St. John's Uniting Church Wahroonga

Acceptable

Listen!
Sirach 35:12-17 | Luke 18:9-14
I don’t know if you, perhaps in your childhood in Sunday School, ever had to learn the names of all the books in the Bible. If you did – or even if you didn’t – you might have done a double take when you saw the readings for this week. “What,” you might have wondered “exactly is ‘Sirach’?”.

And that’s a fair enough question.

If you’d grown up in a different Christian tradition, on the other hand, you might not have been in the least surprised. Virtually all Bibles in the Orthodox tradition, and most in the Catholic Church, contain this book (often under the name of ‘Ecclesiasticus’ – confusingly similar to ‘Eccelsiastes’, if you ask me), along with a collection of other writings, in a sort of extension to the Old Testament, refered to as the Apocrypha, or the Deutero-canonical books.

Sirach – or to give it it’s full title, ‘The book of the all-virtuous wisdom of Joshua ben Sira’ – was written around two hundred years after the last of the Old Testament books, and around two hunder years before the birth of Jesus. It’s a collection of wisdom writings, much like Proverbs in character, but written, and reflecting Jewish thought, much closer to the time of Jesus, during a time when Greek thought and culture, spread by the conquests of Alexander the Great, were increasingly influencing the western world.

In the passage we heard read today, the author, Joshua ben Sirach, is seeking to answer a question – what offerings can we – or should we – bring to God? What will God accept, and what will God reject? In our gospel reading Jesus picks up the same theme, but in his case the focus is on prayer – what prayer can we bring to God? What will God accept?

I’m going to deliberately blur those two questions and the answers, because I believe that whether we are speaking of money or service or praise or prayer, the fundamental question is the same: “what is an acceptable, pleasing, offering that we can bring to God”.

Sirach begins his answer by exhorting us: when you give to God, give as generously as you can. Give as God has given to you – generously, enthusiastically. And yes, that applies to giving of our material resources, our money – whether that be giving to the Church, or to medical research, or international development, or the bush fire aid appeals, or the salvos, or to animal rights, or to any of a myriad of other causes and projects that work to make more real aspects of the kingdom of God. But the author does not limit it to money: surely we would say the same of the giving of our talents, our energy, our time: give generously, as generously as you can afford, as God has given generously to you.

And the author links this to a promise: God will repay – God will not be in your debt – indeed, God will repay sevenfold.

And I’m sure I’m not the only one who reads these words and hears the voice of some American televangelist appealing for donations, promising that God will repay everyone who donates seven time over.

This sort of mechanicalisation seems to me to violate the whole spirit of the text: give generously because God has given to you, not because you want to earn more rewards. Indeed, the very next verse warns against this sort of attempt to manipulate God: “don’t offer God a bribe, for it will not be accepted”. And given that ancient Hebrew didn’t distinguish between past and future tenses, it might (and note, I’m not a scholar of Hebrew) be as easy to read this promise as “the Lord has already paid you seven times over for anything you might give”.

Give generously, but not as a bribe, not as an attempt to gain something, not self-servingly.

Although Jesus doesn’t use the same words, this seems to reflect his criticism of the Pharisee in his parable. He brings his prayer of thanksgiving to God, along with his offering of one tenth of all his income. But his prayer is about claiming a reward – specifically, about claiming his place in society, his status, his superiority to the thieves, rogues, adulterers, and tax-collectors. His prayer – and, one suspects, his giving – is not one of gratitude, but one of self-congratulation, comparing himself not with the generousity of God, as the author of Sirach would demand, but with the failings of others.

And this sort of self-serving offering, both Jesus and Joshua ben Sira would tell us, is not something God receives. These are prayers which go no further than the roof – or, in the case of the Pharisee, no further than their intended audience, the onlookers.

Generousity is no such thing when it is down to achieve a selfish end; whether that be gaining greater blessings from God, or impressing the neighbours, or simply demonstrating our wealth. “I tell you the truth,” Jesus will say elsewhere, “they have received their reward already in full.”.

The call of the wisdom literature, and of the gospels is to give generously, out of gratitude to God for all we have received, but never to give self-servingly. We do not give our time, our money, our prayers so that others will know, or so that God will reward us. Instead, do not let the right hand know what the left is doing.

But Jesus goes on, as he so often does, to give another twist to the story. For where the author of Sirach concludes with this strong Biblical theme, this assertion that God will hear the one who has been wronged and who calls out for help – the very theme of Jesus’ words in last week’s gospel reading – here Jesus tells us of another group, another category, another sort of prayer that God will always hear.

But it’s not like what Jesus says here is new. At the dedication of the first Temple, Solomon had prayed or prophecied these words: “if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land”.

The prayer of the humble, of the one who knows that he is in the wrong, knows that she cannot claim any status, any righteousness, any standing before God: this is the prayer, Solomon said, and Jesus confirmed, that God will hear.

And it was that man, Jesus tells us, who went home justified.

Justified – made right. And how could it be otherwise? How can anything be put right if we are not prepared first to admit that it is wrong?

This week I was fortunate to be able to hear a guy called Peter Rollins, an Irish philosopher, poet, and theologian. One of the more provocative things he said in a very provocative talk was that a great proportion of the harm we do to others; on a personal level, and on a structural level, arises from our finability to admit our own brokeness – and that the Church is one of the worst offenders, in creating an environment in which you have to have it all together to fit in.

In this aspect the Church has almost inverted, not the message, but the culture of Christ – for according to all the gospel accounts, those who were very aware of their failings, their sins, their complicity, did not find it hard to approach Jesus, but find it very hard to approach Church.
Rollins contrasted the Church with an organisation he thought captured this aspect of the gospel – AA – where the only way in is to admit that you have a problem and need help. The only problem with AA was that it’s only for alcoholics.

How would Church look or feel if we began our services by saying “my name is Chris, and I need God’s help because…”? I wonder how many of us would come.

But that man, Jesus said, went home justified.

Amen.

Three Characters

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Jeremiah 31:27-34 | Luke 18:1-8
If you’ve been here at St. John’s for a while – and most of you have – and listening each week during the sermons – which many of you might have been – you may have noticed that one of the things that I love about the Bible, about our story, is the way that it so often seems to challenge or correct or subvert itself.

Perhaps the most blatant example of this is to be found in two verses of Proverbs chapter 26:

‘Do not answer a fool according to his folly, lest you also be like him. Answer a fool according to his folly, Lest he be wise in his own eyes.’

Now I’ve seen this pair of verses offered by sceptics as evidence that the Bible is self contradictory – which really suggests to me a complete lack of comprehension of the use of language in communication. For what this pithy couplet communicates so eloquently is that when speaking with a fool, you’re in a no-win situation. Answer, argue, and you are dropping to his level; stay silent, and he thinks he’s right. Anyone who has read the comment threads on almost any topic on the internet knows the truth of this, and the wisdom of the golden rule of web-browsing: never read the comments.

But just as this short quote from the proverbs creatively contradicts itself in just a few words, I’ve come to the conclusion that the broader Biblical narrative does the same on a much bigger scale. We find broad themes of scripture often painting a clear narrative – the call to the people to separate themselves as a holy nation, or the promise that God will give military vistory to his people when they are faithful, or that long life and prosperity will come to those who live godly lives – but then we find those same themes subverted, challenged, tested by other parts of the text. As if the Bible is saying to us – “but remember, it’s not quite that simple…”

Which is to say that the Biblical narrative, and many of the sub-narratives within the story, have a depth, a richness, to them which refuses simplistic interpretation. When Amanda and I tell Godly Play stories to the kids in scripture, or at the Growing Place, or in Sunday school, we talk often about how some stories, or some mysteries, are hard to get into. When introducing a parable, for instance, we’ll often say that parable sometimes don’t open up to us, and we have to keep on trying, keep on coming back to them. And I truly believe that this is one of the truest things that we can say about the scriptures: that we can never say we get it; but we keep on coming back to the texts, finding more in them. For the stories are deep, and rich, and there is much to be found in them.

Our gospel reading today gives us an opportunity to come at the story more than once. I’m guessing that your initial reaction to the story is similar to mine: a sense that it’s a story that really doesn’t answer the question that Luke tells us it answers. The opening words give the context: why we should pray, and not lose heart, and we read the whole thing in that light. And it’s frustrating – because the reason that the widow needs to keep on and on badgering the judge is because the judge is unjust, uncaring, not respectful of God or humanity. Are we to conclude that this is Jesus’ description of God?

But let’s play with the story a bit. What if it wasn’t a story about prayer? What if it were a story about power? And yes, I’m afraid I’m going to go a little bit Marxist critiquey on you here.

There are three characters in the story – a widow, their adversary, and a judge.

The adversary we know little about. But they have clearly taken advantage of the widow – she is demanding justice. Perhaps they have swindled her, knowing that as a lone woman she has no recourse to strength to reclaim what is hers, and that in a town where the judge is uncaring, she has no recourse either to the law. The adversary has raw power, the power of might making right – they have take what they want, and are fearless of consequence.

The judge has a very different sort of power – the power of government, of the authority of the state. But that power, created and crafted by the state to maintain order and ensure justice has been perverted by the whim and, by the sounds of the story, laziness, of the man to whom it has been entrusted.

And the widow? She is the one without power. A woman, alone, unable to take what is hers by force, disqualified even from speaking on her own behalf in court, she is merely an object of pity.

Except that she has the power of knowing that she is in the right, and the stubbornness to stick to that knowledge. She has nothing but her persistent willingness to press the cause, to badger, to ask and ask again, over and again, for what she knows is right.

I can’t help being reminded of the power wielded by the civil rights movement, or by Ghandi, or, for the most part, by Nelson Mandela or Aung San Suu Kyi. The persistent, nagging power of those who appeal to the better side even of those who seem determined to do what is right.

But I wonder if in our playing with this story, we might jump too quickly to put ourselves in the shoes of the widow. That might have been natural enough for an oppressed people living under the rule of Rome – to identify Israel with the widow, and Rome with the adversary. But how do we hear the story if we put ourselves instead in the role of the adversary?
What if we are not the ones crying out for justice, but the ones benefiting from injustice, ones protected by systems that perpetuate the power of those who are powerful, the wealth of those who are wealthy?

Perhaps the poor widow is a resident of Tuvalu, crying out for justice as she watches her home literally disappear under the oceans as we argue amongst ourselves what – if anything – to do about climate change.

Or perhaps that poor widow is a worker in a garment factory somewhere in the developing world, held in virtual slavery to produce goods for western companies who choose not to look too closely at how the things they sell are made.

Or perhaps the poor widow is a parent in a nation impoverished by the interest payments on loans by a military dictator long since overthrown, but still crippling the economy and driving the people into poverty.

Or perhaps the poor widow is an Iraqi mother whose family were “collatoral damage” in another forgotten war.

How, I wonder, does this story read for the adversary? Truly I tell you, Jesus concludes, God will quickly bring justice.

But perhaps we are neither the widow nor the adversary in this story. Perhaps we are even the judge.

Perhaps we are the ones who have the power, the responsibility, the calling to grant justice to those who are crying out for it.

Perhaps the challenge of this story is to our complacency, our not noticing, our not sufficiently hearing or respecting God or humankind.

In which case we might ask – how long will the widow need to nag at us before we hear.

Most likely, of course, we are all the characters in this drama; sometimes the wronged, who has only the power of persistence on their side: sometimes the adversary, challenged to make things right without waiting for the judge to rule against us, and sometimes the judge, the one who has the power to bring justice.

In each case, in each role, let us hear the question with which Jesus finished his story: when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?

Amen

Gratitude

Listen!
Jeremiah 29:1-7 | Luke 17:11-19
Do we recognise a moment of grace when it comes to us? And what do we do about it if we do?

I don’t know that I’ve ever really carefully read the story of the healing of the ten lepers before.

I mean, I’ve read it, sure, I expect I’ve heard it in Church as well, since it comes around in the lectionary once every three years, but I don’t think I’ve ever preached on it, or studied it, or, to be honest, really though about it.
I guess I’ve kind of bleeped over it as “another healing miracle”. And of course, it is that. But the authors of the gospel chose to include this story out of, we get the impression, at least, many miracles done by Jesus. Chose it, presumably, because of what it says to us.

The story suggests to us two ways of being, two attitudes, two approaches to the world.

The first, for want of a better word, is the attitude of entitlement. The sense that what we have, we deserve, we’ve earned, and what we don’t have: well, we probably deserve that as well. If you really want to hear this attitude expressed in its most uncomplicated form, you just have to listen in to the conversation many children or teens have with their parents – about how unfair it is that they don’t have the latest phone or xbox or, as I overheard just the other day up at the Bushschool, how “almost all of my friends have boats”.

But if kids are a good place to see this sense of entitlement, perhaps it’s only because they’re less good at hiding it than the grown-ups. It’s a well enough established truth of psychology that our expectation and standards of what is normal, what can be expected, are set by our context, our perception of our peers. And so we occasionally catch ourselves complaining – if not out loud, at least internally – about things which a moment of perspective would suggest are really not entitlements at all.

I wonder if this is something of the attitude of the nine lepers who don’t return. You can easily imagine that those who disappeared off without so much as a “thank you” honestly felt that good health was essentially a right – a right that had been for years denied to them, and had only now, finally, been given.

The contrast that Luke wants us to see, of course, is with the tenth leper – the foreigner, the samaritan – whose thankfulness says… ‘Here I am, alive and whole. I might never have been, but here I am. I did nothing to deserve life. It’s a gift. I did nothing to deserve this wholeness – it’s grace.'”

Two attitudes – entitlement, and gratitude. Of course, very few of us ever fall completely into one of those categories or the other. Some times we are overwhelmed by the amazing gift that is life, and at other times we find ourselves consumed by concerns about fairness and senses of entitlement. Sometimes we recognize the grace for what it is; at other times we don’t.

The recognition of grace is not a matter of how much one has. We have all known people who had almost everything they could ever want or need, and yet lived with some great emptiness; and we have known others who seemed to have less than a little, whose lives nonetheless demonstrated a peace, contentment, fullness and, above all, gratitude.

Ten lepers begged Jesus for mercy. All of them, by definition, were exiles, outcasts, living in this no-mans land that Luke describes as “the region between Galilee and Samaria”. Luke doesn’t give us a specific name of the place, because that’s not the point. Because this place is a nowhere. Neither Galilee nor Samaria, but a nothing place in between.

Ten lepers. And they don’t approach Jesus. Bitter experience, no doubt, had shown them that no good came of approaching those who travelled through their region. And they called out to him for mercy. And Jesus responds by giving them an instruction, a command. He doesn’t actually heal them up front – but as they go in obedience to the command, they find themselves healed.

For nine of the ten, that is the end of the story. We don’t know what they did when they found themselves made clean. Most likely they followed through on Jesus’ instruction to them – for it was only by showing themselves to the priests and being declared officially, legally, clean, that they could take their place in society once more. Whether they were Jew or Samaritan, that was the law.

So probably, the nine other lepers did exactly what Jesus had told them to do. Interesting, then, that Jesus seems critical, or perhaps disappointed, in their actions. They did what he told them, they received the healing they wanted.

But that was all. That was the end of the story.

The tenth somehow sees the world differently. When he realises that he has been made clean, he is overwhelmed by this unexpected gift. He discovers there is something more important than obeying the instruction he has been given. He needs to express his gratitude; he needs to offer his praise, and so he runs back to Jesus, “praising God with a loud voice,”.

Praise has been called “the jazz of faith”: love improvising an answer to love. Improvising; going beyond, or even outside, of the rules, beyond simple obedience in the effort to find a new way to express gratitude.

In a sense, that is what the Samaritan leper did. Jesus gave all ten lepers a command to follow. “Go, show yourselves to the priests”. And all ten went their way in obedience. But one of them heard something else. He heard a different tune to the others, and he improvised. He broke away from following Jesus’ command – he was the one who disobeyed. But back at Jesus’ feet, the song he sang was one of gratitude.

This is praise – our recognition of the unfathomable grace of God, and our effort to find some way to express it. Knowing that important as obedience and keeping the rules, and doing the right thing is, there is also something else, something beyond obedience, something beyond righteousness, something beyond doing what we ought to do.
At our best, this is our praise; at our best, even a simple daily occurrences can stir feelings of gratitude: the laughter of a friend, a sunset, a hot meal, an unexpected act of kindness, a disagreement resolved. At our best, we can improvise praise and gratitude for such moments.

At other times we find our senses dulled by routines, or our conscious thoughts consumed by those things that cause anxiety, by pettiness and envy, by expectation and demand.

Sometimes it is hard to feel grateful, hard to offer true praise. But that is always our prayer; that we might be the one who came back, who recognised grace for the gift it was, and offered thanks to the God who gave it.

Amen.

Through the Struggle

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Lamentations 3:19-26 | 2 Timothy 1:1-14
It’s a couplet that has been used in plenty of Christian songs, traditional and contemporary; printed on countless devotional posters, calendars, bookmarks and mugs; quoted in prayers and praise and conversation beyond number. “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness”.

I wonder how many of those who quote the words know where they come from, or notice the strangeness of such a declaration of the goodness of God being found in a book entitled “Lamentations”.

Today’s reading gave us just a taste of the context for those thoughts, with the words that preceed them: “The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall! My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me.”

The author of the book of Lamentations has witnessed the destruction of the people of God. The Assyrian empire had besieged Jerusalem, only to fall back before they could take the city, but now the Babylonian empire had done what to Jewish minds, Jewish theology, was unthinkable, unimaginable: not only had they taken the city, they had razed the Temple; they had entered the Holy of Holies and survived; taken or destroyed the Ark of the Covenant.

Unthinkable, because those were the places, the things, the signs of their God, of the one true God; unimaginable, for these events marked not just the defeat and downfall of God’s people, but the defeat and downfall of their God; their hope; their identity; the central symbol that united and defined them. In every important respect, the Jews, the people of God, had ceased to be.

Every respect except one. All the external marks of nation and religion were taken away; everything that defined the people was gone. Except for the story. The story that somehow lived on in the memory, in the imagination, in the mind of the people.

“But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness”

How could they still sing that song? What sort of bloodymindedness does it take to look out over the smoking ruins of everything that you and your people and your God had built, and sing “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases… God’s mercies are new every morning”, when every morning brough new reminders of just how total your downfall had been?

I feel we somehow cheapen the words when we sing them in a place and time of comfort and safety. “Great is your faithfulness… morning by morning new mercies I see”. Words written when there was nothing in the world to suggest that they were true, nothing but a memory to give them weight or meaning.

And yet we sing these words, too, in our own times and places of devastation – we repeat these words in the face of our own loss, our fear, our pain, in the times when each new morning seems to bring no more blessing than the last. And somehow, sometimes, they make sense. Somehow, sometimes, they have power.

This I call to mind, and therefore I have hope.

Despite everything, I have hope.

Paul, writing to Timothy near the end of his life, expresses much of the same conflict, the same struggle, the same hope. A prisoner for much of his life, a frequent victim of hardship both natural and manmade, of unjust arrest and politically motivated imprisonment, he writes to his young protégé: don’t be ashamed of me as prisoner; instead, join with me in suffering in the cause to which we have been called. For this cause is also the hope that we find in our prison; the grace that has come to us in the person of Jesus Christ – in the person of he who suffered more, with less cause, than any. The one in whom Paul has put his trust, his hope, in whom he can write “I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him”.

This I call to mind, and therefore I have hope.
The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;

The author C.S. Lewis wrote two books on the subject of suffering. The first, “The Problem of Pain” is perhaps one of the better known treatises on what theologians and philosophers call “Theodicy”; the question of how there can be evil in a world made by an omnipotent good God. In that work, he makes his arguments, clearly and rationally and, generally, convincingly.

The second, less well known, book, is entitled “A grief observed”. Written after the death of his wife, Joy, he writes of his own experience of grief. It’s not an argument, an apologetic, or a defense; it’s just what it says on the box: “a grief observed”. And for my money it’s by far the more powerful of the two books.
For in the end our faith is not a set of theological propositions: it is the story of God and of people, a story in which there is real pain, real suffering, real hardship, but also real hope, real joy, real peace.

It’s in this story that we hear the consolation of faith: not cheap or glib cliches trotted out all too easily by those want to explain away the pain, or to defend God against the expected accusation of not knowing, not caring, not acting; but words found through the struggle, through the pain. Words which look back in faith to what God has done and has been in the past, and look forward in hope to a future in which God will do and be once more; words which somehow hold on in the present to the love of God.

Words that offer comfort: not of the “there, there, everything is alright” variety, but words of true comfort “Everything is not all right. My soul is bowed down within me. But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope. The Lord is my portion, I will choose to hope in him.”
Amen.

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