Sermon: A complete puzzle of a parable

Sermon for Wesley Uniting Church
22nd of September 2019

 Luke 16:1-13

Last week I said that when Jesus told parables he was not doing so to make his message easier to hear; that the story form was not the spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. Parables were meant to leave Jesus’ hearers with something to chew on, something to puzzle over and argue against so that the parable became part of them. Well, if that was Jesus’ intention in telling his parables, complicating the issue so that his hearers were forced to reflect on his message, he certainly succeeded in the one we hear today. Almost no one has any idea what this story is really about. The Church Fathers tended to ignore it;[1] renowned biblical scholar Rudolf Bultmann apparently declared it to be incomprehensible;[2] and some commentators have suggested that Luke himself was baffled by Jesus’ story, and so added a series of morals to the end of the parable in the hope that they would make sense of an otherwise nonsensical tale.[3] It’s a parable that is ‘deeply unsettling to our sense of justice and fair play’;[4] and one that is often ignored.[5]  I know that the congregation here at Wesley can cope with wrestling with a difficult parable, so we won’t ignore it. But please make allowances for the confusion of what follows! Continue reading

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Sermon: God must be crazy!

Sermon for Wesley Uniting Church
15th of September 2019

 Luke 15:1-10

In the two parables from today’s gospel reading we are in the very heart of the Gospel according to Luke. Christianity would not be the faith we know without these two stories and the one that follows them, the story of the so-called ‘prodigal son’. These stories of lost sheep, lost coin, and lost sons reveal to us the overwhelming nature of the love of God. In fact, so extravagant is God’s love that the theme of these three stories could be ‘God behaving badly’. Continue reading

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Reflection: Carrying the Cross

Reflection for Wesley Uniting Church Evening Service
8th of September 2019

Luke 14:25-33

What on earth can we do with today’s reading from the Gospel according to Luke?It starts with Jesus telling those following him that in order to become his disciples they must hate both their families and their lives, and ends with him telling them to give up all their possessions. I’m not sure which is the more shockingly blasphemous saying; which the more counter-cultural; which the more impossible to take ‘literally’. The author of the Gospel according to Matthew seems to be softening Jesus’ words when they quote Jesus as saying instead: ‘Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.’ (Matthew 10:37-38)

Of course, as always, we need to put this passage in context. Jesus is on the road to Jerusalem and his death; ‘When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem’. (Luke 9:51) But as he journeys towards his death Jesus is surrounded by ‘large crowds’ – according to commentator Joseph Fitzmyer probably people following him ‘because of the blessing and the wonderful things that he has associated with the kingdom’.1 So as he speaks Jesus is probably surrounded not just by those who have chosen to commit their lives to him, but by dilettantes interested in the newest guru. These might be the people that Jesus wants to challenge and shock, rather than committed disciples. Continue reading

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Sermon: Slavery and Biblical Literalism

Sermon for Wesley Uniting Church
8th of September 2019

Philemon 1-21

Over the past couple of years, with the marriage equality debate; the Instagram posts of rugby star Israel Folau; and most recently the federal Religious Discrimination Bill, the issue of what Christians believe has become newsworthy. (It’s a little sad that civil society is only interested in what Christians believe when we’re talking about marriage and sexuality, rather than when we’re condemning both major political parties’ treatment of asylum seekers, but so it goes.) One of the questions that the Israel Folau case, in particular, has raised, has been the status of the Bible. Folau shared a meme on his Instagram post that he said was based on a verse in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. Various other people responded by arguing that the meme was a distortion; that Folau wasn’t actually quoting from the biblical text. My response is that that doesn’t matter. Christians don’t have to affirm something just because it’s ‘biblical’. Continue reading

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Apostles Creed 3 – Jesus Christ

Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
19th of May, 2019
The Apostles Creed: Jesus Christ

I have mentioned before that the ecumenical creeds were written to answer particular questions. Last week we looked at some of the questions that the first clause of the Apostles Creed answers: do Christians worship the same God as Jews?; is the Father of Jesus Christ also the Creator of the cosmos? (Just to remind you, the early church answered both those questions with ‘yes’.) Today we look at the longest section of the Apostles Creed, the clause that is answering the question: ‘who is Jesus Christ’? One of the accusations that the early Christians were responding to in their creeds was that they worshipped more than one god, despite claiming to be monotheists. The world in which they lived was a world of many gods. Greeks and Romans were happy to believe that there was one Supreme Being, but they thought that the Supreme Being did not concern itself with daily life. Instead, it delegated the day-to-day running of things to lesser gods, and the Roman Empire only survived because these lesser gods were kept happy. The first Christians were accused of being atheists because they refused to join in traditional cultic celebrations. Other peoples in the Roman Empire had long known of and respected the Jews as monotheists, worshippers of a single God, and Christians claimed to be the same, despite proclaiming Jesus Christ as Lord. As a pagan, Celsus, wrote of the early Christians:

If these men worshipped no other God but one, perhaps they would have a valid argument against the others. But in fact they worship to an extravagant degree this man who appeared recently, and yet think it not inconsistent with monotheism if they also worship his servant.[1]

It was partly to answer this accusation, that Christians worship two gods, that the clauses of the creeds to do with Jesus were written. Continue reading

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Apostles Creed 2 – God the Father

Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
12th of May, 2019

The Apostles Creed: God the Father

I want to start this second reflection on the Apostles Creed with some wisdom from Davis McCaughey, the first President of the Uniting Church and one-time Governor of Victoria. Writing about the creeds in his commentary on the Basis of Union Davis says:

For centuries men and women have used these words not because they already understand them but because by their use they hope to understand them. There are some mysteries which we can only acknowledge fully in worship, and God himself in his threefold being is certainly the central mystery with which our lives are surrounded.[1]

So, do not expect that at the end of this short series on the Apostles Creed you are going to be able to understand the nature of the Trinity. That’s not what I’m aiming at, and I don’t think it’s what the early church wanted when creating the creeds. The creeds answer some questions about God, but the early church was always aware that God is beyond anything our words can describe.

The first clause of the Apostles Creed might seem to be the simplest one: ‘I believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth.’ Nothing controversial there, surely; it’s only when we start talking about Jesus Christ as God’s Son, our Lord, someone conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary that things really start to get complicated, right? Well, no. There’s a reason that the Apostles Creed starts with the God the Father and creation. Continue reading

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Apostles Creed 1

Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
5th of May, 2019

An introduction to the Apostles Creed

One word that might be used to describe the group of us gathered here today is ‘believers’. Have you ever thought about how strange that is; to describe the people who follow a particular religion not by what we do but by what we think? It would seem to make more sense to describe religious people as ‘doers’ rather than ‘believers,’ since what we do can be experienced by others at first hand but no one else can be certain about what it is that we truly believe. And yet religious people are described as ‘people of faith’ and ‘believers’ rather than ‘people of action’ and ‘doers’. Continue reading

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