Presentation of the Lord




Thirty-one years ago today, the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple, on a hot and windy evening in Holy Cross Cathedral, Geraldton, the Archdeacon formally presented me to Bishop Ged Muston, declaring me to have been examined and found to be “fit for the office” of deacon.  There being no public objection to this, the Bishop laid hands on me and said, “Stephen, Take authority to execute the office of a Deacon in the church of God, now committed to you; in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  And everyone said, “Amen.” And I went away a newly-minted Deacon, let loose on the church as a sort of senior apprentice.

 And a year later, on the eve of this same Feast, same climatic conditions, same Bishop, same Archdeacon, same declaration of my “fitness”, but this time as a Priest.  This time, it was not just the Bishop laying hands on my head, but all of the clergy present – a dozen or so, according to the picture you’ll see in the church lobby this morning.  And, believe me, the feeling of all those hands on my head and shoulders was weighty indeed, though probably not as weighty as had been the bishop’s statement of the “dignity and importance of this office”.  After I had answered numerous questions about my commitment to serve God and the Church, all those hands were laid on, and the Bishop said, “Receive the Holy Spirit for the office and work of a Priest in the church of God”, and quite a bit more!  And off we went to practise.  And I guess that thirty years on, I’m still practising!


I’ve occasionally wondered if the Bishop had a particular reason for the deaconing and priesting’s happening on this feast of the Presentation of Christ, and long since decided that 1st/2nd of Feb was a convenient date because a number of the clergy were travelling through Geraldton about then to return to their far-flung parishes after the summer holiday. 

 Lest this become just a self-serving celebration of the “Feast of the Presentation of Steve in the Cathedral”, let’s think for a few minutes about the Feast which Mother Church has given us for today.

 I want to suggest that we can talk of “presentation” on four levels:

 Firstly, of course, we have Jesus being brought by Mary and Joseph to the Temple in Jerusalem.  He is forty days old, and the Law and custom required two things to happen this day.  One was the “purification” of his mother.  Hebrew law declared every woman who gave birth “unclean” for a period of forty days after the birth.  This had do with the shedding of blood in childbirth and meant that she was not allowed to attend the Temple for worship until she was “purified”. 

 The second part is that every first-born male child had to be brought to the Temple, presented to God, and “redeemed” with another sacrifice – usually that of a lamb, but Joseph and Mary, being probably not too well off and a long way from home, came with “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”, as we read in the Gospel.  The son was therefore a gift from God, given to God, and given back to the parents and the world.  This is a concept to which I’ll come back shortly.

 The writer to the Hebrews from whose letter we read earlier, brings out some of the significance of this event.  He stresses the humanity of Jesus, who shared in flesh and blood – was fully human like us – so that he could destroy death and all its power.  We are left with no uncertainty that Jesus is any less human than we.  The story of the Presentation celebrates One who, while fully divine, is equally fully human, fully Jewish and undergoing all that both humanity and Jewish law require.  The Hebrews’ writer goes on to tell us that “he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people”. 

 The old man, Simeon, and the probably-even-older Anna, understand something of this.  They have been waiting many years to see God’s Messiah.  Simeon says of Jesus that he is:

“your salvation,

which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,

a light for revelation to the Gentiles

and for glory to your people Israel.”

 Jesus is God’s “gift that keep on giving”.  He is presented to God in the Temple; redeemed at the cost of a couple of pigeons; given back to his parents; given as a sacrifice on the cross to restore us to relationship with God; and given back to us in the resurrection; so that, again to quote our Hebrews passage, “Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested”.

 This principle of sacrifice  – of giving and being given back can be seen in that many, if not most, sacrifices in the Jewish Law were “fellowship offerings” – that is, the animal (lamb, goat or bull) would be killed and put in the fire on the altar.  Some parts would be totally destroyed, but most of it would be carved up and served to the worshippers present.  They got back their sacrifice – perhaps with roast potatoes!  Give to God and God gives back in spades!

 The principle carries through somewhat in our practice of ordination.  The late great Howell Witt was my Bishop in the Diocese of North-West Australia, when we lived in Paraburdoo.  When I spoke to him about offering for Ordination, I remember him telling me that I could feel called, but it was the church which chooses – both, we hope, under the direction of God who is always the caller and chooser.  And we got though the process of a Selection Conference in Perth under the direction of Archbishop Geoffrey Sambell, who sent us to Melbourne to study.  And the rest, as they say, is history!

 So there is a sense in which, at an ordination both the candidate and the church present a person not just to the Bishop, but to God.  This is an offering which we believe God accepts and then gives to the church and the world in service. 

 Carrying on with this theme of presenting offerings to God, let’s think about what is happening at this and every Sunday Eucharist.  Before the Great Thanksgiving, we sing the “offertory hymn” and the “gifts of the people” are brought to and presented at the altar – gifts of bread and wine, and gifts of money.  These are our offerings, our sacrifices, giving to God some of what God has given us.

 So we pray, “Through your goodness we have these gifts to share.

Accept and use our offerings for your glory

and for the service of your kingdom.”

 And the offerings – money, bread and wine – do not simply vanish in a cloud of smoke, never to be seen again.  In fact the money is taken and used by Parish Council to enable God’s work in the parish and beyond.  I’m very proud that, as a parish, we give away a significant portion of our income for God’s work beyond our boundaries.

 And the bread and wine, symbols of our life and labour, become for us the Body and Blood of Christ – taken, blessed, broken and shared, giving us life and hope and renewal week after week until Jesus returns.

 Which bring us to the final “presentation” for today. After everyone has received the bread and wine, we pray together,

            “Father, we offer ourselves to you as a living sacrifice

            through Jesus Christ our Lord.

            Send us out in the power of your Spirit

            to live and work to your praise and glory.”

 You see, we all – not just those ordained or otherwise specially set apart by the Church – are a sacrifice, an offering to God.  And God accepts that offering and gives us back to the world to be light and salt and leaven – to make a difference, and to do works of love which will continue to build God’s kingdom here on earth and in heaven.

 Today, then, I give thanks to God, to whom I was “dedicated” as a baby, called in baptism a child of God, called and chosen and ordained to serve.

 Today, I give thanks to God for you, my brothers and sisters in the faith, called to mutual love and service, and to whom I happily continue to pledge my love and service.

 Today, I give thanks to God who has abundantly blessed me – and us all – with life and health and material and spiritual blessings.

 And, above all, I give thanks to God for the “inexpressible gift” of Jesus, Messiah and Lord, through whose great sacrifice we all are “redeemed” and reconciled with God and one another.



Whom do I follow?

EPIPHANY 3A – 26th January, 2014 – St Barnabas’, Rivervale
I Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-25

Today, as you are all obviously aware, is Australia Day, a public holiday and the anniversary of the landing of the First Fleet at Sydney Cove in 1788. There are those who call it “Invasion Day”; and many others are, not inappropriately, seriously uncomfortable with celebrating an event which precipitated the downfall of most of the “original inhabitants” of this land.

On the other hand, Australia Day, at its best, is a celebration of all that we hold in common by way of our lifestyle, our “multicultural mix”, our shared values, and the freedoms which our great nation offers. And fireworks, barbecues and a public holiday are – in my opinion – not a bad way to celebrate this well. We do need, however, to guard against complacency and self-satisfaction.

Our national anthem says that “for those who come across the seas, we’ve boundless plains to share”. And in the last two-and-a-quarter centuries we have welcomed people from most nations on earth as settlers here. However, these days, there seems to be more and more reluctance to welcome; and our political leaders are making Australia less and less accessible to those who are fleeing unjust and oppressive regimes around the world. Whoever is hardest on refugees can expect to be elected to our Federal government.

It may be simplistic of me to say this, but a major part of our problem as a nation seems to be our reluctance to accept change or challenge to our life and lifestyle.

With my Dad and two brothers, I came to Australia as a migrant in 1966. We came seeking a new life with opportunities that were probably not available in our homeland of the UK. Australian governments were crying out for new settlers – so much so that our entire family came here for the princely sum of ten pounds. I think both Australia and we got a bargain!

One of the things of which Australia used to be proud was that everyone was entitled to – and, in theory, received – a “fair go”. We as individuals, groups and as a nation believed in equal opportunity. And it was a good theory if you were white, male and employed. But under the surface of the nation were always tensions over gender, language, race and “usefulness”.

We rightly rejoice in democracy, freedom and equality before the law. But in reality not all have been treated as equal. We can honour with our lips “truth, justice and the Australian way”, but all too often, when we scratch just beneath the surface, we will find sexist, racist and unjust attitudes and actions.

There is a verse which has been added to our national anthem by well-meaning Christians and is used in many Christian schools which is a good ideal for all of us who are both Australians and Christians. It reads:
With Christ our head and cornerstone,
We’ll build our Nation’s might.
Whose way and truth and light alone
Can guide our path aright.
Our lives, a sacrifice of love,
reflect our Master’s care.
With faces turned to heaven above,
Advance Australia fair.

If only!

Lest my sermon become just an idealistic dream of what our nation should be, let me call you back to the Scriptures set in today’s lectionary. Because much of what I say about our nation is recognisable as challenge in the church.

Last week, we heard St Paul praising the Church at Corinth in glowing terms:
“I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

In today’s passage from First Corinthians, however, we begin to hear the “but…”

The Church at Corinth, founded by Paul himself, and nurtured by his disciple, Apollos, is indeed flourishing; but beneath the surface there are many problems and challenges. Through the course of the book, we will hear of division, immorality, superiority, fights over food laws and spiritual gifts and more.

Today’s problem is division. The missionary work which Paul and his companions had put in here had certainly resulted in a growing church. Corinth was a strongly multicultural city. There were:
Greeks, obviously, for Corinth was in northern Greece;
Romans – Corinth was a major garrison city for the Roman army;
Jews – Paul originally preached in the synagogue there and worked and lived “for a considerable time” with Aquila and Priscilla who had been exiled with all the Jews from Rome by the emperor Claudius;
and there were undoubtedly “foreigners” from all over as slaves and traders.
The church seems to have included some from all of these groups.

With this multiracial, multicultural mix was also a variety of religious and philosophical views and beliefs – worship of the Roman gods and the Emperor, worship of the Greek gods, and Judaism, at least, were all part of the mix.

Out of all this smorgasbord of race and religion, God called and formed, through Paul, Apollos and Aquila and Priscilla, a church of some size and significance. And for a time all was well. Now, some years later, Paul has heard from “Chloe’s people” that all is not well and that the local church is beginning to divide into groups under the names of various church leaders.
“What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.”

It sounds rather like our denominations, really, doesn’t it? I am often asked about various churches and their differences. “What’s the difference between your church and the Catholics, or the Baptists, or the Pentecostals?” And, while I can list off quite a few differences, along with the history of how different denominations came into being, I would rather talk of what unites us – the Scriptures which we call the Old and New Testaments; the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, to which 95% or more of Christians happily assent, whether or not they recite them in services as we do; Baptism, even if we differ in methods of administration or the age of the candidate; and the Eucharist, Mass or Lord’s Supper, in which we are fed with the body and blood of Christ, whether understood literally or symbolically.

The truth is that that which binds us together is greater than the things which divide us. The church as a whole is the Body of Christ, an image on which Paul expands later in this Epistle.

Finally, lest we get complacent and talk only of divisions in the larger church, let’s remember that St Paul is addressing a local congregation, “the church of God that is in Corinth”. And it is within that fellowship that division is occurring. They are divided over whose teaching is the best – Paul, Peter or Apollos – and some claim the distinction of following only Christ. Each group undoubtedly considers itself to have the “pure” gospel. In essence, of course, we all aim to “follow Christ”, just as did Peter and Andrew, James and John in today’s Gospel reading.

The Corinthian problem is a bit like various folk here at St Barney’s saying, “I follow Lionel”, “I follow Dave” or, “I follow Keith”. There may even be, many years hence, some who will say, “I follow Steve”. God forbid!

In every parish of which I’ve been in charge over the last thirty years, I have heard good and bad stories about every one of my predecessors. And I can be certain that there are folk in each of those parishes who still talk of me – some favourably and some disparagingly. That’s fine!

All of us who are called to lead are human and fallible. Apollos probably didn’t get it all right; Peter certainly didn’t; and I have reservations about some of St Paul’s attitudes, too! But each sought – as do most Christian leaders today – to give up their nets, take up their cross and follow Jesus.
Paul tells the Corinthians, later in this Epistle, to be imitators of him, the second time adding – very importantly – “as I am of Christ”.

This our calling – not just priests’, pastors’ and ministers’ – to imitate Jesus, to follow his example of love, justice and self-sacrifice. If we put Jesus first in our thinking and the good of his church and the world next, then we will be unified and undivided as parish, church and nation.


Swords into Ploughshares?

ADVENT SUNDAY – 1st December, 2013 – St Barnabas’, Rivervale

Yesterday afternoon, I conducted a wedding in the Chapel of one of our long-established Church Schools. A beautiful afternoon, with a delightful couple, surrounded by supportive family and friends, and serenaded by a small but more than competent choir and a fine organ.

The only somewhat jarring note for me was a piece of so-called “poetry” read to the couple. It began:
“Today is a day you will always remember
The greatest in anyone’s life
You’ll start off the day just two people in love
And end it as husband and wife.
It’s a brand new beginning, the start of a journey
With moments to cherish and treasure
And although there’ll be times when you both disagree
These will surely be outweighed by pleasure.”

To be fair, some of you may well think it beautiful, but I can only be thankful that the “poet” is that prolific writer “Anonymous”  I was intensely grateful that St Paul’s great poem about love – from 1 Corinthians 13 followed, balancing the books somewhat!

Thankfully, however, the final couplet of the “poem” set me thinking about today’s sermon and the Season of Advent. It reads:
“Tomorrow can bring you the greatest of joys
But today is the day it all starts.”

Advent is the very beginning of the Church’s year – a kind of “New Year’s Day”, if you like. And the theme for the first Sunday of the Advent Season, as we heard when we lit the first candle, is that of “Hope”. It is a season of looking forward – partly for Christmas – but more accurately, to the coming of Jesus Christ among us, not simply as a baby in a manger, but as Lord of all when he will restore creation to its originally intended perfection.

Today’s readings from the prophet Isaiah is a poem of – to my mind – somewhat greater quality than the wedding one! Isaiah’s picture of God’s coming reign is pure poetry and parts of it have been quoted often in a world which longs for peace.

Outside the United Nations building in New York there is a wall bearing the inscription, “They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they learn war anymore. Isaiah.” And there is a statue in the gardens of that building of a man hammering the end of a sword into a ploughshare, and the words of Isaiah are on the statue’s plinth. Ironically, the statue was donated to the UN by the USSR in 1959, a time we know as “The Cold War”, when world peace was then, as now, an elusive dream.

And still our world is in need of true peace, not just the absence of war – as good as that would be, but the active seeking of wholeness, healing and justice.

But what secular people who quote the words about swords and ploughshares tend not to realise is context of Isaiah’s hope. His vision of peace is one where
“ Many peoples shall come and say,
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.’”
Isaiah’s vision in one where people are learning and walking in the ways which God decrees – ways of justice, mercy and humility, to quote the prophet Micah, as I did last week. There will be no true peace in this world without the willingness of all to follow the instruction of its Creator.

And the One whose coming we will celebrate at Christmas is the “Prince of Peace”.

“But”, we might say, “he has already come, in a stable some 2,000 years ago, and there is still no peace”. How true that is. In fact the armies of Rome and the leaders of God’s people, Israel, saw to it that the Prince of Peace was unjustly tried and summarily executed, so that those who held power would not be threatened and challenged.

Advent reminds us that we live in a period of “already, but not yet”. The Prince of Peace has already come, but we can not yet experience that shalom which is God’s peace throughout the world.

The peace of the world is not dependent on the United States and her allies (including Australia) going into battle to enforce “democracy” in the troubled parts of the world. Isaiah tells us that we have it all wrong if we believe we can fix everything. He says that:

“He [the LORD] shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples”

And that that precedes the beating of swords into ploughshares and the abolition of war from the educational curriculum.

So, are we to stop bothering about working for peace and justice, because it’s all up to God sometime in the unforeseeable future? Are we to give up in despair and go hide in safe little communes and continue our worship privately, so as to remain unchallenged and unchallenging?

No – a thousand times, no! The first thing this passage from Isaiah tells us to do is to “go up to the house of the Lord”, both to learn his ways and to walk in his paths. In this period of “already but not yet, we have all sorts of work and worship to do.

The “poem” with which I began is accurate when it says
“Tomorrow can bring you the greatest of joys
But today is the day it all starts.”

At every Eucharist, we recite “Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.´ And when St Paul narrates the institution of the Lord’s Supper in I Corinthians, he says,
“For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup,
you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

This and every Eucharist is the story of “already but not yet”. Tomorrow may well bring great joys, but today, this morning, in the remembering and eating and drinking, it all starts.

We have come together to “the house of the Lord”. We have learned again of his ways and we are sent out to “walk in his paths”.

And as we go, taught, fed and encouraged, we will – in our own, perhaps minuscule, ways – begin to prepare the way for the one who has come and is coming to restore all things to the perfection which has always been the dream of the Creator.

The Lord, who is coming and for whom we wait, be with you!

Random Kindness and Senseless Acts of Beauty

THE FIFTH SUNDAY IN LENT – St Matthew’s, Guildford – 17th March, 2013

“Practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty.”

American writer, Anne Herbert, is credited with coining this phrase which has become something of a cliché in recent years. And there are whole organisations across the world which have jumped on the band-wagon, encouraging people to do random acts of kindness, and some which actually do such acts.

In the “West Australian” this past week there were several stories – I think in the “inside Cover” column – of people who were the recipients of such acts of kindness. There was an elderly lady (I think) who, when she came to the register at the supermarket, found that the previous customer had left some money with the “checkout chick” to pay for the lady’s groceries.

And I was reading elsewhere an article by a journalist who was left standing at Denpasar Airport check-in with, somehow, no money for her fare home to Australia. A young surfer came over, asked her what she was crying about, and paid her fare ($550) outright. She was able to pay him back later, but the random act of kindness had an immense impact on her.

And I well remember some years ago, KT and I were eating dinner at a Chinese Restaurant in Redcliffe, when an elderly couple (we’re the elderly ones now, I suppose!), obviously travellers, came in, sat near us, and asked the waitress for a bottle of wine with their meal. When told the restaurant was only licensed for BYO, they asked resignedly for soft drink. We had almost finished our meal. So, after we had paid our bill, we drove to the nearest bottle shop, bought some wine and took it back to the restaurant, gave the bottle to the waitress for the couple and left rapidly. I imagine there was a smile on the couple’s faces, and we certainly felt pretty good too!

One of the problems with “random acts of kindness” is that many people misread and misinterpret them. Comments from readers beneath the article about the journo stuck at Denpasar Airport, suggested that all “random acts of kindness” are done so that the giver/doer of the act can feel proud or praise-worthy, and that altruism is a myth of self-aggrandisement. I suppose there will always be “knockers” and detractors – especially, it seems, in Australia.

Today’s Gospel story is that of an apparently random act of great kindness and of senseless beauty. A woman – Mary, the sister of Lazarus whom Jesus has raised from the dead a few days previously – brings in “a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair.” We are told that “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume” and we are left wondering why Mary should do such a seemingly extravagant act of kindness and senseless beauty. Talk about “over the top”!

Judas Iscariot, disciple, treasurer and future betrayer of Jesus, protests at this senseless waste. “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” he asks indignantly. And we rightly infer that he considered himself “the poor” who could benefit most!

Many is the time someone has offered themselves to serve God – as a priest, monk, nun, missionary or as some other servant of God through the Church – giving up the possibility of wealth or career or marriage or children – to be told by families, friends or others that “you are mad to do that for God and the Church”. Yet many have given their lives in such devotion to the One who, as St John reminds us, “first loved us.” And many still give even life itself to serve Jesus and his Church.

And such offering will always be regarded by some folk as wasteful. In last week’s Gospel story we read of the “wastefulness” of a father welcoming home his wastrel son with a robe, a ring and shoes, with a party and a fatted calf on a spit-roast. The elder son’s complaint was of the wastefulness and “unfairness” of his father. And, perhaps, we had some sympathy for him!

And it may be this morning that we want to agree with Judas. 300 denarii is a year’s pay for a farm labourer – thirty or forty or more thousand dollars in our money. How many meals for the poor, how many nights in cheap accommodation, how many medical check-ups, could that much money buy for the needy of our cities and streets? Many, of course.

But here is a particular set of circumstances which we may never understand. If you’ve ever been truly in love, there will have been many times when you would give everything you had to benefit the object of your love. We would perhaps happily walk to work and save the train fares for a while to buy her that ring she likes so much, or to buy him a ticket to the Grand Final. And would any giving or giving-up be too extravagant to save the life of the child we love?

If we keep this story of Mary’s act of kindness in its context in John’s Gospel, we might regard it as an act of thanksgiving for Jesus’ raising of her brother Lazarus. And a gift of gratitude would not be inappropriate. But I don’t for a moment think that this gift was tied to any past event.

There is another saying which often appears in the same context as Anne Herbert’s instruction about random kindness and senseless acts of beauty. It is “Pay it forward”. In 1916, Lily Hardy Hammond wrote, “You don’t pay love back; you pay it forward.” I remember seeing a movie called “Pay It Forward”. The book, by Catherine Ryan Hyde, and the movie describe “pay it forward” as an obligation to do three good deeds for others in response to a good deed that one receives. Such good deeds should accomplish things that the other person cannot accomplish on their own. In this way, the practice of helping one another can spread geometrically through society, at a ratio of three to one, creating a social movement with an impact of making the world a better place. A great idea, no doubt, but even one good deed “paid forward” could change a world.

Jesus seems to understand Mary’s act of pouring this pricey perfume over his feet as a sort of “paying it forward”. “She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial”, he says. And we realise she couldn’t wait for his actual death and burial. She needed to show her love for him now! How often after a person dies do we wish we had said or done something more to express our love while they were still alive? It is not unusual to see at a funeral that vast sums of money have been spent on oversize floral tributes or grandiose coffins, as though we can make up for the omissions of the past. And I’ve so often heard people say, “I wish I’d told him/her more often how much I loved him/her”.

Jesus is one whose whole life was a case not only of apparent “random kindness and senseless acts of beauty”, but also one of “pay it forward”. Today’s Gospel story takes place just a few days before Jesus gives his life in the ultimate act of extravagance and generosity. At the cross he dies that we might live; he makes peace between a sinful world and an all-righteous God; and he enables eternal life for all to spring from his own death.

On Maundy Thursday evening, we will hear Jesus saying, “As I have washed your feet, so you should wash one another’s feet” and “Love one another as I have loved you”. This is our calling – “Pay it forward”. Jesus has given us much so that we will give to others, and loved us so much that we will love others. “You always have the poor with you”, he reminds us; so there will always be the opportunity to pay it forward.

“You don’t pay love back”, said the lady, “you pay it forward”. We have been, and are, greatly loved. Pay it forward!

The Lord be with you!

The Last Wake-Up Call

LENT 2C – 24th February, 2013 – St Matthew’s, Guildford

A few weeks ago, as many of you know, I was rather badly unwell during the first service of the morning and had to go home leaving others to do an impromptu service of Morning Prayer. The next day, I went to my doctor, who diagnosed a chest infection and severe dehydration. When I was talking with my doctor about all this, I made the mistake of saying that the episode was a “wake-up call”, to which he replied, “How many wake-up calls do you need, Stephen?”

When Jesus is speaking in the Gospel reading from Luke this morning, he is talking to the Jewish people who have had quite a few wake-up calls over the centuries. God has chosen them from time almost immemorial to be God’s people. This morning we had God talking with Abraham, the very first of the “Chosen People”, promising him “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your descendants be.” And God literally cuts a covenant with Abraham, guaranteeing him what we might call “most favoured nation” status.

The story of the Old Testament is the roller-coaster ride of the people of Israel. Abraham and Sarah settle in Canaan and have Isaac in their old age; Isaac and Sarah have twins, Esau and Jacob; Jacob, the younger of the twins, is chosen by God and renamed Israel and produces twelve sons who become the “patriarchs” of the twelve tribes.

Jacob’s second-youngest son, Joseph, is sold by his brothers into slavery, ending up Prime Minister and Treasurer of the nation. A famine brings Jacob and his now large family to Egypt where that are given a goodly plot of land and they flourish.

Four hundred years later, Israel is a substantial nation, but they are in servitude to the people of Israel. God appoints Moses, a Hebrew who has been brought up in Pharaoh’s palace, to lead the people of Israel out of slavery and into the “land flowing with milk and honey”. The “wake-up call” here is a reminder to this people of who they are and whose they are – they are God’s chosen people, destined, not for slavery but for glorious freedom under God.

So they escape Egypt and travel into through the Red Sea and into the Sinai Peninsula. Over and over, we are told that they “forgot God” and alternately pined for the familiarity of Egypt and sought to do away with Moses. While Moses is up on Mount Sinai, receiving the Law which would govern their relationship with God and with one another, the people are busy making a “golden calf” to worship. God is, unsurprisingly, angry and seeks to destroy them; but Moses pleads with God to give them another chance.

And God – always merciful – relents, sort of! Many of the people die and the rest are “under caution”, so to speak. Eventually – forty years later – the people of Israel enter the Promised Land and settle into their various tribal areas. They live under a number of “judges” who often help them to fight off the invading armies of the original inhabitants of the land, whom God allows to trouble Israel whenever they forget him.

Eventually, the people demand a king of their own, which the great judge Samuel perceives as a wish to dethrone God. Be that as it may, God permits them to have a king, and appoints Saul. Sadly, Saul lets God down –as do all of us human beings from time to time.

When Saul is killed in battle with the Philistines, David, whom God has chosen many years earlier, assumes the throne, but battles continue with the neighbours. One spring, David sins against God by taking Bathsheba, the wife of one of his senior army officers, and compounds the sin by having the man killed. God sends Nathan the prophet top give David a “wake-up call”, in the form of a story, ending with “You are the man!” David, to his credit, repents and seeks God’s forgiveness. The “wake-up call” is effective!

After David, comes his son, Solomon, who enjoys a long and peaceful reign, and who builds the first Temple in the city of Jerusalem. Solomon serves God well, until late in his reign, when he strays to worship the gods of his many wives and mistresses. When he dies, the nation is split into two kingdoms – Israel in the north and Judah in the south.
For the next three of four hundred years, both nations seem to ride the same roller-coaster as their forefathers. Time after time, they turn away from God, God sends prophets to challenge them, and they suffer for their unfaithfulness.

Eventually, they have ignored enough “wake-up calls”, and first Israel and then Judah are taken into captivity in Persia and Babylon. Prophets again are sent to speak God’s message of judgement and hope, and eventually the people are able to return to their land.

Now, some four hundred years later, the people are subject to the Roman Empire, and God has sent the wake-up call to end all wake-up calls – Jesus, the Messiah.

The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews puts it this way:
“Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son”. Jesus is God’s final “wake-up call”. As Peter, James and John heard on the mount of Transfiguration, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’”

In Jesus’ parable of the vineyard, he tells of the owner’s sending messengers to collect the harvest. The messengers are variously rejected, beaten up and even killed. The owner then sends his son, assuming the tenants will treat him better. But, of course, they kill him too, as we know will happen to Jesus.

And so we come back to today’s Gospel.
‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?”He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” ’

I imagine many of you listen to Sabrina Hahn who appears on ABC 720 Afternoons and on the Saturday Breakfast show. She has almost always has solutions to people’s many gardening problems. But occasionally she has no other suggestion than to dig up or cut down a plant or tree which is unproductive. A few times I’ve even heard her tell people to lean an axe against an offending tree, and if the threat doesn’t work then there is no other option.

Jesus is speaking about and to the nation of Israel when he tells this story. He, of course is the gardener, and God the owner. For three years, Jesus has been preaching the good news of the kingdom, with its accompanying message of repentance or judgement. And the leaders of Israel have not listened. Now the point of no return is approaching. And Israel must decide.

We know, of course, what the leaders decided, as we’ll see again in Holy Week. The end result was the destruction of Jerusalem, and all the leaders held dear, in 70 AD.

Meanwhile, we are in the Church’s season of Lent. It is a time when we are called to review our lives and to renew our commitment to follow Jesus. This is a time when we are given our own “wake up call”. Will you and I follow Jesus, or will we go our own stubborn way. Will we seek to follow him in “bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, in letting the oppressed go free, and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favour”?.

There are a few more weeks before we come to the font at Easter, renewing our baptismal promises. Let’s take time to read the Scriptures, to meditate on them and to pray. Let the words of Jesus speak into our hearts, causing us to be fruitful, both in piety and good deeds, that there be no need for the axe to be leaned against us, let alone for it to be used! 🙂

The Lord be with you!

“Listen to him”

LAST SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY – 10th February, 2013 – St Matthew’s, Guildford

Since the 6th January, we have been in the period of the Church’s year which is the season of Epiphany. It’s about the repeated and growing revelation of who Jesus is and why he was born.
• The Feast of the Epiphany itself celebrated the arrival of “wise men from the East: to see the new-born King of the Jews. The “aha” moment is when we realise that Jesus is born not just for “God’s chosen people”, the Jews, but also for Gentiles, those not born of the tribes of Israel;
• Jesus’ baptism by his cousin John at the River Jordan culminates in a massive “epiphany” – the Holy Spirit settling on him like a dove, and God the Father saying, “This is my Son whom I love; with him I am well-pleased”
• The Wedding at Cana in Galilee showed us something more of who Jesus is, as he turned water into wine, saving the feast. John calls it a “sign” an indication of a truth greater than the miracle itself;
• In the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus’ reading from Isaiah and his statement that “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” reveals to us his mission – and, ultimately, ours;
• And, last week, Jesus continued his sermon, revealing even more controversially and clearly that his mission is wider than just to the people of his native Israel. And he is thrown out for his boldness.

So, today, we come to the end of the Season of Epiphany, and the season culminates with another undeniable “epiphany”. The word means light bursting forth, a revelation, and “aha’ moment. And as Jesus is praying on the mountain with Peter, James and John, he is seen in his true light – literally as well as metaphorically.

In Luke’s Gospel, from which we read this morning, our story is preceded by Jesus’ having asked his disciples who people were saying him to be. Then he had asked the disciples for their opinion of him, and Peter has declared him to be “The Messiah of God”. And Jesus has proceeded to tell them of his impending suffering and death and resurrection. It seems we are getting to the pointy end of his three-and-a-half year ministry.

So, a week later, Jesus takes the “inner circle” of the apostles – Peter, James and John – with him up a mountain to pray. And we read, “And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.”
I find myself wondering what this event, so succinctly described by St Luke, means to Jesus, to the disciples who were present, and eventually, to us.

For Jesus, coming to the end of his ministry, as he turns shortly to begin his last journey to Jerusalem, there is a reaffirmation of who he is and why he is here. “This is my Son, my Chosen”, comes the Voice from heaven, almost repeating the words Jesus heard at his Baptism. The one who affirmed him at the beginning is still with him. The calling he received at the beginning is still current and relevant. Jesus is on track. He has been with Moses and Elijah “speaking of his departure” – the Greek word in Luke is “exodus”, which clearly reminds us of the events recorded in the book of the same name which has Israel rescued from Egypt and brought to the Promised Land. Jesus is the Moses and Joshua, the rescuer and saviour, freeing all from the tyranny of evil.

As Peter and his off-siders see all this happening, they are, not surprisingly, overwhelmed. Peter – ever practical – offers to build tents or dwellings for each member of this “holy three”. Like most of us would, he wants to prolong this “mountain-top experience” as long as possible. But this is not to be. They are not to concentrate on Moses and Elijah, or even on the extraordinary experience which has been their privilege.

The Voice is addressed to them – and to us – “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” Whatever else may have been their focus to this point, they are to listen to Jesus. When he has told them of his impending suffering, death and resurrection, they have not understood. He will tell them twice more on different occasions, but still they will not understand. But whatever may happen, they have Jesus on whom to focus. If they will listen to him, they will do what he says and come to their own ultimate glory. So they went down the mountain, and “they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.” Matthew tells us that Jesus told them not to tell anyone; so perhaps they were obedient. Or maybe they thought no-one would believe them! 

If you’ve ever had a major “spiritual experience”, you’ll have some idea of why Peter didn’t want to allow this wonderful moment to pass. Building tents would be one way to preserve the moment. Your “spiritual experience” may have been a moment of falling in love and finding that love to be reciprocated. It may have been an overwhelming sense of the presence of God – for me, one such experience was “Clausura” at my first Cursillo. It may have been the first look at your first baby. It may be observing something wonderful in the creation – a rainbow, a sunrise or sunset. It could even be the final siren when your team won the AFL Grand Final! 

For any of these emotional/spiritual highs, we might want them to last – and they do, but only in memory and in the telling, if we are able to communicate them. Luke is able to tell us, presumably from the memories of Peter, James and John, of the wonderful event we call the “Transfiguration”. And we can only see this glory of Jesus through their eyes and the limitations of language.

We have walked these last few weeks with Jesus from Bethlehem to Jordan, to Cana and to Nazareth. And today we come to the mountain. But the message has never changed. This One whom we see transfigured, this One whom we glimpse in glory, is the one whom we saw in a manger, born to save the world. The One whom we see glorified today is the One who declared his – and therefore our – mission to be
“to bring good news to the poor.
… to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour”

Jesus’ transfiguration is a step along the way – undeniably an important step – but the “mount of transfiguration” is not the ultimate destination. Another “mountain” is where he is headed – the “mountain” which is Calvary. Neither Jesus, nor the disciples, nor we, are to be distracted from his calling and purpose.

This Week we leave behind the season of Epiphany and begin the season of Lent. We will journey on with Jesus to Jerusalem, to Gethsemane and Calvary. And we make that journey knowing that we follow one whose glory we have seen “as though reflected in a mirror”, as St Paul puts it in today’s Epistle. We are encouraged, strengthened and renewed to listen to Jesus and to do whatever and wherever he calls.

The Lord be with you!

Manifesto at Nazareth – part two

EPIPHANY 4C – 3rd February, 2013

St Matthew’s, Guildford



No prophet is accepted in his home town”, says Jesus.


I have a colleague who, a few years ago, was appointed rector in the parish in which he was born and grew up.  I don’t know how it’s going; though since it’s been three or four years, perhaps it’s OK.  He was born in the parish, went through Sunday School, CEBS and youth group, and found his calling to ministry while a young adult member of the parish.  Now, as rector of the parish, he has his mother and grandmother and some other relations in his congregations.


When Jesus stands up in the synagogue of Nazareth, he is in a very similar position.  He was born in a somewhat scandalous manner to a Nazareth couple, Joseph and Mary; he went to the local school, attended synagogue regularly, made his bar-mitzvah at twelve or thirteen, and learned and practised his trade as a carpenter in the community until the age of thirty. His mother and brothers and other relations are almost certainly in the congregation.


Now after a possibly quite short absence, Jesus returns to his home town.  Some stories have come from Capernaum, where – apparently – he has done some miracles of healing.  The Chazzan, whose duties included everything from looking after the holy scrolls to being synagogue janitor to teaching in the village school, hands Jesus a scroll, inviting him to read the lesson from the prophets.  It is possible that there was a lectionary with readings set for each Sabbath, or Jesus may simply have chosen the passage from Isaiah, which we heard him read last Sunday:


“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”


Having read this passage, Jesus hands the scroll back and sits down.  It was customary for the reader to provide some commentary on what he had read, and Jesus does exactly that. 


Today”, he says, “this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  


And, as I said last week, you could probably have heard a pin drop!  The prophecies of Isaiah have been read in Jewish religious gatherings for over eight hundred years by this time, but never with such conviction and never with such immediacy.


“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”


And that’s where the lectionary left us last week. Jesus has declared his mission in compelling terms, and we were left for a week to await the reaction of his hearers.


This morning, we read, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.”  Their initial reaction was one of admiration and amazement.  A nine-word sermon, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”, has the people sitting up in their seats, amazed at his eloquence!  J


On Tuesday, I attended a clergy gathering at Wollaston with Stephen Than Myint Oo, Anglican Archbishop of Burma.  Archbishop Stephen told us of his being invited to preach twice at St George’s Cathedral last Sunday.  To his surprise, he was instructed that he had ten minutes at one service and twelve at the other.  He is accustomed to preaching at least forty-five minutes; in fact, many of his people feel quite ripped off if he goes for less than an hour.  Wouldn’t work here, would it?  J

Anyway, Jesus might have been better if he had stopped at his nine-word homily!


Once they’ve expressed their amazement at Jesus’ eloquence, they begin to enquire further.  “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they ask.  They have heard him read the Scripture beautifully.  All Israel looked for a time when God would intervene in history and restore Israel to its proper place, honoured throughout the world as God’s chosen people.  And there are many Jews – and even fundamentalist Christians who look for the same thing.


But when the prophets wrote of the coming Kingdom of God, they very often spoke of the inclusion of all the world, all peoples and nations, coming into God’s glorious future. Isaiah often speaks of the Gentiles’ being included in the restoration, the new creation.  When Jesus reads the words from Isaiah about “bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, about letting the oppressed go free and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favour”, it is to them good rhetoric.  Many people enjoy a good sermon – well-written and well-presented.  But far fewer people want to hear a sermon which demands change in themselves.


Jesus’ “Today” is way too immediate.  If this scripture if really to be fulfilled today, Jesus’ hearers will need to change and to make a commitment to his mission.  And they don’t want that!


How much easier it is for them (and us?) to speak of Jesus’ heritage.  Basically, it’s a case of “Who does he think he is?”  Jesus knows what they’re thinking and challenges them head on!


And he does so by challenges their narrow-minded thinking.  The comfortable exclusiveness of Jewish thinking is that they believe themselves to be the only ones for whom God cares.  It’s as though the cry “God for the Jews!” is carried across the congregation and all they want to do is lynch Jesus.  There are, sadly, many Christians who seem to think that God is their own particular preserve – and that many others – even would-be fellow Christians – are outside of God’s love and care and of God’s welcome to Heaven.


Jesus’ words about the prophets Elijah and Elisha challenge a whole lot of presuppositions and prejudices there in the synagogue of Nazareth and here and now at St Matthew’s, Guildford.  In a land full of “God’s people” in a time of famine, there were, of course, many poor widows facing starvation.  Yet God sent Elijah to a Canaanite widow in Sidon, part of the old Philistine territory.

And we all know the story of the Syrian army captain, Naaman, to whom Elisha brought healing from his leprosy. 


God is always acting beyond the narrow boundaries which we place.  God’s love and grace cannot be limited by our notions of who’s in and who’s out! 


As Jesus read the passage from Isaiah, all was well.  When he began to speak, the people were overawed and admiring.  But as soon as his mission becomes immediate and inclusive of the “other”, all they want to do is kill him. 


We, of course, wouldn’t want to do that.  Our preferred stance as middle-class Western Christians is to ignore him – to close our ears and our hearts to whatever call of Jesus would take us beyond our fixed ideas and our cultivated “niceness”.


Last week, I concluded my sermon by reading two versions of the “Five Marks of Mission”, from the Anglican Communion and from the Anglican Board of Mission, Australia.  They were even printed out and included in the pewsheet for your further consideration.


I do not know how you react to them – personally or corporately as congregation and parish.  I hope they have called you and challenged you.  In fact, if you have read them at all, you cannot have been unchallenged.


What you choose, however, to do with them and in response to them is between you and God.


I say again, as I said last week, we who belong to Christ, who bear the name Christian, are called to share in Jesus’ mission.


With Jesus, we are called and anointed

“to bring good news to the poor.

… to proclaim release to the captives

and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”


How will you and I respond?


My fear is that we are already too familiar with God’s call, but we choose not listen and act.  My Grandma used to “There’s none so deaf as them that don’t want to hear”. 


Will you hear and take the challenge?



The Lord be with you!