St. John's Uniting Church Wahroonga

Lessons from a long walk

Leaving Katoomba, Leg 2, Wild Endurance

Leaving Katoomba, Leg 2, Wild Endurance


Job 34: 1-12
2 Pe 1:  3-11

As most of you know, in May a team from the St Johns Cartophiles Bushwalking Club participated in an endurance event to raise money for the Wilderness Society.  This required a team of four to walk a 100km course in the Blue Mountains in under 36 hours.  It was one of the toughest things I’ve ever done but ultimately, it was just walking.  And with all the walking I’ve done, I didn’t expect to learn anything from doing it.

Well … it seems God disagrees, and I learnt several things about myself and about other people during the event.  Luckily for me that means I get to do a sermon and have a skite!

In these events the strength of the team is critical, and keeping the team together is paramount.  We were warned that we had to clearly understand and agree our team objectives: a big problem is when a team is half way through the event and they find that two want to finish as fast as possible, while the other two just want to finish.  The fast ones are irritated by their slower colleagues and start to push ahead, while the slower ones feel resentment that they’re being pushed to go faster and risk not making it at all. The team fractures.  We saw a team where this happened: two finished just before us, but the last one came in alone and limping about an hour after we finished.

So, our team discussed and agreed our objectives between the four of us: to all finish, and to finish in under 30 hours.  We knew the speed we needed to walk and how long we would stop at each of the three checkpoints for rest and food.  We were aligned.

We finished in 30 hours and six minutes.  Oops.

Almost immediately we began a post mortem on where we had lost the time:

  • Owen and I were prepared to jostle our way through the crowd at the start of the event but Kayla and Sue weren’t, so the we spent some time waiting for them to catch up.
  • On the stairs climbing up to Katoomba Owen hit the wall and we slowed right down while he struggled to keep up.
  • On the second leg Kayla was in such pain she trudged along slowly with tears running down her face while the rest of us could do nothing but huddle close and walk with her.  She dropped out at the halfway mark.
  • On the third leg, the overnight walk, Owen & I had to stop for an 8 minute nap.  It was only 8 minutes … but then, we only missed by 6!
  • I was so busy concentrating on walking through my injured knee on the last leg that I didn’t eat enough to keep up my energy levels, and so slowed us right down for the last fifteen or so kilometres.
  • We were dreadfully slow through all three checkpoints.  For instance we planned to stop at the first checkpoint for 30 minutes, but were there for nearly an hour.

We identified lots of places where we had lost our six minutes, and lots of people who were to blame – including blaming ourselves.  But the point is, it was only six minutes.  The real answer was we should have walked a little bit faster.

I was shocked to realise that we almost instinctively tried to apportion blame, and it made me recognise that we live in a society that always seeks to identify who is at fault when someone is unhappy.  If a person slips on some steps in a park the council is to blame for poor signposting.  If two drunks get into a fight it’s the government’s fault for not having strict enough drinking laws.  If someone gets type 2 diabetes from being grossly obese it’s because McDonalds doesn’t have proper labelling on their food.

If I miss out by six minutes, what stopped me walking fast enough?

American film producer, author & Baptist pastor, Michael Catt, wrote, “We  are  residents of  a  world  that  refuses  to  take  any  responsibility.  “The devil made me do it. My spouse made me do it. It’s my boss’s fault.” On and on it goes … For some reason, God’s people think when  they stand before the judgment seat of Christ they are going to be able to blame their parents,  the church,  their pastor, or their circumstances …[that] … they will be able to pass the buck when it comes to personal responsibility.”

I’m not in line with his theology, but what an uncomfortable thought! And there are even more uncomfortable implications.

In an article in The Huffington Post Dr David Katz, Director of the Yale Disease Prevention Research Center said, “Our culture — at least the movie-going part of it — seems to have embraced the adage: With great power comes great responsibility.

“Somehow, at the same time, it seems to have ignored the inevitable, underlying principle: Power and responsibility are conjoined … if great power brings great responsibility, then presumably modest power brings more modest responsibility. And, by extension, utter lack of power would bring — you guessed it — something very much like utter lack of responsibility.”

The converse is also inevitably true.  Lack of responsibility equals lack of power.  Intellectually I’m really uncomfortable with the notion that I am somehow subject to the whimsy of a capricious fate.  Religiously I’m appalled at the notion.

In today’s reading from Second Peter we heard, “His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness”.   We have limitless resources available to us through the Holy Spirit. We are not powerless.  And if through Christ we have power, then, through Christ, we have responsibility.  We must be personally responsible.  We can’t shift blame.  We must ignore the siren song of abrogating responsibility.

I’ve moved a long way from a walk in the Blue Mountains, but the blame game lesson that the walk put in front of me inevitably lead me to this point.  I realised I’m guilty of it, and I bet you’ve all realised it too.  How many of us have seen rubbish inside the door of the church and thought, “Someone should clean that up.”

How many of us have seen dirt on the floor of upper hall and said, “Someone should sweep that away.”

How many of us have seen the garden dry and muttered, “Someone should water that garden.”

Who is someone?  Me?  Sue?  Peter?  Rosemary?


Elihu angrily told Job, “… the Almighty … repays everyone for what they have done; he brings on them what their conduct deserves.”

God give me, and all of us, the strength to recognise what we deserve, the recognition of your power in us to do what we should do, and give each of us the strength to take responsibility for our actions.

Help us all Lord, at least metaphorically, to stop worrying about the time we’ve spent in the checkpoint and just walk a bit faster.


Manly to North Head Walk Saturday 15th June, 2013

The walk was great, but the gathering to make it was fraught!  When City Rail announced track closures on the North Shore line for Saturday, 15th June our carefully crafted plans to take trains to Circular Quay to catch the Manly Ferry were thrown into disarray.  It’s a tribute to the determination and creativity of the Cartophiles that thirteen of us eventually met at the Manly Wharf to start our walk.  Sue S came back for her first Cartophiles walk for a couple of years and brought with her Leanne, Angela and Sally.  Alison and Doug cane for their first Cartophiles walk and joined Mary, Virginia, Sue C, Don, David, James and Kit.

Virginia & Mary at Fairy Bower Beach

Virginia & Mary at Fairy Bower Beach

Sydney put on one of her beautiful winter mornings for us.  High blue skies and bright sunshine accompanied us down the Corso and along the walkway between Manly and Shelly Beaches.   The wind was a bit cool but high spirits, great company and lovely scenery made up for it.  At Shelly Beach we waited for Paul to catch up and bring us to our final complement of fourteen.

Paul & David on the lookout above Shelly Beach

Paul & David on the lookout above Shelly Beach

From Shelly Beach we climbed to the headland in the park where the views back over the northern beaches were wonderful.  From there we made our way along bush tracks to a hole in the stone wall that surrounds the North Head park.  We spread out a bit as we climbed to top of the hill but regrouped in the information centre in the former Royal Australian Artillery School.

Our track then headed off the roads onto a grated walk above a beautiful hanging swamp before we rejoined the main tracks at the North Fort Cafe where we had lunch.  Mary and Sue C broke away here to finish quickly and get back to Wahroonga while the rest of us endured a suddenly cloudy sky and stronger, colder wind while we waited quite a long time for lunch.

L-R David, Angela, Leanne, Sally, Virginia, Sue S, Don, Paul

L-R David, Angela, Leanne, Sally, Virginia, Sue S, Don, Paul

We hoped, alas in vain, to see migrating whales after lunch as we walked to Fairfax Lookout at the tip of North Head, but we did have magnificent views along the cliffs and down the harbour to the city of Sydney. Afterwards we made our way back via Quarantine Station Cemetery Number 3, which holds victims of the smallpox, bubonic plague and influenza epidemics from the early 1880s to the mid-1920s.

We all felt the call of the debrief as we made our way back to Manly Wharf via Collins Beach and Little Manly Cove, so instead of walking back down The Corso to the Hotel Steyne we chose to gather our thoughts at the Manly Wharf Hotel surrounded by British and Irish Lions supporters.  After an appropriate social discussion we caught the ferry back to Circular Quay and finished our day.  It was a really lovely day of great companionship and magical scenery.

The next Cartophiles walk is the overnight hike to Gentlemens Halt Campground on the 29th and 30th of June.  There are no walks scheduled for July.  Our next programmed day walk is the last of our Parramatta River Walks, from Huntleys Point to Meadowbank, on Saturday 17th August.


Church at Worship

Psalm 30 | Luke 7:1-17
Looked at from the outside, there is a lot of the Christian faith which makes a lot of sense, values which friends and neighbours might share, even if they do not share the faith. The call to care for others, regardless of who they are; the challenge to live lives of integrity, holding ourselves to the highest of ethical standards; the value placed on community, on our existance not as isolated individuals but within a network of relationships; the insistence on justice as the foundation for the protection of all, rich or poor, powerful or powerless.

And then there are aspects of the faith which perhaps appear, noble and lofty, but rather naïve or oversimplified: the radical call to non-violence: “if a man strikes you on one cheek, offer him the other one”, to love of enemy; the expectation to consider the needs of others before our own, to share our lives and belongings willingly with those in need, to welcome strangers into our communities, and even into our homes; the challenge to not worry about our physical and financial needs, what we will eat and drink and wear but trust in the provision of God.

Many outside our faith – indeed, many within – might describe this approach to life as unrealistic idealism; but at least a worthy goal to set one’s eyes upon, even if not a practical way to live.

But then there are parts of the faith which, looked at in the cold and analytical light of reason, don’t seem to make any sense at all. And right at the top of the list would Church services.

Why do we gather here? Why have Christians throughout history felt the need to meet together, normally on a Sunday, for what we call a worship service?

We gather, surely, to meet; to enjoy one another’s company, to catch up with old friends and make new. But if what we’re seeking is social companionship, Church may be an answer, but it’s an awfully complicated one. Why not catch up with those friends over coffee or invite them for dinner? Or just show up for morning tea after the service!

We gather, perhaps, to learn; to hear what others have to say about life, about faith, about God. That’s important; but, if you were setting out with an educational agenda, is this the format you would choose? I hope that we learn from one another when we get together, but if the question were “how can we best learn from one another?” I doubt our Sunday services would be the answer…

We gather, of course, to pray together. And let me not make jokes about that, or devalue it. Praying together is so important. But it’s only a small part of what we do on a Sunday; and we pray – or at least, have the opportunity to pray – in so many other ways and at so many other times.

We gather, and we sing together. For some, that may be close to the heart of the matter. Some of us love to sing, some of us, maybe not so much. For some of us the music we have at St. John’s is a delight; for some, not quite their thing; for most, probably, a mixture of the two.
Somehow, what we do on Sunday as we gather together is more than these things; more even than all of them added together. It is these things and more, placed in the context of faith. Yet something tells us that these things we do, these needs and wants that we bring, the comfort and knowledge we take away, are not the whole of the story.

Our Psalm gave us another image of the worship of God. The psalmist cried out in his despair “what profit if I die? will my dust praise you?” but continutes “you have turned my mourning into dancing” and ends in celebration: “my soul will praise you, and not be silent”.
Praise, in this, and many other psalms, is a response to God’s goodness. And surely there is something of that in our joining together to worship; that we come out of our need to give thanks to God for the blessings that we have experienced in our lives.

But the need to come together to worship God is not only felt by those who are in a time of celebration. Indeed, often it is those who are in quite the opposite place in their lives who feel the need to worship most strongly. We fill the Church at baptisms and weddings, but even more so at funerals and memorials.

What we are gathered here for is not simply giving thanks; it is not simply community; it is not simply education; it is not simply prayer. So what is it? And if we struggle to answer that question, why do we do it?

I’ve suggested before that in our life of faith together, we should be able to express everything that we value, everything that we strive to do, as a reflection of a truth about the Kingdom of God. That we provide food and companionship for the homeless because in the Kingdom of God no-one – even those who are difficult, destructive, mentally ill – no-one is excluded from community. We support Oetapo because in the Kingdom of God no-one is denied the opportunity to flourish in life through lack of education. We teach scripture, teach our kids, because in the Kingdom of God the story of Jesus and of God’s people is passed on from one generation to the next. We study the Bible for much the same reason. We have an art group because in the Kingdom of God, that human creativity which is a reflection of the creativity of God is valued and celebrated. And so on.

So what are we reflecting when we gather on Sunday?

After all that introduction, I’m going to suggest that the answer is really rather simple: that our desire to gather for worship, our need to do so, our sense that this is somehow something that we ought to do, flows from, and reflects, our recognition of the most basic fact in all of creation, the most fundamental truth in our theology: that God is God, and that we are not God. That in the Kingdom of God, God is recognised as King.

And when we gather together, for corporate acts of worship; when we gather as the Church; we are deliberately and explicitly acknowledging this truth: that we, with all our plans and hopes and needs and dreams and visions for the world; we are part of God’s creation; we are not Gods, we are not our own creation, we are not masters of our own destiny.

In the Kingdom of God, God is recognised and acknowledged as God, by all of God’s creation. And so it is right that we gather to make that acknowledgement. In our words, our songs, our creeds, our prayers. We do so for ourselves, we do so on behalf the voiceless creation.

Even before it is an act of learning or thanksgiving, even before it is an element of mission or community, gathered worship is about the right ordering of creation; about conciously placing God at the centre of our life as a community, and of our lives as members of that community.

Which is why, I suspect, God’s anger in the Bible seems most strongly felt against those who gather in the pretence of worship, but who live out lives that give the lie to their words. Not those who seek to live Godly lives but fail – for surely that describes us all – but those whose lives show no effort to reflect of the centrality of God that they declare. The words of the scriptures are far harsher for those who offer worship with their words but not their lives than for those who make no offer of worship at all; for they show with their words that they know how things should be, but with their lives, that they do not care to make it so.

For the right ordering of creation has the acknowledgement of God at its core, but from there the rest flows out: for as we place God as God, we place ourselves as God’s servants; charged with the care of God’s creation, with the protection of the vulnerable, with the work of justice and reconciliation. For this is the way it ought to be: God above all, and humanity, reconciled and at peace, under God caring for creation, and creating beauty in turn.

The things we are called, as Church, as humanity, to do and be.


Church blessing beyond

1 Kings 8:41-43 | Luke 7:1-10
There’s an impression that you sometimes get, reading the New Testament in particular, but also often listening to people speak about the early Church, that one of the biggest differences between the people of God in the Old Testament, the people of Israel, and the follower of Jesus in the New, was that the people of Israel were really only interested in themselves as the chosen people; an extended family, a clan, a nation defined by descent from the patriarchs, from Abraham. In this way of thinking, Jesus’ reaching out beyond the limits of Judaism – like by going to Capernaum, in today’s gospel reading – was a radical extension of the idea of God and God’s people, a radical idea picked up by the early Church, as they reached out to all nations with the good news of Jesus.

And of course, there’s an element of truth in such a description. But unless we’re very careful, it’s a narrative that can all too easily lead us into a sort of set of attitudes which are not only unfair on the people of Israel, but leave us completely missing the point – and repeating the mistakes of history.

When we look at the story of Jesus’ interactions with the centurion in Capernaum, a lot of what we see is actually exactly what Solomon prayed, many hundreds of years before, at the dedication of the first, great Temple in Jerusalem – Solomon’s Temple. At the dedication of the Temple, one of the great signs of God’s presence with the people of Israel, of God’s special calling of them to be the people of God, Solomon prays that God will hear the cries of God’s people when they turn to the Temple – turn to God – and cry out. He prays that God will hear their vows, their pleas, their cries for forgiveness, their calling out in times of need, of faminem, drout, pestilence. He prays that God will hear God’s people and have mercy on them.

But then he goes on: when a foreigner, who is not of your people, comes and prays towards this house, hear in heaven, and do according to all the foreigner calls to you. For Solomon, the plea that God will hear, and will bless all who call out, is not limited to the people of Israel; he wants, and believes, that God will answer the prayer of the foreigner who calls on God, for in that way, all the world will come to know and fear the name of God.

And that is exactly what happens in our New Testament story. The Roman Centurion; a foreigner if every there was one, the military representative of an occupying empire; is in Capernaum – the place where, according to Matthew’s gospel, Jesus had made his home and begun his ministry. He has come to the land of the people of God, and he has demonstrated his faith in the God of Israel – when he is in need, it is to the Jewish elders that he turns, asking them to go to Jesus on his behalf, to seek his help for a sick slave.

All the pieces are in place: a foreigner who has come into Israel, who has built a Synagogue for the worship of God, who cares for the wellbeing of a slave (even if his care might be somewhat financial in nature – a valuable slave would have represented a significant investment), and who calls out to God, through the elders, and through the man who he sees as a prophet, a representative of that God.

Much is often made in this passage of the faith of the centurion’s words – that he know there is no need for Jesus to come to his house, that all Jesus needs to do is give the order. To put this into context, we need to understand a little of the healing and magic culture of the day. Healers and magicians were a feature of the ancient world – we see Simon Magus in Acts chapter 8 and the burning of books of sorcery in Acts chapter 19 – and some of the miracles of Jesus even seem to echo the magical practices of the day – making mud with spit as a healing poultice, for instance.

But the characteristic modus operandi of the magician was showy: complex recitations, potions and poultices, physical gems and amulets carved with incantations and the like. The centurion, by contrast, has a very practical understanding of the way the world works. If you have authority, you give the order, and it happens. If you, Jesus, he seems to say, are a prophet of the God of Israel, you can simply say the word and it will be done.

The centurion’s faith in the God of Israel has already been demonstrated in his building of the Synagogue: here he demonstrates not only great faith, but great understanding of the God of the people.

And this was exactly what Solomon foresaw and prayed for: this was always the plan…

when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a distant land because of your name —for they shall hear of your great name, your mighty hand, and your outstretched arm—when a foreigner comes and prays towards this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling-place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name

The greatness of God; God’s power, God’s presence, God’s grace, God’s leading, God’s wisdom – was never meant to be just for the people of God. The theme of God’s blessing reaching beyond the chosen people comes up over and again: Abraham is told that through his people all nations will be blessed. God blesses Ishmael, the rejected son, as well as Isaac, the chosen one. The psalms speak of God’s blessing for all nations.

But somehow, over and again, this theme also gets lost. The people of God get caught up in their own importance to God, their own sense of calling, their own place, and lose the vision, lose the critical insight that they existed, that they were called, not for their own sake, but for the sake of the world. That they were called, not simply to be blessed, but so that through them, the world might be blessed.

And I fear that we in the Christian Church have often been guilty of the same lack of memory. That on a personal level, and, even more, on a corporate or cultural level, we have seen God’s blessings, given to us, as being for us. We celebrate the grace of God that has forgiven us, the love of God that holds us, the generosity of God that has given us all we need and more: and rightly so, for those are all things to celebrate; but we forget that they are given not just to be enjoyed, but to be shared.

Or often; we remember that they are to be shared, but by our attitudes or inactions we limit that sharing to those who are prepared to join us, to become like us, to join our community, share our faith, worship alongside us.

Not noticing, perhaps, that Solomon didn’t expect the Queen of Sheba to become a Jew, that Jesus didn’t call on the centurion to give up his identity as a Roman soldier before he would recognise his faith, or share the blessings of God with him.

We will share our blessing with those who will share our way of life, our culture, our values. We will welcome new immigrants to Australia, and share the blessings of our wealthy and fortunate nation with them, if they are prepared to become like us. To adopt our values, our culture. But we become nervous, and much less welcoming, when the development application appears for a Mosque or a Buddhist Temple.

And we practice hospitality, and welcome people into our Church – and we really do – as long as they fit in fairly well. As long as they are enough like us.
But we, the people of God, are called to be a blessing to the nations of the world. Called to be such a channel of God’s loving, healing, reconciling grace that by blessing us, God blesses all people.

And I’m not suggesting for a moment that that isn’t already the case: there are so many ways that we as St. John’s, and each of you as individuals in the community, share the blessing that God has given to us with the world around us. But we can always, surely, challenge ourselves to do more.

The challenge could be put like this: who benefits from the blessings God has given to you? Or, to put it another way, if God were to bless you more – with more energy, longer life, more resources, answers to prayer, wisdom and insight, healing, beauty – if God were to increase the already rich blessings you have received, we have received, who would see the benefits?

If we are, in the words attributed to St. Francis, a channel of God’s peace, where does the peace that flows through us, end up?


Patchwork throw

In the latest of our mini-raffles drawn on Sunday, the patchwork throw was won by Rosemary Hislop… congratulations Rosemary, hope you enjoy it 🙂

More than ten ways to live…

This morning I told the “Ten best ways to live” story in scripture at the Bushschool. In the year 3 group, the wondering turned into a discussion about what rules were missing from the Ten Commandments. A number of the kids wanted to add to the list – the most popular suggestions being “love animals”, “don’t waste what you’ve got because other people don’t have as much”, “look after the environment” and “be grateful”.

I wonder what you would add to God’s best ways to live…?

Election 2013 – Uniting Justice

Uniting Justice have just release their election resources for the 2013 Federal Election.

“It is not the intention to lead you to any particular conclusion about whom you should or should not vote for. It does not ‘rate’ the policy platforms of political parties.

It seeks to explore the implications of the gospel for aspects of Australia’s national life. It contains material to help Church members identify important issues facing Australia, listen to politicians and political parties with discernment, and cast an informed vote.”

June Coffee Morning

The June coffee morning will be at 10am on Tuesday 18th. Note the change of location – this month we are being kindly hosted by Rosemary and Alan Hislop. All very welcome!

Church revolutionary

Romans 12:9-16b | Luke 1:39-57
Over the past couple of weeks we’ve been exploring the implications of Pentecost; the meaning of this thing that came into being in the few years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, this international and intergenerational movement that we have today invited and welcomed Claudia and Savannah to be part of.

Two weeks ago we set the scene; the amazing and fantastical story of the tower of Babel, the ancient voice of the scriptures speaking out against the power of empire, against the centralisation of authority in the hands of a few, the homogenisation of human culture and society in the name of empire, of efficiency, of human power, and the miracle of Pentecost – and the miracle of the kingdom of God – God’s alternative to human empire, reaching past barriers of language and culture and race to unite us without needing to make us all the same.

And then last week, we explored the particular, unique role of the Christian church within the work of the kingdom of God as the keeper of that story, of all the stories of God’s interaction with humanity, and most especially, of the story of Jesus.

Today the lectionary brings us a passage of the Bible that many of us would have heard many times before, but normally at a rather different time of the year! The Magnificat, Mary’s song, is normally heard during advent – not unreasonably – it is a story that takes place shortly before the birth of Jesus!

Today we hear it in a different context. We hear it in the context not of a child soon to be born, but in the celebration of the lives of two new children; and, as we remember every time we have a baptism, in our ongoing celebration of the lives of all the children amongst us, those within our church community, here in the morning or at the growing place, and those in our wider community, our extended families, our schools.

And when we celebrate the lives of children, we are celebrating the open opportunities of the future, the unknown vistas of experience and possibilities that lie before them, just as Mary celebrated the possibilities of a new world unfolding in the life of her son when she sang her Magnificat. Mary’s song is a song of revolution; a song for the future, a dream of world turned upside down, in which those who oppress her people will be thrown down, and the humble, the poor, the hungry, lifted up.

And, as with any dream of the future, it is shaped by the present, by the very immediate reality for her and her people of the oppressive Roman empire. And that present in turn has been shaped by the past; by the memory of Egypt, of exile, of brief shining moments of peace and freedom amidst long darkenesses of war and slavery. It isn’t possible to understand the dreams others have for the future without understanding the past that has shaped those dreams; it isn’t possible even to understand our own dreams without knowing our own history. Claudia and Savannah’s dreams for the future will be shaped by their family, their community, their history; our dreams for the future are shaped by our present, our past, our story.

And sadly, that story seems to be a never ending cycle of history repeating itself. Of one empire after another repeating the pattern in which power corrupts, the righteous rise up to overthrown the corrupt elite, only to, within a matter of years, or perhaps generations, themselves become the problem. In the biblical narrative the Egypt of Joseph becomes the oppressive regime from which the people must flee; the kingdom of David and Solomon itself becomes corrupt and falls to Babylon, and Assyria, and eventually to Rome.

And when the cycle of history is one group rising, often at the expense of another, the most natural longing, the most human dream, is that it will be our turn to be on top.

Placed in this context, Mary’s song might simply offer another iteration of that cycle. The powerful are cast down, the proud scattered, the rich sent away – and in their place, the humble, the poor, the hungry lifted up. But what will stop those humble, poor and hungry from pulling up the ladder, declaring themselves the new power in town, becoming the oppressors in turn? The biblical narrative is full of the injunction ‘remember that you were slaves in Egypt’, but human nature seems to fall back into the cycle of violent revolution and slow corruption.

Replacing white Rhodesia with Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, or one failed colonial power with another in Afghanistan, or an insecure Palestine with an insecure Israel, or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq with a western puppet government, or Egyptian dictatorship with theocracy: over and again we find the way of the world is to violently replace one empire with another, one set of ‘us’ and ‘them’ with a different ‘us’, set against a different ‘them’. Even in our stable democracies we seem to be choosing between tribes; the labour tribe and the coalition tribe, one of them ‘people like us’, one of the ‘people like them’.

And I’m not making some sort of facile “they’re all the same” argument here – there is a difference between the Taliban and Hammad Kharzai; there is a difference between Julia Gillard and Tony Abbot, and I believe the Christian story has things to say about which we might prefer!

It’s not that there is no difference between empires: but that the Christian revolution, the turning upside down of the world foreshadowed in the Magnificat and exemplified in the life of Jesus is not to be found in any of our political systems, any of our ways of replacing ‘them’ with ‘us’.

The Christian revolution is far more radical than that, for it challenges us as individuals and as communities, to the heart-achingly more difficult task of rejecting the categories of ‘us’ and ‘them’, with subtle – irresistable – temptation to define ourselves against the other, superior to the other – and replace them with ‘we’. The inbreaking of the kingdom of god comes to change the cycle of revolution and violence and retaliation with the truly radical and revolutionary words of Jesus – “turn the other cheek”, “render no one evil for evil”, “love your enemies”, or, from our reading today, “extend hospitality to strangers.”, “bless those who curse you”, “live in harmony with one another”.

I wonder who the ‘others’ are that we define ourselves as not being; who we place in a box marked, if not enemy (for most of us at least like to think we do not have enemies), a box marked “stranger”. Lebanese Australians? Westies? Asylum seekers? The homeless? Drug abusers? Alcoholics? Moslems? Atheists? Transgender? Asians? Kiwis?

I wonder who is in your box labeled “stranger”, with all its synonyms – “foreign”, “dangerous”, “not assimilating”, “not our culture”. And I wonder then what Paul’s words might mean to us “open your home to strangers”? Thetranslation doesn’t really catch the strength of Paul’s language – the word he uses, dioko, literally means to pursue – pursue hospitality, chase after being hospitable. This is not a passive open door to any who might want to come: this is an active hospitality – go and offer your friendship, your company, your hospitality to those who you have in the box labeled stranger.

What might that mean? What might it look like for you, for me, for us as St. John’s?

For this is how we, the Church, are called to turn the world once more upside down – not by making our world, or our country, or our community Christian, but by being Christians in our world who take the gracious hospitality of God that we have received generously and extend it without reservation to those who are not us, those who don’t like us, those who make us uncomfortable, those who don’t fit into our comfort zone.

This is the overturning church; not creating a new empire, but far more radical yet: creating an alternative way to live together.