Friday, December 09, 2011

Australian Christian Voices

At the ALP National Conference last weekend, a decision was made in support of same-sex marriage, with individual members being allowed a conscience vote on the matter. In response to this news, the Australian Christian Lobby predictably came out with a sensational press release (which received broad media coverage) claiming that there would be a full-scale "church revolt" against the Labor Party because of this decision.

I felt my blood pressure rise as once again the ACL was quoted in the popular media, and treated as THE representative of Christians in Australia, when it was spouting rhetoric that was not only far removed from my own views (as an Australian Christian), but also removed from what I believe to be the all-inclusive grace of God; the self-giving love of Christ; and the ongoing, hope-filled presence of the Holy Spirit.

Once again, I ranted on Facebook that:
The ACL does not speak for ME!

Then I started chatting with a couple of colleagues, who were also frustrated that the ACL, with its particular views (that represent a narrow section of the Christian Church in Australia), had claimed a place as the "go-to" organisation whenever the media or politicians are seeking a "Christian viewpoint" on a hot topic. Can't we suggest a more representative group, that would give a more balanced and moderate view?

When asking this question, it became clear that the answer was no. There is no one single group that is truly representative of the whole Christian church, because there is such a diversity and breadth of viewpoints on matters of social and political interest across the church.

So, we set out to raise awareness of this diversity. To shout from the rooftops that the ACL and other such groups do not represent all Christians, because life is more complex than thinking that there could possibly be only one view on important and complex topics. Two of my friends and I started up a group on Facebook called Australian Christian Voices, with an associated public page, as a forum for people who recognise that Christian opinion is more diverse and varied than it is often represented in the media, or society generally. The aim of the group is to promote, and provide space for, the articulation, dissemination, and reception of broader Christian opinion within the media, the body politic, and wider society.

A number of our members (after only a few days, the group's membership is now over 100) sent emails to the Victorian Council of Churches, expressing our frustration with the way groups such as the ACL hijack media attention, and claim to speak for the whole Christian Church. Yesterday, the VCC released a statement which was picked up by some of the media, and especially went wild on Twitter after the ABC retweeted the link to the statement.

I am excited at the possibilities that are unfolding. For a long time I have been fed up with Christians being portrayed in the media as gay-bashing wowsers who are hyper critical, judgemental, and busy looking for things to condemn. I am hopeful that if the media starts recognising that the ACL and groups like it do not speak for all Christians, they might start seeking opinion from other branches of the Church, and instead of negativity, be able to discover and promote God's overwhelming, astounding love that is at the heart of the Christian faith.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Artfull Worship

In this morning's worship at Myrtleford we had a visit from Christina Rowntree, the Artfull Faith Coordinator from the Uniting Church Centre for Theology and Ministry in Melbourne. A variety of CTM staff participated in worship this morning in a number of congregations across our presbytery, after being up here for an educational event called Wisdom's Feast.

During the week, Christina and I plotted and planned something a little bit different
and creative for our worship, which was held in the church hall, inviting people to engage with various works of art, readings and symbols, as we moved through various 'stations' of the worship space.

Station 1 - Gathered around Paschal Candle in entrance to worship space:
Call to Worship and Gathering Prayer, based on Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35.

: TIS 111 Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation

Station 2 - Centre of the hall, facing the pulpit, and a screen behind

A continuous loop of images of art depicting the Ascension was projected onto the screen.
People were given the text of Acts 1:6-14 to read in supported silence (with some gentle background music)
I gave a brief reflection on the reading
Act of confession- seeking forgiveness for
looking for Jesus in the wrong places, and failing to see him in ourselves and each other (through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit- see Acts 1:8, 10-11).
Taize chant
: Jesus remember me, when you come into your kingdom

As people moved to the next station, they were invited to walk behind the pulpit and look inside it (where there was a mirror), and think of the significance of
this- of the pulpit being a place where the Word is proclaimed, and that the Word is not a book, but Christ. Where is the Word/Christ now? What do they see in the pulpit?

Station 3 - 'Suffering and intercession'.

1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11
was read aloud by the Elder.
People were invited to gaze upon the image of Picasso's Weeping Woman, and a photograph of the earth taken from space, as they formulated their own prayers for the world, and wrote them on pieces of coloured paper.

Some poems and music were used for inspiration.
When the prayers were written, they were pegged onto the wall, as we sang together the Taize chant: O Lord hear my prayer.

Station 4 - Preparing to go back into the world

Focus on table, covered in white cloth, with many candles, and a print of Chris Neild's Man of Sorrows in front.

Two tapers are lit from
the Paschal candle, and as the Elder reads John 17:1-11 (with strategic pauses), each time the word 'glory/glorify' is read, two candles are lit, until all the candles on the table are alight at the end of the reading.

The people are invited to contemplate the question: "What is glory?" as they listen to the reading and gaze on the image and the candles.
A period of very profound silence ensued.

Station 5
- around the Paschal Candle- facing outwards towards the exit

Song - TIS 613 Lord of all hopefulness Lord of all joy
Christina and I pronounced a blessing

Benediction- A Christmas Blessing

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Fact or fiction- are they really mutually exclusive?

A good friend and colleague of mine has been receiving a lot of media attention this week. The Rev Avril Hannah-Jones, the minister of Romsey Uniting Church, is holding a special worship service this Sunday afternoon, promoted as being “Sci-fi and Fantasy Friendly”.

Avril has long been a fan of various science fiction and fantasy books, movies and TV (and in fact, I can blame her for introducing me to the Supernatural TV series. Those Winchester boys really are just too cute for their own good... but I digress... :-). So when she scored an audience ticket to the first episode of the ABC talk show Adam Hills in Gordon St Tonight, she described herself in her audience profile questionnaire as ‘a Sci-fi and fantasy addicted Uniting Church Minister’.

Adam Hills built on this with a humorous film-clip advertising a fictitious ‘Church of Latter Day Geeks’, and it all kind of snowballed from there, and Avril found herself, some weeks later, designing a service of worship that would appeal to those ‘geeks’.

Avril wrote in promoting the service:

“Impressed with the way the Doctor, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Harry Potter live out Jesus’ teaching, ‘No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’? Intrigued by the themes of mercy, forgiveness and redemption in Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and the television series Angel? Inspired to do good and resist evil by the example of Peter Parker, the crew of Serenity and the Winchester brothers? Then come to a sci-fi and fantasy-friendly church. You’re welcome to come in a costume of your choice, but blasters, stakes and other weapons will have to be left at the church door.”

I will be attending this service on Sunday afternoon, both because I want to support Avril (as this whole thing has gotten bigger than she ever imagined) and because at a time when media stories about Christians are almost universally bad, here is the chance for a good-news story. A story of a faith community engaging a whole group of people in our society who are often portrayed as weirdos and outcasts.

Of course, not all of the media attention has been positive (see this article in Wednesday's Herald Sun). One accusation, made particularly of fantasy stories, is that they’re escapist. In responding to this, Avril refers to JRR Tolkien, and to Easter:

Writing about fairy tales, Tolkien described them as including a ‘eucatastrophe’, a good catastrophe, the sudden joy that comes in the midst of despair, the moment of unexpected deliverance. The reason, Tolkien argued, that fantasy writers like him are able to offer their readers this consolation of the happy ending is because the Creator has already given it to us.

“The birth of Christ,” he wrote, “is the eucatastrophe of man’s history. The resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits.”

As we continue our journey through Lent, and become conscious of the closeness of Easter, let us look forward with joy and expectation to the ultimate ‘happy ending’ (or ‘eucatastrophe’) on Easter Sunday.

Postscript: Other print/electronic media coverage of this event include:

* An opinion piece written by Avril in the Herald Sun
* The critical article in the Herald Sun (same day)
* A blog post in the Uniting Church's Tasmission Blog
(and of course I'm sure there's more out there in the blogosphere, but these are the main pieces I have seen).

Friday, March 04, 2011

Epiphany 8A- a service of lament

On Sunday 27th February, in the wake of the horrendous earthquake in Christchurch, I decided that our worship at Beechworth should have a theme of lament, in empathy with our brothers and sisters across the ditch.

I have reproduced here the call to worship and words of our opening hymn, which set the tone for our worship, along with the sermon I preached.

Call to Worship (based on Psalm 131):
The Psalmist cries:
O LORD, my heart is not lifted up,
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things too great
and too marvellous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul…

After the events of the week,

we come with heavy hearts and many questions,
as we bring our worship to God.

Hymn: A Touching Place (TIS 677)
Christ's is the world in which we move.
Christ's are the folk we're summoned to love,
Christ's is the voice which calls us to care,
and Christ is the One who meets us here.

To the lost Christ shows his face;
to the unloved He gives His embrace;
to those who cry in pain or disgrace,
Christ, makes, with His friends, a touching place.

Feel for the people we most avoid.
Strange or bereaved or never employed;
Feel for the women, and feel for the men
fear that their living is all in vain.

Feel for the parents who lost their child,
feel for the woman whom men have defiled.
Feel for the baby for whom there's no breast,
and feel for the weary who find no rest.

Feel for the lives by life confused.
Riddled with doubt, in loving abused;
Feel for the lonely heart, conscious of sin,
which longs to be pure but fears to begin.
(words by John Bell)

Sermon - Matthew 6:24-34
I often scratch my head in awe at God’s sense of timing. For example, in the lead up to last Sunday, there was a pastoral matter involving conflict between two parties in one of my congregations. When we came to the Gospel reading for last Sunday, there were Jesus’ words: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”. Rather fitting really.

It appears that God’s done it again this week. After being dumbstruck and reduced to tears as we watched the news coverage of the Christchurch earthquake, we now read Jesus’ words: “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink… your heavenly father knows you need all these things. Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

These words of Jesus, telling his listeners not to worry, but rather trust in God and seek the kingdom, can sometimes become almost a cliché to us. We hear them quoted, often almost frivolously and without much thought.

As we think about these words, it’s important to consider their context. In Jesus’ day, the society of Galilee and the general area could sustain a movement where its members turned up in towns or villages expecting to find board, lodging and hospitality, because the community at large was not so poverty-stricken that travellers wouldn’t be looked after. Looking around the society, Jesus’ followers could see that there was enough resource and goodwill to clothe them like the lilies of the field and feed them like the birds.

However, we all know situations where this doesn’t work; where without outside intervention people shrivel in starvation and face exposure and death through lack of shelter. So, simply transferring Jesus’ words into sites of famine or disaster is at best naïve, and at worst grossly irresponsible.

I am torn when I read the words: “Do not worry about your life”.

Part of me wants to believe, and take comfort in the belief, that God is in control, and God knows what he’s doing. In fact many people do believe this- so much so that they have almost a blinkered faith, never questioning, as if they never see the world around them.

BUT when I see the bloody suppression of the protests in Libya by Colonel Gadaffi, where we saw the Libyan military firing on their own citizens, or the tragic loss of life and so much more around Christchurch after last week’s earthquake, I can’t help but ask: “Where is God in all this?” or even, “IS there a God in all this?” (as I’m sure many people around the world are asking now).

This morning, the Hornby-Riccarton Methodist Parish in Christchurch will be grieving as they mourn the loss of their beloved organist, who was assisting a team to remove an organ from an historic church in the central city, that was damaged back in the September earthquake. Their minister said, “We are all numb and sad and struggling to accept the reality of the situation. Please keep praying for us.”

A comment was made in one of the newscasts during the week that the nature of the Christchurch community is such that everyone will know someone who was killed or injured. No one in the city is untouched by this horrific event. It reminds me of the Port Arthur massacre back in the 90s when I was living in Hobart. Everyone in Hobart seemed to know someone who was at Port Arthur that day, or someone involved in the response to the massacre. The nature of a small city is that there is a close-knit community, so that when something of this magnitude happens, everyone is affected.

Earlier in the service, we listened to the song Don’t Worry, Be Happy. Somehow I suspect the words ‘don’t worry be happy’ won’t quite cut it for these people. To say, “don’t worry, God is in control” would be hard for the people of Christchurch to hear right now- even those who are people of faith.

So how do we cope with a situation like this?

A few weeks ago, I shared a prayer of lament that was written by the Secretary of the Central Queensland Presbytery in response to the recent floods. There is a long history of lament in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. In fact lament is a good, acceptable and normal part of our worship. Just look at the book of Psalms – there are many psalms of lament, and interestingly many of these start out with the psalmist beating his breast, proclaiming doom and gloom and questioning God, but by the end of the psalm the tone has turned to praise and recognition of a loving, merciful God being in control.

Because we’re human, we have emotions, and are affected by things around us; and it is right and proper and necessary for us to express our feelings. Because of this, when something tragic or traumatic happens, we need to lament and grieve before we are able to rejoice and ‘not worry’.

So, where is God in our lament?
According to German theologian Jurgen Moltmann, God is right there with us in the thick of our lament. In his book The Crucified God, Moltmann describes Christ as ‘our divine brother in suffering’. We know from reading the gospels that Jesus suffered on the cross and experienced the full gamut of human suffering, but Moltmann goes further, asserting that when bad things happen to God’s children it is God’s heart that is the first to break. God the Father is not immune to our suffering.

So, if God is love, if God is all powerful, why are bad things -like these natural disasters of cyclones, floods, bushfires, earthquakes- allowed to happen? “It’s not fair!” we cry.

Psalm 23 is a popular text for funerals (I have certainly preached on it many times!) because it speaks to the situation of desolation and despair. The psalmist speaks of walking through the valley of the shadow of death, or the valley of deepest darkness- a place that the people of Christchurch would be familiar with right now. Whenever I preach on Psalm 23 I always share this wisdom from Rabbi Harold Kushner. In the book he wrote on the 23rd Psalm he says:

“God’s promise was never that life would be fair. God’s promise was that, when we had to confront the unfairness of life, we would not have to do it alone, for He would be with us.”

This is the message of hope for us today from the Gospel- do not worry – because no matter what comes, God will be with us- lamenting with us, crying with us and comforting us. May that be so for all who suffer today.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Up until recently...

A very good friend of mine, who also happens to be a muso, has just released a new album.

The friend is Mark Robinson, and the album is called Up Until Recently.

His songs are quite deep, and honest in a raw kind of way; and talk about emotions and experiences that most of us can relate to. Through the songs, a strong theme of yearning to be loved, and to connect with other people and with God comes through, because this has been Mark's journey.

Rod Boucher reviewed the album in these words:

Delicate reflecting with crack - like a slap across my face with a velvet glove on a steel hand. Intimate punch - a whisper in my ear like the roar of Aslan the lion. There's space to sup the sounds, crunch to tap and nod, smesh to surround and wrap and just a smidgeon of techno whistling to the family dog in all of us. Friendly, concerned, passionate, personal and wonderfully played, sung and recorded. I love it all and so would Elvis Costello. Lyric, acoustic yet explosive rock.

Mark's website contains links to sound samples and lyrics for all the songs. A minister colleague suggested that the lyrics of the songs would be really useful for people working with youth.

The album is available for purchase/download from iTunes, CDBaby and CDs will also soon be available- check the website for details. Do yourself a favour and have a listen.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Sermon from 13 Feb 2011 - Matthew 5:21-37

Hate... lust... divorce... swearing...
We've got it all, folks!

Today's Gospel is a hard reading to preach on; so much so that I was tempted to preach on one of the other readings from this week's lectionary, but then realised that they're no easier!

As a preacher, it's easy for me to bring my own prejudices, my own 'slant', or the idea that I know the passage, having read it or preached from it before. In fact, I was recently talking to a friend who came back to the faith after wandering in the wilderness for some years, and he asked me: "I've only just started reading my Bible seriously in the past year or so. I presume you have continued to read yours all these years- so how do you not get arrogant, and feel that you know it all?"

I remember advice I was given in preaching classes at Theological College: before I, as a preacher, can have anything of substance to offer you, as listeners, I must have wrestled with the reading, really struggled with it, so that I'm not just reiterating stuff that I already know (or think I know).

Now I have a confession to make- I don't do this as often, or as thoroughly, as I'd like to. Sometimes I borrow ideas from others, sometimes I rely on what I already know (or think I know). Perhaps the observant among you will be able to tell when I have genuinely struggled or grappled with the text by the passion, rawness, freshness of my preaching? (something for you to look out for in the future). Of course the acid test will come at the end of this year, when I have worked my way through the full 3 year Revised Common Lectionary cycle with you, and the temptation will be strong for me to 'recycle' bits from 3 years ago- not necessarily reproducing whole sermons or worship liturgies holus bolus, but rather preaching the same ideas and understandings I had three years before.

This has been a slightly long-winded introduction, basically to tell you that I found this passage hard word to come to terms with, and to find ways to use it as a vehicle to bring you some 'Good News' (which is what the Gospel is about, after all).

We know that Jesus is a good preacher, and there is bountiful evidence of this in his most famous sermon, found in Matthew chapter 5, the Sermon on the Mount. He starts off with the Beatitudes, a series of blessings pronounced on his audience, after which they are no doubt feeling all warm and fuzzy. Then he moves onto some encouragement and exhortation (which we heard last week): "you are the salt of the earth... you are the light of the world", and then in the passage before us today, he gives some harder moral teachings. It's almost as if he starts off slowly, and softly, and works his way up to the hard stuff. So let's explore what this passage has to say to us today.

It's a common belief in the Christian Church that the New Testament 'supercedes' the Old Testament, and somehow even negates it. The apostle Paul's writings about 'grace vs. law' are often used to support this argument. The four examples of "you have heard it said that.... but I say..." are sometimes referred to as 'antitheses', because Jesus seems to be comparing and contrasting the legalism of the Old Testament wiht the new, higher righteousness of his own teachings.

However, I think that in this passage, and in fact, in the Sermon on the Mount as a whole, rather than negating the existing law, Jesus' teachings are actually in theological continuity with the law.

Jesus speaks a lot throughout his ministry about the Kingdom of God, or the Kingdom of Heaven, and how it is 'at hand' as he begins his ministry. The Sermon on the Mount, and especially this part of it, invites us, the readers, to live as if the Kingdom of God is fully present.

In the 4 examples Jesus talks about here he raises the bar for our behaviour:
1. "You have heard it said 'you shall not murder', but I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister you will be liable"
2. "You have heard it said, 'you shall not commit adultery', but I say that anyone who looks on a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart"
3. Jesus setting stronger conditions on divorce
4. "It has been said, 'you shall not swear falsely', but I say do not swear at all- let your yes be yes and your no no".

It is easy to look at these and wring our hands in despair. How can I possibly live up to these? Jesus has taken moral standards that are already difficult to live up to, raised the bar and made them even harder to keep.

However, rather than just giving us more difficult hoops to jump through, I think it's more a case of Jesus seeking integrity, consistency in living out our faith at all levels; not just in what we do, but in how we think- this reaches beyond our mere actions into the very core of our being. Not just our public actions, but also our private thoughts, emotions, desires need to be brought into line with Kingdom values.

Well may we ask, 'why is Jesus concerned with our thought life?'
There's an old Chinese proverb that says:
Sow a thought... reap an action.
Sow an action... reap a habit.
Sow a habit... reap a character.
Sow a character... reap a destiny.

Our inner world does influence our outer world, and what starts with an errant thought or desire, if allowed to take control of us, can lead to devastating results.

Also, you might notice, that in the 4 examples given by Jesus: murder/ anger, adultery/lust, divorce and being true to one's word, there is a common thread. All of these deal with broken relationship from the perspective of the Kingdom. Why is this a problem? Well, it's God's intention for people to live in mutual relationship and support, that's what community, at its best, is about.

Yesterday, I officiated at my first wedding. When I confessed this to the couple at our first meeting, they looked at each other, giggled, and said, "That's ok, it's our first wedding too!" It was certainly a special occasion for all present. In the marriage service, there is a recognition that although it is only two people up the front making promises to each other, the reality is that a marriage doesn't only involve two people, but needs a whole community of support- from family and friends- to help the couple to honour their marriage vows.

Jesus is saying here that we need to be vigilant in maintaining our relationships, and not let festering anger, or lust, or anything else destroy them. We need to watch out for 'the thin edge of the wedge' in how we relate to others. 'Playful insults' can all too easily descend into bitterness and vitriol which poisons a relationship- resulting in the loss of Kingdom possibilities in that moment.

You may have noticed that I have been speaking fairly generally, and have not gone into detail on any of these four examples. There's an awful lot that could be said about this passage, and about each of those 4 things (so this means that I'll have plenty of material to work with next time this passage comes up in the Lectionary!). But before I finish, I do want to speak about one of the specifics.

This passage is often used to bash people who have suffered through the painful experience of divorce. Even reading this passage in church is challenging pastorally, as statistics tell us that about 50% of marriages today end in divorce.

When the idea of divorce was introduced in the Old Testament, there was the expectation that marriage should last for life; 'till death us do part'. However, God in mercy introduced an 'escape' because God recognised that humans are imperfect and frail, and 'hard-hearted' and so sometimes it's just not possible to make a marriage work. I think the process for divorce in Hebrew law was fairly simple, the man (because it's always the man in that culture who needs to take the lead) had to say to his wife, "I divorce you" three times, give her a certificate of divorce, and it was done. Maybe by Jesus' time, divorce was seen as a too easy option, and so he uses his words here to underline the seriousness of the marriage covenant, warning people not to enter into it lightly- or leave it lightly.

The text presumes that the marriage relationship can be shaped by the presence of the Kingdom. But it seems to me, that in some marriage relationships the dynamics of the relationship are Kingdom-resistant; and that the purposes of the Kingdom might better be served by freeing the couple to live into other relationships.

As you can see, there's a lot in this passage to wrestle with, and I've really only scratched the surface, plucking out a few ideas and leaving plenty for the next time this passage crops up in the Lectionary.

So that leaves us with the question: what is the good news from this passage? In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls us to a higher standard of conduct, in thought, word and deed. However, we are not bound to be slaves of the Law, or required to follow the letter of the Law in order to secure our salvation. Rather, we are invited to respond to God's goodness and grace to us by striving to surpass the law, not only out of duty, but out of love and gratefulness to God.

It's a bit like when you're at uni, you can still get your degree if you only ever get Pass grades, but there's a certain satisfaction in aiming a bit higher, to get a Credit, Distinction or HD- maybe because you love the subject, or maybe because you just want to do the best that you possibly can.

In life, why settle for mediocrity, when we can aim much higher? And the good news is that just as he set the bar higher for us to aim for, Jesus also provides the strength and support for us as we aim for that higher goal.
Thanks be to God.