St. John's Uniting Church Wahroonga

Prayer

Psalm 85 | Luke 11:1-13
Listen!
Prayer is complicated. There is probably no part of the Christian faith that is at the same time so universally valued and respected, and at the same time so diversely understood, or openly not understood. We all pray – some of us regularly, in a disciplined pattern, some of us more randomly, in response to the situation around us. We pray here in worship, we pray in meetings, we pray, perhaps, at meal times, at bedtimes, as we walk, as we drive, before (and during) difficult situations. We pray at baptisms, weddings, and funerals. Even many of our public events still incorporate a formal prayer – the start of each day in parliament, school assembly, meeting of cubs.

Even amongst those who are not part of any community of faith, most people say that they pray, at least occasionally, even if they at the same time admit they don’t know whether there is anyone to hear their prayer.

Prayer is pervasive, even in our post Christian society. How much more so, then, amongst the Jews of Jesus’ day. Jesus’ disciples would have grown up with prayer; in the home, in the synagogue, throughout society. And yet still they feel the need to come to Jesus as say “Lord, teach us to pray.” Even in a society where everyone knew and valued prayer, they asked, as John the baptists followers had asked him, to be taught prayer.

Because prayer is complicated. We don’t know how, why, if it works. We don’t even really know what “works” would mean. Does prayer change God? The world? Us? Does it sometimes, always, never? What makes a good prayer? What makes prayer futile or ineffective? Why does God seem to hear the prayers of others, but not ours?

And just to add to our sense that prayer is hard to get out heads around, Jesus’ answer to their request includes what must be one of his most unsatisfactory parables of all…

But before the parable, Jesus did something almost unique in the gospels. His disciples asked him a question: “how should we pray” and he gave them a simple, clear, direct answer: “when you pray, say this…”. I challenge you to find another place in the gospels where Jesus gives such a clear, direct answer to a question! And so we use the prayer Jesus gave his followers – we normally use the slightly expanded version that Matthew records – both directly, but also in its general form – make things on earth the way they should be, give us the things we need, forgive us our failings, we commit ourselves to reconciliation with other, keep us safe from troubles. A thousand sermons have been preached on the Lord’s prayer, a thousand paraphrases written; I don’t propose to spend more time on it now.

And then Jesus goes on to give us a parable, and an analogy, to make sense of what he has just taught. There isn’t a follow-up question recorded, but spoken or unspoken, Jesus seems to be addressing the question many would ask next: why doesn’t God answer? And I don’t know about you, but his answer really doesn’t seem very satisfying.
God is like a man who has gone to bed, and really doesn’t want the hassle of getting up to help his friend out? Who only responds because the one asking makes such a pest of himself?

Surely that isn’t the image of God that Jesus wanted to portray. And yet, the idea that God somehow can be persuaded into action is far from alien in the scriptures. It certainly wasn’t an idea that the psalmist had any problem with….

Psalm 85 was written at a time when the people of God were in trouble. We don’t know the context: there are hints in the psalm that they may have been suffering from poor harvests, perhaps from drought, but you’d really have to read between the lines to get a sense of what the situation really was.

The plea of the psalmist, on the other hand, is very clear. In the opening few verses, its as if the writer is reminding God that in the past, when things have been bad, God has come through for them – restored their fortunes, pardoned their sin, shown fvour to the land. And then the writer continues “you did that before for us, God, won’t you do it again? Are you always going to be angry? You were angry before, but you turned from your anger. We’ve had hardship before, but you spared us. Won’t you do it again? Show us your love, your salvation, so that we can once again praise you”.

It’s a form of prayer which is fundamentally Hebrew in its understanding of God. For the Jews, God was not an entity to be bribed or bought: I’ll bring my offering, my sacrifice, and you’ll send the rains, heal my sickness, give us victory in battle. Nor was God the detached, unchanging, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent iconinc pefection of the later Greek philosophers. The God of the scriptures can, in the words of Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggeman, be haggled with. Moses does it when God intends to destroy the people on Mount Sinai. Abraham does it on behalf of the city of Sodom. Over and again the prophets negotiate, argue, haggle with God.

To this Hebrew mindset, the idea of continuing to bang on the door, calling out, nagging your friend to help you, was far less alien, far less problematic, than for us. The parable is not about the reasons that God does not respond, but gives us permission to keep asking, to keep nagging at God for the thing we think we need.

But there’s one crucial part of the picture still missing, without which none of this makes sense. The psalmist basis his argument with God on one thing alone: “this is what you’ve been like in the past, God. You’ve shown love and mercy and rescued us. If that’s the sort of God that you are, then will you not do so again?” The appeal of the Psalm is for God to act like God; to be who God is. Steadfast love, righteousness, faithfulness and peace: these and other characteristics of God are called out in the hope and expectation that God will live up to them.

And Jesus makes the same point, even more simply: You wouldn’t give your child a snake instead of a fish, or a scorpion instead of an egg. And God is a better parent than any of you. Trust in what God is like. Trust in the character of the God that you pray to, the God revealed in your story, the God revealed in the person of Jesus. Trust that, however God answers or any other prayer, God will always give the Holy Spirit, the presence of God alongside and within, to any who ask. That final line, that’s a whole sermon in itself!

Prayer remains a mystery. When, why, whether, and how God answers remains beyond us. The witness of the scriptures does not give us simple rules, does not give us formulas or systems or certainties. It does not promise us that God will give what we ask for, or what we think we need.

What it gives us is permission, always, to ask, and ask, and ask again, to badger, haggle, negotiate; to continue to ask, seek and knock in the expectation that God will – sometime, eventually – respond; to remind God of what God has previously revealed to us; to hope that God will come through for us; and to trust, in the end, in the character of God, who is a better and wiser and more real parent than we could ever hope for or imagine.

Reason enough to pray, and not give up. Amen.

Saturday night poetry?

The Saturday Nighters next meeting will be a Soup plus Poetry plus Play reading on Saturday 17th August at 7.00pm. It will be held at the home of Rob & Cecile Ferguson, 54 Woonona Avenue (via Fern Ave) Wahroonga. Please bring along your favourite poem to read – or scene to enact!

Big Issues

For the five Sundays of September, I’m going to speak on the big issues that face us as Christians and as the Church in Australia today. But rather than deciding what I think those issues are, I’d like members of the congregation to nominate them. So have a think about what you think the big questions are for us as Jesus’ followers today, and let me know – have a chat, drop me an email, or add a comment below…

Host and Guest

Genesis 18:1-10a | Luke 10:38-42
Listen!
It’s great to be back in Wahroonga after a few weeks away – it’s especially good to be back in time to celebrate the ashes series with you all. I can’t help noticing that England haven’t lost an ashes series since Sureka and the kids and I arrived at St. John’s. Coincidence? You decide.

And as we’ve been away and travelling, we’ve been the recipients of a great deal of hospitality; of family and friends going out of their ways to make us welcome and comfortable.

So it was very easy to spot the theme for this Sunday when I saw the readings in the lectionary: Abraham offering hospitality to strangers, and Mary and Martha welcoming Jesus as their guest.

In our reading from Genesis this morning we see Abraham living out the ancient middle eastern rituals of hospitality. In the heat of the day, three men approach his camp, and so he offers them a place to rest, out of the sun, water to wash, and prepares a meal for them. While the introduction to the story tells us, the readers, that in these men “The Lord appeared to Abraham”, there is nothing in the story to suggest that there was anything special, supernatural, or spiritual about them. Indeed, the fact that Abraham offers shelter, water, and a meal, tells us that Abraham didn’t see them as spiritual beings – he was simply offering hospitality to three strangers in need of it in a hostile environment. Doing the right thing as a host. Perhaps it is this very story that the writer of the letter to the Hebrews was remembering when he wrote “do not forget to entertain strangers, for by doing so, some people have entertained angels unawares”.

The funny thing about being a host is, while there might be some, or even considerable, inconvenience or expense, it’s at least fairly clear what being a good host is all about.

On the other hand… Over the past few weeks we’ve been doing a fair bit of travelling around the UK, and during our three weeks we stayed, at least long enough for a meal, in eight different homes. And I discovered, or perhaps rediscovered, what should have been an obvious truth: that children (at least, our children!) do not naturally know the rules of hospitality. In particular, they do not know how you behave as a guest in someone else’s home.
Being children of the manse, they’ve had the rules of being a host drilled into them (poor things); that when you have guests in your home you make their comfort and happiness your priority, you concern yourself more with what your guest wants to do than what your preference would be. Whether the guest is a visiting relative, or congregational member, or a school friend on a playdate, the rule is pretty simple. Do what Abraham did. Make your guest comfortable and welcome.

But when we tried to explain to the kids the rules for being a good guest, I found them really hard to pin down. Why it is that when a host asks you what you’d like, there are some things you can say and others you can’t. Some things it’s ok to ask for, but other requests might put your host into an uncomfortable position. The sort of social ettiquette that defies simple rules. Especially in a multicultural or intergenerational setting where each culture or generation has different expectations, unwritten rules.

It’s easier to know what you should be doing as a host, than as a guest.

Or so it would seem. Until we come to visit at Mary and Martha’s house with Jesus.

Now I’ve spoken on the Mary and Martha story before, and heard plenty of sermons and talks on it. And the general thrust tends to focus on Martha’s distraction, her running around and doing things instead of sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening. Martha is worrying about lots of things; Mary has chosen the one thing that really matters. We hear preachers appeal to us to “be still”, to “not worry about the things of this world”, to “focus ourselves wholly on Jesus and his teaching”.

And of course, so many of us would say we feel sympathy for Martha – that there are things that need to be done, that cannot just be dropped; as Martha might have complained, the meal won’t cook itself, the clothes won’t wash themselves, the guest bed isn’t going to be readied by conversation.
And in the context of thinking about hospitality, we read again the opening words “…a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister called Mary…”. The home is identified as Martha’s, and she is the one who made Jesus welcome. She is the host; and as such, she had responsibilities, duties that it would have been shameful to let slip. So just as Abraham, welcoming strangers rushed off to arrange for water and refreshments and a meal to be prepared – he was, as the story tells it, quite literally running around – he hurried into the tent, ran to the herd – so Martha is rushing around fulfilling her duties as the host. And she’s annoyed with Mary – and, I suspect, with Jesus – for what seems like devaluing the ancient virtue of hospitality.

But Jesus tells her that Mary has chosen the better path. For some, whose spirituality is found in stillness and silence and reflection, this better path is all too clear: better to still oneself at the feet of Jesus than to run around doing things for him.

But for those who find faith more in action, in work, in striving for the things of the Kingdom of God, perhaps there is another way of hearing these words.

Perhaps the better part Mary has chosen is not passivity over action. Perhaps it is that when it comes to Jesus, she has chosen for herself the role of guest, not of host.

For to be host, as well as to be responsible and (perhaps) inconvenienced, is also to be in control. The host is in a position of power – it’s their home, their food – power used in the cause of service, good power, if you like, but power, control, none the less.

Perhaps the path that Mary has chosen, and which Jesus affirms, is her recognition that, in the presence of Jesus, she is not – will never be – the host. It’s not her home to graciously share with him; it is his. It’s not her food to prepare a meal; for all is already his.

In our encounter with Jesus, we are not the generous host, opening what is ours to him. We are always his guest.

And so it is at communion, that we come as Jesus’ guests to his place, his meal, and receive what he offers us. This table is not ours, it is his. This is not a place, a sacrament, that is ours to give out or to withold – which is why I, and, in general, the Uniting Church, will not turn anyone away from receiving communion, regardless of their age, their background, who they are, what they’ve done, what they believe, how often they’ve attended Church, whether they are members of our denomination or even of our faith.

Too often, the Church has claimed for itself that power, with excommunications formal or more subtle, with rules around who is welcome, who is permitted. And those rules are made, and defended, with good and detailed arguments of order and doctrine. Churches debate whether to offer communion to non-members, to children, to those who have not attended enough Sundays in the past quarter. It has been denied on the basis of race, of gender, of sexuality, of doctrine.

But to me, even to discuss what restrictions we might have is to miss the point, for it is to claim that we are in charge here, that it is our table, our sacrament. It is not. For we are here as Jesus’ guests, and it is not the place of one guest to decide whether or not another guest is welcome.
Dare we, I wonder, give up the illusion of being in charge around here?

Amen.

Messiah – Hornsby Ecumenical Choir

December 19 this year will mark the 5th annual performance of Handel’s Messiah at Our Lady of the Rosary Cathedral, Waitara, featuring the Hornsby Ecumenical Choir and young up and coming soloists.

This year, funds will go to the establishment of a Women’s Shelter in the Hornsby Shire.

Ticket prices are $30 for adults, $20 concession, $10 students and children under 5 enter for free. Phillip Linquist will again direct the performance, accompanied by Heather Boyd on organ.

Generations at St. Ives

Rob McFarlane and Liam Miller have teamed up to plan a four evening series of discussions in their “Uniting Life and Learning” series. Fortnightly on Mondays, starting on August 12, they’ll be exploring the different generational labels – builders, boomers, X, Y and Z – and why it matters…

More info at their website

Measuring Up

Amos 7:7-17 | Luke 11:1-13
Bob Potter

Today’s readings provided a dilemma for me: Should I choose the gospel passage, preach on the Lord’s prayer and struggle to find something original to say, or should I choose the Old Testament reading in Amos and have to deal with his uncomfortable message of judgement and impending doom for Israel? I recalled that last year at the Tuesday night Bible Study group we struggled with the concept of Judgement and discussed if God will get what he wants, that is, everyone’s salvation. Thus after reflection Amos got the nod and his words,

‘See I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel;
I will never again pass them by’

form the basis for this reflection.

The vision Amos preached at Bethel was shocking and understandably deeply affronting to Amaziah, the priest at the Israelite national shrine. It was shocking because Israel was enjoying peace, a time of prosperity and wealth, and surely this was confirmation of God’s good favour. It was affronting because this interloper from the Southern kingdom, a Judean farmer, had the temerity to predict that God was about to judge his chosen people Israel. We can liken the affront that Amaziah felt, to how we might feel if a native South African used the ANZAC Day Service at the National War Memorial in Canberra to denounce our treatment of Aborigines.

Do you, like me, feel uncomfortable when you hear his words? The book of Amos is a collection of sayings attributed to him. They have been assembled into a series of units, but save for this pericope where he preaches at Bethel, no setting is given. Some of his visions are directed at surrounding nations including Judah, but the bulk of his words are directed at Israel. His indictment of Israel’s social life and culture is sweeping, as a brief review of the book will show. However Amos is not preaching a social gospel. The basis for his criticism and God’s judgement is set out in our reading. When Amos says,

‘the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate,
and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste’

He is making an astute observation about where the people’s hearts were. True the shrine at Bethel was a national cultic centre for the worship of Yahweh. But on every hill top stone altars and timber phalluses proclaimed that the populace in their daily lives worshipped the Canaan deities. The pomp and ceremony at Bethel reflected hollow homage to Yahweh. The daily life and character of the people proclaimed they were divorced from the Torah and God’s precepts.

Under Jeroboam II Israel was enjoying a period of prosperity but this wealth was not evenly distributed. Archeology has shown that at this time in Israel the social structure underwent a major structural change. While in preceding centuries the dwellings in Samaria had been largely uniform in size and reflected a roughly uniform society, at the time of Jeroboam II, about a quarter of the houses were palatial while the remainder consisted of small plain dwellings crushed together. Israelite society had split into the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’.

Chapter 8 provides a summary of the charges God, through Amos, levels at the wealthy.

Hear this, you that trample on the needy,
and bring to ruin the poor of the land,
saying, “When will the new moon be over
so that we may sell grain;
and the sabbath,
so that we may offer wheat for sale?
We will make the ephah small and the shekel great,
and practice deceit with false balances,

Firstly Amos accuses the wealthy of being hard-nosed capitalists. They resent the Law’s demands and having to set aside the sabbath as holy to the Lord. It got in the way of business. Secondly their business practices were shady. They used dishonest balances with the result that customers did not get full measure for their payment. Further it was not just the merchants and landowners who were at fault they were encouraged and urged on by their wives.

Hear this word, you cows of Bashan who are on Mount Samaria,
who oppress the poor,
who crush the needy,
who say to their husbands,
“Bring us something to drink!”

I should remind you that in 760 BC referring to wives as ‘cows of Bashan’ was not derogatory. He was not Alf Garnett referring to the Silly Old Moo. He was being complimentary drawing attention to their sleek appearance in a simile comparing them to the well fed cattle on the lush slopes of Bashan.

If their business practices were highly questionable their judicial system was corrupt. Everyday legal matters were settled at the city gate. Amos suggests that losing respect for God’s law results in a breakdown of civil justice. He says,

They hate the one who reproves in the gate,
and they abhor the one who speaks the truth.
You who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,
and push aside the needy in the gate.
Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time: for it is an evil time

I find the last complaint most uncomfortable because he joins those who don’t speak up and by their silence give unspoken assent to wrong doing with those who actively practice deceit and take bribes.

The final charge God, through Amos, brings against his people is this. They have lost sight of their responsibility for each other. They have put profits and possessions before people.

buying the poor for silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals,
and selling the sweepings of the wheat.

Their brother Israelites have become just another possession. They are valued in just the same way as livestock. While the Law provided that the edges of fields should not be reaped but left for the poor to glean sustenance, now the merchants are even sweeping up the dust from the threshing floor and selling it to those who can’t afford the real product.
Amos reminds them that being God’s chosen race wasn’t about enjoying the benefits it was about shouldering the responsibility and being a blessing to other nations. In particular he criticises them because they have been the recipient of special favour: God says,

Of all the nations on earth, you are the only one I have known and cared for.
That is what makes your sin so terrible.

But we are not Israel in 760 BC. What is Amos’ message for us and our Church today? I would highlight just two:

Firstly, the words of Amos are a clarion call reminding us that God takes sin seriously. God does not distinguish between sins of commission and omission in terms of falling short of his standards. Therefore we must take sin seriously; recognise the extent of God’s anger, the affront sin gives to his justice, and God’s hurt at our betrayal of his love and trust. If we don’t then we trivialise the Cross and the cost of our salvation in Christ.

Secondly, as brothers and sisters of Christ we pray, ‘Your kingdom come.’ But do we really mean it? Do we put people before possessions and profits? As a teenager I used to squirm when I would ask my mother for advice about what I should do in a given situation and she would reply, ‘What do you think Christ would do?’ I hang my head in shame when I look back and think how frequently I have let him down and taken the easy road of silence or chosen the path that placed least demands on me. Dare we accept Mum’s test for our actions during the coming week and do what we think Christ would do in our situation?

Amen