglican Church were more likely to have experienced domestic violence than the general community, and that 88% of those who did experience domestic violence did not seek help from their church. Horrifyingly the report found that “Christian teachings sometimes contribute to and potentially amplify situations of domestic violence”.

I would like to think that the situation in the Uniting Church is better, although we do not have any data on it. We know that the situation in many of our partner churches in the Pacific is much worse. One of UnitingWorld’s projects is ‘gender equality’ because, as UnitingWorld says, 95% of people across the Pacific identify as Christian and Christian teachings have a massive influence on people’s behaviour but around 68% of women and girls experience violence in their homes and communities. The reason I feel that I can hope that there is less family violence among Uniting Church members than there is among Anglicans is that the researchers from Charles Sturt University found that church teachings on equality, mercy and love could help empower victims. The Uniting Church has taught gender equality from before there even was a Uniting Church. Continue reading

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Sermon: Introducing David, episode two of the soap opera

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
The third Sunday of Pentecost, 13th of June, 2021

1 Samuel 15:34 – 16:13

Welcome to episode two of the soap opera that is the life of King David. And welcome to a very mixed up and confused Biblical story! Last week I talked about the contradictions in God’s calling of Saul to be king; that kingship seemed to be both a bad thing, a rejection of God as leader of the people of God (1 Samuel 8:7) and a gift from God to save God’s people from the hand of the Philistines. (1 Samuel 9:16) Now, with the arrival on the scene of David, the story becomes even more complicated because there are at least two, possibly three, contradictory stories of how David becomes a candidate for Israel’s kingship. Continue reading

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Sermon: Some mental exercise for lockdown

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
6th of June 2021

1 Samuel 8:4-11 16-20

Here we are again: our second Sunday in our fourth lockdown. When I prepared this Reflection we had been in lockdown for less than a week, and yet I found it hard to concentrate on what I was doing. I think that for those of us who lived through the exceedingly long Melbourne lockdown last year any additional lockdowns, no matter how short, throw us immediately back into the anxiety and exhaustion we felt then. This fourth lookdown started at midnight last Thursday; by Friday morning I was already eating chocolate for breakfast and staying in my pyjamas until eleven. If you are feeling like me, anxious and exhausted beyond reason, I hope that this service comforts you. And what I am going to offer you in this Reflection is something that comforts me. I am going to offer you a biblical problem to chew over.

Continue reading
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Sermon: As we go into lockdown again, God is with us.

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Trinity Sunday, 30th of May, 2021

Isaiah 6:1-8
John 3:1-17

Here we are again, Melbourne’s fourth covid19 lockdown. Let us hope that this will be another short one, acting as the ‘circuit breaker’ that we need. We all know that we can do this; we have done it before; but as people started being vaccinated, I know that we had hoped never to have to do it again. Please keep each other in mind and heart and continue to pray for each other over this week.

This Sunday we are celebrating the Trinity. Today we celebrate explicitly what is implicit every time we gather for worship: that the God we worship is not an isolated individual, but a God who in God’s very self is a community of love. Continue reading

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Sermon: The radical roots of the Church at Pentecost

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Pentecost, 23rd of May, 2021

Acts 2:1-21

This week, as I thought about Pentecost and the church’s celebration of the gift of the Holy Spirit, I was struck by two stories in the news. Neither of them is about Pentecost, Christianity, or the church, one of them was about another religion altogether, but both spoke to me about what it is we celebrate today, and from what it is that we are turning away. Continue reading

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Sermon: Don’t stand looking for Jesus in the sky

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Feast of the Ascension, 16th of May, 2021

Acts 1:1-11
Luke 24:44-53

We often ignore the Feast of the Ascension, hovering as it does between Easter and Pentecost in the same way that Jesus’ feet hover at the top of Ascension paintings. When the Gospels and the Book of Acts were written people lived in a three-tiered universe. Heaven was up; Sheol, the realm of the dead, was down; and there was no difficulty in imagining Jesus reaching heaven by rising upwards. We no longer live in that universe, and for us the description of Jesus being ‘lifted up’ can lead to mental images of Jesus taking off through and beyond the earth’s atmosphere into outer space, although as one of the biblical commentators I read this week reminds us: ‘We do not, as a matter of fact, believe that Jesus ended his earthly ministry with the equivalent of a rocket launch, rising a few hundred miles above the earth. Nor do we think Jesus was the first to be “beamed up,” to use the term made so familiar by the television series Star Trek.[1]

But we cannot ignore the Ascension. It is so important a part of the story of Jesus that it has a clause in the Apostles’ Creed. One of the things that the church believes about Jesus is that ‘he ascended into heaven’. So what is it that we are saying we believe in when we recite the Creed? Continue reading

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Sermon: In which Avril rabbits on about love yet again, because it IS all about love

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
The Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 9th, 2021

1 John 5:1-6
John 15:9-17

The First Letter of John is like a diamond. The Elder turns agape love round and around to allow different angles of light to flash upon it. God is love; love is from God; God loves us; we are to love each other; we can love because God first loved us; no one can love God without loving their brother and sister; we show our love for God by loving our brothers and sisters. The Elder rotates the diamond, and the different facets of love shine in the light. In today’s reading another one is illuminated.

Last week we heard the Elder say that ‘The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also’. In today’s reading the direction of ‘love’ and ‘God’ and ‘commandment’ is reversed. Not only will we be seen to love God by loving our brothers and sisters. Not only can we fulfil the commandments by loving others. The relationship also goes the other way. We will be seen to love our brothers and sisters by loving God, and we love God by obeying God’s commandments. The three: love of God; love of other people; love as commandment, are intertwined. One element does not, cannot, exist without the other two. Continue reading

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Sermon: Christianity means something (liberation and love)

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
The fifth Sunday of Easter, May 2nd, 2021

1 John 4:7–21
John 15:1–8

The Johannine community had a problem. In his ‘Farewell Discourse’, Jesus had told his disciples that revelation would not end with his death. According to John, Jesus promised them that, ‘the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you’. (John 14:26) And the Holy Spirit would not merely remind the disciples of what Jesus had said to them, the Holy Spirit would go further. As Jesus told them, ‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come’. (John 16:12-23) As the hymn says, ‘the Lord has yet more light and truth to break forth from his word’. (TIS 453 ‘We limit not the truth of God’)

So far, so good. The difficulty, one that churches have been facing for two thousand years now, is in discerning when new teachings truly came from the Holy Spirit and when instead they come from what the Apostle Paul called ‘the spirit of the world’. (1 Corinthians 2:12) This seems to have been the trouble in the Johannine community. Reading between the lines of the First Letter of John, some members of the community seem to have been claiming to have greater knowledge than the rest. They appear to have argued that they had received a new teaching: one that said that only the spiritual was real and that the material was irrelevant. The Son of God had not truly come in the flesh, they said. The divine Saviour had come from heaven only spiritually and had then merely pretended to take on flesh. And because the material world is unimportant, it does not matter how people live in this so-called ‘real’ world. No deed done in such a world can be sinful, and supplying the material needs of other people is irrelevant. Only the spiritual is important. Continue reading

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