Sermon: Hope in a time of pandemic

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
The First Sunday of Advent, 28th of November, 2021

Jeremiah 33:14-16
Psalm 25:1-10
Luke 21:25-36

Never in my lifetime has Advent felt more real. Normally the season of Advent feels a bit strange; society around us is singing carols and gathering in celebration, while we are talking about death and destruction and the last things. But this year readings of terror and warning and reassurance speak with more immediacy than they did when the world around us seemed safe and at peace. This year, we all need hope.

You will have seen the massive ‘freedom’ rallies that have been occurring around the country against vaccines, against vaccination mandates, against any continuing public health restrictions. What I found confusing when I first saw the protesters was that so many of them appeared to be, from my admittedly brief glances, well off. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found that people from Australia’s lowest socioeconomic group were four times more likely to die from covid than those in the highest group. Even when adjusting for age, those who were poorest were 2.6 times more likely to die of COVID than Australia’s wealthiest. It would make sense if the poor were the people frustrated enough and scared enough by the experiences of the past two years to be protesting, but they do not seem to be the majority of the marchers. Continue reading

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Sermon: The Return of the King

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
21st of November, 2021

2 Samuel 23:1-7
Revelation 1:4b-8
John 18:33-37

Last week I attended a lunch of local ministers during which one of them, a member of the Australian Monarchist League, mentioned that it was a boon for their cause that the British Royal Family so obviously took the climate emergency more seriously than most Australian politicians. (I wonder whether this is because royals are used to thinking in generations, while politicians think in election cycles.) I responded by teasing him and saying that as far as I was concerned the last real ruler of Great Britain was Queen Anne and the ‘proper’ monarchy ended in 1714. When I want to tease modern monarchists I tend to say either this, or that I think the last true king of England was Richard III who died in 1485 and that no one descended from the usurping Tudors is legitimate. But, of course, the only king I take seriously and certainly the only ruler I am ever at all likely to obey is Jesus. Continue reading

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Sermon: The faith and generosity of Hannah

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
14th of November 2021

1 Samuel 1:4-20

Hannah is one of the characters in the Hebrew Scriptures that I appreciate most. I first became interested in her because of her name; ‘Hannah’ is part of my surname and my Scottish grandfather’s name was ‘Samuel Hannah’ so of course my ears pricked up when I heard of ‘Hannah, mother of Samuel’ in Sunday School. But even for those of you who do not share her name, Hannah is a woman well worth getting to know. Here we are, two weeks before Advent, listening to the tale of a miraculous birth that is a precursor of the miraculous birth that we will celebrate at Christmas. Like Mary, Hannah is a marginalised woman of faith who sings a song of justice in response to God’s intervention in her life. Like Mary, Hannah is a role model for all of us. Continue reading

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Sermon: Is the poor widow a good example or an awful warning?

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
7th of November, 2021

Mark 12:38-44

I know what I should do with today’s reading from the Gospel according to Mark. I should preach about the importance and imperative of giving, even if the amount that one can give is small, with the widow in today’s story as a model. I should say that one of the greatest joys I get from being in fulltime employment is being able to give money away – which is true. I should talk about the psychological studies that have found that giving makes us happy – and there are many. I should mention that over this past lockdown I donated money to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre whenever I felt frustrated and sad and received an immediate dopamine hit – which I did. I should affirm that the charity of the impoverished widows among us is worth more than the philanthropy of the Andrew Forrests and Frank Lowys and Gina Rineharts who merely give away millions from their billions – which I am sure is right. If I preached that sermon we could all pat ourselves on the back, or possibly be inspired to give a little more if we do not yet donate enough to notice it, and end the service feeling satisfied.

However Jesus did not live his life nor Mark write his gospel so that we in twenty-first century Australia could congratulate ourselves on our generosity. Everything I have said about giving is true, but it is unlikely to have been why Jesus pointed out the widow’s action to his disciples. Today I am going to give you two different and contradictory interpretations of the story of the widow with the least coins. I do not know which reading is correct, and I suspect that we cannot know because we are reading the story millennia after it was written on the other side of the world from the community for which Mark wrote. I will leave the choice between these two understandings up to you. Continue reading

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Sermon: On not blaming the poor for their poverty

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
24th of October, 2021

Job 42:1-6, 10-17

Today is the fourth and last Sunday that we will spend with the impoverished Job, his faithful wife, his three somewhat-silly friends, the Lord, and ha-satan. This past week has also been Anti-Poverty Week. One of the reasons that groups like the Brotherhood of St Laurence, and Berry Street, and Anglicare, and of course Uniting VicTas, combine to commemorate Anti-Poverty Week is because Australians who have not experienced poverty themselves frequently do not know what poverty looks like in Australia. Often the image in people’s minds is a man sleeping rough and asking for money outside supermarkets. But did you know that at least one in six Victorian children live in poverty; most people experiencing poverty live in families with children; family and domestic violence is the biggest cause of homelessness for women and children; and there are more women living in poverty in Victoria than men? Continue reading

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Sermon: The cosmos was not created for us

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
17th of October, 2021

Job 38:1-7, 34-41

On the day that I wrote this ‘Reflection’ Victoria had 2297 new cases of covid19 and in the previous twenty-four hours eleven people had died. This week the lectionary shows us the Lord at God’s most unfathomable and transcendent. What comfort is there for us in the God who speaks to Job out of the whirlwind and demands that he gird up his loins? Amid human suffering, what consolation is there in the knowledge that God made the entire cosmos? Why would the Lord think that a series of rhetorical questions about creation is any sort of answer to suffering? What does the Book of Job have to say to us during a deadly global pandemic? Continue reading

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Sermon: Faithful complaint

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
10th of October, 2021

Job 23:1-9, 16-17

I have been feeling awful this week. I try to remind myself how lucky I am: to be able to continue most of my work through this pandemic and to be paid for it; to live in Melbourne’s east, with access to beautiful parks if not to the sea; to not be frightened for anyone I love because they have all been vaccinated and are able to socially distance; to live in a country with a public health system and only fifty-one covid19 deaths per million people. I am extremely and undeservedly lucky and I know that. But this week, when Victoria set a record of 1,763 new covid cases in one day, followed by eleven deaths in a single day, my gratitude has been swamped by sadness and frustration. And in this darkness I am joined by Job. Continue reading

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Sermon: Job’s wife was right!

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
3rd of October, 2021

Job 1:1, 2:1-10

Today we hear from the beginning of one of my favourite books in the Bible. I know I say that about a lot of books, you might have discerned by now that I love spending time in the Bible, but the Book of Job really is something special. We do not know exactly when it was written, sometime between the seventh and fourth centuries BCE is our best guess, and we do not know who wrote it. I believe we know why it was written. The Revised Common Lectionary gives us readings from the Book of Job now because, like many of the Psalms and the books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs, it is classified as wisdom literature. But the Book of Job is anti-wisdom literature. Unlike the psalms and proverbs that promise that those who are righteous will prosper, the argument of the Book of Job is that misfortune can strike anyone, even the most faithful. Continue reading

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Sermon: Why is Esther in the Bible?

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
26th of September 2021

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22

As a congregation that follows the Revised Common Lectionary, we do not spend a lot of time with Queen Esther, and sadly we never hear the story of Queen Vashti read out in church. Today is the only Sunday in the three-year cycle that we hear a reading from the Book of Esther, and that reading is only eleven verses long. This may be because Esther is such a puzzling and problematic book, one that raises all sorts of questions. Esther offers neither neat morals for the preacher to expound, nor moral examples for hearers to follow, and today’s ‘Reflection’ is very much an exploration without conclusion.

The Book of Esther makes no mention of God, or of the Law, the covenant between the Lord and Moses, prayer, or any of the dietary restrictions that distinguish Jews from the rest of the world. The early Jewish translators were so worried by all these gaps that when they translated the book from Hebrew into Greek they added prayers into the Greek version. Commentators think that Esther was written in the fourth century BCE, and would have been translated into Greek, with the religious additions, in the second or first century BCE, but it did not officially become part of the Jewish canon until the third century CE. The Western Church decided that it was part of the Christian canon in the fourth century and the Eastern Church finally agreed in the eighth century. Esther puzzled Jews and Christians for centuries. Continue reading

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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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