Sermon: Trouble-making and scape-goating

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Sunday, the 19th of June, 2022

Luke 8:26-39
Galatians 3:23-29

I have no idea why so many people seem to think that Christianity is a reactionary force on the side of the status quo. After all the Jesus we claim to follow was a lifelong troublemaker. In today’s gospel reading, for example, Jesus cures a man who is possessed by a legion of demons. The demoniac is a man unclean in location, religion, culture, mind, and spirit. He is a Gentile: living in a land in which unclean animals like pigs are raised. He lives among the tombs: sources of ritual uncleanliness for Jews. He is totally dehumanised: he roams naked and doesn’t live in a house. Without any fear that he might himself be infected by it, Jesus approaches this situation of utter uncleanness and heals the man. Jesus then sends the demons into a nearby herd of swine, and the demons, forces of destruction, drown the pigs and presumably themselves. Evil destroys itself. Continue reading

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Sermon: Relying on Holy Wisdom

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Trinity Sunday, 12th of June 2022

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
Psalm 8

‘When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?’

Today is Trinity Sunday, the one Sunday in the church’s year when we focus explicitly on what is implicit in our worship on the other fifty-one or -two Sundays of the year; that the God Christians worship is a God in relationship, a God whose nature is community. On Trinity Sunday we give thanks that God’s very self is a community of love, a community of equality, in which Three exist so intimately with, for and in one another that they become One. As the theologian Leonard Boff says, ‘God is the lover, the beloved, and the love between them’. Continue reading

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Sermon: A quieter Pentecost

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
The Feast of Pentecost, 5th of June, 2022

John 14:8-17

‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.’ (John 14:1-3)

Today the church celebrates the Feast of Pentecost, the ‘birthday’ of the church, the day when the tiny Jesus Movement stopped hiding in upper rooms and took their message to the streets. Ordinarily, this is a day for loud and raucous celebration, with tongues of fire and rushing winds and people speaking in every language under the heavens. I had half-prepared a Reflection on the story of the tower of Babel, and how being ‘scattered … abroad over the face of all the earth’ might not actually be a punishment. But this week this community has experienced two significant losses in the deaths of Maurice Mathers and Enid Williamson, and so instead I want us to focus on the much quieter Pentecost reading we are given from the Gospel according to John. Continue reading

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Sermon: Salvation and Liberation

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
The Seventh Sunday of Easter, 29th of May, 2022

Acts 16:16-34
John 17:20-26

‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’

In today’s reading from the Book of the Acts of the Apostles Paul and Silas, and possibly the author Luke, are still in Macedonia, beginning their mission to Europe. Last week we heard the story of the first person they baptised in Macedonia, a dealer in purple cloth called Lydia. This week we hear of a further conversion and some baptisms, in a story that raises the questions: What does it mean to be saved? What are people being saved from or for?

At the beginning of today’s story, we are told that for many days Paul and Silas have been followed by a slave girl who has a spirit of prophecy that enables her to recognise them and who announces their identity to everyone around them. She is a slave to her masters and to the spirit that enables her to see the future. She recognises them as fellow slaves, but slaves to a higher spirit, the ‘Most High God’. She also recognises that, like her, they can proclaim a way of salvation to the people of Philippi. Undoubtedly many people who had sought the advice of the spirit within her had asked the very question that the jailer later asks Paul and Silas: ‘what must I do to be saved,’ and had been told how to avoid a difficult situation or to make the best of a promising one. The Spirit who guides Paul and Silas gives advice that is both similar and profoundly different. Continue reading

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Sermon: The Unexpected Lydia

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
The Sixth Sunday of Easter, 22nd of May 2022

Acts 16:9-15
John 14:23-39

‘Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?’ asks Judas, not Iscariot, of Jesus on Jesus’ last night with his disciples before his death. Judas may be still caught up in the idea of Jesus as the conventional messiah who will come into his kingdom through violence and might. Why has Jesus not rallied all those who are ready to rebel against Rome and claimed the kingship of Israel? By the time the author of John’s gospel writes about this night one answer would have been clear. Jesus had entered his messiahship through suffering and death, a humiliating failure that was paradoxically glorification. He was not the sort of messiah who would reveal himself to the world in power and panoply. But by the time John was writing the question would have a new relevance, as the members of the fledgling house churches were being excluded from the synagogues, rejected by their fellow Jews. Why could only some people accept Jesus as Messiah, while others not only rejected Jesus but rejected his followers? Continue reading

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Reflection: The Offering

The Offering

A few years’ ago, I tried to give away a kidney in what is called an ‘altruistic donation’. It’s a strange name, because surely every donation of a kidney is altruistic; but the name just meant that I wanted to give away one of my kidneys without knowing to whom it would go, no one I loved needed it. I thought it would be relatively straight-forward, but it turns out that the medical system gets quite concerned when a healthy person wants to randomly remove an organ and give it away. After the blood tests that determined that I did have two functioning kidneys, I then had four meetings with a Royal Melbourne Hospital psychiatrist over the course of a year to determine whether I was thinking about doing this for psychologically healthy reasons. Continue reading

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Sermon: Joining the church

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Baptism of Sophia Harry, 15th of May 2022

Acts 11:1-18
John 13:35-35

Today we celebrate the baptism of Sophia Grace Gordon Harry, welcoming her into the faith and family of Jesus Christ. Serendipitously, both of today’s scripture readings are about the nature of the strange community that Sophia is joining. Sophia is becoming a member of Jesus’ body, the church, a community formed by God’s love and made up of people who have heard God’s call to live in a new way.

Today’s gospel reading, which comes from the night before Jesus’ death, reminds us of exactly how strange that new way of life is. The reading beings, ‘When he had gone out …’ and the ‘he’ is Judas, who is leaving the meal that Jesus is sharing with his disciples to betray Jesus to the authorities. Now there can be no turning back; with Judas’ betrayal, Jesus’ death is sure. And yet Jesus describes his fast-approaching death as glorification: ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him’. The absolute height and depth and strength of God’s love are revealed in Jesus’ willingness to die. God’s glory will be revealed on the cross. It makes absolutely no sense, but this is how God does things. God’s glory and grandeur are revealed not in success and wealth and status, but in humility and betrayal and compassion. Sophia today is joining an organisation that seeks not to be the biggest and best, but instead to spend time with the last and the least. Continue reading

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Reflection for Mothers Day

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Mothers’ Day, 8th of May 2022

In Australia the second Sunday in May is ‘Mothers’ Day’ and many churches celebrate it, although here in Australia it is not part of the Christian calendar. ‘Mothering Sunday,’ mainly celebrated in Wales and the west of England from the seventeenth until the early twentieth century, did have a church connection. It was the Fourth Sunday of Lent, and it was the day on which young people who lived and worked away from their homes would return to their family for a meal and to the church at which they had been baptised for a service.[1] I suspect that this tradition of ‘Mothering Sunday’ was not brought to Australia because there were fewer live-in servants here, and so Australians did not need one special Sunday a year free from work on which they could return home.

The Australian tradition of Mothers’ Day, like so many of our festivals, seems to have come from the United States. In 1858 feminist activist Ann Reeves Jarvis organized a day on which to raise awareness of the poor health conditions in her community, a cause for which she believed mothers would be the best advocates. Jarvis herself gave birth to between eleven and thirteen children but only four of them lived to grow up. In response to the conditions that had killed her own children, Jarvis set up ‘Mothers Day Work Clubs’ that raised money to buy medicine, inspected milk, and visited households to educate mothers and their families about improving sanitation and health. Continue reading

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Sermon: Thank goodness for Peter

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
The Third Sunday of Easter, 1st of May, 2022

John 21:1-19
Acts 9:1-20

Do you ever find yourself lying awake at night in a cold sweat, wishing that you had said or done something differently? Have you ever said too much in anger or fear, and attacked someone with words that bite? Have you ever said too little in pride or obstinacy, and so let hurt linger or a division fester? Have you done the wrong thing, or failed to do the right thing? If so, I invite you to think of Peter, the rock on whom Jesus built the Christian church.

Peter is quite possibly the most encouraging biblical role model we could have as Christians. The gospels tell us stories of people who met Jesus, repented, and changed their lives around: tax collectors and prostitutes; the Samaritan woman at the well and the short-statured Zacchaeus. But no one committed to Jesus as completely, betrayed him so utterly, and was forgiven so abundantly as the Apostle Peter. Continue reading

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Sermon: This is our story

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Easter Sunday, 17th of April, 2022

Luke 24:1-12
Isaiah 65:17-25

Some two thousand years ago, a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. Everyone went back to the towns their families had come from to be registered. The Romans were in power. What they demanded, happened. Even if meant a young couple travelling while the woman was heavily pregnant. Even if it meant that she gave birth far from home. After all, the Romans ruled the world.

And yet, whatever the Emperor Augustus might have thought, however he might have been acclaimed, he was not the world’s saviour. It was not Rome that would bring the world peace. The baby born to that young woman would bring down the powerful from their thrones, and lift up the lowly; he would be the one who would fill the hungry with good things, and send the rich away empty. At his birth the angels sang: ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom God favours!’ Continue reading

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